Vol. 7 No. 1 · 24 January 1985

Search by issue:

Sunk without trace

SIR: Why does A.J.P. Taylor assume that because people are dead they have automatically ‘sunk without trace’: in this instance, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Cyril Connolly (LRB, 6 December 1984). The fact that Maclaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Forties has just been reissued by Penguin and is reaching more people than he ever managed to reach in his lifetime is surely proof to the contrary. Similarly, anyone who wonders, rhetorically, whether Connolly or Horizon are remembered, largely, it seems, because Connolly is dead and Horizon came to an end – the fate of all people and most magazines – must indeed lead a sheltered life. Cyril Connolly was never the centre of Taylor’s apparently despised Bohemia, nor is The Rock Pool the book to which many people would attach his claim for attention. There are others, even if Taylor is ignorant of them. ‘I never thought much of Orwell,’ Taylor adds patronisingly, as if that was a further nail in Connolly’s and Horizon’s coffin. Too bad.

Charity may not be Taylor’s strong suit but he ought to show more sense.

Alan Ross
London SW7

Plain English

SIR: T.S. Eliot apparently meant it as a compliment when he wrote that Henry James possessed ‘a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’. The remark might be applied less charitably to the present Henry James Professor of Letters at New York University. I refer to Denis Donoghue’s curiously off-the-point review of Inside the Myth: George Orwell – Views from the Left (LRB, 20 December 1984). As editor of the book and main target of Donoghue’s high professorial scorn, perhaps you will allow me the room for a fairly detailed response.

There is not, as he thinks, a flat contradiction between what I say in my preface (that ‘there is, after all, an historical truth of the matter’) and my subsequent remarks about Orwell’s ‘homespun empiricist attitude’. Donoghue conveniently puts me down as one of those typecast ‘deconstructionists’ who blithely suppose that there is no reality outside the domain of textual representation. So I must have been acutely embarrassed, he thinks, to find myself saddled with some tough-minded realist contributors who wanted to show up Orwell’s distortions of historical fact. But this is to miss the whole point of my essay, as well as betraying a deep misunderstanding of post-structuralist criticism. A little reading of Kant might help to dispel Professor Donoghue’s confusions on this point. To argue that reality is structured through and through by the representations we make of it is not to give way to some crazy extreme of anarchic solipsism. It is simply to acknowledge, like Kant, that the mind has no access to reality except by way of its own cognitive powers and dispositions. Deconstruction gives a ‘textualist’ turn to this argument by insisting that language is the source of those mediating structures, rather than the Kantian system of a priori concepts and categories. In so doing, it opens up the way to a critique of dominant (‘common-sense’) ideas about the relationship of words and things, language and the world. Hence those commonplace polemical misreadings which find nothing more in deconstruction than an out-and-out assault on every last vestige of reality, truth and reason. In fact, it is no part of Derrida’s argument (any more than Kant’s) to deny that there exists a world ‘out there’. What they do both reject is the empiricist assumption that the only way to get at that world is by dropping all the problems and simply telling things like they are. Such bluff commonsensical responses to Derrida are no better placed than the dead-end empiricist doctrines of Kant’s day, whose problems, as he saw, could never be resolved on their own precritical terms.

So Donoghue is misrepresenting the case when he treats it as a straightforward choice between plain historical fact, on the one hand, and sophisticated textualist theory, on the other. He thinks that the contributors are a motley crew because some of them object to Orwell’s falsifications of history while others deconstruct his habit of implying that ‘the truth was just there to be told in a straightforward, common-sense way.’ But this is precisely the point: that Orwell imposed his view of events by using that plain-man style of address to exclude all possible alternative views. This is not to take the last-ditch relativist line that we had better just forget about historical ‘truth’ since all that we have are texts piled upon texts. Rather, it is to recognise the particular style of mystified common-sense authority that enabled Orwell to pass off his own, highly partisan narrative as the truthful record of events. Donoghue finds it deliciously outrageous that I, a ‘deconstructionist’, should make common cause with professional historians and others who actually lived through the history that Orwell wrote about. On the contrary: there is no better way to bring out the intimate relation that exists between Orwell’s extreme partiality of viewpoint and his flat insistence that he was, after all, just telling the unvarnished truth. Donoghue’s rigidly either-or attitude prevents him from seeing anything of this.

It also involves him in some passages of highly dubious argumentation. Thus Donoghue attacks me for starting out from the ‘absurd position’ that – in my own words – ‘the Orwellian malaise can be understood straightforwardly from the standpoint of an Althusserian Marxism secure in its own theoretical rigour.’ To which he rather lamely rejoins: ‘I assume this is a joke.’ It would take a very resolutely tone-deaf reading to accept the sentence at face value. But if Donoghue had only read on more carefully he would know that I criticise Althusserian theory for its pretence of effortlessly rising above mere contingencies of ‘lived’ historical experience. My point is that no such abstract critique can get round the singularly awkward fact of Orwell’s influence on present-day socialist debate. Donoghue thinks this whole line of argument just a series of ‘quite unnecessary detours’.

But the strangest thing of all about Donoghue’s piece is the fact that he spends his first thousand words or so arguing precisely that we need to be on guard against Orwell’s mystified common-sense philosophy. As Donoghue puts it, Orwell ‘capitalised upon the common desire to believe that a plain style is the ground of decency in morality and politics.’ And he goes on to rehearse exactly the same arguments that I use in my essay, right down to the choice of identical quotations from Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’. He also quotes – very aptly – a passage from Empson on ‘The English Way of Thinking’ where Empson remarks that a decent English style ‘gives great resilience to the thinker, never blurs a point by too wide a focus, is itself a confession of how much always must be left undealt with, and is beautifully free from verbiage: to an enemy it looks like sheer cheating.’ The passage comes from one of Empson’s fugitive early pieces, written for the Cambridge undergraduate magazine Granta. Donoghue first picked it up when he reviewed my book on Empson, published in 1978. Since then, he has quoted it on several occasions, latterly minus the acknowledgment. Not that this matters: I have no wish to stake some absurd proprietory claim. But it does seem odd that the passage should pop up yet again in the course of a hostile review which silently annexes so much of the adversary ground. One is left quite bewildered as to Donoghue’s motives. Unless, of course, it is simply the politics of Inside the Myth that he finds so distasteful: in which case he might have come straight out with it and saved all the pointless roundabout polemics.

Christopher Norris
Department of English, University of Wales, Institute of Science and Technology, Cardiff

Ostentatio Genitalium

SIR: I fear that I quite failed to make it clear to Mr Rykwert (Letters, 20 December 1984) exactly what I found so difficult to accept in Leo Steinberg’s thesis. In his book Steinberg principally does two things. He draws attention to a change that occurred in European, and particularly Italian, art from about the middle of the 14th century – namely, the increasing tendency of artists to show the infant Christ with his genitals exposed; and he suggests an explanation of this phenomenon, relating it to a new interest in the doctrine of the Incarnation. In my review I argued both that his characterisation of the phenomenon is tendentious – a point on which Mr Rykwert does not directly comment – and that his explanation is unconvincing. The reason it failed to convince me is simple. Steinberg claims that many artists and patrons in the Renaissance regarded Christ’s genitals as a uniquely significant attribute of his incarnate nature, in a way that his knees or his ears were not, because they saw the genitals as the particular mark of the human condition, of man’s fallen state. As he puts it, ‘the evidence of Christ’s sexual member serves as the pledge of God’s humanation.’ It seems entirely reasonable that Christians might have thought this. Unfortunately, Steinberg does not produce any significant evidence that they actually did so. In other words, we are being asked to believe that for well over a century Christians all over Europe subscribed to a particular idea which was illustrated in countless paintings, but which was never mentioned, to the best of my knowledge, in any theological or devotional text. This seems most unlikely, given that the surviving written evidence about Christian belief in the Renaissance is nothing if not abundant.

I am not therefore objecting to Steinberg’s thesis because I deny the importance of the Incarnation in the religious thought of the period, as Mr Rykwert seems to suppose, but because he has failed to demonstrate the existence of a specific link between the doctrine of the Incarnation and the genitals of Christ. Steinberg tries to do this in his discussion of the Circumcision, but the texts that he produces indicate instead that those ‘first oozings’ of blood ‘guarantee Christ’s humanity’. The penis is the source of the blood: but the blood, not the penis, is the sign of humanity. Likewise, the blood that Christ shed on the Cross has an immense theological significance, which is unrelated to the fact that the wounds from which it issued were in his hands, his feet and his side.

None of the points that Mr Rykwert raises, in fact, seem to establish the crucial equation of genitals and humanity – unless he is suggesting, in a passage whose significance is obscure to me, that this was a doctrine maintained by certain heretical sects. He refers, for example, to Christ’s foreskin. This particular relic (or rather the several foreskins which were candidates for the honour) was venerated, not because it happened to come from Christ’s penis, as distinct from any other part of his anatomy, but because it was the only part of his body left on earth when he ascended into Heaven (apart from his blood, samples of which were also supposedly preserved, usually in the form of stains on instruments of the Passion). Mr Rykwert dismisses the question of the nakedness of angels as a minor problem outside the book’s scope. But if angels have genitals, how can anyone have regarded these as a peculiar mark of humanity? He also takes me to task for not discussing the overpainting of religious pictures. Steinberg’s research certainly reveals that the infant Christ’s genitals were more often represented in Renaissance art than one might now suppose, and it indicates that at a later date some people found this practice objectionable. It does not explain why the practice was more widely accepted in the Renaissance. In this context, it is worth noting that the one Renaissance theologian whom Steinberg cites as discussing representations of the naked infant Christ, Johannes Molanus, asks rhetorically, in a work first published in 1570: ‘What sort of edification can there be in this nakedness?’ Molanus condemns the practice of showing the child undraped, which he says is ‘widely criticised by men of no little piety and wisdom’, on the grounds that such images are lewd and indecent; and in his condemnation there is no hint that anyone then thought it could have a theological justification. The overpainting of images of the infant Christ, in fact, like the addition of a loincloth to Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, is a manifestation of a more general condemnation of nudity in religious art after the Council of Trent.

The fact that there has always been a strong current of prudishness in Christian art merely confirms that some explanation of the appearance of images of the naked Christ is obviously required. Since the phenomenon first occurs in paintings of Christ and his mother, I suggested that the answer was to be found in changing attitudes to the Madonna. From some of Mr Rykwert’s comments I see that I did not succeed in making my argument clear. Let me therefore try again. Christians in the Renaissance were taught to have an intense personal devotion to the Virgin, just as they are encouraged to do so today by the present Pope. In any number of devotional texts, her humility and the fact that she experienced all the human feelings that a mother has for her child were constantly stressed. In showing her with a child who looks like a real baby, small, naked and vulnerable, the artists of the Renaissance were surely trying to emphasise that she is not just the Queen of Heaven, as Duccio, for example, had shown her in his Maesta, but was also a real mother. The child was represented in a new way because this enabled artists to enrich and modify the traditional image of the Madonna in accordance with new aspects of her cult.

This hypothesis obviously implies that the principal subject of these paintings is the Virgin, rather than the child. I suggested that in such images he is essentially her attribute, as the keys are the attribute of St Peter, or the Christ child himself of St Christopher. Mr Rykwert is at a loss for comment about the Peter analogy, presumably because he thinks that I equate Christ with a couple of pieces of iron. But the reference to Christopher (which he does not mention) should have reassured him. The problem is that our notion of an attribute is misleadingly restrictive, and carries associations principally with material objects, like keys. But in Renaissance art figures are identified by people as well as by things. The attribute of Venus is Cupid, or sometimes the Three Graces, the attribute of Christopher is Christ, and the attribute of the Archangel Raphael is Tobias. Mary has various attributes, relating to different aspects of her cult. Standing on a crescent moon she is Maria Immacolata, approached by Gabriel she is Maria Annunziata, carried into Heaven she is Maria Assunta or Maria Gloriosa. Most frequently, she is shown as the Madonna, with the infant Christ, because her importance resides in the fact that she is the mother of God.

The modern habit of giving devotional images narrative titles therefore obscures their real character. Thus we call Titian’s great altarpiece in Venice The Assumption of the Virgin: but it is actually a representation of the dedicatee of the Church of the Frari, Santa Maria Gloriosa. Italian usage is a better guide, since an Assumption is called l’Assunta – Our Lady carried into Heaven – and an Annunciation is l’Annunciata – the Virgin Annunciate. In the same way Italians refer to images of the Virgin and child as la Madonna col bambino – ‘the Madonna with the baby’ – or often just la Madonna. Mr Rykwert may think the term bambino ‘unbearably condescending’, but it ought to alert us to the way in which we should think about such images. And anyone who still has any doubts about the real subject of paintings of the Madonna and child need only recall a point that I made in my review – namely, that many of them contain inscriptions, which, to the best of my knowledge, are almost invariably about the Madonna, and never about Christ alone.

However, even if it is accepted that such images are a product of the cult of the Madonna, there remains the point made by Mr Rykwert in his first paragraph: that people venerated her because of the Incarnation, because she is the mother of God. This is obviously true, and I said as much in my review. But Mr Rykwert’s analysis misses out a crucial stage. Because of their awareness of Mary’s place in the scheme of the Incarnation, people believed, and still believe, that prayers addressed to her are specially efficacious. In the same way, people prayed to St Christopher because they believed that he would protect them on journeys; and they believed that he would do so because he had once carried a child across a river who turned out to be Christ. In the case of Christopher, the infant Saviour is the attribute, reminding the faithful why he will help them. Likewise, the presence of the child reminds us why Mary will heed us. Steinberg would claim that Christ’s naked genitals reinforce the message, by indicating that he is incarnate: but this argument, as I have tried to show, cannot be substantiated. In any case, no such reminder is necessary to anyone familiar with Renaissance art, because the mere fact that Christ is shown as a baby is in itself indicative of his incarnate nature: he is not shown in this way when he appears in images of the Trinity. The essential point to grasp, though, which both Mr Rykwert and Professor Steinberg seem to overlook, is that the vast majority of Renaissance images in churches and private houses were representations of saints, of whom the Virgin is the most important; and they reflect devotion to saints.

Just because I believe that the focus in most of the images discussed by Steinberg is the Madonna rather than the Child, I would not wish to deny that there was a devotion to the infant Christ in the 15th century, even though the Franciscan examples cited by Mr Rykwert date from an earlier period. Renaissance images of the infant alone, however, are relatively uncommon; and it is worth noting that of the three examples provided by Mr Rykwert, only the Schongauer print includes Christ’s genitals. The other two are by Mantegna, who was not only responsible for the earliest known large-scale depiction of the Circumcision, but also frequently showed the genitals when he painted the Christ child with his mother. I am incidentally puzzled by Mr Rykwert’s reference to the devotion to the Santo. The popularity of his shrine in Padua is surely a reflection of the cult of St Anthony, not the cult of the infant Christ. And of course Franciscan devotion to the child was accompanied by an equally fervent devotion to the Madonna: the Franciscans were the champions of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The best illustration, perhaps, of a devotional picture in the Franciscan context which shows the points that I have been trying to make is Titian’s famous altarpiece of The Madonna of the Pesaro Family. The patron, the bishop Jacopo Pesaro, is represented kneeling before the Virgin; she holds the child, who has turned away from Pesaro to direct his attention to St Francis and St Anthony. The bishop displays his devotion to the Virgin, the Franciscans to the child.

One final point. Mr Rykwert is quite right in supposing that I am out of sympathy with the whole enterprise of worshipping holy pictures. I hope that he is too, since this practice has been universally condemned by Christian theologians of all periods and all persuasions.

Charles Hope
Warburg Institute, London WC1

Boswell’s Bowels

SIR: Reading about a ‘Colonel Ingham’ as the great collector of Boswelliana (LRB, 20 December 1984) jarred my bowels, more than if the glorious industry he started, as Ralph Heyward Isham of course, were named Beauswell.

J.R. Evinghuis
Scheveningen, The Netherlands

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences