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Vol. 7 No. 14 · 1 August 1985

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Paralysing posterity

SIR: Dan Jacobson’s review of Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-century England (LRB, 20 June) offers a graphic and depressing index of the unhappy relations prevailing between sexual politics and literary criticism in contemporary England. It seems that most male heterosexual critics have been obliged, grudgingly, to admit the central and complex relevance of gender to all aspects of writing and reading. Jacobson’s piece, however eloquently, exemplifies a continued Nelson-like refusal to acknowledge the equally crucial contingency of sexuality, especially in relation to the sexual object-choice of writers and readers.

It was particularly unfortunate to find a critic positively parading his ignorance of the concept of homophobia in a week which saw the appearance in court of the staff of London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop, on charges related to their selling of books by writers including Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and Verlaine – the grounds being their possible ‘obscenity’. There seems to me to be a direct and simple parallel in this instance between the value one might place on the literary judgment of a Customs official who is reported never to have even heard of Catullus or Oscar Wilde, and that of a reviewer who casually describes his ‘misgivings’ concerning the fact that the Modern Languages Association of America has a Gay Studies Division. Oh for such a day in England. Given that the reviewer in question is apparently a reader in English at University College London, I can only hope for the sake of his students that his curriculum is not so daring as to include any of the above-mentioned writers, let alone Whitman or Frank O’Hara. But then of course ‘English’ is heterosexual, isn’t it?

According to Jacobson, Professor Crompton ‘introduces us’ to the term ‘homophobia’, a word which he finds ‘unusual’ and describes as ‘brand-new’. It is perfectly clear that the readership of the LRB which he envisages does not include lesbians or gay men, who have been quite familiar with the word in question, in both academic and colloquial discourse, for well over a decade. It is this blinkered and sophisticatedly bigoted purview, categorically excluding homosexuality from the ordinary field of critical vision, which informs Mr Jacobson’s smug reading of Professor Crompton’s book.

I strongly question Mr Jacobson’s emphatic initial claim that the book’s subtitle is ‘clearly intended to serve as a sort of splint, holding together a book which has a fracture or fissure running right through it’. This imagined fissure supposedly divides the author’s careful study of the hitherto unpublished (and extensive) writings by Jeremy Bentham on the subject of homosexuality, and his equally meticulous analysis of Byron’s many homosexual relationships and their relation to his writing. Such an interpretation as Jacobson’s is only possible if one is unable or unwilling to face the book’s explicit central theme: namely, the theorisation and treatment of homosexuals in Georgian England, and their responses.

It is this theme which makes Byron and Greek Love such a timely and salutary text. For what Professor Crompton describes in sober and terrifying detail is the attempted annihilation of homosexuality as such in Georgian England, with an escalation of public torture and executions for sodomy which had not been equalled elsewhere in Europe for almost two centuries. It is of course possible to entertain serious doubts about the value of the concept of homophobia. At first sight little is gained from an attempt to ascribe all aspects of irrational hostility to homosexuality to a single all-determining and exclusively psychological cause, especially since the same species of assertion has so frequently been applied by those who themselves regard homosexuality as a form of pathology. But the sheer enormity of the situation which Professor Crompton describes surely requires a serious and sustained acknowledgment of the issues involved? This is not how I would describe Mr Jacobson’s response. Besides, the English persecution of homosexuals was clearly not simply an arbitrary moral panic or witchhunt, organised by a few perverse conspirators. On the contrary, the continuity of this ‘structure of feeling’ in modern British history suggests a highly specific structure of xenophobic moral puritanism which indeed amounted – and amounts – to a type of nationalistic paranoia crossing all traditional boundaries of class, age, gender and political alignment. It is in this context that Mr Jacobson’s review should be read, as evidence of a continuity of attitudes towards homosexuality between the literary worlds of Georgian and Thatcherite London.

It is also in this context that we can understand Professor Crompton’s immensely significant and successful comparative study of two such different men as Bentham and Byron. The former emerges as a classic and inspiring example of that rare type of intellectual whose rationalism ran against the grain of his prejudices, until they succumbed. Byron, on the contrary, was never able to achieve such a moral and psychological transformation, largely because of the only too real risks to which his bisexuality exposed him. As Professor Crompton points out, throughout his life he sought out ‘good’ women, to whom he could confess and thereby confirm his sense of guilt. Given that library shelves are groaning under the weight of books dealing with Byron’s heterosexual peccadilloes, I find it quite extraordinary that Mr Jacobson should complain at this study of Byron’s sentimental paedophilia. He laments that the ‘truly catastrophic figures in the unfolding drama of Byron’s life, like Lady Caroline Lamb, Annabella Milbanke (the poet’s wife) and Augusta, come and go in the book with great rapidity,’ when it is abundantly clear that what Professor Crompton is in part explaining is the reason why they came and went so much in Byron’s own life. Or perhaps Mr Jacobson cannot accept that not all of Byron’s loves were ‘truly catastrophic’, and that those which weren’t were homosexual. In any event, Byron emerges from these pages as a misogynist of the first water and, in this respect, very much a man of his times. Rereading Mr Jacobson’s strained and contorted review only confirms my initial impression that he is equally a man of ours, and further underlines the intellectual courage of Jeremy Bentham when, in his ‘Essay on “Paederastie" ’ of 1785, he wrote that on ‘this subject a man may indulge his spleen without controuls. Cruelty and intolerance, the most odious and mischievous passions in human nature, screen themselves behind a mask of virtue.’

Simon Watney
Polytechnic of Central London

Dan Jacobson writes: Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman are included in the curriculum of the English Department, University College; Catullus, too, has been studied in a course entitled ‘The Classical Background of English Literature’. The notion that it would occur to me or to any of my colleagues to try to exclude them from the study of ‘English’ is sheer fantasy on Simon Watney’s part. So, too, is his assertion that my review of Professor Crompton’s book offered evidence of a ‘continuity’ between my attitudes and those of people who believed it to be right to hang and pillory homosexuals. But since Simon Watney has apparently no difficulty whatever in categorising the deepest springs of the psychology of a man like Byron, it is perhaps not surprising that my hidden motives should be wholly evident to his gaze.

Gender Count

SIR: Please consider my simple calculations on the sex of the contributors to the LRB – a three-issue sample: 2 May, 23 May, 6 June.

Number of reviewers52
Number of authors of books reviewed109

In percentages, 8 per cent of your reviewers are women, and of the authors (editors, translators) of books reviewed, 12 per cent are women. Does this ratio fairly represent the competence and distinction of the two sexes in the year 1985? I am not a militant feminist. I am a devoted reader of the LRB.

Jean Raphael Demos
Kifissia, Greece


SIR: We, the undersigned, deplore the recent decision of the United States House of Representatives to accord 27 million dollars of aid to the counter-revolutionaries fighting to overthrow the present government of Nicaragua.

R.M. Acheson, Professor of Community Medicine

V.R. Cane, Professor of Mathematical Statistics (Manchester)

C.H. Chapman, Professor of Geophysics

J.A. Davis, Professor of Pediatrics

S. Drucker-Brown, Centre for Latin American Studies

D.M. Emmet, Professor of Philosophy

L.W. Forster, Schroeder Professor of German

A. Goehr, Professor of Music

V. Heine, Professor of Physics

R.A. Hinde, Royal Society Research Professor

G. Horn, Professor of Zoology

P.A. Jewell, Professor of Physiology of Reproduction

Y. Lambrion, Centre for Latin American Studies

Sir E. Leach, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology

A.D. Lehman, Deputy Director, Centre for Latin American Studies

G.E.R. Lloyd, Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Science

S. Miller, Centre for Latin American Studies

O.M.H.L. de Mourgues, Emeritus Professor of French

A. Roberts, Centre for Latin American Studies

G. Schumperlis, Centre for Latin American Studies

A.M. Snodgrass, Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology

J.R. Wells, Centre for Latin American Studies

B.A.O. Williams, Provost of King’s College, Professor of Philosophy

C. Yanner, Centre for Latin American Studies

R.M. Acheson and 23 others
University of Cambridge


SIR: General Gordon – who ‘kept order’ in the Sudan as a whole for just three years – could not, pace Mr MacGregor-Hastie (Letters, 18 July), have spoken of the ‘Christian and animist’ South since at his death Christian missionary activity had barely begun there and ‘animist’ had not yet become an odd-job word for tribes outside the influence of world religions. Also it was Equatoria and Bahr-el-Ghazal (provinces without fixed boundaries but including a good portion of what is now Uganda), not the Southern region as now constituted, that would have been attached to the Congo Free State if King Leopold had had his way. And by no means all the Northern tribes are ‘Muslim-Arab’; some are not even Arabic-speaking.

The North-South issue is, nevertheless, of great importance, as I think I made quite clear. There have been a few changes in the political situation since Gordon’s time, however. Gordon’s concern was to end the slave trade. Thus he administered the South for the high-principled Khedive Ismail until the Khedive’s deposition and the restoration of the old corrupt regime in Egypt in 1879. The Mahdist revolt and the collapse of Egyptian administration in the Sudan meant that the South was only accessible through Leopold’s domains. In the 1880s, therefore, Gordon’s best chance of achieving his objective lay in the service of the Belgians. But it was the separation of the Sudan from Egypt, not the North of Sudan from the South, that he envisaged. It was in fact the death of Gordon and the subsequent transformation of foreign policy under Lord Salisbury – whereby Britain resolved to stay in Egypt and keep the other European powers out of the Nile valley – which transformed Equatoria from a far-flung outpost of the Egyptian empire to a strategic zone, crucial to Anglo-Egyptian control of the Nile waters. Hydropolitics – still the most important underlying factor in the region – tied the fate of the South to that of the lands that lay down-river. Lumping the Southern Sudan in with the North at independence may have been a mistake – many British administrators in the South thought so. This does not mean it would not be a greater mistake to try and prise the two apart now. There is little talk of secession in the Sudan today, even among the Southern rebels. Given the history of failure among separatist movements in African countries, some of them with comparable ethnic-religious divisions, and the experience of the Southerners themselves during their first rebellion, between 1955 and 1972, this is a realistic position. In Gordon’s time other possibilities existed for North and South: today they really do not. ‘One day or other they must go their separate ways’ is a cruel sentence that obscures the reality of prolonged civil war, the burned villages, the untilled fields, the collapse of civil administration, the erosion of values, the destruction of human and animal life.

If an independent Southern Sudanese state ever did come into being this would, as I tried to explain in my article, itself be liable to further tribal fission. Or does Mr MacGregor-Hastie think the Southerners would be better off as citizens of Zaire, the most corrupt state in Africa? Or the Central African Republic, the poorest but one? Or Uganda, the most racked with civil war? The overwhelming priority in the Sudan at the moment is the establishment of an administration capable of saving the country from mass starvation. Neither the long-term nor the short-term problems of the region areliable to be resolved by creating a new country or readjusting borders. Would that they could. But North-East Africa is not the Balkans. It would indeed have been misleading of me to write of the Umma Party ruling the Sudan in the 1890s, as it did not exist until the 1940s. Writing, as I did, of the Ansar – the religious grouping that engendered the Umma Party – ruling in the 1890s ‘under the Mahdi’ was an error, though. I should have written ‘under the Mahdia’: i.e. the regime of the Mahdi and his successor the Khalifa (who ruled from 1885 to 1898).

John Ryle
London W11

The Case for Geoffrey Hill

SIR: Corner Craig Raine and he becomes merely abusive. His first letter ended by calling for ‘sweetness and light’, but his second (Letters, 20 June) attempts to exit from an argument he initiated by resorting to crude name-calling (‘hooligan’, ‘New Improved Pedigree Chump’, ‘amoeba’). It would seem that behind the Arnoldian veneer there is a Sun editorialist who throws up a coarse populist invective when challenged to defend his beliefs.

Martin Dodsworth (Letters, 18 July) is probably as reactionary as Raine, though it is hard to make out exactly where he stands. He dodges my invitation to explain his critical and political principles by skulking behind that doctrine of ambiguity which is one of the more disastrous legacies of the New Criticism. However, I can recognise the exclusion order in his impertinent and self-regarding citation of an ‘experienced speaker of English’. Both Raine and Dodsworth, it seems to me, are the prisoners of their unexamined affectations – by cutting themselves off from society and from any idea of a natural vernacular they’re unable to distinguish between a dead ersatz rhythm and the cadences of a living voice.

Tom Paulin

The Wrong Blond

SIR: Alan Bennett’s entertaining review of Auden in Love (LRB, 23 May) raised but disappointingly didn’t discuss the question whether the book offers anything to readers of Auden’s poetry, or is just one more example of the higher gossip. ‘The more one reads about him,’ Bennett concludes, ‘the harder it is to see round him to the poetry beyond, and he grows increasingly hard to like.’ Well, the remedy for this unhappy state of mind isn’t hard to come by. But what is this about ‘the poetry beyond’? Beyond what? It’s the memoirists who are ‘beyond’, and there they remain except when their ‘revelations’ of this and that bear upon the poetry. A boringly obvious point to make? Bennett warns that more memoirs are on the way (and – who knows? – perhaps the further horror of Wystan & Ches to match Tom & Viv), so it looks as if it will have to be made with boring frequency.

Graham Martin
Open University, Milton Keynes

Dirty Realist

SIR: In his valuable review of Raymond Carver’s Fires (Collins Harvill) and the collected stories in the Picador edition, Michael Foley unhelpfully complains that in Fires ‘the bulk of the poetry is from Carver’s three published volumes’ (LRB, 2 May). Not one of these volumes has been published outside America and not one of them remains in print in America. It is unhelpful of him likewise to complain that ‘five of the seven stories have appeared before in books (three are in the Picador collection, albeit in different form).’ Perhaps the less said about the ‘albeit in different form’ the better. Again, the others have not been published before outside America.

Christopher MacLehose
Collins Harvill, London W1

Rosita Forbes

SIR: We should be grateful to hear from any of your readers who could help us trace the copyright-holder or literary estate of Rosita Forbes, author of Red Sea to Blue Nile and other works.

Ursula Owen
Virago Press, 41 William IV Street, London WC2

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