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Letters

Vol. 7 No. 15 · 5 September 1985

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Exasperating Classics

SIR: As a writer and reader of children’s books, classical and contemporary, I very much hope I am not alone in feeling troubled by Patricia Craig’s ferocious attack on George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis and Barrie’s Peter Pan (LRB, 23 May). I hope I am not alone in disagreeing with her opinion that MacDonald’s influence was ‘baleful’, the Narnia series ‘distasteful’, the central characters ‘a lot of dead children’, and Peter Pan ‘repellent’.

Why, then, is it always sold out? Why are the ‘Narnia’ books still selling so well in 1985? Why does The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe play to full houses of tough Scots tykes at the Edinburgh Festival, one of whom told the White Witch afterwards that it was ‘fucking brilliant’? And even if they now wear jeans and T-shirts instead of grey flannels and gingham dresses there are still plenty of Susans, Peters, Lucys and Edmunds about. I never cease to be glad they were about in the 1950s, inevitably rather a dark age from all points of view. I still hear young adults talking about these books, read in the Sixties and Seventies – kids who had not been brought up ‘religiously’, oblivious to the Christian allegory, loving Aslan for himself, and even annoyed to learn later that he was almost certainly intended to represent Christ. Where Nutwood drags the unhappy reader down to a sickening and parochial distortion of Christianity, Narnia lifts the reader (as does Lewis’s trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength) up to universal, necessary concepts and questions of good and evil and, above all, questions of true conscience.

C.S. Lewis was a man of integrity. Perhaps Ms Craig has not read his shortest and possibly most significant book, The Abolition of Man, in which he warns against the dangers of failing to educate the feelings, of failing to link thought with emotion, of the need for magnanimity in its fullest sense. In the same book, Lewis owns to his sense of failure, in spite of ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’ there is a way to conduct one’s life according to the guidelines of a numinous Way. He believed, however, that failure was not an impediment, that one was obliged to continue on the way in the spirit of Pascal’s famous ‘as if’. So all his books, including the ‘distasteful’ ‘Narnia’ series, can be seen as a sincere attempt to define and share his best thought, his best feeling. The same goes for George MacDonald. Auden said: ‘His most extraordinary and precious gift is his ability, in all his stories, to create an atmosphere of goodness about which there is nothing phony or moralistic.’ (Heartfelt praise from the author of The Sea and the Mirror.)

Without conscience and without imagination there is no vision, no questioning, no wondering, no wishing, no aspiring, no being. But, of course, any attempt to include the numinous in any kind of writing is risky. To be too overt about anything one holds dear is always hazardous and usually undesirable; to confuse sentimentality with real feeling extremely easy for all of us always. Perhaps MacDonald and Lewis fell into these traps here and there, but the authenticity of their work, their concern, their love, cannot be doubted, should not be belittled. The essence of the ‘ideology’ of these two men is not ‘outworn’, though obviously their social contexts and their modes of expressing their ‘ideology’ are outdated. But with their examples before us I would wish to see more children’s books embracing the numinous right here and now in the world we inhabit daily. Jill Paton Walsh did it in Goldengrove and Unleaving. Jane Gardam did it in The Hollow Land. Robert Cormier did it in The bumblebee flies anyway. Mysteries can be as near to us as our jugular vein, as well as far off among the stars or at the rainbow’s end.

The numinous doesn’t have to be imbued with nostalgia, a word which anyway has long been encrusted with spurious overtones. It used to mean a painful longing for home – a far cry from ‘a hankering after idyllic infancy’. Surely many of us have that painful longing, sometimes, for the one convincing memory of childhood: living in the moment – no dwelling on the past, no anticipating the future – a state which we lose so frequently as we grow older. We speak carelessly of Arcadia, and sneer at people who try to re-create it, forgetting that death was there too, is there too. Barrie sensed that, and I will defend his ‘dreadful, repellent masterpiece’ for the flying, the fun, the fear, the not wanting to go to the office everyday, for sending everyone, except Peter, back to go to the office everyday, for daring to say that life (and death) must be a very big adventure (which some find hard to engage in), for giving kids a chance to shout ‘No, I don’t believe in fairies’ but hoping most of them would say ‘Yes!’

Mircea Eliade says somewhere that ‘the nostalgia for paradise belongs … to those profound emotions that arise in man when, longing to participate in the sacred with the whole of his being, he discovers that this wholeness is only apparent, and that in reality the very constitution of his being is a consequence of its dividedness.’ I submit that MacDonald, Lewis and Barrie would have understood the notion of man’s lawful fallibility implicit in these words. They saw there was something to struggle for. They recorded provisional defeats and provisional triumphs, grounded in an active relation to mysteries higher, larger, deeper than ourselves, yet accessible to us all. Patricia Craig and I may not see eye to eye on these matters, but we certainly do about Nutwood. If anyone ‘attributes numinousness to Nutwood’ I hope she will join me in heading immediately for the nearest desert – no trees for Hissing Sid to slither out of, no trees for the White Witch to turn to stone and plenty of space for both of us.

Jenny Koralek
London NW1

Dead Adjectives

SIR: If I say that Tom Paulin is a lively and entertaining writer, are these ‘null’ words? According to him (LRB, 1 August), Carol Rumens’s poems are ‘glitched with strings of dead adjectives’, and such words as ‘twinkles, seep, quiet, domestic’ are, apparently, ‘null words’. But if Rumens writes, ‘it is quiet, domestic,’ she doesn’t mean that there’s a hell of a row going on. Paulin doesn’t seem to grasp that the (I.A. Richards) stock-response may be a deliberate aspect of the poet’s craft. There is no such thing as a dead adjective, as its life depends on context; or if there is, then perhaps some of Paulin’s (‘Redgrove is slipshod and prosaic’) are in the same category. If he prefers terms like ‘glitched’ he may stuff them so far as I’m concerned: but I might be tempted to call him a trendy nosebag.

Francis Scarfe
Oxford

An XYZ of Reading

SIR: Now that Donald Davie has informed myself and other members of the public that, not having read Pound’s Cantos, we lack ‘any opinion worth listening to, about the poetry in English of the century’ (LRB, 23 May), perhaps you could persuade him to name the ‘arcane’ novel, play, autobiography etc holding a similarly privileged status. Until then, my mouth is sealed. (I must confess that I find Pound’s poem repellent and unreadable, but I promise to try harder.)

By the way, congratulations to Tom Paulin for his welcome piece on Geoffrey Hill (LRB, 4 April); I’ve enjoyed the indignant squealings it provoked as well. I trust you can assure me they’ve all read their Pound. I wouldn’t want to be misled by any commonplace opinions.

Jim Porteous
Bristol

The Case for Geoffrey Hill

SIR: Tom Paulin (Letters, 1 August) finds it hard to make out ‘exactly’ where I stand on the matter of his review of the collection Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work. I should have thought that I had made it clear enough. With other correspondents I have argued that his metrical analysis of Hill’s ‘Idylls of the King’ was defective, and that he failed to recognise meaningful allusion in the poem, with the result that his account of it had little to do with its specific nature. I have also argued that he made wrong use of a supposed allusion to Enoch Powell in Mercian Hymns, that he misrepresented the views of Peter Robinson, and that he was wrong to read the words at the heart of our disagreement as an allusion to Powell at all. These objections of mine covered all the passages discussed by Paulin to support his attack on Hill’s poetry, titled, I hope without editorial malice, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’. Paulin has not seriously contested the arguments brought against him on these points, nor has he taken the opportunity to re-establish his case against the poet, a case which, I repeat, would be worth having if it were made well. Indeed, he seems little concerned with what appears so far to be his very unjust treatment of Geoffrey Hill. Instead he has written as though in the belief that if he huffed enough and puffed enough your readers would not notice that his house had blown down. I think that he should either justify his case or withdraw it.

Paulin has proved to be more concerned about his correspondents than about the subject of the correspondence. He writes of me in his latest letter: ‘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.’ There are several misunderstandings here. To observe that human experience is often ambiguous in its meaning is hardly to promulgate a literary critical ‘doctrine’; even if it were, it would not necessarily be a New Critical doctrine, since ambiguity is fundamental to the work of non-New Critical writers also – Derrida, for example. It is hard to see, therefore, what is ‘skulking’ about a reference to so ordinary a phenomenon. But I admit to not having given a straightforward reply to Paulin’s enquiry about my ‘principles’, for reasons which I am happy to explain.

My critical principles fairly obviously include the belief that not all opinions are equally well founded in the texts which give rise to them, and that the critic should present views that have as good a basis in the text as is possible. As far as literature and criticism are concerned, I believe them both to have political implications – but not consistently or even necessarily present throughout. On the matters of interpretation in dispute between us, I see no need to define my political principles: the arguments presented stand perfectly well on their own. Paulin’s baseless speculations are beside the point. In general, I think it is a mistake to introduce political considerations where they are not called for in literary criticism. Paulin’s misreadings, after all, do harm to his political stance; he is liable to the imputation that his political vision is no sharper than his literary critical judgment. The possibility that his political enthusiasm has damaged his critical ability has also to be considered. If, after all this, I hesitate to say that quite possibly there are many issues on which Paulin and I would vote the same way, it is not only that such declarations by people of small importance like Paulin and myself seem out of place, but also because Paulin presents himself so unpersuasively as an advocate for the sum of his causes. I hope that I have now made myself perfectly clear.

Martin Dodsworth
Brill, Buckinghamshire

The title which was given the review referred to the essays in the book reviewed by Paulin: no malice aforethought.

Editor, ‘London Review’

No Unionist

SIR: I am grateful to Tom Paulin for his thoughtful and generous review of Poems 1963-1983 (LRB, 1 August). However, he refers to me as ‘a highly sensitive, liberal Unionist’. I hope I am sensitive and liberal, but in Ulster’s many elections I have not once voted Unionist.

Michael Longley
Belfast

Snobs

SIR: Bernard Williams is right to think (LRB, 6 June) that his trouble with Judith Shklar’s theory of snobbery comes from her having written as an American. The trouble is even worse than he realises. There is a difference not only in what occurs here, but also in our definition of the word. A classic English snob would not, if encountered in America, be likely to be called a snob at all. In America, a snob is someone who makes a special point of reminding people of his/her (the snob’s) own supposed social superiority. In England, I gather, a snob is someone who makes a special point of deferring to other people’s supposed social superiority. One might say that the former vulgarian, but not the latter, is necessarily misinformed. The word ‘snob’ is in fact one of the dozen or so worst traps for the transatlantic conversationalist, along with ‘pavement’ and ‘rude’ and (in Parliamentary procedure) ‘to table’. The thing to remember is that while an English snob is often imagined as self-abasing, an American one is always imagined as snooty.

John Cronquist
California State University, Fullerton

Hype

SIR: Success! When a reviewer describes a book as an ‘over-hyped best-seller’ (D.A.N, Jones on Isabel Allende’s novel, The House of Spirits. LRB, 1 August) we know we’ve really achieved something. Not bad, actually, to earn that appellation for a first novel by an unknown Chilean …

Rupert Lancaster
Publicity Director, Jonathan Cape, London WC1

SIR: Anthony Blond doesn’t need me to defend him. But I thought John Sutherland’s review of The Book Book (LRB, 1 August) exactly the kind of review that reviewers should write, read in the morning, and then tear up. Much too easy to write such a review. And a heck of a lot harder to write the actual book. The Book Book seems to me to be a splendid, lively, witty and well-informed insight into the publishing business. True, Anthony puts Harvester in his list of smaller publishers – the time taken to produce the book has seen continuing, considerable growth here. But he can’t get everything right. It is a book with a point of view and a good one. Much more likely to be a paperback success than a remainder, and deserving much better from your reviewer.

John Spiers
Harvester Press, Brighton

To the cleaners

SIR: I write as a layman who has always found the cleaned Bacchus and Ariadne ‘alarmingly discordant’, in the words of Nicholas Penny’s review of Sarah Walden’s book on restoration (LRB, 4 July). Penny hasn’t the courage to defend the appalling results: to say that the transformation is no more dramatic than that of X or no more revelatory than that of Y is to say nothing at all but to use your precious column inches to say it. X and Y may be known to be in a parlous condition or may be restored and cleaned just as badly or insensitively as Bacchus and Ariadne. Does Penny like it? Does he think Titian would like it? Does he think a little more ‘tact and good taste’ in this case might have averted a minor tragedy? I think he should come clean.

Paul Collins
London W13

Nicholas Penny writes: I do like it now. I cannot remember exactly what it looked like before it was cleaned but I remember liking it then as well. I hesitate to assume that my taste coincides with Titian’s now – or did so then. Probably Titian would be somewhat surprised by its present appearance – as also by its appearance before cleaning. Mr Collins is too cross to appreciate my point, which was that my liking it or his disliking it will not tell us how near it is to what Titian wanted it to look like.

Bloch’s Utopia

SIR: Readers of David Drew’s recent articles on ‘Ernest Bloch’s Utopia’ may be interested to know that Basil Blackwell will be publishing the first English translation of Bloch’s magnum opus, Das Prinzip Hoffnung – The Principle of Hope – in January 1986. The translation is by Paul Knight, Neville Plaice and Stephen Plaice and will be published in three volumes.

René Olivieri
Basil Blackwell, Oxford

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