Vol. 7 No. 18 · 17 October 1985

Graham Hough looks at a collection of American essays which allege a crisis in criticism, and ponders the long history of debate on literary education

1824 words
Criticism in the University 
edited by Gerald Graff and Reginald Gibbons.
Northwestern, 234 pp., £29.95, September 1985, 0 8101 0670 1
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The state of chronic hypochondria in which literary education subsists shows no sign of abating. Indeed, in some quarters it is entering an acute phase. Regular and formerly healthful activities lose their zest, attacked by morbid depression of spirits. The milder forms of therapy effect little improvement, and a battery of fantastic remedies is brought to bear, which in spite of energetic promotion do not seem able to establish themselves. Either the patient’s system rejects them, or they provoke hysterical symptoms more alarming than the original complaint.

It is the condition of literary criticism that causes most anxiety. Contributors to the volume Criticism in the University almost all talk of the ‘crisis in literary criticism’, as though it is simply to be taken for granted that there is one. To the seasoned literary academic the very words are like a knell. After years of committee-room dissensions that begin as relatively dignified querelles de clercs and end up as cat fights he would be glad to forget the whole business. But this should not obscure the fact that these banal contentions are froth on the surface of some powerful tides. Plato in the Ion finds it worth while to spend a whole dialogue on demolishing the ill-founded pretensions of a professor of literature. Two key passages in the Republic are concerned with the place of poetry in the education of the guardians – the second of these leading indirectly to a vision of the soul’s eternal destiny. Debates about literary education have ancient and extensive roots because over long periods of our culture all non-technical education was literary. The composition of the canon and the methods used in its exposition were therefore of prime importance.

There are times (such as the later hours of a faculty meeting) when it is difficult to give these considerations their due weight. As one who came to academia from Grub Street, and not from graduate school, I am disposed to think of literary criticism as part of literature, not as a piece of scholastic apparatus. It is the burden of these pages – American pages, but the situation is not so very different here – that this is no longer the case. It is everywhere assumed, the editors remark, ‘that the recent history of criticism is the history of academic criticism, and that this situation need occasion no comment since it is appropriate and usual. Indeed ... the very word “criticism” has become synonymous with “academic criticism”. To add the qualifier would be redundant since no other kind is considered, or perhaps even generally conceived as possible.’ This is an old story. I remember writing words to precisely this effect in the heart of the Leavis period, many years ago. But though one deplored then as now the neglect of the whole class of educated non-professional general readers, though one thought then as now that it was to these readers that criticism should primarily be directed, the drift of the argument was rather different. At that time the adult reader with an interest in life and the word that extended beyond the merely literary seemed to be ignored in favour of a captive audience of students, with their fussy little problems, their eyes on examination syllabuses and on plausible opinions to put in essays. Today the purported audience appears to be a band of heavily-armed technicians, employing a dialect far removed from common human speech to devise questions that no one has ever asked in order that they may provoke suitably ingenious answers. I do not know that this is exactly a crisis in literary criticism. In a world full of sin and misery what happens in the arts faculties of universities rarely deserves the name of crisis. And it is not so much an occurrence within literary criticism that is in question as the replacement of criticism by a quite different activity.

It is painfully evident among the contributors to Criticism in the University that practically everyone is bored and irritated by the teaching of literature on traditional lines, and more than doubtful whether it is doing any good to anyone. Besides irrelevant but heartfelt grouses about their salaries, conditions of tenure and prospects of promotion, some of these writers seem to feel a resentment amounting almost to hatred of their calling. Much of this no doubt lies deep in the sociology of academic life in general, but one can guess at more particular reasons. Not long ago Sir Peter Medawar remarked that when the momentous DNA discoveries were being made there were plenty of people in the English faculties of universities quite as clever as Crick and Watson – but Crick and Watson had something to be clever about. For the last thirty years or so ambitious literary exegetes have lacked precisely this – something to be clever about. Commentary and interpretation of the classic canon is by now so copious, so complete, that no addition to it is likely to matter very much. Most of the editing of any importance has been done. No creative upheaval like the Modernist movement of the earlier part of this century has come about, to make us re-draw the map of literary history. So one has had the sad spectacle of many trim and high-powered intellectual machines with their wheels spinning vainly in the air.

Naturally this situation could not be allowed to continue: and there were indeed plenty of people clever enough to do something about it. If no problems offer themselves, problems can be invented. If mowing the lawn with the mowing machine has become too easy you can always try doing it with the vacuum-cleaner. Ancillary disciplines can be brought in and applied to questions for which they were not intended. A system devised for the analysis of Russian folk-tales can be adapted to the later novels of Henry James. The microscopic machinery of phonemic analysis can be blown up to the macroscopic scale and used to examine the structure of narrative. And endless fascinating variations can be discovered in practically anything by applying what the French (but nobody else) can recognise as psychoanalysis. And so we have had Saussurean and Jakobsonian linguistics, Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Barthesian structuralism, post-structuralism, Derrida, de Man, deconstruction. A Marxist tincture has always been acceptable to the French avant-garde: so, dutifully, in England and the United States the ashes of Thirties Marxism were rekindled to a subfusc glow. And so one problem was solved. Now there was plenty to be clever about.

Linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis and Marxism are all criss-crossed with intricate technicalities in their own right, and soon become more so when applied to questions with which they have no obvious connection. Some of the early practitioners – Lévi-Strauss and Barthes – were brilliant and attractive writers who naturally drew pupils into their orbit. Others like Derrida and Lacan were experts in mystification, and opened up for their followers endless vistas of profitable bewilderment.

Amid this busy hum it was possible to detect a few discordant notes. Most of the new movements originated in France, and the early practitioners have attracted accomplished disciples. One of the best books on Barthes is by the Englishman Stephen Heath, written in French, and Barthesian French at that. No small feat. But all such endeavours have an unavoidable air of trotting obediently along paths that have been opened up by others. A further difficulty is that to include literature in a more comprehensive semiotic enterprise readily leads to its being swamped by extra-literary interests. Barthes’s elaborate schematism may or may not be the appropriate means for the analysis of fashion: but when similar methods were applied to a short nouvelle of Balzac in S/Z, it was obvious to most readers that the complications of the machinery, whatever their intrinsic interest, were far in excess of any useful work that it could do. In his essay in the present book ‘Back to History’, E.D. Hirsch anatomises the situation as a conflict of interests. The conflict is between undergraduates and their teachers. The interests of undergraduates reading literature are what they always were. They want to read the great works of the past: ‘they want to know what the great authors meant, and why their works were and are still considered to be great.’ Or at least they want to know these things – and one would think it a more than sufficient occupation for the undergraduate stage – before beginning to ‘re-semanticise the text’, or serve it up as grist for semiotic, psychoanalytic or Marxist mills. Professors, on the other hand, are harassed by the ever-pressing demand for new publication; and there are so many publications already that all the historical interpretations of the great works of the past, all expositions of what they meant, have been uttered already, many of them a dozen times over. Professors therefore seize avidly on the gleaming goods offered by the immense hypermarket of the nouvelle critique, regardless of the interests of their pupils or the future of literary education.

This conflict of interests expresses itself ideologically as a debate between those who think it their business to recover and expound the historic meaning of the great literary texts and those who believe this task to be arid and unrewarding, and in any case theoretically impossible. For these latter the text is only the locus of an infinite variety of reinterpretations, the original meaning being an unreachable Ding an sich. Hirsch goes on, unfortunately, to spoil a good case by dramatising it as a debate between Ancients and Moderns – a tacit appeal for old fogeys of the world to unite. But there is nothing ancient about untendentious historical investigation; and multiple interpretation goes back through the Middle Ages to the allegorising fathers of the Church. Hrabanus Maurus thought it mattered little that one did not succeed in reaching the sense intended by the author, for one has always a sense foreseen by the Holy Spirit. I expect Harold Bloom would agree. Even if one grants that much of the current unrest is about how to keep literary academics off the streets, the conflict between those who regard the text as a bucket with a determined and finite content and those who regard it as an ever-flowing fountain is still both a genuine and a very old one.

The split between one-pointed historical exposition and freely divergent interpretations has its origins in the interpretation of Scripture, where literalists and allegorists have fought it out, without conclusion, for many centuries. Since the two antithetical types are probably permanent, a conclusion is not likely. But this has nothing to do with Ancients and Moderns. Literalists like Aristotle and Dr Johnson occur in all ages; so do allegorists like Origen and Blake; and two of the most determined allegorists, Marx and Freud, are guiding spirits of the modern period. More to the point is to ask how illuminating and how fruitful different allegorising strategies turn out to be.

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Vol. 7 No. 20 · 21 November 1985

SIR: You might suggest to Graham Hough (LRB, 17 October) that his monumental world-weariness prevents him from recognising one of the major reasons for the broad appeal of critical theory in some institutions of higher education: underfunded library facilities and the absence of other features which no doubt he would consider essential to the life of the civilised mind. Posh institutions, such as the one graced by Mr Hough for all those wearying years, offer their members plenty of books to read, and I dare say no end of time and opportunity for the purpose. But there is an academic world elsewhere which never sees or hears of much of the material that Mr Hough has at his exquisite fingertips. The broadly allusive, finely-tuned, widely-learned mode isn’t for the likes of us. How could it be? Theoretical and analytic work, which costs little and concentrates on and uses only a few texts, genuinely matches our resources. In short, it’s one of the few games in town: ‘paperback research’, you might say. Tell him that’s not the only reason for engaging in it. Tell him it has its own integrity and our students find it fruitful. Tell him its existence in places like Cardiff might even be the price he and his pals have to pay for their quite different concerns elsewhere. Then tell him to piss off.

Terence Hawkes
Department of English, University College, Cardiff

Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985

SIR: If the health of literary education and criticism must be expressed in medical terms, as Graham Hough has done (LRB, 17 October), then ‘chronic hypochondria … entering an acute phase … in some quarters’ may well be the wrong diagnosis. A cursory glance at the patient will reveal that he evidently suffers from bulimia, and a thorough examination will show that his compulsion to gorge himself on food does not in the main extend to nutrients such as fish, fresh vegetables, meat, pulses, fruit, but appears to confine itself for the most part to sweets, the predilection being for trifles. Sophisticated trifles, of course, and preferably garnished with nuts shaken from trees adorning the Groves of Academe.

As Hough remarks, ‘the very word “criticism" has become synonymous with “academic criticism".’ It has long been so: academic both in the objective sense that it is written in universities, and in the pejorative sense that it is irrelevant to practical purposes such as reading and writing literature. The academic critics, let it be repeated, sadly and wrongly depend on churning out secondary literature for ‘their salaries, conditions of tenure and prospects of promotion’; if they did not, they would be free to concentrate on reading primary literature and on teaching their students how to go and do likewise. As it is, the student is shellshocked by literary theory before he can confidently tell a villanelle from a novella – or, in George Steiner’s words, he or she has become ‘a high-wire acrobat who has not learnt to walk’.

Present-day critics routinely gambol on their tightropes, but are probably scared stiff of joining pedestrians for a stroll on a mere pavement. One day the point will be reached, if it has not been reached already, where students and teachers alike will know more about criticism and theory than about literature. To compound it all, it has become increasingly clear that criticism is concerned, no longer with literature, but with itself.

Why not let the deconstructionists, their motley friends, and their narcissistic relations, deconstruct themselves, and one another, so that we can put the ‘secondary’ back into secondary literature, and proceed to the primary sources, to read and enjoy?

Tony Hafliger
Herisau, Switzerland

SIR: Graham Hough, surely, protests too much (LRB, 17 October) in his indiscriminate inveighing against Literary Theory, and I share Terence Hawkes’s forthright expression of irritation (Letters, 21 November) at the caricaturing of some of the very real divisions within English Studies as it is at present constituted, as nothing more than a perennial ‘state of chronic hypochondria’. Not content with blaming upon French boots the faults of his feet, Professor Hough enlists in support of his case the evidence of his students’ perennial afflictions, it would seem, of the contemplative mind, whose legitimate anxieties he demeans as neurosis – ‘fussy little problems, their eyes on examination syllabuses and on plausible opinions to put in their essays’ – but who nonetheless share a desire which he will articulate for them, as what it always was, ‘to read the great works of the past’. His world-weariness is, it would seem, not unlike that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as indeed is his desire to reinvent reality as a contingency of thought. But I have more – unpalatable – news for Graham Hough. Given what is currently happening in university arts faculties outside the privileged centres of learning, even such convenient contradictions as his will no longer satisfy. Indeed, even the most disinterested observer may be forgiven for thinking that the internecine warfare that he is determined to sustain in favour of an aristocracy of taste derives its ‘civilised’ meaning from the barbarity to which his colleagues and their students in much less fortunate circumstances are currently being subjected. If in this academic context, Literary Theory gives what he may be disposed to think of as cannon-fodder a very effective armoury of weapons to think with, it is hardly surprising that he should feel the need for a dismissive strategy. After all, in some of its manifestations it seeks to provide serious answers to serious questions which a generation of students (as well as teachers), no longer at ease in old dispensations, are beginning to ask. As such, this kind of intellectual curiosity should surely be welcome, unless, of course, university literature courses really are the uncritical bastions of flawed ideologies. The regurgitation of dismissively urbane platitudes may be a way of alleviating the discomforting effects of gastronomic excess. At best, it fosters its own delusions of sanity, health and stability, disabilities for which intellectual austerity may provide a cure. But then, the human kind on whose behalf Graham Hough claims to speak never could abide very much reality.

John Drakakis
University of Stirling

SIR: Judging from what Professor Hawkes tells Professor Hough in the last sentence of his letter, the English departments of some British universities must be veritable lavatories. It is even more remarkable that Professor Hawkes can expect the editor of the LRB to print this sentence. What would Professor Hawkes say if his students, critical, theoretical, or otherwise, were to tell him to perform what he asks Professor Hough to do? Would he quake in his pants? Since I am in the habit of encouraging my students to study at a British university for some time, if at all possible, to improve their minds and their English, I will henceforth advise them to greet their tutors and lecturers in Professor Hawkes’s manner. It may, after all, become the accepted way of academic discourse.

K.P.S. Jochum
Department of English, University of Bamberg

Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986

SIR: It is disagreeable to have to disagree in public with my colleague Professor Terence Hawkes (Letters, 21 November 1985). But needs must … For while neither Professor Graham Hough nor those ‘posh institutions’ [sic] like Cambridge or Oxford need defending against his outburst, our own Department of English, ironically, appears to. Of course, we may all hanker after, even in weaker moments envy, ampler resources enjoyed elsewhere; and of course the Library at University College Cardiff, like not a few others, has been – given post-Robbins expansion – persistently underfunded. Too often there are, in our subject at least, too many undergraduates chasing too few books. But it is absurd to give the impression that a lack of resources has impelled us or our students into critical theory, or that our Library is terminally deprived of the kind of material that more privileged folk like Professor Hough have at their fingertips, ‘exquisite’ or otherwise.

The truth is that University College Library is, like most libraries in some respects both better than some and worse than others. Unquestionably it has its riches (notably in its Salisbury Collection) – as, incidentally, does the admirable Cardiff City Library, virtually around the corner and about to be rehoused in expensive modern premises. These riches may not all happen to be of interest to all of us all the time: but they are, for all that, real enough and of value to any ‘civilised mind’.

As for critical theory, maybe, in the circumstances, the less said the better. We in Cardiff have had (as who has not?) our fair share of contention and strong feeling over it; and even now we could, at the drop, as it were, of a brick, run the gamut of emotion, opinion, claim and counter-claim. Better far to stick to fact. I will not burden you with all the figures, nor with the details of Cardiff’s curriculum: but the fact is that ‘Modern Critical Theory’ is one of eight, very varied, options ranged alongside a compulsory ‘core’ of traditional literature courses, and is currently the least heavily subscribed of the options, with some ten takers out of nearly a hundred students.

For all Professor Hawkes’s populist language, critical theory (especially if truly comprehensive) can never be anything but a demanding and, for most students, recherché pursuit. The contention that in the absence of enough books it is tailor-made ‘for the likes of us’ simply does not, however you look at it, add up. For ‘one of the few games in town’, moreover, it seems to have acquired a singularly misanthropic air. Happily, our concerns in Cardiff are not ‘quite different’ from those elsewhere. Nor are they, as my colleague seems to feel, below the salt. Ours, like most students of English, persist in coming to university to try to enjoy, among other things, books. They want for the most part to read, learn and inwardly digest. We, like our colleagues elsewhere, still have plenty to offer them.

Peter Thomas
Department of English, Universtiy College, Cardiff

Vol. 8 No. 2 · 6 February 1986

SIR: The ‘MacCabe Affair’ lingers on. Eric Griffiths’s review of MacCabe’s Theoretical Essays (LRB, 19 December 1985) has all the single-minded venom of a Leavis trying to stamp out the latest life-destroying critical heresy. The enemy is ‘theory’, and unfortunately for me he came across my modest little introduction – A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory – and decided to rubbish it in a few insulting sentences in the course of his attack on MacCabe, the old Cambridge enemy.

I would have thought it beneath the dignity of your review to print the following: ‘This book belongs in the waste-paper bin, and its author in the pillory.’ On the other hand, such vehemence is in a sense flattering. Have I really written something so noxious? Do I really deserve martydom? However, Mr Griffiths also seems concerned that my ‘wretched book’ might sell, since I seem to have ‘a canny eye to the market’. I had no idea that literary theory was such a potential money-spinner. This distaste for cheap commercial motives (which I share) seems to inflame Griffiths’s mind. There is nothing new under the sun, he insists. That theory has something new to say about anything is absurd. He clearly feels that he has a mission to stop this poisonous stuff from flooding the critical market. It is merely retailing old ideas in specious vocabulary. The question which needs to be asked is why he and other recent reviewers have felt so threatened that they descend to virtual libel in their attempts at judgement.

When Mr Griffith condescends to comment on the book in detail he can only distort. My summary of Voloshinov’s theory of discourse includes a sentence in which I describe what I call his ‘central insight’. Griffiths perversely asserts that ‘Voloshinov is credited with discovering the fact that … ’, thus turning my account into a false claim for Voloshinov’s originality. He attacks me for not including in the bibliography works critical of some theorists, making no allowances for the book’s introductory function. He quotes without explanation two sentences of mine as examples of my laughable simple-mindedness. He could have spared me the insult and used the space to justify his contempt.

I would be the first to admit that my brief Guide often simplifies complex issues and does not treat the historical roots of recent critical theory. Even so, Griffiths very unfairly takes my opening remarks about the state of criticism before the late Sixties as a statement about English literary and critical history ab initio. Any sympathetic reader would have seen that I was talking about the consensus of Anglo-American criticism in the post-1945 period. But then Mr Griffiths was not aiming to be fair or just. He seems to have been determined to stir up a mood of sectarian violence worthy of Mr Paisley. All that eloquence gone to waste …

Raman Selden
Lancaster University

Vol. 8 No. 3 · 20 February 1986

SIR: Professor Hough talks in his review of Criticism in the University (LRB, 17 October 1985) of the appalling state into which we have all driven ourselves, and the impatient young. W(h)ither academic criticism, indeed! There is, I think, a cure, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would suggest that it lies in the organisation of university studies rather than in further ramifications of theory and method. Relevant considerations can be summarised as follows: 1. There are no philosophical problems peculiar to what we call literature as distinct from other forms of written and spoken communication. Philosophically speaking, literature doesn’t exist. 2. The active presence in society, none the less, of people who share the same inherited humane culture is certain to be beneficial in countless unpredictable ways. The alternative is barbarism. 3. There is a limit to what can go on being said by even the most intelligent reader about the books he has read.

If these are truths, the present undergrduate and postgraduate degree structure in the Humanities in the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent North America) ignores them. What would be far better is an indefinitely extendable degree course consisting of two-year units like those of the Cambridge Tripos, to which students, after taking two of them, and graduating as BA, could return at later stages in their career, adding degree qualifications in subjects they had previously been unable to study. This would not mean scrapping postgraduate research when that research was justified by the interest of the topic. However, a candidate for a lectureship in English would be considered qualified not necessarily because he had undertaken such research but because he had a degree in, say, English, Russian and English History and was planning to take leave of absence later on to do a course in Sociology or Latin or Greek or Italian. We would return to the practice of recruiting as teachers of the humanities learned men and women. Grants for postgraduate study would be made available, for the first time, accordingly. Plenty of interesting critical reflections are likely to arise spontaneously from the discovery by the individual of new areas of learning and of a fund of literature which, even within the accepted canon, can seem endless. Life is too short for lamentations on the state of academic criticism. Far better to go off and read Don Quixote.

Geoffrey Strickland
Department of French Studies, University of Reading

SIR: Surely Professor Jochum’s students (Letters, 19 December 1985) have already been exposed to some bad language, even in Bamberg? I don’t know if Shakespeare, for example, is heavily expurgated in German, but then Shakespeare in German doesn’t bear too much thinking about. I was a foreign graduate student in Britain myself, and would offer Professor Jochum some gratuitous advice. If he is going to continue sending his students to British universities, ‘to improve their minds and their English’, he should be careful not to send them anywhere where the professors are known to make a cottage-industry of rejecting all things foreign out of hand. That is no place for young Bavarians. He should send those Bavarians somewhere where the professors, even if they are given to uttering the occasional oath, are known to be open-minded, informed, generous, and tolerant of strong accents as well as new ones. In other words: go with Cardiff.

lmre Salusinszky
Department of English, Yale University

Vol. 8 No. 6 · 3 April 1986

SIR: Geoffrey Strickland (Letters, 20 February) asserts that ‘there are no philosophical problems peculiar to what we call literature as distinct from other forms of written and spoken communication. Philosophically speaking, literature doesn’t exist.’ These, I take it, are philosophical theses – and about literature. The two claims are certainly not plain facts; they belong at the end, not at the beginning of a philosophical debate. If true, they are at least surprising.

Why is it that there is a well-established tradition for distinguishing some pieces of writing as ‘literary’ and not others? If there is no real basis for doing so, the consequences are enormous, as implied by Strickland’s recommendations for changes in the university curriculum. But the conclusions are too hasty. I suspect the idea that ‘literature doesn’t exist,’ philosophically speaking, is only an exaggerated way of denying any definitive properties of language, semantic or syntactic, which constitute ‘literariness’. Of course there are other ways of defining and demarcating literature – in terms of purposes or responses, for example, or in terms drawn from aesthetics. There are no sound philosophical reasons for dissolving literature, and literary study, in an inter-disciplinary soup. Significantly, it is Don Quixote, not The English Constitution (or the Daily Mirror for that matter), that Strickland tells us to go off and read.

Peter Lamarque
Department of Philosophy, University of Sterling

Vol. 8 No. 7 · 17 April 1986

Thomas LaBorie Burns and Ana Lucia Gazolla
Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil

Vol. 8 No. 9 · 22 May 1986

SIR: I’m reluctant from my present coign of vantage to add my mite to a debate that is showing every sign of rumbling inconclusively on in the pages of your journal for some weeks to come, but Thomas Burns and Ana Lucia Gazollas’s communication (Letters, 17 April) lets the cat howling out of the bag. The difficulty – I don’t say it’s the only one, merely one that is fudged here, and in a way that marries smugness to complacency – is surely to do with priority, even and perhaps especially in ‘these exotic climes’. If only in strict logic, there must be something desperately amiss when highly intelligent students at, for example, the distinguished Asian university where I’ve currently a visiting appointment can, so to speak, get up on their hind legs to prate on about Derrida, Lacan et al, whilst revealing an embarrassingly profound ignorance on the imaginative material formally under discussion. Experience suggests that such uninquisitiveness, allied to practical illiteracy and making excuses for itself, is to be found in the vicinity of the metropolis no less than in Brazil or the Republic of China.

But whatever you choose to call it, or however you ‘construct’ it, a spade remains a bloody shovel. Any theory of, say, The Novel must, to make sense and to persuade, be generated out of a knowledge of and affection for novels. Lots of novels are read and – dare one say it – enjoyed qua story before being recruited to the thrilling business of ‘exposing the ideologies behind theoretical positions’, for which warrior-dons like Burns and Gazolla, together with their more or less unfortunate students, are gearing up. Or are we so far gone in a rage to demolish, and in contempt of common sense, to accept this state of affairs as being on balance a Good Thing? Clearly I’m not alone in suspecting the answer to be yes, inasmuch as merely to have (tactless mistake) used a term like ‘common sense’ is instantly and invariably to call down wrath and pity from the quarters inhabited by your South American correspondents for alleged and culpably Leavisian benightedness in the matter of reading and talking about books.

D.M.E. Roskies
National Taiwan University, Taipei

Vol. 8 No. 11 · 19 June 1986

The ‘Rising Sun’

Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986

SIR: How nice to see some Japanese in LRB (Letters, 19 June), and how nice to see LRB making such a cock-up of it. Did you read it before you published it? If so, one is intrigued to know why you published part of a review article explaining the recent Hough-Hawkes tiff to a Japanese audience as if it were a letter to the Editor, and why you felt obliged to decapitate the first sentence. Was it just to elicit a response such as this, or do you consider Japanese just amusing? Either way it is nothing but an embarrassment to us all, and I am at a loss to explain away such inscrutable behaviour to my Japanese colleagues.

Richard Bowring
Downing College, Cambridge

SIR: I was surprised to find in the LRB’s Letters columns something which is not a letter at all but a contribution to another organ: a comment on the recent exchange between Graham Hough and Terence Hawkes in the LRB, lifted from the long-established monthly journal Eigo Seinen (literally, ‘English Studies’). This journal’s English-language name is The Rising Generation – rather quaint, one may think, but at any rate not the Rising Sun, which is your attribution or invention.

The Hough/Hawkes exchange, incidentally, gave me useful material for a seminar I held earlier this year with members of the British Studies Faculty at Tokyo University on ‘British Literary Manners’, among whom was the contributor to Eigo Seinen whose work you published as a letter. I hope someone at the LRB has had the manners to tell him what has happened; or indeed to have asked his permission in the first place.

Anthony Thwaite
Low Tharston, Norfolk

I am sorry to have embarrassed Professor Bowring. The text in question was sent to us, and it seemed to us to represent – in its own way, in the manner of a kind of collage or art object – a contribution to the correspondence which it was evidently describing. We thought it would do no harm to anyone, and might even lift a few spirits, if we carried it on the Letters page. To do so was, in a sense – a sense we might have known that Anthony Thwaite would not be the first to see – a joke. But we also thought that you did not need to know Japanese to find the document instructive.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986

SIR: After Professor Terence Hawkes’s suggestion of a negative correlation between library size and interest in critical theory (Letters, 21 November 1985), Professor Peter Thomas of Cardiff presents evidence to the contrary (Letters, 23 January). May I submit a converse counter-example? Yale University is the seat of the so-called Yale school of deconstructionism etc: yet it is also the possessor of the second-largest academic library collection on the continent. This is not to say there are no literary historians on the faculty, but the university is hardly known as a hotbed of Rezeptionsforschung.

Jeffry Larson
Yale University Library, New Haven

Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986

SIR: I should like to thank you for a temperate reply to what may have seemed a somewhat intemperate letter (Letters, 24 July). I am also grateful to Anthony Thwaite for revealing the source of the article in question, although his Japanese leaves a little to be desired (Eigo Seinen means ‘English Youth’, not ‘English Studies’). The explanation of your motives does, however, raise some interesting questions. The document was indeed ‘instructive’: it told us that the Japanese are not only interested in selling us electronic equipment but are fascinated by our culture and are willing to invest tremendous time and effort in an attempt to understand us. (That these two facts might actually be connected is something that British industry and commerce has yet to fully comprehend.) The Japanese even read the LRB! They know about post-structuralism and semiotics and can even pop in ‘piss off’ in the original in the secure knowledge that it will either be understood or carefully looked up.

The point at issue, however, is this: a knowledge of their knowledge seems to be rather uncomfortable for us to accept on its own terms; it can only be absorbed by leaving it safely untranslated and thus transforming it into ‘a kind of collage or art object’. A nice gesture, and I appreciated it, I really did: but I wonder if the gesture itself does not reveal an underlying inability or unwillingness to grapple with the fact that a text like this might actually have some meaning? I know it looks like barbed-wire but from what he wrote I would judge Professor Takahashi to be not only extremely well-informed (he refers with more than a little insouciance to what the ‘other Terry’ might think of all this) but quite a stylist in his own right. Is it not slightly insulting to take something of this calibre and play with it? Your ‘Rising Sun’ bit in particular had us all racking our brains, but now I find it to be no more than a schoolboy joke teetering on the brink of tasteless-ness. I wonder if there is really any difference between what you have done and the young lady I once observed in the Tokyo underground with a tee-shirt covered in what looked like English! Closer inspection revealed the word ‘Tampax’ beautifully printed all across her back. A real little objet d’art it was.

Richard Bowring
Downing College, Cambridge

The misnaming of the publication in which the material appeared was due to a production error and owed nothing at all to any deplorable tendency to see foreigners as funny.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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