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Letters

Vol. 8 No. 10 · 5 June 1986

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Making truth

SIR: I was dazzled by Richard Rorty (LRB, 17 April) with his genial style and apparent profundity, but I realised soon enough that he’s retailing the fashionable arithmetic of despair. Does anybody else ‘out there’ hate this stuff about ‘languages’ and ‘vocabularies’, so heartless, so ignorant in its erudition? It may not be particularly meaningful to pursue objective truth, but why is it somehow more relevant to espouse sheer contingency? To treat everything as products of time and chance is fine if you’re made of wood or tin or some kind of vacuum-packed academic extrusion. If you’re flesh and blood with eyes that see and ears that hear, you just can’t bend your mind that way without an intensive seminar in de-sensitising in the manner of the Marquis de Sade. And you won’t elude worship either. The religion of chance – which is what Rorty and his busy warren of workers in the new dawn are all adding up to – worships living death. Personally, I’ll die screaming before I commit to that kind of survival. If this is what the future holds in store, God – any old god – help us all. I’m reassured, however, by the real contemporary culture going on all around me that Rorty doesn’t seem to be aware of in the least. I wonder if he’s ever even listened to the Beatles. Maybe he could try a bit of Fiona Pitt-Kethley or Wendy Cope, to be more au courant. But he probably has smart, genial things to say about these ‘phenomena’ too.

Terence Hegarty
New York

SIR: Rorty’s theories on contingency (LRB, 17 April) have spawned – if one may be allowed the metaphor – from Darwin’s private statement that all life may have originated in ‘some warm little pond’. Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein and Davidson are like tadpoles – beyond good and evil. Fred Hoyle has given the lie to such theories of random processes: he lays the odds in The Intelligent Universe. The chance, for example, of finding, through random selection, the 2,000 enzymes upon which all life’s chemical reactions depend (life’s ‘mobile army of matchmakers’, if you like) is the digit 1 followed by 40,000 zeros to 1 against. If this indicates an ordering intelligence (as Hoyle believes, though balking at proper names), so, too, he argues, does Darwin’s theory – in spite of itself: ‘Talk of a primitive aggregate collecting up potential enzymes really implies the operation of an intelligence which by distinguishing potential enzymes possesses powers of judgment. Since this conclusion is exactly what those who put forward this argument are anxious to avoid, their position is absurd.’ With language as membrane (‘a tissue of contingencies’) we are back to Maxwell’s Demon; with ‘the contingency of conscience’, human beings as ‘simply networks of beliefs and desires’ (my italics), we are back to fascism. With ‘life-as-poem’ (God help us) we are back to the Poet as Legislator. Shelley said: ‘I don’t know why I bother, nobody reads me!’ But then he also said: ‘The great secret of morals is love.’ That truth, though his, can also be mine. Are there any other takers?

On another matter, it would appear that Robert Burns had a greater capacity for enduring ‘interminable’ texts than does Professor Fox (LRB, 22 May). The recitativos of ‘The Jolly Beggars’ are wholly emulative of the stanza form employed by Montgomerie in ‘The Cherrie and the Slae’. Burns was obviously impressed by Montgomerie’s ability to make a narrative ‘sing’. Likewise, Montgomerie’s very fine poem, ‘Hay! now the day dawis,’ is probably emulative of the popular song mentioned by Dunbar. Good tunes with good words die hard.

Poets work by translating, copying, editing. On what are Wyatt’s, indeed Shakespeare’s songs based, for example, but upon literary and popular tradition? And as for Montgomerie’s ‘kickshaws’, they’re no worse, no better, than those, say, of Skelton. As King James said, in his Reulis and Cautelis, there are ‘all kyndis of cuttit and brokin verse’. Montgomerie’s ‘Scottis Meeter’ is not one of them. He is far from being a chimlay-nuik ‘urchin’.

William Milne
London SW18

SIR: What Richard Rorty had to say about metaphor (LRB, 17 April) was a welcome change from the usual, purely instrumental views of it, particularly when he threw out the idea that ‘it is a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide.’ However, by setting up either-ors which are too exclusive (e.g. that language is either representational or expressive) he builds the horns of a dilemma from which he does not seem able to escape: for if we have ‘no pre-linguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate, no deep sense of how things are which it is the duty of philosophers to spell out in language’, then how is it possible to ‘say that one is now, having learned a new language, able to handle that segment [of the world] more easily’?

If a metaphor is not just a device which can, however laboriously, be dismantled, then the alternative must surely be that it is more than something simply to be ‘savoured’: otherwise metaphor is cut loose and floats in a surrealistic irresponsibility. The fact is, metaphors matter: as Lichtenberg wryly observed, ‘methinks a good metaphor is something the police should keep an eye on.’ Many issues, such as those about the self, are deeply implicated with metaphor, and the question of their truth lies in between the alternatives Rorty seems to be proposing: thus, the self is neither simply constituted by a new vocabulary, nor is it something pre-existent waiting for the appropriate linguistic match.

David Maclagan
London E3

SIR: How pleasantly enlightening to read Professor Rorty’s article on the pragmatic-phenomenological matter of ‘the contingency of selfhood’, with clues from poetry and psychoanalysis. His close reading of other endeavours, and, more especially, his philosophical openness, remind one of his older American contemporary, Edward Ballard, who observed: ‘Evidently the primary obligation of the philosopher is to respect his subject-matter. It is not to take sides in contemporary controversy and defeat his opponent, nor to construct an elenchus-proof system within which he may take refuge. Rather he expresses respect for his subject-matter and enters effectively into the philosophic agon by keeping open the ways of interpretation and philosophic conversation and by this means continually exploring and illuminating the sources of conflict and resolution, of blindness and insight.’

Neville Singh
Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Edinburgh

State-Sponsored Terror

SIR: Professor Said in his article ‘America and Libya’ (LRB, 8 May) attempts to relegate terrorism to a propagandist concept employed by the Americans to suit their own ends. The anger felt by America against Libya or any other regime seeking to advance their ends by terrorism is, I feel, shared fundamentally by a vast majority in the West, even if they do not support the retaliatory tactics used. In the West, the democracies have quite successfully secularised political life by making liberty of belief the right of every citizen. He is not asked to adhere to any particular religion, but he is required to be law-abiding. Other states and movements conceive of the state as a vehicle and expression of a religion or ideology and thus support any means which is available to render ‘loyal’, or simply eliminate, any adversary. This politicising of values must lead ultimately to totalitarianism. Nothing less than the basis of Western society is challenged by those states making terrorism an instrument of national policy.

Paul Fairey
Worcester Park, Surrey

We have arranged for Paul Fairey to meet Mrs Thatcher, with a view to his joining those whose work it is to secure a more successful presentation of her very successful policies. Unappealing as his complacency could be thought, it may be less so than that of the Times, which finds no difficulty in approving of Mrs Thatcher’s counter-terror while disapproving of President Botha’s.

Editor, ‘London Review’

SIR: In ‘America and Libya’ Edward Said cites American resentment at their bombers being obliged to ‘fly round France’ (and, by extension, Spain). But according to serious French rumour, they didn’t: they took the obvious short cut. As Le Canard Enchaîné characteristically put it, ils ont surviolé les Pyrénées.

Julian Barnes
London NW5

Women are nicer

SIR: I was delighted and honoured to read John Bayley’s generous review of my book, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, her World and her Poetry (LRB, 20 March). There are, however, two statements ascribed to me in that review which I never made or implied. One is that Marina Tsvetaeva had a ‘tempestuous affair’ with Natalie Clifford Barney, ‘the wealthy and elegant Amazon of the Parisian Thirties’. All that I said was that Tsvetaeva appeared on one occasion at Barney’s literary salon and that she later wrote an essay in French, addressed to Barney. I do not see how these two events qualify as ‘an affair’, tempestuous or otherwise.

The other misreading is the statement, attributed to me, that Tsvetaeva’s fellow émigrés in Paris thought of her as ‘a Dostoevskian infernal woman junior grade’. These words do appear in my book (p. 86). They refer not to Marina Tsvetaeva but to her friend, the actress Sophia Holliday, with whom Tsvetaeva associated in Moscow before emigrating to the West. The phrase is my own description of Holliday’s behaviour, as reflected in Tsvetaeva’s memoir about her, ‘The Tale of Sonechka’. After studying Tsvetaeva’s life and writings for twenty-five years, I cannot think of anyone whose temperament was less Dostoevskian or less infernal than hers.

Simon Karlinsky
University of California, Berkeley

John Bayley writes: My deepest apologies to Professor Karlinsky for these misunderstandings. His brilliant book does so much for Marina Tsvetaeva, and I am sorry to have accidentally distorted, in two particulars, the portrait he gives of her and of her work.

Encore

SIR: As a footnote to John Bayley’s review (LRB, 8 May) – and since there is unlikely to be another biography of Duff Cooper coming along – it seems worth transcribing manuscript notes made on the end papers of my copy of Cooper’s Old men forget by the previous owner, Roger Senhouse. They suggest that the Paris Embassy under the Coopers was not, perhaps, the finest hour of British overseas representation:

Ed Stanley (Lord Stanley of Alderley) staying at Embassy in Paris has many stories, mostly belonging to the David Herbert saga and usually centring round his own drunken state:

Diana was out for the evening or away. The Ambassador said he must have a woman. Undisguised, they drove together to Mme X, Duff on the way asking about tariff and clearly prepared to haggle. 5000 was the sum fixed and Ed, not wanting to fusticate, sat and gossiped while D was at play. He returned outraged saying that the monetary arrangement had been violated, closely followed by his paramour, who demanded 10,000. Il m’a bissée, she hissed to the madame.

After a previous night, David came to warn Ed in the morning that his reception from Diana would not be comforting at breakfast.

Christopher Driver
London N6

Darling Clem

SIR: Considering Paul Addison’s opinion of Attlee as a politician, perhaps I should protest the generosity of his review of my book (LRB, 17 April). What Addison’s charges amount to is that Attlee was not Superman – a view that may be explained by Addison’s position as he ‘sits upon the ground in Thatcherite chains’, yearning for the spirit of Lloyd George, and reading Michael Foot as a cure for despondency. As ‘a Welshman by birth, a citizen of Canada’ who ‘teaches at the French-speaking University of Montreal’, I have much sympathy for Addison’s position, but can hardly be expected to share it. Indeed, I am pleased to note that my interpretation does not ‘chime happily with the conventional wisdom’ of one of Britain’s leading younger historians. It would have been strange if it had.

Trevor Burridge
Département d’Histoire, Université de Montréal

Lauding Loy

SIR: Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 17 April) writes: ‘Real buffs will be impressed to find that Myrna Loy recently denounced the President on Legends of the Screen, saying that “he’s destroying everything I’ve lived my life for."’ ‘And what,’ asks Mr Hitchens, with deadpan wit, ‘was that, exactly?’ Well, in January 1985 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a tribute to Miss Loy at Carnegie Hall, in the course of which ‘Lena Horne came on to laud Loy for having lived a purposeful life, mentioning the actress’s work with the Red Cross, Eleanor Roosevelt and Unesco.’ ‘She was dedicated,’ Miss Horne is quoted as saying, ‘compassionate, and angry about all the right things.’

Geoffrey Minish
Paris

Irish Extraction

SIR: Patricia Craig says in her review of Gifford Lewis’s book Somerville and Ross (LRB, 17 April) that the hero (or victim) of the experiences of the Irish RM is ‘an amiable Englishman’. Similar statements were widely made at the time of the recent television series based on some of the stories. Yet Major Yeates himself says at the beginning of his first adventure (‘Great Uncle McCarthy’) that he is ‘of Irish extraction’. Isn’t this meant to be part of the joke?

Nicolas Walter
London N1

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