Vol. 8 No. 17 · 9 October 1986

Search by issue:

Life and Death

SIR: If Philippa Foote’s incredulous astonishment at the suggestion that severely retarded children be killed is genuine (LRB, 7 August), and not merely the hysteria that often accompanies moral outrage in women (itself unsuitable in a serious critic), she seems too naive to be reviewing serious books at all. Or perhaps it is a means of discrediting by ridicule the serious and quite sane people who recommend it. A reader waits vainly for some mention of the viable alternative that her vehemence suggests she has in mind. We do not expect her to provide a solution to the problem, but we do expect her to acknowledge that it is one. In discussing voluntary euthanasia, about which her views seem rational and calm, she writes: ‘to most of us … it seems that if a dying person has got to the stage at which we hope for his sake for a speedy end, then we would want to be able to listen to his demand that we help him to die soon.’ A severely brain-damaged child is a dying person (when he is a person) all his life, but Professor Foote would seemingly be willing to force the ‘right to live’ upon him without finding it at all necessary to ‘hope for his sake for a speedy end’, an end that, owing to the frightful efficiency of medical science, is likely to be far from speedy. It seldom occurs to champions of the ‘right’ to live that this implies the ‘right’ to die: if it does not, living is not a right but a tyranny. A severely retarded infant, who will with average ill-luck grow up to be a severely retarded adult, has rights only in a metaphorical sense, since his real rights are usurped for ever by his next of kin. Only a human being with a functioning brain, capable, according to expectation, of eventually taking over his life from the adults who are his regents, can have rights if the word is to have any meaning at all. A human being without it is a person only by courtesy of the unhappy adults who must somehow reconcile themselves to living with him.

Vera Liebert
Rhinebeck, New York

SIR: Philippa Foot is amazed by the likes of Michael Tooley and James Rachels, and she has amazed me in turn. The moral conclusions drawn by these gentlemen do not suit her, but instead of looking to their arguments to see where they went wrong, or entertaining the notion that they might be correct, she responds like a vigorous pathologist who has spotted disease. Soon enough she unearths the microbe of utility at work and prescribes a stiff dose of rights as cure.

Utilitarianism is a troublesome doctrine, but so is the theory of rights, as demonstrated by tough-minded philosophers a generation ago, who were preceded by an earlier generation of critics at work before the Second World War. The issues of medical ethnics, as Foot acknowledges, remain extremely troublesome, too troublesome to be met by quick gestures and comfortable presumptions.

Gerard Elfstrom
Atlanta, Georgia

Making Truth

SIR: Professor Rorty, in his admirable formulation of the philosophical foundations of democratic societies, seldom mentions things that intellectuals such as himself do not usually know about. One such omission is the subject of management. The post-war literature of management has actually anticipated, but incoherently, some of Professor Rorty’s findings. Some of us who were trying to articulate this experience were very greatly helped by Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Management is routinely and in the most down-to-earth way about descriptions and constantly changing re-descriptions (‘the ways people see things’): not about hard facts ‘out there’. It is about how to be able to justify one’s decisions as rational when there are multiple, competing, inconsistent, grossly under-determined criteria of choice. It is about literalising new metaphors (‘turning constraints into resources’), keeping discourse going by observing and, when necessary, changing the conditions of discourse (if people can’t keep talking nothing gets done), controlling the power/knowledge relationship, and much more that can be illuminatingly described by means of the new vocabularies of Rorty and of others whom he has interpreted.

A liberal society is one that has to be run (not just governed) acceptably and successfully, deriving meaning from human beings and other contingencies, from countless power-centres scattered all over the society. ‘Management’ is a convenient name for this. Since the war there has been a massive attempt to ‘rationalise’ management both intellectually and practically, starting from the same vocabulary and attitudes of the Enlightenment that Professor Rorty has so brilliantly exposed, and discovering fairly quickly and often quite painfully that they don’t perform. Professor Rorty gives the impression that he only knows about intellectuals and poets: but he need not let this disturb him. The managers who are trying to run the kind of society that he admires are with him all the way.

Peter Gray-Lucas

Milton’s Republic

SIR: It isn’t at all clear to me why David Norbrook is getting so rattled (Letters, 18 September). No one disputes his learning, or my relative ignorance. I am very grateful for his ‘painless digests of what’s been happening in literary history and theory for the last quarter-century’. How time flies.

Leaving aside various misrepresentations of my arguments, too tedious to correct, there is a new point of substance in his letter which presents a genuine difficulty for me. Always provided it is true. It is this: that Milton must have intended his 1668 note ironically because the aesthetic position stated there is obviously too naive for Milton to have meant it seriously. Whether this is the product of collective industry in the last quarter-century, or Mr Norbrook’s own idea, I couldn’t say. No doubt he will enlighten us.

According to Mr Norbook, I find ‘it an “entirely adequate" reason for Milton’s casting Paradise Lost in blank verse that he wasn’t as good at finding apt rhymes as Cleveland, Cowley, Crashaw, Davenant, Denham, Dryden etc.’ This, of course, is a travesty of what Milton says in his 1668 note. But it throws Mr Norbrook’s view of the 1668 note’s inadequacy into vivid relief. Evidently, for him, Milton could not possibly have believed that rhyme was really a ‘vexation, hindrance and constraint’ which forced poets to ‘express many things otherwise and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. And I agree that this does seem a rather naive position for Milton to adopt. Yet it doesn’t surprise me. And, as a matter of fact, I think Milton believed what he wrote. Let me answer Mr Norbrook’s objection with an analogy. For over a century, sophisticated critics found Shakespeare’s plays flawed because they violated the Unities. Even Dryden is at least uneasy here. Eventually, Dr Johnson exploded this naive objection, based as it was on painless digests of literary history and theory: ‘it is false,’ he wrote, ‘that any representation is mistaken for reality, that any dramatic fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.’

Now, since literary history is Mr Norbrook’s special field, where no one disputes his learning, or my ignorance, I should like him to consider this question: were these critics simply naive but sincere, or is their naivetie a sign that they were making an encoded protest against something else we have yet to fathom?

Perhaps the aesthetic debate was not as far advanced as Mr Norbrook would like to believe. Literary history, it seems to me, inexpert though I am, can supply a multitude of silly ideas which were once sincerely and tenaciously held by learned and apparently sensible men. ‘Fancy’ is another example. Maybe there is a moral here?

Craig Raine

KAL 007

SIR: I am not competent to comment on the various technical issues raised by R.W. Johnson in his account of the shooting down of KAL 007 by the Soviet Air Force in September 1983, but would like to take issue with the implications of the latter half of his reply to Paul Mercer (Letters, 4 September) that there was in effect a conspiracy of silence against him on the part of the media. It is my experience, here in his own university and among the intelligentsia at large, that the (simplified) ‘Johnson-view’ – that the CIA or another villainous, but still more secretive agency of the USA put the 269 innocents on board KAL 007 at risk for some nefarious purpose of its own – is so universally accepted that nobody is likely to get excited over another book, albeit by the original discoverer, proving another variant of Uncle Sam’s guilt. This may be hard on Mr Johnson, but the fact is he has now given two conflicting accounts – in the Guardian (17 December 1983) and in Shootdown (1986) – and that he has dealt with the discrepancies between them with all the aplomb of a magician explaining that the last rabbit out of the hat was just an optical illusion, but this one is the real thing. And the next one? In any case, if Shootdown hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves in the West, the Soviet bloc’s media will no doubt accord it the same generous publicity which Mr Johnson’s original Guardian article received, being widely reviewed on radio and television and even reprinted in pamphlet form for visiting tourists, businessmen and scholars. The silence about Shootdown in this country is not as total as Mr Johnson fears. Already an anonymous, but laudatory review of Shootdown can even be found in the programmes of popular London musicals like Cabaret! Mr Johnson complains that Today substituted ‘Zola Budd or the Palace corgis’ for him, but has no fear of being upstaged by Sally Bowles? Mr Johnson’s attack on the ‘Thatcherite’ bias of the BBC suggests that he was too busy researching Shootdown to watch or listen to any of its news programmes, let alone its comedy and chat shows. To take just one current issue upon which he is also an expert: is the BBC really a mouthpiece of Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions against Pretoria?

Mark Almond
Wolfson College, Oxford


SIR: I was surprised and delighted by Peter Porter’s account of the genesis of his poem ‘Spiderwise’ (LRB, 4 September) – delighted that he found the ‘six-line stanza rhyming inwards and outwards’ so attractive, but surprised that he attributed its invention to Clive James a mere eighteen months ago. Back in February 1983 the new defunct South-West Review published a poem of mine entitled ‘The Love Poet’ which employed an identical stanza form: sextets consisting of iambic pentameters (more or less) and rhyming ABCCBA. Humility prevents me from enclosing a copy of the poem, but presumably the magazine is available in the British Library, and this should substantiate my claim to be a hitherto latent literary innovator. I am not in the habit of writing esoteric letters to specialist journals, but I felt I could not pass over an opportunity to put the record straight and bring my new stanza form to the attention of an unsuspecting public. I am thinking of calling it the ‘Kendrick Sextet’– or does that sound too much like a jazz combo?

Ian Kendrick

SIR: Peter Porter claims that Clive James ‘invented’ the stanza form used in ‘Spiderwise’. Either James is older than he would have us believe or someone is pulling Porter’s leg. Keith Douglas used this stanza form in a number of his poems written in the Thirties and Forties.

Martin Staniforth
London SE24

Peter Porter writes: I should have known better (and so should Mr Kendrick) than to attribute the invention of any verse form to an individual writer, especially as I had read (but forgotten) the Keith Douglas poems. My attribution to Clive James of this shining piece of invention was all my own doing: he didn’t make any such claim.

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.

Read More

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