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Vol. 9 No. 12 · 25 June 1987

Search by issue:

MacNeice and Ireland

SIR: May I reply briefly to Peter McDonald (Letters, 21 May) and Edna Longley (Letters, 4 June) on the question of Louis MacNeice. I have never congratulated myself ‘on being more Irish than MacNeice’, or even adverted to the felicity alluded to. I’m not at all interested in Irishness (or Russianness or Americanness) if it is regarded as a metaphysical essence more or less inadequately embodied in writers A, B and C. I am concerned with the condition of being Irish only if it is construed as a consequence of forces historical, social, religious, economic and so forth which one might hope to understand.

As for MacNeice’s ‘claim to be called “Irish" ’, I didn’t mention that he had made one. I quoted, as evidently bearing upon the question of MacNeice’s relation to the poetry of Northern Ireland, Derek Mahon’s statement that MacNeice ‘had no place in the intellectual history of modern Ireland; his place was in Oxford, Hampstead, or Broadcasting House, among Englishmen who had had the same sort of education as himself.’ If Edna Longley and Peter McDonald dispute that, they have a quarrel with Mahon rather than with me. I suggested that the project of using MacNeice as precursor of contemporary poetry in Northern Ireland is dubious, if only because his interest in Irish life was occasional, opportunistic and (I would now say) picturesque. It seems to me absurd to compare MacNeice with Yeats in this respect. There is a real argument about the quality of Yeats’s engagement with Ireland, the local acts and contingencies, mythological impulsions, and the imputed destiny, all of these exacerbating his poetry, but there is no argument about the passion with which he confronted these issues. MacNeice’s interest in such matters seems to me a far more tepid sentiment. The fact that he wrote a good book about Yeats is not in dispute, but it doesn’t refute anything I’ve said.

The most interesting part of Edna Longley’s letter is her reference to ‘the tension of Belfast-Dublin-London’ felt, she says, by contemporary poets of Northern Ireland. That is their problem, but not mine. Belfast-Dublin is enough for me. I don’t feel any obligation which may be indicated by a reference to London, a foreign city I visit with pleasure. If Edna Longley feels this triangular tension, well and good. I would hope to understand her sentiment, too, in historical terms.

Denis Donoghue

Blood Sacrifice

SIR: Such writers as Ruth Dudley Edwards, Conor Cruise O’Brien and the former taoiseach, Dr FitzGerald, have made a great fuss about the idea of a blood sacrifice, favoured by Padraig Mac Piarais, President of the Provisional Republic, during the Easter Rising in 1916 in Dublin. Professor Howard with his St George’s Day batch of books about the Great War (LRB, 23 April) prompts the thought that maybe the minimum of blood spilt during the rising did serve a decidedly useful purpose. With both Nationalist, John Redmond, and Unionist, Sir James Craig, acting as recruiting sergeants, Ireland supplied an inordinate proportion of volunteers, at the beginning of the war. The modest fatalities of the 1916 Rising and the subsequent executions ensured that Irish recruitment drastically declined and it became impossible to apply conscription in Ireland. Presumably for different reasons, Ulster Loyalists in the next European war were rather less enthusiastic. The United Kingdom’s ‘and Northern Ireland’ tail supplied a plethora of generals. In contrast, the potential cannon fodder was more concerned about jobs for the boys and with no conscription in that statelet there was a far higher rate of enlistment from among the minority Teigs.

Padraig O Conchuir
East Ham, London

Remittance Men

SIR: It’s rather late, I am afraid, but your delivery in this Dominion is very slow and I have just read Ian Hacking’s review of Mary Douglas’s How institutions think (LRB, 18 December 1986). Mr Hacking alleges that remittance men ‘damped down tendencies towards independence, encouraged complacency (and contributed to an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe)’. I challenge Mr Hacking or any of your readers to name a single remittance man among the Canadian officers at Dieppe. The merits of the orders for Dieppe are controversial, but they will not be properly judged if those who followed them are supposed to have been cartoon characters. The common impression of remittance men in Canada has been that, as generally pretty feckless and disproportionately representative of their class, they encouraged contempt for that class and tendencies toward independence: exactly the opposite of what Mr Hacking supposes. The characterisation of the Dominions as ‘dour but loyal’ reveals a massive condescension toward countries that were not dour and whose loyalty was heavily qualified and more knowing and less easily manipulated than he allows.

John Pepall

Making truth

SIR: James Edwards (Letters, 7 May), as an evident admirer, friend or would-be disciple of Richard Rorty, is understandably upset with my letter (2 April), with me for writing it, and with the editors of the London Review for printing it. I cannot fairly blame him much, since the two best and brightest of my philosophical friends had already hinted that – though they had no disagreements with the content of my letter – they thought it may have laid ‘negative rhetoric’ on a bit too thickly and uniformly. Without withdrawing any propositional claim made in the letter, I will concede the fairness of this criticism, and hereby promise to behave better in future.

Quite unlike my letter, Edwards’s response is little more than a tissue of pejorative expressions having little or no clear descriptive meaning, an expression of emotion rather than of thought. I submit that it is silly and thoughtless to call my 2 April letter ‘silly’ or ‘thoughtless’. Beyond this, I deny blaming Professor Rorty, however ‘obliquely’, for our last world war.

Edwards’s letter contains one substantial criticism: that I misunderstand Rorty’s views on truth. This is possible, since Rorty’s writings seem to express inconsistent views on the matter. On the one hand, in ‘The Contingency of Language’ (and elsewhere) he appears to express an extreme logical nihilism. If, as he there claims (LRB, 17 April 1986), language is incapable of ‘representation of expression’ – has, in fact, no ‘purpose’, while ‘truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences,’ the world itself having no ‘intrinsic nature’, and ‘truths’ themselves passing in and out of existence like dress fashions – if this, and much more, it would seem that truth (at least of the ‘old-fashioned kind’ to which the axioms of propositional logic are applicable) has been pretty well done in and done away with. On the other hand, Rorty wishes to retain the word ‘truth’ and is personally very fond of the confident and unqualified advancement of truth-claims, clearly thinking non-teleological materialism and atheism, for example, to be at least as doubt-free as are arithmetical theorems. My letter as originally submitted included a long postscript primarily endeavouring to give an account of Rorty’s interesting notion of ‘truth’ and to suggest the deep inconsistency of his philosophy considered as a whole. Had this postscript been published, I do not think Edwards’s ‘one substantial criticism’ would have been available to him.

I am now working on a very long criticism of Professor Rorty’s writings, complete with quite minute textual analyses of the more important of them. Periodical letters are necessarily too short for detailed critique of this sort and my 2 April letter was thus little more than an invitation to those interested to read or reread Rorty’s writings and judge the justice or injustice of various comments and complaints for themselves.

Two concluding remarks. 1. The tradition I regard myself as defending is the ‘rational’ – not the ‘rationalistic’ – one. This tradition has room for a diversity of opinions and intellectual approaches and has included – at least until very recently – almost all serious European or American thinkers, Hume (who was ‘rational’ but no ‘rationalist’) among them. 2. The submitted manuscript of my 2 April letter ‘charged’ Rorty with frequently advancing ‘untenable contentions’, not ‘untenable contents’. The printing of ‘contents’ was a typographical error.

Shirrell Larsen
University of Utah

SIR: One must be amused at the laboured flailing of Professor Rorty by critics such as Shirrell Larsen (LRB, 2 April). Isn’t there a much simpler way? If Rorty is, by chance, correct, he cannot offer those who, by chance, disagree with him any reasons for taking him seriously. On the other hand, if he is wrong, it seems a waste to expend perfectly good reasons on someone who could not, in principle, recognise them as such.

Paul Johnson
Professor of Philosophy, California State University, San Bernardino


SIR: David Gentleman’s drawing on the cover of the LRB for 7 May suggests that I’m not the only one to be deeply disturbed by the recent Rorty revelations and all the talk of flushing truth down the lavatory. Indeed, it appears that this cloacal obsession is a world-wide thing, reaching from Shirrell Larsen in Utah to James Edwards in Vienna. Professor Rorty – who follows Archimedes in Big Thinking in the bathroom – must come out of the water-closet and tell us where, and for how much, he purchased his philosophical toilet. Only thus will the controversy and enviousness be dispelled. And I must apologise for lowering the tone of your excellent journal.

John-Paul Flintoff
London SW6

Nechaev’s Catechism

SIR: It really is time to stop attributing the so-called Catechism of a Revolutionary to Bakunin. Edward Timms’s review of Elzbieta Ettinger’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg (LRB, 4 June) includes a reference to a ‘revolutionary of the type described by Bakunin’, illustrated by an unattributed (and inaccurate) quotation from the first of the Rules which must guide the Revolutionary. In fact, this document was almost certainly written by Nechaev, probably in Switzerland though possibly in Russia early in 1869, before being smuggled back into Russia, where it was one of the items seized by the Police in raids on his circle later in 1869, and was first published in the official report of their trial in 1871. Bakunin had certainly read it, but there is no evidence that he had any hand in it. On the contrary, the best evidence is his letter of June 1870 breaking off relations with Nechaev, which contains a clear reference to ‘your catechism’ and a strong critique of its doctrine (Natalie Herzen’s copy of this letter survives in the Bibliothèque Nationale, being first published in French in 1966, in Russian in 1971 and in English in 1972). Anyway it follows the line, not of Bakunin in exile, but rather of authoritarian revolutionaries inside Russia such as Ishutin and Tkachev, and moreover Bakunin himself never followed its doctrine as Nechaev did. Bakunin got into quite enough trouble for what he did do, especially during his association with Nechaev. There is no longer any good reason to blame him for what he did not do.

Mary Lewis
Freedom Press, London El

What about the aeroplanes?

SIR: I sympathise with Lucio Ruotolo’s response (Letters, 4 June) to a lukewarm review, though I do not accept his explanation of it. I read his book, and thoroughly. His letter shows again the tendency to ignore ‘dangerous junctures’ which mutes his discussion of anarchism. What would Virginia Woolf’s interrupting eye have made of his smooth passage from her society ‘without leaders or any hierarchy’ to his chosen style, ‘President, Virginia Woolf Society’?

Gillian Beer
Girton College, Cambridge

Richard Cobb

SIR: Readers of David Gilmour’s diary (LRB, 21 May) may be interested to know that we will be publishing an English translation of Richard Cobb’s great work on Les Armées Révolutionaires in October as The People’s Armies (hardback £30, paperback £9.95). The translation is by Marianne Elliott, one of Richard’s former pupils and now a Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool. The book will of course be available from all good booksellers but in case of difficulty may be ordered direct from the publishers.

John Nicoll
Yale University Press, London WC1

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