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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988

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Fateful Swerve

SIR: Since you devoted nearly sixteen columns of your issue of 4 February to an appraisal by Christopher Norris of the work of Paul de Man, you presumably do not share my view that most of it was gibberish. I quote a typical passage: ‘Heidegger’s thought manifests … the will to distinguish an authentic temporality – one that respects the predestined vocation of Being and truth – from a secular or fallen historicity that bears witness to man’s fateful swerve from that original destiny.’ Will you explain to me what you think this means?

A.J. Ayer
London W1

I have no ambition to claim that I understand the writings of Heidegger, or their interpretation. The gist, or geist, here, is that things have turned out badly for us, in ways that affect our experience of time. I was very interested in the story of which Paul de Man’s engagement with Heidegger forms part.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Genuinely humble

SIR: Michell Howard’s survey of the Church of England (LRB, 4 February) showed worthy signs of painstaking research, with the cuttings-file and Crockford’s at his elbow, It did not always ring true as an authentic picture of contemporary Christianity. Nowhere was this more true than in his condescending dismissal of ‘Dr Frederick Coggan’. Frederick Donald Coggan is better known to his flock as Donald, just as Observer readers know Anthony Michell Howard as Anthony. Michell, I suspect, is basing his remarks on Adrian Hastings’s recent witty History of English Christianity and on the comments of various journalists rather than on a close knowledge of what most churchgoers felt about Donald Coggan. My suspicion is that history will draw Coggan as one of the great Archbishops of Canterbury. He is a formidable Hebrew scholar, a great wit, a strong pastor, a brilliant preacher, a man of prayer. He is genuinely humble, a fact which would blind the superficial onlooker to his qualities. But within the household of faith he was and is much loved. He was exactly what a bishop should be, a focus of unity. Christians of all shades of opinion looked to him as a shepherd.

A.N. Wilson
Oxford

Aphrodite Street

SIR: John Fletcher’s interpretation of my poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ (Letters, 4 February) has given me some sleepless nights. If he thinks I meant to sneer at dead or dying victims of Aids, that is abominable, and the poem will clearly have to be changed to ensure that no one gets that impression of it in the future. I do think his interpretation is hasty and far-fetched, and have been cheered by several gay people telling me they think the same: he makes his case only with laborious effort, going by feel and fury and uncompelling association rather than by evidence. I would have thought, for instance, that there were more obvious readings for those lines about the generation of which half is missing, but I suppose the poem doesn’t exactly spell out the fact that I am concerned here at the destruction of children by the sensibility I’m on about, and not with what John Fletcher strangely calls their ‘reproduction’. All the same, if both he and Mr Wearne jump to the same wrong conclusion, that is the poem’s fault, and mine, and the fault can’t be allowed to persist. I think my sleepless nights have shown me how to change it and make their reading of it impossible to arrive at again. The present title will go, for a start.

In a way, I suppose, any prose reading of a poem runs the risk of imprisoning the poem and restricting all its other possible readings and implications. Of course, this also tends to imprison the critic who does it. In this case, in order to convict me of homophobia, John Fletcher has to seem to accept the canard that Aids is a specifically homosexual disease, a calumny the media have pretty well abandoned and which I never held. So far from being a homophone, I have always vaguely thought that if people are born with a certain sexual orientation, then that fact in itself is as morally neutral as their being born with red hair. And I know that Aids is a virus from which none are immune. It is transmitted by all sorts of sad accidents – but also by Mellors and Lady Chatterley, by Dr Freud’s imperious Libido and a host of other modern literary myths. Any changes I make in my poem won’t be designed to spare the sensibility these represent. If the poem becomes the more effective through the stripping away of an irrelevance that had sheltered its proper target, it remains my perhaps fond hope that it may just save a life or two.

I have no real objections to John Fletcher’s reading of the poem as it stood, because I believe it is wholly sincere. I am sorry, though, that he had me sneaking down in my stuffy prurience to check out the action on Aphrodite Street. There’s no need, alas, for furtive expeditions. Aphrodite Street runs right past everyone’s door, and often enough gets bulldozed through our houses as well.

Les Murray
Bunyah, New South Wales

The Korean War

SIR: Michael Howard’s review article on the Korean War (LRB, 26 November 1987) does a disservice to serious historical writing. In the first column, he writes that the Americans ‘accepted … an ad hoc division of the country along the 38th parallel’. Anyone who has read anything about Korean history knows that the division at the 38th Parallel was proposed by the Americans in August 1945 (because they were not in Korea at the time of the Japanese surrender) – and accepted by the Russians (who were in Korea, fighting the Japanese). Howard’s statement exonerates the Americans from all responsibility for the tragedy of Korea’s division, which was at the root of the Korean War. He goes on to say: ‘A civil war is one thing: crossing an established frontier … is … quite another.’ Yes, it is. But what does this sentence mean regarding Korea? There was no ‘established frontier’ in Korea. The 38th Parallel was not recognised either in Korea or internationally as ‘an established frontier’. Korea was one country. And the Korean War was a civil war, like the Chinese civil war and the Vietnam War.

The accusation that Acheson ‘excluded’ Korea from America’s defence commitments came from the Right after the Korean War had started; and when the Korean War did start, on 25 June 1950, no one in Washington said the US should think twice about getting into it because Acheson had excluded Korea from America’s commitments. Least of all is there any evidence that Acheson’s speech had the sort of effect which Howard claims it ‘probably’ had – to encourage Stalin and/or Kim II Sung to launch an attack.

Howard is reviewing three books by, respectively, Max Hastings, Peter Lowe and Callum MacDonald. He declares his preference: ‘The sympathies of your reviewer lie on the whole with Max Hastings.’ Anyone can like what they like. But what is dismaying is to see a professional historian writing that ‘so complex … a drama … needs the skills of a storyteller as accomplished as Max Hastings to do it justice.’ Howard does not tell your readers that Lowe and MacDonald have both done far more research than Hastings. Both Lowe and MacDonald have cleared away acres of cobwebs and greatly advanced genuine understanding of the Korean War. Their books are of far more value to historians and students than the Hastings volume. Hastings discusses issues like Khrushchev’s memoirs, or whether Lin Piao was in Korea, not only without using the basic research on these issues, but demonstrating that he is unaware that such research exists. Hastings’s book has many ignorant errors (he mis-dates the Armistice, cannot spell Korean names, trashes good evidence). Above all, there is no re-examination of most of the interesting issues. Of the three books, the one which is by far the least use to historians is Hastings’s. The minimum that Howard could have done as a historian writing in a serious magazine was to say that. Instead, he has done a disservice and an injustice to two first-rate historians, Lowe and MacDonald, and hitched his star to a writer who knows little about Korea and demonstrates an inability to engage in dispassionate examination of the evidence. Hastings has since appeared on TV, getting Rhee’s departure for the US wrong by ten years, giving the wrong date for the key elections in South Korea, skewing chronology and juggling archive footage. If this is the kind of history Howard wants, good luck to him. But it is not what one expects from a professor of history at my old university.

Jon Halliday
London SW5

Ravishing Atrocities

SIR: Patrick Maynard’s review of my book Iconology (LRB, 7 January) is based upon a basic misunderstanding of the book’s central thesis. Mr Maynard takes me to be denying the rather unextraordinary view that there are irreducible differences between pictures and verbal descriptions – between, i.e., representational pictures and words in a text. My position, as I repeatedly state it in the book, is that there are fundamental differences between words and images, and that theories about these differences change from time to time, frequently aligning themselves with positions that may best be defined as political. Mr Maynard sees my work as fundamentally sceptical – as an attempt to deny the undeniable. While he correctly identifies my willingness to argue against any essential, final, once and for all account of the differences between words and images, he hurriedly concludes that my book is nothing more than a futile attempt to contest the incontestable. Although I have never seen him, I don’t doubt that I could easily distinguish between a description and a photograph of Mr Maynard. The argument of my book is not, as Mr Maynard claims, that such practical judgments are ‘intractable’: my concern, rather, is with the ways in which various classic arguments have been formulated – by Gombrich, Lessing, Edmund Burke, Nelson Goodman, for example – to define the differences in principle between pictures and texts.

This basic misunderstanding leads Mr Maynard into a whole series of claims which utterly miss the point of Iconology. He claims that I reduce pictures to ‘signs’, when in fact I criticise the semiotic account of imagery based in the notion of signs. He says that I treat images as ‘things rather than in terms of processes and activities’, when in fact I repeatedly discuss accounts of pictorial production and reception, with special emphasis on the role of images as ‘historical actors’ in political/cultural movements like iconoclasm and idolatry. He says that my book ‘explicitly disdains imagining’, when in fact it contains an explicit defence of recent attempts to rehabilitate the concepts of mental imagery and imagination. He calls my discussion of Gombrich a ‘slur’, when in fact it is a respectful critique of the man I identify along with Erwin Panofsky and Rudolf Arnheim as one of the great iconotogists of the 20th century.

The only pleasure I was able to take in Mr Maynard’s obtuse review was its title, ‘Ravishing Atrocities’: but I suspect that credit for this must go to the editor of the London Review. This title serves as an apt summary of Mr Maynard’s opinion of Iconology, and links it with his equally ill-considered judgments on Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing and Disfiguration. I’m delighted to have Iconology reviewed alongside Fried’s splendid book as an atrocity so ravishing that, like Medusa’s head, it evidently paralysed Mr Maynard’s critical faculties.

W.J.T. Mitchell
University of Chigago

The expression ‘ravishing atrocities’ was, I believe, that of Michael Fried.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Linguistic Unease

SIR: Walter Nash’s interesting survey of the variety of languages in the world (LRB, 7 January) itself refutes his surprising obiter dictum: ‘It seems that we accept, as both sufficient and necessary, the system we are born into.’ Das Unbehagen in the language we are brought up in seems to me a common occurrence, especially among the intelligent or the imaginative. It is not confined to those who know more than one language. It is one reason why languages change, but it is also a reason for rejecting linguistic relativism – the belief that anything goes and that languages cannot be judged against each other, as superior or inferior in some respects (having a subtler appreciation of emotional differences, for instance, or of types of snow, or of the need, in critical thinking, of avoiding ambiguity).

Chinese children, I am told, perform quite satisfactorily the remarkable feat of memorising complex ideographs from an early age. But their capacity to do so declines sharply when they are taught the Latin alphabet and realise that there are ways of reading and writing that involve less effort. Similarly, both the respect language and the imprecision of spoken Chinese – while of great value in smoothing over social relations and conducting business of certain kinds – become increasingly irritating to younger Chinese who have acquired greater directness together with a foreign language. I was raised bilingually in Russian and German and learned English (now my best language) only at the age of nine. Each of the three languages offers me opportunities and insights that I would not so readily derive from the others. Each, very noticeably, gives me a totally different conception of the nature of moral language and the character of moral distinctions and obligations. It is not minds or machines, but historical traditions and cultures that create languages and are communicated by them.

Eugene Kamenka
Australian National University, Canberra

Anti-Anti-Racism

SIR: I wonder if Ann Dummett, in her next letter, would provide a sample timetable for the curriculum she proposes (Letters, 7 January) – one in which are to be squeezed, inter alia, a ‘broad view and critical understanding’ of all the world’s major religions, of the histories of various (all?) continents, of the main traditions (not only Western) of music, the visual arts and, presumably, literature, and of natural science (Western only?). She might also indicate where, in this veritable Renaissance man’s curriculum, one is to accommodate the ‘need to teach especially’ about the culture of our own country, particularly since such teaching must ‘describe and explain’ the contributions of Islam, Hinduism, ‘militant unbelief (including, presumably, Marxism’) etc, etc. She should also tell us how we are to train teachers capable of elevating this Cook’s Tour through the encyclopaedia of human achievement into something recognisable as education: capable, that is, of reconciling a lightning, Protean survey of everything that has been said, done and thought with fostering a critical undestanding of even a tiny part of it. I suspect Ms Dummett’s time-table will look a little like those wonderful charts which eccentric pedagogical and religious groups used to paste up in underground stations – to our amusement. I fear, rather than our edification.

David Cooper
Department of Philosophy, University of Durham

Toby Forward’s Diary

SIR: If the Rev. Toby Forward finds another collaborator and sends the memoirs of a Russian dissident to Harvill, I hope he will be less surprised, however far along the process of its publication we might be before the deception were revealed, when the book and its cancelled contract come winging back to him. Publishers have a responsibility to all their authors in what they publish, and anyone who doesn’t recognise how far Virago honours that responsibility does not know much about ‘their good sense, good business and basic humanity’.

Christopher MacLehose
Collins Harvill, London W1

Mistake

Christopher Norris’s article in the last issue, on the work of Paul de Man, was accompanied by a box giving details of some relevant publications. Shoshana Felman’s name was misspelled there, and so was that of Peter Dodge, author of a book on Hendrik de Man.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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