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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 7 · 31 March 1988

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Victorian Values

SIR: ‘But above all,’ asks Mr Hurd in his Tamworth piece (LRB, 17 March), ‘where were the parents of these [rioting] youths and what influence have they had on the way their children conduct themselves?’ I am not what the Sunday papers would call ‘an experienced Cabinet children watcher’, but my impression is that when it comes to ‘influencing the way their children behave’ the Cabinet are no better than anybody else. However, when their prominent offspring come to grief, as they not infrequently do, the shame they bring on their families generally enlists public sympathy and forbearance. ‘Tragic for the parents’ is the usual note. But so is the shame of those in humbler circumstances (the parents of the rioting youths, for instance).

I realise it’s too much to expect a sense of our common lot from this government (‘you common lot’ more often the note), but since Mrs Thatcher has schooled half the nation to put its foot in the face of the other half it’s not so surprising if ‘youths’ put the boot in after office hours. No amount of moralistic afterthoughts by the Home Secretary is going to alter that. Meanwhile he should look round the table.

Alan Bennett
London NW1

Folk Hero

SIR: You may have done a disservice to a proper understanding of the Stalker affair by counterpoising the Cox and Foot reviews as though in some way they contradicted each other (LRB, 3 March). They do not do so, in any important sense. Whether the Establishment drive to blacken Stalker’s name stemmed from a calculated conspiracy by the security services and the RUC (Stalker and Foot), or a convenient – for MI5 – chapter of accidental gossip emanating from police informers (Taylor and Cox), seems the least interesting aspect of the affair. While Gabrielle Cox is quite right to remind us of Stalker’s complicity in both the ‘Battle of Brittan’ cover-up in particular and the chronic rejection of democratic accountability by the Anderton-led Manchester Police in general, she fails to provide any plausible explanation of Stalker’s civil libertarian Damascus Road in Ulster and his terrier-like perseverance with RUC malpractice. It may have been, as Hermon seems to have suspected and feared, subliminal, ancestral, Catholic thirst for vengeance. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of police folklore: pious denials of roughing-up of students in Manchester were par for the policeman’s course, while the murder of Ulster innocents was another matter entirely. But Paul Foot is also crucially right to notice that what now makes Stalker some sort of folk hero is the way he matched blow for blow the devious ruthlessness of the English Establishment in his use of the media – to win game set and match in the end. Folk heroes are seldom saints but they sometimes grow wise in their old age. Now that John Stalker can see with crystal clarity the vicious and disloyal nature of the Establishment he served so long, it would be nice if he could, in his next book, track back to his earlier career and give us a really candid account of brutality, cover-ups and illegal telephone-tapping by the police in Greater Manchester. That would really worry the Establishment.

Christopher Price
Leeds

Museum Piece

SIR: I was relieved to see that John Sutherland is less than enthusiastic about Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (LRB, 18 February), since I am at a loss to understand why other reviewers have been so unstinting in their praise for this ‘runaway best-seller’. It seems to me that Wolfe has adopted the procedure of pouring into his novel all the ingredients that are present in most novels about New York (violence, corruption, cruelty, racism, obscenity, money, vulgarity, insecurity), and of then churning them into a long-winded and tedious ensemble where chapter follows chapter in a clumsy fashion. It reminds me of the author who had noticed that whenever a parson wearing a dog-collar appeared on the English stage the audience laughed. So he thought that if he wrote a play in which 12 parsons appeared then it would be found to be 12 times as funny. He was wrong. I would have thought that Wolfe’s exercise is similar and should also be considered a failure.

But perhaps there is an explanation for the success of this composition. It is perhaps a literary equivalent to the museum culture that assails us at the present time. The French Minister for Culture has recently remarked that unless he is firm and refuses, he will be inaugurating a new museum every week of the year. This growth industry is aggressive in its insistence upon its importance, telling us that it is an authentic voice (‘guides are dressed in period costume to answer questions’), that it provides us with a direct experience of the past (‘visitors can put their hands on the exhibits’) and that it has succeeded in appropriating history to itself (‘see how ordinary people really lived’). In a similar manner The Bonfire of the Vanities is a compilation of echoes from previous writings, a cluttered cupboard of familiar images and current perceptions, mixed with a few factoids, easy symbols and well-worn witticisms. Just as museum culture gives people the illusion that through contemplating objects they are learning about history, so this compendium claims to be a revelation of a society that has collapsed. To compare such card-index creativenees to the work of Dickens and Thackeray is a sad and depressing delusion. If, in the world of justice, it is preferred that ten guilty men should go free rather than that one innocent man be found guilty, in the critical moment of literature one should hope that ten admirable works should be underestimated rather than that a wordy piece of packaging be hailed as a masterpiece.

Douglas Johnson
University College London

Victimhood

SIR: Some of the bigoted, only-whites-are-racist version of anti-racism treated by Dervla Murphy can be seen in Alison Weir’s review of Lillian Rubin’s book on Bernie Goetz, which happens to follow the review of Murphy in the 18 February issue. How much of the selectivity in the account of the New York subway shootings of four young blacks is Weir’s and how much is Rubin’s, I do not know. Some of the particulars, inter alia, which do not appear are these: Goetz had previously been the victim of a mugging by black assailants which left a permanent injury. All four of the blacks who confronted Goetz on the subway had extensive criminal records. Most accounts have the four approaching Goetz, rather than his sitting down ‘with’ them. Although none carried specially-sharpened screwdrivers, as claimed in early news reports, all did carry screwdrivers, a fact Weir omits. These are on occasion used lethally, as in the death of an actor who pursued a car burglar two years ago outside the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. A poll taken in New York at the time of Goetz’s trial found a large majority of both white and Latino respondents believed Goetz innocent of crime in the shootings, as well as almost half of black respondents. In the event, a jury which included blacks acquitted Goetz on grounds of self-defence. New Yorkers and other Americans are indeed fearful of violence, which occurs at a much higher rate than in the UK. There is victimhood on both sides of the colour line, and there is moral culpability.

Charles Dicken
San Diego State University

Fateful Swerve

SIR: Christopher Norris’s apologia for Paul de Man (LRB, 4 February) made the best of what is by any odds a bad situation. Yet even in the terms Norris argues the case, major problems still remain:

Historical context. Though no dates are given, Hendrik de Man’s alleged effort to extract ‘socialism’ from National Socialism is absurd on the face of it. Surely what happened to the Strasser brothers should have revealed that long before Paul de Man’s uncle was faced with the fact of German occupation. Besides, what predispositions about nation and race would Hendrik de Man have had to possess even to consider such a possibility? And Norris’s conjecture that Paul de Man may have faced similar pressures is just that – a conjecture with no supporting evidence. Moreover, I don’t see why de Man’s writings of 1939-1940 wouldn’t possess the ‘charge of ideological meaning that we may now be tempted to read back into them’. Surely by that date what the Nazis were up to was hardly shrouded in secrecy.

Implications for literary theory. Though R.W.B. Lewis’s comments may have reflected old in-house (Yale) rivalries, he does have a point about the ‘ahistorical’ nature of deconstruction. Indeed Norris takes the point when he notes de Man’s suspicion of placing texts in personal and historical contexts. This is not to insinuate that all textualists (whether New Critics or Deconstructionists) have something ominous to hide or are cynical fascists. But it does suggest something the textualists will never acknowledge: that we haven’t understood a text fully, even if such an understanding implies that we can never get it all right since the text undermine its own efforts at coherence, if we haven’t tried to understand the conditions of its coming into existence. If this involves using ‘putative psychobiographical content’, so be it.

Finally, Norris fails to deal with de Man’s failure to acknowledge publicly what he had written in the late Thirties and early Forties. Important though the later shift in de Man’s theoretical orientation may have been, readers of de Man can hardly be faulted for failing to get the political and personal point. George Steiner said that Heidegger’s great flaw was not that he flirted with, and even actually courted, the Nazis, but that after 1945 he never deigned to explain himself, much less admit that he had been wrong. It seems to me that the same sort of charge can be brought against de Man.

Richard King
Nottingham

SIR: In a world of ceaseless change, where the flux of intellectual fashion carries us mercilessly along from crisis to crisis and from trend to trend, it is reassuring to know that some things never change. A prime example is A.J. Ayer’s attitude towards Continental philosophy. From the publication of Language, Truth and Logic to his recent response (Letters, 18 February) to Christopher Norris’s essay on ‘Paul de Man’s Past’, one can detect a continuity of intellectual enterprise which can be summarised by the following axiom: Continental philosophy is gibberish. Ayer’s attitude is one of acute mistrust and, dare we say, miscomprehension, treating the philosophy of the outre-manche as blundering ungrammatical jargon and thereby widening the already sizeable gulf that separates the analytic and the Continental philosophical traditions.

I commend Christopher Norris’s attempt to understand Heidegger’s thinking and to elaborate the parallelism and non-parallelism of Heidegger’s and de Man’s history of political engagement. It was delicately done – although I find myself in disagreement with elements of his interpretation. This attempted to show how de Man’s work prepares the way for a species of ideological critique, notably a critique of Heidegger’s and Husserl’s ‘Europocentrism’ – and would consequently differentiate de Man’s case from that of Heidegger (is there no preparation for ideological critique in Heidegger?). Although the Spirit-ridden skeleton of Heidegger’s political past will always return to haunt us, can we not show, as Derrida has recently attempted in De l’esprit, that Heidegger’s repetition of the tradition prepares an opening onto that which is wholly other to the tradition and which may, as a consequence, displace the political organicism of National Socialist ideology?

Much still remains to be thought on both sides of the gulf that separates the analytic and Continental traditions, and to condemn the latter as gibberish because it does not correspond to or imitate the criteria of the former is to commit the worst intellectual crime, that of closing down one of the possibilities for thinking. And, of course, to keep open a space for thinking was Heidegger’s point.

Simon Critchley
University of Essex

Toby Forward’s Diary

SIR: Ms Khan’s letter (Letters, 17 March) seems to me to be an enlivening and intelligent contribution to this debate, though hostile and failing to grapple with the central point. I regret that she polarises the issue on racial lines, drawing a distinction between misguided but well-meaning whites – men and women – and reliable and authoritative Asian women. The persistent personal attack on my sanity and my morals is perhaps overstated to the detriment of the argument – ‘exonerate himself … false pretences … subterfuge … cold-blooded … bizarre … Jekyll and Hyde … cupidity and self-delusion … duplicity … usurp … deception’. The implied criticism of the quality of what I have written by associating it with a poor novel (in Ms Khan’s estimation) by Sharangeet Shah misfires because Ms Khan clearly has not read what I have written. My stories, far from being sensational, are gentle and domestic. But my greatest worry is about Ms Khan’s final sentence. I am delighted at the prospect of a wave of new Asian women writers, but I hope they don’t limit themselves to writing only about Asians and only about women. There is no ‘pitch’, and this is my main point and has been throughout. I want these new people Ms Khan mentions to be writers, not Asians, not women, but writers, able to turn their attention to anyone. Unless Ms Khan concedes this point, she does her self and literature a great disservice.

Toby Forward
Brighton

Aphrodite Street

SIR: Mr Murray (Letters, 18 February) finds my reading of his poem ‘The Liberated Plague’ farfetched and characterised by ‘laborious effort’ and ‘uncompelling association’, and he goes on to affirm that the homophobic implications I attempt to point out are far from his intentions or his settled opinions and attitudes to homosexuality. There are ‘more obvious readings’, he contends, for his poem’s second stanza, than my reading of it as a sneering allusion to the thousands of deaths caused by Aids. ‘For just one generation/ The plate glass turned to air – /When you look for that generation/ Half of it isn’t there.’ Mr Murray reluctantly admits: ‘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 am on about.’ No, indeed it doesn’t, and Mr Murray’s own gloss (less on the lines in question than his own good intentions) doesn’t spell out ‘exactly’ either what he would be on about. In the light of your reviewer’s account of Mr Murray’s conservative Catholicism I suppose we must gloss Mr Murray’s gloss as an ideologically-loaded reference to abortion. However construed, it is hard to see how grammatically or logically ‘that generation’, half of which isn’t there, can refer to aborted embryos or foetuses (or perhaps to children ‘destroyed’ through presumed miseducation by the ‘sensibility’ Mr Murray would be on about?). The poem’s mode is one of allusion and insinuation rather than exact spelling-out. So my reading begins with the poem’s title, ‘The Liberated Plague’, which operates in a discursive field marked out by the existing usages, ‘gay liberation’, ‘gay plague’, which the title’s new signification condenses and so equates.

Mr Murray assures me that he intends to change the title, so presumably he accepts my account thus far. This frame of reference (homosexuality/Aids) is retrospectively confirmed by other details I have cited: e.g. the stereotypical figures of ‘scholars Flaunt and Vaseline’. ‘That generation’ of which half isn’t there refers back to the ‘one generation’ for whom the plate-glass windows of sexual inhibition disappeared, and who were able to enjoy Aphrodite’s apples/the forbidden fruit. These signifiers and their oppositions, ‘window shopping’ v. ‘death to eat’, construct a chain of signification – sexual desire, indulgence/transgression, plague, death – bound together by a retributive logic. The oblique gay allusions activate common frameworks of understanding loudly and gleefully announced by the born-again, resurgent moral Right, for whom Aids in an exact and rather grim sense is a ‘Godsend’, vindicating their opposition to the various changes in sexual mores and ethics lumped incoherently together as the products of the ‘permissive Sixties’. In the current conjuncture, what other ‘plague’ in the field of sexuality can the poem’s language be referring to?

If we were to go on medical realities alone, then a key candidate might well be the appalling rise in cervical cancer among heterosexual women, which claims more lives per year than Aids and which, in this country at least, has been so scandalously neglected due to inadequate government health policies. However, cervical cancer, the effect of penetration and ejaculation being at issue (i.e. heterosexual male pleasure), is not represented as plague, deadly apples etc in widely distributed and popular discourses. So also, where African Aids is reported, it is not its heterosexual modes of transmission that are problematised or demonised: rather, already existing and deeply racist paradigms of Africanness, primitiveness, animality, promiscuity are mobilised as forms of popular representation and understanding. Some phenomena are obsessively returned to (Aids), while others are rendered practically invisible (cervical cancer), as they are mapped by existing patterns of prejudice, anxiety and fantasy to do with gender and race.

The offensiveness of Mr Murray’s poem, I argued, was not just a question of the mystification wrought by its metaphors and assimilations, making one ‘plague’ stand for another, but in its tone. Its snappy and insistent rhythm, its air of knowingness and insinuation, constructs a particular relation to the spectacle it offers as ‘apples still swell, but more and more/ Are literal death to eat/ And it’s back to window shopping on Aphrodite Street.’ Mr Murray may consider this saeva indignatio, and himself the severe moralist, but schadenfreude is what it sounds like to me. The whiff of satisfaction in that ‘more and more’ is unmistakable. So it is not the relatively innocuous pleasures of voyeurism – ‘checking out the action’ in Aphrodite Street, as Mr Muray so pleasantly puts it – that I accused him of, but the graver matter of a retributive pleasure in fear and punishment, the pornography of a death rather than a sex that is ‘stacked and juicy’ and swelling.

The traditional moralist ought not perhaps to welcome quite so much a situation in which sexual abstinence is enforced merely by fear of disease and death. Even a traditional moralist might have qualms about the poisonous effects such fears are likely to have, especially for the young and inexperienced, on the very possibility of the sexual, the fulfilment of tenderness and desire (precarious enough in any circumstances, one might have thought). The traditional moralist with a feeling for metaphor might even feel disquiet at the way his leading trope, ‘window shopping’, would seem to commit him to a view of sexual indulgence as a kind of free-loading without payment (the plate-glass turned to air) and licensed (married?) sex as – proper buying and selling? Mr Murray might learn a thing or two from Christina Rossetti’s deft and imaginative criticism of the sexual marketplace and its forbidden fruit in Goblin Market.

I rub my eyes in astonishment to find Mr Murray claiming that I ‘seem to accept the canard that Aids is a specifically homosexual disease.’ when my letter makes some effort to specify the kind of connection that exists between homosexuality and Aids: extrinsic (one mode of transmission, not a cause) and geographically localised (the United States, Britain, Australia but not Africa and parts of Europe). The language that Mr Murray appears spontaneously to use both in poem and letters renders impossible a systematic and rational reflection on these issues: e.g. the distinctions between cause, modes of transmission and the moral judgments of sexual acts. Just as the poem establishes Aids by allusion as the ‘fleshly analogue’ of a heterogeneous sexual ethos he disapproves of, so also his letter makes the extraordinary statement: ‘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.’ It is crucial to insist that this is a mystified and mystifying way of speaking; a way of not understanding the nature of Aids by, once again, assimilating it to an existing ideological grid in which D.H. Lawrence, Freud and whoever else Mr Murray takes as ideological antagonist are transformed into disease-carrying, death-dealing agents.

Literary myths do not transmit diseases, just as the transmission of a virus cannot act as a moral sign of the value or worth of the sexual act in question. Nor can the Lawrentian or Freudian doctrines of sexuality without grave injustice be blithely assimilated to the imagery of what I have called ‘commercialised and commodified sex’ elaborated by the poem. Neither can they without incoherence be constituted as a ‘single sensibility’ to carry the responsibility for Mr Murray’s ‘plague’.

These modes of expression are not innocent forms of poetic licence. They construct a polarised and paranoid world in which Aphrodite Street is bulldozed through Mr Murray’s front door and Aids is transmitted through the unsound ideas of Lawrence and Freud. They are complicit, however unwittingly, with the larger ideological field in which sexuality and the family are publicly represented as a world under siege, ‘normality’ invaded by the ‘disease’ of homosexuality, caught by the slightest forms of contact. Ideas, texts and representations are deemed to have the malign complicity to ‘promote’ homosexuality and so disease, especially among the young. This is the kind of thinking that has justified the passage through Parliament of the notorious Clause 29 (and if Mr Murray doesn’t accept the affinities with his own language let him read in Hansard the Tory speeches supporting the clause in the Lords and Commons debates). The moral Right have tasted blood and have gained a famous victory. Already the Chief Constable of Manchester and the Chief Rabbi, newly elevated to the Lords, are calling loud and long for the re-criminalisation of homosexuality. The continued dominance of these mystified forms of thought, and the fears and fantasies they orchestrate, can only make the development of such a campaign more likely, and so the progressive disenfranchisement of lesbians and gays from our hard-won civil liberties and human rights.

John Fletcher
English Department, University of Warwick

Errata

SIR: Blake Morrison in his mention of the anthology A Various Art, edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville (LRB, 3 March), writes of his ‘rather cold admiration for all the seeming austerity, which is evident, too, in the beautifully produced, unostentatious separate recent collections by Douglas Oliver and Anthony Barnett, contributors to the Carcanet volume’. Your footnote says that these two separate collections are published by Allardyce Nicholl. This is incorrect: both volumes are published by Allardyce, Barnett. The title of Anthony Barnett’s collection is The Resting Bell (£17 and £8.95, 1987) and Douglas Oliver’s Kind (£12.95 and £7, 1987). We have also published the collected poems of one of the editors of A Various Art – Andrew Crozier’s All where each is (£15 and £7.95, 1987). These three volumes, whose average page count runs to 320 pages each, print the assembled work of some twenty years. We note with regret that they now seem unlikely to receive in your pages full reviews.

Morrison also writes that the editors of A Various Art do ‘no favours for its contributors’ and that ‘not to have made more of a platform which an anthology like this offers seems a wasted opportunity.’ Why then does Morrison not use his review space to make some of the poets there more visible? Not one poem from 17 (not 16) contributors to an anthology of 380 pages is quoted or mentioned. But Morrison finds space to devote over half of an almost two-page review (of six individual collections and one anthology) to one small book, which is largely a reprint, by a member of LRB’s editorial advisory board; and the review which follows, by one of the authors reviewed by Morrison, devotes a page to an equally slim volume by Morrison’s publisher.

Anthony Barnett
Allardyce, Barnett

‘Australians: A Historical Library’

SIR: You reviewed this 11-volume project in your 18 February issue. Can I point out that it is published by Cambridge University Press in all parts of the world apart from Australia itself? The price is £350 for the set until 1 April and £400 thereafter.

Peter Langworth
Cambridge University Press

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