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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 9 · 5 May 1988

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Cheer up, Clive

SIR: I write first to correct a mis-statement of mine. Writing of Australians: A Historical Library (LRB, 18 February), I said that Aboriginal scholars had walked out of a planning conference in 1981; this came from seemingly reliable hearsay. But in fact they didn’t: there was a considerable argument on the writing of black Australian history, and they stayed for it. An all-Aboriginal volume of the series was proposed, but did not eventuate.

In the same issue, Clive James discussed my book The Archibald Paradox. I found it uncomfortable to be praised (but also patronised) in an article which began with a dire misreading of Paul Carter’s splendid The Road to Botany Bay. The two books share in the urgent, continuing project of re-reading and re-writing Australian history, with new conceptual tools, for the present and future. Carter’s book explores the great explorations through the relations of travelling and seeing, mapping and naming a country which was unimaginably strange; mine tries to read a uniquely lively late 19th-century newspaper through its writing, editor, writers and readers. Both books proceed from the belief that the past is never finished with, that such histories need rescuing from the over-familiar versions which dull their strangeness; that we must change the working maps of the extraordinary place we inhabit, and generally demolish the dangerous myth which Clive James repeats, that Australians have ‘too little history to work on’.

Correctly understanding that my book was meant for the general reader as well as for students of cultural history, James rebukes me for the occasional use of words like ‘text’ and ‘discourse’. The latter comes up only twice in a book some 115,000 words long; both times, it was irreplaceable. Surely ‘text’ is no longer academic, when ‘subtexts’ litter the languages of advertising, smart journalism and politics? Without a bit of help from modern literary theory, and especially from Barthesian concepts of textuality and writing, I couldn’t have solved a problem which at first seemed insuperable – how to read a newspaper historically, gathering a sense of how it worked on and for its world, while at the same time knowing your distance, knowing you can’t sit in the armchairs and train-seats of its readers in their day.

When it comes to disentangling cultural and political histories, the work of Raymond Williams is even more important, for me as for countless others; and – much as he wrote for that wider audience, as Patrick Parrinder noted in his tribute in the same issue of your paper – we all found him first in seminar-rooms and on formal reading-lists. The point is that ideas developed within the academy have their uses well beyond it; I was intent, not on ‘academic respectability’, but on problem-solving.

Clive James might have checked some facts. The Bulletin of which I wrote lasted from 1880 to c. 1903; it did not carry the slogan ‘Australia for the White Man’ – such fanatical crudities came later. I am not a ‘descendant’ of Henry Lawson, though more remotely kin; in any case, no writer should suffer being identified by her antecedents. And in recalling the invaluable Nation (1958-72), Clive does me too much honour: whoever the ‘pioneer Australian woman literary journalist of the Fifties’ might have been, it certainly wasn’t me. Like other young writers of the time and place, utterly thwarted by the available outlets, I supported Nation eagerly, and wrote a few book reviews; my main task for the journal, from 1961, was regular writing on cinema. I remember Clive visiting the office, and it’s nice that he thinks I’m ‘still a tough-minded writer’. Cheer up, Clive: a few others did survive those frightful Australian Fifties. Being patronised by professional expatriates has been a minor hazard on the way.

Sylvia Lawson
Sydney

Rite A

SIR: Anthony Howard (LRB, 4 February) describes Dr Bennett’s funeral as ‘a full Requiem Mass (in defiant Latin) presided over by the three leading Anglo-Catholic bishops in total breach of the Church’s own teaching on suicide’. I would like to point out that the funeral service used Rite A from the Alternative Service Book, as is the normal practice for eucharistic worship in the College Chapel. The music by Duruflé was sung in Latin because it was written for the Latin words. Such is the normal custon of virtually all choral foundations in the land and is no more ‘defiant’ here than in cathedrals throughout the country. This custom occasions no surprise from visitors to the Chapel and is permitted by the Canons of the Church of England and by the rubrics of the Alternative Service Book. The concelebrating bishops were not invited because of their ecclesiastical views but because one of them is the Visitor of the College, another is the bishop in whose cathedral Dr Bennett held a canonry, and the third is the bishop to whom (and to whose predecessor) Dr Bennett had for many years been an examining chaplain.

The Church of England’s teaching on the funeral services to be given to those who take their own lives is to be found at Canon B 38 of the Canons of the Church of England. This was obeyed. At several points in the service it was made clear that the Church regards suicide as sinful. But if all sinners were denied funeral rites, these would rarely be celebrated! As we commended Garry to God’s forgiveness, we presumably must be taken to have affirmed that he, like all of us, was a sinner. I believe suicide to be sinful, but I thank God that neither I nor you nor Anthony Howard nor any of your readers is called upon to decide the culpability of Garry’s suicide.

Jeremy Sheehy
Dean of Divinity, New College, Oxford

Administrative Detention

SIR: I write to you in the name of an ad hoc group of lecturers at Tel Aviv University called Ad-Kan (‘No More’). Our organisation of faculty members was formed some three months ago under the impact of the Palestinian uprising and in response to the extreme gravity of the situation in the occupied territories today. Members of Ad-Kan hold diverse political opinions, but we are united in our commitment to bring an end to the occupation through negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of mutual recognition, respect and equality. Readers of the London Review will be well aware of the recent waves of arrest and administrative detention on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As a result of contacts which we had with two of the detained, we feel a personal commitment to them.

Mr Mohammad Hashim Abu-Sha’aban is Head of the Detainees Defending Committee of Gaza and a member of the Executive Committee of the Bar Council there. He represented Palestinian detainees in Israeli military courts and co-operated with Israeli colleagues and journalists in the preparation of complaints concerning maltreatment and torture in detention camps. On 17 March he spoke in front of about four hundred students at a colloquium organised by our group on the campus of Tel Aviv University. In his address he related some of the cases which he handled and called for peace and a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. That evening, on returning to his home in Gaza, he was arrested and placed under administrative (preventive) detention for six months. In order to express our protest against Mr Abu-Sha’aban’s detention and to consult on possible action on his behalf, some fifteen members of our group went to Gaza to meet his family on 19 March. During this visit, Mr Raji Sourani, Deputy Chairman of the Gaza Bar Council, invited us to his home. In the beginning of the Palestinian uprising Mr Sourani had co-operated with Israeli MP’s, lawyers and journalists in collecting material on the violation of human rights in Gaza. He impressed us with his moderate views and his sincere desire for a meaningful dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. Five days later, in the evening of 24 March, Mr Sourani, too, was placed in administrative (preventive) detention.

As you probably know, Army regulations were changed on 20 March, so that a person can now be placed in administrative detention without any legal process at all, let alone due process. Detainees are held under harsh conditions, mostly in tents in improvised prison camps, for six months at a time, renewable indefinitely. A new detention camp, called Ansar 3, has been set up in the south of Israel to cope with the swelling numbers of administrative detainees. It is there that Mr Sourani is held, while Mr Abu Sha’aban is kept in Answar 2 in the Gaza Strip. Even though Mr Sourani and Mr Abu Sha’aban are but two out of hundreds who were placed in administrative detention in similar circcumstances in recent days, the implications of their arrests are particularly severe. Their imprisonment appears to be intended to intimidate Palestinian lawyers who might be active on behalf of other detainees, denying thereby the latter what little legal protection might still be possible under the circumstances. Moreover, these arrests seem part of a policy designed to prevent any legitimate co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian lawyers, journalists and academics in the defence of human rights.

Jose Brunner
Tel Aviv University

Arranged Versions

SIR: In his tribute to the late Raymond Williams (LRB, 18 February), Patrick Parrinder writes of ‘the terrorist attack on the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics’, when he might have written specifically of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by members of a radical Palestinian group dedicated to the annihilation of Israel. ‘The rest of the British press was baying for Palestinian blood,’ Parrinder jeers, thus calling up images of wolves mindlessly howling for the blood of Palestinians, any Palestinians, women, children, no matter. It would have been more accurate, and more honest, to have said that parts of the British press, like outraged people everywhere, were demanding that the killers be brought to justice. Raymond Williams is extolled for displaying ‘a high degree of courage’ by then writing an article in which ‘he did not mention Zionism, the state of Israel, the Arabs or the PLO,’ but seized the opportunity to condemn ‘the implicit politics of television, and of the Olympics themselves’, with their boastful ‘competition between approved nation-states’. Parrinder finds ‘coolly logical’ Williams’s judgment on the ‘Munich events’ (i.e. the sports contests interrupted by a bloody massacre): ‘an arranged version of what the world is like invaded by an element of what several parts of the world are actually like’. In this lamentable instance, Williams’s behaviour reflected that lofty moral evasiveness, masquerading as ‘cool’ political analysis, so characteristic of armchair ideologues. What would have taken real courage in a Marxist at that inflamed time would have been to put principle before polemics and to have unequivocally condemned the ruthless murder of innocent young men – but that would have been to compromise the ‘arranged version’ of reality which underlies so much of the radical political agenda.

Norman Fruman
University of Minnesota

Victimhood

SIR: I refer Charles Dicken (Letters, 31 March) to Rubin’s book-Quiet Rage, for an account of the Goetz shooting: not having read the book himself, he is woefully at sea as to the reported facts. None of these young men (half Goetz’s age and all shorter than their attacker) had been convicted of serious crime; only two were carrying screwdrivers, found in their pockets after they had been shot in cold blood; and, yes, Goetz, armed with his unlicensed gun, did elect to sit with the boys and not with the twenty whites at the front of the carriage. Goetz had been mugged a good three years before he opened fire on these strangers. All subway travellers are nervous: nevertheless, at the time of the trial, 45 per cent of New Yorkers approved of the shooting and 46 per cent disapproved.

I am delighted to be mentioned in the same breath as Dervla Murphy, but the question of racism must arise after Goetz’s astonishing acquittal – two years after the crime – on a count of ‘attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment of human life’ (he was only found guilty on one count of illegal weapons’ possession). Had the skin colour of the protagonists in this sad story been reversed, acquittal would have been most unlikely.

Alison Weir
London NW1

Viva Ocampo

SIR: I am sad to see that Daniel Waissbein has used his review of John King’s study of the Argentine magazine Sur (LRB, 3 March) for an extended bout of Ocampo-bashing. He is aware that Victoria Ocampo’s many enemies in Argentina ‘have always tended to confuse the personal and the journalistic issues’, but has he himself been able to avoid that confusion? According to Mr Waissbein, not only was Ocampo a ‘virago’, but also there was ‘something peculiarly sham’ about her ‘character and her pursuit of the ready-made’. He concedes that her ‘true vocation, and no doubt one at which she would have excelled, was the stage’. Is he implying that no real talents are needed to excel on the stage, that a mixture of the shrewish and the sham will enable a woman to become a great actress? I have spent several years doing research on certain aspects of Victoria Ocampo and have read many of her published works as well as some of her personal correspondence. I find her a fascinating woman. She is certainly a controversial figure in some respects, but who can deny the solid reality of the woman’s achievements? Her memoirs are not ‘shallow, self-centred, capricious and repetitive’, but evocative and stylish, and she certainly never ‘paraded as a writer and critic’. I don’t find Virginia Woolf’s comments on Victoria Ocampo all that funny. They are insensitive and patronising, revealing more about Woolf’s British upper-class prejudices than anything about Ocampo.

Mr Waissbein has wisely abstained from making any comment on Ocampo’s relationship with Tagore. Having read an article of Mr Waissbein’s on Borges, I suspect he may share Borges’s casually-expressed irreverent opinion that Tagore was a trickster of good faith or a Swedish invention, an opinion which is just about as reliable as Robbe-Grillet’s opinion of Villa Ocampo. Should any of your readers wish to consider an alternative image of Victoria Ocampo, I suggest they look up my book In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden: Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo, which is just out and available from Books from India. The role played in the story by Tagore’s English secretary, Leonard Elmhirst should, incidentally, dispel the myth that there was something peculiarly wishy – washy, as Mr Waissbein claims, about her dealings with the English.

It is true that in most societies there are barriers to the adequate recognition of a woman’s talents and achievements. Nevertheless it would be correct to suggest that in many other countries, including Britain and India, a third or a quarter of what Ocampo achieved would have secured an honourable status for a woman. That it is otherwise in Argentina seems to me to be disturbing

Ketaki Kushari Dyson
Oxford

Fateful Swerve

SIR: Before reading the responses on your Letters page to Christopher Norris’s balanced and informative piece on Paul de Man, I had idealised England as a country blessedly unlike the United States, where instrumental reason stands in for the life of the mind, where literature departments are staffed by people who agree largely with Sir Philip Sidney on the pabulum value of literary studies (‘food for the tenderest stomachs’), where the historical sense has all the profundity of a television mini-series, where local chauvinism makes everything foreign seem a dangerous microbe to be returned to its origin by a blast of native common sense, and where the halls and coffee rooms of universities resound eternally with ridicule for the ‘Jacques-sniffers’ and ‘uncritical theorists’ whose guilt consists of trying to keep abreast of Continental developments in literature and philosophy during the last ten years. Most people have not made this effort. It was easier not to. Now that there are the articles in Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche La. d, these people declare themselves to have been wise all along, when they were merely lazy or professionally threatened. Their righteousness seems especially suspect when one considers that, as long as one is protective of the right ‘orthodoxy’, one can say, us T.S. Eliot did in 1933 at the University of Virginia, that ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’ One can have said these things and still be admired in literature departments. One can be enshrined in the Norton Anthology. One can even win the Nobel Prize in 1948. Nor is it any comfort or excuse for socialist bigotry to remember that Karl Marx said more appalling things about Jews than either Eliot or de Man ever did.

What is being celebrated now, prematurely, in the wake of Mr Ortwin de Graef’s researches, is the fall of a man whose presence made a lot of people indirectly, and sometimes directly, uncomfortable. Their present euphoria is healthy neither for their vocation nor for themselves in the long term, mixed as it is with ressentiment, hypocrisy, and their now-triumphant professional inadequacy. What both Norris and Geoffrey Hartman in the New Republic have painstakingly said about the de Man episode will remain as a standard of wisdom and sanity long after de Man’s detractors have drained the reservoirs of their vitriol.

To say, as some have, that de Man’s career was a ‘denial of responsibility’ is certainly incorrect. I can scarcely claim to have known de Man. I was never a member of his Inner Circle. But he corrected me once on the subject of his uncle Hendrik, whose career was used, as early as 1981 (see New Left Review 127:57), to cast a sinister light on de Man’s own. I complained about the unfairness of this procedure and said that, if one considered the historical context and the tragic pressures to which Hendrik de Man was subjected, one would see how utterly facile it is now condemn him from our own safe historical vantage-point. To this de Man replied: ‘He had plenty to be ashamed of, all right.’ I took the comment then, and I take it now, as a warning not to minimise ethical failure because it took place under circumstances which at first sight might seem to excuse it, when the facts, as Derrida says, were not yet a fact. It is a source of pleasure and, to be sure, of some considerable pain that such moments return to memory now heavy with a significance one did not at the time know they had. Those who knew him better than I will know what I mean. There were many such moments.

Dan Latimer
Auburn, Alabama

Due Credit

SIR: I have not read the three Maxwell biographies but I hope E.S. Turner (LRB, 31 March) does not accurately reflect them when he writes of Maxwell backing and inspiring new one [journals] in an ever-expanding business which became Pergamon Press’. Buying and selling German scientific journals is different from finding editors of international standing and attracting papers for new scientific journals. This was the task of Dr Paul Rosbaud (a widely experienced editor with Springer-Verlag in Germany since the early Thirties), who was brought to England in 1945 for that very purpose. The new firm set up for him in 1948 was called Butterworth Springer. Only in 1951 when Maxwell bought it did it change its name to Pergamon Press, and its scientific standing still owed everything to Rosbaud. Maxwell’s entrepreneurial skills should not be confused with Rosbaud’s lifetime knowledge of the scientific community.

J.E.M. Latham
Richmond, Surrey

Ratkings

SIR: Your reviewer’s suspicions that the central image of my novel Ratking is ‘not zoologically sound’ (LRB, 21 April) are unfounded. At least forty authenticated examples of ratkings have in fact been discovered, mostly in Germany; six are still preseved. The history and probable causes of the phenomenon are discussed by Martin Hart in Rats (London, 1982), which also contains photographs of a king found in Holland in 1963, including the X-ray image reproduced on the cover of my book.

Michael Dibdin
Oxford

Toby Forward’s Diary

SIR: I rejoice to concur with the feelings expressed in Ms Khan’s recent letter (Letters, 17 March). English writers have no right to do such things! Take my own case. An obscure English actor composes a play loosely based on my own appalling experiences as a Jewish immigrant at the hands of British justice. He even dares to put a plea for racial tolerance into my own mouth. Although he attempts to disguise the truth by setting his drama in Venice, and (some say) writes under a pseudonym, he does not fool me. How dare he: I demand my pound of flesh!

Roderigo Lopez
Lisbon

1968

SIR: The article, ‘When students ruled the earth’ (LRB, 17 March), was presented as my review of four books about 1968. Not so. I was reviewing only three. I quoted very briefly from a fourth, Nineteen Sixty-Eight: A Personal Report, by Hans Koning, and described it as a ‘book published in America, last year’. A British edition of this worthy book was published in London, by Unwin Hyman, on 28 April. The trouble with your presentation is that it suggests that I tried to review this book a month prior to its British publication date – and then found nothing to say about it.

D.A.N. Jones
London NW10

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