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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988

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Fateful Swerve

The letter from Juliet Flower MacCannell (Letters, 7 July) seems to me even more obscure in its content than in its motivations. For lack of time, place or interest, I will not discuss it in detail. Here are simply a few factual corrections.

Of course, I never made the remarks attributed to me. During the conference in question, without the least allusion to what J.F. MacCannell calls my ‘own work’, I attempted to analyse the conditions in which myself and others founded the Collège International de Philosophie in 1983. I dare to think that what I had to say about it was a good deal less foolish than the things J.F. MacCannell thought herself competent to reconstruct, without a single verifiable quotation, and to pass along. It is true that the strange document she sent to you depends entirely on such procedures (for example, that unlocalisable 1939 letter from which nothing is quoted and whose addressee is unknown). Nor do I recall that Jonathan Culler at any time ‘called for “elimination of the social sciences" from the University’. He can specify this for himself.

J.F. MacCannell appears to want to rush to the aid of the sciences and the social sciences. She would be more credible if she respected their basic rules and if her eloquence did not exploit the unverifiable. ‘Whom are we to believe?’ she asks in closing. I will answer: not her.

Jacques Derrida
Director of Studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudesen Sciences Sociales, Paris

Your Letters page (Letters, 7 July) has me say of Michael Dummett that at one stage he set aside his work on Frege in order to devote more time ‘to the work of improving and combating the effects of National Front propaganda’. What I actually wrote was ‘devote himself to improving race relations and combating the effects …’

Christopher Norris
Cardiff

Troubles

David Trotter raises some interesting points in his discussion of Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue (LRB, 23 June), but at times his enquiry seems less than generous, and even quibbling. For example, the notion that ‘lyric action’ can constitute ‘radical witness’ evokes his exasperation and also reduces him to a strange mixed metaphor (‘tricky questions … rocking the vessel of mystification’), though it is scarcely obscure in its context. ‘For him’ (i.e. Mandelstam) ‘obedience to poetic impulse was obedience to conscience,’ Heaney writes, in a paragraph in which he compares the forming of a poem to the formation of crystals in a chemical solution, implying that it is action on the poet as much as, if not more than, action by the poet which makes the poem. By refusing to fake his responses, the poet bears witness both to his art and his society in a far more fundamental way than by setting out to obey the current political prescription or fashionable fad. Mandelstam cannot praise Stalin against his nature, and even his castigations are few, but the daring and heartbreak of trying to be freely alive at that time permeate his work and indeed are part of the density and intensity of its diction. To invoke a once-popular radical truism, which nevertheless embodied a useful insight, the personal is the political, and never more so than in times of public tyranny.

Heaney pursues a related point in his consideration of Chekhov’s visit to Sakhalin Island, both in the essay in question and in the poem ‘Chekhov on Sakhalin’ in his collection Station Island, alongside which the essay should be read. Trotter, rightly, I think, is bothered by such phrases as ‘stink of oppression’ and ‘music of cruelty’. They show a poet paying, uncomfortably, his ‘debt to prose’, though even the poem feels slightly strained:

No cantor
In full throat by the iconostasis
Got holier joy than he got from that glass
That shone and warmed like diamonds warming
On some pert young cleavage in a salon,
Inviolable and affronting.

Aesthetic judgments aside, however, Heaney’s argument as a whole makes perfectly clear and comprehensive sense. The cognac, quaffed and savoured by Chekhov alone and in private, represents the self-centred pleasure of artistic creation, culminating in what Heaney describes elsewhere as ‘that liberated moment when the lyric discovers its buoyant completion’. Heaney is troubled by this for more reasons than one. Not only is the artist enjoying himself while his fellows suffer, but he may in fact achieve his most truthful, ‘witnessing’ poems through thus selfishly and irresponsibly relishing his own creativity. To put it another way, responsible moral attitudes do not have much relation to great art, a fact very disturbing to the Jesuit-trained moralist in Heaney and perhaps the source of the tone which Trotter rather cruelly, but not wholly unfairly, calls ‘sanctimonious’. In the poem, Heaney, revealingly, absolves Chekhov by invoking the enslaved serfs who were his ancestors and providing him, rather unexpectedly, with a convict-guide out of his past to play Virgil to his Dante. It almost seems as if, through the good fortune of happening to be born of peasant stock, Chekhov/Heaney earns, after, all his right to poetry’s cognac in troubled times. Nevertheless, in the essay he pulls out a more convincing strand of argument in which Chekhov wins his art through an apprenticeship to ‘reality’, a process described as ‘earning the free joy of his fiction by the hard facts of his sociological report’. David Trotter, still fixated, perhaps, on his distrust of the phrase ‘lyric action’, seems to have focused too selectively on the metaphorical flights: it is he who diminishes Chekhov’s purpose in visiting Sakhalin Island, not Seamus Heaney.

Carol Rumens
Harrow, Middlesex

Mozart and Freud

What a strange world Peter Gay lives in, divided as it appears – even as he reviews three books on Mozart (LRB, 7 July) – between Freudians and anti-Freudians. Perhaps the avowedly Freudian slant of Brigid Brophy in Mozart the Dramatist, and the authorship of another of the books by a well-known editor of Freud, Alan Tyson – although it does not contain a single mention of Freud – are thought sufficient grounds for his selection as reviewer. In the context, his reference to the ‘anti-Freudian mafia’ – as if Freud presented a complete and all-encompassing system of reality which must not be challenged – can only be comic. At the same time his expertise on the subject of Mozart, primarily conditioned as it would seem to be by such contemporary mythographers as Wolfgang Hildesheimer and Peter Shaffer, leaves much to be desired. The game is finally given away when he remarks of H.C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: ‘Not all of his material is wholly unexplored: one long passage, which Robbins Landon attributes to a report in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of October 1800, had already been quoted in Eduard Hanslick’s Geschichte des Concertswesens in Wien (1869-70), and attributed there to a correspondent in the Leipziger Musikzeitung.’ It would of course be remarkable if Professor Landon, writing nearly two centuries after Mozart’s death, was wholly dependent on new material. Indeed, it is not saying anything detrimental to Landon or his purpose to point out that virtually none of it is – it is only disturbing that Gay does not seem to realise this. This attempt at easy pedantry further misfires because the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung was the most famous musical journal of the 19th century, and was published in Leipzig. It was therefore the very same journal to which, in familiar terms, Hanslick was certainly referring.

Gay is also wrong in his assertion, correcting Brigid Brophy, that Mozart’s orchestral and chamber music have had a more constant following over the last two hundred years than the operas. At least three of the operas continued to hold the stage throughout the 19th century, and were the public’s major reference-point for Mozart’s music. Knowledge of the instrumental music was sketchier: thus Delacroix, an ardent Mozartian, could write in his journal in the mid-19th century of a C minor symphony, undoubtedly meaning the G minor No 40. In the late 1850s Brahms had to encourage Clara Schumann to take up the Mozart piano concertos, which she did not know. Proust writing at the end of the century about a performance of a Mozart piano concerto by Saint-Saëns is unable to specify which it was – indeed it is not even clear that he realised there were others. It must be doubtful whether Gay’s prognostications on this subject are based on anything more than childhood impressions.

Gay is incorrect in his belief that Wolfgang Hildesheimer is a professional musicologist. The letter’s musical commentary seldom gets beyond pretentious waffle about the significance of keys, devoid of any genuine critical sense of what determines their use. His attitude to historical detail is also essentially casual, a starting-point for whimsical reflection.

Peter Gay’s final burst of scholastic piety has its irony. He writes: ‘As the great German art historian Aby Warburg used to say, Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.’ But does he know for sure Warburg ever uttered this candidate for inclusion in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, let alone whether he was in the habit of repeating it? Or is it testament to a simple failure to distinguish history from hokum?

John Stone
London NW6

Poetics and Politics

It is as hard to keep politics out of literary studies as out of sport. The latest journal forced to acknowledge this is Poetics Today, a widely respected international periodical published in England and edited from the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics at Tel Aviv University. In 1986 Teresa Ebert and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, who teach literature at Syracuse University, agreed to guest-edit a special double issue on the concept of ideology following the work of the French Marxist, Louis Althusser. A good selection of contributors were rounded up, including leading English writers such as Terry Eagleton and Alex Callinicos. Frederic Jameson from Duke University was co-opted to write a critical intoduction to the whole issue. It was to be called ‘Post-Modern Discourses on Ideology – By Way of Althusser’. Essays were collected and revised ready for publication early in 1988. Then came the Palestinian uprising in Israel. One of the contributors, who had been watching television news, which showed some Israeli soldiers whiling away the time by breaking the arm of a Palestinian youth, suggested to the guest-editors that some form of protest had to be made. They agreed, and wrote to everyone asking whether they wished their names to appear under the following statement at the beginning of the issue: ‘The editors of this special issue of Poetics Today and the following contributors protest against the treatment of the Palestinian people living in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere by the government of Israel and its military and police forces. We support international and Israeli opposition to the Government’s oppressive actions.’ Of 21 contributors, 15 were prepared to sign. Some wanted the wording strengthened.

On 27 April Itamar Even-Zohar, Brian McHale and Ruth Ronen, editors of Poetics Today, replied to the request in a letter which made three points: the journal was not an organ of the Israeli Government and no more complicit with government actions than an equivalent American journal with Reagan’s policies in Nicaragua or a British journal with Thatcher’s in Ulster; the situation in Israel might well have changed by the date of publication (now delayed till late 1989); the phrase ‘the Gaza Strip and elsewhere’ was inaccurate. For these reasons they could not publish the proposed statement. Now Professors Ebert and Zavarzadeh have written to the 15 protestors asking them whether they want to withdraw their statement, change it, or withdraw the entire manuscript and send it for publication at a university press. It seems clear that the 15 will stick by their decision to make a political intervention which, as one contributor wrote, ‘would help (in however small a way) to legitimate Israeli opposition to the Government’s actions and … would be a signal (however tiny) to the authorities of growing international disagreement with its policies’. There the situation rests but while the contributors only risk a delay in getting their work in print, Poetics Today – and the independent intellectual culture of Israel – risks losing a great deal more.

Anthony Easthope
Manchester

Italian-Style

Claudio Segrè asks two questions about Democracy, Italian Style. Will Italians read it? And will they love it? Few Italians will read it because few Italians read. Illiteracy – I include men like my father-in-law, who can just about sign his name – is still running at between 10 and 15 per cent. Fewer newspapers, books and magazines are read than in any other country in Western Europe, notwithstanding government subsidies to many publishers and the political parties which control them. The largest circulation of any magazine is that of the Famiglia Cristiana, forced on parishioners by a few zealous priests, followed by Grand Hotel, a comic book for servant and shop girls.

Will Italians love it? Of course they will. The name of the author, LaPalombara, will attract other Meridionali, and it is full of the sort of lies Italians like to hear told about themselves. A token translation into Italian was made of Barzini, because he told the truth with wit and charm, and his countrymen hated him for it. Not even his daughter, a Liberal politician in Milan, seems to be able to get a reprint done.

One sort of lie Italians tell well is called statistics. They ruined Mussolini by giving him false statistics about his armed forces, as they may well ruin contemporary Italy by lulling politicians – often unashamedly ignorant men – into believing that Italy really is the fifth most industrialised nation and that the average Italian owns stocks and shares, two cars, his home. Italians do not admit there is any such thing as an average Italian. They are all unique. However, only 30 per cent of them own their homes and only 45 per cent have any substantial investments. A new recruit to the numerous police of four kinds gets about $350 a month. My nephew who is the only judge for miles around in the only really prosperous part of Italy (the Trentino-Alto Adige) gets around $1000 a month after seven years in the job. The Senior Surgeon in the hospital near where I have had a house for a quarter of a century takes home about twice that after twenty years. Millions of Italians have no proper food outside the factory canteens and in LaPalombara’s South many eat pasta twice a day. Sixty-five per cent of all the houses and flats south of Rome have no indoor sanitation. There are over two million prostitutes. Universities are ill-equipped and teachers badly paid.

What got into LaPalombara? Is Yale University Press so awash with money that they can find nothing better to bring out (I have a manuscript or two in my drawer). Has he just inherited a pizza chain or pasta factory? Between submission of his manuscript and publication two more governments fell, making his own statistics as unreliable as the rest. If he really knows of no other post-war democracy with a better record than Italy’s, should he be a professor of political science anywhere?

I love Italy, and would feel deprived if I did not spend a few months each year there, but I have no illusions about the place or the people. I live in the mountains because they remind me of Scotland (plus sun and wine) and I avoid the coast, seven-eighths of which is washed by polluted waters full of happy holidaymakers. I read Barzini all the time to prevent myself being ripped off by my wife’s family and ‘friends’.

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Osaka Gakuin University College, Japan

For Professor MacGregor-Hastie there will be a real welcome in the valleys of Tuscany after this – among those who can read.

Editors, ‘London Review’

William Trevor

Carelessly, in my review (LRB, 23 June) of recent fiction, I called William Trevor’s Other People’s Worlds a book of short stories. It is of course, a novel.

Anthony Thwaite
Low Tharston, Norfolk

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