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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 19 · 27 October 1988

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Not that often

Among many strange assertions made about the Windsors by your reviewer of Wallis: The Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor (LRB, 15 September) he says that my husband and I dined with them twice a week. Twice a year would be nearer the mark. We always accepted their invitations because dining with them was invariably enjoyable and sometimes interesting, but we were not asked twice a week. This could easily have been checked, because they kept a book in which visitors signed their names. I first met the Duchess nearly ten years after the end of the war, and was not her ‘confidante’. The Windsors were hospitable neighbours, no more.

Diana Mosley
Orsay, France

Moving house

George Hyde’s account of his psychiatric breakdown (LRB, 29 September) is a sad reminder of the separation between the ‘two cultures’, psychoanalytic and medical, which so handicaps British psychiatry today. Anyone with a modicum of psychoanalytic training would have seen Mr Hyde’s anxiety about his house (‘an inadequate house’) as more to do with his relationship with his wife and his inability to value himself (with compensatory flights into reassurance from other women, academic achievement etc) than with the value of his property. His psychiatrist’s offer to sell him his house reveals at best a complete un-awareness of the phenomena of transference and counter-transference; at worst, it was, like his denigration of all forms of psychotherapy, highly unethical. It was a relief to read that the house-sale, if not the treatment, fell through. It would be a pity, however, if psychoanalytic, and lay, prejudice about medical psychiatry were reinforced by Mr Hyde’s inaccurate generalisation from his own unfortunate experience of being sectioned. While it cannot ever be pleasant to be deprived of one’s liberty, it is not true that ‘when you are sectioned you are knocked out with a powerful sedative and put in the equivalent of a padded cell’; nor are your clothes taken away, although all three do occur, and are even sometimes necessary. (Last year I sectioned ten patients, of whom five remained fully clothed, free to move about the ward, and received only antidepressants, not sedatives.)

Patients like Mr Hyde have a right to expect their psychiatrists to be trained psychotherapeutically and to know when to detail ill people against their will in as humane a way as possible. As is so often the case, the public is ahead of the professionals. Mr Hyde asks that ‘your National Health chemotherapist’ (i.e. your average psychiatrist) ‘should be able to make use of some model of the therapeutic relationship’. Models abound, but the Royal College of Psychiatrists, despite support in principle for psychotherapeutic training, refuses, unlike its Australian counterpart, to insist that such training should be a prerequisite for practising as a psychiatrist. Until it does, experiences like those of Mr Hyde are likely to continue to be depressingly commonplace.

Jeremy Holmes
Consultant Psychiatrist/Psychotherapist, Barnstaple, Devon

Enlightenment Erotica

I am sorry Peter Wagner feels that my review of his Eros Revived went ‘beyond the limits of ordinary scholarly polemic’ (Letters, 13 October). That I expressed some reservations about the book I readily admit; that these amounted to a ‘downright punishment’, I deny. Dr Wagner acknowledges that I am ‘by no means singular’ in my opinion of his work. Pat Rogers, D.J. Enright and Anthony Powell have, on his own admission, expressed similar criticisms. I must say, I find it reassuring to see myself included in this band of ‘elderly English critics’, though, for the record, I should add that I am only one year older than Dr Wagner himself.

I complained in my review at the lack of scholarly analysis in Eros Revived. Dr Wagner clearly feels that I have thereby impugned his academic reputation. Yet he still seems unsure what scholarly status he wishes to claim for his book. He directs where I will find that the book ‘is not a “scholarly" study of the sort produced by the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge’. Yet he goes on to insist that ‘the Sorbonne, in 1986, saw fit to award me a PhD for this work.’ Indeed the same dust-jacket informs us that Dr Wagner holds not one but two doctorates from Saarland and the Sorbonne. And throughout the book he tells us repeatedly of his lengthy scholarly labours in university libraries throughout Europe. It seems a little inconsistent to make such a flourish of one’s scholarly credentials and then cry ‘foul’ if one’s work is judged by scholarly criteria.

Side-stepping most of my specific points, Dr Wagner prefers to speculate on the hidden motives behind my review. In tackling the subject of erotica he presents himself as a pioneer, daring to ‘open the door to the unmentionable room’. Those, like myself, who express reservations about his work are thus revealed, ipso facto, as conservative prudes. He says of me: ‘It must be the very subject of erotica that “turned him on" (and against me).’ This kind of crude ad hominem speculation is a highly convenient way of deflecting criticism. Those who approve of Dr Wagner’s work are the good guys fearlessly confronting taboos; those who disapprove are puritan reactionaries, disguising their typically English repressions under the fig-leaf of pedantry.

Dr Wagner makes only one substantive point in his rebuttal of my review. He accuses me of making ‘no attempt whatsoever to distinguish between such words as “erotic", “bawdy", “obscene" and “pornographic" ’. This may be true, but I would argue that Dr Wagner’s own attempts to establish separate categories and definitions for these terms are themselves haphazard, vague and inconsistent. His letter repeats the point made in his (very brief) Introduction that it is very difficult to define such differences. ‘Entire books,’ as he says, ‘have been written on the question, what is pornography?’ Wagner dismisses the OED definition of pornography as ‘vague’, citing with approval Anthony Burgess’s ridicule of its terms as applying equally well to underwear advertisements and to ‘hard-core’ magazines. In the four hundred pages of Wagner’s text and notes one might have expected him to have offered an intellectually cogent analysis of the nature and function of pornography. But as I noted before, at the end of several chapters describing class-based pornographic lampoons, Wagner still finds himself on ‘tricky ground’ in attempting to offer any account of the function of pornography: ‘for even today we do not know exactly what pornography does.’ He is content to conclude as he begins, by presenting pornography as ‘a chameleon, appearing in various guises’. It is just such a chameleon that I attempted to present in the review.

David Nokes
King’s College, London

Sad Reflection

I read Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Diary (LRB, 15 September) with interest – especially in so far as it dealt with the dearth of new fiction at the moment. It is a sad reflection on those of us who publish, review and read books that we have become so preoccupied with literary biography in recent years. There are many valuable literary biographies, and some classic ones, but I feel that we are beginning to write too many, for the wrong reasons, and to place too high a value both on them and on their authors. We have just had the first part of Bevis Hillier on John Betjeman, and the second part of Lyndall Gordon on T.S. Eliot. In addition, Michael Holroyd has produced the first of three volumes – no less – devoted to George Bernard Shaw. Not only was Mr Holroyd given an exceptionally large advance on his labours by Chatto and Windus, but he was apparently ‘invited’ to write his book by the Shaw Estate, on the grounds that no one had made ‘a serious attempt’ on their property since 1956 (see Frank Kermode’s review – same issue). There has been fuss made, too, of recent books on Ezra Pound, Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde. Finally, we have the story, at once funny and pitiful, of Ian Hamilton’s pursuit of J.D. Salinger, written, not by some third party, but by Mr Hamilton himself. In this case, the author writes to his subject, pretending to have an orthodox biography in mind, knowing all the while that Salinger will resist his interest. While being at pains to register his disapproval of Salinger’s non-co-operation with an accredited biographer and critic – ‘Who does he think he is?’ we are supposed to ask – Mr Hamilton goes on to admit that an orthodox biography was never his intention. On the contrary: he wanted to write a book about the difficulties of writing a biography, and chose Salinger for his literary experiment, knowing him to be the ideal subject. Bravo.

It must sound old-fashioned to say so, but some kind of decorum exists between reader and writer, which is intangible, fleeting and delicate, and which has surprisingly little to do with the kind of life we think, or would like to think, the writer led. Biographical information is valuable, but not absolutely so, and biographies of the kind I have mentioned seem, to me at least, to endanger the continuity of that decorum.

Richard Lansdown
London N19

Kingsley and the Women

With what care does Karl Miller expend so many words to prove that Kingsley Amis is not, necessarily, either sexist or racist (LRB, 29 September). Surely the admirer protesteth too much?

Judith Kazantzis
London W11

Gissa job

I have neither a budgie nor a nine-inch cock but I have, as the result of her, apparently, notorious small advertisement in the LRB, recently become Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s agent. Not only that, but I’m auctioning, repeat auctioning, her third collection of poems, The Perfect Man. However good, bad or indifferent a poet posterity may deem Ms Pitt-Kethley, it seems to me that her new collection is hugely entertaining and saleable, and thus publishers should be invited to bid for the rights as they do these days for manuscripts by novelists. Two of the eight publishers to whom I’ve submitted the manuscript have telephoned to say: ‘But you can’t auction poetry!’ Oh yes you can. And now I must stop, as the holiday postcard from St Leonards might say, or I’ll miss my flight to the Frankfurt Book Fair to garner offers for The Perfect Man.

Giles Gordon
Anthony Sheil Associates, London WC1

Ain’t it horrible being so neglected! Here am I, another failing poet – ages since I was given a really good publishing – pining for full exposure – just like Fiona P-K. Trouble is, I can’t pull down my verbal knickers to the same effect as unabashed Fiona repeatedly has. I’ve gotta rely on my poetry. And perhaps she’s exposed her private parts ten times too much. I trust that clits, like even nine-inch dicks, eventually have their day. And their enduring night.

Ted Burford
London W5

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