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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 2 · 19 January 1989

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Perestroika

In your issue of 24 November 1988 there appeared a review by John Barber of some books dealing with perestroika, including my own book The Thinking Reed. It is said in the review that in my writings of 1987 I never make use of the term ‘statocracy’. The explanation for this is not at all that I have no need of such a concept under the conditions of perestroika, or that I have renounced it. I borrowed the term from the Soviet economist M. Cheshkov, in order to point out the difference in principle between the Soviet bureaucratic oligarchy as a specific social group and a bureaucracy in the ordinary meaning of the word (as used by Max Weber), such as exists in any society, Britain included. I do not think that this difference in principle can be denied. As for my 1987 articles, they were written for readers who could not yet have seen The Thinking Reed or The Dialectics of Hope, and it was not possible to spend time explaining the class nature of the upper crust of Soviet society in popular articles in which the reader would look for concrete cultural-political analysis. I consider that there is no contradiction, however, between this analysis and the general propositions which I formulate at the beginning of my book.

John Barber is mistaken when he says that the reforms in the USSR took me by surprise. Already in the autumn of 1980 the samizdat journal Left Turn, which I edited, had carried an article by me in which it was said that the prospect of development for the Eighties was one of ‘reform from above under pressure from below’. An analysis of the strategic aims of our group in 1979-82 can be found in the French periodical Alternatives and in L. Alekseyeva’s book A History of Dissidence in the USSR.

It was precisely my confidence in the inevitability of a reformist turn that made me examine so intently in The Thinking Reed all the manifestations of official reformist thinking in the USSR (‘legal Marxism’). Whether we can regard as radical the reforms now being carried out in our country is a different question, however. Few in Soviet society would be ready to agree with that definition. What has actually changed? We have been given the possibility of visiting the West without too much difficulty, and also of giving interviews and even of publishing books there with impunity. Much has been published in the USSR. People no longer fear repressive measures. The political climate has become liberal. All this is splendid, but can it be called ‘radical reform’? Was not this sort of tolerance characteristic also of the particularly conservative regime of Gierek in Poland in 1970-80?

Incidentally, under Gorbachev the level of development of links with the West, and of the encouragement of a private-co-operative sector, is similar to what was the case in Poland in the mid-Seventies. Just as in Poland, economic reform has gone into a skid, and economic crisis is admitted by such an outstanding expert as Academician L. Abalkin to be growing precisely as a result of the absence of any radical changes. Finally, along with liberalisation, new laws are being adopted which are considerably less democratic even then the right to search dwellings without a warrant from a magistrate; the constitutional reform being put through just now severely reduces the rights of the republics and replaces direct elections to the Supreme Soviet by indirect ones, and the official social organisations are being given the right to appoint their deputies independently of normal elections in the localities. If this amounts to radical change, then in what direction?

There is no reason to doubt Gorbachev’s sincerity when he says that he wants to bring about revolutionary, or at least radical, changes in our country. But a comparison of his slogans with the results of his rule shows how limited are the possibilities of any reform from above. And the limit that is imposed, in the last analysis, is precisely the ‘class interest’ of the bureaucracy-statocracy, which is not going to do away with itself in the foreseeable future. Real changes can be accomplished only by a mass movement, the fundamental features of which already began to appear in the summer of 1988. And that is the reason why, like many other people in our country, I place my hopes on the Popular Front, and not on the liberal apparatchiki.

Boris Kagarlitsky
Moscow

Brodsky’s English

As a freelance editor who has worked extensively with the English translation of Joesph Brodsky’s poems, I take issue with the contention – which forms the backbone of Christopher Reid’s recent review (LRB, 8 December 1988) of Mr Brodsky’s book, To Urania – that whatever jarring, unconventional or surprising verbal effects the reader may encounter in these poems results from their inadequate transition into English, rather than a conscious aesthetic choice on the part of the poet/translator. Throughout the five years this volume spent in production, every possible care was taken that it be true not only to the density and technical complexity of Mr Brodsky’s Russian originals (written well before Mr Brodsky achieved the ‘status of literary idol’ to which Mr Reid alludes), but also to his own living sensibility, which has entered our language to innoculate us against the comfortable simplicities that translation might otherwise introduce. If English must be bent and stretched a bit to accommodate the highly condensed and nuanced forms available to the writer in Russian – forms which are as intrinsic to his sensibility as his subject-matter or imagery – then, I feel, this is a development we should only applaud in a language that is in danger of falling asleep in the well-worn furniture of its rules. If Mr Reid finds absurdity, restlessness and abrasiveness unpalatable presences in literature, then I tremble to think how many of our modern masters must be excluded from his pantheon. In any case, such dark intimations cannot be wished away by appealing to the innocent technicalities of translation and publication.

It comes as no surprise that Messrs Reid and Brodsky to do not see eye to eye on matters of poetic judgment, but the quaintness of a nation that returns to the dicta of its schoolmasters to legitimise its literary tastes never ceases to amaze and amuse.

Ann Kjellberg
New York

Poetics and Politics

In their letter to the LRB of 13 October 1988, Even-Zoar, McHale and Ronen misrecognise the issues at stake in poetics and politics and continue to trivialise matters concerning the collection of essays, ’Post-Modern Discourses on Ideology – By Way of Althusser’, which we had edited for publication in Poetics Today. Their defensive comments about the guest editors manoeuvring them into rejecting the collection are the product of a self-justifying narrative, as is their assertion that we were unwilling to negotiate with them. In our letter to them of 10 May 1988, we clearly indicated our interest in learning about what they called ‘a satisfactory alternative solution’. However, they never responded to our request because, as it later became clear, negotiation and compromise meant only one thing as far as they were concerned: that we accept their terms and drop the statement.

The statement of protest was signed not just by 15 of the contributors but by all the contributors – including the two who have since withdrawn their essays. The editors of Poetics Today, in their letter to us of 27 April, indicated some general, vague sympathy with the statement in the tradition of evasive liberalism, but eventually decided they could not publish it, for reasons which Anthony Easthope summarises in his 4 August letter to the London Review. At the heart of their reasoning was their opinion that Poetics Today was not an organ of the Israeli Government but an independent scholarly journal and, therefore, not the right place to publish such a protest; nor was the time the right time to publish it. (Israeli and US elections were then still months ahead, although now that the elections are over it is clear that there never is a ‘right’ time when it comes to the rights of the oppresed.) In our letter to the editors of 6 July, we ‘read’ their ‘reasons’ and demonstrated that the logic of ‘not here, not now’ grounding their defence of their independence was, in fact, identical with the political logic of the Israeli Government in its opposition to an independent Palestinian state: not NOW, not HERE, maybe LATER, SOMEWHERE ELSE. We argued, in short, that Poetics Today is complicit in the policies that our statement opposed, because the journal is involved in the ideological (re)production and naturalisation of the political logic of the state whether or not it is officially affiliated with the Government.

In their letter to the London Review of 13 October, the editors of Poetics Today expressed their desire for intellectual independence, yet they are completely oblivious to the fact that this independence is obtained by suppressing the independence of others. We proposed, in our letter to them of 6 July, that they publish on the opening page of the special issue, not only our own statement, but also their opposition to it, as well as our analysis of that opposition, so that the readers could draw their own conclusions. In other words, we suggested an open forum for all those whose intellectual and political independence was at stake – writers and readers alike. Our proposal would have allowed an articulation and problematisation of the issues in a journal that proclaims its desire for free inquiry. But its arbitrary rejection by the editors, who treat the journal as their private property, indicates that they believe that the only way to protect and further intellectual independence is to put it in their own custody.

Teresa Ebert
Northern Illinois University.

Goodbye to Mahfouz

Since Edward Said’s object was to write about Kanafani, Habibi and Khoury, it was rash of him to take as his starting point Naguib Mahfouz, with whose works he is plainly unfamiliar (‘Goodbye to Mahfouz’, 8 December 1988). He should at least have done enough homework to know that Awlad Haritna – translated as Children of Gehelqwi by myself and published here in 1981 – is not a trilogy, but a novel in five parts, that it was banned just after, not just before, its first publication as a serial in Al-Ahram, and that the trilogy culminates not in 1952 but in 1944. A look at the later works would have shown Said that Mahfouz cannot be described as a ‘stately’ writer, either in his choice of subjects, which are often undignified to an extreme degree, or in his style, which is frequently so compressed and allusive as to be disorienting.

Philip Stewart
Oxford Forestry Institute

Sidney’s Kidney

In commenting sceptically on the legends surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Blair Worden (LRB, 24 November 1988) nonetheless lends credence to another legend when he writes of ‘the tradition of aristocratic protest which, over the previous three centuries, had opposed the rise of the Renaissance and Baroque monarchies’. In adopting such a view, he is placing too much weight on the political writings of Algernon Sidney, discussed by Jonathan Scott in one of the books under review, and by Dr Worden himself in an earlier article (‘The Commonwealth Kidney of Algernon Sidney’, Journal of British Studies, xxiv, 1985). Sidney, scion of a noble family, in political exile in the 1660s and 1670s, keen for an insurrection against what he saw as the tyranny of Charles II, used history for his own purposes. In claiming that great baronial families, gallant and heroic, powerful and warlike, had kept would-be tyrannical kings in check, only to destroy themselves in the Wars of the Roses and then to be tamed and seduced by the luxurious and lascivious courts of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, Sidney’s personal interest is obvious. No doubt Sidney saw himself as a modern revival of those vigorous Medieval noblemen curbing royal power. Sidney’s history offered him an explanation, a consolation and a remedy for his personal discontents. But, as history, we should not take it at face value.

His claim that the power of the nobility had declined after the Wars of the Roses and in the Early Modern period is questionable. He offers (as cited by Scott and Worden) little evidence for such a decline. To assert, for example, that Henry VII crushed the nobility will not do. And much of Sidney’s case for a decline rests on a somewhat romantic exaggeration of the earlier power of the nobility. When Sidney suggests that the nature of estate-holding had undermined noble power – ‘those who have estates at rack-rent have no dependents. Their tenants when they have paid what is agreed owe them nothing … they look upon their lords as men who receive more from them than they confer on them’ – he underestimates the continuing power of lordship while exaggerating the earlier dominance of nobles over lesser men, always a two-way relationship, especially when men had to be mobilised for military service.

If the power of the nobility survived into the 17th century, there would have been no need for any continuous tradition of aristocratic protest against the monarchy. Dr Worden’s citation of noble opposition to Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s as an illustration fits poorly, resting on odd views of the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536 (which the most powerful noblemen helped to defeat), of the so-called Exeter Conspiracy of 1538 (which reflected Henry VIII’s fears, not any serious noble resistance), of the fall of Cromwell in 1540 (in which the Duke of Norfolk is the only nobleman to whom any credible part could be ascribed). Since the nobility in the 1530s, as in the 1640s was not a monolithic block, to invoke a tradition of aristocratic protest, or a common baronial culture, explains very little, especially why noblemen disagreed and took opposite sides.

Most noblemen did not resist strong central royal government since it was so obviously in their interests to maintain the social order and the social harmony on which their privileged position stood. Nor did most noblemen have any continuous desire to take part in day-to-day conciliar government or to hold offices with daily executive responsibilities. The flaw in the Medieval/Early Modern system of royal government, however, was the possible accession of an inadequate ruler. At times of unusually incompetent, corrupt, partial, militarily unsuccessful or weak government, some nobles – and, importantly, others – would understandably, if reluctantly and often in self-defence, criticise and seek changes, not because they were nobles, but because remedies were necessary. Such criticisms, from nobles and non-nobles, might include requests for nobles to hold specific offices, for nobles to dominate the royal council; and such claims might be justified by analogy with the (Medieval) past. But that was not a continuous ‘tradition of aristocratic protest’, however much some of the participants tried to invent one; such claims were rather expedients by which men facing appalling political difficulties tried to resolve them.

George Bernard
University of Southampton

Auntie Cissiegy

I admire Kenneth Buthlay’s pioneering work on MacDiarmid, and have profited from it. He is right to point out (Letters, 8 December 1988) that he drew attention in an earlier book to a link between the revival of interest in the Metaphysical poets and the idea of antisyzygy. I persist, though, in thinking that this might have been mentioned with advantage in his introduction to the book which I was reviewing. If Buthlay’s scholarly edition of A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle wins the wide audience which it deserves, then much of that audience will have scant knowledge of Scottish literature. Mention of Herbert Grierson as an Edinburgh figure whose work occasioned Eliot’s essays on ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, and who became an early admirer of MacDiarmid’s verse, might have helped flesh-out and clarify links suggested between the notion of the ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ (which students often find strange) and other much more familiar Modernist concepts. I think this would have made Kenneth Buthlay’s fine introduction a little more useful.

William Milne (LRB, 10 November 1988) asks if in aligning MacDiarmid with Ian Hamilton Finlay I had ‘forgotten’ that the two men quarrelled noisily. I hadn’t forgotten. In fact, I regretted in the penultimate paragraph of the same review that Alan Bold’s biography of MacDiarmid gives ‘no mention, for instance, of those quarrels with younger writers such as Ian Hamilton Finlay’. In concluding my piece by aligning the geographical near-neighbours MacDiarmid and Hamilton Finlay, suggesting that each was a ‘courageous, controversial and embattled artist’ whose work suggests that ‘THE PRESENT ORDER IS THE DISORDER OF THE FUTURE,’ I was aiming to provoke a little more than William Milne’s letter.

While there is enjoyment to be gained from the sparky flytings whose Rotoruan intensity has warmed Scotland’s creative parts during our century, there is little point in merely replaying them. It is as useful today to praise MacDiarmid at the expense of Hamilton Finlay as it would have been in 1926 to pay pious homage to Stevenson while dismissing MacDiarmid as an obscure charlatan. Surely it’s more difficult and more valuable to try and see such very different Scottish artists as part of the same complexly-braided, potently impure cultural tradition. My aligning of MacDiarmid and Hamilton Finlay was neither forgetful nor, I hope, daft. Both are Scottish artists who delight in reprocessing pre-existing texts; both are spikily individual major Scottish artists often more highly regarded outside Scotland than inside it; both are artists fascinated by, and embattled with, structures of authority, and each makes that an important subject of his own art. These seem to me reasons for provocatively juxtaposing MacDiarmid and Hamilton Finlay, rather than simply accepting their own splendidly vituperative denunciations of each other. If we care about the burgeoning of modern Scottish culture then the Little Spartan adult’s garden of verses and MacDiarmid’s thrawnly cultivated thistles might well be worth relating.

Robert Crawford
University of Glasgow

The unpleasantness of William Milne’s letter on myself and Hugh MacDiarmid would not have been too much modified if he had mentioned the issues which produced the thirty-year-old invective which he quotes for your readers. These were – in brief – the question as to whether it was worth publishing such then little-known poets as Paul Celan, Augusto de Campos, Robert Creeley, Louis Zukofsky, and whether it was a crime against culture to write in the Glasgow dialect. Both issues have (I believe) been resolved, and I will not say which side I was on, and which Hugh MacDiarmid. One point should be made clear: it was not for Mr Milne, sneering on the sidelines, to say what I feel about Hugh MacDiarmid, or what the late Hugh MacDiarmid came to feel about me.

Ian Hamilton Finlay
Little Sparta, Dunsyre, Lanark

Enlightenment Eroticism

‘It is a pleasure,’ writes Peter Wagner (Letters, 5 January), ‘perhaps even a pleasure tinged with eroticism, to pick up the gauntlet thrown down so forcefully by Dr Nokes’ This pleasure is entirely his. Dr Wagner has expressed his unhappiness with my review of his book Eros Revived not only in two letters printed here but also in a long personal letter of remonstrance. I find it difficult to know how best to answer the multiple accusations of bias, malice and ignorance contained in these letters. There is an obvious temptation to respond in the same style of academic point-scoring. Yet clearly beneath Dr Wagner’s barrage of circumstantial details concerning his doctoral degrees there remains one central issue: he feels that I have done him a serious injustice in my review. I shall therefore confine myself to answering just one of the several minor points contained in his last letter, before returning to that main issue. I was wrong to say that Dr Wagner’s first doctorate was ‘from Saarland’. The dust-jacket tells us that it was in fact from ‘the University of the Saarland’. I apologise for the omission of the definite article.

I did not accuse Peter Wagner of being a pornographer, nor his book of being pornography. I described it as ‘a paean in praise of pornography’. There is a difference. What Peter Wagner offers, I believe, is by way of being a detailed, illustrated catalogue of erotica. I do not question the scholarly seriousness with which he set about collecting, annotating and arranging his voluminous materials. What I question is the level of scholarly analysis of the works so lavishly illustrated and described. I hoped I had made that point clear by contrasting Roy Porter’s analysis of Aristotle’s Master-Piece with that contained in Eros Revived. No, I do not find anything suspect or disturbing about the discussion, scholarly or otherwise, of erotic literature. Nor am I seeking ‘cut-and-dried answers’. Elsewhere in my review I praised essays on erotic literature by Peter Sabor and Roy Porter, not because they offered any simple interpretations, but, on the contrary, because they demonstrated a subtlety and complexity of analysis which, I felt, Peter Wagner’s book lacked.

I genuinely regret that Dr Wagner feels so damaged by my review. I can only endeavour to assure him that I did not write it out of prudery or prejudice, but from the conviction that a reviewer is expected to express, clearly and honestly, his reactions to books he undertakes to review.

David Nokes
King’s College London

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