Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989

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In defence of opera

Rupert Christiansen’s article on great singers (LRB, 19 January) seems to me to do the cause of opera a disservice by cheerfully endorsing some common misconceptions about the history and nature of the form. He suggests that opera ‘manages to live comfortably off the capital of its glorious past’ – witness the presence of only one post-1914 opera in Covent Garden’s last season, and the fact that since 1945 at most five new operas ‘have survived in the international repertory’. Opera, in other words, is an expensive museum culture, devoid of contemporary creative vitality. Certainly it used to be said that no new opera had entered the core repertory since Turandot in 1926. But while this may just possibly be true of a few of the more conservative of the big ‘international’ opera houses, it is not true of opera as a whole. It is not even true of Covent Garden. Virtually everywhere the repertory now includes works by Janacek, Prokofiev, Berg, Stravinsky, Ravel, Gershwin and Weill. Nor is it true that only five or fewer post-1945 operas have ‘survived in the international repertory’. Britten alone contributed that number of works, to say nothing of Poulenc, Tippett, Henze and, most recently, Philip Glass. In Britain in the Eighties we have been able to see operas by the following living composers: John Adams, Berio, Birtwistle, David Blake, Maxwell Davies, Glass, Ligeti, Aribert Reimann, Aulis Sallinen, Stockhausen, Tippett and Judith Weir – and that is not an exhaustive list. Whether all these works survive in the repertory remains of course to be seen. But their appearance, and the undoubted success of some of them, belie Mr Christiansen’s caricature of opera as a collection of ageing masterpieces.

Mr Christiansen goes on to suggest that opera offers ‘little genuine aesthetic or moral challenge’. It is ‘affective, physically overwhelming, and beyond the claims of rationality’. Allegedly, no one wants to hear the words, and ‘secretly … every opera-lover prefers Puccini to just about everyone else.’ This is good knockabout stuff, and perhaps we ought to treat it simply as Mr Christiansen’s little in-joke. But not only is it not true: it also concedes far too much to the popular idea of opera as offering a crude emotional wallow, and little else. In effect, he takes late romantic Italian opera as the quintessence of opera, hoping, perhaps, that we will not notice his failure to mention Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mussorgsky, Berg and the many other composers whose work could not possibly be squeezed into this wretchedly constricting straitjacket.

It may follow from this view of what opera is that all, or nearly all, you will want from a performance is great singing, and that you will routinely deplore, as Mr Christiansen does, the intrusion of the active producer, with their habit of turning operas ‘into ideological tableaux vivants with musical accompaniment’. If, on the other hand, you treat Mozart, Wagner, Verdi et al with the seriousness they surely deserve, and recognise, pace Christiansen, that they do offer a ‘genuine aesthetic or moral challenge’ – then, I think, you will go to an opera hoping for a rich and complex theatrical as well as musical experience, and you will be thankful to those creative producers who provide it. No one knowing how deeply composers like Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner and Mussorgsky responded to the great political issues of their day would expect serious interpretations of their work to be washed clean of any taint of ‘ideology’. Opera ought not to be insulated from the life of society outside. That was never the intention of its greatest creators.

Anthony Arblaster

Wordsworth’s Crisis

No, there wasn’t ‘a very considerable Cambridge element’ leading the London Corresponding Society. This is clear from the Society’s minutes and papers. Nicholas Roe (Letters, 16 February) has found his Cambridge alumni on an ad hoc committee which was set up to raise funds for the victims of the Treason Trials. Probably William Frend, who was certainly a warm supporter of the LCS, helped to get the committee together and drew in several of his Cambridge associates. He was to do the same in the last year of the LCS, when many members were in prison and when Francis Place applied to him for help: ‘He readily undertook to do so and said he would assemble some of his friends … for the purpose.’ The committee had no other role in the Society. It is possible that Frend did join the Society in 1795, although his name has not been found in the minutes or in the lists of any division. His biographer, Frida Knight, says that he did, and so does Albert Goodwin (The Friends of Liberty), but neither offers evidence, whereas Mary Thale in her Selections from LCS papers says that he probably did not (page 329), and offers reasons. Frend seems to have belonged to the Whig Club in January 1796, and was trying, without success, to bring it into a ‘junction’ with the LCS.

I don’t want to make much of all this, although historical evidence, like poetry, requires careful reading. Roe and I agree that in 1795 intellectual reformers (of various hues) and the more plebeian members of the LCS were brushing shoulders with each other. And of course the radical intelligentsia were continually exchanging views with each other, and on some issues making common cause. Roe quotes me as writing that ‘not one of … the public reformers, or supporters of the reform societies, were Godwinians.’ That would be easy to disprove. But what in fact I wrote was: ‘not one of the men who acquired notoriety as public reformers, as active opponents of government, as advocates of peace, friends of France, or supporters of the popular reform societies, were Godwinians.’ These are different statements. Certainly the popular societies included, for a time, enthusiastic readers of Political Justice as well as of works by Paine and Volney. But for many young intellectuals Godwinian philosophy was an alternative to poltical commitment, and it was this ‘abstraction’ which Wordsworth came to reject. The date of Harper’s Wordsworth should be 1929, and not 1919 (as given in my article and Roe’s letter).

E.P. Thompson
Upper Wick, Worcester

Decline and Fall

It is an honour to have my book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, reviewed by so eminent an anthropologist as Edmund Leach (LRB, 10 November 1988), and I am sorry to hear of his recent death. His review, however, contains many misunderstandings and deficiencies which I feel obliged to address. For readers of this reply, the book sets out to explain why societies collapse – that is, drop suddenly to a lower level of complexity (as happened, for example, to the Western Roman Empire, the Maya, and many other societies). The thesis is that societies become vulnerable to collapse when, as costly social features are added, the investment in social complexity reaches the point of diminishing returns.

I will not deal with those passages in which Leach impugns my character. Since Leach acknowledges that he had never heard of me, readers may draw their own conclusions about his competence in this regard. Readers may also, if they wish, join me in speculating why Leach found it necessary to write an ad hominem review. Perhaps the answer can be found in Leach’s own words: when scientists disagree philosophically, they often argue by ‘[throwing] doubt on the credentials of the investigator’ (‘Concluding Address’, in The Explanation of Culture Change).

I will deal first with the misrepresentations and fabrications in Leach’s review. 1. Even the most hurried reader will discern that Leach is completely wrong when he asserts that I am ‘only concerned with the remote past’. The book deals with regularities in social evolution, past, present and possibly future. 2. I never claimed, as Leach states, ‘that the various rules of history claimed by [my] predecessors, if suitably modified, will fit all possible cases.’ To the contrary, while I respect the work of my predecessors in this area, it was the deficiencies in existing theories that prompted me to undertake the study. 3. I most certainly do not follow ‘the Piggott/Wheeler line’ regarding the putative Aryan invasion of Harappa. In fact, my remarks on that thesis are quite critical. 4. Leach claims that the five references to my own work ‘all relate to American archaeology in New Mexico and Arizona’ (thus implying that I am unqualified to write about other places). In fact, only one of the five is about the American South-West. 5. Leach tells his readers that I ‘evidently [believe] that the data from [South-Western] sites … can best be interpreted by reference to sites in … Asia and the Mediterranean.’ Not only do I not believe that, I nowhere asserted any such thing. 6. The statement that ‘Tainter would have us believe that prehistorians are concerned with the dead, and social and cultural anthropologists with the living’ is a complete fabrication. I have never written anything of the sort. 7. I did not, as Leach claims, represent the Hittites, Minoans and Mycenaeans ‘as civilisations of the same kind’. 8. Finally, I nowhere stated that I am ‘trying to do the same thing as Arnold Toynbee … or Oswald Spengler’. Leach has employed a peevish and undisciplined imagination in place of a careful reading of the book.

Leach claims that what I wrote about Chou China ‘is 95 per cent fictional’, that in describing the collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom I was ‘letting my imagination run away’, and that there is ‘no evidence for Mesopotamian population decline between 600 and 900 AD. Here Leach lets his standards of scholarship sink even lower. Each of my descriptions of collapsing societies is taken from standard, competent authorities, whose works I have painstakingly cited. Leach could easily have checked any of these sources, but preferred facile disparagement to honest debate. In regard to the Western Chou, I wrote 104 words about the collapse of this state. I wish Leach had told us which five words he considers accurate.

Leach complains that I treated the Aztecs, the Inca, Byzantium, Spain, the Netherlands and Easter Island briefly, and ignored altogether ‘the later history of China, Korea, Japan … South-East Asia, Indonesia, Iran, the Mongolian Empires, Turkey, the Macedonians, Classical Greece’. He is partly right: I didn’t discuss any of these to any significant degree. Why? Because most of these societies never collapsed, and collapse is the subject of the book. This is a fatally revealing point: Leach did not understand the topic of the book he criticises so vehemently.

On the basis of one visit – during which he apparently learned little – Leach dismisses ‘Chacoan Canyon’ [sic] as ‘not a good site on which to base a law of historical decay’. Aside from the fact that I advanced no such ‘law’ (nor any notion of ‘historical decay’), Leach would do better to restrict his pronouncements to Burmese ethnography and French poets. Chaco Canyon itself is but a small part of what archaeologists call Chacoan Society, which is represented today by a network of ruins and interconnecting roads spanning more than 85,000 square kilometers. Chacoan Society developed over several centuries to a level of complexity without parallel in the prehistoric northern South-West. Then, within a few decades, it collapsed. This is precisely the sort of occurrence that students of collapse want to explain, and Chaco is one of our best-known archaeological cases.

Joseph Tainter
Corrales, New Mexico

Brodsky’s English

Ann Kjellberg and Christopher Reid may not see eye to eye regarding the use and abuse of the English language (Letters, 19 January), but what they are arguing over seems of minor importance when the real problem of poetry translation, into or out of whatever languages, is the fate of the poetry. If poetry is indeed ‘what gets lost in translation’ what happens to it when the poet translates his own poem? Obviously the ‘poetry’ remains in the original language as, in a sense, it is the language. What happens, then, if the poet (in this case Joseph Brodsky) writes in his second language and then translates it back into his own? As for the English language being ‘bent and stretched’ to accommodate Brodsky’s translation, I don’t think that worries anyone, but Mr Reid is surely right to object to grammatical errors and even more to ‘lack of sense’.

Beryl Graves
Deia, Majorca

Christopher Reid’s peevish attack on Joseph Brodsky’s To Urania is more concerned with propriety than with poetry and suggests some sort of misconduct (if not ‘deliberate charlantanry’) on Brodsky’s part in translating himself or writing directly in English. The review is willing to make ‘allowances’ provided Brodsky has the good manners to stay in his own language – that way he will be no bother to those of us who do not know Russian. The slender hope he offers the poet is to acquire ‘proficiency’ in the English language. (If Mr Reid’s hobby is the pursuit of grammatical slips on the part of ‘disturbing’ writers, what a field day he could have with that other masterly writer from Eastern Europe, Joseph Conrad!) Then Brodsky may be authorised to ‘become … someone we can read with admiration and pleasure’.

Let us hope that Brodsky’s poetry never becomes ‘pleasurable’ and ‘admirable’, evidently the opertive adjectives for the kind of poetry that is sufficiently anodyne for Reid’s approval. (Indeed the reviewer allows Brodsky an ‘engaging’ quality provided he avoids the passion of themes that are anything but ‘reach-me-down’.) For poetry’s sake, let us hope that Brodsky continues to be eloquent, slangy, flamboyant, swaggering, and even thrasonic, if need be. May he continue to ‘mix the heroic and the ludicrous’, a bold effect that survives translation. And may he never cease being intellectually impatient, surely one of the particular strengths of poetry. Fortunately for us, Brodsky showns no sign of forgetting the exalted nature of his vocation. And let Brodsky continue to be un-English, the very reason we read him or anyone else in translation. Now that he has started writing in English as well, what a lucky chance for us to hear his voice that much nearer.

Ronald Strom

Unhappy Childhoods

John Sutherland’s review (LRB, 2 February) of recent biographies of Trollope, Dickens and Charlotte Brontë – biographies which argue that both Trollope and Brontë considerably misrepresented the facts of their early years – is well justified in further remarking that Dickens’s autobiographical fragment, published in Forster’s Life (1872), is our only authority for the Warren’s Blacking and other juvenile episodes, and that we should wonder whether, like so many other autobiographical documents, it contains distortions, fabrications or substantially inaccurate memories. Moreover, as I showed in an essay contributed to Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens (October 1984), Forster did some rum things with Dickens’s manuscript, which then, alas, he failed to preserve, so the published record is impaired. But Sutherland’s scepticism extends too far when he writes: ‘There is, I believe, no proof other than Dickens’s assertion that he spent any time [in the blacking warehouse] at all.’ Not so. Forster records – and there is no reason to disbelieve him – that in March or April 1847 he asked Dickens whether he ‘remembered ever having seen in his boyhood our friend the elder Mr Dilke’. Charles Wentworth Dilke, later a prominent journalist, had in the 1820s worked as a clerk alongside Dickens’s father in the Navy Pay Office, and was walking with him one day when, as he told Forster, they observed young Charles engaged in ‘some juvenile employment in a warehouse near the Strand’. Dilke remembered giving the boy half-a-crown and getting a very low bow in return. This anecdote disconcerted Dickens at the time, but led to his telling Forster, ‘very shortly afterwards’, details of this humiliating childhood experience. Around this time, he described it in his fragmentary autobiography.

Philip Collins
University of Leicester

John Sutherland’s entertaining prowl around the childhood traumas of Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens illuminates an interesting question: if a person believes he was illtreated, are his wounds to be discounted because others sailed through the same experiences without a blemish? Charlotte Brontë’s devastating depiction of her old school has long been in dispute; it has been murmured that Dickens was being perhaps a touch too theatrical when recounting his sufferings at the famous blacking factory; and now a new biography provides evidence to show that worthy old Trollope could not have been as friendless and miserable in his youth as he claimed to have been in his hand-on-heart, ‘nothing that I say shall be untrue’ autobiography. It was, of course, unwise of Trollope to make that declaration. Truth, like beauty, all too often resides in the eye of the beholder. But was Trollope, as Sutherland suggests, wilfully telling ‘white lies’?

My husband was also wretched at school, loathing the heartiness, the crush of bodies, the senseless regulations and the casual brutality. When he wrote about it in his autobiography, his postbag became a daily wonder. A retired judge wrote that he still woke from nightmares, petrified that he was back at Winchester. Others said: ‘Disgusting nonsense. I was in the same house as you were and it wasn’t like that at all.’ (It usually turned out that they were not in the same house, but that is immaterial.) Some of his contemporaries have since told me, pityingly, that of course Nicholas got it all wrong. Winchester, at that time, was a splendid place. The beatings were pretty regular and one learned to run fast when one saw a prefect, but there was nothing extraordinary about that.

And, perhaps, therein lies at least a part of the truth. If you were not expecting anything better, then those childhood trials were tolerable. If you were sensitive, with a need for privacy and some conception of how a civilised community might behave, they were hellish. For a biographer, finding any new material on an old subject is a triumph. But it would be sad if genuine sufferings were to be discounted because – on the evidence – there appeared to be insufficient cause for such pain. If wounds expand and fester more with age, surely that is an indication of their importance.

Ann Monsarrat
Gozo, Malta

Edith Wharton

Ruth Yeazell has provided many insights into Edith Wharton in her review of Wharton’s letters edited by Professor R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (LRB, 19 January). Many of your readers will be disappointed, however, that the review was not able to take account of the contribution of Marion Mainwaring and the letter of Ruth Pitlick (TLS, Nos 4472 and 4474) about Professor Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton and edition of her letters. These impugn both the scholarship of Professor Lewis and his editorial competence. They suggest that he has been prone to errors of fact and interpretation. Those of your readers who have relied on Professor Lewis’s biography as a definitive source of knowledge about Edith Wharton will look forward to reading in a further issue the views of Ruth Yeazell and other Wharton scholars in the light of these disclosures.

Christopher Herzig
Horsham, Sussex

Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes: To anyone who has relied on R. W. B. Lewis’s biography of Wharton, the recent accusations of carelessness to which Christopher Herzig alludes are disturbing, though why Marion Mainwaring has waited more than a decade to make her charges known is far from clear. It is certainly true that too many reviewers rush to praise the scholarship and editing of biographies and letters without having any real basis for doing so. Mary (not Ruth!) Pitlick accuses the Lewises of wildly underestimating the number of Wharton letters that have survived, but a careful reading of the introduction to their edition puts their count at approximately eight thousand items – not the four thousand she indicates.

Raymond Williams

The widely-lamented death last year of Raymond Williams has meant the loss of Britain’s foremost contemporary Socialist thinker. A trust is being set up, with the status of a legal charity, in order to fund a series of annual memorial lectures. These lectures would discuss and develop the continuing relevance of his extraordinarily wide-ranging work to future cultural and political practice. They would be delivered in Central London and the texts would be published. We hope that many readers of the London Review of Books will sympathise with this plan and contribute generously to its realisation. Cheques should be made out to ‘Raymond Williams Memorial Trust’ and sent to Graham Martin, Department of Literature, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA.

Marilyn Butler, Terry Eagleton,
Milton Keynes

Via Mandela

R.W. Johnson’s review of Higher than Hope: Rolihlahla we love you (LRB, 5 January) was an extremely curious choice for review. First, it is not available in this country, and has been banned in its country of original publication, South Africa, so no one could obtain it should they want to. Second, the references to its poor content – ‘it stops and starts several times, is full of gaps and factual errors and is clearly a rushed job’ – makes one wonder why the London Review of Books used up 7 per cent of its space on an unavailable book of dubious quality to the reviewer. You should be made aware that Hamish Hamilton, and later Penguin, will be publishing a fully-revised, comprehensively-edited version in June of this year. This edition will be available and will not contain the factual errors mentioned. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to your reviewer’s awareness that he spotted such an important book.

Peter Straus, Geraldine Cooke
Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books,

It’s odd to take a tone of lofty contempt in order to tell us that we ought not to have reviewed a book that’s been banned in South Africa; and it would have been nice to have had it noticed that R.W. Johnson was among the first to report, for a British publication, on the present state of the black-on-black conflicts there, and on the activities of Mrs Mandela and her bodyguards.

Editors, ‘London Review’


My thanks to Stan Smith (Letters, 16 February) for pointing out errors, and for arresting proof that good poems are more sensible even than they seem, and as Amis says, always get us to some fascinating place where they want us. Even if we don’t know it’s Helensburgh.

John Bayley


Jeremy Harding’s West Bank Diary (LRB, 2 February) was so good it seems churlish to point out that the poem he quoted is not by Mahmoud Darwish but by another distinguished Palestinian poet, Samih al-Qasim. It’s short enough to quote in full (in Abdullah al-Udhari’s translation):

My city collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
Our neighbourhood collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The street collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The square collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The house collapsed
The clock was still on the wall
The wall collapsed
The clock
Ticked on

All of the Arab-Israeli conflict is there.

Roger Hardy
London E5

Point of View

The ‘point of view’ of Barbara Vine’s The House of Stairs, discussed by Philip Horne (LRB, 8 December 1988), may provide a certain aesthetic pleasure for readers of the canon of ‘literature’. Vine’s many debts to the canonised writers Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton offer distinct possibilities of thrill for middle-class readers through the medium of shared context and genre. But the socio-cultural context of Vine’s book reaches beyond the mere generic thrills of allusion and collusion. The mentally and physically disabling, and always terminal, illness Huntington’s chorea – from which the ‘first person’ in the book is a potential sufferer – is also a victim of Rendell’s well-known formula for sensation and melodrama. There comes a point, therefore, when principles of human rights should at least be on the agenda for discussion, as I am sure members of Action to Combat Huntington’s Chorea would agree. (This group was set up to encourage research into the disease, to combat prejudice and to give support to afflicted families.) In such a context, there are bound to be readers for whom Barbara Vine’s novel is deeply offensive.

Ruth Rendell (Barbara Vine) was recently quoted as saying: ‘certain fictions, such as Michael Dibdin’s Ratking, should not be put into the thriller or any other genre, but be savoured as complex novels which happen to have conspiracy and murder as their themes.’ But books do not happen to have themes such as these, which are the result of a complex combination of socio-cultural factors and individual decisions by writers; and it is time that these issues were taken seriously by the critical establishment.

Chris Richards
Polytechnic of North London

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