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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 8 · 20 April 1989

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‘The Satanic Verses’

As a Saudi national who once suffered the embarrassing indignity of having a book purchased in Saudi Arabia confiscated by a Saudi customs official upon my return from a vacation, I can sympathise with Hilary Mantel’s frustrations (LRB, 30 March). What I can’t understand is her pressing need to buy a bookcase in a land where she could not find a book to buy.

She cannot, however, be challenged on Jeddah, or any other Saudi Arabian city, being a ‘Bookless City’, as she put it. That much is reality for the Saudis who care for and do indeed read books: but to say, quoting ‘European teachers’, that students ‘would not buy their books’ is quite misleading. As a former student of such European teachers in Saudi Arabia, I can tell her that there were no books to buy. Texts were bought by the university, expurgated and then lent to the students to be returned at the end of term. That much was standard in 1980, at least for students of English and French. The reasons for this are quite obvious: for all subjects taught in Arabic, texts were commissioned – for foreign languages and literature, the books had to be imported.

Be that as it may, Hilary Mantel should have figured from her sojourn in Arabia that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran are yardsticks for measuring Islam. In both countries, protection against the ‘word’ – any word – is not an act of piety, but one of political preservation. If the rulers call themselves the Guardians of the Faith, and the King calls himself – among many other things – Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, think how much fear this might instil in the humble faithful who might have the fancy notion one day of demanding their basic rights as human beings. Kings, in this case, are not mere kings, and authority is not simply temporal. Whatever Ms Mantel may say, Islam does make a virtue of tolerance. That no other form of worship is tolerated in the Kingdom is a matter that should be addressed to the King of Saudi Arabia and not to Islam. It is his policy, not the policy of Islam.

If Khomeini thinks that a man’s blood is needed to wash away the harm of his words, then Khomeini and his cronies – not Islam – are responsible for Iran’s decrees. I personally was offended by Rushdie’s book (I have read it) and thought it vulgar in presentation and fickle in theme, but was hardly roused to such levels of hysteria as to want to kill him. Instead, I was amused at the sight of a Cambridge graduate in history so shamelessly borrowing from Mustafa Akkad’s movie The Message (a point that can be amply proved and which has gone unnoticed in the general mayhem). If he has offended God, then God Himself will have to deal with Rushdie. If anyone is to be fought here on earth, it is the men who speak in the name of religion and claim for themselves providential authority. Those who are only too ready to see every lunatic’s pronouncement as a latent defect in Islam itself should think again: their judgment comes, at times, perilously close to that of the fanatics themselves.

M.T. Al-Rashid
Neuilly sur Seine, France

Alarm

R.W. Johnson (LRB, 16 February) tells us that in the volume of essays he is reviewing, ‘Eugen Weber amends Marx to say that when revolution repeats itself, it becomes not tragedy or farce, but tradition.’ This not very striking observation seems to depend on the belief that Marx made that comment about revolution. He did not. What he wrote, in the opening sentence of ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, was that Hegel had remarked ‘somewhere’ that ‘all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.’ It is then that Marx pretends that Hegel forgot to add ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’. This is a typical Marxian joke and not meant to have universal application. It gives him an opportunity to compare facts and personages of 1789 and 1848 – ‘a Louis Blanc for a Robespierre’ etc – and end up with ‘the Nephew for the Uncle’. Louis Napoleon, whom he christened ‘Crapulinsky’, was a favourite butt. If there is any historical lesson intended, it is more likely to be that Caesarism, rather than revolution, is first tragic then comic.

While I am here, may I compliment Craig Raine (Letters, 16 March) on tracking back ‘pffwungg’ to Ulysses but also advise him that the siren zooming cannot be a police car. To unravel past literature, even when written by such near-contemporaries as Auden, it is necessary to know not only the intellectual, but also the social, life of the period. Police cars did not have sirens before the last war. Indeed, I doubt whether they were fitted before the Fifties. What the police car did have was a bell, like a giant, frenetic alarm-clock, on the roof. It added quite a different resonance, as they say, to the night sounds of British urban life.

Alan Brien
London N19

Thatcherism

Your correspondent Richard Crosfield (Letters, 16 March) is wrong, and Gordon Brown MP (LRB, 2 February) is right, to assert that Thatcherism is not sweeping Europe. The reason is simply that it does not work. Even in Spain, which Mr Crosfield makes his main comparison, inflation is lower than in Britain while industrial production increased by 2.6 per cent last year compared to 0.8 per cent in the United Kingdom. To be sure, Marks and Spencer has opened in Madrid – but Spain now makes more cars than Britain.

I live and travel abroad and I find views of Mrs Thatcher mixed. A few years ago there was admiration for her stand on the Falklands, the miners, the Soviet Union. Admittedly it was stronger in the business-class sections of aeroplanes and in financial journals but it was there. Now at the end of ten years most foreigners I meet ask why London is so full of beggars, why trains keep crashing and why British food and water may be unsafe to consume. It used to be the Third World whose hallmarks were visible street poverty, unsafe transport and dirty water. The unions have had no power in Britain for a decade, their views are scorned, unlike Germany, France and even Spain (let alone Sweden, Switzerland or Austria) where dialogue is maintained. Yet where are the goods being produced by British companies free of ‘union shackles’? The high streets of Europe no longer sell anything Made in Britain. Even in the world of finance, the bourses of Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland showed a higher percentage increase in their indices last year than the London Stock Exchange. Internationally, Mrs Thatcher, while having the traditional stature of a long-serving leader, is seen as out-of-touch with new currents of thinking, both those associated with the idea of Europe after 1992 and those emanating from Moscow. In a recent interview in the Nouvel Observateur, the French Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, openly mocked her conversion to environmental questions. No one would have dared such lèse-majesté a few years ago, but as with de Gaulle in the late Sixties or Adenauer at the end of his reign, the feeling in Europe is that she has had her day.

I think getting a Scots rationalist like Gordon Brown to review a book about a subject where true believers have held sway for so long was a very good idea. Who knows England who only England knows? It’s curious that the sharpest writing on Mrs T. has come from Scots like Neal Ascherson, John Lloyd or Tom Nairn, while it has needed non-English politicians like Brown and John Smith to pierce Parliamentary deference.

Denis MacShane
Divonne, France

Arts Council Grants

Last year we were encouraged by the Arts Council’s Literature Director, Dr Alastair Niven, to apply for funding. Despite reputable endorsements of the authors whose collected poems we publish the application was refused. We were informed that assistance would not be available unless we published a different kind of poet, although those we have already published, including J.H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier and Douglas Oliver, were praised. Our application for poets including the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson was described in conversation as ‘a dead duck’. We were also asked to package our books in illustrated jackets instead of their plain but dignified typography, and to market the books effectively: yet a member of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel, Blake Morrison, wrote a year ago in the London Review of our ‘beautifully produced, unostentatious’ collections. Password, the Arts Council-funded repping agency for poetry, whose grant has been increased, refuses to carry our books, finding them too specialised, although shops in the Waterstone’s chain, for example, stock them.

Poetry Review, also funded by the Arts Council, has not to date reviewed our books, but last year the author of their South-East regional round-up wrote: Allardyce, Barnett are ‘not in receipt of South-East Arts money, though [they] surely ought to be. What are regional arts associations for?’ The answer is disturbing. Dr Niven tells me that current policy – in contrast to what he believes to be the mistaken, short-lived ‘Glory of the Garden’ policy – seeks to centralise nationally and internationally significant literature in his hands, leaving the regions mostly to satisfy local community aspirations. That policy is well illustrated in the South-East, where the half-post of literature officer is combined with that of local arts officer, to the detriment of both.

Caught between regional neglect and the editorial judgments of Dr Niven’s panel, a committed publisher with a coherent and proven programme of serious literary texts has no public funding options left open to him. Dr Niven tells me that it is not part of his brief to identify recent work written in this country as significant from a purely literary point of view and needing assistance. His directives, in some respects rightly so, are socially and politically internationalist, but, quite wrongly, exclude highly individual, often difficult or demanding achievements on his own doorstep.

Anthony Barnett
Allardyce, Barnett, Publishers,

Alastair Niven writes: It is difficult to exercise the right of reply to a series of attributed statements one would never make and to arguments which are hard to follow. For the record, however, it is true that the Literature Panel last year turned down an application for funding from Allardyce, Barnett. Our budget currently stands at 0.42 per cent of the Arts Council’s expenditure on all the arts. There is a commitment by the Council to review this predicament with some urgency, but for the moment the sad fact is that many worthy applicants do not get funding because the money is not there. I believe that the prospects for literature at the Art Council are brighter than they have been for some years, but we have for the moment to deal with real rather than notional sums of money. Allardyce, Barnett submitted an application which simply did not look as convincing as others which were successful. They were, however, invited to re-apply in the future, which so far they have not done. It is true that in explaining the Panel’s decision to Anthony Barnett, which I chose to do personally as well as in writing, I indicated that the three poets for whom he wanted subsidy (not Prynne, Crozier or Oliver – it might have been a different story if it had been) had not particularly fitted into our current priorities. Realising that I would be called a philistine, I nevertheless suggested to Mr Barnett that attractive covers might actually help sell his books and thus do a service to his list of poets.

Anyone who fails to get a subsidy for which they have applied thinks that the wrong decision has been taken. In Mr Barnett’s case he misremembers my explanation so completely that any refinement now of what I said to him is unlikely to persuade him, but since he has chosen to make his points in London Review of Books I must respond. First, it is inconceivable that I could ever seek ‘to centralise nationally and internationally significant literature’ in my hands. I would be a megalomaniac to attempt it. Mr Barnett has misinterpreted a simple distinction which has always existed between the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Associations, to which it devolves funds. The Council attempts to take responsiblity for those arts concerns which have a national audience or which operate on a national scale. The RAAs assist more local activities. There are blurred areas in this, some of which may be addressed by the Wilding report which the Minister for Arts has recently commissioned. In general, however, the distinctions between regional and national interests are understood and are in no way unique to literature.

I simply don’t understand Mr Barnett’s claim that I say it is not part of my brief ‘to identify recent work written in this country as significant from a purely literary point of view and needing assistance’. Almost everything we support could be described precisely in these terms. Mr Barnett has simply got it wrong. He combines this misquotation with the claim that a committed publisher with a coherent and proven programme of serious literary texts has no public funding options left open to him. But he does. For a start, he need not give up the ghost after only one try. He submits new applications to the Arts Council and to his Regional Arts Association, better presented than the last, more in keeping with published policy statements, and recognising that public bodies are accountable to the public, who want to see money used needfully and not eccentrically. With lots of money at our disposal we could subsidise unmarketable books by unread poets but at the moment we have other priorities.

Mr Barnett does not make his points very well, but at the base of them is something serious to which I listen. The small presses in this country are being squeezed on all sides. They are too small to be of much interest to the mainstream distributors and booksellers, and they sometimes fall between stools, being not sufficiently national for the Arts Concil yet spread over too large an area to fall within RAA definitions. These are real problems. The Arts Council, which frankly is only just rediscovering the importance of literature after some years in which it was thought of as the difficult art, can at least pledge itself to address them.

Listening to Lacan

Mr Cohen (Letters, 30 March) need not fear I have made a shift towards the rabid. My purpose both in Psychoanalytic Politics and in my recent review of the early Lacan seminars is to understand what Lacan was trying to tell us, why so many people stopped to listen, and what paying attention to him can teach us. I underscore ‘trying’ because, beginning with Freud, psychoanalytic theory teaches us not only by its successes but through its project and aspirations. In this realm I believe in the value of imperfect but powerful ideas. And I would apply this standard not only to Lacan but to his enemies and Mr Cohen’s friends. Then as now, I think Lacan articulated a series of important contradictions between psychoanalysis and the psychoanalytic institution at a time when establishment complacency ran high. Then as now, I think Lacan’s emphasis on ‘decentring’ was a calculated move to counter not only an ego psychology which he saw as ascendant but also what he saw as people’s natural tendency to slip back a notion of an automatic self because it ‘feels’ like a familiar and reassuring friend. I stand by my concluding remark about the current centrality of notions of free will and intentionality. Whether or not we have ‘selves’, it is Freud’s challenge to this notion rather than his assertions about sexuality that is most at the heart of today’s concerns.

Sherry Turkle
London SW3

Delayed Critique

Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s wondering (Letters, 2 March) why I waited so long to publish charges against R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton is natural and reasonable. The TLS article containing the charges (‘The Shock of Non-Recognition’) is an updating of a critique written in late 1975, as soon as I had read the biography. It was intended for immediate publication, but I was persuaded by friends to hold it so that I could complete a book I was writing on Morton Fullerton, Wharton’s lover, undistracted by controversy. That book, to the extent that it overlapped Lewis’s, would document a true narrative rather than merely attack his erroneous one without substantiation. To have it on record that I was not responsible for his mistakes, I sent copies of the critique to various people in France, England and the United States. I expected to finish my book in perhaps two years. The manuscript was only in rough first draft, however, when, in 1977, work had to stop. Severe shingles and sequelae, a broken hip, and care of two aged parents and disposal of their house after their deaths, made it impossible to carry on sustained, demanding work. Though there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to get back to the book, I could not do so until the end of 1985.

The critique was meant for the TLS, but in 1987, at the instance of Richard Howard, I sent it (in a revision somewhat different from the one now in print) to an editor of the New York Review of Books. It was ignored, as were two letters of inquiry. By contrast, the editors of the TLS thought that serious misrepresentation of data by a respected academic was an important issue, and gave generously of their time and space. I am very sorry indeed that scholars have been misled by Lewis’s errors. My own career also suffered from a delay that was beyond my control.

Marion Mainwaring
Boston, Massachusetts

Barking up Wordsworth’s tree

E.P. Thompson in his review of Nicholas Roe’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (LRB, 8 December 1988) comments on the improbability of the identification of ‘Citizen Wordsworth’ sitting in a tree, in Gillray’s cartoon of the meeting of the London Corresponding Society in Copenhagen Fields on 12 November 1795. Equally improbable is Roe’s surmise that ‘Joseph Priestley appears in the centre forground facing Thelwall.’ Priestley left England for America in April 1794. There seems even less reason why Gillray should depict him in Copenhagen Fields in 1795.

Jenny Graham
Lucy Cavendish College,

I could have fancied her

I greatly enjoyed Arthur Marwick’s amusing self-parody (Letters, 16 March) concerning the reception of his book on Beauty in History. However, the description of David Hume as ‘ugly’ was, I felt, rather uncalled for and not even very accurate (he was at least as pretty as Locke).

Graham McCann
King’s College, Cambridge

We too could have fancied Hume.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Killigrew’s Claim

To say that Sir William Davenant ‘was primarily responsible for re-introducing Shakespeare’s work to starved theatregoers’ after the Restoration (LRB, 8 December 1988) is to play ‘Rare Will’s’ game. He would have liked to have been given the monopoly of Shakespeare production in 1660, and when he moved out of accommodation in Salisbury Court to a new theatre in Portugal Row, Lincoln’s Inn Fields he tried to persuade Charles II to give it to him; he put on a lot of royal slush in 1661 to celebrate the King’s forthcoming wedding in the hope of gaining royal favour. Luckily for the stage Charles II gave his patronage to Tom Killigrew, whose playhouse opened on 7 May 1663 – the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Davenant had to be content with the fitful support of James – at what came to be known as the Duke’s House. The King divided the Shakespeare repertoire between the two playhouses: Killigrew got Othello, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Davenant was given Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet. The division was made on the grounds that Davenant had the best male actors (including Thomas Betterton), Killigrew the women, now allowed on stage. Most of the best playwrights of the day wrote for Killigrew.

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Kobe, Japan

Mistake

In the last issue, a sentence in the review by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar was truncated on its way to the printers. It should have read: ‘Benazir’s description of her first meeting with Zia suggests how the Bhuttos may have underestimated him.’

Editors, ‘London Review’

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