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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 12 · 22 June 1989

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Reach for your spears

There is a fatal objection to the social interpretation of Wittgenstein’s theory of language which seems to have escaped the notice of some of his expositors. If A cannot use a sign S to refer to an object O unless he is already aware that B and C are so using it, and if B cannot so use it without already being aware that A and C are doing so, and if C cannot use it without already being aware that A and B are doing so, reference is made impossible. Obviously this use of language cannot get started. If A draws a picture of a bison on the walls of his cave he will be encouraged if his fellow tribesmen immediately reach for their spears, but if we deny him the possibility of expressing his previous private intention to start a hunt, we leave them with nothing to encourage.

A.J. Ayer
London W1

On the chin

After reading Ian Hacking’s distressingly glancing, and airily dismissive, review of my book Mental Content (LRB, 4 May), I wondered whether I should write an indignant letter of reply to the LRB. But I decided not to bother – since it would be unnecessary for those within philosophy, and those outside it would only get the impression that the review contained points or arguments worth responding to. Besides, such a letter might make people think I can’t take a dissenting notice on the chin, which God forbid. Instead I ran three miles, lifted weights for an hour, and examined my own conscience as a book reviewer. Then I wrote this other letter.

Colin McGinn
Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Heil Heidegger

I agree with Mr Gareth Jones (Letters, 18 May) that it would be wrong ‘to base our estimation of Heidegger’s major contribution to 20th-century philosophy upon psychological considerations.’ I believe I have done nothing of the kind. My aim was to sum up a biography of the philosopher by a social historian in order to show, with the biographer’s help, 1. that aspects of Heidegger’s ontology were announced by him on occasions of major political importance, i.e. in the months of Hitler’s assumption of power; 2. that these views were compatible with, and offered an intellectual contribution to, National Socialist ideology, with Heidegger appealing to the Party’s practices for confirmation; 3. that he thus did more than anybody else to strengthen his fellow intellectuals’ belief in the philosophical justification of Hitler’s regime. I did not, in the course of my argument, eschew ‘psychological considerations’, but kept them to a minimum. The point Mr Jones fails to understand is that part of Heidegger’s philosophy became a part of National Socialism.

Unlike Mr Jones, I tried to be accurate in my translations from Heidegger, quoting his ontological question in the form in which it occurs on the first page of his most important work, Time and Being: ‘Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by “being"?’ The last word in that quotation is seiend, which is the same word Heidegger uses 26 years later when he asks, not as Mr Jones claims, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, but ‘Why is there being at all and not, on the contrary, Nothing?’ I did not turn the first question into a ‘semantic consideration’ (as Mr Jones claims), any more than he does when he says (somewhat shyly) that Heidegger was concerned with ‘a way of understanding the meaning of existence’. Heidegger is of course more ambitious than that. Mr Jones cannot believe that Heidegger is so ‘pessimistic’ as to ’find the meaning of human existence in murder and destruction … such was never his intent.’ Certainly it was never his sole ‘intent’. What I claimed, and stick to, is that Heidegger saw history, or at least recent history, as a meaningless but necessary rigmarole of truth and error (his concept of Irre includes ‘murder and destruction’): ‘necessary’ because subject to nothing but the demands of technological reason. Everything that is happening in our world (Heidegger writes in a volume of lectures of 1945), whether ‘auspicious’ or ‘annihilating’, ‘constructive’ or ‘destructive … is happening in the service of securing the emptiness of Seinsver lassenheit’ – i.e. history in our time consists in making sure that the emptiness of a world forsaken by Being is not disturbed.

My article didn’t seem the appropriate occasion to discuss Heidegger’s interpretations of German poetry, and I am surprised to find Mr Jones mentioning it. All Heidegger’s interpretations are based on his conviction that German (like Greek) is a uniquely poetic and philosophical language, and with his weird use of German he consistently exploits the supposed uniqueness. Astonishingly, Mr Jones denies all this: ‘his method was simply an analogy … Sein, like Dasein, is simply one term which could be replaced by another if it better conveyed the philosopher’s intention.’ Heidegger wrote forty pages on the three roots of the verb ‘to be’, numerous disquisitions on German prepositions and prefixes and what they really mean, etymological puns galore, poetic vignettes on ‘Language as the House of Being’. Given that language figures in none of these verbal acrobatics as ‘simply an analogy’, I am left wondering how accurate Mr Jones’s readings of Heidegger can possibly be.

J.P. Stern
Cambridge

Who killed Olof Palme?

In the May 18 issue of the London Review of Books I find an article by Mr Gunnar Pettersson on Ruth Freeman’s Death of a Statesman. I have not read Mrs Freeman’s book but apparently she claims to have discovered the solution to the murder of Olof Palme. Mr Pettersson states that if Olof Palme was murdered on behalf of a foreign power the solution must be found in the Middle East: ‘Palme’s role as UN peace negotiator in the Gulf War, together with recent evidence of his having acted simultaneously and covertly on behalf of Swedish arms exporters, presents a likely political backdrop to his assassination.’ ‘Simultaneously’ and ‘covertly’ and ‘recent evidence’! The fact is that no ‘evidence’ whatsoever has ever been presented to substantiate gossip and allegations on the subject that pass from one speculative book or article to another.

Mr Palme, as UN mediator, visited both Baghdad and Tehran on several occasions between 1980 and 1982. During his meetings with officials in these capitals he was never alone with his interlocutors for one moment. He was surrounded by staff from the UN Secretariat in New York who took notes from the discussions. If these notes could be published it would become obvious that he did not discuss bilateral questions involving Sweden. He only discussed issues related to the ongoing war. In particular, arms sales were not mentioned.

I knew Olof Palme for more than twenty years and worked closely with him as speechwriter and adviser, as secretary of the Palme Commission, as UN Ambassador. Whatever you can say about him, he was not an arms trader and certainly not someone who engaged in covert arms dealings. It is surely time that the burden of proof be put on the accusers rather than on a man who is dead and cannot defend himself.

Anders Ferm
Swedish Ambassador, Copenhagen

Been to Oxford

Fortune has begun to smile on Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a big way. And why, after all, not? Isn’t she the most attractive, the most graceful, the best-educated, the youngest, woman (girl, really) Head of Government in the world?

The other evening I attended a dinner at Hart House in Toronto, organised by the Oxford Society of South Ontario (yes, South Ontario). The guest speaker was none other than the Chancellor of our beloved alma mater. Lo and behold, as Lord Jenkins opened his appeal for funds for Oxford, there was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, flanked by such other Oxford luminaries as Mr Kingsley Amis, Mrs Gandhi (pronounced by Lord Jenkins as ‘in-deera-gan-dee’) and ‘the greatest English novelist of our century’; the author of Brideshead Revisited. Oxford deserves your money, Oxford gave you, among others, Benazir Bhutto – so the logic of the appeal seemed to go. How many of these celebrants ever thought of the poor girl when she was in solitary confinement, being ruffled up by the hirelings of ‘General Zulu’ (Sara Suleri’s delightful invention), and was eventually made to wait, as it were, on the hanging of her own father?

I now see her on the cover of your issue of 30 March. As ever with this remarkably photogenic prime minister, the image is fetching. Not so, alas, your attempt, on the verso of your recto, to decipher the photograph for us. Your note claims: ‘Pakistan’s new leader Benazir Bhutto, flanked, in the days before she came to power, by an iconic poster of her father which calls for his release from prison.’ ‘Flanked’ indeed she is, but by something a great deal less dramatic than a plea for her father’s release. The Urdu writing on the poster translates into English thus: ‘Nadim Aslam, Candidate, Provincial Assembly, Lahore 6; on behalf of Khawja Saeed’. It’s an election poster.

Benazir Bhutto’s book, Daughter of the East, to be published in North America under a different title, belongs to a perfectly legitimate, American genre, sometimes called ‘election biography, autobiography’. Few of these are written by their avowed authors. Daughter of the East was actually written by the lady who did a similar biography for Geraldine Ferraro. For the better part of two years, the writer (the one who penned it) ‘worked with’, as the expression goes, the ‘author’ (the one whose authority the book carries). A nice configuration here for your literary theorists. Close to 80 per cent of what Daughter of the East contains comes from the horse’s mouth and is factually accurate. For the drama of the narrative, however, the credit or the blame (as your heartless reviewer would have it) must perhaps go to the unnamed writer.

Comparisons are always odious, yet it is with a comparison your reviewer opens his account of the two books under review. Rajiv and Benazir ‘shared an Oxbridge past’. Unless an Oxbridge affiliation has come to mean an occasional connection with either of the universities, neither young Mr Rajiv Gandhi nor his distinguished mother had much to do with the ancient universities that must now claim them as their own.

Maqbool Aziz
McMaster University, Ontario

Sexual Catastrophe

Douglas Fowler (Letters, 4 May) extols the neglected virtues of James Miller Jr’s T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: ‘The essence of Miller’s analysis of Eliot’s poetic creations is to restore what I suppose you’d have to call their sexual dimension – a matter of their interior music, not of “documentary" fact; and Miller does not pretend otherwise.’ The real value of what Fowler calls Miller’s ‘subtle reading’ can be reckoned from one quotation. At a certain point in his flagrantly speculative discourse, Miller discusses that obscure early poem ‘Ode’ (the full title is ‘Ode on Independence Day, July 4th, 1918’ – i.e. it was written just three years after Eliot’s marriage), which he reads as straightforward evidence of the poet’s experience. What catches his enterprising eye is this middle stanza:

Tortured.
When the bridegroom smoothed his hair
There was blood upon the bed.
Morning was already late.
Children singing in the orchard
(Io Hymen, Hymenaee)
Succuba eviscerate.

‘This bridegroom,’ Miller writes, ‘sees his bride as a succuba: a female demon who has sexual intercourse with men in their sleep. “Succuba eviscerate": in intercourse, this succubus bride disembowels, or perhaps castrates, deprives the bridegroom of his phallus, turning him into – a sterile fisher-king, prepared to write The Waste Land.’ There you have it.

While anyone would agree that the stanza seems wilily ambiguous, anyone could play the descriptive game on those terms. One might point out that the virginal membrane, when penetrated, normally sheds blood; that ‘eviscerate’ is an acceptable use of the past particle; and that accordingly it may well be the bride in Eliot’s stanza who is the passive partner – a bride violated by a man who afterwards smoothes his hair with what may be construed as indifference. Or what you will.

The reader may prefer to turn from all such nonsense to Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years, which is at least coherent, with plenty of creative value; and particularly interesting in offering a balanced portrait of Eliot’s first wife Vivien(ne), and of the way in which Eliot possibly bore himself in relation to her. But wait a moment: on page 75, Gordon remarks upon Eliot’s ‘physical queasiness’, and goes on blankly: ‘He was offended by blood on the marriage-bed.’ Her only apparent source for that point of information is – oh dear – ‘Ode’. Since Eliot obviously took pains to depersonalise the poem, it is dismaying to find that an otherwise decent critic like Gordon can cite it as evidence of directly autobiographical utterance.

And the bloody biographical pap is still being squeezed from that sorry stanza: Peter Ackroyd hypothesises that Eliot’s ‘own fastidiousness and anxiety must have been greatly compounded by Vivien’s menstrual problems … and the sexual failure, if such it was, cannot simply be blamed upon him. Russell characterised Vivien as possessing mental passion but not physical passion, that she wished for male devotion but did not particularly enjoy any physical expression of it. Is this not another description of a “succuba eviscerate"?’ asks Ackroyd (italics mine). By way of answer to that rhetorical question, I think that what I’ve come to regard as the Suppositional Fallacy says everything that needs to be said.

So what is it with Eliot’s biographers? While acknowledging that it is difficult for any literary biography to ‘recapture … the life of intimacy and day-to-day events’, Michael Holroyd has sponsored the precarious idea that the biographer can work to penetrate such areas of domestic silence by way of ‘the autobiographical subtext of his subject’s books’. But surely he never meant to induce this collective curse of impertinence?

John Haffenden
University of Sheffield

Instead

As a subscriber to the London Review I was pleased to get a complimentary copy of Waterstone’s Guide to Books. My own name is not listed in the index, but there are five entries for Christina Stead. Of these the first and fifth are to books of mine, though in the first instance I am given as G.K., not C.K. The second and fourth are to books by Christina Stead. The third has entries for both C.K. and Christina. I noticed a similar error in a recent MLA bibliography, where my novel All Visitors Ashore was listed as written by Christina K. Stead. Since my first name is Christian, it may be that computers are ‘correcting’ the spelling.

C.K. Stead
Auckland, New Zealand

Eric’s Plaque

While we are on about graves and plaques and things for the late great dead (Letters, 18 May), do people know about the fate of George Orwell? In Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire last summer I happened upon his grave, decayed, unkempt, its utility headstone awry and nearing illegibility; no mention of Orwell, just:

Eric Arthur Blair
Born June 25 1902
Died Jan. 21 1950

There are pilgrims, it seems. To the door of the locked church was pinned a scrap of paper telling people how to find the grave. On my second visit, last October, even that had gone.

Peter Cadogan
London NW6

Help

Can someone help me with the lost source of a quotation? The sentence goes, roughly: ‘Only a return to the small, self-contained centers of life will save us from this all-destroying abstraction of America.’ I had thought it came from the Southern Agrarian manifesto, I’ll take my stand, and was by either Allen Tate or Robert Penn Warren. It isn’t. I’m baffled. Please write to me at 29 Ennismore Gardens, London SW7, and put me out of my misery.

Jonathan Raban
London SW7

Allotrope

Frank Kermode (LRB, 20 April) says that the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which, incidentally, reached us here before its publication-bash at Claridge’s) goes back only to the Listener of 1968 for the trendy use of allotrope. Perhaps it would be of interest to note that D.H. Lawrence made a more literary use of allotropic in his famous letter of 1914 to Edward Garnett: ‘There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs as a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise to discover are states of the same radically-unchanged element.’

A. Banerjee
Kobe College, Nishinomiya, Japan

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