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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989

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Blocking Butler

I enjoyed Ian Gilmour’s review (LRB, 27 July) of the second volume of Alistair Horne’s Macmillan, and his revelation that George Wigg told Wilson before the famous House of Commons debate that the security services were fully aware of the Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov bedroom rotations. But he can’t be serious in suggesting that this constituted ‘hypocrisy’ on Wilson’s part. Exploiting affairs of this kind in Parliament is the routine duty of the Leader of the Opposition in our political system. If Wilson had eschewed the security issue and banged on about morality (a more genuine concern to his unreconstructed Nonconformist conscience), he would still have been accused of humbug and hypocrisy. Over the Profumo affair, as so often in his political career, Wilson’s instincts were right but his story just marginally wrong. The real scandal of the affair, which the recent film underplays but as Honeytrap by Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril makes clear, was the intervention of the security services thoughout, and their complicity (along with that of certain members of Macmillan’s civil service and judiciary) in the show trial and death of Dr Stephen Ward.

Ian Gilmour goes on, strangely, to blame Macmillan for Thatcher. By blocking Butler as his (soft centre) successor, as the Gilmour thesis has it, he prepared the way for the ‘small Conservative sect’ under which we all have suffered this past decade. I would have thought that a more plausibe political explanation for the advent to power of the present prime minister is to be found in the whole gamut of books on the security services over recent years and the campaigns of lies and disinformation which both MI5 and MI6 have mounted against any politician of the left or centre, whether Labour or Conservative, who disagrees with this ‘small Conservative sect’. Paul Foot’s Who framed Colin Wallace? is one of the most instructive. There may not be many more such books, since the latest Official Secrets Act was designed to stem their flow. The disinformation and the lies, however, will continue and will be as difficult as ever to nail.

Christopher Price
Leeds

Mrs Thatcher’s Universities

Many readers will appreciate Peter Pulzer’s admirable article (LRB, 22 June) with its emphasis on the dangers of the adversary spirit eroding the academic ethos. At the end he commends the ‘Save British Science’ campaign and suggests a campaign of ‘powerful, rational persuasion’. I hope that he will encourage his fellow dons at Oxford to join. At present there are two organisations known to me – the Standing Conference on Arts and Social Sciences (SCASS) and the Political Studies Association (PSA) engaged in promoting activities of this type. Alas, scholars from Oxford are little in evidence.

Leonard Tivey
University of Birmingham

Not reacting to reviews

It is no part of my practice to react to reviews – one has better things to do. Reviewers, like everybody else, have a right to their opinions. And, in a journal such as yours, readers can be trusted to evaluate for themselves tone and logic, and, eventually, verify, text in hand. It is only when, as in the case of David Craig’s review of two of my books, The Bird Path (collected longer poems) and Travels in the Drifting Dawn, in your issue of 6 July, the reading is altogether too hasty and superficial that some kind of protest, in the interests of decent (not to say, live and enlightening) literary criticism, must be made. That Mr Craig should identify my work with some kind of Heimat-complex, which I don’t have (in fact, I make fun of it), that his addiction to social realism should make him blind to other types of poetics, that he should ride over the reception of my work in France and in other countries (including socialist countries) and try to give the impression that it is being pushed by a small band of enthusiasts in Scotland, I leave aside. These judgments, if anyone remembers them, will be shown up in time for what they are. No, what I find both ludicrous and disquieting is that he should attribute to me lines which are not only stylistically so different from what I write that they are obviously from another context, but are, in the text, printed in italics, and constitute a kind of voice-off. In fact, they come from a tantric poem by the Indian poet Kanha, whose name appears in the epigraph.

I see that Mr Craig teaches ‘creative writing’ at Lancaster. Which is no doubt why he feels justified in offering some schoolmasterly recommendations for ‘good writing’ such as I heard myself in class when I was about fourteen, while being content to catalogue completely different strategies and topologies of writing as ‘Modernist’ and leave it at that. If he is to say anything at all pertinent about radical writing today, whose locus lies outside the habitual co-ordinates, and which organises moments and movements in an unaccustomed manner, it looks as if what he needs is a course in creative reading.

Kenneth White
Paris

Last Cigarette

John Bayley’s review of Livia Veneziani’s Memoir of Italo Svevo (LRB, 27 July) was a reminder of how slow the British public can be in recognising foreign literature. Svevo’s masterpiece’, The Confessions of Zeno, although it had immediate success in Italy and, only a little later, in France, had to wait much longer in this country. The English translation, published by Putnam in 1930, must have been one of the few books raved over by Arnold Bennett that flopped. When I worked at Putnam in 1945 I naively assumed that Penguin New Writing, Horizon and the other wartime publications had paved the way for it, and Beryl de Zoete’s translation, one of the few that has stood the test of time, was republished in 1948. Paeans of praise once again but paltry sales. It was only some forty years after its original publication that the English edition ‘took off’ in a Penguin edition and it is gratifying that, albeit late in the day, it has now been reprinted many times.

All admirers of Svevo must be grateful to John Bayley for this further recognition of a great comic novel and, no less, for repeating Svevo’s dying words after being refused his ‘last cigarette’ – a theme of the compulsive smoker in The Confessions of Zeno. What an enviable end for a comic writer – to die making his best joke!

James MacGibbon
Manningtree, Essex

Ladies of Quality

David Nokes’s review of my book, The Ladies (LRB, 1 June), misrepresents its subject by omission. I am found ‘insensitive’ to the problems of citing Pepys as evidence: on pages 50-51, 56 and 66 I state them clearly. Nokes’s view of Elizabeth Pepys’s response to An Evening’s Love is precisely the kind of assertion which I eschew, and his word ‘obvious’ betrays his debt to the traditional kinds of reading he has criticised before. I am not teasing when I describe Pepys’s interest in French books: I refer to those he owned and others he is known to have read. Nor do I call weeping ‘the most eloquent form of female literary response’: I contrast favourably the potential of this form of response with other documented kinds, and conclude by saying that it is unthinkable that women did not discuss plays with the same critical vocabulary used, for example, in Dryden’s essays. I also show later that women were especially qualified to judge adaptations of French plays and that the ‘change in comedy’ cannot be understood without recognising the popularity of feminist ideas among playwrights and audiences.

Nokes’s gift for reading every third sentence comes into its own in his paragraph on my alleged ‘scholarly frustration’, which collapses three separate problems into one, so offering a glimpse of the results his own preferred methods might have brought. My remark on the problematic evidence of Elizabeth Pepys’s theatre visits introduces two paragraphs of those generalisations Nokes requires, and distinguishes my approach from that of, for example, Goreau’s biography of Aphra Behn, with its invectives against patriarchal suppression of evidence. My suspicion of the word ‘patronage’ in the further chapter points to the untidy relationship between court and stage. The words following the ones quoted by Nokes are: ‘of patronage in the direct sense there was little.’ My conclusion to the section on ‘ladies of quality’ simply states that no evidence depicting fixed territories in the playhouses can be trusted.

I am not sure how The Ladies is to be judged ‘narrowly-defined’ if compared unfavourably with an account of a single actress – nor that it is just to cite as evidence against me a bibliography which contains many primary sources not used by anyone else. Nokes shows no interest in the problems of researching a theatre audience, which is what betrays his comparison with Robert Hume’s admirable but quite different book as a gratuitous swipe.

David Roberts
Osaka University

Heil Heidegger

I would like to respond to the charges contained in Professor J.P. Stern’s recent letter (Letters, 22 June). First, on the matter of translating, my reference to the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ was not intended to be a rendition of anything written by Martin Heidegger. On the contrary, it was a clear pointer to Leibniz’s own original question, which Heidegger always accepted as the beginning of metaphysics, and therefore as the beginning of his own attempt to overcome metaphysics. Heidegger’s own question, however, in Einfüring in die Metaphysik – written in 1935, and not 1953, as Stern incorrectly implies – asks: Warun ist uberhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts? This may all seem pedantic, but there is an important point lurking here. By juxtaposing ‘being’ and ‘Nothing’ Professor Stern is inconsistent, conflating two separate ways of asking this fundamental metaphysical question. I chose to use Leibniz’s form, juxtaposing ‘something’ with ‘nothing’. If I were translating Heidegger’s opening line from 1935, I would have, ‘Why are there beings rather than non-Being?’, which is consistent. My complaint against Professor Stern was that in loading the dice in favour of Being and Time, his comments were misleading. In the light of his remarks about Heidegger’s writings post-1927, I believe that complaint is still valid.

Second, I stand by my ‘shy’ assertion that Heidegger was concerned with one way of understanding the meaning of existence. And why not? In his important text, Was heisst Denken? (1954), Heidegger writes, for all to see: ‘For everything that ontological reflection has genuinely thought retains – and, indeed, by reason of its very nature, must retain – a plurality of meanings …’ (p. 68, my italics, my translation). This seems clear-cut. Of course, I realise as well as the next individual that Heidegger’s quest was ambitious; it would be idiotic to deny this. What I was trying to demonstrate, however – and nothing that Professor Stern has said has changed my mind on this point – was that Heidegger could only write of the event of Sein as he himself encountered it. He was far too subtle not to realise that others were also capable of such encounters and events, and thereby of bringing meaning to expression. I am thinking here, for example, of his remark upon the death of Max Scheler: ‘Max Scheler is dead. We bow before his fate. Once again a path of philosophy falls back into darkness’ (Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, my italics). I did not feel that Stern’s article reflected this subtlety.

Third, I cannot understand why Professor Stern is astonished by my assertion that Heidegger’s use of terms like Sein and Dasein is an analogy for the event of the ontological difference itself. Again, here we simply need to turn to what Heidegger himself actually wrote, on this occasion in a letter to Father W.J. Richardson in the early Sixties: ‘Meanwhile, every formulation is open to misunderstanding. In proportion to the intrinsically manifold matter of Being and Time, all words which give it utterance (like “reversal", “forgottenness" and “mittence") are ambiguous’ (my italics). Of course I was not denying Heidegger’s etymological work. What I was trying to express, however, by placing that etymology in perspective, was Heidegger’s conviction that the Word cannot be reduced to the words: i.e. that the event of the ontological difference can never be simply and objectively described. This mystery – Heidegger’s own term – is patently obvious from the ‘verbal acrobatics’ of his later work.

As for Professor Stern’s other complaints – what was and was not appropriate, what was and was not understood, what was and was not a semantic consideration – I can only say that he and I have differing opinions. Funnily enough, I do understand that part of Heidegger’s philosophy became part of National Socialism. I just happen to have a different understanding of how that event came to take place.

Gareth Jones
Keble College, Oxford

What Burke knew

Maurice Hindle (Letters, 6 July) urges us not to regard Burke with the arrogance supposedly shown by Raymond Williams near the beginning of Culture and Society when he says that ‘the confutation of Burke on the French Revolution is now a one-finger exercise in politics and history’. But Mr Hindle misses the point here. In fact, Williams was deprecating such confutations and what follows, far from being arrogant, is very respectful to Burke, as we should expect from a man who once said that the three thinkers whom he found hardest to answer back were Aristotle, Burke and Marx. Burke’s appeal to experience is admired for stressing perhaps ‘the most important form of learning’. And Williams argues that Burke’s insistence on slowness and caution about political innovation can neither be appropriated by conservatives nor dismissed as reactionary by radicals because ‘Burke is describing a process based on a recognition of the necessary complexity and difficulty of human affairs’ and of the need for ‘an essentially social and co-operative effort in control and reform’. It was this kind of dialectical strength, eschewing ‘one-finger exercises’ in the analysis of the anti-revolutionary case, which made Culture and Society a landmark in 20th-century British left-wing thought. Mr Hindle’s conclusion that by 1981 Williams had ‘admitted his mistake, but was still too unfamiliar with Burke to do anything about it’ is baffling.

Michael Cohen
University of Salford

Barking up Wordsworth’s tree

Nicholas Roe is entirely correct in asserting that Joseph Priestley exercised, even in exile, a profound influence upon English intellectual life, and that his political stance in the years before he left England was not forgotten (Letters, 18 May). His appearance in Gillray’s cartoon New Morality is in this context entirely understandable. New Morality, however, was above all a cartoon of allegory. Copenhagen Fields was a pictorial representation of an actual event. To compare the two – even making allowances for the conventions of caricature, in which Gillray undoubtedly did indulge with Priestley in 1791 – is, I think, to make a false analogy. Priestley was not even when in England a figure likely to be found at such a gathering: he never, as he wrote, attended ‘any public meeting, if I could decently avoid it’. And although Gillray did, in 1791, depict him at convivial gatherings of radical politicians – which he did attend – his sudden reappearance in Copenhagen Fields, unrecognisable except possibly for the wig and the nose, seems to me still on more than one count improbable.

Gillray’s depiction of Priestley in the earlier cartoons of the 1790s consistently captures the expression of many of his portraits – in particular, those by Artaud and Fuseli. It is one of alert, quizzical, playful, slightly demoniac intelligence, and it is hard to reconcile it with the expression of sullen and inert gloom which characterises the figure standing so prominently in front of Thelwall. Even as a symbolic figure this is a depiction of Priestley which it is hard to recognise, and it is perhaps worth pointing out that Grego, in his detailed study of Gillray, while identifying – I think rightly – several of the members of the Foxite opposition in the background of the cartoon, makes no identification of Priestley. The Priestley depicted by Gillray in New Morality, by contrast, still has the features of the earlier cartoons. That this is Priestley there can be no doubt, and the resemblance, as Nicholas Roe does admit, to the figure in Copenhagen Fields is ‘slight’. This, I would argue, is the only certain depiction by Gillray of Priestley after his emigration: all other allusions to him are to his works only. It was moreover surely prompted by Cobbett’s publication of the compromising correspondence from Hurford Stone in Paris, which made Priestley in the summer of 1798 once more a figure of some notoriety. In 1795, however, as the absence of other allusions to him at this time suggests, he had effectively left the English political scene.

Jenny Graham
Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge

Mistake

In the last issue, Erik Svarny quoted a sentence from Christopher Ricks’s Eliot and Prejudice. That sentence should have read: ‘Eliot admired much in Maurras, and repudiated some things: for Oswald Mosley he showed his contempt.’

Editors, ‘London Review’

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