Vol. 11 No. 16 · 31 August 1989

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Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice

Christopher Ricks and George Sterner might spare themselves some agony if they revised downwards their overall estimate of Eliot’s writings. Ricks’s tortuous argument in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice puts polyitlla in the crack running up the wall instead of investigating the human and artistic foundations: ‘the matter of anti-semitism has a particular importance because it cannot be isolated from the larger issues of categorising and prejudice in Eliot’s poetry, issues which are as responsible for his greatness as for his rare lapses from greatness’ (my italics). Steiner (Letters, 27 July) ‘remains perplexed by certain passages in the poetry and prose of a great master of sensibility, language and cultural argument’. Whatever their other disagreements, Ricks and Steiner share a stake in Eliot’s ‘greatness’ – a category dear to the male academic.

Richness or largeness – applied to the work, not the man – might be an improvement, except that I find Eliot’s sensibility (and language) more limited than his hagiographers maintain: a late instance of that Fin-de-Siécle shuttle between neurosis and would-be spirituality. For example, anxieties about contamination link Eliot’s anti-semitism with his own misogyny. The portrait of Fresca, albeit excised from The Waste Land, was hardly drawn by a ‘great master of sensibility’. A master, maybe.

But Eliot has to be ‘great’ because of the high investment in Modernism as a unitary cultural phenomenon and as a multi-national critical industry. This often relegates questions of value in individual arts and parts. Protecting his own investment, Ricks calls Gore Vidal ‘a suave hit man’ for an accurate remark about Eliot’s ‘curious neurotic commentaries’. As Ricks points out, Vidal was less accurate when he read as dispraise Eliot’s salute to Henry James: ‘a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’. Nevertheless, in preferring James to Eliot (‘Eliot ended a mere Christian; James ended an artist’), Vidal was surely prejudiced, not against Christianity, as Ricks has it, but in favour of art.

Eliot’s dilution of his artistic impulse with ‘cultural argument’ has given him an advantage over less theoretical poets. Karl Shapiro put the matter definitively in the ‘The Death of Literary Judgment’:

Eliot is untouchable; he is Modern Literature incarnate and an institution unto himself. One is permitted to disagree with him on a point here or a doctrine there, but no more. The enemy at Eliot’s gate – practically everybody – searches his citadel for an opening and cannot find one. Eliot has long since anticipated every move, he and his men can prevent ingress or exit. Eliot resembles one of those mighty castles in Bavaria, which are remarkably visible, famed for their unsightliness, and too expensive to tear down.

Edna Longley
Queen’s University of Belfast

Erik Svarny (Letters, 27 July) criticises Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice for its failure to ‘indicate that Eliot did not repudiate Maurras’s anti-semitism’. Ricks in fact quotes, though unfortunately only in part, from Eliot’s piece in the Christian News-Letter of 3 September 1941 in which the anti-semitic policies reported as being introduced in Vichy France are strongly denounced. Ricks’s discussion is concerned with Eliot’s attempt to discriminate between extreme right-wing anti-semitism before the war and that being carried out under Vichy: but he misses the point of Eliot’s emphasis, which is that the former was indeed a ‘symptom of the disorder of French society and politics for the last hundred and fifty years’ (my italics), even if less objectionable than the phenomenon now under consideration, which is adopted as ‘a principle of reconstruction’. It is a pity Ricks’s argument prevented him from giving the full text of Eliot’s letter as far as it concerns Jewish civil disabilities, for it makes abundantly clear that he repudiated anti-semitism and in doing so by logical requirement repudiated the anti-semitism of Charles Maurras. The piece is conveniently reprinted by David Edwards in his 1982 edition of The Idea of a Christian Society, from which I quote the following extract:

What gives us the gravest anxiety, is the statement [in the Times article cited] that ‘Jews have been given a special status, based on the laws of Nuremburg, which makes their condition little better than that of bondsmen.’ Anti-semitism there has always been, among the parties of the extreme right: but it was a very different thing, as a symptom of the disorder of French society and politics for the last hundred and fifty years, from what it is when it takes place as a principle of reconstruction … we can only hope that there has been, or that there will be, some organised protest against such injustice, by the French ecclesiastical hierarchy: unless we are also optimistic enough to hope that these measures are only taken under the strongest pressure from Germany, and that no French government, once that government was master in its own house, would enforce such measures or keep them on its statutes.

Professor George Steiner, in the same issue of LRB, calls Eliot an ‘icy master of silence and propriety’, but the letter I have quoted, though it shows a propriety of which Steiner’s own epistolary effusions are rarely culpable, is very far from silent on the injustice of meting out such treatment to the Jews of France and Eliot as a Christian gives his witness in condemning it. I am not trying to add another hagiographic tribute to Eliot of the kind Mr Svarny deplores: I am simply concerned that the known and public utterances of the man should be attended to with the propriety, icy or otherwise, that they merit.

A.V.C. Schmidt
Balliol College, Oxford

Heil Heidegger

J.P. Stern

Not reacting to reviews

The most striking assumption in Kenneth White’s defence of his books (Letters, 17 August) against my review of them is that, if only I was capable of ‘creative reading’, I would be bound to admire his work. His self-confidence is enviable, but then, if you believe yourself to be at the centre of a new world-intellectual cosmos ‘whose locus is outside the habitual co-ordinates’, obviously you can brook no scepticism from us has-beens and can even persuade yourself that your pique at a review is really a care for ‘the interests of decent literary criticism’. Co-ordinates apart, the necessity is to write vividly, inventively and exactly, without bullshit, and with as little resort as possible to Tantric poems when your own vision falters. If it is ‘schoolmasterly’ to bother about this, then perhaps Kenneth White should give up his teaching post and get on with being a great writer.

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

Scottish Devolution

In David Craig’s review of a ‘Claim of Right for Scotland’ (LRB, 6 July), he accused the Scottish National Party of a ‘bloody-minded failure to co-operate’ in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, but failed to mention that Gordon Wilson, Scottish National Party MP for Dundee East, introduced a Government of Scotland (Scottish Convention) Bill, proposing an elected Convention in the House of Commons, in March 1980, and also that the fundamental terms of the Convention envisaged by the CSA (Campaign for a Scottish Assembly) in its 1984 discussion paper – namely, that the CSA advised Scottish MPs to constitute the interim ‘Scottish Assembly’ if Westminster said no to its deliberations – were not met.

The crux of a ‘Claim of Right for Scotland’, I believe, lies in para.8.5, which states that ‘Scots must create for themselves a focus of resistance and political negotiation which rejects comprehensively the authority of existing government on matters peculiar to Scotland …’ The key words are ‘rejects comprehensively’. This the initial Constitutional Convention have totally failed to do, as they have decided to remain within a unionist system, in which an alien, English government has openly declared its opposition to any form of Scottish Devolution, and which is likely to remain in power well into the 1990s.

There are other inconsistencies in the ‘Claim of Right’. Para9.5 states that ‘Constitutional Conventions may be, but are not necessarily, challenges to government.’ It then cites two British examples which have failed. So, basically, what the Scottish people appear to have been offered was a system previously known to have failed, and also one in which the participants were scared to challenge openly the present English government.

Para 9.8 states that ‘the absence of a body which can speak for all Scots on constitutional matters presents a difficulty whichever party is in power at Westminster.’ This brings me back to the point that Scottish MPs should constitute the interim ‘Scottish Assembly’. Are Scottish MPs mice or human beings?

As the arguments for and against a Scottish devolutionary process eddy around the political and media environments, the Scottish electorate has to ask itself just how far it is willing to proceed down this road. As we have belatedly realised, any political party which owes allegiance to the Westminster unionist parliament is incapable of fulfilling Scottish aspirations.

Opposition unionist parties find themselves not only impotent within the context of the Westminster system but also totally ineffectual within the context of the present non-democratic, non-representative, Scottish system. One must ask why they continue with their support.

Ian Saint-Yves
Taif, Saudi Arabia

Blaming teachers

I was surprised, on recieving the latest LRB (LRB, 17 August), to find myself being persued in your Diary by an educationilist, Jane Miller, for stating (in a Guardian diary) that, in my experience of teaching at Cambridge and Oxford, undergraduates’ standards in spelling suffered from increasing innacuracy. The innacuracy is simply a fact, and there is growing concensus about the problem in universities. It will not be superceded by Ms Miller’s blusterings to the effect a. that we should not mention it, b. that it isn‘t a real problem and c. that the Government’s to blame.

Maybe she is right to diffend bad spelling as far as these schools are concerned where the neccesary priority is to get any sort of words through the Walkmen But in higher education? Hopefully, educationilists won’t be dismisive if universities have to raise the whole problem officially, although hopelessly their response so far has mainly been one of spluttering indignation at the messengers, for bearing bad news.

What you do about the problem, I don’t claim to know. In my Guardian piece I carefully suggested that teachers were not entirely to blame. If it were up to me, I’d pay them twice as much, and give them greater powers of discipline and selection, but in return for a school day and a school year that were less of a conspirecy against working parents and latch-key children. The money for this might perhaps be found by cutting down the budgits and numbers of educationilists. No one outside their ranks would weep. And to console themselves, they could always devise another examination where there is a pass-mark for hurt feelings.

Norman Stone
Professor of Modern History, Oxford


I was very disappointed in Peter Campbell’s review of Lynne Lawner’s edition of I Modi: An Erotic Album of the 16th Century (LRB, 27 July), since it completely failed to assess a crucial element in the book: the modern translations of Aretino’s sonnets. The drawings, deriving from Giulio Romano, and the poems in this famous elusive work are decent enough, but the translations need to come under some censor’s hand, and are the only really obscene things in the edition. It was surely a big mistake not to translate the four-letter words and to retain the original Italian (not necessarily four-lettered), and English readers will find the rendition into slangy American disgusting. So cul becomes ‘rear-end’, a mealy-mouthed transatlantic euphemism, and coglioniera becomes ‘dumb-ass’, which takes us closer to New York hoodlums than to the courtiers of Renaissance Venice. All kinds of inappropriate phrases keep breaking in: ‘what a picnic,’ ‘conk out’ and ‘it’s all the same to me.’ And although ‘erect’ gives the rough sense of allegro in Sonnet 11 it is not as precise as many would like. There is a danger that this translation might infect susceptible minds. A case for banning perhaps?

Bernard Richards

As time goes by

In his review of Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Jerome McGann (LRB, 22 June) speaks of the book’s ‘wonderful poetic title from a Benny Spellman song of 1962’. Be that as it may: to many readers of my generation, it will evoke another, and earlier, song, ‘These Foolish Things’, with often-parodied words by Jack Strachey, which must have been written in about 1937, and from which, no doubt, Spellman took the title of his own song.

In the same issue, George Ball speaks of ‘those huge Romanesque buildings in Washington’. As these would inevitably antedate Columbus, perhaps they were run up by Leif Ericson’s team of Viking architects?

Freddy Hurdis-Jones


It is surely unwise of Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 17 August) to mock John Lloyd for getting the names of the Spanish and Italian prime ministers wrong, when he gets the name of the French President wrong three times in the next three sentences. Mitterrand, not Mitterand.

Anna Freeman
Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

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