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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 20 · 26 October 1989

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Body History

Roy Porter writes eloquently in defence of ‘Body History’ (LRB, 31 August): ‘we value the mind (no complaint about that), but deny the flesh, so that we no longer even entertain its history.’ In so doing, he uses two quotations from me in order to represent attacks on Body History – ‘scepticism about the genre itself’. Well, it’s useful to have an Aunt Sally to knock down, but this particular Aunt Sally does not quite fit the bill, because I was not saying precisely what Roy Porter suggests I was saying. The background was this. I was writing a review for History Today of a very poor example of Body History, and another review for the Times Higher Education Supplement of another example which was no more than moderately good. Reading these two books prompted me to refer to both books in my second review, and to some reflections from which Roy Porter quotes. The burden of my remarks was as follows. The variety of sources and disciplines a body-historian must master means that doing this sort of history well is much more difficult than doing more conventional sorts of history. There is a danger that rapid magpie-research will ally with clichés about past societies to produce books which (I quote the passage Roy Porter quoted) ‘can principally incarnate a certain blindness to the past’. The vogue for this sort of history adds to the danger – shown here by the readiness to publish translations of two books of doubtful quality.

If I had been launching an attack on good Body History – let’s say, Peter Brown – Roy Porter might have had good reason to use my review: but I wasn’t. I have myself published on the borders of the genre, on Medieval birth-control, childbirth and heretics’ medicine, and am aware of some of the difficulties. My position is: ‘this is very difficult, it needs to be done well; all around are the pitfalls of not mastering various disciplines, ignoring evidence, and the lure of trendiness.’

Peter Biller
University of York

Anna’s Analysis

Adam Phillips’s review of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Anna Freud: A Biography (LRB, 14 September) seemed to me splendid and it occasions some thoughts on my part. Twenty years ago, in My Brother Animal, I first publicly raised the matter of Freud having analysed his own daughter Anna (the analysis began in 1918, and not in 1920, as Phillips has it). Then again, in my Freud and His Followers (1975), I discussed the whole matter at greater length. In 1969 I knew that I was violating a taboo by opening up this issue, but I never realised, either in 1969 or 1975, that the silence over what Freud had done could nonetheless continue.

Until Young-Bruehl’s biography there had never been any further extended discussion of the matter; no psychoanalytic journal, as far as I know, ever allowed the subject to get interpreted or explored further. It is typical of what I regard as the shockingly partisan nature of Young-Bruehl’s new book that not only does she not credit me for having first revealed this historical incident (instead, she insults my work), but she also ignores everything else I wrote on the subject. As Anna Freud’s official biographer, Young-Bruehl handles the analysis of Anna by her father with kid-gloves.

In this connection I would like to repeat a point I made in 1975. (Reviewers of books in this field sometimes claim to object to repetition, but in actuality there is no other way of getting across one’s ideas since ideological considerations seem to drown out originality.) Among the many other reasons for Freud’s doing what he did, which I have discussed in print already, I would like to single out one now: he was afraid of the damage that any other analyst would do to Anna. I do not know whether it violates any current popular taboo to suggest that analysis can do harm, but I daresay any experienced psychoanalyst would agree. I am not trying to defend what Freud did, but seeing how long it appears to take to get a scholarly dialogue going in this area I think it worthwhile bringing up this matter once again.

Paul Roazen
Toronto

Blaming teachers

It appears to me that Jane Miller’s spirited and indignant defence of schoolteachers (LRB, 17 August) is, as counter-attack, directed less against ‘tetchy pundits’ in the universities and elsewhere than against a government which by financial and other means has made education in the proper use of English more and more difficult. Professor Pole (Letters, 28 September) now returns, with the Government, Prince Charles and others, to ‘blaming teachers’. When accusations and defences are so various one looks for a more general cause.

Something so undeniable and so nearly universal as the present disregard for precision in the use of English (and of other languages, needless to say) must clearly be reckoned part of contemporary culture. A dominant feature of that culture – I am tempted to say the dominant culture of all forms of popular communication – is advertising. In the West at least, advertising in all available modes, visual, auditory, verbal, supplies not just the ambience in which ‘our young people are brought up’ but the atmosphere in which all of us live and which most have come to accept.

Acceptance is the real point: not that we believe what advertisements tell us, but that we don’t care about their ‘truth’, because in one or another of innumerable ways – there is literally no end to the forms of flattery – they tell us what we want to hear. This is a commonplace observation, of course, an account of the arts of persuasion at least as old as Plato. What we have forgotten, or have been persuaded to forget, is the moral effect of allowing ourselves to be influenced by what we know to be untrue. Untrue in intention, whether or not it may be ‘true to fact’.

As an agent of corruption, of long and continuing growth, now pervading the whole of our commercial civilisation, advertising governs a great deal of behaviour, and especially our attitudes to language. Reinforced by behaviourist theories of communication (defined not as conveying information but as any act that produces reaction, as a loud noise can ‘communicate’, or excite, fear or rage), the expectation is no longer that language can tell us what is the case; whether or not we believe there is anything that can be called the truth we don’t expect words even to approximate it. People make sounds, or other signs, merely to nudge one another into some desired action; if it is not always to buy something, that remains the paradigm. (We ‘sell’ ideas.) If that is so, who cares about clarity and propriety in the use of language?

Blame for this general condition can hardly be attached exclusively to any group – not even, perhaps, to a government as enthralled by advertising as the present one. But teachers, though far from being most at fault, do have a special responsibility in trying to deal with it. Might not special courses in detecting and exposing the language of deception have a key position in the teaching of English? Might they not have a real, creative interest for a generation who, whatever else they may or may not know, know that they are always being conned? Would the Department of Education accept such a course as part of the core curriculum?

Christopher Small
Edinburgh

Blaming Butler

Oh dear me! What a solemn fellow (the letter has a male feel to it) M.R. Meadmore is (Letters, 28 September), chiding me for writing ‘knockabout stuff’ on Gilmour, Macmillan and the Profumo affair. The truth is that it was a knockabout affair at the time, a sort of sexfest of the early Sixties – engaged in with a gross and voluptuous enthusiasm by the popular press and their readers and with varying degrees of hypocrisy by the Times, Lord Hailsham, George Wigg and Harold Wilson. What struck me as unacceptable was an accusation of hypocrisy against Wilson from an MP (albeit the nicest one imaginable) who still belongs to a party which used its allies in the press and the security services to launch every conceivable hypocritical trick in the trade to blacken Wilson’s name. ‘Profumo/Keeler/Ivanov bedroom rotations’ on my part was a convenient shorthand. It was not intended to be either prurient or flippant. Though Honeytrap plays down the press version of the security risk, it confirms the intense (and on both their parts extremely serious) involvement in the affair of both M15 and the KGB.

Two other points. If I learnt anything from 13 fascinating years in the place, it was that the House of Commons is the knockabout mixture of a boxing ring, with very few Queensberry rules, and pure theatre, with each participant MP called upon from time to time to be an actor (or hypocrites) in the original Greek sense. I made the point when on trial for contempt in front of the Committee of Privileges over the ‘Colonel B’ affair in 1978, and was pleased to have Norman St John-Stevas support me. I also recognise that ardent Butlerites like Ian Gilmour – and M.R. Meadmore? – still seriously mourn what they see as the political consequences of the Profumo affair. I don’t, because I have never felt Ian’s affection for either the Conservative Party or the ‘centre’ in British politics.

Christopher Price
Leeds

Whodunnit

Paul Foot reiterates the tiresome left-wing myth ‘that England declared war on Revolutionary France’ (LRB, 28 September) when writing on The Godwins and the Shelleys. Revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain on 1 February 1793; she declared war on the Dutch Republic at the same time.

Brian Stone
London W8

Guyanan Literature

At the end of July the Stabroek News, a bi-weekly newspaper published in Georgetown, Guyana, reported the publication of Martin Carter’s selected poems. Carter was considered among the best of the post-independence poets of the Caribbean. Now he is hardly read outside of Georgetown. The volume was produced by the Demerara Publishers, a very small company which with a tiny budget – partly provided by a Canadian grant-in-aid – is trying to give Guyanese writing, one of the richest in the Caribbean, a place in its own home. Demerara Publishers was launched two years ago by the same people who have revived the literary magazine Kyk-Over Al. This journal of erratic appearance was started in 1945 by Guyana’s grand old man of letters, Arthur J. Seymour.

The magazine appears twice a year, fairly punctually, in spite of Guyana’s economic deficiencies, which range from paper shortages to frequent power black-outs that play havoc with everything from heavy industry to small desktop publishing. Kyk-Over Al is collecting writings from Guyana and the Caribbean, new and established, and Demerara has an ambitious plan to publish originals and to reprint historical documents and memoirs. Apart from being of possible interest to the general reader, the publishing plan will be of use to students of the region’s literature and history. Much of the writings of Guyana’s best-known writers, who are published in Britain and the United States – Roy Heath, Beryl Gilroy, John Agard, Fred D’Aguiar and even Ian McDonald – are not read in their own country because the shortage of foreign currency puts book-buying very low on the list of importation priorities. So Demerara is trying to bring some of the writings, if not the writers, home. This is why I think the venture should be brought to the notice of a wider audience.

Enquiries, subscriptions, sympathy and articles or stories should be addressed to A.J. Seymour, 23 North Road, Bourda, Georgetown, Guyana, or to Ian McDonald, c/o Guysuco, 22 Church Street, Georgetown, Guyana.

Andrew Graham-Yooll
London NW11

Reckless

In his review (LRB, 28 September) of my New Selected Poems (Faber) and The Mirror Wall (Bloodaxe), Neil Corcoran got carried away by ‘the new recklessness’ and ‘nonsense’ in British poetry. Eager to demolish ‘Murphy’s classicism’, he gave as examples of the ‘unaccountable’ diction which he said ‘deforms’ my poems two words which his review itself deformed. The verb ‘exuviate’, applied to crayfish or crabs casting off their shells, occurs in my poem ‘New Force’ as a metaphor for casting off the ‘hard pink shell’ of my house in a Connemara fishing village. Corcoran turned this into ‘exuriate’, which is meaningless. ‘Rupestral’, a botanical word for ‘growing on rocks’, occurs in the poem ‘Hexagon’ to convey the feeling of growth inside a hexagonal studio I built on a rock in Omey Island. This he deformed into ‘rupetral’. How reckless and nonsensical can a review be?

Richard Murphy
Killiney, Co. Dublin

These errors were made by the typesetter. It is a pity that Mr Murphy can’t, apparently, be persuaded that both of his words are virtually nonsensical so far as his readers are concerned.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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