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Letters

Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990

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The Kosovo Question

One can understand a BBC producer’s frustration with what is happening in Yugoslavia today. Everyone who knows and likes the country, including the 23 million people who live there, feel much the same as Sam Miller: pain and bewilderment at their country’s evident malaise. Their anxiety explains some of the irrational responses that he describes in his Diary (LRB, 22 February). But the process of tumultuous change now engulfing Eastern Europe gives journalists an important role in shaping popular perceptions of the continent’s future. Superficial stereotyping must give way to serious understanding of the realities. This is why it is well worth examining the ‘facts’ and interpretations Sam Miller offers in his Diary.

We are told that the evening before Miller arrived at the door of what must have been the Hotel Grand in Prishtina, ‘a screaming crowd of thirty thousand Albanians had gathered outside the headquarters of the provincial government.’ The fact that the crowd was no bigger than twenty thousand, that it was not screaming but was largely silent and that it had gathered before the provincial Party headquarters – according to information coming from, so to speak, the horse’s mouth, in the shape of spokesmen for Kosovo’s democratic opposition groupings, who alone know what is happening on the ground – seems not to deter a journalist bent on providing his readers with a little ‘local colour’. In this colouring of local life, the fact that 35 people have died and over a hundred and fifty been wounded in unprovoked police action appears as little more than a brushstroke. Another 28 people died less than a year ago. Per Kosovo capita, this means that the casualties in the past year have been on a par with the recent carnage in Romania (latest estimates: six to seven hundred dead).

All the dead were Albanian civilians and all of them were unarmed at the moment of their death. Some of them were children. Should one trust, then, a journalist who does not speak Albanian when he says that ‘even in the few days I was there I saw [!] the political initiative pass from the more moderate of these leaders’ – of the Albanian community – ‘into the hands of those less willing to condemn violence’. Indeed? How many non-Albanians died or were wounded during those weeks? Which violence can he be speaking about, in a situation where an impressive array of modern weaponry, sufficient not just to control civilian ‘disturbances’ (armoured personnel-carriers fitted with powerful searchlights, handguns, rifles, tear gas, smoke bombs, water cannon, truncheons), but even to fight a small-scale war (tanks, supersonic planes), confronts kids throwing stones? And when the opposition was able to collect 400,000 signatures on a five-point declaration titled ‘For Democracy – Against Violence’ during the very time he was there – a fact which he omits to mention, maybe because it does not fit the picture he thinks he saw?

Yet it is precisely in these inaccuracies or omissions that we find the clues for a solution to the ‘Kosovo question’. For, contrary to Miller’s assertion that ‘in the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question,’ a solution does exist. Indeed, it is obvious. The absence of inter-ethnic violence in Kosovo is the first aspect of the ‘Kosovo question’ on which any solution must rely. This suggests that, despite severe provocations, the Albanian population would like to see a peaceful solution to their problems within Yugoslavia. The 400,000 people who signed the declaration (more are signing as I write), and who amount to a sizeable proportion of the adult population of the province, desire the lifting of martial law; the release of political prisoners; free elections; a dialogue to settle differences. In other words, they wish to be treated like other Yugoslav citizens, who today are forming new political organisations free from police intimidation. We are dealing, therefore, not with a ‘sorry Balkan tale’, but with a more mundane question of democracy. The absence of democracy lies at the root of the ‘Kosovo question’. Democratic rights are being forcibly denied to Yugoslavia’s third-largest nationality – precisely as they are increasingly being asserted in the rest of the country. During the last nine years the Kosovars have lived under considerable repression and during the last year under martial law. Peaceful demonstrations in Kosovo are denounced as ‘terrorist’ actions and met with ruthless violence. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that young Albanians in Kosovo told Miller that ‘they too were ready to die like the people in – and the place-names were recited like a revolutionary mantra – Timisoara, Tiananmen, Palestine and South Africa’. This is no ‘revolutionary mantra’. These places in Europe, Asia and Africa symbolise one and the same thing: popular democratic aspirations negated by force of arms.

The second aspect of the ‘Kosovo question’ on which any future solution will rely is the recent emergence of a democratically-oriented Albanian leadership which has the confidence of the people. Its very existence is proof of the lasting heritage of the nationality policy established in earlier decades. This means that a rational dialogue on the ‘Kosovo question’ is possible and has as good a chance of success as any other inter-Yugoslav debate. The collapsing authority of the local Party has not, in other words, created in Kosovo a political vacuum to be filled by all kinds of revanchist forces. On the contrary, the Party’s authority has been replaced by that of a new political leadership whose democratic language can be understood and supported by all Yugoslavs, irrespective of their ethnic identity.

As Yugoslavia’s own post-war history (let alone that of, say, Switzerland or Canada) proves, multiethnic composition need not be a barrier to internal stability – provided the principle of national equality is respected. National equality is the necessary condition for the survival or development of any kind of democracy in Yugoslavia. The ‘Kosovo question’ is essentially a democratic question: it is simply the inversion of the ‘Milosevic question’ – i.e. the grim determination of Serbia’s ruling party to cling to power come what may. Vuk Draskovic, a ‘dead-ringer for Rasputin’ in Miller’s apt phrase, merely reflects the morbid side of this determination. The slower the transition to democracy is in Serbia, the more this kind of morbidity will extend to the rest of the country. The parallel with the Soviet Union, useful as it often is, is in the last instance of limited value, since Yugoslavia’s nationalities are far more intermingled than is the case with the Soviet Union. Unlike Russians, Serbs cannot retire behind well-defined national borders.

In other words, a multinational state, too, can rely on a sense of national identity. Indeed, Yugoslavia has always done so, having, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, been an independent country since the war. It is a different matter, of course, when national identity degenerates into ethnic nationalism. But this, surely, must be true for other countries as well? Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are, after all, also multinational states. A sizeable proportion of the Hungarian nation lives in Romania and Yugoslavia; the position of these minorities would not be helped by the rise of nationalism in Hungary itself. The degree of ethnic homogeneity in Poland may be higher, yet no appeals to nationalism can solve internal Polish problems. Confronted with the national problem in his country, a Habsburg official, one Feldmarschalleutnant von Scheure, exclaimed: Die Hunde sollen sich zerfressen! Such attitudes helped to bring about a situation in which the monarchy’s disintegration was a natural outcome. Miller suggests that a similar attitude underlies Western approaches to Yugoslavia today. If so, this is a grave error. For one thing, Yugoslavia’s federal structure, with or without the League of Communists, provides a good framework for resolving the differences that arise from its multinational composition. Secondly, the West has far better reasons for supporting Yugoslavia’s cohesion than it ever did in the case of the Habsburg state. Anyone who does not want to see a Lebanonisation of the European South-East and Centre must reject the idea that ‘in the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question.’

Branka Magas
London W11

Possible Heideggers

There is no simple answer to the question of whether Heidegger’s (or anyone else’s) work should be judged independently of his moral character and political actions. Richard Rorty, in any case, fails to convince by adducing a ‘possible worlds’ argument of a sort which is currently as fashionable amongst philosophers as ‘ordinary language analysis’ used to be (LRB, 8 February). The trouble with Rorty’s imaginary biography of Heidegger is that it sets no limits on the relevance of chance and contingency, and hence no limits (except the narrative imagination of the philosopher) on the role of ‘what might have been’ in understanding and judging what actually happened. Since Rorty appears not to want to privilege the actual over the possible, and given that the only available ‘data’ consist in Heidegger’s actions in the actual world, there is no way in which he can render plausible any of ‘Heidegger’s’ actions in a possible world. Why would ‘Heidegger’, in Rorty’s story, have been more likely to ‘leave his native mountains’ for the sake of ‘Sarah’, than to have divorced her and left her to her fate under the Nazis? Why would he be more likely to make circumstances into moral resources, rather than occasions for opportunism, in Rorty’s possible world than in the actual world? Rorty would have to say that chance (or authorial whim) is the arbiter here, too. So his story has no bearing on our judgments on the actual, historical, Nazi-supporting Heidegger.

There is one judgment that Rorty seems to have no difficulty in making: that Heidegger was ‘the greatest European thinker of our time’. Doubtless this conviction motivates his story, though neither remotely sustains the other. Even if we grant that Heidegger was a major philosopher, and leaving aside the philosopher’s chauvinism which equates ‘thinker’ with ‘professional philosopher’, this is hyperbolic and premature: the jury is, I would have thought, still out. And if, as a non-philosopher, I were allowed a vote in a provisional election, I would readily admit that it would be more likely to go to Wittgenstein (an example – no hyperbolic claims intended), partially on the grounds of what we know and believe about the individual’s actions and fundamental convictions, than to the Nazi-supporting Heidegger.

This is no more than to say that ethics are intrinsic to philosophical activity and to evaluations of its practitioners and products, in a way in which they are not intrinsic to, say, physics and physical theories. This is a contestable point of view, and one which no doubt requires a lot of hedging: take, for example, the case of Frege’s anti-semitism, discussed by Michael Dummett in the preface to his book on Frege’s philosophy of language. But it needs to be contested by argument – the argument, say, that some parts of philosophy are ‘like’ physics – and not by question-begging and irrelevant stories of possible worlds.

Chris Sinha
Nieuwegein, Netherlands

I think Richard Rorty offers far too simple a dichotomy in separating ‘the life from the work’ in disassociating Heidegger’s proto-Nazism from Heidegger’s philosophy. There are all sorts of doctrines and claims in Being and Time which support a Nazi view of modernity and politics; and in the later writings the political and social analyses provide no conceptual resources for comprehending or even responding to the Holocaust. This is why the silence regarding the fate of European Jews is philosophically suggestive, not just the mark of a man whose moral character was grotesquely deficient. Rorty’s essay self-destructs. In the first half he argues that we must forget the man and look at the philosophy: bat then the entire second half is about the man, asking us to treat the man’s moral failures as ‘shaped by chance events’ and thus not something we should be too vindictive about. Instead of offering a fantasy which supposedly shows what Heidegger the man might have been, Rorty should do as he preaches: look at the books to see whether Heidegger’s philosophy is proto-Nazi, and/or whether it is deficient because without the conceptual means to respond to one of the most important events of our time.

Brian Fay
Wesleyan University, Connecticut

In defence of Raymond Williams

I’m sorry to have offended Robin Blackburn by my article on Raymond Williams (Letters, 8 March). Robin is wrong to talk of my ‘animus’ against Williams. I had and have none. As I said in my review, he was clearly a nice, gentle and generous man, and I have no doubt that his political writings, defective though I think them, stemmed from noble instincts, that his heart was, as they say, in the right place. The point of my review was rather different. Great claims have been made for Williams as a political writer. This is not an easy thing to be. It calls for a combination of literary and analytic skills with real political nous, a popular touch and an often unpopular desire to get to the truths behind the flim-flam. I had recently come across Michael Walzer’s judgment that Williams was not only an example of ‘the failure of English political writing’ but actually personified it. I reread much of Williams’s work before writing my review and felt, in the end, that Walzer was right. What seemed to me interesting was how a man of such evident gifts, energy and commitment could fail in that way – and how others could hail that failure as a great success. The reason, I felt, was that Williams became trapped – as so many of us do – within a closed rhetorical universe, partly of his own construction. Like all such universes, it became predictable, with its ritual mentions and silences, its key words and, sadly, its evasion of unpalatable truths. It is, I think, impossible to be thus trapped and also to be a good political writer.

Robin thinks I would have liked Williams to ‘launch a broadside against the Unions and Labour Movement as neanderthal formations richly deserving any drubbing that they received from the likes of MacGregor or Murdoch’. Not at all. I would far rather that left intellectuals like Williams had spoken out openly and truthfully about, for example, the inherited nature of jobs in the printers’ union in the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies. If they had done that more effectively – or even at all – there might have been no sitting ducks for Murdoch et al to slaughter in the Eighties. But the truth is not just an instrumentality: inherited jobs, like inherited peerages, deserve to be denounced in themselves, for they are simply wrong.

The real point at issue between Robin and myself is, I think, the question of solidarity politics. Solidarity politics means that in the last analysis one places a higher value on the solidarity one feels with a class or group than on speaking the truth about it. Working politicians and polemicists do this all the time and quite naturally so. We’re all used to that and we don’t look to them as searchers after truth on anything. But I don’t think anyone who wants to set up as a political writer can afford to allow anything to count higher than the truth. This does not, of course, mean that such a writer is not allowed his own commitments. Eric Hobsbawm is a fine example of a political writer who does not allow either his own commitments or a sense of overweening solidarity to get in his way. Reading Hobsbawm, you know he’ll go where the argument takes him, even against his own prejudices if that’s how it turns out. He’s quite capable of describing both how Communism failed definitively as a historical movement and yet also how determined he is to remain a CP member. This level of detachment seems to me both splendid and essential. Robin provides a good example of what I mean in the way he talks of his own advocacy of a ballot in the miners’ strike, emphasising that this advocacy was performed ‘in the perspective of supporting the strike’, as if somehow this alone made it right to mention the embarrassing fact of the denial of democracy within the NUM. I don’t accept that. (I didn’t accept it at the time either. I contributed what I could to help miners’ families – groceries not money because I didn’t trust the NUM with cash. As I handed over the food I also made clear my views about the denial of a ballot. Both were received in silence.) I think that the NUM’s refusal to allow its membership to vote was simply wrong in itself, irrespective of any sort of perspective on the strike. It deserved to be denounced as such, and the truth of that denial of democracy should not have been subordinated to any feelings of solidarity with the miners.

That truth was, moreover, so important – it doomed the strike from the outset – that I fail to see how Williams could write about ‘key words in the strike’ and fail to mention it; at least, not if he was to justify a reputation for ‘a special sort of truthfulness’. The problem with Williams was that with him it was a matter of solidarity first and last, so that where he started was also bound to be the point at which he ended up – thus giving his writing a circular and ritual quality. It is, I suspect, for those reasons that solidarity politics have always slid so naturally into an older, religious tradition – in that repetitive ritual sound one cannot but hear the cadences and incantations of the Chapel. This sort of rhetoric has a long and honourable tradition in our political life, but personally I do not look to it to provide guidelines for the future. There is, of course, room for two views about this and I am sorry if mine has given offence.

R.W. Johnson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Diacritical

I hope you will allow me to dissociate myself from the editorial policy which led you to suppress all diacritic marks on the Czech and Slovak names mentioned in my article on ‘Havel’s Castle’ (LRB, 22 February). As far as I know, only German ultra-nationalists have gone in for this practice.

J.P. Stern
Cambridge

Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice

Have we finished with Conrad and racialism yet? ‘The disdainful pout of Comrade Ossipon’s thick lips accentuated the negro type of his face.’ Conrad accepts the racial stereotypes of the ‘scientists’ of his time, but in some ways he certainly attempts to undermine them too. Heart of Darkness shows that ‘civilised’ whites are as prone to savagery and superstition as the ‘uncivilised natives’ of Africa. But it’s no longer easy to read the tale as the bearer of such a message. Savagery and superstition (and cannibalism) – ‘darkness’ – are simply taken as given where Africans are concerned. It’s hardly surprising that people, especially from Africa, find this assumption offensive, to say nothing of the otherwise stereotyped presentation of Africans as passive child-like creatures or magnificent animals. Maybe it’s still possible for readers like Craig Raine to regard these matters as peripheral (LRB, 22 June 1989), and to believe they shouldn’t stand in the way of our appreciation of a great writer. But Raine ought to see that others are not being perverse or fanatical if they cannot enter the kind of contract with Conrad that sympathetic reading demands.

Paul Edwards
Cambridge

Bardbiz

Terence Hawkes, in his sprightly piece on Shakespeare (LRB, 22 February), indulges in the post-structuralist’s customary tendency to extend a useful insight to a logical extremism which then disables itself. Most of us can agree with Hawkes’s caution against searching for a fixity of meaning in Shakespeare, for an intentional meaning, an ‘essential Shakespeare’. Equally, most of us can see that plays so mediated by hundreds of readings and interpretations through the centuries have in a sense become ‘unreachable’, as he puts it – or at least harder to reach. It can be valuable to study the history of these readings. But it is more difficult to agree with Hawkes that the meanings of Shakespeare’s plays have not only been produced by Shakespeare, but also by these very readings. These plays, he writes, are ‘constituted not only by an author but also by the interpretative strategies of readers and the material political and social pressures of the historical contexts helping to shape those strategies’. Naturally, if one believes this, then, as Hawkes writes, these readings may well be ‘more interesting and more revealing than they’ – Shakespeare’s plays – ‘could ever be’. After all, why trudge through Shakespeare’s King Lear when you can read G. Wilson Knight’s version, or see Ran, readings now given the same creative function as the text itself? And if this is the case, then of course Shakespeare comes to seem, as Hawkes puts it, ‘a writer of no necessary distinction, a former star, now reduced to the status of a “black hole" ’.

This procedure is now the standard one for those ‘cultural materialists’ of whom Hawkes writes. The text has no original, intentional meaning: it is merely the poor sponge that soaks up the various historical, ideological and social discourses of the day. It has no meanings of its own, but is merely the sum of the aforesaid pressures, plus all the readings and interpretations it has suffered through the ages. Since most of these pressures, discourses and readings have been sexist, racist and colonialist (things being what they are), then it is no surprise that Shakespeare emerges as all these things too. That this puts each reading on the same level as the next (i.e. Dr Johnson’s version of Lear is as constitutive of Shakespeare’s Lear as Terence Hawkes’s or Frank Kermode’s) seems not to have occurred to these critics. In their world, the music of Richard Strauss has been not simply ‘marked’ by his early complicity with Nazism, and Hitler’s fondness for that music, but actually ‘transformed’ by it: this distinction is borrowed from Malcolm Evans, one of those critics mentioned by Hawkes, who writes in his book Signifying nothing that the text is ‘always irrevocably marked and transformed’ by everything which has been written about it. For the rest of us, there seems a wide gap beween ‘marking’ and ‘transforming’. Observe Thomas Cartelli, for instance, in the recent book Shakespeare Reproduced. The Tempest, he writes, has not simply been ‘used’ as ‘a site’ for various colonialist readings: for him, the play is nothing more than the sum of these disreputable uses. Shakespeare emerges as ‘a formative producer and purveyor of a paternalistic ideology that is basic to the material aims of Western imperialism’.

Am I alone in finding this not only predictable (of course Othello is racist, of course The Merchant of Venice is anti-semitic, of course King Lear is sexist) but sinister, in that it denies Shakespeare the freedom to dissent, to struggle with history? Shakespeare becomes not simply the product of history (which of course he was) but history’s hostage. The text has no power to intervene in history, but is determined by it, becomes coincidental with it. The text becomes a piece of history itself. It is ironic that the cultural materialists, who loudly proclaim their radical dissenting, are the ones least eager to see Shakespeare as a radical or dissenting force in history. For them, Shakespeare is what Nigel Lawson called him in 1983: ‘most certainly a Tory’.

James Wood
London SW12

What’s so good about Reid?

Promoting the virtues of Thomas Reid in the 22 February issue, Galen Strawson states that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume all held similar and incorrect opinions about sensory information. We are told that they ‘hold, with much terminological variation, that there is a fundamental sense in which the only things we ever “immediately" or “directly" perceive are mental items – ideas, or images, or representations. I will call this Premise One.’ This proffered description of the chosen villains is singularly unconvincing. First, the word ‘idea’ is a key term in the writings of all four writers, but does not have the same meaning in any two of them. The terminological variation that Strawson permits himself is simply misleading. Second, the historical relationship between Locke and Berkeley, and between Berkeley and Hume, is obscured by the suggestion in Premise One that all three can safely be netted and labelled together. It is a matter of record that the Berkeleyan idea made a significant departure from Locke’s account of ideas and was not subsequently adopted by Hume.

The phrase esse est percipi appears first in Berkeley’s manuscript Notebooks and signals some features peculiar to the Berkeleyan idea. In the Notebooks too, Berkeley provided a counterpoise to his ideas with a theory of notions which includes minds and concepts. In this manner, Berkeley allowed a theory of representation quite separate from his theory of ideas. His subsequent publications, beginning with An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, reflect both these theories, though they are distributed unevenly because the surviving Principles is only Part One of a larger work also mentioned first in the Notebooks.

On the evidence, then, Berkelyan ideas escape Strawson’s net. Moreover, when they are properly analysed, ideas remain of interest, not least because they show a way of clarifying empirical descriptions by carefully separating sensory information from theories about it, including theories of representation.

Désirée Park
Wolfson College, Oxford

When Communism dissolves

In the five or so years that I’ve followed the LRB (as one ‘follows’ Arsenal) you’ve put out a large quantity of first-rate stuff: Said, Roth, Foot, R.W. Johnson, for example; or, magnificently, the Rorty essays. And, while of more leftward leanings than the latter author, I was nowise offended by his point of view, nor even by that of Ian Gilmour, feeling as I did that the journal was doing me favours by bringing me the views of such persons. But good will began to be strained with the odiously and patently sycophantic paper on George VI and his family (ascendance and descendance equally) featured in your issue of 11 January. And then the following issue, ‘When Communism dissolves’, with Jon Elster and Owen Bennett Jones lending implicit uncritical support to the ‘Death of Communism’ thesis, as though the contemporary revolutionary ideal were worth – as though it boiled down to – nothing more than systems (though to a large extent no longer – and thankfully so) in power. I have prided myself (so to speak) on the intellectual-political broadmindedness of your journal. I have been unfailingly dazzled by the talents of its contributors; and am no less so by those of Messrs Elster and Bennett Jones. And this is what disappoints me so gruesomely: that a policy of exclusive reliance on moral and intellectual clearsightedness, to the exclusion of all ideological aprioris, should have arrived at such an abrupt, precipitate, total dereliction.

John Doherty
Lyon, France

Hopefully

First the good news. Charlotte Brewer, discussing Sylvia Adamson’s essay ‘The What of the Language’ in her review of The State of the Language (LRB, 25 January), actually manages to use ‘hopefully’ as an adverb (‘hopefully, he set to work’). Now the bad news. What she wanted to show was that when used to modify ‘the sentence as a whole’ (presumably in the sense ‘it is hoped that’), the ubiquitous ‘hopefully’ is irreplaceable, unstoppable and truly valuable. Could not an alert sub-editor; have provided her with a proper example? (Even ‘hopefully, he will set to work’ would have done.)

Jill Kitson
ABC Radio, Melbourne

Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’

Frank Kermode quotes what he calls a very long sentence from Thomas Pynchon (LRB, 8 February). The passage quoted is not a sentence. The passage consists of a sentence of 66 words followed by a comma and then by a sequence of clauses and phrases that is neither a part of the sentence preceding it nor a sentence in itself.

Gerald Murnane
Macleod, Victoria

Frank Kermode writes that ‘Pynchon loves very long sentences’ and provides a 29-line ‘sample’. Whatever the very long things that Pynchon loves are, they are certainly not sentences. There are, in fact, three sentences in the quoted sample, although they are not punctuated as such.

Imre Salusinszky
University of Newcastle,

I was distressed to learn that Frank Kermode had to ‘look up the learned or exotic’ word ‘yakuza’, whilst reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland. I wonder if he shouldn’t be reading a little more widely?

Philip McDonald
London E5

Mistake

A passage in Martin Plaut’s article on the South African Left was damaged in production (LRB, 8 March). The affected sentence should have read: ‘They now have a certain following among black youths in the townships, who are attracted by their fiercely partisan propaganda, which calls for the ANC to arm the masses and for unremitting struggle aganist “government stooges" like Inkatha’s Chief Buthelezi.’

Editors, ‘London Review’

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