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Letters

Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990

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Craig Raine’s Jeans

I wonder if the anecdotal, impressionistic approach Craig Raine takes in his Moscow diary (LRB, 22 March) isn’t a way of appearing more modest in the face of foreign reality than one in fact is. The myriad touching or amusing fragments which make up the narrative cajole the reader into accepting the writer’s innocence, his slight comic helplessness in a world of unfamiliar logical structures. The X-ray, however, shows Raine to have squeezed in a free three-day trip to Russia and, once there, to have absented himself physically or mentally from the Pasternak celebrations he had been invited to attend. My difficulty is not so much in taking his word for the boringness of these programmed events as in his implication that the whole thing was bound to be a grey, state-crushed affair from the start. In other words, shouldn’t he have declined the invitation and left visiting his wife’s relations to a less convenient occasion?

The opportunism would be forgivable if it wasn’t collusive with what I’m calling Raine’s narrative trick, by which the writing subject becomes flirtatiously naive at regular intervals in order to put himself on a par with a reader inexperienced in Eastern Europe but impressed by the author’s literary and marital credentials. We are invited simultaneously to contrast the work-redolence of communist denim with the capitalist version’s message of leisure, and to compare Adam Michnik’s and Craig Raine’s jeans! It would take a prison experience only slightly more gruesome than one imagines Michnik’s was to lend the words ‘stone-washed’ and ‘pre-stretched’ a whole new set of associations. But this is only to distract from the Trotsky-like clarity with which Raine’s text condemns its author’s capitalist culture. Again: ‘Waiters and waitresses are more concerned to establish their lack of servility than they are to serve. Only in the abstract is this no bad thing.’ An abstract which, waiting for one’s underpriced lunch, one has little time for. Elsewhere Raine appears to believe he won’t be taken for a Western tourist if he dons his vatnik (a wadded jacket as worn in the gulag). How do these naiveties get past the reader in the way they do? Perhaps they represent a desperate bid for sympathy, for protection against the uncomprehendedness of the Russian experience. This may explain why Raine’s reflections are mediated to a greater extent than even this occasion demanded by reference to his marriage. Why aren’t we reading Lisa’s diary rather than his? Because Raine will assert his centrality to a narrative which continues to push him into the most marginal positions. He actually admits defeat, though characteristically in tones of unruffled wisdom, when he says: ‘Being here’ – in Russia – ‘isn’t a guarantee of authenticity … Stay at home and see more on television.’ A guarantee, no, but surely a unique opportunity. It is because he really does mean television, and is not, say, using a metaphor for painstaking and researched analysis of a complex cultural-political phenomenon, that one has a right to ask if one isn’t being offered an old Eastern European stereotype under a new name.

Nicholas Benda
London E1

Audiences for Satyajit Ray

Like Salman Rushdie (LRB, 8 March), I watched most of what I have seen of Satyajit Ray outside India – in my case, in theatres in New York and Berkeley, and on video casettes available not at video rental outlets, Indian or otherwise, but at university libraries. Unlike Mr Rushdie, I am not sure if the distributors in India are entirely to be blamed for the fact that Ray’s work is not easily available to a common Indian outside Bengal. Also unlike Mr Rushdie, I wonder whether it is just a coincidence that it is far easier to find copies of Mr Ray’s films with subtitles in French than in Hindi or in any other Indian language. Perhaps Mr Ray’s attempts to surmount distributional obstacles in India have been less than energetic because, in India, he is not really interested in finding an audience beyond those Indians he can reach, perversely, by having his films subtitled in French. In his book, Our Films, Their Films, Mr Ray wrote that Calcutta was far removed from the hub of things. Ray has evidently learnt more from Henri Cartier-Bresson than just a fetish for available-light photography. The hub of Ray’s world is also somewhere in the West, which perhaps explains why for all his avowed love for Bengal his gaze is, like that of his available-light master, colonialist.

In justifying his decision to live in London and write in English, Rushdie remarked that India was not ready for the kind of large writing that he wanted to do. Those who perceive the world to have an objectively evident hub, and find it far removed from their own cultural environment, or those who find an audience of 900 million people too small for their ambitions, can and do perhaps have a love for India that is ‘powerfully evident’ in their oeuvre. I am not sure I am prepared to waste any of my time and money trying to find out.

Raakesh Ibraheem Anant
Sunderland, Massachusetts

Bardbiz

James Wood (Letters, 22 March) doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says it is ‘standard’ for cultural materialists to regard Shakespeare’s text as ‘merely the poor sponge that soaks up the various historical, ideological and social discourses of the day’, and Shakespeare as ‘sexist, racist and colonialist’. As Terence Hawkes says, cultural materialism draws upon the work of Raymond Williams, and he certainly did not believe any of that. But Wood cannot read what Hawkes is saying. ‘It sets out to judge the degree to which the drama was or was not complicit with the powers of the state’: that is Hawkes. Notice how carefully it is put – and with good reason, for one of the books Hawkes went out of his way to recommend was the new edition of Jonathan Dollimore’s Radical Tragedy. And this, as Wood might guess from the title if he can’t manage to read the matter up before firing off his letter, argues that certain of Shakespeare’s plays demystified and hence challenged state power. In the only book on Shakespeare with ‘cultural materialism’ in the title, Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (edited by Dollimore and myself), this is a running question (one chapter is called ‘Reproductions, Interventions’). No one who has studied Shakespeare’s historical situation, or given thought to the complex ways texts work in societies, can imagine that such a question is easily resolved. It is not cultural materialists but Wood who thinks that.

Why is Wood so rashly dismissive? Why does he not want discussion of ‘the degree to which the drama was or was not complicit’? (Why does he instance Thomas Cartelli when Hawkes says clearly that cultural materialism is a British phenomenon? And why does he present as Cartelli’s conclusion a sentence where Cartelli is actually describing the position of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and George Lamming?) Surely because even the posing of questions about the politics of the Shakespeare business is sufficient to send him into a panic reassertion of the ‘freedom’ of Shakespeare. So who, to throw Wood’s clumsy accusations back, is ‘predictable’ and ‘sinister’?

Alan Sinfield
University of Sussex

What’s so good about Reid?

I love Berkeley, and Désirée Park misreads me (Letters, 22 March). Here are three points. 1. I claimed that Locke, Berkeley and Hume all ‘hold, with much terminological variation, that there is a fundamental sense in which all we ever “immediately" or “directly" perceive are mental items.’ I then offered the words ‘ideas, or images, or representations’ as possible words for these ‘mental items’. In response, Park observes that the word ‘idea’ meant something different to each of these philosophers, and she means this to be an objection to what I say. In fact, it is just an illustration of the ‘terminological variation’ I mentioned, and thought it appropriate to put aside in a review in your journal.

2. I think the above-italicised claim about the three philosophers is true. I’m not sure whether Park wants to disagree, but it looks as if she does, because she says that it is a ‘singularly unconvincing’ description of ‘the chosen villains’ (they’re my heroes). I very much hope somebody will support her in this. She goes on to say mat Locke, Berkeley and Hume can’t be ‘netted … together’ like this, and that ‘Berkeleyan ideas escape Strawson’s net.’ I infer that she thinks that Berkeley did not hold that there is a ‘fundamental sense in which all we ever “immediately" … perceive are mental items’, and I admire her for this.

3. According to Park, I said that the philosophers were ‘incorrect’ in holding the italicised view. In fact, I said that although it is ‘now widely scorned, it is in certain respects very well motivated,’ and that the ‘sceptical problem it … creates is genuine, dream-inspiring … and, on its own terms, insoluble.’ Let me go further: I think it is an entirely defensible view, given the technical slipperiness of the words ‘perceive’, ‘immediately’ and ‘directly’. But this doesn’t stop me thinking that it is greatly to Reid’s credit that he rejected it. It was very important that someone should do so, given the style of the contemporary debate. It introduced an important new way of taking the slippery terms, and of thinking about our epistemic predicament.

D.D.Todd argues correctly (Letters, 5 April) that I ignore important differences between Hume and Reid, and all the points he makes are worthwhile. I have no disagreement with him. It is precisely because Hume and Reid are profoundly opposed in philosophical outlook that it is illuminating to override important differences of detail and indicate respects in which they are in agreement. This is a popular pursuit when discussing Hume and Kant, and I think it is also worth doing with Hume and Reid.

Let me add that I don’t find myself unable to doubt that there is an external world, if by that is meant a mind-independent world. The feeling comes over me quite often in tutorials. I gaze out of the window, and the world is ideas.

Galen Strawson
Jesus College, Oxford

Godbiz

In his review entitled ‘Man of God’ in the issue of 22 March, Charles Sisson describes Dean Milner-White as ‘the inventor of the service of carols and nine lessons’. The facts are somewhat different. The service was originated by Edward White Benson, then Bishop of Truro (later Archbishop of Canterbury). On Christmas Eve 1880 Benson presided over a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in a wooden shed (the temporary cathedral). The service was designed on Medieval precedents but intended to get men out of the pub.

A.C. Benson in his biography of E.W. Benson writes: ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister and ending through different grades with the Bishop.’ The service became famous when it was adapted by Milner-White at King’s College, Cambridge in 1918 and first broadcast in 1928.

G.H. Woodham
Cambridge

In defence of Raymond Williams

I wonder if ‘militant particularism’ (Raymond Williams’s resonant expression – LRB, 8 February) is not the deep flaw of the British character, with those most militantly particular about capital accumulation on the top.

John McMurtry
University of Guelph, Ontario

Classified

Is Fiona Pitt-Kethley going to attend and record the wedding of the couple ‘saddened by a profusion of images’ (Classifieds, 8 February)? I look for news of this but can find none.

Philip Martin
London W10

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