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Letters

Vol. 12 No. 10 · 24 May 1990

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Cheating his mother-in-law

It is not fashionable to say that people sometimes don’t read the books they review, but when a parody, and one that blatantly misrepresents, appears instead of a review, perhaps it is time for a writer to suggest that she suspects that a hasty scanning instead of an unbiased, serious reading has been done. The misrepresentations and omissions in David Nokes’s review of my Daniel Defoe: His Life (LRB, 19 April) are so numerous that I shall mention only two.

Rather than being ‘idealistic’ about Defoe (although I do say that Defoe was idealistic about many things) or ‘uncomfortable’ with his ‘Machiavellian deceit’, I state repeatedly and unequivocally that many of his actions were pathetic, despicable, and alienating, and I describe these incidents fully. It is hard to square Nokes’s account with such sentences in my biography as ‘Thus, Defoe had involved two friends in his desperate manoeuvres and had cheated his mother-in-law.’ Nokes especially objects to my treatment of Defoe’s political journalism: that I find Defoe a master propagandist with a few specific goals (sometimes his own, sometimes his employer’s), and a few firm beliefs (support for the monarchy as a form of government, for instance), does not mean that Defoe did not ‘allow his rhetoric to exploit the most rancorous and antagonistic prejudices on either side’, as Nokes states – and I say so, even using some of the same incidents and quotations that Nokes does. Nokes is mouthing some familiar commonplaces based on superficial understanding of political propaganda and of Defoe’s periodical and non-fiction output.

Second, in ‘evaluating’ my use of the recently much-disputed canon of Defoe’s works, Nokes quotes from the preface and ignores the fact that I note dozens of works I do not think Defoe’s, and argue the attribution of others in the text and notes. Mine is a biography of Defoe’s life and times, both exciting and extremely eventful; it is not a narrow contribution to the already waning exchanges among half a dozen scholars over the authorship of such works as a life of the Baron de Goertz. Although I cared greatly about the canon and deliberately excluded all works I doubted to be Defoe’s – and there were more than a hundred such – I must admit that I didn’t think most readers would think the authorship of such works as interesting or important as Defoe’s life as a rebel, spy, merchant, controversialist, novelist, and self-proclaimed ideal British citizen, or as his complex personality, which included obsessive secretiveness, stubborn pride, and tireless war on injustice.

Nokes’s quarrel with my treatment of the novels is another matter, and here I have some sympathy with him. My literary criticism of Defoe’s novels and other works has been published elsewhere; I decided I wanted to produce a readable life rather than a three-volume ‘life and works’ such as Irvin Ehrenpreis’s on Jonathan Swift. When I made that decision, I knew that many academic readers would not be happy with 26 pages on Robinson Crusoe, but Defoe lived 71 years and spent many, many more years as a merchant and as a spy than he did writing that novel – or on all of his novels together. Defoe’s novels have been exhaustively studied by scholars and critics all over the world; his life and actions have not been: mine is the first full biography of Defoe published in nearly thirty-five years, and its major contribution may be the presentation of new evidence gathered all over England and Scotland that gives us a new view of Defoe and certainly fills in what have been huge gaps in our knowledge of his life.

Paula Backscheider
University of Rochester, New York

Homicide in Colombia

I do not agree with Gordon Guthrie (Letters, 10 May) that there is a clear correlation between levels of political violence in Colombia and the ‘success’ of ‘frank struggles for a new hegemony’, nor do I agree that I have underestimated the importance of the mechanisms by which Colombian democracy is ‘regulated’. I would like to take particular issue with several points in his letter. First, my article refers to the current murder rate, not to that of the mid-Seventies, which he says I choose to quote. I have no intention of minimising the increase in recent years or the present appalling level of killing. Secondly, though I share reservations about some aspects of US anti-drug policy, it is misleading to write of US ‘armed intervention’ as likely, and to imply that the US determines Colombian policy on crop substitution or land reform. Armed intervention is not likely and the United States does not govern Colombia. Certainly I hope that Colombian democracy will survive and become more meaningful. Among its current enemies Guthrie must list, besides guerrillas, certain drug barons. Since I wrote my piece these last (not the Colombian Government, not the US) have assassinated two Presidential candidates of the Left, Bernardo Jaramillo of the Union Patriotica and Carlos Pizarro of the M-19, to add to their murder of Luis Carlos Galan last August. Of course, nobody who cares about Colombia can be ‘relaxed’ in the face of these events. Simple notions that blame the US and ignore the country’s complex realities are a form of relaxation.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford

Unfair to Jews

The piece ‘Is this right?’ by J.P. Stern in your issue of 19 April was smug and offensive. Parading under the guise of sympathy for the suffering of the Gypsies in Europe was an ill-tempered attack on Jews as a group. Professor Stern repeatedly points out that this Jew said this bad thing, and that Jew and that rabbi said that. And then to sum up, he points out a bad Jew who was insensitive to Gypsies and a friend of Heidegger to boot. What is the purpose of this categorising of Jews? Are they responsible for the slaughter of the Gypsies? Is Stern’s point that the Jewish people are hogging sympathy because of their losses to Nazism? Does Stern think that Jews as a group are just too pushy for his sensitivities? I can only thank heaven that Professor Stern was able to mention that some Jewish historians have researched the crimes committed against the Gypsies. We can breathe easier knowing that Stern has found one or two Jews who may be OK.

Brian Quinn Robbins
Los Angeles

Where Israel is concerned

David Gilmour (LRB, 5 April) could use some of the even-handedness and historical grasp that he so admires in Robert Fisk. To discuss the political attitudes represented by Begin, Shamir and Sharon – that is, to discuss the rise of Israeli ‘thug-ism’ – without mentioning the implacable, sinister, intransigent hostility of Israeli’s thug-like Arab neighbours is truly a remarkable feat of simplification. Imagine, if you can, a world in which Syria’s Assad and/or Iraq’s Hussein have given up their jihad to drive the Jews into the sea. Imagine them (à la Sadat) offering to make peace with Israel, contingent on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Israel, being a democracy, could then afford to put ‘doves’ into high office without the fear that they would give away Israel’s long-term security in exchange for a temporary peace with the powerless Arabs of the occupied territories. There would of course be much negotiation and political manoeuvring in Israel, in the PLO, in Jordan, in Lebanon and in all the smaller groups, but peace and a Palestinian state would surely follow. Until Syria and Iraq give up their holy war against Israel, strong men like Sharon will continue to appeal to a beleaguered Israeli public.

S.J. Fisher
Victoria, British Columbia

Bardbiz

Alan Sinfield’s angry defence of cultural materialism (Letters, 19 April) gives off the odours and energetic staleness of a dying enterprise – it smells of mortality. He refutes my charge that cultural materialism regards Shakespeare’s text (or anyone else’s) as ‘merely the poor sponge that soaks up the various historical, ideological and social discourses of the day’ with the lame excuse that it draws upon the work of Raymond Williams – ‘and he certainly did not believe any of that’. To which the only possible reply – one essentialist speaking to another – is that cultural materialism draws upon the work of Shakespeare – and he certainly did not believe any of that.

But cultural materialism does make poor sponges of texts, as a swift characterisation (not a caricature) of its strategies will demonstrate. Crucial here is the notion of discourse. Discourse ‘refers to the field in and through which texts are produced’ (to quote from Barker and Hulme’s essay in Alternative Shakespeare). Discourse, according to the cultural materialists, is a network of meanings, signs, rhetoric; and, like ideology, it works to legitimate the status quo (the discourse of The Tempest, for instance, is seen as ‘English colonialism’). The text – the poor text – lies at ‘the intersection’ of these various discourses, and is in fact ‘the site’ on which these conflicting discourses have it out with each other. The text’s role in this is seen as entirely passive. Or as Alan Sinfield puts it, in a resonant and sinister phrase (from an essay by him in Political Shakespeare): ‘Shakespeare is one of the places where ideology is made.’

Slavishly faithful to the Hegelian–Marxist dialectic, cultural materialists believe that discourse, again like ideology, will inevitably display its own contradictions and negations, even as it tries to efface those contradictions in the process of legitimising itself. Texts will inevitably be ‘marked and fissured by the interplay of the discourses that constitute them’. What is important to note is that these contradictions and negations are seen as betrayals, as little ideological Freudian slips. They occur because and in spite of the dominant ideological project – they cannot be intended by it.

What is objectionable is that texts are conflated with the workings of ideology and discourse. Narrative, like ideology, will attempt to efface its own ideological contradictions; in its attempted effacement it will merely emphasise them. If one takes The Tempest again: Caliban’s coup against Prospero’s rule is seen as precisely one of the contradictions of colonialist discourse. The narrative tries to efface it by making it comic and low-life in mode.

Here is Paul Brown, again from Political Shakespeare: ‘The Tempest is not simply a reflection of colonial practice but an intervention in an ambivalent and even contradictory discourse. This intervention takes the form of a powerful and pleasurable narrative which seeks at once to harmonise disjunction, to transcend irreconcilable contradictions and to mystify the political conditions which demand colonialist discourse. Yet the narrative ultimately fails to deliver that containment and instead may be seen to foreground precisely those problems which it works to efface.’ The argument surely turns on the notion of intentionality: either the disruptions, negations and challenges to authority which mark Shakespeare’s texts, and which constitute his political complexity, are intended and seen as necessary and purposive, or they are seen (as the cultural materialists would have it) as things that happen to the text anyway because of the nature of discourse and the way it works on texts. The difference is crucial: the former reading sees Shakespeare’s plays actively struggling with history; the latter sees them as history’s hostages. It is this imprisonment which licenses critics like Leonard Tennenhouse (another contributor to Political Shakespeare) to write that ‘Shakespeare uses his drama to authorise political authority’. Or Thomas Cartelli to assert that in The Tempest Shakespeare emerges as ‘a formative practitioner and purveyor of a paternalistic ideology that is basic to the material aims of Western imperialism’. Alan Sinfield’s argument that Cartelli is here merely describing the position of the Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is disingenuous: Cartelli’s essay is a straight endorsement of Ngugi’s position. (His argument that Cartelli is American, and that cultural materialism is British, is equally feeble. The book in which Cartelli’s essay appears, Shakespeare Reproduced, is an exercise in British cultural materialism.)

Cultural materialism professes its radicalism with much flag-waving and massing of artillery. It is, in fact, deeply conservative – as theories of determinism tend to be. Cultural materialists are believers in a kind of historical original sin (this is how history is and has always been) and the technicians of a busy and futile scientism: this is how ideology works, this is how texts are made, this is how we are constituted. Its pseudo-scientific language represents merely the fag-end of literary criticism’s long 20th-century struggle to turn itself into a technical discipline, a purifying hygiene. It tends towards predictable, second-rate and sinister – yes, sinister – readings. It allows no room for human itchiness, for the human complexities and struggles which nullify and confound determinism.

James Wood
London SW12

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