Christopher Hitchens’s review (LRB, 24 May) of Boris Yeltsin’s ghosted apologia tells us, like Dylan Thomas’s unwanted Christmas gift, ‘everything about the mosquito except why’. Yeltsin’s voluble anti-Communism made him an instant Western media hero. A bemused BBC initially called him a ‘leftist’ (on the specious grounds that anyone opposed to the status quo must be of the Left), but now refers to him more ambiguously as a ‘radical’. Even this morning’s Fiji Times (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch) captions an aggressive portrait, ‘Democracy warrior Boris Yeltsin’. What seems to have eluded Hitchens and his colleagues, from Tavistock Square to Suva, is that far from being a democrat, Yeltsin represents the terrifying resurgence of xenophobic nationalism and anti-semitism now threatening to engulf Central and Eastern Europe. His relationship with the neo-fascist Pamyat movement in Russia is intimate, if unofficial. This is not the voice of progress and enlightenment, but that of the pogroms and fierce Slavophilia of centuries past. What should be more widely realised is that Yeltsin’s natural allies in the West are not liberal democrats or even Tories, but Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and Franz Schönhuber’s Republican Party. L’Evénement du Jeudi (No 273) warned of these developments last January. Where are such warnings in the Anglophone press?
University of the South Pacific, Fiji
Terry Hawkes’s enjoyably spirited review of current trends in Shakespeare criticism (LRB, 22 February) rather sidestepped a central question: why is it that Shakespeare’s plays (not Jonson’s, Dekker’s, Greene’s, Massinger’s etc) command the attention of successive generations of interpreters, so that we have an 18th-century Shakespeare who is, so to say, Verdi-without-music, a 19th-century ‘Shakespeare-the-Novelist’, a 20th-century ‘Shakespeare the Poet’ shortly followed by ‘Shakespeare-the-Ideologue-of-Englishness’ (Tillyard), and then … but no need to go on, save perhaps to mention the pre-1989 private performance in Prague, by threatened Charter 77 signatories, of Macbeth. And why Macbeth? Because, they said, it was about a politician who murdered his way to supreme power (BBC 2, 28 May).
The claim, then, that the different meanings allotted to, produced from, this or that play text are the result of different ‘discourses’ can only be contested by refusing to look at the history. But what this fails to explain, and indeed to recognise, is the ‘something’ about these texts which, rather than Jonson’s etc, makes them such a peculiarly fertile site for the production of ‘meanings’. Or more bluntly, what is there in the texts that makes everybody want to get ‘Shakespeare’ on their side; and when that proves difficult, to assault the complacency of those who, to their own satisfaction, claim to have done the job? Why not instead get cracking on Sejanus, All for Love, Venice Preserved, Cato, Irene or the Cenci?
Without wading through the pile of discarded (for some, discredited) explanations (‘he was for all time’, ‘the poet of human nature’, ‘others abide our question, thou art free’, ‘supremely creative genius’), two reasons can be suggested. One is that the written texts are so riven with ideological contradictions – the treatment of kingship being one familiar case, and another, the sympathetic adoption of religious ideas in coolly unreligious plays – that no unifying account can ever be proposed. The other (a pre-condition for the first?) is that ‘Shakespeare’ was a dazzlingly accomplished writer in such a variety of styles that, as a direct result, his texts reveal with impressive clarity a feature more or less discernible in any past writing that continues to attract readers (or theatregoers): his texts energetically resist interpreters in the same degree that they feed a passion for appropriating them. I offer this second reason with due modesty as one way of tackling the ‘value’ question which, so far as I know, the cultural materialist rarely, if ever, discusses.
Open University, Milton Keynes
In discussing Thomas Mayer’s Thomas Starkey and the Commonweal (LRB, 10 May), Blair Worden endorses Mayer’s claim that Starkey’s Dialogue between Pole and Lupset was a ‘reform programme to be taken seriously as a plan to rehabilitate the high nobility and to restore it to its proper place at the head of the English commonwealth.’ Such an interpretation takes as fact the highly questionable assumption that the power of the nobility had declined in the early Tudor period. Neither of the debaters in the Dialogue says any such thing: noblemen are seen as having too much of the wrong kind of power – too many servants, too many opportunities of waste. ‘Pole’ criticises noblemen for their ignorance, idleness, extravagance, and barbarous habit of living in the country rather than in cities. Worden notes that criticism but does not grasp just how much it undermines Mayer’s argument that the Dialogue was a manifesto for the nobility. When Pole offers a plan for a standing council to meet when parliament is not in session, he puts a few of the greatest and most ancient lords on it, and suggests that its head should be a nobleman holding the revived office of constable. But he also includes bishops, lawyers and citizens of London. Worden notes that the high nobility would be in a minority and that therefore the Dialogue is far less of a scheme of ‘aristocratic conciliarism’ than Mayer would claim, but he at once reduces the impact of his critical comment by adding, puzzlingly, that ‘nonetheless Mayer has established aristocratic medievalism as one of the two principal influences on Starkey’s political thought.’
Worden also endorses Mayer’s claim that the Dialogue was written by Thomas Starkey as a call to his patron Reginald Pole to assume the leadership of a group of aristocratic reformers. Yet there is no tangible evidence for this. In the Dialogue Lupset urges Pole to take an interest in public affairs, but he has little difficulty in persuading Pole to do just that. Pole behaves as a free-ranging counsellor offering criticism and advice on all manner of contemporary problems, not as a leader of the nobility, for which role Reginald Pole, as a younger son, was not an obvious choice.
Mayer’s argument demands that the Dialogue be taken as critical of Henry VIII and his policies. Worden agrees, treating Pole’s insistence that he is in no way criticising Henry, but simply drawing attention to the fundamental flaws in a system of hereditary monarchy, as disingenuous and ironic. Worden rather sees the Dialogue as implicitly accusing the King of tyranny. But it is hard to see that the Dialogue endorsed any such charge. Pole rejected Papal supremacy, deplored appeals to Rome and denounced the payment of annates to Rome. Pole might well have approved of Henry’s break with Rome. That the real Pole did not, but came so vigorously to defend the Papacy, must cast doubt on Mayer’s association of Pole with Reginald Pole. Pole is much more plausibly a reflection of the views of Thomas Starkey. And Star-key, unlike Reginald Pole, went on in the mid-1530s to defend the break with Rome and the royal supremacy and to urge a via media in religion directed by the King, which must sharply qualify Worden’s claim that he was ‘England’s first Classical republican’.
It seems unlikely, then, that the Dialogue had as much to do with particular political issues as Mayer and Worden would believe. Much of the Dialogue is a moral treatise deploring moral failings – idleness, selfishness, gluttony – and their economic and social consequences. But in so far as the Dialogue is a political text, it is best seen as a theoretical exercise exploring how Italian and Classical forms of government might be applied to deal with English ills, an exercise that its author may have hoped would win him recognition and patronage – above all, from the King or from leading ministers. It would be a great pity if that ‘expanding readiness to relate the politics of the past to its literature’ – to ‘the literature of ideas and imagination’ and to the literature of political theory – which Worden so rightly commends should lead, by the imposition of circular and highly speculative interpretations far removed from the evidence for the politics of the day, to just the arid scholasticism which he has long so eloquently and properly deplored.
University of Southampton
‘It is not fashionable,’ writes Paula Backscheider (Letters, 24 May), ‘to say that people sometimes don’t read the books they review.’ Sadly, I find it all too common for authors, confronted by an unfavourable review, to insist that the reviewer cannot have read the book before him. I can sympathise to some extent with Backscheider’s reaction. Years of painstaking research evidently went into her Daniel Defoe, and it would indeed be galling to think that so much patient industry could have been dismissed by a ‘hasty scanning’. However, I can only assure her that I did indeed read her book carefully and thoroughly, and that the review I wrote represents my considered opinion.
Two weeks after my review appeared, the TLS published Maximilian Novak’s review of Professor Backscheider’s book. I assume that she would not accuse him, as she accuses me, of a ‘superficial understanding’ of Defoe’s periodical journalism. There is not one word of Novak’s review with which I disagree. He writes: ‘Backscheider’s Defoe is Hogarth’s good apprentice of the Industry and Idleness series … As a view of the man, it is certainly different from the adventurous Defoe of former biographers, but as a reading of his character it is almost totally lacking in depth and insight.’ Perhaps I should, like Novak, have acknowledged more fully the new documentary material that Backscheider has uncovered, but my fundamental point, like his, concerns her consistent blandness of tone (Novak calls it ‘obvious and banal’).
Backscheider confesses ‘some sympathy’ with my criticisms of her treatment of the novels, but characteristically expresses her misgivings in terms of bulk, not of interpretation: ‘I knew that many academic readers would not be happy with 26 pages on Robinson Crusoe’. But it is not the lack of space devoted to the novels that is at issue, but rather the lack of critical subtlety in consistently presenting Robinson Crusoe as a simple work of Christian piety like the Family Instructor.
King’s College, London
Eric Sams’s letter in the issue of 14 June contained a misprint. The sentence in question should have read: ‘So the hypothetical Elizabethan memoriser of a Jacobean text completely forgot most of it, misremembered almost all the rest, and added five hundred lines of his own – which is absurd.’
Editors, ‘London Review’
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.