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Letters

Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990

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Conservatism

According to Ian Gilmour’s review of my Conservatism (LRB, 12 July) I speak of Lord Hailsham’s ‘undergarment’, say that the Russian political system has fallen only as short as ours of being ideally democratic, and discuss books by Labour politicians. I don’t. This doesn’t much matter, but enables me to own up with greater equanimity to the little errors he finds in my book, and makes a meal of. His error rate seems to be higher. More important, he says I have written on a subject that doesn’t exist, since ‘Conservatism’ doesn’t pick out anything. That is a surprise, since he also announces the death of ‘socialism’. Perhaps keen not to be further associated with some people who might be part of the first subject, he makes it vanish, by noticing diversity in it. Very keen to bury all of the second, he is blithe about yet more diversity. He obscures the fact that in the course of my book I explicitly define the tradition which is its subject, by arriving at its true features. It is footling to say that nothing falls under that definition. Partly by being footling, he pretty well avoids the whole long argument and the largest single proposition in my book. It is about the rationale of Conservatism. He neither deals adequately with my argument nor, yet more important, supplies an alternative rationale. That is incomprehension or evasion – in any case, a critical reviewer’s disaster. It is also the intellectual disaster of Conservatism.

I am, he says, the archetypal rationalist of the nightmare of one of his mentors. When not in that dream-life, I wrote a chapter on Conservative claims as to bad and good sources of politics: rationalism, abstractionism etc, as against the test of time, empiricism etc. Ian Gilmour reports the numinous nonsense that political activity consists in being lost at sea, but does not try his hand with my arguments. He is clear that I am an ideologue and he isn’t. What is one? Anybody who propounds something other than ‘middle government’? That reduces his approval of himself as a non-ideologue to the news that a supporter of middle government is a supporter of middle government. As for my too great confidence in my views, I do not notice any great diffidence in his. It would be nice to go on – about the reluctant accommodations Conservatism has made with history, about declamation with respect to equality and liberty, which I discuss at some length, and about the nature of political philosophy. It is different from the history of ideas, guides to reading for the A level in Politics, and Popper-piety, which is well known outside philosophy but not in it.

Mr Gilmour enables me to get into the second edition of my book some little corrections that should have gone into the first, but he disturbs me not at all. He is upset because I have no respect for Conservatism. Should I, in civility, pretend a respect? I feel no inclination at this time when Conservative governments, from which I allow he is to be honourably distinguished, have made a society into a slum.

Ted Honderich
London WC1

Burlington Bertie

Julian Symons (LRB, 14 June) may well have written 27 detective stories, as your ‘contributors notes’ insist, but it ill-serves him to rewrite James King’s life of Herbert Read in the disguise of a review of it. Surely he might have detected better things in Read than this miserable catalogue of insufficiencies? It really doesn’t do to write Read down as saint and idiot, when he was plainly neither; nor to re-invent a ‘Clerical Read’ to explain away the fact that Read could sometimes write good plain English. Read’s best work both invoked and embodied a poetic vision, not to say that ‘sense of glory’ that meant so much to him – this Julian Symons might grudgingly concede: but he responded with a sense of duty to the conditions of his time and those of his immediate culture. He made himself, in a fully European sense, a responsible English intellectual. In so doing, he redefined the order and scope of sensibility that this seemed to require. He then set about an arduous process of bridge-building, not only across to the Continent (a task even now only half-accomplished), but between the English literary imagination, still now as complacently insular as it ever was, and the constructive visual world of the Modern Movement in the arts, design and architecture.

That Julian Symons is a little vague on this point might be inferred from his reference to ‘the Design Research Unit’ as though this was a public institution like the ICA or the Design Council: in fact, it was a commercial outfit. The bow-tie (if Read must be discussed in such terms) was less the insignia of cultural dandyism than de rigueur among tie-fanciers as un-dandified as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Nor would Read, alert to the suggestiveness of mandalas, fail to be equally aware of the hanging necktie as male genital display, a form of exhibitionism he could probably do without. Jungian hang-ups were common enough at that time, and are still valued literary property (as in the work of Peter Redgrove).

Herbert Read certainly did suffer one substantial handicap: that of being largely right about many of the significant issues of his and our day (as has since become clear enough, and not only in Eastern Europe). This may have reinforced such tendency to loneliness as he already possessed. If he slipped up on some of his lesser judgments, perhaps Julian Symons has occasionally done that too. I suspect that Read’s mistakes tended, at least, to proceed from two positive characteristics: a natural generosity, and a wish to approach issues with more of himself than intellectual perspicacity as such. He was not a sharpie, not, in fact, a scrupulous scholarly ‘intellectual’ but it is not quite right to call his responses ‘woolly’. ‘Accommodating’, perhaps.

There are then interesting things about Read’s reputation that go unmentioned, one of which is the Read industry in the States and Canada. This shows no signs of flagging. My brother (Louis Adeane) was doing a book on Read, leading to a lengthy correspondence now in the archive. As a result, he had numerous letters of enquiry from would-be thesis and dissertation writers. The presence of George Woodcock in Vancouver is surely not enough to account for this ongoing interest. Perhaps Julian Symons could do some detecting on this one.

Finally, it is surely reasonable to ask of a review that it say whether a book is worth buying or getting from the library. A further requirement might be to estimate its value against that of existing alternatives (in this case, the studies by Woodcock and Thistlewood). Julian Symons seems too absorbed in putting Read down to extend to his readers these quite ordinary critical courtesies.

Norman Potter
St Angeau, Mansle, France

Seeing my etchings

Barbara Everett and I disagree about the subject of the Rembrandt etching used on the dust-jacket of my essays (LRB, 12 July). I think it depicts Christ Disputing with the Doctors. She believes it shows Joseph Telling his Dreams, which is the traditional interpretation. As far as she is concerned, I am simply wrong.

There are three etchings of the young Christ disputing with the elders about which we could agree easily enough. The topos, as she points out, does in every case sketch in masonry. But I believe an artist like Rembrandt would want to experiment, because, like all topoi, it is a cliché. The temple in Jerusalem, as we see from Rembrandt’s etching of Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (Bartsch 69, Rijksmuseum), contained multitudes – money-changers, fig-sellers, a hamper of doves, a bolting calf, a dog worrying at some bones. It follows from this that I don’t accept Barbara Everett’s argument that the disputed scene is too domestic to be in a temple. It is only too domestic to be in a topos. The scene might easily be in one of the ‘uppermost rooms’ which the scribes and the Pharisees are said to love in Matthew 22:6.

Nor is the aged face of the woman an insuperable barrier to her being Mary. Christ is aged 12. Even earlier, in Rembrandt’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Bartsch 58, British Museum) and The Flight into Egypt (Bartsch 52, Rijksmuseum), Mary and Joseph are depicted as thoroughly middle-aged. Which is hardly surprising if Rembrandt was following the tradition in Mark 6:3: ‘Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ This makes at least six siblings. Ageing for the mother.

My reason for reproducing the disputed etching on the dust-jacket was that I write about it in the book – and I wanted readers to be able to check and verify. Without the original, all kinds of spurious claims might sound plausible. For instance, readers of Barbara Everett’s review will think the etching unambiguously depicts a day-bed on which is sprawled a woman in a night-cap. This is pure invention. There are curtains. They could be a day-bed. They could just be curtains. Temples had curtains: there are curtains in a similar configuration at the light source of Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple. The confidently identified ‘night-cap’ looks like a turban of sorts. Nothing associates this headgear, recurrent in Rembrandt, with sleep. Nor is the woman lying down. At the very least, she is sitting up. But nothing suggests she isn’t standing – awkwardly and anxiously peering over at her son and leaning on her husband.

Of the central figure, Barbara Everett says he hasn’t the face ‘of God’. True. He has the face of Jesus, or of Joseph. In the other three etchings of Christ Disputing with the Doctors, he hasn’t the face ‘of God’ either. It is a requirement only of Barbara Everett’s argument, not of Rembrandt’s etching.

Craig Raine
Oxford

Bardbiz

There is much to agree with in Graham Martin’s thoughtful discussion of the persistence of Shakespeare and the question of value (Letters, 28 June). May I suggest nevertheless a few complicating questions? The reason why people want to get Shakespeare on their side, or else to repudiate him, need not have a lot to do with Shakespeare as such. He is thus regarded because he is what I call a powerful cultural token: he is already where meaning is produced, and people therefore want to appropriate him – as they do the Pope or Madonna. Getting Sejanus on one’s side seems rather like getting, say, Merlyn Rees – very worthwhile but not too inspiring. Everyone knows that it’s easier to draw a crowd with the Pope or Madonna than with Merlyn Rees. Similarly, publishers like books with Shakespeare in the title (examiners set him, the Arts Council funds him …). However, I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare – there may well be such factors. Nevertheless, I might legitimately regard the cultural token business as equally worth attention: after all, there are lots of people devoting themselves to why Shakespeare is intrinsically special.

The simple diversity of critical opinion seems to ratify Martin’s thought that Shakespearian texts are riven with ideological contradictions and resist a unified account. Martin suggests, tentatively, that this may be related to the way Shakespearian texts are dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, and hence resist interpretation while stimulating appropriation. One problem with this is that it seems dangerously close to being a description of what has been happening rather than an explanation of it. Further, I am happy to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, but whether that would account for the plays resisting interpretation while stimulating appropriation is another matter; in fact, it is going to be pretty difficult to demonstrate any intrinsic textual characteristics that do that. In any event, I think most cultural materialists now would expect to find ideological contradiction in all texts, or perhaps all texts of any length and ambition. Sejanus, for instance. For contradiction is a characteristic of ideology and hence a condition of cultural production. So we may still not have reached a distinctive marker of Shakespeare’s value. And I will be hovering with my alternative argument that we produce the effect by talking about the plays so much – which is precisely the process through which cultures empower cultural tokens.

I’m surprised, finally, that Graham Martin thinks cultural materialists don’t address value. It seems to me that they say all the time that value is historically, culturally, determined. This does not, of course, mean that there are no values, only that they cannot be expected to work outside their customary context. And in fact we know that by very many people Shakespeare is not valued, even within our own culture. Further, cultural materialists have been criticised for being unusually straightforward about their values, instead of deploying the traditional critical strategy of mystifying them as natural or human or Shakespeare’s. Above all, the historical contingency of values seems demonstrated by Martin’s thought that the prominence of Shakespeare derives from the way he resists interpretation while stimulating appropriation. This strikes me as not what would have appealed to the Verdi-without-music people, or even the Charter 77 people: but it is exactly the kind of value you would expect to find proposed by people like us at the present time and place.

Alan Sinfield
University of Sussex

Affinities

I am grateful to George Steiner for his extended account of my Spinoza and Other Heretics (LRB, 19 April). I liked his liberal use of quotation marks, which let the author’s voice, too, be heard. The piece is entitled ‘Affinities’, and I felt that it betrayed his own affinity, not only for Baruch Spinoza, the lucid loner, but for the predicament of ‘an exile within an exile’ in Spinoza’s Marrano background, as described in Volume One; and also for the disillusioned, secular philosophy, infused with this-worldly spirituality, which Spinoza introduced into later modern thought (the subject of Volume Two). Yet despite this, Steiner has misunderstood the methodology of the two volumes, and therefore much of my argument. He attributes to each volume an exaggerated claim it does not make, and finds it unconvincing. Of the Marrano story in Volume One – that of the Iberian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, and their dazzling dualities – Steiner says that I make it ‘existentially determinant’ of Spinoza’s whole case. ‘According to Yovel,’ he tells his readers, the Marrano experience ‘is the source and informing dominant in the entirety of Spinoza’s life and labours’. I certainly don’t hold this inflated view and in fact warned against it in my text. I did, of course, happily spend almost an entire volume on the varieties of Marrano culture in Spinoza’s background (including Roja’s Celestina) and found them highly illuminating and relevant: but unlike others (whom Steiner wrongly believes I go ‘far beyond’), I do not try to make this an exclusive approach.

In calling Spinoza ‘the Marrano of Reason’ I make a claim, not about causality, but about analogies and recurrent patterns. I notice certain patterns of Marrano life and mentality that manifest themselves throughout two centuries of Marranism, and then recur in Spinoza’s case as well, transformed from the universe of historical religion into the opposite world of secular reason and immanence. These patterns include a break between the inner and the outer life; an intellectual quest, unrest and ambivalence; a knack for dual language, mask and equivocation; a tendency to religious scepticism in some – and also an aspiration to a more inward and spiritual religiosity in others; a career broken in two; and, above all, the pursuit of an alternative way to salvation, opposing the way of the ruling orthodoxy. ‘We are saved not by Christ, but by the Law of Moses,’ said the Judaising Marranos. ‘We are saved neither by Christ nor by Moses, but by reason and the “third kind of knowledge",’ said Spinoza.

Steiner’s reading of Volume Two is even more puzzling to me. This volume follows the adventures of the idea of immanence (as I call Spinoza’s leading idea) in the work of other moderns from Kant to Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. The pattern I trace of their relation to Spinoza is that of ‘enemy brothers’, best illustrated by Nietzsche, but recurring in all the others as well. They all shared the idea of immanence, but construed it in contrasting ways, in response to the flaws they found in each others’ construal, or in Spinoza’s original. I do not stand refuted, therefore, as Steiner suggests, by the fact that all these thinkers had serious differences with Spinoza: this is part of my thesis. I don’t have to ‘admit’ it in ‘painful honesty’, for I say so myself and quite cheerfully. Thank God that Nietzsche and Marx have also diverged from Spinoza: otherwise, the history of ideas would be as simple-minded and barren as both I and Steiner know it can’t be.

Yirmiyahu Yovel
Spinoza Institute, Jerusalem

Homer and Virgil and Broch

‘The translation of a classic text, as it challenges and inserts itself within the heritage of prior translations, is a radically hermeneutic act’ (George Steiner, LRB, 12 July). Would acting hermeneutically help me find a publisher for my Virgil’s Eclogues in Scots?

William Milne
London SW18

‘No Smoking’

Elizabeth Hill charges Fiona Pitt-Kethley with insulting women, men and poetic tradition in her poem ‘No Smoking’ (Letters, 14 June). It is true that in a certain sense Ms Pitt-Kethley might be said to play the latterday Swift to her own Celia with the ribald, sometimes raunchy and always refreshing glimpses which she affords into her own (or into someone’s) experience: but such glimpses could only be said to insult a vision of women which would deny them their full humanity by placing them on a pedestal of rectitude and so-called purity.

It is furthermore true that Ms Pitt-Kethley dishes up a blow to masculine self-esteem when she depicts lover-boy fiddling with her protagonist’s tits, in that men might not like to think of the women to whom or upon whom they bestow their love-making gifts as capable of such a shrewd, lucid, lofty, wry or Olympian perspective – i.e. looking down upon them in all their puny ineffectiveness. Men prefer to think of women as swooningly lost in the face of those all-dissolving thunderbolts which they have thrown or are preparing to throw: but to say that Ms Pitt-Kethley insults men by thus exposing them is to say that men should never suffer the perhaps rude awakening of being shown to themselves as women see them.

As for the alleged insult to poetic tradition, all I can say is that in the midst of too many contemporary poems which either try to pass off their flaccid and banal domestic prosiness as verse or which try to out-Stevens Stevens in their coy, inaccessible and otiose ruminations upon something which may or may not be said to resemble a self, I am inclined to see that tradition as enhanced and revitalised by someone who can employ but at the same time wittily heighten (as in the wonderful last line of her poem) such language as men and women really use.

William Guy
Franconia, New Hampshire

The Return of History

As one would expect, Raphael Samuel’s piece (LRB, 14 June) is well-argued and poses, quite deliberately, I suspect, as many questions as it answers. Talking of the Sixties, Samuel notes that ‘knowledge of the sources was the profession’s substitute for thought.’ Twenty years ago the Left attacked right-wing historians, quite correctly, for crude empiricism. Now the boot is on the other foot. The Right makes sweeping political generalisations while the Left is lost in the library.

Keith Flett
London N17

Editorial Mischief

I would not have read two sentences about John McEnroe – or any other tennis-player – had not the article on ‘Mad John’ followed one about Eysenck (LRB, 28 June) and I suspect editorial mischief. It has always been obvious to me that those who spend whole lives playing ball games are cases of arrested development, but what to say about the eminent psychologist now revealed? Does McEnroe recall his own exceptional ability at sandcastles too? Would he, too, perceive an elderly man as a rival, and take pleasure in vanquishing him? Perhaps so, and we may assume that his audience would ‘applaud wildly’ too. ‘McEnroe is, above all, a complicated man,’ we are told, and so is Eysenck, we may be sure. They are alike in being just that little bit endearing – at a convenient distance.

David Shillam
London W5

London Library

I am completing a discursive and anecdotal history of the London Library to be published next year, the 150th anniversary of its founding by Carlyle and Co, and would be very grateful indeed for any personal reminiscences, ideally of a sensational nature, as well as any literary or historical references I may have missed, particularly in unpublished correspondence.

John Wells
14 Scarsdale Villas,

Perkin’s Paperback

I was delighted to see Jose Harris’s review of The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 by Harold Perkin in the 10 May issue of the LRB. I would like to point out that the bock is now also available in a paperback edition, price £ 12.99.

Alexandra Kempner
Routledge, London EC4

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