Vol. 12 No. 18 · 27 September 1990

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You cannot have it both ways. Ross McKibbin (LRB, 30 August) blames Conservatives because hardly any attempt to defend the present government ideologically; Peter Clarke (on the next page) blames them because rather a lot do so. Comparing their reviews, a Conservative might conclude that there is still too little agreement among the discontented for them to be ideologically effective. Both reviewers try their best to demonstrate that Conservative ideas are outdated because British politics currently ‘seem curiously provisional’. If change discredited Conservatism, as Peter Clarke implies, their argument would be easily won; but things are somewhat more complex, and an argument which seeks to build so large a superstructure on little more than mid-term blues is likely to persuade few beyond the already committed. We need better analysis. I would have been happier if we could have carried the argument further, and been eager to include both authors, could they so have carried it, in the collection I edited, Ideas and Politics in Modern Britain. Yet where McKibbin treats the eclectic nature of the contributions to The Alternative as a merit, Clarke find the eclecticism of Ideas and Politics a demerit. You cannot have it both ways.

I would rather that McKibbin and Clarke had had a positive vision which deserved inclusion. It was the absence of such a vision which my collection and Roger Scruton’s provoked them to reveal, as when McKibbin recorded how many contributors to The Alternative had absorbed Eighties Conservative ideas (a point established repeatedly in my collection) and Clarke advocated that the good ideas of my volume be ‘plucked and pilfered and purloined’ by the opposition. It is once again unfortunate that a lack of new thinking has left these two reviewers with that tone of bitterness and resentment which, to outside observers, too often both characterises the LRB and limits its effectiveness. Marxism Today and the Salisbury Review both lack that tone. By contrast, the essayists reviewed, whether from the background of Marxism Today or All Souls, seem to share much common ground in their analysis of the current situation. Is everyone out of step except your reviewers?

Jonathan Clark
All Souls College, Oxford

Old Scores

Colin McGinn’s most fair assessment of A.J. Ayer (LRB, 30 August) took me back. Ten years ago Dora Russell thought that it was about time that her late ex-husband had a memorial to his name and person. Fenner Brockway agreed and brought in Freddie Ayer and myself. The site they had in mind was Red Lion Square where, in Conway Hall, I was the General Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society. Fenner had the right connections with Camden Council, whose support was essential, and I took on the Appeal. It was one of those rare occasions when all doors open and everything goes well. In October 1980 Dora unveiled the bust to Bertie and we adjourned to a reception in the Hall. So today Russell, in classic style, adorns one end of the square while Fenner himself, as Agitator, stands at the other.

It is the sequel that occasions this letter, however. It must have been a couple of years later that Freddie invited me round to 51 York Street to spend an evening with himself and Vanessa. We talked for hours as we got through a whole bottle of whisky. Towards the end of the evening he mentioned that he had just finished a book that surveyed 20th-century philosophy. I said, ‘Have you included John Rawls?’ and he replied: ‘No. Should I?’ I was lost for words and fumbled a way out. What I was saying in my head was: ‘If you have left Rawls out your book is a dead duck.’ But for some reason there was no way I could make such an utterance. In due course the book appeared and so far as I can make out has never been heard of since. How right then is Colin McGinn’s judgment that Ayer was ‘less than fully receptive’ (!) of ideas ‘emanating from America’ and that he wrote ‘as if philosophy was essentially over’.

Peter Cadogan
London NW6

In my review of A.J. Ayer’s The Meaning of Life, I made the point that postulating the existence of an afterlife to confer meaning on our mortal life is viciously regressive, since the question must arise as to the meaning of this alleged afterlife; and similarly for postulating God. I have since stumbled upon a passage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus which must be making essentially the same point:

Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.

It is interesting enough that Wittgenstein makes this point, which I have not myself seen made elsewhere; but it is doubly interesting that he does so in the Tractatus in the light of his logically parallel argument concerning the nature of linguistic meaning in the Investigations. I noted the parallel in my review, but was not then aware that he makes both points (though in different places). I do not, however, know of anywhere in his writings in which he brings them both together. Was he aware of the homology between the two arguments?

Colin McGinn
New York

Seeing my etchings

Like Barbara Everett, (Letters, 13 September), I think Craig Raine is wrong to claim that the Rembrandt etching traditionally known as Joseph Telling His Dreams (Bartsch 37) is really Christ Disputing with the Doctors. My reason is this. The central figure is addressing himself principally to two people: an old man and a young, round-cheeked woman who has a book open on her knees (which I take to be her Book of Dreams). Even after we have granted Raine the benefit of every doubt (it would be useful to compare Bartsch 37 with the Rijksmuseum grisaille known as Bredius 504), we are left with the young woman, so far unmentioned in the correspondence. She is Raine’s principal problem. I think she can’t be there. No one is going to allow her to sit snugly in the centre of the Temple discussion, book in hand, and swap points of law with the doctors – either in reality or in Rembrandt’s imagination. The bed in the background is a difficulty for Raine’s thesis. The young woman and her book seem fatal.

It’s also hard not to be struck by the central figure’s close resemblance to the Joseph who is losing his cloak to Potiphar’s wife and averting his eyes from her considerable, clean-shaven vulva (Bartsch 39, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife). But Raine is right that this sort of thing proves nothing. Raine is usually right, in fact, and several of Rembrandt’s etchings – and many of his works – have deservedly lost their traditional titles. Both the old titles of Bartsch 202, Woman with the Arrow and Venus and Cupid, are notoriously mistaken. Nevertheless, I think we have here a small Haydnian valve trumpet – unless I’m riffing on Machaut’s saxophone.

Galen Strawson
Jesus College, Oxford

Craig Raine writes: Barbara Everett, Charles Morgenstern (Letters, 13 September) and now Galen Strawson have advanced many arguments in the case of Joseph Telling His Dreams versus The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors. Some, however, are more persuasive than others.

I am quite prepared to concede the secondary point that Titus Rembrandt was born too late, 1641, to be the model for an etching which dates from 1638, but I would like to know the grounds for such a dating. Perhaps Barbara Everett will tell us. My main point still stands and her citation of images of the mature Christ preaching is beside the point. In none of the three undisputed etchings of The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors (Bartsch 64, 65, 66) is he given an auriole. Nor does his tunic especially mark him out from the robes of those around him. His age does that. A larger point arises from this. I haven’t invented a Rembrandt in my own image: he was an earthy type even in religious contexts. In the Dahlem in Berlin, there is a large painting of John the Baptist preaching, Predigt Johannes des Täufers. The huge crowd includes, dim but unmistakable, a mother who is holding her child by the thighs so that it can shit into the river.

Charles Morgenstern is probably right about ‘long, sleeved’, as opposed to ‘long-sleeved’. My mistake comes from the 1970 edition of The New Scofield Reference Bible. However, my argument that Rembrandt makes no attempt to render the many-coloured quality of the robe is not, therefore, irrelevant. We have no way of knowing whether Rembrandt was a Hebrew scholar. ‘The artist,’ Morgenstern writes, ‘had many learned Jewish friends with whom he may have discussed this very point.’ Or not.

This brings me to Barbara Everett’s assertion that the figure in the top right-hand corner can only be dressing. Given that she refers to Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, she might be expected to remember Gombrich’s citation from Die Fliegenden Blätter of a drawing which is ‘either a rabbit or a duck’. It is on page four. Even under a magnifying glass, Rembrandt’s figure doesn’t provide us with enough visual information to justify Barbara Everett’s imaginative inventory of action and wardrobe: ‘the man is lifting, shifting, setting in place and pulling down (all in one gesture) his waistcoat or jerkin.’ The age of the men on the right of the etching hasn’t quite been disposed of by Barbara Everett either. It isn’t the discrepancy between their age and that of Joseph that worries me. It is the lack of discrepancy between the age of Jacob and the ‘brothers’, at least two of whom look markedly older than their father.

Galen Strawson’s letter raises a point of real substance – not the bed-curtains, which are ambiguous in this etching, but the presence of a woman. I don’t know how he knows that the book on her lap is a ‘Book of Dreams’ or how he knows she is there to ‘swap points of law with the doctors’. Nevertheless, even without these inventive embellishments, her very presence is a real difficulty for my interpretation. The force of this counter-argument depends on how meticulously Judaic Rembrandt thought it necessary to be in his portrait of a Jewish temple. In the undisputed etchings of The Young Christ Disputing, there are several bare-headed male figures. Not many, but enough to show that Rembrandt’s depiction was not pedantic. Christ himself is bareheaded in every case.

In addition, in The Presentation in the Temple (Bartsch 49, British Museum) and in every other Presentation there is a mingled crowd of men and women. (Not to mention a dog in the foreground, exposing itself as it scratches behind its ear.) And in The Young Christ Disputing (Bartsch 65, British Museum) there are two heads which can be plausibly read as women – a black woman and the face third from the left in the background. I think this answers his point.

Galen Strawson remarks parenthetically that ‘it would be useful to compare Bartsch 37 with the Rijksmuseum grisaille known as Bredius 504.’ (The ‘preparatory study’ referred to by Barbara Everett must mean this, too.) He clearly hasn’t seen this grisaille or he would know it is more than ‘useful’. Having now seen it for myself, I know it is fatal for the interpretation I have been defending. As Charles Morgenstern says, this grisaille, despite the odd transposition, is clearly of the same subject, whether it be The Young Christ Disputing or Joseph Telling His Dreams. In it, the curtains are the curtains of an unmistakable bed. On this, I do concede, with gratitude to all my tireless correspondents.

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