In the old days, Communist rule in Eastern Europe used to be condemned on the grounds that it barred the local populations from enjoying the benefits of Western-style democracy. Today we are increasingly told that Western-style democracy is not appropriate for them. This is the basic message of Michael Howard’s ‘Impressions from a Journey in Central Europe’ (LRB, 25 October). He tells us that ‘what Central Europe needs today is not so much formal democracy on the Western model as strong government commanding broad consensus, responsive to popular needs, and operating within the rule of law.’ The catch lies in the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘formal democracy on the Western model’.
Common sense might suggest that a government in command of a ‘broad consensus’ and ‘responsive to popular needs’ would not have to be any stronger than its counterparts in the West. However, the account the author gives us of the situation prevailing today in what he calls Central Europe – the lands of ‘Western Christendom’ lying east of the Nato countries – makes clear why he is ready to dispense in so cavalier a manner with the ‘formalities’ of a democratic order. It is because of his sympathy for governments currently planning or executing measures that precisely do not command any ‘broad consensus’. For the dismantling of the significant public welfare provisions left behind by the previous regimes, the generation of large-scale unemployment, and the reintroduction of sharp social polarisation – all in the name of free-market values – can hardly fail to reduce the popularity of the new post-Communist governments. They are, therefore, contemplating a ‘rule of law’ which will precisely do away with the imperative of maintaining a ‘broad consensus’.
Here lies the root of the problem. The populations seem most unwilling to give a mandate for this kind of social surgery. If governments proceed without one, they might indeed even rebel: ‘it would not be, therefore, surprising if quite bitter social conflicts develop in Central Europe.’ Consequently, according to Howard, to ‘contain that conflict and make it fruitful’ strong but not necessarily democratic governments are required.
This prospect, of course, plays havoc with the Cold War rhetoric of ‘struggle against totalitarianism’. To justify himself, the author is obliged to invert reality. Rather than ascribing future limitations of democracy to the new rulers, he places the burden of responsibility upon the peoples themselves: ‘the failure of the peoples of Central Europe instantly to adopt democratic ways’. The reasons for this alleged failure are, interestingly, not to be sought in the ‘numbing effect of living for generations under a totalitarian rule’: that would not wash, given the record of popular participation in the momentous changes of the past year. The explanation instead lies in the whole previous history of the countries in question. This history, abruptly brought out of the cupboard and dusted off for our benefit, turns out – not surprisingly – to be made up of an absence of ‘democratic traditions’. Even the poor Czechs are not absolved, since they allowed a strong Communist Party to develop before the Second World War. The verdict is clear: ‘the history of Central Europe has produced a political culture distinct from that of the West.’ In contrast to their combative Western neighbours (‘growth of self-governing institutions’, ‘drastic destruction of the feudal order’), these peoples are steeped in a culture of ‘acquiescence if not submission, tempered by scepticism and evasion’.
An obvious retort springs to mind: if the population does not aspire to Western-style democracy – being genetically, so to speak, predisposed to acquiescence tempered by evasion – then why should there be any need for ‘strong governments’ to rule over them? But the traveller is not concerned with logic. His job is to propel his Western readers gently along the path of submission to the idea that what Eastern Europe requires today is not more but less democracy. If ‘we cannot, from such roots, expect modern liberal democracy to emerge overnight,’ then we should accept the idea that backward, illiberal and anti-democratic regimes – the kind of regimes we would not tolerate here in the West – will and must emerge there.
Indeed, the problem of democracy in Central Europe, he argues, is not a function of economic difficulties (an alleged ‘forty years of stagnation and neglect’), and thus cannot be solved through Western economic aid and investment. Democracy in Central Europe will not only ‘take time’, but its end-product ‘is likely to be along lines rather different from our own’. ‘We must accept,’ Howard concludes, ‘that in our new European house, there are likely to be many mansions, and that in some of them we [of the West] may not find ourselves entirely comfortable.’
Under the guise of benign liberalism, this approach to the potent issue of democracy serves only one purpose: to legitimise in advance the emergence of authoritarian political structures in East Central Europe. The language of the Cold War – of what the author calls the ‘Manichaean division’ of the world into ‘totalitarian and democratic, slave or free’ – is no longer needed today. The Rights of Man can once again be safely defined as the Rights of Western Man. The worry remains, however, that ‘once the present excitement is over … nostalgia for the good old days, when currency was stable and jobs were secure, may become a serious problem.’ The spectre of Communism (albeit in a new guise) may well come back to haunt Europe. The discomfort of cohabiting with authoritarian regimes within the ‘new European house’ may be a price worth paying to avoid such a prospect. But what if the peoples of Central Europe decide differently? What would happen to Howard’s application to the issue of democracy of the old maxim of cuius regio, eius religio if Central Europe were once again to tilt strongly to the left?
Howard’s West, whose democratic credentials he takes for granted, includes countries that have given birth to fascism (Italy, Germany), that were not long ago run as dictatorships (Greece, the Iberian peninsula), that colonised much of the world (Britain, France. Holland) and that have supported as part of the ‘free world’ some of the most obnoxiously undemocratic regimes. His democratic ‘Anglo-Saxon world’ was not long ago engaged in carpet-bombing the villages and towns of Cambodia and Vietnam, mining the ports of Nicaragua, invading sovereign countries. By contrast, over the past year the peoples of East Central Europe have gone through peaceful and orderly elections, and since then maintained – despite the enormous problems they confront – a commitment to democracy that is in many ways unparalleled in the European West, where civil war (Northern Ireland, Spain), the rule of organised crime (Italy) and near-universal racist ferment form part of everyday life.
If the costs of the Cold War were higher in the East, that does not mean the West was spared them either: the progressive shift of power from legislative to executive branches of government, and bloated military budgets, are two obvious examples. The West also has its ecological ruins. If Europe is to be a truly new house rather than a refurbished old one, it must be constructed as a single mansion.
Poor Thomas Laqueur! According to Michael Mason’s review of his book Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (LRB, 8 November), Laqueur was once a respectable scholar whose work on Victorian Sunday schools produced a ‘plausible insight about our ancestors’ – but then, alas, he came down with a disease. What is this ‘new and potent intellectual virus’ that has already ravaged the community of literary academics and now shows its ‘destructive potential … for the writing of history’? The dread disease is the New Historicism, and your reviewer’s subtlety as a pathologist enables him to ‘detect the first signs of a fatal liking for intellectual glitz’ even in Laqueur’s Sunday school excursions.
As befits someone who medicalises intellectual disagreement, turning what he does not like into a viral infection, Mr Mason never offers an account of New Historicism. Instead he brings forward against Laqueur’s book a farrago of incompatible charges, all of which are somehow attributable to his illness: incoherence and opacity, an inexplicable forgetting that society is stratified, a ‘Foucaultesque determination’ that politics must be ascendant over the cognitive, a failure to assert this ascendancy, a ‘gloomy disparaging of the past’, a taste for rehearsing the ‘political shortcomings of our ancestors’, a fondness for ‘the sneering stereotype’, ‘a pretty cool piece of insolence’, a ‘disdaining’ of ‘mere causality’, a will ‘to sweep under the carpet the abundant evidence’ that contradicts his narrow thesis, and, ‘bizarrely’, a willingness to cite evidence that contradicts this thesis.
It does not occur to your reviewer, of course, that the ‘bizarre’ inconsistency of this bill of particulars is the consequence not of the book’s limitations but of his own utter failure to understand Laqueur’s argument. In the face of this failure, Mr Mason turns, on the one hand, to the bankrupt rhetoric of anti-intellectual abuse and, on the other hand, to a blustering and equally hollow display of pedantry. He charges Laqueur with a ‘misleading’ and ‘tendentious’ use of Michael Ryan’s Manual of Jurisprudence (1836) as the ‘main evidence’ for the emergence of the view that since women can conceive while asleep, orgasm is not necessary for conception – i.e. that women produce eggs spontaneously. In fact, in the course of a rich and subtle exposition of the history of this view, Laqueur cites, among others, Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace (1756), R. Couper’s Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female (1785), E. Sibley’s Medical Mirror (circa 1790), John Mason Good’s The Study of Medicine (1823), J.A. Paris and J.S.M. Fontblanque’s Medical Jurisprudence (1823), E. Kennedy’s Obstetric Medicine (1834) and T.R. Beck’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1836), along with Kleist’s marvellous story, ‘The Marquise of O’.
But footnote wars (all of which Laqueur would win hands down) are perhaps less interesting than the argument Mr Mason hopelessly botches. That argument is about the relation between progress in scientific knowledge and glacial shifts in collective understanding. Laqueur’s point is that this relation is more complex, over-determined, and at the same time elusive, than anyone has grasped. There is unmistakable progress in the medical understanding of sexuality and there are crucial changes in the conceptualisation of gender, but there is no easy link between them, no overarching pattern of causality, no grand theory of knowledge or institutions that enables the historian to construct a unified explanatory account. At the same time, there is something that needs to be explained: beyond the bewilderingly discontinuous histories, one can discern a momentous cultural passage from what Laqueur calls a one-sex model to a two-sex model of the human body, a passage with consequences not only for medical science but also for the prosecution of rape, the writing of novels, the conception of psyche and society.
Mr Mason shows that he is already hopelessly wide of the mark when he writes dismissively that ‘the first part of the story, up until the Enlightenment, is relatively uncomplicated.’ In fact, the first two-thirds of Laqueur’s book is a brilliant account of just how complicated the Galenic inheritance was – and how amazingly tenacious, since, as he shows, key elements of the one-sex model survive into the present. But for Mr Mason these survivals are evidence only of the deficiencies of the New Historicism (a term nowhere used, by the way, in Laqueur’s book). What the reviewer seems to want of history is a set of boxes neatly nesting one inside the other. The account offered by Laqueur is not so comfortable. He is dealing with a set of semi-autonomous discourses, and his history has in consequence neither the clear boundaries of strictly demarcated disciplines nor the single explanatory formula of the grand récit. In this Laqueur does indeed share with the literary critics Mr Mason despises a sense of the inadequacy of the old causal accounts of the relationship between text and context, imagination and reality, the organisation of knowledge and the organisation of society. He share with them as well, I think, an uneasiness with everything implied by the reviewer’s repeated invocations of ‘our ancestors’. Is there only one set of ancestors whom ‘we’ all share?
University of California, Berkeley
I was aghast when I read Michael Mason’s diagnosis that I had succumbed, without even knowing it, to the destructive virus of New Historicism, although, as someone interested in the cultural power of medicine, I love the metaphor. I could show the ways in which your reviewer either overlooked or misinterpreted, wilfully or by inadvertence, 1. the first four chapters of my book, Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud; 2. the history of ovariotomy; 3. the relation of the discovery of spontaneous ovulation to the novel 19th-century view that menstruation in women was the equivalent of heat in dogs and cats; 4. the very, very minor role I attributed to the urologist William Acton in the important and unprecedented debate about female passionlessness; 5. the perfectly obvious reasons why a discussion of ‘spermatorrhea’ and other male uro-genital disorders are irrelevant to my argument, and so on. But that would require a closer look at my book than your reviewer obviously had time for, and I do not just now want to take up the space necessary to prove him wrong.
I do, however, want to talk aetiology. Neither Foucault, nor Nietzsche, nor New Historicism, nor some even nastier pathogen, made me abandon the micro-economic model of causation I used in my work on education, for which I am faintly praised. Ten years of old-fashioned empirical work – the sort of wallowing in the sources that we historians relish – demonstrated that the relationship of medicine to culture, and that of medicine to the understanding of sexual difference, do not function as do rational actors whose preference functions determine how they spend scarce resources to meet limitless wants. What I call the ‘two-sex’ model is not the necessary or even natural consequence of corporeal difference or what we know about bodies; and neither for that matter is the ‘one-sex’ model. I make this claim based on considerable historical evidence, in five languages and in many different contexts, which convinced me that how sexual difference was imagined in the past was largely unconstrained by what was known about this or that bit of anatomy, this or that physiological process. It derived instead from the particular rhetorical, cultural and political exigencies of the moment. I was further convinced that the processes by which this takes place are not linear. Although, for reasons which I discuss, a two-sex model based on biological reductionism gained ascendancy after the Enlightenment, both one- and two-sex ways of thinking, contrary to what I thought earlier, have always been, and remain, available.
University of California, Berkeley
Michael Mason writes: At no point in my review did I deny that the interplay of cognitive with ideological and political factors in the history of ideas about sexuality is, and is bound to be, horribly complex. I did say that Professor Laqueur seemed to have fallen back on a procedure in which complexity was exaggerated, rather than clarified as far as it truthfully could be. By contrast, it was he who was simplistic, indeed completely negligent, on the differences there might be between the ideas of various social groups, lay and medical, in this domain. Professor Greenblatt speaks of ‘my utter failure to understand Laqueur’s argument’, but it seems to have been exceeded by his own incomprehension of the book he admires so much. Laqueur does not say that women’s conceiving in their sleep, without orgasm, was understood in the early 19th century to mean that they ovulated spontaneously. I’m sure he would have been most irritated if I had attributed this view to him: it forges exactly the kind of ‘easy link’ between science and larger concepts which Professor Greenblatt praises his book for not attempting. Perhaps Professors Greenblatt and Laqueur should exchange a few letters in private.
Defending F.R. Leavis’s contribution to English literary culture, my colleague David Craig (Letters, 8 November) wonders whether Olivier’s performance of Othello would have been possible without the critic’s interpretation. As one who frequently heard Leavis’s side of this matter at York University in the Seventies, I found this an ironic piece of pleading. Leavis’s story was that Olivier had had the temerity to write a letter of thanks to him for the influence of his essay, but that he was so appalled to be associated with such a production and film, and to be approached about it by a mere mummer, that he had not deigned to reply.
Whether true or not, this snarling anecdote explains why Leavis’s professorship at York was not nearly as congenial as the English Department had hoped, or as the dedication of his late essays, ‘To my students at York’, would suggest. The York years have been little discussed, but my impression is that they were a recapitulation of the old pattern of disappointment and alienation. And if Mrs Leavis was echoing her husband’s views when she inveighed against those ‘ruining English in the new universities’, as Craig recalls, then it is not surprising that his students and colleagues at York felt mutual distaste.
In a university with a strong dramatic, musical and artistic culture Leavis’s philistinism saddened us. But at a time of dawning sexual politics, what shocked was the casual, habitual and coarse homophobia with which he laced his literary discrimination and denigrated the ‘fancy boys’ of the Sunday newspapers or the BBC. He shared, he made clear on every occasion, Lawrence’s neurosis about the ‘horrible sodomitic beetles’ he found in Keynes’s circle at Cambridge. Scarcely a seminar went by without a jibe that ‘I may not be able to appreciate the civilisation of the Bloomsbury writers, Morgan Forster and Lytton Strachey, but then I am not in the habit of consorting with guardsmen.’
Much of Leavis’s scorn was delivered with a demonic glee intended to scandalise, as when ‘Tom Eliot’ was pictured sitting in ‘a pile of ash this high’, or Bertrand Russell ‘fornicating like an alley cat’. But the homophobic disgust was more serious, as was the unease with which he introduced his memories of walks with Wittgenstein with the (to us mysterious) explanation that ‘he was a whole man … a whole man.’ There was, of course, a difference of tone between seminars and lectures, but the awareness that below-the-belt remarks were intended for the amusement of those who shared his idea of ‘wholeness’ made us all the more uncertain when he insinuated: ‘This is so, is it not?’ Leavis’s homophobia has not featured in recollections of his teaching. It was an ugly populist streak that survives in the jeers of his imitators at the Cambridge Quarterly against ‘the Marxist powderpuff Auden’. But outside such quarters, it is not, surely, honoured as part of ‘the literary culture of this country’.
University of Lancaster
David Craig writes as movingly and candidly about his personal relationship with F.R. Leavis as Paul Addison, in the same issue, does about his with A.J.P. Taylor. But isn’t the contrast between their two mentors illuminating? Taylor never sought to create a ‘Taylorite’ school. His verdicts on other historians never had the force of anathema.
When a group of us arrived at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1960 to ‘read English’ (what a fatuous expression that seems, as one writes it down), Leavis’s influence was at its height. Our tutor, John Broadbent, encouraged us to go to those famous seminars in Downing. I never made the trip. I’d been active in YCND and had there encountered the madder sort of Trot. (I should add that I’ve since known some very pleasant, sane Trots.) I already recognised a sect when I saw one.
At the famous occasion when – as the whole town knew in advance he would – Leavis recanted on Dickens, his lecture began, as I recall: ‘Dickens was, of course, the greatest English novelist …’ Coming from the man whose dismissive remarks in The Great Tradition had helped to veil Dickens’s abundance from a whole generation of critics, this was a breathtaking assertion. But like those which followed, it was delivered in a nasal mumble to a row of disciples at the front – the rest of us were merely ‘in attendance’.
However, the most serious charge against Leavis is not that he wielded the heresiarch’s weapon of sectarian paranoia so unpleasantly. Nor that his judgments were questionable – every citizen has a perfect right to construct, and even to publish, her or his own ‘great tradition’. (Myself, I occupy insomniac small hours trying to select the all-time best cricket XI to play Mars, and the results of my researches might yet find print …) The worst feature of ‘Leavisism’ was that it promoted a sociological disaster of Chernobyl proportions: the overproduction of intellectually vacuous English teachers, at all levels, who talked and wrote as if all ye needed to know on earth could be found in yer very own reading of George Eliot or D.H. Lawrence.
Leavis asserted that ‘English’ was, or should be, the queen of the humanities. In fact, it is – and should be – a mongrel discipline. In so far as it has involved the wholesome work of editing texts, annotating them, and exploring their contexts, it is, like ‘art history’, a thoroughly valuable area of historical studies. Where its practitioners venture aesthetic, ‘critical’ judgments these must, to be interesting, have some sort of worked-out philosophical basis.
There are essentially only two Arts disciplines: philosophy and history. Leavis’s wonderful Cambridge contemporary, Empson, showed how a clever yet ethically concerned thinker could bring the two basic disciplines together in such a way as to provoke clear thought about literature, and also about language, in which both as historians and as philosophers we are mortally, so to speak, incarcerated. Taylor was not, I suppose, like Empson in most respects. But each man clearly sought to provoke, not to dominate.
I know that a travesty and a transvestite tumble out of the same bed, but Danny Karlin’s hairy-legged attempt to pee on Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s feet (Letters, 8 November) can’t be let pass. There’s none so deaf as those that won’t hear. I suspect that Karlin’s ‘argument’ against Pitt-Kethley’s poems actually works the other way round: that is, because he doesn’t like them, he persuades himself they are metrically dead. Well, to this ear at least they certainly aren’t. As for the two poems that evidently lifted his leg, in LRB, 11 October, I’d agree that ‘Bed Time’ isn’t one of her best: it is somewhat tired and flaccid (and I wouldn’t go for the fallacy of imitative form as an excuse). But ‘Blow Jobs’ is as lively, imaginative and offensive as one could wish from her. And as for the metre: only a metro gnome could read ‘watery nothingness’ as in any way ‘tramping’; and even the projectors in the Academy of Lagado would have some difficulty in extracting the iambs from ‘pureed cucumber’. Is it not a case of ‘I shrink, therefore I amb’?
But Karlin reflects on ‘Pitt-Kethley’s poems’ generally, and needs to be generally answered. Opening Sky Ray Lolly more or less at random, therefore, I chance on ‘Night London’. Not one de dum line in 31 (perhaps this was too long for Karlin?). Indeed, on closer scrutiny the metre is remarkably flexible; the iambic stress never more than a necessary ground-base. There’s only one closed line – ‘The balding plush soaked Cyprus sherry up’ – where the relative metrical deadness is clearly intentional and effective. The rest of the poem is a model of dramatic description, subtly inflected, which works up to an impressive atmospheric conclusion:
Next day’s papers
lay in the great old stations, fresh with print.
Outside, the streets were bare, light, free,
the Tubes all latticed shut.
I could go on (take a look at the thoroughly Larkinesque architecture of ‘Gala Day’ from Private Parts, for example) but won’t; and really needn’t. If Danny Karlin wants to make an exhibition of himself, he should perhaps apply to join the ‘Sunoak Ladies’ Clog Dance Team’, who put in a hypermetrical appearance in this last-mentioned poem.
Carolyn Steedman comments at the end of her review (LRB, 8 November) of J.F.C. Harrison’s Late Victorian Britain: ‘Perhaps Fontana will now be able to reissue Geoffrey Best’s Mid-Victorian Britain and Harrison’s own The Early Victorians, both published in 1971.’ Both these books are firmly in print (The Early Victorians under the title Early Victorian Britain) and have been, in their Fontana editions, since 1979.
Fontana Press, London W1
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.