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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 3 · 7 February 1991

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Takeovers

I hope your readers do not uncritically swallow the W.G. Runciman account of corporate takeovers (LRB, 22 November 1990). You would never know from that account that the typical takeover is driven by the perception –often accurate – that a relatively incompetent management team is not making the most of the assets of the corporation. Indeed, the Swedes who took over Runciman’s company may well have made an accurate judgment of this type. (Thirty per cent compound growth in earnings per share over five years is not necessarily something to brag about – perhaps it could have been substantially higher, perhaps profit in future years had been insufficiently provided for.) And if unanticipated economic events, like war or severe global recession, cause the Swedes to lose their shirts, it won’t prove anything about the competence of the earlier Runciman managerial team.

Particularly revealing in this context is Mr Runciman’s predominant concern for the fates of his top executive directors. If they really did do a fine job of managing, they should have no serious trouble finding new jobs. If they did not reap great benefits from the sale of stock during the takeover, it is either because they chose not to become significant shareholders in the company or because they had no funds to invest (unlikely for all but the most prodigal of top corporate managers, whose remuneration tends if anything to be too handsome). Nor can their treatment be said to be ‘unfair’ if in fact they were not the best people for their jobs (something neither I nor Runciman can determine, though I do think it unfair to those who are relatively competent if they get thrown out because to outsiders they are insufficiently distinguishable from the bad apples in the boardroom).

It’s amazing, therefore, that Runciman’s solicitousness extends only to these people, to the total exclusion of those employees lower down in the corporate hierarchy who may face wage reductions, relocation, or even the axe (either during the transition, or later on if the company’s new debt becomes too burdensome). But maybe it’s not so amazing after all: for it is just such chumminess, and sympathetic identification among those within the business élite, that too often causes managers not to pursue their companies’ best interests.

Lawrence Beyer
Yale Law School, New Haven

Transport House complained

In his review of the recent biography of Bernard Ingham (LRB, 10 January) Christopher Hitchens refers to the Leeds Weekly Citizen as a ‘Labour machine mouthpiece’. As a former editor of that paper (1945-49), I must say a word in defence of my contributors, who struggled with some success to make it into something quite different. These naturally included local MPs and city councillors, but also Fabians, academics from various faculties, critics, and personal friends of mine. The paper dutifully outlined official party policy, but this was continually open to criticism from readers and contributors. Because of this openness we were bombarded with complaints from Transport House, especially from Len Williams, my predecessor as editor. His normal method of controversy was the smear. He believed that all criticism was disloyal, whereas I believed that rational criticism was a positive duty. Eventually I was told by the Board that I must never publish articles or letters critical of party policy. I therefore resigned and my successor at once made the paper what it had been in the past, and presumably what it was some years later in the days of Ingham’s contributions. By that time I had moved to Liverpool.

I should add that we would never print the vulgar abuse deplored by your reviewer, and that we never attacked ‘metropolitan eggheads’. On the contrary, we published many articles on modern writers from James to Auden, from Aragon to Sartre, without causing any decline in the paper’s circulation. This was because we warned academics not to use critical jargon.

Kenneth Muir
Birkenhead, Merseyside

A Day at the Races

Carlo Ginzburg’s engaging letter (Letters, 10 January) wonders whether my queries about his hook Storia Notturna (Ecstasies) are not prompted by a conservative resistance to all historical experiment. By no means. Discontinuous narratives, arcane readings, diagonal problem-shifters have often shed new light on the past. But they too, no less than other kinds of history, must answer to the controls of logic and evidence. Does Ginzburg’s use of the method of ‘polythetic classification’ satisfy these? In my review I doubted whether its principal outcome, the category of asymmetric de-ambulation, really unified the fields of Greek mythology and the witches’ Sabbath. In his response, Ginzburg expresses his astonishment at such scepticism, ‘given the ubiquitous presence, in witchcraft trials, demonological treatises, diabolical iconography, of limping devils or devils with animal feet’.

This, however, is an all too apt example of the danger indicated in this kind of classification: that the classes become infinitely stretchable. Cloven hooves may indeed signify the devil, but alas, they are symmetrical – and worn by satyrs before Satan. Similarly, while devils are naturally everywhere in witchcraft trials and the lore of the Sabbath, those with a limp emphatically are not. It is a logic of association, not of connection, that extends the claim of ‘ubiquity’ here. Ginzburg has so far demonstrated no special link between lameness and the Sabbath (or for that matter ecstatic fertility cults: the limbs of the Night-Walkers are perfectly sturdy).

So little has the Limping Devil to do with the organising phobias of the Sabbath that when it emerges as a specific motif in popular literature, it is at the antipodes of supernatural terror. Luis Velez’s El Diablo Cojuelo (1641) was written at a time when the Spanish witch-craze was still active. Its subtitle – ‘A Novel from the Other Life, Translated into This One’ – would seem to promise just what Ginzburg might have wished, a voyage into the land of the dead. In fact, Velez’s fiction is a burlesque survey of the morals of the living, in which a student on the run from a wanton encounters a devil on crutches, imprisoned in a flask, who on release lifts the roofs of Madrid to guide him panoramically over the mores of the city. Before setting him free, the hero repeatedly enquires what sort of devil he is looking at – Lucifer, Satan, Belial? ‘Those are demons of the higher callings,’ comes the reply, whereas he is no more than the spirit of gossip and intrigue, who brings the sarabande and chaconne, serenades and somersaults into the world. He even explains that the goat-footed devil of the Sabbath is his enemy, and that if he himself is lame, it is because when all the devils fell from heaven, the others landed on top of him – a nice twist of the ankle to asymmetric de-ambulation. In Lesage’s rococo reworking of the tale, Le Diable Boiteux (1707), the devil becomes the spirit of sexual espièglerie: ‘I am the demon of the voluptuous, or to put it more honourably, the god Cupid’ – lame since thrown to the ground when wrestling with the demon of pecuniary gain. Through Lesage, the figure of the Crippled Devil as dragoman to the satire of manners became a European device, inspiring collections of sketches down to the era of Hugo and Sainte-Beuve. What unifies this long tradition, from the Baroque through the Enlightenment to the Romantic period, is terrestrial mockery. Should we enrol it too, as one more secret outing in the perpetual expeditions of the human mind to the beyond? I hope the suggestion doesn’t pull anyone’s leg.

Ginzburg ends by taxing me with ethnocentric lack of interest, indeed of respect, for shamanism. His evidence: I spoke of the merits of Trevor-Roper’s famous essay on the witch-craze; elsewhere Trevor-Roper once used the word ‘gyration’ in a sentence disdainful of tribal experiences outside Europe; the same word is used of the trance of the shaman by myself; and I refer to another scholar, Vilamos Voigt, who uses the word ‘misery’ of shamanism to boot: ergo – superior ethnocentrism. Should I call this construction polythetic perversity, or playfulness? Whichever, I am tickled by its illustration of the method of ‘intermediate links’ Ginzburg found in Wittgenstein. Of course, for a more rationalist approach, to honour the merits of a writer’s essay on one subject is not quite the same as to assent to all he has written: tribes are not exactly identical with shamans; the metaphorical use of a term is a little different from its literal meaning; and to cite an author is not to disagree with him – especially if one expresses a demurrer. One could even object that it is difficult to describe the remark of a Hungarian folklorist on something familiar from Magyar experience as ethnocentric. But as I pointed out, the detection of ‘family resemblances’ permits just such assimilations, without end.

Protesting my reserve towards them, Ginzburg advocates Brecht ’s motto that it is better to start from the bad new things than from the good old ones. I’ve always been puzzled by the popularity of this dictum on the left. Why should we restrict ourselves to this simpleminded pair – what about the bad old things and the good new ones? Wouldn’t it be more advisable to start from the latter: let us say, in Ginzburg’s case, Gellner and Goody rather than Wittgenstein and Lévi-Strauss – perhaps further from fashion, but closer to truth?

Noel Annan (Letters, 24 January), on the other hand, appears to be suggesting that no one on the left can decently welcome any new intellectual developments if capitalism is scoring political triumphs. For a historian of ideas, this seems a self-destructive argument. But it points to one of the weaknesses of his portrait of Our Age – the assumption of a unitary Zeitgeist embracing the worlds of English government and thought alike, the vision of a single distended generation, with at most a sprinkling of ‘deviants’ round the edges. The starting-point of this collective biography is the transformation of British sensibility – among those who mattered – by the Great War, reaction to which moulded the outlook of this moral cohort. Since Annan’s account ends, if on a note of debonair deniability, with a repudiation of that outlook, it is perhaps logical that he should now defend Edwardian values from any responsibility for the disaster of 1914. Liberal civilisation, he suggests, had nothing to do with the outbreak of mass killing in 20th-century Europe. Between exclamation marks, the argument becomes somewhat syncopated. But its gist seems to be this. Of the Great Powers only England and France could be called liberal, and (are we given to understand?) their hands were clean. The war itself, for which Germany, Austria and Russia bear the blame, is not to be connected with the brutalities of inter-war politics – the rise of Fascism of Stalinism. Modern barbarism springs independently from the ‘émigré circles in which Lenin moved’ and which later instituted ‘Stalin’s regime and its antidote Hitler’.

One wonders whether, polemical ardours spent, Annan really wants to defend these contentions in the cold light of day. Does he need to be reminded that Germany, England, Austro-Hungary and France shared a common rule of law and set of individual liberties – the classic negative freedoms of European liberalism? Russia, which did not (as I pointed out), failed to last the course of industrial slaughter to no end. The Great War cost seven million lives. What serious historian seeks to explain the savageries which followed without relation to its structural and moral consequences?

For the rest, it was Ernst Nolte who discovered that Hitler was the antidote to Stalin – the Judeocide a reactive violence. But not even he imagined that Nazism was conceived in the Russian social-democratic emigration. Here one must be charitable, and assume that Annan got carried away at the races. But the horse he was – not unsympathetically – backing, the cause of Isaiah Berlin, is liable to be handicapped by wild cries from the stand.

Perry Anderson
Los Angeles

Burkebiz

Readers of Claude Rawson’s fascinating review of some recent editions of Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990) may be interested to know that the accusation of sansculottisme was once turned against Burke himself – significantly, after the Revolution. Richard Payne Knight’s Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805) includes a critique of Burke’s psychologistic aesthetics, and particularly of his analysis of the experience of the sublime as a combination of astonishment and terror. If, Knight argues, Burke ‘had walked up St James’s Street without his breeches, it would have occasioned great and universal astonishment; and if he had, at the same time, carried a loaded blunderbuss in his hands, the astonishment would have been mixed with no small portion of terror: but I do not believe that the united effects of these two powerful passions would have produced any sentiment or sensation approaching to sublime.’ Like Kant, Knight believed that the sublime was partly ethical: Burke, he argued, had demonstrated it in his attempt to defend the Indians against the depredations of the imperial government even if he had failed to define it in the Philosophical Enquiry.

D.L. Macdonald
University of British Columbia

Bardbiz

John Caird expresses his frank irritation with what Post-Structuralism is doing with Shakespeare (Letters, 20 December 1990). His frustration seems to be based on a number of misconceptions about what Post-Structuralism is, and what it is setting out to do. These misconceptions can very easily be cleared up.

First, the question of meaning. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mr Caird says he has spent many years trying to fathom the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays. It is entirely understandable that he should assume that we, too, are concerned with Shakespeare’s meaning. However, this is not the case. We believe, with Professor Hawkes, that Shakespeare’s plays don’t, in any essential or objective sense, mean anything at all; it is we, his readers, producers and audiences who do the meaning. Far from introducing unnecessary complexities, this actually makes life a great deal easier for the student: once you have liberated yourself from the burden of trying to work out how Shakespeare saw the world, you can do whatever you like with the plays. If you want them to express a patriarchal misogyny, that’s perfectly acceptable; if you want them to do the opposite and articulate a materialist deconstruction of masculine ideology, that’s even better. All that’s necessary, really, is that you show how the plays confront the question of power: do they collude with it, or do they resist it? Surely that ’s not too difficult to grasp?

Second, the question of Post-Structuralism’s style. Although, as I have said, Post-Structuralism is not inherently complex, it is true that our ‘house style ’, if I may put it that way, makes it seem more difficult than it really is. Again, it is quite understandable that Mr Caird should object to this, particularly since he himself is a member of a profession that is concerned with the problem of communicating with large and heterogeneous audiences. However, I am sure that Mr Caird will feel less hostile towards our project if I explain the reasons for our style. As any sociologist will tell you, where there are no intrinsically difficult concepts involved, the use of highly-specialised, quasi-technical, virtually impenetrable language has a twofold purpose: first, it serves to identify and bond together members of a self-defining social group; and second, it serves to exclude outsiders, who are naturally baffled and irritated by what they perceive simply as pretentious jargon. It may, additionally, serve to conceal a real poverty of thought, though this obviously doesn’t apply to Post-Structuralism.

Why should we wish to exclude outsiders? Well, unlike Mr Caird, we are not concerned with communicating with a wider audience. We see the world in terms of true and false discourses, and, like Mrs Thatcher, we believe that if you are not for us, you are against us. We are concerned, not to break down barriers and reach out to the general playgoing public, but to maintain a sense of crisis within academia. I know this may sound a bit odd to Mr Caird. But if you think about it, there wouldn’t be much point in heroically ‘throwing yourselves across the barbed wire separating genres and modes’ and ‘spiking the Gatling guns of criticism’ (to quote Professor Hawkes) if, all the time, the enemy was quite happy to reach an accommodation with you. No, if you want to be seen as courageous, heroic and daring (Mr Caird will notice that when Professor Hawkes is reviewing, he subtly uses terms like these for the Post-Structuralist books, while dismissing all the rest as feeble, woolly and outdated) – to repeat, if you want to be an intellectual hero, you ’ve got to have an enemy to attack.

One of our biggest problems – and this is something I’m quite willing to admit – is that there haven’t really been any suitably dogmatic or authoritarian figures in the critical establishment in the last thirty or so years for us to go for. It was all right for people like Barthes writing in France in the Sixties: they had a monolithic literary establishment to attack. But in England and America most of the big, influential guns have been disappointingly open-minded. In fact, as Mr Caird will know, one of the key notes of Shakespeare criticism in the Sixties and Seventies was ‘ambivalence’, and you can hardly mount a daring attack against ambivalence. That’s why we were so delighted when James Wood began this correspondence by questioning Professor Hawkes’s critical premises. It may have seemed to Mr Caird from the tone of our letters that we were angry with James Wood for challenging our methods. Actually, it’s just what we were hoping for. Mr Caird will recall my own letter, nearly a year ago now, accusing Mr Wood of being an ignorant ponce. Of course I don’t really think James Wood is a ponce. This was merely a gambit, one of the games we play in Post-Structuralism. Its purpose was to create a symbolic enemy (what we call the ‘other’) in order to justify our own militancy. The next move in the game was made by John Drakakis and Alan Sinfield. As Mr Caird will no doubt remember, they took up and developed my theme, representing James Wood as an intolerant, ineducable bigot with just enough sly plausibility to be able to exercise a pernicious influence on those readers of LRB who are incapable of thinking for themselves. James Wood then responded in the way we hoped he would. The result was that we now had the enemy we needed. In this way we were able neatly to prove the need for unrelenting critical vigilance against the insidiously corrupting forces of bourgeois liberalism.

I hope this clears up some of Mr Caird ’s problems.

Anthony Pratt
East Yorkshire

Floreat Canada

I couldn’t agree more with Ian and Charlotte Townsend-Gault (Letters, 10 January) about Canada. Who are we in Britain with our slavish press, failing democracy, racism and insouciance to be so condescending and dismissive? And so consistently? I spent two weeks at a writers’ conference in Toronto in 1987. I liked the city very much, found Canadians pleasant, open, articulate and spirited. On the campus we talked about less numbing things than ‘Lark Rise to Laura Ashley’ and who was going to be next Master of St Ethwold’s, I found that students – a new experience – didn’t treat their seniors like faintly unpleasant slugs that had somehow got tiresomely onto the fingers of Thatcher’s children as they popped things into their mouths. Floreat Canada.

Jennifer Dawson
Charlbury, Oxfordshire

Badoompa

It is good at last to see the whole issue of the bass-player being addressed in your journal (LRB, 10 January), an issue you have scrupulously avoided in the past. However, I fear that Graham Coster merely perpetuates the common myth that exists about this grievously neglected element of the rock’n’roll band. He begins perceptively enough, observing that it is of course the drummer who makes the band, not the singer or the lead guitar (I know: I was that drummer). But he then calumniates the bassist as a dull dog, hovering quietly and prosaically in the background, going badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom. He goes so far as to imply that these guys don’t even take drugs! In fact, as we all know, it is often the bass-player who makes the song. Listen to Paul McCartney on ‘Taxman’, Bill Wyman on ‘Kingbee’ or ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, John Entwhistle on ‘My Generation’ – to name but a few. Some of the most thrilling moments in pop music come from that cool dude with the low notes. Modern rap music, indeed, is now almost entirely made up of bass lines. The trouble is, your average listener hardly hears the bass line, unshrill as it is: he just takes it contemptuously for granted. So let’s have a little respect for the drummer’s closest ally, okay. Besides, my brother played the bass.

Colin McGinn
New York

Duff Poetry

One thousand and one nights in the pleasure garden to Damian Grant (Letters, 6 December 1990) in defence of the ‘offensive’ Fiona Pitt-Kethley. I look forward to her next appearance – a Valentine, perhaps.

B.J. Grayfriesen
Toronto

Events of ’68

At least one of Philippe Sollers’s novels was translated into English sooner than Patrick Parrinder supposes (LRB, 10 January): The Park was published by Calder and Boyars in 1968 in a translation by A.M. Sheridan Smith.

Christopher Burns
Whitehaven, Cumbria

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