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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 4 · 21 February 1991

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Naomi

The review of the biography of Naomi Mitchison (LRB, 24 January) made Carradale House in Scotland sound like Dotheboys Hall, yet I visited there several times in the Fifties, and remember it for its good food, its wine, and above all, the company. Naomi has the gift of friendship, and with many different kinds of people – who were very happy to be invited to Argyll, where they might find thirty or forty people in a house that seemed to have no limit to its capacity, that had never heard of ‘the two cultures’. Scientists, poets, artists, novelists, politicians, journalists, not to mention town councillors and the local fishermen, would all be there together. People came from Africa, from the Soviet Union – during the Cold War – from Canada and the United States; and there were, too, what seemed to be dozens of children. There must be hundreds of people from all over the world who remember Carradale House with affection. Naomi was surely the most original and warm-hearted hostess of her time.

Doris Lessing
San Francisco

Burkebiz

I have read with interest Frank Kermode’s letter of tribute (Letters, 24 January) to Claude Rawson’s essay on Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990), which has reminded Sir Frank of his ‘ancient discontent’ with respect to Burke’s most famous passage. He proposes an alternative to a possibly undetected corruption in the concluding sentence of Burke’s meditation on the influence of the ‘antient chivalry’: ‘Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.’ Remarking that he has heard ‘dominating’ conjectured, Sir Frank guesses however that ‘Domitian’ rather than ‘domination’ was the original intent.

His letter reminds me of my own discontent with that sentence, which I first stumbled over during a Practical Criticism class I gave at Cambridge a decade or so ago. (When later I brought it to your contributor’s attention, thinking that ‘domination’ might erroneously have replaced ‘dominating’ somewhere along the line, he was indeed surprised that the awkwardness had not before been noticed; but since ‘dominating’ didn’t upon reflection seem right, he hit upon ‘Domitian’ as a good possibility. We agreed to delve deeper into the problem, but still it lay unresolved.) Rawson’s splendid commentary upon the discourse of ‘nakedness’ and ‘drapery’ has at the same time revived for me the context of my stumble. In the Practical Criticism course, I’d submitted to my students, for analysis and comparison, a lengthy passage from the Reflections (including Rawson’s ‘purple’ paragraph) together with one from Sartor Resartus (Carlyle’s fantastic development of the Transparent Clothing metaphor). This followed a similar exercise involving texts from Swift and Mandeville: that famous passage from A Tale of a Tub in which the ambush is sprung by Swift’s tremendous perversion of the ‘nakedness’ trope (‘Last Week I saw a Woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse’); a passage from The Fable of the Bees which, if with less finesse and dizzying thoroughness, also achieves an ironic destabilising of normative oppositions between outside and inside, Rhetoric and Nature, through strategies of drastic reduction and divestment (‘and I am clearly of the opinion, that the malice and most severe strokes of fortune can do no more injury to a mind thus stripped of all fears, wishes and inclinations, than a blind horse can do in an empty barn’). These exercises were linked with several involving the poetry of Yeats, Stevens and Robert Lowell – lyrics all turning on that inexhaustible struggle between the seductions of metaphor and the no less seductive prospects of, in Lowell’s phrase, a ‘threadbare art’. My hope was to arouse my students to the apparently obvious but in fact very difficult perception that literary texts, as well as talk about them, are made out of words, and to do this by exploring the crucial debate that Rawson takes up – above all the consequences of playing the figure of a linguistic nakedness against that of a linguistic drapery, a polarity the more apt to get disturbingly out of hand the more consciously it is being exploited. My one reservation about Rawson’s essay concerns its implicit suggestion that Burke and Swift were firmly in command of their own side of the argument, once their figural polemics had been set in motion. That their side required belief in the possibility of linguistic mastery, I do not doubt.

As for Burke’s perhaps corrupted sentence, I did examine several of the early editions, all of which reproduce the text given in the first. I noticed, by the way, that ‘domination’ is there, and subsequently, broken at the end of the line, after the first syllable, and it has even occurred to me that an entire line of text might have been dropped in printing. Perhaps some agent docile or dolorous, in conjunction with some abomination, had been the original intention, and the awkward ‘domination’ had become accepted under the influence of ‘oblige’, ‘submit’ and ‘compel’ – an instance of how our expectation of syntactic good manners may be subdued by a more compelling desire for signs of mastery. But I dismissed that as a whimsy. (Nevertheless, the double but asymmetric appearance of ‘subdued’ in Burke’s sentence is another oddity; it too lacks elegance, and may have some relevance to the problem at hand.)

In response to Sir Frank’s request for comment on his emendation, I must now doubt that Burke in fact wrote ‘and gave a Domitian, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners’; and this for several reasons. The first is rhetorical: the sentence in question concludes a paragraph which relies on the power of generalisation to overwhelm resistance. ‘Modern Europe’ from its origins to the present day is Burke’s subject here, under ‘all its forms of government’, and through ‘all the gradations of social life’ (italics mine); not some kings but ‘kings’, in their totality, are evoked; and, finally, not even sovereigns as they embody or wield authority, but ‘stern authority’ itself. Could Burke, who was aware of the effects of bringing into an argument ‘abstraction and personification’ (a rhetorical turn he discusses elsewhere), have dished, at this point, his own effect by introducing any limiting particular, let alone a name associated with ‘the antique world’ which he has already distinguished from the case of ‘modern Europe’? It is the less likely given that – from his spectacular impersonation of the Queen of France down to the carefully restrained chiasmus ‘To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely’ – Burke’s performance here, turn by turn, has depended not only on an unabashed manipulation of rhetorical ‘drapery’ but on the crucial point he makes almost explicit at the end, that thus to understand and use language is the mark of ‘a wise man’. Principles governing the ‘construction of poems’ apply equally to ‘states’; rhetorical and political systems are one and the same; genuine wisdom consists in exploiting, rather than resisting, this truth.

Moreover, in a passage preparing for his denunciation of that ‘barbarous philosophy’ which justifies a regicide as no worse than ‘a common homicide’, is it likely that Burke would have singled out, as an instance of overly stern authority successfully chastened, a sovereign who met his end at the hands of an assassin? The Emperor Domitian, stabbed to death in his bedroom, was not subdued by elegance or manners. He was subdued as the result of a conspiracy led, tradition has it, by his own wife, who had reason to believe that he was going to have her murdered. Again, although Domitian’s name was for centuries blackened by the highly-wrought vilifications of his senatorial enemies Pliny and Tacitus, who fixed on him a reputation for terrorism and tyranny which recent historians have done much to correct, he was never charged, so far as I can tell, with being ‘a vanquisher of laws’. Suetonius, while believing him excessively cruel and arrogant, nevertheless credits him with industry and precision in administering justice; and he has even been praised for his legislative achievements, however severe many of them were.

Therefore I would question the plausibility of Sir Frank’s emendation, but never having hunted up the Burke MS or other detections of the suspected corruption, I, too, would welcome learned clarification of what is perhaps only a mote in my own eye.

Anita Kermode
London WC1

Could it be that the corruption apprehended by Sir Frank in Burke’s famous passage is nothing more than a structural Gallicism used by Burke to sustain a passage worthy of Bossuet? The structure itself – a noun (‘domination’) qualified by a noun group (‘vanquisher of laws’) functioning as an epithet – is familiar enough in French Classical oratory. The verb ‘gave’ is clearly a variation on ‘subdued’, ‘obliged’ and ‘compelled’. My modern gloss would be: ‘caused a domination capable of overturning the laws to be subdued by manners’. The sentiment expressed is the echo of a commonplace in the tenets of French royal absolutism. The king is above the law (ex legibus solutus) in theory, but in practice his natural graciousness restrains him from using his domination to the detriment of his subjects. This may seem a slender argument on which to base a check to the otherwise unfettered power of the monarch (and it was duly if discreetly ridiculed by Montesquieu) but it played its part in that potent ‘mixture of opinion and sentiment’ that determined how educated conservative Frenchmen saw their country and their government. The mixture also, as Burke rightly points out, had a long history. From Estienne Pasquier’s Pourparler du Prince (1561): ‘our Kings, with their customary graciousness [débonnaireté], never undertook anything in France on the basis of their absolute power, but always preserving the Three Estates in their liberties and privileges they almost invariably, in matters of great moment, acted on their advice.’ The graciousness of the monarch is not necessarily a personal attribute (though inevitably claimed as such) but is the result of dialogue between the king and his public servants concerning laws for the good governance of the kingdom. The presence of this dialogue constitutes the ‘manners’ evoked by Burke, and thus prevents domination from degenerating into its pathological state, which is despotism the vanquisher of laws.

Albert Jordan
Racine, Quebec

Showing the flag

John Bayley (Letters, 10 January) wonders where I found a Russian tricolour of black, gold and white. The answer is: from the Imperial decree of 1858 which made it the correct flag of the Empire, in concord with the Romanov arms – and from the processions in Moscow today, in which rival banners express attachment to different aspects of the old order. There are those for whom it is more handsome a symbol of the past than the Batavian colours of which Bayley is fond.

Perry Anderson
Los Angeles

Gossip

Surely it is no less the responsibility of book reviewers than of literary critics to have something to say about books. Yet the biographer John Sutherland, in his recent piece on J. Hillis Miller (LRB, 10 January), substitutes gossip about Miller’s move from Yale to Irvine, his salary, his mortgage rate and his hobbies for any serious commentary on two of Miller’s latest books. Miller’s work, on the one hand, has for more than thirty years been exemplary in its careful attention to literary and theoretical texts.

Michael Payne
London WC1

Famine in the Horn

In the last issue of the LRB I wrote about the famine in the Horn of Africa. As the paper was going to press, the British Government announced a further contribution to the relief operation in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Overseas Development Administration is providing another £8.75 million of relief, in addition to the £7.2 million I mentioned. This includes an immediate shipment of food through the port of Massawa. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note, the British public has continued to respond to the famine appeal launched in January by the Disasters Emergency Committee. By 5 February donations had reached £4.7 million. This is comparable, according to DEC, to the sum raised in the early days of the 1989 appeal. The problem is that in 1989 the appeal was focused exclusively on the Horn. This time there are roughly double the number of people at risk in several parts of the continent.

Jeremy Harding
London N16

It takes all sorts

The continuing debate about Wittengstein’s sexuality (LRB, 22 November 1990) brings to the fore our incomprehension and ignorance of cultural diversity. Wittgenstein’s judgment on the disintegrating and putrefying British civilisation could well have included his reaction to the notion that human spirituality, or even love, is to he measured on a scale representing frequency and amplitude of good fucks. The contemporary Continental ideal of enlightened selfhood embraced sublimation, instinctual restraint and celibacy, not as repression, but as exhilarating mastery; this contrasts with the alternative vision of man as the glorious animal (Aldous Huxley et al). We find it less ideologically difficult to accommodate similar incompatibilities, as of the bibulous versus the sober, the mentality of the mountaineer versus that of the armchair philosopher, or the interpretation of discipline of a professional dancer versus that of a gourmand. It seems a pity that sexual liberation should have compelled us to utter and complete conformity.

Gertrud Walton
Winchester

Te Deum laudamus

Of the 16 contributors listed in your last issue ten are professors, or ex-professors; another three are academics – no doubt eventually to be professors. Thank God for Alan Bennett.

G.O. Jones
London WC1

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