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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 8 · 25 April 1991

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What Lenin really said

John Lloyd (LRB, 7 March) makes it sound as if President Gorbachev is following Lenin’s approach in the explosive nationalities question. He also makes it sound as if Lenin had next to nothing to offer aspiring non-Russian nations in the ‘Tsarist prison-house of nations’. But Lenin, who till his last breath condemned ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ – presumably in part because it was so prevalent in his sacred Bolshevik party – tirelessly stressed the cultural uniqueness of non-Russian ethnic groups. In and before 1917 he called for full political independence for minority republics and made it clear to dogmatic party comrades that their stance would not alter even if the most reactionary local nationalists took power. Finland was the first Tsarist province to take advantage of this policy, gaining unconditional acceptance of its independence from Lenin’s Council of People’s Commissars in late December 1917. Lenin was even persuaded, with extreme reluctance, to shake hands with Finland’s ‘bourgeois’ nationalist leader, Svinhufvud, who came to Petrograd in person to get the right papers signed and sat waiting in the cold Smolny corridors. In 1920, following the failure of successive Red Army invasions and local Bolshevik subversion, Lenin accepted the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, extending diplomatic recognition to these Baltic states well ahead of Great Britain and the United States. Turning unwelcome necessity into virtue, Lenin hailed the emergence of independent Estonia as a ‘window on Western Europe’. It would be a good thing if Gorbachev would return to the ‘original Leninist principles’ on the nationalities issue.

Frederick Gabrielsen
Livingston, New Jersey

‘Psychological Warfare’

I doubt if Henry Reed wrote ‘Psychological Warfare’ (LRB, 21 March) after 1950, but think it more likely that he at least started it during the last two years of the 1939-45 war, when he was also composing the later verses of ‘Lessons of the War’.

At the time he and I were stationed at Bletchley, he as a civilian and I as a soldier, and having been acquainted as fellow students at Birmingham University, we saw a great deal of each other. His civilian billet was a welcome refuge where I spent many congenial evenings during which he would read me extracts from work in progress, including the war poems. Some parts of the rather lengthy poem you have published seem familiar, though I could not swear to that: but I do know that he would write verse over long periods, sometimes years, before feeling he could do no more with the poem in question. I certainly think he would have revised and drastically shortened ‘Psychological Warfare’: but by 1950 I am sure he had put his wartime experiences well behind him.

L.W. Bailey
Kingston-upon-Thames

What are friends for?

Editors, ‘London Review’

Hands at an open door

I was grateful for the amount of attention David Trotter gave to my book Intertextual Dynamics (LRB, 21 March) and for his mention of a book (and an essay) I had not read. However, I should like to mention some brief points in reply. My main contention about Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ was that it ‘talks back’ (yes) to Pound’s ‘Exile’s Letter’ – not a connection I have seen made elsewhere. I have admitted my debt to Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and I rejoice to be associated with Derrida and Foucault, but I do not see why the invoked ‘generation of American scholars’ makes celebration of Modernist achievement a matter of sell-by-date critical history (the Seventies). My book, too, acknowledges Pound’s role as commercial entrepreneur – but there is a difference between snake-oil and The Waste Land.

I agree my reiteration of the birthing metaphor may be over the top – but it gestures less to the ‘natural’ than to the psychoanalytic realm (and was often used by writers themselves, including Yeats in ‘The Second Coming’). ‘Cultural process’ is, indeed, a highly complex phenomenon. Beyond the Great War issue, I was attempting to show how group influence may be a group psychoanalytic affair – where ‘nonsense’ (whether the ‘higher’ or the ‘lower’) may be less than clear-cut. I do not know any study of Crane and Co or the ‘Auden Gang’ which acknowledges psychoanalytic group-theory, nor does there seem any awareness of it in Trotter’s otherwise thought-provoking article.

Nevertheless, his last thrust, ‘a head start down the birth-canal of the literary future’, made me laugh aloud: nice one.

Dennis Brown
Ware, Hertfordshire

Bardbiz

Rarely has cultural materialism revealed itself as nakedly as in Alan Sinfield’s last letter (Letters, 7 March). He was answering Graham Martin’s question about Shakespeare’s longevity. Given this longevity, must we not ascribe some sort of value to Shakespeare’s texts? ‘I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare,’ Sinfield concedes with touching magnanimity. For the cultural materialist, however, things are never so politically innocent. So Sinfield greedily borrows Martin’s unfortunate phrase about people ‘wanting to get Shakespeare on their side’. Sinfield’s argument is drearily familiar, but articulated with a new shamelessness. We read Shakespeare, we go to the theatre, we write letters about him, not really because we love him, but because we want to ‘appropriate him’. He is useful, culturally and politically. This ‘need not have a lot to do with Shakespeare as such’. Shakespeare is a powerful ‘cultural token’. The more powerful this token, the more useful it is culturally and politically, and the more strenuously we will work to keep it in place (what Sinfield calls ‘multifarious cultural activity’). Connoisseurs of cultural materialism will note that this argument is indistinguishable from the standard Marxist/materialist line on ideology: Shakespeare, like ‘truth’ or the BBC, is part of a complex ideological apparatus, whose real workings are always being obscured by people like Boris Ford or the writer of this letter.

It is the rhetoric of cultural materialism that is so offensive. It is a rhetoric horribly afraid of admitting that texts have a literary and formal distinctiveness – texts are forms of words – which make them unique, different from each other. It is a rhetoric afraid of pleasure, of literary joy. Listen to Sinfield’s grudging concessions: ‘I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare …’; ‘I am happy to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, but …’ It is a rhetoric, necessarily so, of arrogant rectitude. The materialist, like the psychoanalyst, understands our fumblings, understands ideology, understands our ‘resistance’ to accepting the deviousness of its workings. The materialist must uncover, must denature or demystify such resistance. ‘People want to appropriate him,’ writes Sinfield, but Sinfield, snug in his knowing study at Sussex, is above all this. At no moment does Sinfield suggest that our desire to perpetuate Shakespeare might be anything other than a kind of greedy acquisitiveness for political or cultural leverage.

The idea that Shakespeare offers joy, pleasure, challenge, and has done for centuries – laughable! The idea that one can believe in such emotions while acknowledging their historical contingency – this is not discussed. Every time I read or hear the lines ‘If this be magic let it be an art/Lawful as eating,’ these lines in which magic is domesticated and law is made to mean liberation, I want to laugh and cry out with simple pleasure. I am not suggesting that such apprehension is criticism, nor that we should go back to A.E. Housman and his bristling hairs as a register of value. But we need to realise that there is always an element of mystery in assigning value to one text over another. This mystery is a literary mystery, to do with certain words in a certain form and order. This is what is ‘intrinsic’ – Sejanus does not have these lines.

Is it not fairer to people to assume that they have responded with similar joy to such words than to suspect them of responding because they want to get a cultural token on their side? ‘Criticism must talk the language of artists,’ Benjamin wrote in One Way Street. Great works should humble criticism: how can one unique form of words be explained, valued, assessed, by another? Thus Garcia Marquez’s notion of the ideal critic is a woman he met who had copied out the whole of One Hundred Years of Solitude. A true criticism is aware of its own necessary tentativeness in the face of mystery and blinding beauty, of why some beauty dazzles while some merely glows, aware of its own near-redundancy. Cultural materialism is afraid of what it cannot explain. Because it has its roots in a pseudo-scientific Marxist language, because of its part in criticism’s 20th-century struggle to become ‘objective’, materialism has no humility. May it learn some soon.

James Wood
London W11

Homage to Gissing

Jane Miller’s noting in her undreary review of George Gissing’s letters (LRB, 7 March) that the death certificate of his wife Nell gave ‘chronic laryngitis’ as the cause, despite her other serious ailments, nudged me to recall that Karl Marx’s death certificate – a copy of which is on display at the museum devoted to him in his birthplace, Trier – also gave ‘laryngitis’ as the cause of death. Can anyone voice an authoritative opinion as to why English coroners in the 1880s were eager to anticipate Grade Allen, who in consoling a friend for the loss of her mother said: ‘Ah, I hope she didn’t die of anything serious?’

Sydney Schiffer
Venice, California

Defamation

Paul Foot, in his review of Memoirs of a Libel Lawyer by Peter Carter-Ruck (LRB, 7 March), writes that ‘no one as far as I know has ever suggested a clause in the libel law which penalises writers who tell the truth.’ Not only has it been suggested: in New South Wales it is part of the law that truth alone is not a defence to a libel action. The publication must also be shown to be in the public interest or otherwise privileged. Issues concerning libel laws are no longer of purely local concern. Philip Knightley, for instance, says that his book on the Profumo affair had to be pulped in England because the potential level of damages in an Australian libel action would have been increased if the book was widely available in England. Knightley contends that Sydney is the defamation capital of the world. There is certainly a brisk trade in the field, with even a special ‘defamation list’ in the courts to manage the flow of business.

John Kernick
Sydney

‘Across Howrah Bridge’

Can Tom Paulin (LRB, 7 March) and I possibly be thinking of the same banyan tree? The one I visited stands in the Botanical Gardens across the Howrah Bridge from Calcutta, and I especially crossed the Hooghly in order to see it. A placard stated (I am relying on thirty-year-old memories) that it is the oldest tree in the world and that it was already extensive at the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion of India. It is indeed a magnificent grove, the central trunk long gone, but with horizontal beams running in every direction supported on sturdy columns, such that the experience of being inside it resembles being lost inside a surreally alive temple. The poet seems to have underestimated the tree’s age and has not given it the poetic evocation which it well deserves.

William Driscoll
Xaghra, Gozo, Malta

Introducing

When I edited the Faber Book of Blue Verse, reviewed in the LRB by Blake Morrison (LRB, 21 February), I was motivated by vanity and avarice. As for the publishers, it would be the latter rather than the former, don’t you think? I’m sure writing an introduction would be a simple matter and I could toss off the requisite ten pages in a working day, but the great and good Craig Raine at Faber (or perhaps someone even higher up if there is such a person) did not want one, and who would write such stuff for nothing? If all those reviewers who have asked for this would send severally money orders or cheques for, say, twenty pounds to my home address I will supply what is lacking. By the way, if Blake Morrison or anyone else can find any anthology of poetry at all with a larger percentage in it of poems by women, I would be glad to know what it is. I mean one that covers the last few hundred years rather than the last few hundred days, and one which is not self-restricting or indulging in some form of positive discrimination.

John Whitworth
Canterbury

Silencing

Whatever anti-feminist impulses Blake Morrison may ascribe to John Donne in his love poetry (LRB, 21 February), I don’t think that his reading of the first line of ‘The Canonisation’ can be right. When the speaker remonstrates, ‘For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,’ he must be addressing the same meddling commentator who seems at line five to be advised to enrol in a self-help class, in an eerie premonition of contemporary society (‘Take you a course, get you a place’). The poet’s other suggestions for this busybody make it clear that his role in society is privileged enough for him to choose whether to contemplate ‘the King’s real, or his stamped face’. In other words, the addressee of this poem is clearly a man. A better example of a woman being ‘silenced’ in Donne’s verse is ‘The Flea’, where whatever objections the (here obviously female) interlocutor raises to the conceit are summarily, if wittily dismissed.

Deborah Knuth
Colgate University, Hamilton,

Misnaming

Who is this impostor ‘Richard Brown’ to whom you ascribe my book on the Harmsworths, Lords of Fleet Street (LRB, 7 March)? Can I get him under the Trade Descriptions Act? Is it too late to warn your readers?

Richard Bourne
London WC1

Don’t sue. And please accept our apologies.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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