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Vol. 13 No. 10 · 23 May 1991

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Old Literature and its Enemies

Claude Rawson’s response to Alvin Kernan’s proposition that ‘the old literature is stone dead’ (LRB, 25 April) seems paradoxical: he denies that it is true, and asserts that literature is being killed off by Stanley Fish and a Marxist-feminist-multiculturalist ‘thought police’. Professor Rawson conflates diverse matters.

We should distinguish ‘literature’ as a. a body of texts and b. a way of thinking about those texts. A decade or so ago (for instance, in the controversy in these pages about Re-Reading English) it was observed that the second of these, the received idea of literature, no longer carries conviction for some people. One basis of this idea is literary appreciation; it is invoked James Wood, who wants ‘to laugh and cry out with simple pleasure’ (Letters, 25 April – I am not attributing this approach to Rawson).

However, the body of texts often called literature is not dependent on the idea of literature; indeed, as Raymond Williams pointed out, the texts to a notable degree predated the idea. Rawson is right to say that very many people remain deeply engaged with this body of writing; indeed it has been importantly extended through the retrieval of work by women and other subordinated groups. But some readers, including many feminists, Marxists and multiculturalists, are addressing such texts in ways they find far more exciting than literary appreciation. In fact, I would argue, these ways may even be more appropriate to writer’s intentions, which have often involved vivid commitment to issues far wider than literary appreciation.

And then there are those who write more about theory than about texts. I do not myself regret this, but either way it should not be confused with the foregoing conclusions.

Finally, Stanley Fish should not be conflated with multiculturalism, feminism and Marxism. Fish has consistently attacked the relating of literature to political concerns, or indeed to anything at all. Probably that is why James Wood reviewed him so enthusiastically in the Guardian recently.

Even so, we might heed the circumstances in which Fish is working. The New Right Duke Review for April 1991 gives this distinguished scholar-critic top marks in a ‘public nuisance index’, placing him in a ‘Hall of Shame’ as having ‘a consistently boorish manner’ and having been, ‘over an excruciatingly long period of time, the national embarrassment of Duke University’. It suggests that Fish is a defender of Hitler and the Nazis, declaring that he ‘enjoys mental masturbatory techniques’ and the ‘hypocracy’ (sic) that characterises the liberal.

Apparently over 50 per cent of students at Duke believe that the Review is making a positive contribution. Rawson need not be so fearful that the Left is effecting a ‘thought police’: the threat to intellectual seriousness is from the right.

Alan Sinfield
Sussex University

Congratulations to Claude Rawson: his account of the illnesses attacking the study of English literature in universities is courageous and necessary. I’m puzzled, though, by his remarks about Bernard Bergonzi’s Exploding English. My understanding of Professor Bergonzi’s book is that he notes, as a matter of empirical observation, that the literary canon is bound to grow, but he also says that while we expand the canon we must not distort it, and that the great literature of the past must retain its priority. It seems to me that he and Claude Rawson are really on the same side.

In his argument with Derrida Claude Rawson could have invoked another philosopher and literary figure, Iris Murdoch, who has this to say (in an interview) about feminist and other current threats to the canon: ‘We [women] want to join the human race, not invent a new separation. This self-conscious separation leads to rubbish like “black studies" and “women’s studies". Let’s just have studies.’

John Batchelor
The University, Newcastle upon Tyne


Having spent a little time in Sinfield’s ‘knowing study at Sussex’ this year while on an MA course in Renaissance literature, I must take issue with some of your Bardbiz correspondents – James Wood (Letters, 25 April) is one – who impute joylessness and arrogance to cultural materialists. I am a woolly liberal and a poet, and cannot always agree with my tutors on writing, cultural production, individualism and some other topics. But I have not met ‘arrogant rectitude’: rather, a delight in debate, a welcome for essays which dissent from the views expressed in their public works (has Wood read carefully Sinfield’s writings enthusing over Macbeth, interpreting Sidney?), a questioning of visiting speakers who take up an ideologically pure stance from a materialist point of view, and an encouragement of the belief that to attempt to explain is not to dehumanise. I recognise some of Wood’s worries about the value placed on poetry, and have been quarrelling amicably with Sinfield over this since October. But criticism is not the same ball game as writing: Wood implies it should be. The questions he says are not discussed are discussed.

What is literary debate about? Everyone coming to the same conclusions on questions whose importance has been settled beforehand? Or openness to the possibility of new questions becoming relevant; and free debate on old questions still found important by Marxists and others alike? It was Alan Sinfield who said, in our second seminar of the autumn: ‘We don’t have to agree – we really don’t.’

Penny McCarthy
London SE3

The Name of the Rose

A.D. Nuttall, in a splendid review of Anne Barton’s The Names of Comedy (LRB, 25 April), may be right to say that Juliet’s remark about a rose-by-any-other-name is unquoted there because it is too well known. Another reason may be that Shakespeare did not write it. What he did write is:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet,

which makes the point, perhaps even more sharply than in the familiar misreading, that (like Aristotle and Aquinas before him) he was a Saussurian before his time. But then Saussure publicly disavowed having discovered the arbitrariness of the sign, which he called an uncontested principle. It is a passage his modern disciples prefer not to read.

George Watson
St John’s College, Cambridge

Hands at an open door

Dennis Brown (Letters, 25 April) makes a point of claiming to discover a connection between Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ and Pound’s ‘Exile’s Letter’ which he has not ‘seen made elsewhere’. Such a connection is noted in the fifth edition, 1990, of my Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot, where I also identify the dialogue that Eliot maintained with Pound through his poetry.

Brian Southam
London NW11


Douglas Johnson’s interesting and suggestive judgment (LRB, 25 April) that Admiral Darlan was not a simple Anglophobe is supported by Darlan’s readiness to act with, indeed even to entertain, Admiral A. B. Cunningham, Eisenhower’s Naval deputy in Algiers. Cunningham, it will be remembered, had refused to open fire on the French squadron in Alexandria in 1940 and had not concealed his whole-hearted opposition to the policy that had been forced on an equally reluctant Admiral Somerville at Mers el Kebir. The whole question is discussed in my book Fisher and Cunningham, published last month. As to Darlan’s assassination, I wonder if a better or clearer account of this affair can be found than that given by Jean Lacouture in the first volume of his life of De Gaulle, now available in Patrick O’Brian’s admirable translation.

Richard Ollard
Bridport, Dorset


Re Robert Alter’s review of the Confessions of Saint Augustine (LRB, 25 April) do – you mean that I’ve been imagining this division between my body and my soul for forty years just because some inadequate translator rendered the Hebrew nefesh (self) as the Latin anima (soul)? Ye God(s)!

Diana Hendry

My Suggestion

In his review of After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse (LRB, 4 April) E.S. Turner quotes Richard Usborne’s words to the effect that Herbert Jenkins told him ‘that Wodehouse had advised them to put me on the job of writing Wodehouse at Work.’ While it is certainly true that P.G.W. agreed to the invitation, the fact of the matter is that the initial suggestion came from me. At the time (mid-1954) I was working as an editorial assistant at Herbert Jenkins and happened to read Usborne’s Clubland Heroes, which I greatly enjoyed. I took the book to Derek Grimsdick, the chairman of the firm, and suggested that Usborne be invited to compile a similar study of Wodehouse’s characters to that of the Buchan, ‘Sapper’ and Dornford Yates characters which he had produced for Clubland Heroes. After reading the book, Grimsdick agreed with my proposal and wrote to P.G.W. outlining the idea and recommending Usborne as the author. As Usborne himself says, Wodehouse was not overwhelmed by the plan but agreed the invitation should be extended, which it duly was by Grimsdick over lunch at Quaglino’s. Certainly, no other author was ever contemplated or invited to produce Wodehouse at Work. It was simply that Usborne seemed to be the best person for the job, and so it proved. Furthermore, it is probably fair to add that, as P.G.W. was still persona non grata in many circles in the mid-Fifties, an invitation to a more established literary figure might well have fallen on stony ground. The terms offered were certainly modest, although princely by Jenkins’s standards, which is why I left the company not long afterwards, unable to live on the salary they were prepared to pay me, or, perhaps, felt that I deserved. This meant, sadly, that I never worked on Usborne’s book.

Bruce Coward
Dartmouth, Devon

I do wish to say that having E.S. Turner’s ‘Turbot, sir’ is by itself worth a year’s subscription.

Nicolas Freeling
Grandfontaine, France

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