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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 13 · 11 July 1991

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Bardbiz

Leonard Jackson has a point (Letters, 13 June): cultural materialism is not fully theorised on page vii of Political Shakespeare. But there is a great deal more on it elsewhere, partly by contributors to Political Shakespeare, not least Raymond Williams (who I believe was developing the term at about the same time as the anthropologist Marvin Harris). The aspect raised by Jackson, the scope of such theory, has in fact been a central preoccupation – to the point where cultural materialism could be characterised as an attempt to reason a way out of a base/superstructure model. On the issue of pleasure in the verse, and necessarily briefly, it is perhaps not a matter of that pleasure being caused by material conditions, but of whether it can be innocent of them. That is the harder question – and whether any of us can be. So we may be enjoying the verse in Othello and getting some racism at the same time (Martin Orkin’s work indicates partly how this might be: see his letter of 13 June).

I say ‘may be’. The ‘Bardbiz’ correspondence was set off by Terry Hawkes saying that cultural materialists raise such questions. It is this that has provoked a stream of misrepresentation and abuse, which I have tried to meet thoughtfully and for the most part genially; not dogmatically. Now Claude Rawson (LRB, 22 February 1990) says I am ‘coercive’ and a ‘menace’ to intellectual seriousness because I have insinuated that he holds a brief for the New Right. I do not accept that my letter can be reasonably construed as making that insinuation, and deny that I customarily make such insinuations. I have never thought of Professor Rawson as of the New Right, but as a scholar and critic of distinction with whom serious debate is normally possible. If he is now losing his bearings that is a pity. I believe my version of what has been happening in English studies is better than his, and regret that he has chosen not to consider it.

Alan Sinfield
University of Sussex

Leonard Jackson says that cultural materialism ‘won’t go far to explain’ Shakespeare’s ‘dramatic effectiveness or the force of his poetry’. But then, neither does any other theory, apart from repeating that it is effective and powerful because it is effective and powerful. The whole parade of analyses of technique, theme and structure is nothing more than this tautology. Materialism offers up another possibility: the concept of the socially-constructed reader. Phrases like ‘dramatic effectiveness’ are then no longer seen as immutable and mystical.

In looking at the effectiveness of Shakespeare, in my own case, I would start looking into how I was initiated into Shakespeare at home, how quotations were used in a proverbial way to reflect on daily incidents, how careful preparation was made before a visit to the theatre, how, as a consequence, Shakespeare at school was ‘easy’. I could reflect on all the subtle ways achievement at school was linked with notions of greatness in British culture, politics and militarism. I could consider how a hierarchy of poetic effectiveness was taught to me very early on – metaphorical language is top of the pops – or how I was constantly told that humanistic drama is greater than, say, symbolic or folk drama. At the end of an autobiography of the socially-constructed reader of Shakespeare, I figure that I would be much nearer to understanding why I thought Shakespeare was ‘effective’. And I would be cautious about making statements about who else this effectiveness applied to, unless they shared aspects of my biography.

Michael Rosen
London E8

Old literature and its enemies

Despite Claude Rawson’s (LRB, 25 April) ostensible disagreements with Alvin kernan, it is clear that he shares the author’s fears and worries about the progressive decline of English studies in recent years. But I suspect that Professor Rawson is being rather optimistic in believing that ‘British universities have remained relatively resistant to the theory [and multiculturalist?] takeover.’ I recently spent my sabbatical year in Britain and my impression is that the new tendencies in ‘literary’ studies are quite widespread in the British universities and that the more traditional English departments are increasingly coming under pressure to ‘change’. In fact, I met some members of the ‘old guard’ who told me that they felt indignant and helpless at what they saw was happening to the studying and teaching of literature. Further evidence of this change can be seen in the advertisements for English teaching jobs at British universities/polytechnics. More often than not, ‘an interest in literary theory would be an advantage’ is included in the job description. Similarly, publishers, swayed by market forces, simply refuse to consider a manuscript if it does not pay homage to the new approaches to ‘literary’ criticism. A fellow academic I know has a very good book: but the (reputable British) publisher’s comment on it is both revealing and worrying. He, too, thought that the manuscript was eminently publishable but he had to yield to ‘the feeling expressed by both readers that your account is probably too traditional for what has become a very radical deconstructionist/feminist/post-deconstructionist market. That observation doesn’t of course lessen even fractionally the validity and worth of what you’ve done, but it does make it difficult to be sanguine about the market for your book.’ So obviously the likes of Alan Sinfield who find the feminist/Marxist/multiculturalist approach ‘more exciting than literary appreciation’ have more say than Rawson would care to admit.

A. Banerjee
Kobe College, Japan

As a feminist, multiculturalist and all-out baby-eating commie serial killer deconstructionist rock’n’roll barbarian, I’ve grown up knowing that the canons are loaded and aimed at me. That’s cool. Everything I write and mind about (pop culture, rogue science, undergrounder politics) would lose its intelligence and function if it got onto The Higher Reading Lists. Sixties-issue PoMo apocalypsers like Alvin Kernan still want tenure and security, as well as the opportunity to build a new, truer ‘Objective Knowledge’ beyond reach of class violence, race and gender oppression.

Nice idea. It’s not going to happen. Dead White Males Rule (even if some of them haven’t been buried yet). ‘While we expand the canon we must not distort it,’ proclaims (Rawson-supporter) John Batchelor (Letters, 23 May). This means (though he probably doesn’t): Those old geezers back in Slavery Days, they already knew everything: we stick by it, we can’t go wrong. He quotes ‘philosopher and literary figure’ Iris Murdoch about ‘feminist and other threats to the canon’: ‘self-conscious separation leads to rubbish like “black studies" and “women’s studies". Let’s just have studies.’ No idea WHAT she means: no more maths, history, fine art, fact or fiction: let’s just have stuff? Smart Girl Wanted.

‘Threats’, ‘self-conscious separation’, and, yes, just exactly who’s this ‘we’, John? Let’s get back to that good old unconscious separation, eh, like the philosophers and literary figures ‘we’ are. Hey, if ‘we’ don’t stick together, pretty soon the rising tide of non-white rubbish will carry non-black non-woman civilisation away. And then where will ‘we’ be?

You guys are this worried about free Speech? Come out of your security-zone laagers for a change, and engage with the actual violent post-modern world. Where the real threat to local truth and civic well-being is the LAPD: and the assault on global ditto is directed by that Mr Bush. Higher Learning mostly just hides away when these topics turn up – when it isn’t colluding. Literature, if still alive, has not yet deigned to help. We get our news from RoboCop and Ice Cube.

Hopey Glass
University of California, Los Angeles

Matrioshki

Much talk on translation is uninteresting because it is either too general or too specific. The subject only becomes fascinating when some intermediate course is found, such as comparing different versions – as it is by both Craig Raine and Donald Davie on successive pages of the London Review (LRB, 13 June).

Some translations are long overdue: over the years, Henry James has come in for all sorts of treatment from umpteen Freneh translators, and his complete works are only just in sight The Sense of the Past, a novel which for various reasons took fifteen years to half-finish, took me, for reasons which are perhaps not so very different, six years to translate, from first putting pen to paper till publication, in two months’ time. Other translations are apparently premature: looking through the other end of the telescope, the British publisher of Georges Perec in 1987 rejected my completed version of Perec’s La Disparition in favour of some idealised alternative which probably won’t turn up ‘this century’ (I quote his American counterpart). Curiously enough, translating the James is far more constraining than translating the Perec, where stylistic freedom is the rule: Raine’s matrioshka effect is the inevitable result once one has stretched the possibilities of French syntax to meet the conflicting demands of semantic coherence and style. This involves a full palette, including such unlikely constructions as the imperfect subjunctive, which no one but President Mitterrand and the odd purist uses much any more. While James refused to call a spade a spade, Perec obliged himself to call it a digging tool, a fork, or something more interesting. Impoverished present-day usage, to the extent that it does indeed seem more at home with Hingley-type ‘four-square certainties’ than with Chekhovian ‘hints and guesses’, is ill-equipped to cope with either. The new challenge brought by La Disparition, however, is how to combine the conservative virtues of the ‘divine nobody’ with the more enterprising, and perhaps selfish, qualities required for full participation in the creative process.

John Lee
Neufchâtel-en-Saosnois, France

Bloom’s Bible

Donald Davie’s assault on The Book of J (LRB, 13 June) was predictable: so predictable, in fact, as to render him an unenlightening reviewer for this book. He would rule out, on a priori grounds, the validity of any such enterprise: the Book of Job itself is prone to ambiguities. But he is capable of one or two inconsistencies of his own. For instance, he criticises literary and historical approaches to the Bible, but appears to value literary judgments about the value of the AV, and historical evidence about its translators. He grieves that people should tamper with a translation: yet the AV would not exist if people had not been ready to tamper with the Bishop’s Bible and the Geneva and Tyndale.

There are certainly questions to be asked about attempts to reconstruct the sources of the Pentateuch. But that need not entail abandoning such scholarship – even if one acknowledges the key role of German scholars (tell it not in Gath!). They may have ‘dreamed up’ the precise division into sources; they may have ‘dreamed up’ a methodology that too clinically dissected the canonical text; but did they dream up the discontinuities and contradictions in that text? Does Davie want us to emulate the Victorian clergy who regarded German scholarship as the root of all evil? I find myself echoing one of the few exceptions, Julius Hare, who when urged to burn his German books replied that he owed to them his ability to believe in Christianity. Take a ‘frivolous’ commentary like Gerhard von Rad’s on Genesis. Come to think of it, take Genesis. What does it give? The ‘delight and instruction’ of literature or the ‘comfort, solace and assurance’ of a religious text?

Neither of these quite does justice to the richness and strangeness of the text. If someone wishes for scriptures that speak with one voice, they will find this in the Qu’ran, but not in the Bible. Davie acknowledges this richness, and raises the ‘bewildering question’ about standards of ‘correctness’. He touches on very difficult issues: accuracy and truth in translations, scholarship and holiness. He articulates that sense, not so much of pious anger as of weary desolation, which overtakes a believer when confronted by the more arid of modern commentaries. But there must be a more positive approach than to dismiss any suggestion of diversity within Scripture as ‘a forked tongue’!

James Dickie
Chaplain,

Among the Bobcats

Do Mark Ford’s (too youthful?) ears deceive him (LRB, 23 May)? On my bootleg of the 1966 ‘Albert Hall’ concert, no member of the Hawks (not yet the Band) has the temerity to tell his Bobness to ‘quit talking’. Instead, Dylan reiterates ‘you’re a fuckin’ liar’ to the time-warped folkie in the stalls. But yes, the music as it comes crashing in is sublime, and wherever it comes from we are lucky to have it.

David Kynaston
New Malden, Surrey

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