Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991

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Serial Killers

John Lanchester’s article (LRB, 11 July) about serial killers made particularly interesting reading in the light of Isabel Hilton’s piece in the same issue about what she called ‘the criminal underside of Reagan’s Central America policy’. As Amnesty International routinely reminds us, armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large numbers. It might be comforting to think this reflects simply the efficiency of these institutions at spotting whatever makes serial killers different from you and me (the absence of ‘whatever prevents the majority of us from acting on Nilsen’s “dark images" ’, to use Lanchester’s phrase). But although there must be a degree of self-selection among their personnel, the more likely and more disturbing explanation is that there is something about that kind of work that has, in the appropriate circumstances, the potential to make serial killers of a great many of us. Lanchester says ‘most murders are easy to understand’ and suggests that crimes of passion or greed are ones we can conceive of committing under ‘extremity of circumstances’. But what he finds incomprehensible about serial killing (‘ “stranger-to-stranger" crime, a “relationshipless act"; it has a terrible lightness to it’) describes perfectly the routine and bureaucratic character of much of the murder that governments commit in the name of efficient administration. There must be many people who took part in the bombing of Dresden, or the ‘elimination’ of terrorist suspects, and who have never spent an hour of guilty insomnia even though involvement in a crime of passion might have haunted them for the rest of their lives.

We know a little about the circumstances that make this mental detachment easier to achieve: it helps, for instance, to feel moral distaste for the victim (this, and not just their powerlessness, must be part of the attraction that ‘vagrants, migrant workers, homosexuals’ hold for the classic serial killer). So tales of the atrocities of which the other side is capable prove to be quite effective at enabling us to perpetrate similar acts. This suggests that those of us who do are not simply monsters (who would presumably be relatively unmoved by such tales) but people – perhaps frightened, perhaps dazed, perhaps indignant – with an ability to respond very selectively to the suffering of others.

Here, for instance, is a passage from a recent volume of memoirs by a former British officer in the Malay Police Force, describing an ambush of members of the Malayan Communist Party in the days when there was a quite explicit shoot-to-kill policy: ‘Suddenly the silence of the jungle was broken by his curdling, wailing cries, the screams of a man who knew he was doomed. He was at my mercy; he grappled for his tommy-gun to scythe me down, but I was too quick for him. Gritting my teeth, I fired a salvo from the hip. It was impossible to miss. As the bullets ripped into his body I shouted, “Now cry, you bastard." ’ And so on and so on. ‘Someone has to help rid the country of the Communists,’ says the author at one point. It would be interesting to know how much of an anomaly John Lanchester would have been conscious of, if he had found such a volume among the pile of books he reviewed.

Paul Seabright
Churchill College, Cambridge

Art and the Media

While having no quarrel with Andrew Forge on his appreciation of the writings of Robert Hughes (LRB, 27 June), I would like to take issue with his elaboration of the ‘symptoms’ of malaise, initially diagnosed by Hughes, in the contemporary art scene. His account itself shows signs of the malaise of traditional art criticism. Forge writes of the loss of some experimental art’s basis in representation (drawing skills) as the cause of its decline into ‘fashion’, suitable for the frenzied markets, rather than retaining a ‘radical’ potential in relation to the real world. It happens that I agree with his implicit aesthetic defence of abstraction, that it is somehow based in representation, although I see nothing ‘radical’ about it. However, to move from this argument to one about ‘fashion’ and markets is problematic. Despite Forge’s later dismissal of ‘sociological arguments’, the processes leading over this century to a mass market in art, and to ever more powerful waves of changing ‘fashion’, require sociological and economic analysis. They do not correlate clearly with this or any other stylistic change. Rather, it may be that aesthetic developments are themselves conditioned by the changing institutions and markets for art, not least the recent nostalgic return to figuration. But they are not somehow debased by being thus conditioned, and only a critic concerned with rejuvenating a discourse in which art is autonomous from the social would propose so.

It is to Hughes’s credit that, against the reactionary tide of some art criticism, he does not disdain to concern himself with these issues. Forge’s resort to ‘biological necessity’ in trying to understand the unique attractions of painting is unfortunate, appealing as it does to some dubious physiological, and yet transcendent, art-empathic essence.

Forge’s second main theme, after Hughes and against Benjamin’s famous thesis, is the responsibility of mechanical media (photography, TV) for the aesthetic superficiality and amnesia of the Post-Modern present. There are two sub-themes. First, under the pervasive influence of mass visual media and their ‘stupidly compelling’ realism, fine art also became obsessed with ‘information and not experience’. One could easily develop the opposite thesis: that, with the ‘pure’ informational function siphoned off to mass media, painting was finally freed from this onerous duty to engage with its own preoccupations – which were never simply or primarily representational. But both theses rest on a misapprehension, since there are no such things as ‘purely informational’ mass media: they themselves have an aesthetic dimension, different to, but as complex as, that of fine art.

More importantly, it is no good laying the blame for the aesthetic impasses of Modernist fine art on the coincidental rise of new mass media, which do not displace, nor aesthetically rival, fine art. If painting has lost its way aesthetically over the century, its ambivalent relations with other cultural developments must first be explained in terms of the aporias and crises of its own internal dynamics and periodic urge to turn outwards for ‘solutions’ – unsuccessfully, in my view.

The second sub-theme is that painters, critics and viewers are brought up on diets of slides which misrepresent and reduce the original painting, so producing an ahistorical, superficial pseudo-freedom of access to the total world history of art. We must accept the fact that slides are transformations – representations of paintings in which certain phenomenal qualities of the originals are lost. The question is what this implies. For Benjamin, it was a price worth paying. Forge’s view seems based on a view of culture as a ‘zero-sum game’: the more we have mass reproduction, the less is left for the appreciation of the artwork. How can Forge defend against Benjamin’s other major insight, sociological and aesthetic combined, that the problem with fine artworks is precisely their uniqueness in space and time; and that in a world like ours, these objects inevitably become rare commodities caught up in an ever-inflating traffic of prestigious goods? In other words, that by their very nature as objects, fine artworks become symbols of cultural stratification, so that for the majority of people the choice is not ‘slides or paintings’, but ‘postcards and slides or nothing’?

What Forge misses is the sheer phenomenological specificity and difference of fine art, of photography and, indeed, of written and verbal discourse; and of the translation and transformation inherent in any congress between them. It is not true that painting is somehow demeaned or robbed by the existence of photographic slides. Ironically, this repressed truth returns in Forge’s own appreciation of the photographs of paintings in Hughes’s ‘extremely well-illustrated’ book on Auerbach. We are faced with various forms of translation: literary, discursive, photographic. Each is ‘artificial’: and yet each has a function. Each ‘robs’ – if that is the word for not being the same as: and yet each expands the universe of the original artwork, the particular qualities of painting. Surely this is the way forward.

Georgina Born
Goldsmiths’ College, London SE14


I have only recently caught up with the Bardbiz controversy in your columns since I teach English Literature in a context that is not only geographically removed but obviously peripheral to Shakespeare, Mozart and Bach, and to Culture itself – as it emerges in the shrill onslaught against cultural materialism. It is significant that this tired tirade rehearses the cultural chauvinism which was an integral part of the export of Shakespeare to colonised societies. For some two hundred years, Boris Ford might like to know, Indians have read (and have been made to read) Shakespeare (and Ford’s own Guides to Literature). The dominant message of colonial education was that if they did not find Shakespeare’s plays ‘profoundly moving, or spiritually restoring, or simply strangely enjoyable’, they did not possess the attributes of what James Wood, in one of his letters, calls ‘the thoughtful critic, the enjoyable critic’. Further, such appreciation was a measure of intelligence and sensitivity per se. Precisely the same regimentation of response is now evident in many of the letters under the guise of a return to the text.

Wood pleads that the author should be viewed as ‘a complex thing’. Indeed he or she should, and so should millions of readers – which means acknowledging precisely those tensions, ambiguities, conflicts, histories and debates that cultural materialism has focused on. My students have been enabled, by much of this criticism, to move away from parroting tired praises of Shakespeare’s ‘complexity’ to asserting their own varying responses to him. To locate the ways in which Shakespeare was used within colonial education, and how his plays interacted with cultural practices of his own time, effects a huge liberation for most of them. They can now be the complex, intelligent, sensitive readers Wood wants – to agree or disagree, be moved or angry, restored or bored by Shakespeare.

Wood complains that to emphasise the conditions of production or reception of a text is to negate the latter and to reduce its author to ‘history’s hostage’. Contradictorily, he berates precisely those critics, like Paul Brown, who show how Shakespeare’s plays intervened in history. Wood says that cultural materialists, being ‘slavishly faithful to the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic’, believe that such textual intervention in history happens in spite of the authorial intentionality. It is sad that such a passionate advocate of the ‘complexity’ of authors and texts should reduce this dialectic, and the long history of Marxist debates on human agency and the intersection between the individual and the social, to a crude determinism. If indeed Marxists and cultural materialists (and feminists, one might add) believed that all ideology works simply to legitimise the status quo, as Wood says they do, they would not waste their time theorising dissent, or thinking about how to change that status quo.

Far from neglecting the original meaning of the plays in favour of their subsequent histories, cultural materialists constantly try to work out the connections as well as the disjunctures between the two, as does Thomas Cartelli, whose arguments are misrepresented in the debate. Cartelli discusses Ngugi or Lamming’s readings of The Tempest in the context of his suggestion that a text is ‘a responsible party to its successive readings and rewritings’. He therefore argues that the seeds of imperialist readings of The Tempest are there in the original text. In my book Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, I have suggested that by the same logic, the play must also question colonialist practices since it also has a long history of radical, anti-colonialist appropriations. Paying attention to history, then, is not to downgrade the plays but often to find that what in them is worth salvaging is different from what we were previously told.

Ania Loomba
Jawaharlal Nehru University,

Too extreme

Elaine Showalter (LRB, 11 July) refers to occasions when Sylvia Plath’s best-known poems (‘perhaps the greatest of her generation’) were ‘rejected by literary editors as “too extreme" ’. Is it possible that one of those editors now has something to do with the LRB?

Richard Jacobs
London SE14

Karl Miller writes: When I was literary editor of the New Statesman, I was in the habit of publishing verse and prose by Sylvia Plath, and I came to know her a bit. When a selection of her last poems was sent, my first response was to consider her state of mind and to make enquiries. I was afraid she might take her life. Such is the tormented state of Plath studies that it is only to be expected that this response, and the delays and uncertainties to which it may have led, should sometimes appear to be spoken of as part of a process of flat rejection.

A Letter from Stevie Smith

The following poem by Gavin Ewart went out on BBC Radio 3 Poetry Now, edited by me, on 5 October 1979. Thought it might interest Karina Williamson (Letters, 25 July). Of course, Mr Ewart is the one to ask as to where the idea came from – I certainly didn’t realise that Stevie Smith already knew the joke.

Nobody read him, the poor sod,
He was always moaning:
I am much more way out than you think
And not Wavell but Browning.

Poor chap, he always loved Larkin
And now he’s dead,
The critics were too cold for him, his art gave way
They said.

Oh, no no no, they were too cold always
(He still never stopped moaning)
I was obscene and avant-garde and obscure
And not Wavell but Browning.

John Powell Ward
Dartford, Kent

It seems that Gavin Ewart arrived by coincidence at the play on words shared with Stevie Smith.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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