With all allowances made for the constraints of reviewing four books by as many authors in his piece ‘Making up’ (LRB, 15 August) and with nothing I can decently say to Julian Symons’s contention that my life’s work has indeed been a mug’s game – the title of the first version of the memoirs he reviewed – because in my poems I do not ‘use the language quite like a native’, I do feel compelled to break my rule of silence in such matters, only to correct one or two misreadings.
Mr Symons cannot be to blame for the title String of Beginners given to my book in the heading, when in his text he gives it correctly as String of Beginnings. Nor does it matter much that I was at Lancing College only because, very briefly, my school, Westminster, was evacuated to its premises during the war. But there is nothing in my book that warrants Mr Symons’s assertion that my father remained a ‘patriotic German’ after our immigration and British naturalisation. Not only did my father give up his medical practice in London after the outbreak of war to be available for bombing casualties elsewhere, as stated in the book, but the very opening page attests that his ‘German patriotism’ even at the outbreak of the First World War was qualified by the conviction – fairly rare at a time of war fever on both sides – that no good could come of any war and his hope that future generations would be spared that ‘barbarism’, as he called it in the letter to his family I felt it necessary to quote.
Mr Symons also writes that my book is ‘the autobiography of an outsider, and perhaps all the more interesting’ because I seem ‘not to realise that’. I can assure Mr Symons that I did not need his review to be fully aware of just how and why I have become a literary outsider in Britain. What is more to the point, though, is that my book is not an autobiography, for reasons repeatedly explained in the book, but the ‘intermittent memoirs’ as which its subtitle describes it – a documentary chronicle throughout, much of it not about me at all, but about friends and acquaintances, mostly dead. Several of these were poets in English who did not fail to match my ‘own severe cerebral and emotional intensity’, as Mr Symons thinks they did.
It would take too long to enter into the differences between Mr Symons’s judgment of those poets and mine; or only to correct his claim that I was ‘a little too late to be influenced by the commonsensical poetry of the Thirties’ – that of my immediate predecessors. I read some of those poets in the late Thirties or early Forties. If I was not influenced by them, that has nothing to do with lateness, much more with preferences and affinities about which I have no regrets.
The argument of Romantic Ecology was that it might now be useful to read Wordsworth with the grain, as Victorians like Ruskin read him, instead of against it, as the most influential critics of the 1980s read him. John Barrell’s review (LRB, 15 August), which had a lightness and a wit that one does not associate with the prose of his books, was a splendid rebuttal of this contention, in that it showed what would be lost if people stopped reading against the grain. Where would we then go for the comic spectacle of the contention that Marxist praxis has not been notably ‘green’ (despite a certain ecological thrust in Engels) being converted into the accusation that New Historicist literary critics were responsible for the environmental devastation of Eastern Europe? Who but a reader against the grain could transform the argument that Margaret in ‘The Ruined Cottage’ and the dead girl in ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ are not given immortality in a Christian heaven, but achieve a kind of immortality in nature (Wordsworth as Lucretian?), into the proposition that ruined cottages are all that women are good for while they’re still alive? But I fear that Professor Barrell and I are like the stooping poet and the little girl in Max Beerbohm’s caricature, ‘William Wordsworth in the Lake District, at cross-purposes’: he thinks that Romantic Ecology has no interest in ‘economic issues’, whereas I thought that one of its aims was to reassert Ruskin’s claim that the fundamental material basis of political economy is not money, labour and production, but ‘pure air, water and earth’.
University of Liverpool
John Barrell is always a pleasure to read. His is a particularly fascinating type of fiction, invaluable as a stimulus and goad for those of us who believe that the historian’s reconstructions of the past are based on a methodology as rigorous as those of the natural scientists, involving the complex analysis of an enormous variety of primary sources; constant attention to the origins and validity of all concepts; care not to take multiple instances of ‘class awareness’ as proof of ‘class consciousness’; caution in approaching the staggering assumptions which lie behind the Marxist notion of ‘ideology’; rejection of the Hegelian tradition of reifying ‘eras’ and ‘systems’; and acceptance that Marx was a decent, ordinary guy who said some perceptive things, as well as, like the rest of us, some pretty daft ones.
Thus David Solkin’s Richard Wilson Exhibition of 1982-83 was certainly, as Professor Barrell says, a ‘key event’ of a sort: almost comic, in fact, in its relentless thrusting-down-the-throat of every stale and exploded Marxist cliché (‘thoughtful and carefully researched’, forsooth!). The problem with Marxist interpretations of history and art (and, therefore, with Cultural Materialism and New Historicism) is not that of political tendentiousness (who cares two pee for the views of the Daily Telegraph?), but that they trivialise the historical context to conform with a handful of Marxist formulae, and what’s more, are usually wrong. ‘Finding out’ in historical study is always an arduous and taxing procedure. It is upon patiently assembled, carefully validated detail (of the sort Professor Barrell scorns in the Parris and Fleming-Williams catalogue) that historical knowledge advances.
Georgina Born’s letter (Letters, 15 August) does not take issue with Andrew Forge’s piece about Robert Hughes and the state of modern art. Had their paths crossed, they might have got on well. They agree on the new 20th-century mass market in art, whatever that is. They agree on the ever more powerful waves of changing fashion. But I have to say to Forge’s critique of modern fashions that before fashion there was also fashion. This can be difficult to detect in some of the comments which issue from universities and colleges on art markets and their vogues.
What particular nostalgic return to figuration is Georgina Born mentioning? I have seen more shows this summer by artists from Goldsmiths’ College, where Georgina Born teaches, than from all the other art schools in total – either new graduates or, as a friend of mine put it, ‘rehabilitated old hippies’. They share a common nostalgia for the distant revolutions of Marcel Duchamp, and though he may have been kind enough to sign the work of young admirers, he finally preferred playing chess to making art.
Alan Sinfield is ‘genial’ enough (Letters, 11 July) but not always accurate. Terence Hawkes did not inaugurate the Bardbiz tiff by suggesting that cultural materialism ‘raises’ those questions which this correspondence has subsequently debated. On the contrary, Hawkes launched the boat with his amicable paraphrasing of Gary Taylor – to the effect that Shakespeare is ‘a black hole’ into which we pour our meanings. Given that this hole simply reflects back to us the meanings we pour into it, it is impossible to say if it is any good or not. To some readers, this sounded like the heavy dropping rather than the raising of questions.
In my first letter, I pointed out that this notion of the vacant or spongy, ever-absorbent text is logically impossible. If Shakespeare is a black hole, then so are Dickens and Eliot, and so on. But if each simply gives back to us what we put into it, then nothing distinguishes them from each other any longer, and clearly, something does. Moreover, if Shakespeare is a black hole, then at the very least we need some explanation, other than a generalised theory about the text and reader-responses, of this quality of black holeness. I further pointed out that this airy surrender commits the critic to placing every reading of Shakespeare on an equivalent footing. If Hitler, like Terence Hawkes, is simply getting back the meanings he puts into the black hole, then so be it. Sceptics will note, however, that no cultural materialist essay begins without its bitter refutation of Tillyard or G. Wilson Knight on Shakespeare. Though a number of correspondents have written to defend cultural materialism, no one has tackled Hawkes’s bold ‘question-raising’.
I also suggested that Hawkes’s paraphrase seemed to typify a larger hiatus in cultural materialist thinking, one that hovers around questions of agency (a writer’s, a text’s) and intention (ditto). One feels, reading some of the available essays, that the text in cultural materialism truly is a black hole, pressed on, determined by, battered by warring ideologies – the space or site on which various ideologies of the day have it out with each other. People have written to say that cultural materialism precisely raises such questions. Certainly, it gestures towards the raising of such questions, but what finally seems to interest these critics, what really energises them, is the complex mechanics of legitimation and political containment. Sure, texts are contradictory (just as ideologies are): but in the end, we know who wins, we know who’s tops. As Leonard Tennen-house puts it in an essay in Political Shakespeare, ‘the introduction of disorder into the play ultimately authorises political authority.’ This is the wiry paradox that really delights cultural materialists. This leads to some fruitful ‘question-raising’ – or as Tennenhouse flatly puts it, ‘Shakespeare uses his drama to authorise political authority.’
So Ania Loomba’s sketch (Letters, 15 August) of the ‘humanists’ as little more than cultural colonialists and the cultural materialists as radical dissenters is not just offensive, but wayward and myopic. Cultural materialists seem to believe that dissent is not willed but somehow produced by ideology’s tendency to contradict itself. This is precisely the position of Paul Brown and Thomas Cartelli on The Tempest. The more that one reads such critics, the more one realises that they do not believe in radical texts. They believe in radical readers – here is the fundamental split between ‘humanists’ and materialists. Such readers, it is supposed, must brush the inherently conservative, or ever-absorbent text, against its grain, searching for marginalised or repressed moments of dissent. These moments are like symptoms; they appear without regard to a writer’s intention or will. The humanist is interested in good intentions, the materialist in bad symptoms. But the humanist is the real radical.
Were the Native Americans and their culture thoroughly good, and the Europeans thoroughly evil, or vice versa? As this question is unanswerable, it provides much work for journalists. Does Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce make a better hero than Abraham Lincoln, and a blood-soaked Aztec priest a better villain than Cortez? Who is more ethical: the carefree Pamunkey brave, living an idle existence as his wife does the work, so he can indulge in raids and a little recreational torture, or the Mississippi planter who treats his slaves well, but still uses their production to indulge in drinking, horse-racing and faro? Is there a moral calculus that we can use to ascribe blame to either side? Alexander Cockburn (LRB, 11 July) and others seem to have the tar-pots and gold leaf ready, waiting for whim or fashion to dictate which entire side of the portrait gallery should be gilded and which smeared. What’s needed here is a taste for complexity, which seems hard to acquire, and the ability to write about it, which seems to have been damned as equivocation.
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Followers of my work may have noticed that the contributors’ notes in a recent issue stated that I would have a new collection and an anthology of prose and poetry about sex published later this year. This is not now the case, although both books were completed and delivered almost a year ago.
Last November, two weeks before my deadline, I delivered my anthology The Literary Companion to Sex. My editor at Hamish Hamilton, who were to produce the hardback, replied saying that it was ‘a magnificent selection’ and that it would be ‘terrific fun to publish’. Naturally, both my agent and myself took this to be a letter of acceptance and I went on finalising the permissions, confident that the book would be out on schedule in the autumn. In February, I learned, via a half-sentence in a letter from my paperback publisher to my agent, that the book had been dropped. Nobody had thought to tell its compiler. I wrote to my editor and he confirmed that it was true – eventually – with a second-class stamp. The final indignity – he had the duplicity to wish me luck with the book! My agent eventually pinned him down on the phone, asking for a reason. Amongst other quibbles, he complained: ‘too many of the entries were to do with perversion rather than sex.’ One man’s perversion’s another man’s sex – so where do you draw the line?
My final letter to him was a Pitt-Kethley special. I made sure not to mark it ‘Personal’: I wanted all his office staff to read and enjoy it. The following is a sample paragraph: ‘My first reaction to your latest letter was to feel like replying by comparing you to various parts of the male or female anatomy that are only shown in public by lunatics or the terminally incautious. My second was to realise that these innocent, honest, straightforward organs should not be libelled by comparison to someone like you. You are, it has to be said, a good deal less useful and less capable of giving pleasure.’ Of course, he did not have the style to reply.
The lack of Hamish Hamilton’s hardback meant eventually that my paperback publishers (and the main holders of the contract) Sphere would not or could not go ahead with the project. HarperCollins had, in the meantime, made an offer for the anthology as part of a three-book deal – the other books being my new poetry collection and an as-yet-un-written travel book about Greece. Unfortunately, I was unable to sign that contract because it would have meant making an early repayment of my anthology advance to Sphere, leaving me too little money to do the travel research with and to live on while writing the Greek book. I was uneasy also at the remark one of the editors had made to my agent: ‘We would like to dissuade her from publishing any books that we don’t want to publish’. If a publisher isn’t offering an author enough to live on, then he should not seek to limit other possible sources of revenue. I decided to try to hold Sphere to its contract, but this did not work out. After a great deal of argument, however, I was allowed to keep the advance. The HarperCollins deal should have been financially possible at last, but they decided to withdraw it.
Somewhere, I suppose, there will be a discerning publisher willing to bring my anthology out and also to take advantage of the fact that there is a book-club deal ready and waiting and a good many journalists interested. I know that I did a good job – I often put in 14 hours a day, collating and translating. Other days were spent copying out rare items from the British Museum’s Private Case, longhand in pencil. Some of the pieces I chose have not been in print since the 17th century or have not been translated previously.
The unpleasant treatment I received over the anthology was depressing enough. Perhaps even more depressing is the fact that I now have no publisher for a good brand-new collection and no one ready to commission a travel book, although my last one was a success. I have, it is true, one publisher left in my life – Peter Owen, who produced my novel, The Misfortunes of Nigel, and who also hopes to bring out Too Hot to Handle, a collection of killed articles and wasted love-letters. Peter Owen’s publicist and copy editor are far better at their jobs than anyone I’ve encountered in any larger firm. If I were rich, I would probably be happy to publish everything there. The snag is that a small firm can only pay small advances. As the bulk of my income must come from the books I write, a small firm can’t be my only publisher.
My father used to say: ‘A Highland gentleman is the noblest creature to survive in God’s imperfect creation.’ It came as a great shock to me to discover that this opinion is not widely shared, even in the Lowlands. I got over the shock in the end, but I would not like to be associated with such people as James Kelman and Janice Galloway, so I was rather put off by your headline ‘Scottish Men and Women’ over a review of their outpourings (LRB, 27 June). I do not mind feeling guilty – that is half the joy of being a Catholic – but I do not like to feel guilty by association. Most Highland Scottish writers, as ever, live outside the United Kingdom. As many of us are academics as well, we would never praise, as Jenny Turner did, a phrase like: ‘Fucking, bogging mud man a swamp’. It sounds like a bit of your Poet in Residence, Fiona (where did she get that name from?). Lang may the lums of Edinburgh reek as copies of the Edinburgh Review burn in the grates of advocates.
Osaka Gakuin University, Japan