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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 20 · 24 October 1991

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Marxist Empires

Perry Anderson’s difficulties in assessing the ‘enigmatic’ role of Mikhail Gorbachev (LRB, 26 September) perhaps reflect some disappointment that Gorbachev did not after all achieve the modernisation of the Soviet Communist Party and its transformation into a democratic, ‘mobilising’ institution. But his actual achievement has been on a large canvas, much greater than the specific act of introducing competitive elections that Anderson mentions.

Gorbachev’s great achievement was to have introduced some fundamental truthfulness into political debate in the East, and to have insisted on the resolution of problems by means other than force. (It was his public renunciation of armed intervention that precipitated the changes in Eastern Europe.) It is surely amazing that the climate of fear and paranoia that prevailed between East and West for over forty years has been dispelled, largely by Gorbachev’s initiatives. It is virtually without precedent that a monopoly of power on the scale of the Soviet empire’s has been given up almost without the use of force. Nothing is more to the credit of the Communist Parties of most of Eastern Europe and the USSR than the fact that they have ultimately accepted the expressed will of their peoples.

Gorbachev’s continuing commitment to some version of socialism was vital to this peaceful transition since it identified him as at least not an enemy of the old regime, and therefore as someone with whom dialogue remained possible. For all his misjudgments in the economic sphere, he remained remarkably consistent in his dedication to political methods of problem-solving in a society in which politics has had virtually to be reinvented. The modernisation of the political sphere is, whatever some people may now think, as important as the state of the economy. It was the normalisation of these new political forms which seems, fortunately, to have sapped the will of the plotters. Most Western governing classes would be less inhibited, faced with serious threats to their interests, as we need look no further than ruined Kuwait to see.

Michael Rustin
London NW2

It is always good to read Perry Anderson. It was fascinating to have his account of events in Moscow. And it would be even more interesting to hear what he now thinks about Marxism. Will you offer a platform, or should we await a blockbuster in the What’s Left Review?

Aldan Foster-Carter
Department of Social Policy, University of Leeds

Verboten

Sorry if I sound like an unreconstructed Fifties Any Answers? respondent, but why oh why is the English-speaking world, including such articulate novelists as Martin Amis, such discriminating critics as Frank Kermode (LRB, 12 September), and such literate periodicals as your own esteemed journal, so cavalier in its treatment of the relatively few German words it feels called upon to use? Not having read the book Kermode was reviewing, I am unable to say whether the assertion that the surname Unverboren means ‘undepraved’ is his own or whether he is quoting Amis. But whoever said it, it is simply wrong.

The word Unverboren does not exist, in German any more than in English. The German word for ‘undepraved’ is unverdorben. Ungeboren means ‘unborn’, unverbogen means ‘unbent’, e.g. ‘straight’ (of character), unverborgen means ‘unconcealed’, unverfroren means ‘impertinent’ or ‘insolent’. The uses of error?

Peter Marsden
Institut für Anglistik, Aachen, Germany

On and off the page

It is naive to say as Phil Edwards does (Letters, 10 October) that the debate about pornography is not very precisely one of censorship: we have more censorship than almost any other society in Western Europe (and it would be hard to maintain that we have greater sexual equality).

In the past few months, under the current version of the Obscene Publications Act, we have seen the failed prosecution in a London court of Modern Primitives, an issue of the American arts magazine Re-Search which dealt with elective cosmetic piercing and scarification, and the forfeiture and threatened destruction of Lord Horror, a novel published by Savoy Books of Manchester which portrays anti-semitism and misogyny through an unreliable and hateful narrator, and rewrites Chief Constable Anderton’s anti-gay remarks as an anti-semitic speech. One need not particularly wish to read either of these books to find their prosecution a distressing infringement of freedom of speech.

There is an assumption at large that legislation which concentrated on sexist commercial erotica would leave all other material alone. It is practically impossible to see how this can be maintained; the definition of pornography included in the draft Bill, proposed in the last Parliament by Dawn Primarolo, on the Location of Pornographic Materials, might very well be held to include both the above cases, as well as Ulysses and Madonna’s videos. A Bill which relies on Trading Standards Officers to decide the interpretation of a loose definition is a blunt instrument. And, indeed, even among the Left and feminists, let alone among the right-wing and Christian advocates of censorship, there is little agreement about what should and should not be prosecuted.

Approached during the Modern Primitives trial, the Campaign against Pornography made it clear that they were not interested in abuses of current law – they regard all sexual representation in a sexist society as likely to be pornographic. Various anti-pornography feminists, from Andrea Dworkin on down, have made it clear that gay men, and lesbians, who look at their erotic images of choice are to be regarded as participating in the male freedom to objectify which is a crucial part of sexism: the logic of this position has been to organise the banning from ‘alternative’ bookshops of, for example, Love Bites, a collection of work by the lesbian photographer Della Grace. It is not logical to oppose Clause 28 one year and support censorship the next.

Some argue that freedom to avoid negative images of women is more important than artistic freedom. But anti-pornography legislation would only pass as part of political deals that would suppress positive sexual images: one of the most distressing sights of recent years has been that of anti-pornography feminists trying to pretend to themselves that the homophobia and anti-abortion position of their Christian allies were not important. I do not relish the obligation to defend, along with basic liberties of speech, artistic integrity and sexual freedom, the Sunday Sport: but these are real freedoms and as such indivisible. The argument that freedoms abused by the rich or wicked are not freedoms at all is not one which most of us accept in respect of the right to a jury trial or the right to silence: why then accept it over freedom of speech?

Roz Kaveney
London E2

Henry’s Friends

Since the appearance in the London Review of Henry Reed’s Psychological Warfare’ (LRB, 21 March), and with the Collected Poems still to come, I have been hoist on a mental tenterhooks, remembering back more than twenty-five years to the staggered periods during the Sixties when Henry was a Visiting Professor at the University of Washington. I had transferred there hoping to study with Theodore Roethke, who had been poet-in-residence for many years and the central force of what had become a ‘North-West School’: when he died in the summer of 1963, the University was determined to bring in distinguished replacements. Thus Henry’s first and subsequent terms as visiting poet. (How he was chosen and persuaded to take up the appointment is another story.)

I studied with Henry in 1964, and became something of a protégé, I suppose, although I was married and the father of a young son. He dined with us frequently and indeed became a sort of ‘Dutch uncle’ figure (my son called him ‘Henny’); and though even then somewhat reclusive and occasionally given to drink, he chose to allow all of us into his cultured and generous world. We enjoyed many wonderful meals out, with Henry, who always at least bought the numerous bottles of wine, elegantly holding forth on matters of literature and history and reciting passages from Shakespeare, certain moderns and his favourite Italian poets. To say that we were dazzled is to understate our emotions. Among other memories, these are uppermost: how thanks to Henry I got to meet and take tea with Elizabeth Bishop; the small ‘inner landscape’ painting that even now hangs near my bed, inscribed ‘To my dear Ed and Sharon from Henry with three years love’; the fact that Henry agreed to be godfather to our daughter Krista, born in 1967. His departure back to London that same year left us devoid of a sparkling presence.

The letters back and forth continued for some years, but we did no travelling, and eventually the correspondence stopped. Krista grew to become a sweet but retarded girl, my wife and I got divorced, and perhaps because of those disappointments, our connections with Henry were allowed to die out. Eventually I did visit England several times in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and I wrote or telephoned Henry each time. But he always begged off or postponed our reunion, claiming illness or the press of work or something else. I finally accepted the fact that, for whatever reason, he wanted no more contact with his long-ago American ‘family’. I grieve still for that loss, and I find ‘L’Envoi’ published in your issue of 12 September ineffably sad.

Ed Leimbacher
Seattle, Washington

A Letter from Stevie Smith

May I introduce what could possibly be a red herring into the ‘Not Wavell but Browning’ correspondence (Letters, 29 August)? While Field Marshal Wavell was a very famous soldier, there was another, only slightly less famous one who was the Commander of the 1st Airborne Corps at the time of the Arnhem (‘Market Garden’) operation. A week before the operation, addressing Montgomery, he first spoke a few words which subsequently became famous: ‘I think we may be going a bridge too far.’ He was Lt-General Sir F.A.M. (‘Boy’) Browning, and had only tenuous literary connections, being the husband of Daphne du Maurier. In 1957 both these soldiers had been much in the news in the fairly recent past and it may be that Stevie Smith could not resist a little happy word-play with their names.

Laurie Goldstraw
St Augustine, Trinidad

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