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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 3 · 13 February 1992

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Libertyville

In his article deploring the American Bill of Rights and the European Covenant as inadequate, Stephen Sedley (LRB, 19 December 1991) writes that the United States Supreme Court was ‘responding … to the potency of the civil rights movement’ when it decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, reversing its previous position that racial segregation was constitutional. ‘Nobody supposes,’ he says, ‘that without the great political swell generated by black people the Supreme Court would have discovered that it had been misinterpreting the Bill of Rights for a century.’ But the civil rights movement and its ‘great political swell’ came after the 1954 Supreme Court decision, not before. Indeed, it was the Brown decision that set the protest movement and the political forces in motion. The Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-in movement at lunch counters, the campaign for voting rights: all these followed the 1954 decision.

Mr Sedley’s mistake undermines his attack on judges as guardians of civil rights and liberties, as it does his sneering at old Bills of Rights as too dated to be useful. The Supreme Court in 1954 was construing the same words of the 14th Amendment, the guarantee of ‘the equal protection of the laws’, as the 1896 Court that held segregation to be constitutional. The justices unanimously changed the interpretation because it was no longer possible, in the mid-20th century, to say as the 1896 Court had that segregating a racial group was invidious only if the segregated group chose ‘to put that construction upon it’. After Hitler it was neither morally nor intellectually possible to regard segregation as a neutral device, implying no contempt for the segregated. In short, Bills of Rights work because judges read their words differently, over time, to take into account changed circumstances and human understandings. That is why those dated clauses of the American Constitution and its amendments have done reasonably well in protecting some rights that I am confident Mr Sedley would value: freedom of speech and press, for example, where the recent American record is so strikingly better than Britain’s.

Mr Sedley offers us the old complaint that judicial review of the constitutionality of state action is ‘undemocratic’. But if recent history has taught us anything, it is that functioning democracy has to be more than majority rule. As a Harvard political scientist, Michael Sandel, put it recently, democracy ‘requires an independent judiciary that can enforce rights, protect the opposition and ensure that not only are elections democratic but that daily life is democratic as well.’

A last point. Mr Sedley calls existing Bills of Rights inadequate because they do not protect ‘the right to health, or to an unpolluted environment …’ There is some irony in someone so sceptical of judges as enforcers of individual liberty wanting to put onto judges the responsibility for new affirmative rights whose scope is so undefined and so much a matter of policy.

Anthony Lewis
Boston, Massachusetts

Changing places

Avi Shlaim’s article on the Madrid Peace Conference (LRB, 9 January) is far too unbalanced. He always puts the worst interpretation upon Israeli actions, while giving the benefit of the doubt to Israel’s opponents – even when there is no doubt.

1. He is right to say that Arafat used the words ‘we absolutely renounce terrorism’ at Geneva in December 1988. What he fails to mention is that, only five days later, Arafat told Austrian television: ‘I did not mean to renounce terrorism.’ The Palestine National Council, he declared, had only conditionally renounced it. Nor does Shlaim mention that, at the preceding Algiers conference, the Palestine National Council reaffirmed the PLO Charter which calls for Israel’s destruction in over half of its articles.

2. Shlaim mentions in passing that the PLO supported Saddam Hussein in part because it was ‘frustrated’ by ‘the suspension of its dialogue with the US’. But he does not say why this dialogue was suspended. It was suspended because a PLO faction launched an abortive sea attack on Israeli civilians on holiday beaches, less than 18 months after Arafat had ‘renounced terrorism’.

3. Shlaim praises Hanan Ashrawi’s ‘eloquence’ and ‘evident sincerity’. He fails to mention that she was unable to find the eloquence to condemn a terrorist attack on a busload of women and children just before the talks began.

4. Shlaim calls the Israeli Prime Minister ‘a former terrorist’. He fails to mention that the Stern Gang was involved in sabotage and assassination of selected targets, but that, unlike the PLO, it did not condone the indiscriminate murder of civilians.

5. Shlaim writes that the Zionist movement ‘set … much store by winning the propaganda battle and mustering the traditional Jewish talents (sic!) of advocacy and persuasion in every part of the world’. Which is better – advocacy and persuasion, or the killing of innocent civilians?

6. ‘Ironically, by excluding the PLO,’ Shlaim writes, ‘Israel helped the Arabs of the occupied territories to bring fresh faces forward’ at the Madrid conference. He fails to mention that the Israeli Government had sought for many years to elicit an alternative leadership in the territories. Indeed, the Government had suggested that the delegation to represent the territories be chosen through free elections, a proposal rejected by the PLO, which claimed that since it represented every Palestinian no elections were necessary. Shlaim contrasts the two delegations at the conference – the one led by doctors and university professors, the other by ‘an ex-terrorist’, Shamir. Might he not have pointed to a different contrast: that one delegation was composed of elected leaders, the other of unelected?

7. Shlaim accuses Shamir of insincerity in proposing autonomy in the territories – he calls it ‘limited autonomy’, which seems a bit ungenerous, since the Shamir proposals involve Palestinian ministries over all domestic affairs, excluding only foreign affairs and defence. According to Shlaim, Shamir ‘only put the idea forward in response to pressure from Washington and he gave it up at the first indication that the Palestinians might accept it.’ It is perhaps unfortunate for this thesis that it appeared just before two Israeli ministers resigned precisely because they feared that Shamir had not ‘given up’ the idea of autonomy, but was determined to pursue it.

Shlaim quotes a Palestinian delegate who said that ‘in Madrid we founded the Palestinian state.’ When the Israeli autonomy proposals were first put forward at Camp David, they were denounced by an Israeli Labour MP as ‘the Balfour Declaration of the Palestinian state’. Might not the Palestinians have done better to have negotiated on this basis in 1979 rather than wasting over a decade in futile terrorism and recriminations? No sensible person believes that the Arab/Israeli dispute is one in which all the right lies on one side. But because he does not try to understand the Israeli case, Shlaim has written a propaganda piece instead of the measured account of the problems of peace in the Middle East which we have the right to expect.

Vernon Bogdanor
Brasenose College, Oxford

Irish Writing

Siobhan Kilfeather irresponsibly misreads what I say about Congreve in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (LRB, 9 January). By selecting one sentence from a whole paragraph listing the reasons why Congreve is being excluded from the section on Irish drama 1690-1800, Ms Kilfeather gives the impression that the sole reason lies in the quality of his wit. Were this so, it would indeed be a ‘narrow’ basis for exclusion. But the primary and obvious reason I provide is that Congreve was not Irish but English; a second, equally cogent reason is that Congreve did not write about Ireland or about his own experiences there. To present Congreve as Irish simply because he went to school and university in Ireland is something I was determined to avoid: I attempted to say in addition what it is in the style of Farquhar, Steele, Goldsmith, Sheridan and others which might be said to be distinctively Irish or Anglo-Irish. To infer that I regard Congreve’s plays as ‘serene and secure’ when I mention only the nature of his wit is to misread what I wrote.

Christopher Murray
University College Dublin

At the end of her Belfast Diary (LRB, 9 January) Edna Longley yearns for an awareness ‘of literature’s role in the more pluralistic understanding that has slowly started to erode the distorted cultural ideologies propping up our binary politics’. An dtuigeann sibh? From her vantage-point in the School of English of Queen’s University, Belfast, she ought to be able to contribute towards any momentum in that direction. That school recently invited applications for its course leading to an MA Certificate in Irish Writing. Candidates could choose from a list of eight topics. Seven of the topics could be described as ‘Anglo-Irish’, although no Anglo hyphen was allowed in them. The other topic was for study of a bilingual Irish writer. Although I can think of a handful of people who wrote or write in Irish and in English, I fancy that the school really had in mind Sam Beckett. After an introductory paragraph about Nina FitzPatrick, Dr Longley devotes the rest of her diary to an assessment of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. It would seem that more than a little space in the anthology concerns writing in Irish. However, she does not mention that language at all; she does mention Spenser and Cromwell. In fact, both of them regarded the language spoken by the Green Island Abos as ‘Irish’. It would have astounded them to have heard a prophecy that alchemists had a monoglot pluralistic philosopher’s stone capable of transmogrifying whatever they wrote in the Green Isle into Irish Writing! Edna’s Diary calls to mind

The Faber Book of Irish Verse,
With not a Bloody word of Erse!

Padraig O Conchuir
London E6

Bardicide

In ‘Bardicide’ Gary Taylor tells us (LRB, 9 January) that the scene of Cinna the Poet’s murder in the middle of Julius Caesar is wrong: ‘wrong historically, wrong morally, wrong in 1599, still wrong in 1991. There never was a poet like Shakespeare’s Cinna; the Plebeians are not the enemies of poetry.’ But does the scene make the claims Taylor attributes to it, either about poets or about the lower orders? His version rests first on the assumption that we’re supposed to see Orpheus’s dismemberment behind Cinna’s (and hence an allegory about The Poet), but Caesar’s murder seems a closer antecedent: much the same action (a crowd surrounds and murders an individual); many verbal echoes (both victims evoke their names as an unsuccessful form of self-protection); and a better mythic overlay, at least if you approach the play via Milton’s sense of Classical myths as ‘erroneous relatings’ or ‘shadowy types’ of a Christian truth (Shakespeare’s Caesar suffers 33 wounds, ten more than Plutarch’s). Taylor makes much of the fact that Cinna is three times called ‘the poet’, but the definite article can be understood as turning Cinna into a grotesque rather than an archetype, like Popeye the Sailor Man, or Ralph Ellison’s Raz the Destroyer. Kenneth Burke apparently understood the scene in such a farcical way, comparing Cinna to the ‘slain-unslain’ circus clown shot from a cannon. Burke’s version seems more plausible than Taylor’s, in which Shakespeare is said to be making a general proposition about the apolitical nature of the Poet.

I think it’s equally far-fetched to claim that the scene is making a general proposition about the mindlessness of the lower orders, especially in crowds. The mob that kills Cinna may be more vicious and fickle than crowds usually are, but why does Taylor insist upon the scene as issuing in a normative or universal claim? Is Macbeth supposed to be trying to convince us that Scottish people are murderously ambitious? The patrician individuals in the play are also fickle, ‘fashioned’ and ‘moved’ themselves, and violent as well (‘Stoop, Romans, stoop’). Violent ignorance isn’t class-specific in Julius Caesar, and the canny citizens in the play’s first scene frequently come off better than Murellus or Flavius, as do Coriolanus’s plebeian antagonists eight years later.

I don’t want to offer an ur-democratic Shakespeare, the Bard as cultural materialist Shakespeare before the letter, in lieu of the formalist snob that seems to emerge from ‘Bardicide’: but the fact that both arguments can and have been made – the way Shakespeare’s plays tolerate and even seem to encourage contradictory interpretations – seems worth keeping in mind. I’m not saying that his rich ambivalence transcends ideology (others abide our question, thou art free), or that the playwright nothing affirms and therefore never lieth, but that the plays affirm too much and too unstably to be Taylored to the measure of ‘Bardicide’. The accessibility of Shakespeare’s plays to so many different tastes, and their appropriability by so many different political interests, can help to explain why we’ve been interested in arguing with each other about them for so long.

Why then does Taylor work so hard to construct the scene into a proposition declaring poets to be apolitically good and plebeians politically bad? Apparently because such a view allows him to make a claim for Middleton against Shakespeare: but the argument in support of this claim is not convincing. Let’s say Shakespeare, at least in this scene, was indeed guilty of the nasty generalisations Taylor charges him with. You can still like the scene, even prefer Shakespeare to Middleton, without having to condone state censorship or inevitably becoming accessory after the fact to the murder of Rushdie’s Japanese translator.

‘I understand a fury in the words, not the words.’ Desdemona’s speech describes my predicament with ‘Bardicide’. What can be driving such an intelligent critic to make use of such tenuous arguments in order to reach such implausible conclusions? I can only guess at the subtext, but the following excerpt from a communication I received some months ago may shed some light on the matter: ‘The Complete Works of Thomas Middleton will be published in 1994 by Oxford University Press in a one-volume modernised annotated format comparable to contemporary undergraduate editions of Shakespeare … The purpose of the edition is canonical: to establish a new Middleton canon and to secure for Middleton a more prominent position in the literary canon, to make Middleton more widely available, more accessible, more read, more taught, to insist upon his importance in English drama and the English Renaissance.’ Gary Taylor wrote these words as the General Editor of the Oxford Middleton, and I think it would have been helpful for readers of ‘Bardicide’ to have included this information in the Notes on Contributors.

I don’t mean to suggest it was dishonesty not to include it. I like to think I’m as post-modern as the next person, and honesty is a problematic term in the post-modern lexicon. In fact, it was problematic in the Early Modern lexicon as well. ‘This, reader is an honest book.’ So Montaigne at the beginning of the Essays (a new translation of which is included in the list of books referred to in ‘Bardicide’): but within a few lines, with his characteristic slyness (I almost called it honesty), Montaigne makes the concept disappear. For how can honesty exist when writing is motivated by a set of interests located in a volatile self to which at best only an occasional and imperfect access is granted? And if writing is therefore ‘orphaned’ (Derrida’s word), and honesty in the strong sense impossible, what could dishonesty possibly mean?

My real quarrel with Taylor is strategic rather than ethical. I think it’s imprudent to try to create a demand for Middleton by claiming that the market for Shakespeare shares is over-inflated. This is an old old device; it goes back to the time of good neighbours. Johnson invented bardicide (if it wasn’t Shakespeare himself, or maybe it was always already there), and it has taken us hundreds of year to begin to rescue Johnson from the weight of the comparison under which he wound up burying himself. ‘Bardbiz’ is massively constructed and firmly entrenched: who knows this better than Gary Taylor? You may as well go bid the main flood abate its usual height as argue with the Bard. Besides, Middleton’s claims don’t need to be based on reducing Shakespeare’s, even if such reduction were likely. There’s lots of great writing in the Middleton canon, even in its pre-expansionist dimensions. I am completely sympathetic with Taylor’s Middleton project. Really I am. And as proof of my good faith (for this, reader, is an honest Letter to the Editor), I hereby inform anybody who cares that, as a result of aggressive lobbying, I have persuaded my Graduate Programme Director to let me teach a course in Middleton next year. My lobbying was undertaken before I read either ‘Bardicide’ or the General Description of the Oxford Middleton Edition.

Edward Pechter
Concordia University, Montreal

One crucial element missing from Gary Taylor’s analysis of the Cinna scene is any reference to the humour elicited by the immediacy of a theatrical performance. That the scene was written as a piece of satirical comedy is evident from a comparison of the way the citizens fire questions at Cinna (Sinner?) with Miss Piffs’s interrogation of Lamb in Pinter’s hilarious sketch, ‘Applicant’. The dramatic intention of both scenes is the same. Cinna, like Pinter’s Lamb, is a pathetic, impotent Everyman caught up in a sinister situation which, while making us laugh, still arouses our sympathy. However nasty the fate awaiting him in the wings, we are left with the feeling that it is not necessarily terminal. The proscription scene which follows becomes even more chilling by contrast. The kangaroo court’s questioning of Cinna can be, and often is, played against the grain of the scene’s implicit humour, but it doesn’t work. This is Shakespeare’s version, not Plutarch’s, and Mr Taylor’s Cinna is his own creation, not Shakespeare’s.

When Mr Taylor dignifies Cinna with all the portentous gravity of his title, ‘the poet’, and sees him as the heroic embodiment of the Orpheus myth, he overlooks the fact that the Citizens object not to Cinna’s poetry, but specifically to his bad poetry, and that even that is merely a trumped-up excuse for violence against the pretentious little poetaster. Shakespeare’s implied concern is not, in fact, plebeian insensitivity to art, but plebeian emotional volatility, which enables the unscrupulous to manipulate them as a political force. One only has to think of the reversal in Mrs Thatcher’s popularity rating which followed her call to arms over the Falklands to realise what he was getting at.

Geoff Corrin
Newcastle upon Tyne

Cults

‘That was around 1960, and the two writers never met; but both had become something of a cult,’ writes John Bayley (LRB, 9 January). In I960, Malcolm Lowry had been dead for three years, and, far from having become ‘something of a cult’, at the time of his death none of his work was in print in English. I can’t help thinking that the operation of a cult is more interesting than John Bayley says it is; that such rough – inaccurate – treatment is its downside; and that Malcolm Lowry is in a different class from the ‘cult’ authors he lists.

Michael Hofmann
London NW6

Wrong Address

John Bayley (LRB, 9 January) tells us he has read Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky twice, but he shows a rather uncertain grasp of it. Volume Two is summarised as ‘Jenny … pursued by Bob’: in fact, Bob does not appear at all. The pub where Bob and Ella work, which forms the centrepiece of Volumes Two and Three, is not in Mayfair. It is set on the seedier fringes of Fitzrovia, somewhere around the Euston Road end of Cleveland Street.

John Black
London NW5

Surrogate Writers

As background for the fact that HarperCollins has been fined for giving bookbuyers the impression that certain recent novels were written by Alistair MacLean, E.S. Turner (LRB, 19 December 1991) mentions that surrogate writers often enrich the leftovers of dead storytellers. In his list of examples, however, Turner has overlooked the most relevant example of all: ever since C.S. Lewis’s death in 1962, HarperCollins has been bringing out works from the hand of a C.S. Lewis surrogate. Almost a dozen posthumous C.S. Lewis writings lack provenance and are unLewisian in both content and style. The first of these is the clumsy 1965 story ‘Forms of Things Unknown’. The most notorious is the shoddy 1977 fantasy The Dark Tower, which is much purchased and little read. (Ursula LeGuin and A.N. Wilson have both judged it semi-obscene.) In 1986 Carla Faust Jones, a concerned American who uses the Literary Detective computer program, found that The Dark Tower fails to match Lewis’s other three Science Fiction novels in letter and letter-pair frequencies. Her landmark study has never been criticised or refuted.

Kathryn Lindskoog
Orange, California

Did Socrates say it?

In my review of Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvellous Possessions (LRB, 5 December 1991) I asked (with a general air of ‘surely not’) whether Socrates ever said that philosophy began in wonder. Professor Greenblatt has since courteously explained to me that Socrates did say exactly this. The reference is Theaetetus, 156D.

A.D. Nuttall
New College, Oxford

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