Vol. 14 No. 12 · 25 June 1992

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Love and Hate

Much as I hate to agree with Nicholas Spice on anything, there is one point where he nearly got it right (Letters, 28 May): the term ‘mainstream performer’ is not an integral part of my vocabulary. Using it in the context of my Sunday Times interview, my intention was to separate serious performers from eccentrics. If belonging to the mainstream of performance means that the performer should bring to life the composer’s intentions and make sense of the piece instead of obstructing it – as Glenn Gould almost continuously did – then I shall be glad to belong to that mainstream and deplore those who don’t.

Alfred Brendel
London NW3

It is good to see a thesis, tenable or otherwise, developed to such heavenly length, as we used to say of Schubert. In his article in the LRB of 26 March, Nicholas Spice puts his finger on the peculiar intensity of irritation that Alfred Brendel’s playing generate – in his detractors. On the other hand, it may be that we expect more of Brendel than he can possibly deliver. That could be a comment on the awfulness of so much surrounding him, or a back-handed tribute to the seriousness of his reputation and its uniqueness.

Glenn Gould, brilliantly gifted as he was within the rather narrow band of his own declared commitment, said silly things about Mozart and Beethoven because they were outside his range, and – arguably – his depth. That vital half-century from 1778 to 1828 was far too radical for him, and must surely have been a source of outrage, and exclusion, to his fiercely conservative nature. It is a bit much for Nicholas Spice to call this ‘a blind spot’. Yet having stalked out of the house and slammed the front door behind him, Gould could then slip in through the back to play Mozart sonatas marvellously – or he could before deciding to hot up the pace.

It is plain enough that Gould, truly a child of our time, belongs with the margin, while Brendel, devoutly an intellectual to his fingertips, is right in there with the text. Despite their differences, there is one damaging respect in which these pianists came tar too close, and far too often. Both make good masters but bad servants; standing in the way of the music. Brendel professorially, showing us how it should be done; Gould competitively, perhaps, or simply needing to be there on ideological grounds, eschewing concealment. This was never true of Edwin Fischer’s Bach, and supremely untrue of Schnabel’s Beethoven. It seems that Schnabel agreed with almost everything Mr Spice says about piano-playing, but turning to the present day and (say) Radu Lupu or Murray Perahia, it is hard to hear their Mozart as a by-product of virtuoso piano teaching, however well they did in competitions. Virtuoso pianism surely belongs with musical deadheads and acrobats, at quite another level of argument.

At the end of the day – of a century so threatened by premature darkness – there remains a sense in which Gould, one of our own, is indispensable to us, while Brendel is not. Brendel himself would probably admit to this, I think, if ruefully: he is not a vain man, and certainly no fool. Nicholas Spice is alert to this something in Gould, this consciousness-in-common, that marks him out so specially as friend and ally, but the puffed-up word ‘important’ diminishes him. Con-proof at least by intent, Gould does elude such grades-awarding. As to the concept of greatness, under erosion or attack from every quarter, perhaps this is better denied to pianists altogether.

Norman Potter
Le Bouchage, France

A Keen Sense of Bathos

While I share C.K. Stead’s admiration for Frank O’Hara, I found his comments on John Ashbery misleading and strange (LRB, 23 April). He dismisses Ashbery as pretentious (‘academic’, I suppose) and obscure. This opinion must result from a superficial reading, for Ashbery is not obscure nor devious nor unmeaning. His poems evoke very subtle ranges of experience, and it is a measure of their intellectual honesty, as well as originality, that they remain faithful to the delicacy of what they evoke by rendering it through impression rather than assertion. Stead rightly observes that isolating the ‘statements’ in Ashbery’s poetry makes them seem flat and banal – first, as he remarks, because they draw their resonance from their context, the tissue of image and elaboration and resistance to utterance in which they appear; but second, they seem banal because they are banal: as Stead fails to observe, Ashbery has a keen sense of bathos, and likes to expose the clumsiness of the declarative mode, and the want of glamour in the sources of his disappointments. This kind of complexity does present a challenge to conventional analysis. And that is a fault of the conventions. In its accuracy to unexplored experience, Ashbery’s poetry rises to lyrical beauty and dazzling linguistic inventiveness, as in the double sestina in Flow Chart or its opening echo of tattered Romanticism: ‘Sad grows the river god as he oars past us/downstream without our knowing him.’ It would be a great shame if Stead’s lapse diverted your readers from this important and moving poet.

Laura Quinney
Princeton University

Thinking Persons

I wonder if you would allow me to protest at some of the inaccuracies in John Ellis’s review (LRB, 14 May) of my Inconvenient Fictions’? Ellis appears not to grasp the distinction between assertion and argument, and consequently to be a connoisseur of the apparently incriminating turn of phrase taken out of context. He accuses me, for instance, of saying that the New Critics ‘dealt in such things as “interpretive paraphrase" or even “extralinguistic" meaning’, forgetting that they ‘denounced the “heresy of paraphrase" … and that the meaning of a poem was a matter of “these words in this order".’ Well, quite. Only Professor Ellis is himself paraphrasing, after a fashion, a passage of philosophical discussion in which I argue that the right of a particular New Critic (Wimsatt) to insist that ‘no critical paraphrase is to be regarded as more than a stepping-stone to a further, and this time ultimate and definitive experience of meaning which can be obtained only from the text’ (my words, plus context this time) can be purchased, paradoxically, only at the cost of treating the meaning made available by the words of the text ranged in order as one which cannot be propositionally expressed: as extralinguistic, therefore.

This argument doubtless has a strong smell of Deconstruction about it, which may be why Ellis, who has written a book on Deconstruction and plainly considers himself to have decisively demolished Derrida, regards it as unworthy of notice. The impression given by his review, indeed, is that the sole purpose of my book (besides subjecting New Criticism to ignorant denigration) is to defend Deconstruction root and branch; and he expressly asserts that my ‘main defence’ of Derrida is ‘that Derrida never really said all those things that literary critics say he said.’ That I am not, to say the least, to be relied on as a whole-hog deconstructionist should have been evident from the swingeing attack on Paul De Man’s reading of Wordsworth’s ‘Essays on Epitaphs’ which occupies the second half of my Chapter Seven. Nor am I primarily concerned to establish what Derrida said (though no doubt there are extensive differences between Ellis and myself over such questions, as well there might be, given the auguries cast by Ellis’s performance as a guide to what I say), but rather to establish what parts of what he says, or is alleged to have said, survive or fail to survive philosophical criticism. The conclusion for which I argue is that enough does survive to undermine various traditional forms of critical humanism effectively, but that it is possible to rebuild a conception of criticism worth calling humanist which accommodates what in deconstruction survives rational scrutiny.

So much is bad enough. What is worse is to hear from him that my book offers a canonical instance of the divorce, of which Kermode has complained, between theory and practice in literary criticism. How could your readers guess that the exclusively theoretical chapters account for no more than a quarter of its length, and that the remainder consists of essays, on Sterne, Forster, Muriel Spark, Wordsworth, Biblical parable etc, designed expressly to submit the book’s theoretical conclusions to the test of practical criticism? Professor Ellis needs to learn, perhaps, that ‘these words in this order’ is a principle which applies as much to fair dealing in controversy as to the study of texts.

Bernard Harrison
University of Sussex

John Ellis believes my Reading Minds is MIT linguistics when in fact it challenges MIT linguistics. Its fundamental points are incompatible with MIT linguistics in ways anyone merely competent must see. Its central topics – bodily experience, image schemas, argument, folk theories, cultural models, cultural literacy, metaphor – are in principle untreatable within MIT linguistics, which is centrally concerned with what it claims are general formal principles governing all language and independent of bodily experience, imagination or cultural meaning. Ellis proposes that Reading Minds uses no scholarship other than MIT linguistics when in fact it uses no MIT linguistics work at all. He complains that MIT linguistics gives insufficient place to semantics, which is the identical complaint to be found, in detail, on pages 20 and 21 of Reading Minds. Had he read the text instead of browsing the end-notes and looking for a bibliography, he could not have classified cognitive linguistics as a splinter group of MIT linguistics – a classification that would astound any linguist in the way that classifying Chinese cooking as a dissident variant of French cuisine would astound any food critic.

Mark Turner
University of Maryland

The Game of Death

A.D. Nuttall (LRB, 11 June) argues that Greek tragedy was non-religious, by which he appears to mean that the myths that provided its plots had lost all religious efficacy. Here he opposes the view of Gilbert Murray and Jane Harrison and others that the tragedies still functioned as enactments of the sacrificial death of Dionysus. Nuttall says that Pentheus in the Bacchae cannot be intended as a Dionysus surrogate, being an opponent of Dionysus worship. Apparently Nuttall is impervious to the irony of the sceptic suffering the hallowed death that he refused to acknowledge as salvific. But such irony is not uncommon in myths: Neoptolemus, for example, having insulted Apollo in his shrine, dies a sacrificial death and becomes a tutelary spirit of the very same shrine. Such ‘guilty victim’ sacrifice must comprise one of the earliest devices for making sacrifice morally bearable (note, for example, how the animal-victim in the Bouphonia sacrifice was enticed to ‘sin’).

Nuttall uses the lack of a happy ending as an argument against the religious character of Greek tragedy, urging that, if Dionysus were the inspiration, the plays would end with a resurrection. But this is to ignore the independence of each stage in the death-and-resurrection cycle: as Morton Smith has pointed out, while the mourning of the god is taking place, it would spoil the effect to say or think anything about his subsequent resurrection. Something of this emotional and dramatic dislocation can still be seen in the separation of Good Friday from Easter Sunday. The Gospel of Mark, in its original version, contained no account of the resurrection. It was a Good Friday gospel.

Nuttall’s clinching argument is: ‘Aristotle, who was there, appears not to know that Greek tragedy was religious.’ But in his Poetics, Aristotle was temporarily unconcerned with the religious aspect while focusing on aesthetics. It is from Aristotle that we know that tragedy was derived from the Dionysiac dithyramb, and comedy from phallic fertility songs. His concern is not to deny this religious dimension but to show how the drama became aesthetically refined. After all, it is difficult to believe that Aristotle could totally discount the fact that the tragedies formed part of a religious festival. He does indeed use language elsewhere that suggests an awareness of a deep connection between religion and aesthetics: in writing about the mysteries, he says that ‘the initiates were not required to learn anything but to experience certain emotions and to be put in a certain disposition’. This throws light on his famous saying that tragedy effects ‘a purgation’ – or purification – ‘of the emotions of terror and pity’. The initiates experienced terror and pity, and so did the audience at the tragedy; both underwent a ‘purification’ leading to a kind of rebirth. The Medieval Passion Plays provided a similar religious experience and sense of participation. The theory that tragedy originates in, and remains informed by, religious notions and rituals of sacrifice has a great deal to support it. It will hardly be shaken by Nuttall’s somewhat pedestrian argument.

Hyam Maccoby
Leo Baeck College,

Housewives are expendable

Much as I enjoyed Professor Cohen’s review of Thomas Nagel’s Equality and Partiality (LRB, 14 May), it was hardly possible to avoid noticing his recourse to ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead of the standard ‘he’ and ‘him’ to indicate either sex. Is this departure from grammatical convention a bid to establish enlightened credentials, or is it part of his private campaign to add the weight of his authority to the promotion of peripheral women’s lib desiderata? The traditional usage of ‘he’ as an alternative to ‘one’ goes back centuries and – notwithstanding the exigencies of fashion – is wholly unambiguous. In contrast, the self-conscious departure from common usage in this respect invariably imparts something of a mental jolt to the reader.

Perhaps the editors will agree that occasional recourse to this practice does nothing to realise the goals of the women’s liberation movement. These goals, in any case, are being realised chiefly through economic forces: with the growth of mass affluence in the West, affordable domestic labour-saving innovations have made housewives all but expendable. And while such innovations push women out of the home, so do other innovations facilitate their employment in industry and commerce.

There is really no call, then, for our hyper-conscientious progressives to subscribe to the more eccentric tactics of those ‘conscious-raising’ zealots scattered along the fringes of the feminist movement.

E.J. Mishan
London NW11

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