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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 19 · 8 October 1992

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Side by side with Strauss

Charles Fairbanks Jr (Letters, 10 September) defends Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man on the grounds that it asks a good question: are there powerful forces working for democracy in history? The sad fact is that good questions can receive poor answers. My review (LRB, 23 July) dealt with Fukuyama’s answers, and some of the methods by which he reached them. I was particularly concerned to explain how Kojève’s reading of Hegel fits into the Straussian scheme of things, because relatively few readers in Britain know about Strauss and his baneful influence in the USA.

The Straussian context also helps to answer a question that has puzzled reviewers: why is the conservative reception of Fukuyama’s book so enthusiastic? My review does not say that Fukuyama himself is a conservative, let alone that Kojève was. On the contrary, I wrote, ‘there are signs in Fukuyama’s book that he is not firmly convinced that Kojève got everything right,’ implying that it is not clear that the book is shaped by his Straussian education. That fact, I was suggesting, is the key to understanding both why it gives poor answers to a good question and why it attracted such acclaim. It was interesting to learn from Fairbanks that Strauss urged his students to vote for Stevenson in 1952. Even more interesting to learn that he told his students how they should vote.

M.F. Burnyeat
Robinson College, Cambridge

Docuverse

A little inaccuracy in Peter Campbell’s review of Hypertext by George Landow (LRB, 10 September) suggests a further reservation about the apparently comprehensive ‘docuverse’ proposed to us by computer technology. The English Poetry Full-Text Database does not comprise ‘the publication of all printed verse in English on compact disc’, but – as Chadwyck-Healey’s promotional literature makes clear – that of ‘the works of 1350 poets from the Anglo-Saxon period to the end of the 19th century … primarily the works of those writers listed as poets in the New Camridge Bibliography of English Literature’.

It is all too easy to forget the limits of any large databank of material, especially when they are hidden behind that strangely absorbing little screen. You can see the end of the encyclopedia, the inches of entries in a card index. The clear-headed user of an electronic dictionary or abstracting service may even remember, with Peter Campbell, that ‘even extended indexing limits the inquirer to the compiler’s notion of what is significant or the cataloguer’s summary of context.’ But the caveat will always apply to any electronic assemblage of data you can envisage, however vast, that cannot but have been both selected and indexed.

I recently saw demonstrated a dazzling education package on Twelfth Night by the Art of Memory, a Multimedia production company. Multimedia presents text, sound and video images, with, in this case, marvellously sophisticated linkages between them, like those described in the review. You could instantly switch from the text to access contemporary maps or images of the players, zoom in on details of the pictures, hear the text spoken and songs sung, and pause them at any point to consult the glossary. What struck me was that the medium may be so impressive and capacious as to imply a total control of the subject it can never really have. The quality, indeed, of what is input originally is crucial (that of the Twelfth Night seemed very high), but however good, it possesses a mystifying indeterminability: like an ideology, its limits are invisible. Admittedly, the interactive possibilities of these new media may alleviate this, particularly at research level, but as teaching resources, might not their very richness and unresisting responsiveness paradoxically engender intellectual passivity?

Elizabeth James
National Art Library,

Thinking Persons

Having been out of the country, I have just come across Professor John Ellis’s lengthy reply (Letters, 9 July) to my letter of 25 June. Ellis says he did not quote me out of context, but interprets ‘context’ in a way which shows him still incapable of extracting the plainest implications of an argument. Nobody, surely, can seriously suggest that the New Critics made no use of interpretative paraphrase. What is at issue between Ellis and myself is simply whether, in my book, I show ignorance of two caveats with which the official methodology of New Criticism hedged the practice: that there can be no appeal to meanings external to the text, and that no paraphrase can capture the full meaning of the text. In my letter I drew his attention to a passage (page 23-28) in which I argue that these two caveats are in principle inconsistent with one another: how, then, could I have been unaware of them? Nothing in Ellis’s reply addresses this rather simple point.

Ellis’s other ground of attack is that I put forward a supposedly ‘ “new" approach’ to Derrida which is not in fact new. He bolsters this by appeal to a passage on page 133 of Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction (at least, I take it that must be the passage he has in mind) in which Culler suggests, correctly, that Derrida’s arguments do not license talk of ‘an indeterminacy that makes meaning the invention of the reader’. Fair enough: the trouble is that my putative claim to be putting forward a new interpretation of Derrida is an invention of Ellis’s. On page vi of Inconvenient Fictions, I expressly renounce any claim to scholarship where Derrida is concerned, and acknowledge my debt to two Derrida scholars, John Llewellyn and Henry Staten, for ‘confirming my halting sense of what is central to Derrida’s position’. The only claim I would make for the book’s originality in this quarter would concern its attempt to show that some of Derrida’s arguments, once disentangled from a range of ‘exciting’ conclusions which have been taken to flow from them but to which they lend, in fact, no support, can be developed further in directions which lead towards a confluence of deconstruction with a range of views recently very widely considered to characterise an outmoded liberal humanism. Ellis could only begin assembling a case to back up his accusation of ignorance if he were to do what his review so signally failed to do: pay some attention to the book’s central claims and arguments.

Bernard Harrison
University of Sussex

Goodbye Columbus

I trust that the rest of Eric Hobsbawm’s interesting historical sweeps and comparisons (LRB, 9 July) are better anchored than his reference to Canada’s lack of effect upon the Old World: a way of stressing the salient example of the USA’s influence, in writing about the cultural consequences of 1492. Canada has always been outnumbered ten to one, didn’t have its own 18th or 19th centuries, and reached official ‘independence’ only in 1931 (by the Statute of Westminster – some place over there, isn’t it?). Canada is only now cobbling together its own constitution (patriated from Britain ten years ago), which, by the way, will grant the ‘inherent right of self-government’ to native (pre-Columbus) peoples – quite a distinct process from that of the USA. Could you ask Eric Hobsbawm to check back for comparison in two hundred and fifty years?

At another extreme altogether is his overlooking of what are surely the three most influential products of the New World: the car, the airplane, the telephone (credit Canada for a part in that one) – overlooked probably, intriguingly, because of their ubiquitous social presence. It is all very well to make us aware that ‘four of the seven most important agricultural crops in the world today are of American origin: potatoes, maize, manioc and sweet potato.’ But can you imagine a world where you couldn’t phone out to the chip shop and get home delivery? I mean, is that civilised, or what?

Gerald Noonan
Wilfrid Laurier University,

Grains and Pinches

If James Pierrepont Greaves’s community at Ham Common had been ‘far from Owenite’, as Jackie Letham alleges (Letters, 10 September), its appeal for such prominent Owenites as Thomas Frost, Robert Buchanan (or at least his wife) and Alexander Campbell would be inexplicable. The last of these actually lived in the community from 1842 for a couple of years, and promulgated Greavesian doctrine while still an active worker for Owenite socialism.

Michael Mason
Oxford

Blake’s House

When William and Catherine Blake came back from Felpham in 1803, they moved into the first floor of 17 South Moulton Street, off Oxford Street. There they lived until 1821, there Milton was published and the 100-plate Jerusalem written and engraved. Of the many houses in London in which Blake lived, this is the only one left standing. The City of London has the freehold, a pension trust a 900-year lease and Reed Employment the current head-lease that will expire in the year 2013. The three upper floors are today vacant and awaiting a tenant.

Needless to say, we have a dream: that there shall be a Blake Centre in South Moulton Street. The Tate and the Fitzwilliam have done justice to the visual Blake, but nowhere does this unique polymath, the only artist/prophet in our history to write, draw, paint and engrave with equal facility, have a permanent home appropriate to the extraordinary diversity of his genius. We are advised by our president, George Goyder, co-founder of the Blake Trust with the late Sir Geoffrey Keynes and others, that a condition of a successful appeal is that the moneys shall be for purchase and not for rent. The pension trust, with its 900-year lease, tells us that it ‘is not in a position to consider the sale of its interest at this time’. If, however, the directors of the trust were to be persuaded that a sale was very much in the national interest, one can imagine that they might have second thoughts. So the object of this letter is to bring the matter to public attention. We hope that the response will be such as will enable us to take matters a stage further. It follows that this is not an appeal for money; we hope that that may be possible later. The Blake Society was founded some seven years ago, in and at the instigation of St James’s, Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised in 1757.

Peter Cadogan
The Blake Society,

Cognitive Closure

Colin McGinn, in reviewing my A History of the Mind (LRB, 10 September), complains that I ignore certain philosophical distinctions dear to his own heart – and puts it down to my unsophistication and naivety. But it is not so much that I don’t understand the distinctions he thinks so important as that I don’t believe there is any further mileage in them. As McGinn and other traditionalists writing about consciousness have amply demonstrated, ‘if a thing’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well’; and, rather than descend to his level, I have tried in my book to do what is worth doing. McGinn has recently invented the term ‘cognitive closure’ to refer to people’s inability to appreciate modes of argument that don’t fit into their preconceived ideas of how the world works. His review (but not the book which he so testily parodies in it) suggests he knows the condition only too well.

Nicholas Humphrey
Cambridge

‘Sex’

At the risk of being called ‘an egotistical monomaniac’ once more by Alan Rudrum (Letters, 24 September), may I burden your pages again? I would like this time, instead of talking about myself, to offer some advice to Hugo Williams after reading his poem ‘Sex’ in the same issue. While I am relieved to find that he does know the basic facts of life, I think he could do with a little more knowledge of female phsyiology. The physical phenomena he writes about can be simply explained. There is an obvious reason why his heroine lacked lubricity – she did not fancy the man concerned. Perhaps he should have attempted sex instead with a woman who did.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Hastings

Poor Bosnia

Any authority that might be claimed for Christopher Hitchens’s journalistic ramblings about Bosnia (LRB, 10 September) is surely vitiated by his belief that W.H. Auden was the ‘clearest voice’ and ‘greatest poet’ and Leon Trotsky the ‘greatest essayist’ of the Thirties. With friends like this, poor Bosnia hardly needs enemies. May we be spared these regular doses of Marxist medicine?

Jean Raison
London N19

American English

Nonne TU memento mori, VOS autem mementoTE mori (Letters, 24 September)? Post equitem sedet atra cura?

B.R. Cosin
London NW3

Drysdale

In my review of Thomas Keneally’s novel, Woman of an Inland Sea (LRB, 24 September), I wrote Dobell when I meant Drysdale.

C.K. Stead
London WC1

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