Vol. 15 No. 4 · 25 February 1993

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Unfaithful to Wagner

Edward Said’s article (LRB, 11 February) allegedly reviewing various books on Wagner, but actually written with a very different subject in mind, is so amorphous that it is hard to deal with it any more coherently than it is written.

A few factual points. Said refers to Wagner’s ‘15 operas’, while I’d have thought that it was a minimum qualification for writing on him that one knew he composed 13. Said writes of ‘ “Young Siegfried", the germ from which The Ring of the Nibelung gradually emerged’. But whatever the germ was, it certainly preceded ‘Young Siegfried’, which Wagner only wrote after ‘Siegfried’s Death’, when he had realised that there was too much in that work that needed explaining, and which itself was preceded by several plans. Said writes that Wagner’s ‘obsession with water dominates all his operas – Tristan, the Ring, the Dutchman and Parsifal especially’. I can’t readily call to mind an obsession with water in Die Walküre or Siegfried, let alone Tannhäuser or Die Meistersinger. Admittedly, the first act of Tristan takes place on board a boat; by Said’s standards that may well qualify as obsessional.

Said thinks that Wieland Wagner’s revisionist stagings’ at Bayreuth were ‘followed variously there and elsewhere by Patrice Chéreau, Götz Friedrich, Ruth Berghaus’. But he fails to note that while Wieland was intent on realising his grandfather’s concept of the ‘purely human’ which die dramas expressed, Chéreau and the rest have all been dedicated to deconstructing them, locating them in the time they were written, or in the future, but emphatically not to being more faithful to Wagner than he was to himself. It is a fundamental difference. But Said hardly seems to be au fait with Wagnerian productions. He apparently thinks that the iconoclasts are a brave little bunch of rebels, whereas in fact they represent the increasingly dreary orthodoxy, and ‘faithful’ productions are very much the exception. And his praise for Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser in the current Met production of Meistersinger is, bewilderingly in the context, praise for something closer to Wagner’s idea than ‘the neurotic, black-suited Shylock figure regularly trundled out’. Black-suited, yes, since that is appropriate to a town clerk; but I have never seen a production in which Beckmesser was a Shylock figure. When and where were or are they to be found?

While expressing agreement with Nattiez’s advocacy of ‘infidelity’ to Wagner, both in production and in conducting, Said claims that ‘the sheer beauty and force of the music give coherence to the experience of seeing the music dramas staged. This is clearly what moved and impressed exceptional Wagnerians like Proust, Thomas Mann and Mallarmé.’ But how many experimental interpretations did they see and hear? Non sequiturs of this kind sprout at such a rate in Said’s article that one is left in a kind of fog.

Light, of a kind, at last penetrates when Said gets on to Paul Lawrence Rose’s Wagner: Race and Revolution. This absurd book has been sufficiently dealt with elsewhere. But Said’s individual contribution to its critique is to attack it as a Palestinian, and his article ends – it is clearly Said’s telos – with an attack on Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, including those who are at present barely surviving in no man’s land. However sympathetic one may be to them, and to Said’s grievances against Israel in general, surely a review of books on Wagner is not the place to expound his views. ‘Nebulous, obsessive, overstated, impractical and imprecise’ is how Said characterises Wagner’s ideas about water. It is also how one might fairly characterise Said’s views about Wagner, and the whole of his thinking in this shoddy piece, until he arrives at the one subject that concerns him, by which time Wagner has – to continue the aqueous metaphor – evaporated.

Michael Tanner
Corpus Christi College,

Nationalising English

Thanks for Patrick Parrinder’s valuable contextualising of the education debate (LRB, 28 January). May I attempt one crucial re-focusing? The Government hopes to gain support by pretending that the issue is whether or not school students will gain a worthwhile appreciation of Shakespeare. We all know – don’t we? – that most students will fail to attain that. And they will be seen as failing, and will experience themselves as failing. That is what tests are for.

If the prospect was everyone learning to write like John Bunyan, then the destruction of class, regional and ethnic differences might be a price worth considering. But that is not what will happen, any more than it did when school students learnt bits of Shakespeare by heart before. It is the same with the enforcement of ‘Standard English’. When that used to be attempted, the outcome was not that everyone spoke proper, but that those whose home and neighbourhood cultures made them less successful at it were discriminated against, within and beyond the school.

‘Progressive’ teaching modes have at their heart the goal of convincing every child that he or she is a valuable person. They have developed, I believe, in a profoundly humane attempt to counter the experience of very many people in our kind of society, especially during an economic slump: the experience that they are insignificant, disposable. Unfortunately, you can’t put the system into reverse by being a good teacher. Persuading students of their individual worth makes them reluctant to take work that is humiliating in its pay and conditions. Some of them would rather sleep out in cardboard boxes, upsetting the tourists. What the Government wants is the re-creation of a prole class: people who will do as they are told because they know they are no good; because they didn’t understand Shakespeare when they were 14 and can’t speak posh.

It is the teachers who know how to use imaginative writing (some of it, perhaps, even from the dreaded soap operas) to develop their students’ creative potential. Literature-lovers should be enraged at the Government’s abuse of their culture. They’ll be trying to make us all right-handed next.

Alan Sinfield
Sussex University

Patrick Parrinder states (rightly in my opinion) that it is little more than a pious hope to think of teaching Standard English without denigrating the pupils’ own dialects. Let me suggest means by which hope might become more realistic. The first point is obvious: the prestige and power of the ‘Standard’ dialect is so great that pupils and parents see little advantage in learning about these denigrated dialects – which are often their own dialects. The second point is less obvious and is rarely stated. Most English grammar books have titles which purport to cover the whole language; the definitive grammar book of our time, for example, is titled: A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik, 1985). But in fact, neither this book nor any other is comprehensive. There are holes in the way they cover the grammar of the English language. These holes are systematic and invisible because they agree closely with public prejudice about non-Standard dialects: they have no grammar when they differ from Standard grammar. In truth, these grammar books ‘of the English language’ are grammars only of the Standard dialect.

Grammarians should include in their books what all linguists know: namely, that grammar is everywhere, neither better nor worse in one dialect than in another. Regional dialects will then acquire one ground for prestige that the Standard dialed has long had: a comprehensively and officially recorded grammar. And teachers will have one tool they need for undermining a linguistic prejudice that divides the nation, supports right-wing power and denigrates the English that most people use.

Tony Fairman
Maidstone, Kent

I second Patrick Parrinder’s acquiescence in the Cox Report’s view that Standard English is a dialect. I teach modern languages in a Brooklyn high school; was exposed to Standard English in bilingual education in Cuba and in my years of early adolescence in New York City. What would those who are opposed to the teaching of Standard English propose we do, for example, about a person from a minority community who has aspirations to become a television anchorperson? I think we would serve that person’s wish by teaching him or her Standard English, so that that dream has a chance to be brought to fruition. To be sensitive to all students we could tell them that their learning common English is the most economic (this word being used in its strictest sense) way to achieve communication by all and for all in the world community.

Walter de las Casas
Brooklyn, New York

Tiananmen Revisited

The intensity of feeling expressed by correspondents reacting to my article confirms that it was necessary to write it. A.C. Grayling, Professor MacDougall and Denis MacShane do not address the issues; they preclude discussion. Although my sympathies naturally lie, as theirs do, with the victims, I do not feel that this exonerates me from considering all other points of view. It is alarming when an attempt to do so is promptly characterised as ‘echoing’ or ‘making excuses for’ the Chinese Government. I can assure them that the only use I made of official sources, which I characterised as ‘grossly biased’, was in comparing their statistics with those of the Western press. That apart, I was entirely reliant on the major English newspapers, British books and many conversations conducted in China in the year 1990-91 with numerous people, all of whom were either supporters of, or active in, the democracy movement.

Unfortunately such reactions confirm my point that Western attitudes have become as self-righteous and intransigent as those of the Chinese Government. Torture, like that described in the Amnesty report quoted by Denis MacShane, is appalling, wherever and whenever it occurs. But again, he does not address the issues I sought to raise. In remarking that most of my informants seemed to agree that the students ‘who were pacific have been largely spared, though again no one knows what happened in the provinces’, I was of course commenting upon sentencing, not torture.

At my university, for example, though many had been active in the demonstrations, only one (a member of the PLA) had received a prison sentence. Students who visited him towards the end of his two-year term reported that he was well, but I would be the first to agree that one cannot generalise from particular examples. For that reason, I did not mention this in the original article. There, I was concerned to point out that, in the aftermath, the great majority of those sentenced had, it appears, been citizens, not students. These, so far as I could tell, had been convicted for offences which would be punishable in any Western country: members of the IRA are serving similar sentences here at present. In this connection I noted that Amnesty had been reported in April 1989 as stating that the implementation of the death penalty in China for no less than forty offences was ‘horrible but acceptable’. If that was their view in April, what became of it in June? Personally, I have never understood why execution, in certain circumstances of certain people, should be regarded as acceptable where torture isn’t; nor can I make a confident distinction between prisoners who are ‘political’ and those who aren’t, since this depends largely upon one’s point of view. I wanted to draw attention to the many prisoners, both in China and elsewhere, who are excluded from consideration by such distinctions, in West and East alike.

My article was written in the belief that we are insufficiently critical of the bases of our own judgments. The letter from supporters of the Alliance for a Better China is heartening because it does engage with that discussion. Their readiness to do so is an example to those, on either side, who don’t engage. I would like to assure them that I neither sought to justify the Chinese Government and condemn the students, nor the reverse. I was considering the reasons why both were forced into a tragic confrontation, when both, in my judgment, were anxious to avoid one. External causes, which included Western attitudes, the Western media and Western interference, helped to precipitate that confrontation. This does not ‘justify’ the action taken on 4 June. It simply notes that the Chinese Government faced a choice of evils and arguably opted for the course that preserved more human lives and human rights, for civil disorder, as current events in Europe show, can exact a monstrously heavy toll in both. I naturally agree with the Alliance for a Better China that their government ought not to have allowed themselves to be placed in a position which hindsight suggests could well have been avoided if they had developed adequate methods of crowd control.

Philippa Tristram

Darkness Audible

Nicholas Spice tells us firmly that ‘the notion that Pears confined Britten’s development is implausible … if it hadn’t met his creative needs to write for Pears, we may be sure he wouldn’t have done so’ (LRB, 11 February). I’m not entirely convinced. I am surely not the only person to have been struck by the rather odd disposition of voices in Billy Budd, in which the young lead is a baritone, and the elderly, fatherly Captain Vere a tenor. Pears’s voice was obviously never suited to the role of the young foretopman, and Vere is a wonderful role for a lyric character tenor. But the oddity of making Billy a baritone role remains. It is surely explained in the first instance by the need to write the opera around Pears’s voice and talents.

Spice also writes interestingly about the sense of unrealised possibilities, of ‘greatness … somehow held in check’ in Britten’s music. Things might have been different if he had been able, as he wanted, to go and study with Alban Berg. There is a fierce audacity in some of the early music, notably Our Hunting Fathers and the first two movements of the Sinfonia da Requiem, which seems to get smoothed out later on. And Britten seems to have felt a need for, or an urge towards, the consolatory which, to my mind, weakens the endings of both Billy Budd and the War Requiem, and explains why, in the end, he could not face turning King Lear into an opera: it is too unrelentingly bleak a work. No composer can be blamed for turning aside from a project which even Verdi ultimately evaded. But my own feeling is that it is in this turning away from the heart of darkness, from events in which there is no hope or comfort, that we find the limits of Britten’s actual achievement as a composer.

Anthony Arblaster

Solid and Fleeting

My experience of Richard Serra differs somewhat from David Sylvester’s (LRB, 17 December 1992). The sculpture Weight and Measure is the least interesting I have ever seen. It is rivalled only by his recent performance at the Serpentine: the pasting of black rectangles on the gallery’s walls in similarly spatially significant positions. Sylvester is super-sensitive to the defects of the Duveen galleries at the British Museum and Tate, but is incapable of sensing the innate dullness of Serra’s giant blocks. Intense seriousness is no guarantee that an artist’s art is of value. Serra’s dreadful earnestness (‘It is very absolute to forge a cube’) produces only seriously heavyweight pomposity – a physical manifestation of crushing boredom. Serra’s megalomania required the clearing of the sculpture gallery of all other exhibits; and the complicated engineering needed to remove the 74-ton blocks entailed the closure of the British galleries for a whole weekend. (I assume the danger that they might fall over denied me a glance at the Blakes!) This inconvenience to the public will be of little consequence to Sylvester, who writes that Weight and Measure ‘looks at its most impressive when there are no people around. Their absence is especially helpful in regard to the crucial experience of walking from one block to the other.’ Now it is all over and the blocks have been taken away from the only place in which the artist claimed meaning for them, one can only wonder where they will be left to rest and rust.

Andrew Scott
London SE11

Blake’s Tone

E.P. Thompson’s judiciously favourable review of Jon Mee’s Dangerous Enthusiasm (LRB, 28 January) is a bracing performance. Thompson found it necessary to remind readers of such tones as the seven forms of ‘humour and humour’s neighbours’ used by Blake – ‘polemic, irony, expostulation, mockery, hyperbole, provocation, abuse’. As Thompson says, these tones are too little acknowledged or emulated in academic writings such as Mee’s book. It was odd, though, that Thompson should have endorsed a pronouncement in the now twenty-year-old disquisition by F.R. Leavis, ‘Justifying one’s valuation of Blake’. This egregiously-titled essay declared ‘none of [Blake’s] elaborated prophetic works … a successful work of art’. Thompson indicated he has never heard anything that would persuade him otherwise.

Any attempt to vindicate Blake’s art in The Book of Urizen requires recognition of the differences between illuminated books and text-poems that lack a visual dimension; the ear, however acute, cannot by itself discern the tone of the Lambeth Book. Even at his best, Leavis would not have known where to begin such a discussion. Whether Thompson will be able to do better in his forthcoming Blake book we shall have to see. His review is reassuring insofar as it demolishes Mee’s claim that Blake was ‘a bricoleur’.

Some of Blake’s illuminated writings, however, can stand even when divested of their accompanying designs. Given his responsiveness to humour and its congeners, Thompson might be expected to exempt The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from the Leavisite strictures – though there was no dication that Leavis himself knew how to recognise tins ‘elaborated’ work as successful satire and, it must be added, there is no sign in Mee’s book that he is able to recognise satire when he sees it. Interested readers will find that Michael Ferber’s The Poetry of William Blake contains an honest Left-originating analysis of The Marriage that is not tone-deaf to the text and is also aware of the pictures. Ferber reads the brilliant book that Blake wrote.

I find it difficult to believe that Thompson himself has recently re-read ‘Leavis’s remarkable essay, “Justifying one’s valuation of Blake’ ". Whether some of Blake’s prophecies are successful works of art might still be debated, but what justification can there now be for putting forward Leavis’s awful self-indulgent oration as an effective work of criticism? By representing himself, FRL the Great, as ‘one’ for pages on end, that author projected himself as a very model of donnish presumption, issuing value judgments he wouldn’t condescend to support. There was also pathos in the spectacle of the author of Revaluation being manifestly over-the-hill. For Leavis it was then too late to do more than argue with T.S. Eliot, read aloud a few good lyrics, and make pronouncements. Thank goodness Thompson remains sensitive to important elements of ‘Blake’s Tone’ and says things about it that haven’t yet entered the consciousness of younger academic critics.

John Grant
Iowa City, Iowa

It is thirty years since Edward Thompson first published The Making of the English Working Class, and while the phrase he uses to criticise what Post-Modernism has tried to do to William Blake, ‘the somewhat attenuated discourse of analytic academicism’, is perhaps not quite on a level with ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’, we may give thanks that Thompson’s brain is razor sharp still and that, unlike some of his contemporaries, he has never been bought off by academic life or cheap fame in the press. Where, however, are the Edward Thompsons for the Nineties and beyond?

Keith Flett
London N17

Serbian Traditions

David Westover must not be afraid (Letters, 28 January): I endured Yugoslavia for far too long to have become biased in favour either of Croatian or of Serbian nationalism. For the rest he appears to want a personal polemic; and in this I have no interest. As to Novi Sad’s Magyar minority I have some reason to know about them, no doubt a good deal more than he has, having been obliged during 1944 to live in that Serbian city, admittedly as a Slovene, according to the (faked) papers of Rudolf Dolinek. Dolinek did in fact do a bit to assist in liberating Yugoslavia, but Mr Westover wouldn’t know anything of that.

Basil Davidson
North Wootton, Somerset


Anyone who thinks, with John Bayley (LRB, 28 January), that Henry James was always a great admirer of Whitman, should take a look at his criticism of Drum-Taps: ‘It has been a melancholy task to read this book … Mr Whitman’s attitude seems monstrous … because it pretends to persuade the soul while it slights the intellect; because it pretends to gratify the feelings while it outrages the taste … We look in vain, however, through your book for a single idea … We find a medley of extravagances and commonplaces. We find art, measure, grace, sense sneered at on every page, and nothing positive given us in their stead.’

Freddy Hurdis-Jones

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