I am glad you were able to give Ronan Bennett the necessary space to document the current attempt to reconvict the Guildford Four (LRB, 24 June). As Bennett makes clear, the conspiracy has all along been between judicial and police grandees, on the one hand, and the Conservative press, on the other. I would like to think that at least some of the jurors who acquitted the policemen did so because they did not wish to be parties to the conviction of scapegoats when more Establishment criminals were clearly going free; and because they realised that each and every player in the court was a bit-part actor in the same theatrical production at the end of which British justice was meant to live happily ever after; and that even if they had convicted, the police would have been let off with a little community service and the plot would have scarcely changed.
It is not, however, just the Irish who get verballed and stitched up. The Confait case, in which three South London youngsters were put away for murder in 1973, has uncanny parallels. An official enquiry, after their convictions were quashed, with its suggestion that one was innocent and the others guilty, mirrors the current police innuendo about the guilt of some of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. A Royal Commission on Criminal Justice has been appointed partly as a damage limitation exercise and partly to achieve an increase in police powers. Above all, no public apology, at any time, to those beaten up and convicted. One can see the whole charade happening again later this year with the Runciman Commission equivocal on the right to silence and a similar phoney, softball prosecution of the Birmingham police.
The only glimmer of hope is Sir John May, who has the powers to continue his public enquiry into what really happened at Guildford. If he cops out, as he has been urged to, the script will have been rewritten and the truth finally and officially suppressed.
Leeds Metropolitan University
Loved Stanley Fish’s notion that the work of academics can’t be transformed into the currency of politics (LRB, 10 June). I promise not to mention the likes of Norman Holmes Pearson, professor of English at Yale and one-time head of X-2, the counter-intelligence branch of the American OSS (later the CIA). Or Sir John Masterman, eminent Oxford historian and developer of the ‘double cross system’ for the exploitation of enemy spies. But even if it’s time to come in from the cold, the position which urges that literary criticism has no access to, or influence on, the world of politics might strike some people as itself pretty political. Are you sure Fish isn’t a double agent?
University of Wales, Cardiff
Stanley Fish’s essay exploits many metaphors from the world of commerce: ‘enterprise’, ‘have title to’, ‘franchise’, ‘our shop’, ‘site of production’, ‘trade’, ‘traffic’, ‘fungible currency’, ‘borrow’, ‘appropriate’, ‘invest’, ‘buy’ and so on. There are two points in his accounting to which he might (profitably?) attend. One is that the reward of the virtue which is Stanley Fish’s literary criticism accrues principally to Stanley Fish. The balance sheet to be drawn up, however, concerns the profits and losses to people other than Stanley Fish as a result of his cultivating his virtue. How does this add up?
The other concerns his description of the ‘alternative market’ in which some philosophers now find themselves: that of medical ethics. In noting quite properly the fact that ethical theory does not make up for ethical knowledge, Stanley Fish indicates that he supposes that an ‘ethicist’ thinks up problem situations ‘so that he can amaze his students with his subtlety’. But students – at least those fit enough to attend lectures – are not the intended consumers of the commodity on offer. Does Stanley Fish write about Milton to amaze his students with his subtlety?
University of Bergamo
Amongst my pleasures are reading and sex. I refuse to let Stanley Fish put me off poetry, but thank goodness he doesn’t write sexual as well as literary criticism.
University of Osnabrück
Mr Armitage’s letter on my Saudi Arabian article (Letters, 10 June) was predictably irascible, coming as it did from a sympathiser with the Saudi Government. The Armitage line is that the piece was nothing but uninformed rumour-mongering. If that were so, would the Saudi Minister of Information have telephoned Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri in an attempt to prevent the Lebanese newspaper As Safir from continuing to serialise the article? (To As Safir’s eternal credit, the editor changed the name of the paper with Levantine aplomb and sallied on!) If the article was so insubstantial, would the Minister of Information have launched such a bitter attack against it on Saudi television and warned Arab journalists off? Indeed, would Mr Armitage himself have troubled to vent half a column of bad temper if the information in it were as unimportant as he claims?
It is surprising that Anthony Grafton should devote two pages (LRB, 10 June) to a study of Botticelli’s Primavera with only one (rather slighting) reference to the work of the scholar and hierophant Edgar Wind. I suppose in an age when Pirelli calendars are sold at Sotheby’s, and regional cookery is the rage, we should not be surprised at an attempt by art historians to promote a ‘Tuscan vernacular’ interpretation, and to reduce the reference of the picture to a calendar. But Wind’s Neoplatonic interpretation not only points out and accounts for far more of the enigmas of the picture: it also gives them a deeper and more convincing dimension which is completely in accord with the intellectual climate of the time and place.
Plotinus may seem recherché to us now, but in Botticelli’s time his ideas were just as much common currency as the language of atomic physics or computer science is to us today. The virtuoso Chapter Seven of Wind’s Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance has it all. (To hear Wind lecture was a psychopompal experience.) As to the different size of Venus’s eyes, the drooping eyelid is probably not a classic sign of syphilis – more likely she is beginning to wink.
The naming of biographical subjects, which has been raised by Miranda Seymour and Frank Kermode (Letters, 27 May and Letters, 24 June), partly depends upon the context in which their names appear. I wrote about ‘Lytton’ because that was how all his friends referred to him, and I wanted to integrate their references into my narrative. ‘Lytton’ was also helpful in distinguishing him early on from his many brothers and sisters. For a time, when very young, he was ‘Giles’; occasionally, when seen more distantly in adult life or looked at professionally by some critic, he became ‘Strachey’.
As for Bernard Shaw, he was ‘Sonny’ at an early age; ‘George’ when seen through the eyes of his mother or sister; ‘Bernard Shaw’ professionally on title pages; ‘GBS’ to his wife and in the public imagination. Only in the mouths of the ignorant was he ‘George Bernard Shaw’. Such changes in name are useful for shifting the tone of a passage and alerting the reader to a change of viewpoint.
In her Sydney Diary (LRB, 8 April) Sylvia Lawson rejoices that ‘50-plus per cent’ of the Australian electorate voted for the return of the Keating (Labour) Government. It may be as well to remind British readers that Australia has a preferential, not a first-past-the-post, voting system and that in terms of primary votes the Government gained the support of considerably less than half the electorate. No government in a parliamentary democracy can wisely govern in flagrant defiance of the strong wishes and convictions of a very substantial minority of electors. Will Paul Keating and his ministers recognise this? It seems unlikely. No sooner has he returned to office than he has again vigorously raised the republican issue, an obsession of his, but kept carefully muted during the March election campaign. A very large number of Australians (perhaps a majority – no one can be sure) are strongly opposed to a republic. Many wish to retain constitutional monarchy less for sentimental reasons than because they believe that a head of state who is not deeply involved in party politics is for several reasons far preferable to one who is inevitably associated with politics. They intensely dislike the prospect of partisan changes to the Constitution which, while perhaps keeping the semblance of parliamentary democracy, may easily prepare the way for perpetual one-party dominance. Paul Keating seems determined to take no account of these views. One of his most recent moves has been to set up an ‘advisory committee’, consisting almost entirely of committed republicans, whose purpose is clearly to devise ways of increasing pressure for a republic. There is much disingenuous talk of a ‘minimalist’ change – as if rejection of the monarchy were not in question or not important. Step by calculated step the country is being manoeuvred towards a republic.
Ian Aitken’s review of Peter Paterson’s Life of George Brown has one or two charitable passages (LRB, 27 May), but 35 lines on getting a gin and tonic for George suggests he is working a long-time grudge out of his system, and when George said ‘tout de suite’, why spell it ‘toot sweet’, on the assumption that that is how he pronounced the phrase or would have written the instruction? A classic case of the mincy patronisation that he had to tolerate from media colleagues. To call George’s 40-year marriage to Sophie ‘gruesome history’, when such epithets as ‘unhappy’, ‘failed’ or ‘difficult’ are quite serviceable for other public figures, is calumny against the shades of both of them. I bear witness to summer holidays and Christmases of expansive warmth and profound hilarity between them, without denying the effect of drink and its incipient cruelty as their relationship drew to a close.
I was intrigued and a little puzzled by several phrases in Hugo Williams’s poems based on his schooldays (LRB, 24 June). In ‘Guilt’ he writes: ‘he caught me in bed with another boy.’ When I was friends with Hugo he told me that there was no homosexuality in Eton, only a lot of talk about it – a story which doesn’t quite tally with what I’ve heard from other old Etonians. Perhaps, though, the poem refers to a prep-school incident. The title is puzzling too. Surely one boy going to bed with another of much the same age is not a matter for guilt these days?
In the first poem, ‘Old Boy’, Hugo writes: ‘everyone looks up to me because I’ve been round the world and have my own wife and motorbike.’ In a poem called ‘Winning’ I noted that luggage travels –
even bags can fly –
but are they any better for the trip?
No, simply battered, with a busted zip.
To turn to his other point. Surely it’s the quality of wife and motorbike (or car) that incites the admiration of others. Hugo, as I remember it, is not the proud possessor of a Harley Davidson.
It is a pity that the current Larkin controversy should, in your columns, have degenerated to the level of fond reminiscence and affectionate anecdote (Letters, 22 April and Letters, 13 May). Apologia conducted on such a plane is unequal to the challenge posed by Larkin’s work and disappointing as responses to Alan Bennett’s troubled piece (LRB, 25 March) and John Bayley’s spirited after-piece (22 April). For, surely, it is not a question of whether Larkin was a great librarian or ‘a very interesting minor poet’ (his competence as librarian has never been at issue, and the calculus defining him as ‘minor’ has never been articulated).
John Bayley praises the poet for being ‘shamelessly himself’ and for ‘not bringing anything in from outside when he wrote’. But Larkin’s meaning and value, even in Professor Bayley’s latest account, are established precisely through their being antithetically inscribed against views of literary production (poetic impersonality, the death of the author) which constituted the very context out of which Larkin wrote and which he was used – and is still used by Professor Bayley – to combat. Arguably, had he not, for example, been so self-consciously after Eliot, he would never have been heard of. Furthermore, specific Larkin poems only take their meaning from their negotiation with something ‘outside’. And to say that Larkin, ‘like his hero Lawrence, was shamelessly himself’, overlooks the crucial, traumatised element of self-disgust and self-doubt in Larkin, as well as eliding (as Professor Bayley’s argument requires) the very great struggle Larkin waged with Lawrence as agon. And, finally, to claim that in Larkin we find ‘language transforming the place of horror, the place of boredom’, is to be quite untrue to Larkin’s principled agnosticism about the power of poetic language to be in celebration, quite untrue to the unremitting irony and heroic negativity to which Larkin submitted art’s highest claims.
If Larkin matters as ‘the poet of personality’, we need to ask why this is. And if he is indeed the hero of an embattled individualism, we must be sure not to gloss over the evidence of quite what a difficult, dismal and finally botched career this alleged humanist had of it. And, finally, we need to interrogate rather more closely the possibility of separating the singularity of the personality from the authentic weight of the artistic achievement, and to acknowledge fully the role of institutional practices in any such critical achievement. Because Larkin ‘despised English departments’, Professor Bayley tells us, ‘they do not forgive him’. Most of Larkin’s longtime admirers have remained loyal, and many, like Professor Bayley, have been or are in English departments. As though wishing to minimise the role of institutions, and certainly advancing his claims for individualism one step further, Professor Bayley concludes by claiming that ‘everyone has their own Larkin.’ But the voice of authority immediately contradicts this apparent pluralism: ‘Andrew Motion[’s] good intentions seem to speak from beyond too great a gap in culture and time.’ The tone of the centre still claims for itself and for Larkin the last – and better – word.
University of the Witwatersrand
Nobody ever ‘displayed calculated, concentrated malignity’ to the degree Larkin did (Letters, 27 May). Amazing that his niece, a housemaid of mine in Italy for a time, was so amiable and well-mannered. The bad blood, obviously, came out on his side.
St André de Sangones, France
Wendy Steiner, in the course of her review of Helen Benedict’s Virgin or Vamp and Geoffrey Matoesian’s Reproducing Rape (LRB, 27 May), fails to explore her most interesting connection – between rape and lynching. Although she has reviewed the work of African American women writers, she seems not to be aware of what may be the most concise ‘causal’ statement concerning the violence of whitemale patriarchy in the United States, seen in the work of writers such as Sherley Anne Williams. Why do whites lynch blacks in the United States? Why do men rape women anywhere? Because they can.
I imagine that the verb irrumo – and hence the English ‘irrumation’ – derives from rumen, ‘throat’. (In an ideal world it would be irrumino, but there you go.) Instead of the evasive Victorian definition cited by Linnett Nuttgens (Letters, 10 June) – ‘filthy obscenity’, indeed! – I’d suggest:
irrumo, to introduce a part of the body into another’s throat or mouth (as in breastfeeding, fellatio etc).
I think ‘or mouth’ is correct, given that the definition cited by Nuttgens refers to breastfeeding: Catullus, as quoted by Miles Burrows (Letters, 27 May), wasn’t threatening to ram anything down his listeners’ throats. In sexual terms an irrumator is nothing more filthy or obscene than a fellatee, by and large. The exception is a necrophile like Jeffrey Dahmer – which is where we came in.
My thanks to Miles Burrows for his suggestion that irrumation is something a poet will do to his [sic] critics. It’s certainly never been my experience, but I shall keep it in mind the next time I get a rejection slip.
Terry Eagleton’s dismissal of what he terms the ‘fashionable turn to the somatic’ (LRB, 27 May) demands a suitably corporeal answer. As he points out, those ‘eager masturbators’ amongst us who are trying to make sense of a set of problems undoubtedly inherited from the work of Foucault (together with that of Plato, Aristotle, Origen, Aquinas, Descartes and Hob bes) may be doing no more than providing footnotes to a theoretical posture which has run its course. Here, though, are three reasons why the undertaking may (still) be worthwhile.
First, I very much doubt that the body which is used or possessed by either Terry Eagleton or me (our own bodies, I assume) is no more than a ‘material object’ which is simply there as ‘an essential component of anything more creative we get up to’. Isn’t this the missionary position which the Catholic Church has long wished people would adopt rather more firmly than they appear to in their daily lives? Bodies exist in at least two other forms besides those encountered in Eagleton’s account: namely, representation and history. That’s to say that, once we have established where our left feet are at any given moment, we are no closer to uncovering an ‘intimate mode of cognition’ than we were at the outset. Or to put it another way, why is it that, in a medieval medical manual (say) or a Renaissance painting, people are represented with two left feet, two right feet or no feet at all? Is it that they were just desperately in need of the compass which Eagleton has so confidently thrown away? To object that this is to pose a different problem altogether is to accept that any understanding of what it is either to be or to have a body is independent of any wider cultural construction. I doubt, for example, that many of us, now, would want to endure phlebotomy. But the fact that such an activity once took place on a fairly regular basis at least begs the question of the extent to which the practice tells us of a quite different conceptual understanding, not only of the mechanics of the body’s operation, but of the relation of the body to the world which surrounds it. To answer that question, we might need a fusion of philosophical enquiry, cultural anthropology, history of science, art history, and (even) literary criticism – the new somatics, in other words.
But what’s the point of asking (let alone answering) such a question? To the jacket-off, sleeves-up objection that this is so much ‘idle anecdotalism’ – my dismembered body v. your disciplined body – one can only answer that one of the chief ways in which (historically, again) we have come to understand ‘our’ bodies is through the stories we tell about their origin, difference from each other, function or dysfunction, beauty or ugliness, and eventual decay. What this plethora of narratives seems to tell us is that (pace Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) any understanding of what it is to have or to be a body seems to shift according to a complex interplay (as Eagleton quite rightly points out) of ideas about Nature and Culture. That those who are working on these questions may not be producing, at the same time, ‘truly innovative theoretical moves’ prompts a different series of questions: just how often, and through what means, do we produce ‘theory’, and what do we mean by that term? In Eagleton’s version, it is as it there truly is a ‘theory of the month’, and if you can’t come up with a new one, then all you’re doing is writing footnotes. So, either way, the somaticists are hanged, drawn and quartered: either they’re unbearable fashion-victims, or they’re still wearing turn-ups whilst the avant-garde has reverted to flares.
Thirdly, I can find no awareness, in Eagleton’s denunciation of all this ‘bizaire stuff’, of the ways in which somatic criticism is engaged in two areas which are (still) ideological battlegrounds: gender and identity (and their interrelationship). To deny the contingent nature of the body as both the subject and object of various regimes of knowledge is to shy away from asking a host of perhaps uncomfortable questions: why, for example, in the West (as Eagleton so adroitly demonstrates), is the body held to be such a central focus of attention? How are we to understand the technologies which now encompass the body in our culture? Or do we just ignore the response of a Melanesian (recorded by another somaticist, David Le Breton) to the question of what the West ‘contributed’ to his culture – ‘what you have brought us is the body’?
University of Southampton
After his offer to eat all the William books if any contained a case of William killing pet animals (Letters, 10 June), I hope David Townsend is feeling peckish. Despite his lack of a character-forming broken home, and despite his being connately middle-class (clearly the closest one can get to possessing a genetic determinant for unacceptable behaviour in David Townsend’s eyes), William owned an air-gun. He discovered that this consistently shot six inches to the left of the point at which he aimed it. One day he wanted to shoot a pole stuck in the ground. Six inches to the right of the pole sat a cat. William did the empirically correct thing, with the structurally necessary fatal consequences. There must be about forty William books. That’s over twenty pounds of unglazed foxed paper between those old red Newnes hardback covers. Is David Townsend going to munch his way through them over the space of a few weeks, or will he go for the heroic Guinness-record live-goldfish approach? Can you spare us a few column-inches for the Polaroids?
By the way, who are the mysterious Boot family next door to William to whom David Townsend alludes? I accept that confusing the similar names Crompton and Waugh is the venial sort of mistake that any Director of Social Services (Croydon) could make; but does he perhaps mean the sauce-producing non-next-door – and rather sub-middle-class Bott family?
Senior Lecturer in Manufacturing,
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