Michael Meadmore’s letter (Letters, 24 June) taxes R.W. Johnson with ‘failure to understand the Alger Hiss case’, but it is Meadmore himself who is wide of the mark. Hiss, a former US State Department officer, was convicted of perjury in 1950 for denying that he had given State Department documents to his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, in 1938. Chambers said the papers were destined for the Soviet Union. Congressman Nixon was Hiss’s principal harrier, and the case paved Nixon’s road to the White House.
At his sentencing to five years in prison, Hiss again denied the charges and expressed confidence that ‘how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter’ would eventually be disclosed. Hiss meant that it would be revealed how Chambers had got access to Mrs Hiss’s typewriter, since Chambers had brought forth copies of State Department documents retyped in typescript closely matching that of personal letters typed at home by Mrs Hiss. Unknown to Hiss at the time of his trials, there was another way to forge typing, a technique that Meadmore mistakenly denies is possible: building a replicating typewriter. During World War Two – a decade before the Hiss trials – intelligence operatives using that technique ‘could produce faultlessly the imprint of any typewriter on earth’. One such operation, with the collaboration of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, called for rebuilding a typewriter ‘that precisely duplicated the machine in Rome [and produced] a letter so perfectly forged by matching the imperfections of typewriter keys … that it caused the removal of certain key pro-Nazis in South America’ (William Stevenson: A Man Called Intrepid). President Nixon reportedly told his aide Charles Colson that ‘the typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case’ (John Dean:Blind Ambition).
Even if the copies were typed on Mrs Hiss’s typewriter, that says nothing about who typed them or how they came into Chambers’s hands. There was no expert testimony on those questions: only Chambers’s word, against the word of both Mr and Mrs Hiss, that the typist was Mrs Hiss (Chambers had first said it was Mr or Mrs Hiss, but he changed that version when he learned that Mr Hiss could not type) and that Chambers himself had collected the copies at the Hisses’ house. Chambers had been a house guest of the Hisses briefly in the Thirties, and he also had sources in the State Department other than Hiss. In any case, the fact that the typescripts were closely matched suggests a frame-up; no rational intelligence agent would leave such a trail leading back to himself. The form of the papers also belies espionage: short excerpts, summaries and full copies appear at random, and telling parts of the original documents are omitted entirely or paraphrased while routine material is copied verbatim. (They are all publicly available in Volume VII of the printed court record.)
Chambers also produced four notes pencilled by Hiss, which Chambers said Hiss gave him to convey to the Soviets – again, a most unlikely spy story. The notes had been creased and crumpled; portions are unintelligible to anyone but Hiss; and they look just like what Hiss said they were: notes he made to himself for briefing his superior officer on incoming cables and then discarded.
Finally, Meadmore’s reliance on Allen Weinstein’s Perjury betrays his unawareness of the critical and investigatory discrediting of Weinstein’s book and putative change of mind; of his published apology and capitulation to a libel suit; and of his continuing refusal, in violation of the rules of the American Historical Association, to make his supposed source materials available for verification. Far more qualified than either Weinstein or Meadmore are General Dmitry Volkogonov, the overseer of the Soviet intelligence archives, and Yevgeny Primakov, director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who last year conducted an archival search at Hiss’s request. They reached the ‘firm conclusion’ that ‘Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.’
Like the medieval church it resembles, the new academicism offers no salvation outisde itself. Nearly thirty years ago I had a mild argument in print with Frank Kermode about the importance of things and bodies in books. Frank, who had just published The Sense of an Ending, was doubtful of their existence. Now Jonathan Sawday tells us that there is a ‘truly innovative theoretical move’ in the direction of a new ‘somatics’ (Letters, 8 July). Old-fashioned bodies are being taken over as the ‘theory of the month’: the new must always be new.
Literary theory would OK if, like dental mechanics, it stuck to its own ‘discipline’. But it wants to own and control the whole process, to create art by theorising about it. The body of Larkin’s awful pie becomes a construct for the new ‘somatics’? Even such an evidently reasonable academic as Tim Trengove-Jones (Letters, 8 July) abhors ‘minimising the role of institutions’ in moralising the poems actually written by non-institutional poets. And in the great malignity race between Larkin and Tom Paulin, Larkin surely wins hands down. His ‘calculated, concentrated malignity’ was at least his own. Paulin must have learnt his from academic theology, perhaps at the same seminar where he learnt to write poetry.
Ronan Bennett’s article on criminal justice was devastating, not least because it was so understated and dispassionate (LRB, 24 June). Surely the real flaw with English justice lies not with individual policemen, or with any individual for that matter (although whoever marked the bundle of documents in the Guildford Four case ‘not to be seen by the defence’ should have been in the dock), but with the system itself. The older I become, the more I am convinced that what the law, medicine, indeed all the professions need is far more women. In my experience, they are clearer-minded, brisker, and above all less interested in the cosy clubland and endless games-playing of their male colleagues, which sometimes seem more important than the end they are supposed to be pursuing.
St Julien le Montagnier, France
I was particularly struck by the way Ronan Bennett used his personal experience to analyse and understand his subject. This contrasts with much modern extended reportage (originating, I guess, with John Reed) in which wars, revolutions and the suffering of other people appear as interesting backgrounds in the author’s quest to understand (or just enjoy) himself. Bennett’s refusal to allow his own experience to become his subject is rare and admirable.
Save the Children Fund,
Re E. Winter’s nunclish poem and your letters column passim:
Rhyme’s dry couplings find G. Ewart even hard put to surpass him,
The solitary substitute for the copulative ‘deathly’
Being nothing but a wet weekend (and dirty) in Llanelli.
But surely it is time to cap, put an end to, this lubricity
And starve Ms F. Pitt-Kethley of the oxygen of pubicity?
This short epistle puzzled but ejaculated pithily
I sign paronomastically, sincerely, and Stan-Smithily.
Use of first names, interestingly discussed by Miranda Seymour (Letters, 27 May) and Frank Kermode (Letters, 24 June), is not a problem restricted to biographers. Nurses, doctors, social workers and others in what are now called the caring professions face a similar predicament, often with even greater irritation, embarrassment or distress to those they serve. Some are trained dogmatically to believe that spontaneous use of the first name is an emblem of kindness and understanding. As a result, on a walk through our wards and consulting-rooms we may meet such absurdities as a man in his fifties just admitted to hospital suffering from the pain and anxiety of a heart attack being addressed as ‘Kenneth’ by a 20-year-old student nurse and others old enough to know better; and a young house physician shouting ‘Margaret’ at a deaf and dying lady who has never been known as anyone but ‘Meg’. Our colleagues who do this may never learn that routine use of first names with total strangers who have had the misfortune to become patients is as likely as not to be experienced as wretchedly patronising: a crude substitute for good manners and thoughtfulness.
David Townsend (Letters, 10 June) may well be on firm ground when he challenges my suggestion that approved children’s fiction incites to violence. It could be that Stevenson, Richmal Crompton and Ransome were so successful as children’s writers because they saw very clearly that children had wicked propensities and addressed them on this basis, diverting them from real violence into morally tolerable fantasy. It is silly of Mr Townsend, however, to smear me with Gummerism for taking the notion of ‘original sin’ seriously. I am an atheist. Rousseauesque notions of ‘original virtue’ swiftly sent lots of people to the guillotine, which undermined the credibility of these notions more than somewhat. Though some Christians at every stage in history have been very stupid, hideously intolerant and/or extremely vicious, we should not, as historians of ideas and culture, dismiss the insights of their theologians out of hand. The onus of proof rests on those who dispute that children are naughty, amoral and often cruel.
As for the idea of improving them by compulsory education, it will hardly do to cite D.H. Lawrence against my contention that we should drop that. His account in The Rainbow of the foul working conditions for early state schoolteachers is outstanding in his generally mediocre prose oeuvre for a documentary power to rival Zola’s Germinal. It was not just because of faddism or snobbery that ‘progressives’ in his day who could afford it sent their children to the experimental schools founded by A.S. Neill and others.
Open University, Edinburgh
In his/her response to my review of Habermas’s Faktizität und Geltung Pat Kane (Letters, 10 June) highlights the dangers of appeals to a substantive conception of human nature as a means of grounding a normative political theory. The dangers are far from illusory, but I would like to correct a misunderstanding in his/her letter, and also to suggest that the issue of substantive universals is inevitably raised by Habermas’s own position, however much he may try to defuse it.
First, I did not suggest that Habermas’s politics needed beefing up with a scientific theory of human nature. Rather, I spoke of the need for an exploration of ‘what is essential to the integrity of human life-forms in general’, so I had in mind configurations of social, cultural and interpersonal structures. Habermas’s own view is that the object-domains of specific sciences are only constituted by abstraction from the life-world which consists of these structures, in their lived, and constantly shifting, meaning. Accordingly the exploration of forms of life is a pre-scientific enterprise, whose approach would be phenomenological and hermeneutic, not objectifying.
Even once this is admitted, however, Kane raises two pertinent points. Do we have any reason to expect that there is anything common to all life-worlds? And how do we prevent a theory which claims to identify such universals from overriding the need for discussion? It is important to note that Habermas currently distinguishes between two basic functions of philosophy: one as a ‘stand-in’ or path-breaker for universalistic theories in the human sciences, the other as what he calls an ‘interpreter’, seeking to comprehend and integrate the various dimensions of a culture from within. This notion of ‘interpretation’ remains entirely undeveloped, however – the residue of Habermas’s formalism. One could ask why interpretation should be seen as a philosophical activity, unless it moves from culturally specific meanings to some general conception of their grounding. Philosophers are not just interested in what their own culture identifies as ‘nature’ or ‘art’ or ‘love’, vitally informative though this is, but rather in what these phenomena basically are. The constant return of philosophy to its own history suggests that such insights can be achieved, although they always remain open to new interpretations.
Furthermore, a philosopher may reach the conclusion that a society which systematically limits the opportunities for enjoyment of an unspoiled natural world, or for aesthetic experience, or for the development of loving relationships, is humanly deficient, however formally ‘just’ it may be. The fact that others may reach contrary conclusions does not automatically render this level of discourse invalid. Indeed, Habermas himself has recently admitted that such ‘ethical’ (i.e. qualitative) conceptions can be proposed, if universalised through the substantive notion of a ‘civilised world society’.
Such conceptions cannot be allowed to legitimate their own enforcement, however, and in this sense the primacy of ‘discourse ethics’ remains. But the need for a ‘fallibtlistic consciousness’, as Habermas calls it, can be stressed by undermining claims for a sure-fire philosophical method, without placing limitations on the content of philosophical reflection. To suggest that philosophers should avoid seeking to explore and depict the ingredients of emancipated or non-pathological forms of life (not ‘defining the “essential human forms of life" ’, as Pat Kane misquotes me) as a prophylactic against metaphysical delusions of grandeur seems to me to hinder excessively the relation between thought and social practice. It is precisely when a space is left open here by the imaginative failure of our most reflexive forms of thinking that a dangerous mishmash of science and ideology is likely to rush in to fill the gap.
University of Essex
I thought I might add a postscript to my letter in your previous issue, explaining that my view of Botticelli’s Primavera is coloured by early experiences. The picture hung on the wall of our mathematics classroom, where a boy called Hoskins in the back row was attempting to take a surreptitious photograph of the mathematics master in one of his tantrums. He was discovered and hauled up to the front of the class, where he had to stand below the picture and put his head into a wastepaper basket (a large tea-chest of plywood), and in this position, with his bottom in the air and head in the chest, he was slowly and methodically kicked (tea-chest and all) out of the door of the classroom. I remember the rasping of the chest as it moved across the floor. All this took place under the picture of the Graces dancing their enigmatic dance under the enchanted trees. Since then for me, as I suppose for the rest of the class, sadomasochistic episodes have always acquired a Neoplatonic penumbra. By the same mechanism the decipherment of the picture was to be all the more emotionally charged. (Hoskins’s own opinion of the Primavera was neither asked nor given, though he retained his interest in photography, moving in later years from satirical subjects to landscape.)
Al Ain, Abu Dhabi
I enjoyed Jenny Diski’s review (LRB, 24 June), but what on earth does she mean by ‘Men have always thought they could beat death to death with an engorged penis’? I have passed the traditional span of man but it has never occurred to me that I might defeat or even delay the final curtain by getting a hard-on. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that experiments with Drosophila indicated that over-use of the penis invited early demise.
Petworth, West Sussex
In his review of the Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin (LRB, 8 July), of which I was the General Editor, E.P. Thompson made a significant error of attribution which I would like to correct. The eight-volume Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin was kindly but incorrectly attributed to myself ‘with the help of Marilyn Butler’. We did indeed co-author the General Introduction, and I acted as General Editor for the collection and as the editor of the volume of Godwin’s Memoirs. However, five of the volumes were edited by Dr Pamela Clemit, including the first edition of Caleb Williams with variants from the manuscript and the four other editions published in Godwin’s lifetime, and two were edited by Dr Maurice Hindle. Dr Clemil also edited Volume V, Educational Writings, in the Political and Philosophical Writings, and Dr Martin Fitzpatrick edited Volume I, which contains Godwin’s political writings prior to 1793. The impeccable standard of the scholarship of these volumes should be attributed to their editors.
Oriel College, Oxford