Vol. 16 No. 3 · 10 February 1994

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Cunning Passage

Although Eliot’s criticism is prone to the odd error – and one or two are very odd indeed – it should be borne in mind that, occasionally, these slips were not entirely his own fault. The ‘striking’ error Professor Kermode discusses in his exact, exacting review of The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry (LRB, 27 January) – the rendering of ‘burning axletree’ into ‘cunning axletree’ which, he pronounces, ‘seems too obscure to understand’ – is simply a case of Eliot falling victim to an unreliable text. In the 1926 Clark Lectures (and in his 1927 essay on ‘Seneca in Elizabethan Translation’) he was quoting from W.L. Phelps’s 1875 Mermaid edition of Chapman’s work, which prints the lines from Bussy as: ‘fly where men feel/The cunning axletree: and those that suffer/Beneath the chariot of the snowy Bear’.

Chapman’s lines appeared again in the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures of 1933. When he introduced his Harvard audience to the passage, and admitted that it lay behind some lines of ‘Gerontion’, Eliot explained: ‘I am glad of the opportunity to use it again, as on the previous occasion I had an inaccurate text.’ The corrected version now read: ‘fly where men feel/The burning axletree, and those that suffer/Beneath the chariot of the snowy Bear’. (The Use Of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). Eliot was probably not too upset; after all, the dubious Mermaid text had provided him with the crucial adjective for one of ‘Gerontion’’s most memorable phrases: ‘History has many cunning passages.’

David Pascoe
Oriel College, Oxford

The Annual MLA Disaster

John Sutherland’s description of the Modern Language Association of America (LRB, 16 December 1993) contains more misleading statements and outright errors than one would expect of someone who has taught at universities in both the United States and the United Kingdom. He treats the MLA’s size as remarkable and somehow in itself a problem. He fails to consider the difference between the number of university teachers in the United States and the number in the United Kingdom. Statistics compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that there are 11 full-time equivalent students in the United States for every full-time equivalent student in the United Kingdom. Assuming a similar student-faculty ratio in both countries, one would expect the United States to have 11 times as many faculty members at the university level as the United Kingdom has. Consequently, one might expect professional meetings in the United States to attract considerably larger numbers of participants than equivalent meetings in the United Kingdom. Sutherland’s comparison of attendance at conventions organised by the University Teachers of English with those organised by the MLA is doubly unfair, not only because of this difference in scale but also because of the MLA’s constituency, which goes beyond English and includes the other modern languages, comparative literature, linguistics and folklore.

Similarly off the mark is Sutherland’s claim that the convention is the MLA’s ‘lifeblood’. The convention is only one of a number of services the Association provides. For over a century, MLA members have worked together to develop reference works for scholars (for example, the annual MLA International Bibliography) and publications for teachers (for example, the ‘Approaches to Teaching World Literature’ series and books like Writing, Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines, which last year won an Outstanding Academic Book Award from the American Library Association). Moreover, the MLA collects and analyses statistical information for the field; publishes PMLA, a hundred-year-old journal; houses the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages; sponsors special projects to improve teaching; and works with other learned societies, research libraries, humanities centres and historical societies to encourage public support for teaching and scholarship in the humanities.

Also misinformed is Sutherland’s account of the way the MLA convention programme takes shape. Instead of a single committee, sessions are arranged by over a hundred MLA committees plus another hundred independent organisations that choose to meet with the MLA. Each group referees the convention sessions it plans. All of these sessions and paper titles are listed in the convention programme. With such a decentralised process, complaints about some paper titles are not surprising. MLA members responsible for association governance have weighed these complaints against the consequences of censorship and – thus far – have preferred being criticised to censoring.

Sutherland is wrong as well about the way ideas circulate among scholars. He argues that discussions at MLA conventions of ‘theory’ and of other topics he regards as ‘politicised’ have damaged the profession. Although drawing such a conclusion seems premature, this is not the place to argue the point. Rather, I question Sutherland’s assumption that discussions at MLA conventions caused the alleged damage. Does Sutherland really believe that if the MLA had prevented such conversations from occurring at its meetings, the ideas he dislikes – ideas that have been widely debated for more than twenty years in a number of countries among teachers and scholars in anthropology, history, law, linguistics, philosophy, sociology and literary study – would have disappeared? The MLA certainly does play a role in the circulation of ideas, but its conventions cannot be as decisive as Sutherland asserts because scholars have many means of communication available to them, including regular meetings of other organisations in the modern languages and literatures.

Sutherland’s most misguided criticism of the MLA concerns academic employment. Although Sutherland acknowledges the ‘economic grounds’ for current trends in the academic job market in the United States, he nevertheless asserts that the ‘MLA bears primary responsibility’ for what he describes as a ‘mess’: university decisions to hire more part-time teachers and fewer full-time teachers than in previous years. Blaming the MLA makes no sense. Changes in university hiring practices that began in the Seventies in the United States have affected all fields. The distribution of full and part-time faculty members in fall 1987 by areas of study shows that part-time teachers account for similar proportions of all faculty members in the natural sciences (14.3 per cent), social sciences (12.4 per cent), and humanities (15.3 per cent). Also informative are the proportions of part-time teachers among all faculty members in the fields of business (17.7 per cent), education (14.8 per cent), fine arts (25.5 per cent) and health sciences (17.9 per cent).

Phyllis Franklin
Executive Director, MLA,

What a holiday bonus the London Review of Books gave to the snide and the ignorant by publishing ‘The Annual MLA Disaster’ by John Sutherland. ‘The Annual MLA Disaster’ belongs to two spent genres – MLA-bashing and USA-bashing. The mockery of titles printed in the MLA convention programme wrongly assumes that anyone can judge a paper from its title. The crack that the MLA’s governing structure is ‘dubiously democratic’ is cheap and silly. The assertion that causes such as ‘gay rights’ have ‘no natural connection with literary study’ betrays a rigidly narrow view of literary studies. Etc, etc, etc.

Unfortunately, Sutherland is largely correct when he describes the current job market for scholars in the humanities. One reason why his article is so dismaying is that it corrodes the efforts of supporters of the humanities across a wide ideological spectrum to improve this social and economic condition. In 1990, I served as president of the MLA. I know that such efforts are possible. I also learned that MLA-bashers often have their own political agenda. I trust that Sutherland got carried away by his own polemic, not that he is carrying the banner of one faction or another.

Catharine Stimpson
State University of New Jersey,

Enlightenment Courtesies

Mark Lilla’s review of The Magus of the North, Isaiah Berlin’s essay upon Johann Georg Hamann (LRB, 6 January) makes no mention of an earlier study of Hamann by the Scottish theologian R. Gregor Smith (J.G. Hamann: A Study in Christian Existence, 1960). This seems odd, if only as a matter of routine academic courtesy; though it may be, of course, that Isaiah Berlin doesn’t mention it either. As Lilla says, Hamann’s is not exactly a household name – Gregor Smith himself admitted that it was ‘not well-known in the English-speaking world’, and his own book might be claimed as a first in that field. It seems curious to Lilla, therefore, that Berlin should trouble himself with such ‘philosophical puppies’, and his review is largely devoted to discussing this interesting question. But it doesn’t answer its own conundrum, how the puppies are transformed into dangerous grown hounds, savagely ‘straining at the leash’. If Lilla had made use of the earlier study he might have understood better how, in the midst of his undeniable obscurantism and extravagance, Hamann scattered insights which may still trouble, and even possibly illuminate, the most determinedly enlightened mind.

Christopher Small

Fatter and Less Hairy

I was disappointed, although not surprised, by Henry Gee’s curt dismissal of the ‘aquatic ape’ theory (LRB, 27 January). Since Alister Hardy first proposed that humanity’s ancestors inhabited the shoreline rather than the savannah, opposition to the theory has been long on derision and short on argument. Gee referred to our ancestors’ loss of fur and development of sub-cutaneous fat; he could also have mentioned their development of an unusual and water-prodigal sweating mechanism, breathing through the mouth and walking exclusively on two feet. These departures from the primate norm would make good selective sense for a shore-dwelling species; in a savannah environment most of them would be positively counter-adaptive (‘We have to admit to being baffled about the origin of upright walking’ – Sherwood Washburn). I would be interested to know what account of these developments Gee prefers. Then there is the matter of the theory’s own growth and dissemination. Gee refers to its popularity with feminists (a reference to the excellent work of Elaine Morgan?); this he ascribes to its making women look more highly evolved than men – fatter and less hairy, you see. It might be nice to see some references supporting this assertion, too.

Phil Edwards

First-Class Fellow Traveller

There is somebody else out there who remembers Patrick Hamilton’s The Duke in Darkness (Letters, 6 January). I heard the play on BBC Radio in about 1955, when I was 16. It was one of a series in which well-known actors were invited to choose dramatic vehicles for themselves. I believe it was chosen by Michael Redgrave, who had played the part of the Duke’s crazy servant, Gribaud, in the original 1942 production, which he also directed, at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and then at the St James’s Theatre, London – and I seem to recall that Alec Guinness also appeared in the radio version.

It made enough sinister impression on me to recommend it to my English teacher as an excellent choice for our next school play (no doubt fancying the idea of playing the lead myself), but unlike Mr Featherstone’s English master, who actually initiated the school production himself, mine dismissed the idea pretty decisively, probably deterred by its sadistic elements and total lack of uplifting Eng Lit values.

The Duke of Darkness was produced some years after Hamilton’s better known stage plays, Rope (1929) and Gaslight (1938). Perhaps its subject of an incarcerated tormented aristo had some special resonance during the war years, but I’ve certainly never come across any reference to a professional revival since my mid-Fifties hearing.

Neil Hornick
London NW11

Lady Maude

Marian Sugden’s suggestion (Letters, 16 December 1993), that R.D. Smith may have been the author of the Debrett limericks was a nice try, but I think that Reggie Smith’s exuberance didn’t quite spill over into malice and satire, no matter how gentle. The original enquirer’s memory of a ‘legendary’ character called ‘Cheatle’ is surely closer to the mark.

John Cheatle, a producer of all sorts of programmes for radio, was indeed a legend in his own lifetime, just after the war. Anecdotes of his latest mockeries were circulated with relish, and reached well beyond the pubs around Broadcasting House. My single experience of his adroitness was his production for radio of an adaptation of Max Beerbohm’s ‘Savonarola Brown’. He was clearly too restless to sit behind the glass panel issuing instructions, but preferred to fizz and crackle around the studio during rehearsals and even on the take. His performance of the Clown, singing a song of his own invention, possibly improvisation, while accompanying himself on a keyboard rigged to sound like a lute, was a hilarious turn, never to he forgotten. I doubt if he would be allowed into Broadcasting House these days.

Alfred Burke
London SE22


Tina Modotti’s letter of farewell to Edward Weston in 1925 would be not only eloquent, as Michael Wood says (LRB, 6 January), but magically prescient if it could have referred to Pound’s famous lines from Canto 81 (‘What thou lovest well remains’), famously written twenty years later in 1945. It is strange that Wood, Professor of English, takes Mildred Constantine’s annotation in Tina Modotti: A Fragile Life on trust.

Andrew Rutherford
University of Melbourne,

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