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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994

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Native Languages

If Christopher Hitchens is quoting Sadik Al-Azm correctly, the Syrian critic is stretching things more than a little, even metaphorically, when he says James Joyce ‘was writing about Ireland in a language other than his own’ (LRB, 24 February). Irish may be the language of Ireland’s past and of today’s traditionalists, but it was not Joyce’s language. English was his native tongue and while he was at home in several other languages, Irish was not among them. In time he understood enough of it to compare it favourably to Breton, another Gaelic language, but he was not facile in it. Richard Ellmann says in his biography of Joyce that when Joyce was at University College another student, George Clancy, ‘persuaded his friends, including even Joyce for a time, to take lessons in Irish. Joyce gave them up because … the instructor found it necessary to exalt Irish by denigrating English.’

Ellmann also mentions that in 1932 Joyce translated a poem by James Stephens called ‘Stephen’s Green’ into French, German, Latin, Norwegian and Italian, and that he wanted Stephens to translate it into Irish. But Stephens did not know the language well enough and one must assume that Joyce did not either, or surely he would have translated it himself.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York

Contrary to Christopher Hitchens’s fond belief, offered to the reader with much flourish and drama, the ‘full name’ of the great medieval Muslim jurist/scientist/philosopher, from al-Andalus, is not ‘Averroes Ibn Rush’d’. That would amount to giving him the same name twice over. For ‘Averroes’ is a misheard corruption of ‘Ibn Rushd’ (without the apostrophe, of course): ‘Ibn’ misheard = ‘Ave’; ‘Rushd’ misheard = ‘rroes’. Thus also ‘Ibn Sina’ = ‘Avecenna’. The medieval encounter between Arabic, medieval Latin and Romance languages is littered with corruptions of this kind, some quite fascinating. (The decimal system of counting, called ‘algorism’, derives from al-Khwarazm – modern Khiva – from where came the man, Abu Jaafar Mohammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, the father of the decimal system. The book in which the theory appeared, Kitab al-Gebar wal Muqabila, is the source of the word ‘algebra’.) The ‘full name’ of Averroes is rather a mouthful: Abu’l-Walid Muhammad B. Ahmed B. Muhammad B. Rushd. He played no part in the wonder that was Cordoba in the tenth century – he happened to be born some two centuries later, in 1126. His happiest years were spent in Marrakush and Seville; he died in the former city in 1198 – a lonely and much neglected man. His impact on medieval Islamic and European thought came after his death; in Europe, he was often mistaken for Aristotle.

Mr Hitchens’s confident assertion that, in Pakistan, ‘the more customary’ practice is to use a ‘patronymic’, rather than a ‘surname’ (as bravely adopted by ‘a certain enlightened Muslim father’, i.e. Mr Rushdie’s), has caused me much confusion. I have a family tree that goes back to the 16th century: I don’t see any ‘patronymic’ on it. Nor do I see any trace of it in the name of the Bhutto family. It is nice to know there have been at least three ‘enlightened’ families in Pakistan.

The easy authority and familiarity demonstrated in ‘the more customary’ reappears in a different form in Mr Hitchens’s reference to ‘every Arab, Muslim and Persian author worthy of the name’ (italics added). At issue now is a volume of essays in support of Mr Rushdie by ‘almost two dozen of the leading’ writers from the Muslim world. To be sure, the step taken by the Muslim writers is admirable. The so-called ‘fatwah’ against the novelist has no moral or intellectual, or even theological, justification; and one can only hope that Mr Rushdie’s terrible ordeal will soon come to an end. To suggest, however, that only ‘two dozen’ authors, from some forty countries and more than forty languages, are ‘worthy of the name’ – supposedly because they have met the demanding literary criterion of supporting a writer admired in the West – is to engage in a casual critical arrogance.

From the volume of essays by the Muslim authors ‘worthy of the name’, Mr Hitchens selects one essay – by a Syrian critic, Mr Sadik Al-Azm – for ecstatic praise and endorsement. We are told that the essay is ‘the most tough-minded and skilfully written defence of [Mr Rushdie] to have flowed from any pen’. Mr Hitchens then proceeds to quote from the essay a passage in which Mr Sadik Al-Azm speaks of the ‘universal consent’ by which Naguib Mahfouz now is seen as ‘the Arab Balzac’, before going on to predict that Mr Rushdie will ‘turn out to be the Muslim James Joyce’. This is all very unfortunate. The talk about this is our Dante, that your Hopkins; this a Chinese Bigaretti, that a Latvian Hafiz, is essentially tabloid gossip of the kind that is best ignored and forgiven. Many ancient societies, cultures, languages, literatures and systems of thought, for millennia, managed to get by without a Balzac to prop them up: the likelihood that they might perish without their own Joyces is also very small.

In fact, Joyce is rather the wrong man to be invoked for conferring reflected glory on the writings of Mr Rushdie. The latter claims to have a political agenda in his novels; Joyce was the least political of the Anglo-Irish writers of this century. Mr Rushdie is excruciatingly monotonous: once you have read a section of a fiction by him, you have read all of them. Joyce’s voice, form, mode, even language change with every new book. Joyce clearly understood the fundamental difference between the aesthetic and the ideological dimensions of faith: it was not for no reason that he chose a loaded theological term, ‘epiphany’, to define the significant fictional moments in his works. It was this maturity of vision that enables him to write, in Dubliners, a lament for old pieties, which he closes, in the last tale, with a vision of almost phenomenal mercy. He wouldn’t dream of doing dirt to any central icons of faith. All three of Mr Rushdie’s novels are sadly devoid of any such maturity. Above all, Joyce can throw up a living character in a single sentence. In the three novels of Mr Rushdie, there is only one recognisable character – Mr Rushdie himself. No appeals to ‘magic realism’ will ever cover up this deficiency.

Perhaps the single most pertinent remark on the (to date, much neglected) literary and aesthetic aspect of the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses, in particular, and the drift of Rushdie’s other two novels in general, comes from T.S. Eliot. Reviewing Murray’s biography of Lawrence, Son of Man, in the Criterion for July 1931, Eliot said, in autobiographical vein, that Murray speaks of

a peculiarity which to me is both objectionable and unintelligible. It is using the terminology of Christian Faith to set forth some philosophy … which is fundamentally non-Christian or anti-Christian … The variety of costumes into which these three talented artists [Lawrence, Huxley and Murray] have huddled the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, in their various charades, is curious and to me offensive. Perhaps, if I had been brought up in the shadowy Protestant underworld within which they all seem gracefully to move, I might have more sympathy and understanding; I was brought up outside the Christian fold, in Unitarianism; and in the form of Unitarianism in which I was instructed, things were either black or white. The Son and the Holy Ghost were not believed in, certainly; but they were entitled to respect as entities in which many other people believed, and they were not to be employed as convenient phrases to embody any private religion. I mention this autobiographical detail simply to indicate that it is possible for unbelievers as well as believers to consider this sort of loose talk to be, at the best, in bad taste.

It pre-eminently is a question of taste, then – taste, as Henry James would have said, as a measure of both moral, but more importantly, aesthetic maturity. Viewed thus – and there is no other way of looking at the question – it indeed does appear that there is something fundamentally wrong with the voice (in the sense in which the Italian novelist, Moravia, speaks of the voice behind every tale) that controls and determines the texture and course of Mr Rushdie’s fictions. This voice has far too much in it of the naughty schoolboy. The famous masturbation scene in Midnight’s Children should illustrate the point.

I admire Mr Hitchens’s loyal support of Mr Rushdie. That is as it should be. Mr Rushdie’s talent has yet to realise its potential: there is no doubt one day he’ll write a really good novel. Meanwhile, however, Mr Rushdie’s supporters would do well if they could stay away from comparative criticism of the kind which claims that Mr Rushdie’s art is about to change the course of literary creation in Islamic languages. They might, instead, spare some time and educate themselves in some other hujw and tanz – ‘satire’ in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

Maqbool Aziz
Hamilton, Ontario

Homing in

P.N. Furbank (LRB, 24 February) might not have needed elucidation of my letter in the previous issue if the editor hadn’t cut out of it a phrase about ‘the slippery rhetoric of class’. Furbank’s review of Michael Argyle’s The Psychology of Social Class seemed to me to imply that the rhetoric is, in effect, the reality, and that academic sociologists and social psychologists who try to measure ‘class’ objectively only succeed in making themselves look foolish. Of course we don’t always get it right. But I am relieved that Furbank agrees (if he does) that our efforts are not inherently misconceived.

W.G. Runciman
Trinity College, Cambridge

The final sentence of W.G. Runciman’s letter (Letters, 10 March), in its original version, ran as follows: ‘And Malory then led me to wonder whether P.N. Furbank, whose remarks about the slippery rhetoric of “class" can be as well illustrated by reference to Malory as to anyone, seriously disputes that in 20th, as in 15th, century England there are systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric does indeed relate in all sorts of still understudied ways.’

Editor, ‘London Review’

P.N. Furbank writes: I was puzzled by Lord Runciman’s original letter, but his new one makes all clear, and I am afraid his worst suspicions are confirmed. I do think that, in the matter of social ‘class’, the rhetoric is the reality, and that (to be brutal) academic sociologists and social psychologists who try to ‘measure’ class objectively only succeed, as he puts it, in making themselves look foolish. Let us put the matter this way. The language of ‘class’ only began to be employed in Britain round about the time of the first Reform Bill, being then taken over a decade or two later, to very different effect, by Proudhon and Marx. Now, the uses to which this language was put, and is still put, is a very rich and important study, but one needs to be clear about what one is studying. It is, in the first place, not something objectively ‘out there’, in the world, nor is it something which it makes sense to speak of ‘measuring’. To use ‘class’ language is a form of social (and often also political) action; for it is inherent in the concept of ‘class’ that to classify others in this way is automatically also to be classifying oneself, it being an absurdity to imagine one can both use the system and yet stand outside it. In using ‘class’ terminology one is manoeuvring socially or politically against one’s fellow citizens. Thus, a sociologist or a social historian is bound in logic to give up any idea of using ‘class’ terminology in his profession (what he does in his private life being quite another matter). All he can do, by way of studying ‘class’ scientifically, is to examine what is going on when ‘class’ language is used (i.e. analyse it as a belief system and form of rhetoric). This, to my mind, is a most important study, much neglected; and, as I argued in my review, a great deal of it can best be done by introspection. In this respect the student of ‘class’ has an advantage over the ethnographer, who is less likely to share the belief-system of the community he or she is studying. But to imagine you can use the language of ‘class’ scientifically, and even (as some social historians do) use it about people who did not use it themselves and employed a quite different language, strikes me as a hopeless illusion.

I can’t help feeling that P.N. Furbank must be missing the point. The letter from Lord Runciman to which he refers was surely a brilliant parody? Even if we are not so sure of the exact target.

Sheila Stern
Cambridge

Gender Bender

Chauncey Loomis’s carefully low-key review of Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire (LRB, 10 March) invokes Hemingway, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and Mark Twain on its way to placing Maclean in dialogue with the shade of Stephen Crane. The American echo I keep hearing in Maclean’s work, however, is a gender-bender re-reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ – ‘the death, then, of a beautiful man is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.’

Dennis Grafflin
Bates College, Maine

Oedipus was innocent

Michael Haslam (Letters, 24 March) is quite right to point out that in my piece on Norman Cohn (LRB, 10 March) I made no distinction between scapegoats and sacrificial victims. In Girard’s theory of victimisation there is no distinction: the paradigmatic victim is the Greek pharmakos, who (according to some sources) was both expelled and killed, rather than the scapegoat of Leviticus. However, given his interest in doubles, it does seem odd that Girard has not made more of the Israelite ritual.

In a generous letter (Letters, 7 April), Norman Cohn suggests that I anachronistically proposed a Manichaean origin for the Zoroastrian elements in Christian apocalyptic. This was not my intention. Although I argued that direct Zoroastrian influence on Judeo-Christian apocalyptic may be ‘less significant than Cohn suggests’, I did not deny that there was some evidence for this hypothesis. But considering the extent of the parallels there are surprisingly few such connections between Zoroastrian and Jewish (let alone Christian) writings. I thus suggested that if one wants to attribute the enduring significance of eschatological dualism in Christian history to Zoroastrianism, it may be more fruitful to consider the point at which apocalyptic was repudiated than the point at which it originated. I mentioned the Manichees in order to indicate the ultimately Zoroastrian contribution to Augustine’s reactive construction of millenarianism as heterodoxy, and not, as Cohn implies, in a misguided attempt to give an alternative account of the origin of Christian apocalyptic.

Malcolm Bull
Wolfson College, Oxford

Malcolm Bull remarks that the work of René Girard ‘is still relatively little known outside France and California’. There is no reason why this state of ignorance should prevail. Athlone has published six of his works, including Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Job the Victim of his People, The Scapegoat, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, To Double Business Bound and Violence and the Sacred.

Brian Southam
Athlone, 1 Park Drive, London NW11 7SG

Nothing like David Hume

In his review of Françoise de Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman (LRB, 24 March), which I edited with Joan DeJean, P.N. Furbank rejects our understanding of the novel as a feminist text, and accuses me of a scholarly slip. The historical introduction to the novel, Mr Furbank asserts, was written by Antonie Bret, a friend of Graffigny’s, and not by Graffigny herself. His source for this assertion is a 1913 biography. But all critics do not agree, and moreover the complexities of salon collaboration make exclusive attribution nearly impossible. I indicate the question of Bret’s contribution in a note on page xxiii which Mr Furbank seems to have skipped over. What matters is that Graffigny made the introduction her own when she signed the 1752 edition in which it appeared. This was also when she added the pointedly feminist letters that take a dim view of the institution of marriage and underscore its unfairness to women.

Mr Furbank might have mentioned that this edition is the first English translation of Graffigny’s Enlightenment classic in almost two centuries. It appears, along with a separate French-language version, in a new series called Texts and Translations, published by the Modern Language Association. These inexpensive, paperback editions will make it possible for students as well as the general readership to discover and enjoy works like those of Graffigny and Isabelle de Charrière, the first two authors published in the series.

Nancy K. Miller
Graduate School, City University of New York

Libellous

Lorna Scott Fox’s ridicule of my premise that much of Latin American magic realism is not necessarily ‘magical’ in the Western sense of the word, but rather an accurate expression of what life is often like, seems based on the assumption that it is my opinion alone (LRB, 24 March). If she had been better informed on the subject, she would have known that it is one I share with many writers of the genre, most famously – and vociferously – Gabriel García Márquez himself.

At the end of her review she concedes that my book is ‘a skilful and entertaining travel book’, and yet the tone of the preceding two thousand-odd words is of such studied insult, both to me personally and to my work, as to entirely negate this statement.

As a reviewer she is, of course, entitled to her opinions, however sour and muddle-headed they may be. She is not, however, entitled to the kind of defamatory innuendo which she uses so liberally throughout. She says that I have ‘a knack for drawing people out about their lives’, and yet almost immediately goes on to imply that, because of the length and accuracy of the stories of the circus people which I recount, I must either have made it all up, or else resorted to dishonest means to get the material. For the record, these ‘long chunks of verbatim’ were recorded on tape, not with a ‘hidden’ cassette, as she libellously suggests, but with the full, prior consent of each interviewee. This, incidentally, includes the first few paragraphs of the book, blithely dismissed by Scott Fox as having the kind of ‘dog-eared, “magical realist" atmosphere that exists only in literature’.

The book fails, she says, partly because of her constant sense that I will not ‘countenance risk or change to myself’, a line of argument which she illustrates with the monstrous suggestion that when offered ‘the chance’ to give myself ‘in the most fundamental way’ to one of the trapeze artists, I should have availed myself of the offer. (The fact that my husband was with me at the time is, of course, far too middle-class and English to be a consideration.) Moral issues aside, anyone who knows anything at all about Mexico or the Mexicans – Scott Fox apparently lives in Mexico City – must realise the many serious, and only too real, implications that such behaviour could have. I am not just a character in my own story. As I recounted at some length in the book, the last woman to ‘give’ herself in this way was subsequently brutally gang-raped. Can anyone, most especially another woman, really suppose that I should have incurred such a risk?

In another review in the same issue, Jonathan Coe writes that he pities young writers in Britain for having to work with the galling knowledge of the mini-literary-Renaissances springing up all around us amongst our English-speaking neighbours, ‘as supportive networks of publishers, small presses, magazines, young writers and editors foster the emergence of new and confident national literatures’. Can I suggest, on behalf of all British writers who seem to be expected to suffer, usually without recourse, ill-informed and spiteful reviews such as this one, that part of the reason for the ‘moribund’ nature of British writing today lies not with the writers, but with the abysmal standard of many reviewers.

What possible value can gutter-level reviews such as Scott Fox’s possibly have, either to the writer, your readers or to literature in general? Surely a good review should act as a midwife to creativity, not as its abortionist.

Katie Hickman
c/o HarperCollins, London W6

Wrong River

Elaine Showalter’s ‘Diary’ (LRB, 10 March) is proof that an insightful article isn’t really harmed by the kind of errors of fact that a newspaper copy desk pounces on. In fact, the river that runs through San Marcos, Texas is not the Pedernales: it is the San Marcos River. The Pedernales is the river that runs past the LBJ Ranch, which is about sixty-five miles north-west of San Marcos.

Samuel Hudson
Houston, Texas

American Books

What Toqueville said I don’t know, but the question ‘who reads an American book?’ (LRB, 10 March) is usually attributed to the Rev. Sidney Smith, ‘ce prêtre bouffon’ as the French Queen called him.

Kiffin Rockwell
Marion, North Carolina

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