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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 9 · 12 May 1994

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Fannying about

Nicholas Penny mentions the possibility voiced by some recent art historians that the Rokeby Venus is admiring the reflection of her own fanny (LRB, 7 April). Intrigued by this, the 15-year-old in me collected together a pencil, a ruler, some tracing paper and a book on 17th-century Spanish art, and spent a happy five minutes doing voyeuristic vector algebra.

Nicholas Penny rightly rejects the possibility, and quotes John Shearman as doing so too. But Shearman reportedly also says that Velázquez has not given us the geometrical information that would allow such a calculation to be made. While it is true that there are too many unconstrained degrees of freedom accurately to reconstruct three-dimensional geometry from a single two-dimensional projection, some facts can be computed: we see the reflection of Venus’s face by looking directly over her bum into Cupid’s mirror, so in principle she can see not only us, but also the other side of her bum just under our reflection. However Velázquez has interpolated an apparently random fold of white linen which we can see directly, and also see reflected just under Venus’s chin. This is placed so that she would only be able to see us, and so that anything lower would be obscured to her.

Velázquez was about fifty when he painted the Rokeby Venus. The fold of linen makes it pretty obvious that he wearily anticipated the 15-year-old tendency among late 20th-century art historians. A man who took as much trouble over every groove forming the texture of a water jug as he took over the contours of a face, he was far too crafty to leave the basis of an unwanted interpretation lying around.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath

Whose Hogarth?

While I appreciate John Barrell’s generous review of my Hogarth (LRB, 7 April), at the risk of being argumentative I feel I should comment on the fact that he uses his review as a pretext for answering my criticism of David Solkin’s Painting for Money in an earlier LRB (LRB, 4 November 1993). (The reader might not guess from Barrell’s review that Solkin devotes 15 pages to Hogarth out of three hundred.) Until the writing of this review, Barrell, and following him Solkin, had seen the 18th century in England as dominated by a single ‘discourse’ (civic-humanist modulating into polite), to which Solkin attempted to assimilate Hogarth. I am pleased to see that Barrell, who has never before included Hogarth in his system, has silently accepted my argument that he promulgated a counter-tradition (anti-civic humanist, anti-academic) and has adjusted Solkin accordingly. But, by some fancy footwork, he then slips from an ideological to a psychological argument: was Hogarth a unified or divided personality? This is open to debate, but there was nothing ambivalent or coded about Hogarth’s view of the two antithetical traditions.

Ronald Paulson
Baltimore, Maryland

The End of the Beginning

It is disturbing indeed to read R.W. Johnson’s cynical and world-weary account of the runup to the first elections in South African history where the vast majority of the population is entitled to vote (LRB, 28 April). He appears to have no grasp of the reality that the fighting between supporters of Inkatha and the ANC is due primarily to the violent political landscape which arose under apartheid. No grasp either that Inkatha and the ANC are not equal forces, because the former only represents some Zulus, while the latter represents the majority of all voters.

There will of course be time for criticism aplenty. The black nationalism and refined Stalinism which passes for ANC politics in many cases will not bring liberation to the ordinary black woman and man – although it will still seem, and will actually be, far better than the far-rightist white regime which was in power under apartheid. A lot now depends on how far the ordinary black voters are prepared to organise to make sure the ANC keeps its promises. Not all the signs are good. But at least there is a chance. In this sense the election of Nelson Mandela is worth celebrating with an understanding that it is not the end of the struggle but the end of the beginning of the struggle.

Keith Flett
London N17

Libellous

Katie Hickman’s melodramatic outrage betrays once more the superficial traveller, unable to accept criticism of her failure to penetrate the Mexican mask (Letters, 28 April). In this she is no worse, as I implied in my review, than the hundreds of voyagers and writers (the only exception is B. Traven) who have exploited a similarly prejudiced, exotic view of this country. Her originality resides in the simple-minded application of magical realism.

Since she invokes Márquez himself let me clarify that while he has described himself as a journalist, this is only in order to demarcate himself from fantasy, a mode he detests. In The Fragrance of Guava (1982), he says that although deeply impressed as a child by his grandmother’s cold narrative style in recounting her visions as fact, it was not this but ‘Metamorphosis’ that first decided him to write. For Kafka (a literary inventor, surely) ‘told things the same way as my grandmother did’.

The fact that magic obviously represents more than conjuror’s tricks, or whatever the ‘Western sense’ might be, is no reason for twisting Mexican reality into bookishness. Hickman is mistaken to think that I do not believe in the pink boa of the first paragraphs; my point had to do with a trick of style. Márquez succeeds in knitting reality, alongside history and myth, into great literature; Hickman can only make reality pseudo-literary, by presenting formal interviews as spontaneous chats, among other devices. Her journalist’s objection to my calling her ‘creative’ ironically highlights this confusion of genres and goals. As for not being a character in her own story, having made everyone else into one … I consider this to be a most revealing admission.

Lorna Scott Fox
Mexico City

For Azazel

Michael Haslam says correctly that a scapegoat is expelled, not sacrificed (Letters, 24 March). He also points out that frequently in myth there is both a victim and a scapegoat, and that the two figures may be closely related as brothers or even twins. Examples are Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Set and Osiris, Mot and Baal, Loki and Balder.

Mr Haslam fails to notice that the scapegoat is sent away because he is the executioner of the victim. In my book The Sacred Executioner (1982), which explores many examples of the victim-scapegoat pair, I suggest that the biblical pair – the goat which is sacrificed and the scapegoat which is ‘sent to Azazel’ – symbolise an earlier rite in which a human victim was sacrificed by a dark figure who was sent into the desert. The ‘sacred executioner’ is banished rather than killed, because he has served the tribe by accepting responsibility for the salvific deed of blood.

Mr Haslam wonders why Jesus did not have a scapegoat twin. The answer is that he did – Judas Iscariot. In Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992), I explored a complex of evidence pointing to an original identification of Judas as Jesus’s brother. Jesus, as a salvific human sacrifice, had to have a betrayer or executioner who would absorb the guilt of the sacrifice. The mythologising of the individual Judas symbolised the election of the Jews collectively to the deicide role.

Malcolm Bull (LRB, 10 March), on the other hand, does notice that the Jesus/Judas pair belongs to the same category as the Cain/Abel and Romulus/Remus pairs, though he wrongly includes Gog and Magog (who are always allies, not opponents, except in the earliest reference in Ezekiel 38.2, where Gog is a king and Magog his land). Mr Bull, however, sees these pairs as dualistic ‘binary opposite’ of good and evil, and fails to realise that the ‘evil’ member of the pair performs an indispensable role in the drama of sacrifice.

Hyam Maccoby
Leo Baeck College, London N3

Lauraphobia

Naomi Mitchison remembers having been present at a party in the spring of 1929, during which Laura Riding made her famous leap from – if we include the basement – the third-floor rear window of the maisonette which she shared with Robert Graves in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith (Letters, 7 April). But there was no party on that occasion. Only Graves, his wife Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Taylor (formerly Phibbs) were present. Voluminous correspondence between these three with each other and with Laura Riding shows a concurrence of opinion on this point, at least.

But Mrs Mitchison’s recollection may be based on one of the frequent Hammersmith gatherings at which nobody present would have been greatly surprised if Miss Riding or anybody else had chosen to jump out of a window. A young guest at Norman Cameron’s studio-party in December 1928 gave her mother an account of Graves rolling and shrieking on the floor, Laura declaring she was going to have hysterics, Len Lye flourishing banana skins at new arrivals and the party ending in chaos when they all ran out to watch a factory burning down. A leap, on such a night, would not have seemed much out of the order of things and it may even be that Miss Riding did execute some small spring without sustaining injuries. But the celebrated leap occurred in less festive circumstances.

Miranda Seymour
London NW3

Jenny Turner (LRB, 10 March) follows the interpretation of Laura Riding’s ‘The Quids’ given in Deborah Baker’s biography of the poet. She describes ‘The Quids’ as a ‘satirical poem’ flung at the heads of the Fugitive group as a revenge on their patronising behaviour. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s a poem about thing-ishness, pictured prettily as ‘quids’, as things alive, which are shown against a backcloth of another thing, called a ‘Monoton’, from which the quids issue, or derive. The Monoton may be thought of as a kind of Origin, or ‘God’, or the so-called Big Bang of science, or whatever. The quids, emerging into life, gaily wander away from the Monoton on what they think of as a ‘holiday’, an eternal adventure, eventually to end up as us, or Us – ‘naked, immaterial’, of ‘the inward same’, but ‘dressed in a different way’. The poem poses a very serious question in a deceptively light-hearted manner (in keeping with the quid’s silly gaiety): are we all rushing towards something, or are we, actually, running away from something, something from which we cannot escape? If critics get it so wrong with this, what else do they get wrong? Don’t they bother to think, scratch their heads, check a dictionary, call up their basic Latin?

So much for ‘interpreting’ the poems. What of the life-facts, the alleged ‘biography’? The ‘jump’ from the Hammersmith flat window, say? Laura Riding gave a good explanation of that incident in her book, Experts Are Puzzled (1930), and in Poems: A Joking Word (1930), which Baker and the others again fail to understand, preferring their own lurid speculation. There were four people in that room, none of whom has made public what happened, except Laura Riding in these two books; and her account has not been denied by any of the other three. And what about ‘forcing Kit Jackson into a straitjacket and winning Schuyler Jackson for herself’, as Jenny Turner, following Baker, has it? That story was put into currency in 1977 by Thomas Matthews, who, in 1977, in Under the Influence, admitted: ‘No one was at home except Julie and David Reeves. They were waiting for me, to tell me what had happened … Kit had been taken to hospital.’ The rest is his speculation, a gaudy, cheap reconstruction of events, written with much toadying up to Robert Graves and the benefit of fifty years’ hindsight, which all the biographers draw on and embellish, adding knowing touches of their own. Strange that the one person, by Matthews’s own account, who should have felt bitter, even enraged, over Laura Riding, Kit Jackson herself, said no word against her, and even spoke protectively about her.

Including Baker, there have been three attempts to account for the poems of Laura Riding, each one a schluck, along the lines of ‘interpretation’ of ‘The Quids’. The frustration of these three in trying to understand the poems, and failing, is matched by that of other commentators, particularly Robert Graves’s biographers: since they can’t make sense of the poems, while suspecting, correctly, that they make perfect sense if only they could grasp it, they decide that they’ll pretend to know all about the life.

The truth is, you can’t know anything about the life until you know something about the poems. Was Laura Riding the mesmerically ‘powerful’ figure she’s made out to be? Oh yes! But not for the reasons offered. The poems, the work, is what throbs with certainty. Laura (Riding) Jackson believed what she was doing, all of her life. There was no cut-off point at or around 1940: she continued, explored further, what she learnt up to 1940. She was her work, or her work was her: she makes no distinction between the two. And people who worked with her, Robert Graves but one, recognised her 100 per cent seriousness and paid full tribute, even if not understanding, quite, what she was doing, and then leant heavily on her work for ‘inspiration’ (which meant stealing it, in the case of Auden and Graves, and several others later).

Mark Jacobs
Nottingham

American Books

It was Sidney Smith, not Baudelaire, as Eugen Weber claims (LRB, ), who posed that triple question: ‘Who reads an American book, or goes to an American play, or looks at an American picture?’ Baudelaire was hardly likely to have been so dismissive. He spent a large part of his working life translating the complete works of an American, Edgar Allan Poe. In Paris he used to accost American tourists in the street with questions on the finer points of his favourite texts. Once he followed a wealthy American into a shoeshop in the Champs Elysées and interrogated him while he was getting fitted. The man was astonished that this voluble Frenchman could get so worked up about such a literary hack (as Poe was then widely considered).

Harold Beaver
Haarlem

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