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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 10 · 26 May 1994

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The View from on High

Towards the end of his excellent Diary on anti-Rushdie pathology (LRB, 24 February), Christopher Hitchens stated that on matters of blasphemy the Vatican, the See of Canterbury and the Rabbinate identify with the Ayatollah. This struck me as improbable, not least because identifying with the Ayatollah would imply sharing his view that blasphemy should be punished by death. I therefore wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi, sending them a copy of the article and inviting their comments. Here are their replies:

The Chief Rabbi writes: It goes without saying that I would not identify with the Ayatollah on the issue of blasphemy. In Judaism, blasphemy is very narrowly defined, more so than in the laws of this country. In Jewish law, The Satanic Verses would not have been regarded as blasphemous. The differences, of course, go deeper than that. I myself am opposed to the extension of the blasphemy laws to cover other faiths (as I made clear on television recently). Moreover, even a fully fledged case of blasphemy is only punishable in Jewish law by excommunication (that is to say, exclusion from the Jewish community). Excommunication is in any case not practised by the Anglo-Jewish community.

The Archbishop of Canterbury writes: It may be helpful to you to have the attached copy of a lecture I gave about toleration in which I mentioned the Rushdie affair. You will see that I talked about it in the context of that demanding kind of true tolerance which requires us to enter the pain and feelings of other groups, however strange they may seem, and contrasted this with the more limited and passive kind of tolerance based on mere indifference. It goes without saying that passing a fatwah on someone who wrote a novel, however offensive to many people, is completely contrary to the tolerance for which I have consistently argued on this and many other occasions. You might, for instance, like to consider quoting the last couple of sentences of the address which sum up my strong convictions on this matter:

It is my passionate conviction that when we are prepared to die for another’s right to belief, in just the way we might be prepared to die for the right to our own, we might then have begun to explore the toleration of God. For it is His tolerating us which will make us all ultimately free as citizens of this world and of the world to come.

Charles Wookey, Assistant to the Archbishop of Westminster for Public Affairs, writes: I can certainly confirm that it would be inaccurate to say, in the context of an article about Salman Rushdie, that the Vatican ‘identifies with the Ayatollah’ on matters of blasphemy. The Catholic Church clearly does believe there is such a thing as blasphemy, but I expect there would be little agreement with the Ayatollah Khomeini about what constitutes blasphemy, and certainly none at all over the grotesque penalty which this religious authority has sought to impose on Mr Rushdie. The Second Vatican Council, in its document on religious liberty, made it quite clear that the Catholic Church would not connive with any attitude or system which aims to coerce people in the exercise of religious freedom and personal responsibility by force or fear or any other means.

Boris Ford
Bristol

Who needs Fascism?

In his article in the LRB of 7 April, ‘Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future’, Edward Luttwak concludes that with the ‘completely unprecedented personal economic insecurity of working people, from industrial workers and white-collar clerks to medium high managers’, a vast new political space has been left open for a ‘product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses’.

There is, however, an alternative conclusion more consistent with the geo-economic pattern of facts Luttwak exposes. Economic security is no longer a benefit that international corporations are willing to concede to workers because the new transnational mobility of technologies and investment has eliminated the need to negotiate job protection or to depend on site-specific workforces. International capital now aspires to the conditions of an ideal global market for the purchase of labour – unlimited access to the world’s population as a vast pool of temporary employees to hire and dismiss at will.

If we keep in mind that Fascism must rely on the co-operation or support of big business to achieve state power, we have to ask why the rootless, globe-roaming international capital of today would ever support any party which promised ‘full secure employment’ to workers. Any such programme would undo capital’s new global leverage over workers’ livelihoods, wage-levels and employment conditions – all of which are already being rapidly and successfully brought by relentless international competition for jobs to an ever lower common denominator. International capital can already discipline a country’s workforce overnight by moving around the world at the speed of an electronic signal to another society where its cutback wages and insecure jobs will be welcomed. And it can do it cost-free, selling the products it makes back to the very communities it has disemployed under the protection of international trade regimes which rule out any control over its actions by elected governments. Why would corporate capital ever permit the ‘full secure employment’ policies of the old Fascism in exchange for gaining popular support? This would undermine its greater new power, which is to be free of the needs or demands of any working class anywhere.

John McMurtry
University of Guelph, Ontario

Homing in

The exchanges between P.N. Furbank and Lord Runciman about the use of ‘class’ as a term for describing social inequalities, past and present, leaves unsettled, indeed undiscussed, the problem of what language could replace it (Letters, 28 April). In his review of Michael Argyle’s The Social Psychology of Class (LRB, 24 February), Furbank argued that the deployment of ‘class’ categories could never claim to be ‘scientific’: the term and its variants were too treacherously rhetorical. Lord Runciman’s attitude to this charge is not easy to describe. Pained bafflement, perhaps, at coming upon such distressing stuff from an LRB reviewer? A fuller answer than he so far has given would be valuable. Meanwhile, the question remains: how should social inequalities be described – unrhetorically? Furbank suggests that since ‘class’ language only emerges in the 1830s, the social historian for earlier periods should use the language of the time. So, when Richard Holmes asserts that, in 1811, Harriet West-brook’s father was ‘achieving that most difficult piece of English social navigation: moving from the lower middle class to the upper middle class’ (Shelley: The Pursuit), the terms are anachronistic. But what others were available? Shelley himself was ‘gentry’ (son of a landowner, knight and MP). Mr West-brook, having made money in ‘trade’ and retired to a house near Belgrave Square, though not ‘gentry’, would have surely thought himself ‘a gentleman’, indignantly rebutting any suggestion that young Harriet was other than a ‘lady’. Hadn’t he educated her at that expensive Clapham school attended by Shelley’s sisters? Yet he would have had to agree that the young man with whom she eloped was socially her superior, and even perhaps his.

Turning to fiction, there was the Bennet family and their friends, shortly to enter public life. The Bingley sisters, carefully forgetting that their late father’s fortune derived from ‘trade’, sneer at the Lucases for their all-too-recent commercial connections. Elizabeth rejects, with confidence, Lady Catherine de Burgh’s assumption of social superiority to her family, Mr Bennet also being a landowner, if on a far smaller scale. But the ‘gentleman’ idea in Austen’s work, here as elsewhere, refers not to the ownership of property, nor to where the money comes from, but to social style, easy manners, a ready flow of small talk, together with the self-discipline required by codes of etiquette, and (presumably) also to dress. This seems to be the force of ‘gentlemanlike’, as in: ‘Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners.’ The implied similitude – ‘gentlemanlike’ – is a little puzzling. Does it point to a reservation? Despite Wickham’s scoundrelly behaviour, his qualifications as a ‘gentleman’ are not brought into question. On the whole, in interesting contrast with Victorian usage, ‘gentleman’ seems to have little or no ethical or intellectual content. Bingley’s brother-in-law, the empty-headed Hurst, ‘merely looked the gentleman’. Austen, that is, is less interested in social stratifications, save as an observable fact about the world she depicts, than in the moral and intellectual qualities that particular ‘gentlemen’ might or might not possess. For all its keen and detailed observation of early 19th-century Home Counties life, her novel thus offers no general language for describing social changes that were in process, and which Richard Holmes attempts to describe in his remarks about Shelley’s father-in-law. Becoming ‘Lady Shelley’ would have been thought by Harriet, as also by her circle, as socially advantageous a move as Mrs Bennet thought Elizabeth’s marriage to Darcy. If the language of ‘class’ is anachronistic as a general description of such events, the language of the period (as used by Austen) is no substitute. Furbank’s argument thus seems to condemn the social historian, if not to silence, then to the mere accumulation of detailed cases incapable of being generalised.

The other aspect of his analysis (that to use ‘class’ language is always to engage in rhetorical manoeuvring) is harder to cope with. For if ‘class’ is allowed its full claim, the user is contemplating our species as a botanist or zoologist contemplates plants or animals, allotting him or herself the authority of a more powerful ‘kind’, and – here is the rhetorical move – inviting readers to share the flattering illusion. But ‘class’ is commonly used to mean no more than ‘group’, rough-and-ready perhaps, but usage often is.

Graham Martin
London SW3

Lauraphobia

Mark Jacobs (Letters, 12 May) casts doubt on Tom Matthews’s account of what took place at Nimrod’s Rise in 1940, when Riding exchanged, overnight as it were, her view (often heard during the five months I shared a Surrey house with her and Graves in 1937-8) that ‘bodies have had their day’ for her publicly announced ‘Schuyler and I do.’ There were other witnesses, however – David Reeves, with whom I was at Stowe and Cambridge, Alan and Beryl Hodge, as well as Graves himself – all of whom could have corroborated Tom Matthews’s story. What makes Mark Jacobs think he knows better than all these observers on the spot?

And why, indeed, should he wish to white-wash these disgraceful and well documented events? From bad conscience, I suspect. At university Jacobs wrote a dissertation about Riding’s poetry for his degree. His professor, George Fraser, introduced him to me thinking I might help. A lively correspondence ensued, and Mark and his charming young wife visited me in the Lake District. Then suddenly his letters stopped, without explanation. What happened, as George later told me, was that Riding, when she heard that Jacobs was consulting me, threatened to withdraw her co-operation. Rather than ditch his degree Jacobs wisely chose to break off relations with me, as Riding demanded.

Mark Jacobs is evidently well up in Riding’s poetry, but this does not entitle him to lecture either Deborah Baker or Jenny Turner about their views on Laura Riding’s behaviour at Nimrod’s Rise, where she dismissed the man who had supported her and her writings for 13 years. Evidently some of Riding’s aggressive and domineering attitudes have rubbed off on Jacobs himself.

Harry Kemp
Crediton, Devon

Unhappy Extreme

I’m astounded to learn from Bernard Williams’s restrained review of Catharine MacKinnon’s Only Words (LRB, 12 May) that, according to MacKinnon, when I sit and watch a gang rape being enacted in a hardcore porn movie, I am not to be distinguished ‘in terms of what [I am] doing sexually’ from someone watching a gang-rape happening for real in a city alleyway. Rather than merely misguided, this argument seems outrageous. It implies that if I’m accidentally present when a gang rape happens in the street, and so paralysed by the event as to neither go for help nor intervene in person, my reaction will be to remain and watch and do what men go to hardcore porn-movies in order to do: i.e. pleasure myself. We have yet to hear that our society has turned voyeur to this unhappy extreme. In refusing to recognise the distinction between the real and the represented, MacKinnon is playing her adversaries’ game, because this is the distinction which the makers of pornographic movies, along with the writers of pornographic books, must aspire to collapse, for their own sexual gratification maybe as they do their filming or writing, but certainly for the sexual gratification of their eventual clients, whose arousal may become momentarily so intense as to make it a matter of no importance at all that it has been achieved by remote control. Perversely, having suppressed this crucial distinction, MacKinnon introduces another, altogether unexpected one, by her intermediate – dare I say Post-Modernist? – category, cited by Williams, of ‘an audience watching a gang rape that is re-enacting a gang rape from a movie’. What, indeed, would our reaction be to this peculiar event if we chanced to see it? Would we hold back from treating it as a real gang rape if we recognised that it had been scripted or borrowed from a book or movie? And then judge it by its fidelity to the original? Either way, I can’t think we’d find it very arousing.

Charles Enquist
London NW5

Two Jobs

In addition to Harold Bloom’s post at Yale, mentioned in your contributors’ notes (LRB, 7 April), he is the Henry W. and Albert Berg Professor of English in Arts and Science at New York University.

Susan Wheeler
Director of Public Affairs Arts and Science, New York University

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