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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994

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Rot

Penelope Fitzgerald (LRB, 21 July) complains that in John Bayley’s Alice even the youngish characters ‘seem to be in a time-warp, referring to “rotters", to being “a good sport", to “giving the glad eye" and even to “popping the question" ’. While it is quite true that nobody under seventy talks of ‘giving the glad eye’, nostalgia for turns of phrase among the young or youngish is just as common as that for dress or design. ‘Rotters’, ‘good sports’ and even ‘popping the question’ are still current, if only to enrage hip parents chilling out with The Late Show – and the LRB.

Amanda Craig
London NW5

The Yale Man

Christopher Hitchens begins his review (LRB, 23 June) of Michael Wreszin’s biography of Dwight Macdonald with the claim that Mary McCarthy ‘lampooned’ and ‘ridiculed’ Macdonald no less than three times, the first time in her story ‘Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man’. As a marginal and very junior member of the intellectual circles around Macdonald’s Politics and Partisan Review in the late Forties, I recall that it was common knowledge that McCarthy’s model was John Chamberlain. Chamberlain had started out as a left-wing journalist, became a writer and editor for the Luce publications, wrote a book called A Farewell to Reform and eventually edited Freeman, a solidly right-wing journal that was the precursor of William Buckley’s National Review. Macdonald’s career followed exactly the opposite course: he began as a writer for Luce, went on to contribute to obscure radical periodicals and ultimately founded his own in Politics. Hitchens mentions Carol Brightman’s biography of McCarthy, yet Brightman writes of ‘the original model for the Yale Man, John Chamberlain’.

Hitchens quotes a long passage that is vaguely suggestive of Macdonald. But other traits ascribed to McCarthy’s character on the same pages, including physical appearance, bear no resemblance at all to Dwight. Hitchens should have seen this after reading Wreszin’s biography even if he never met Macdonald and knows nothing about New York intellectual life forty or fifty years ago. Gertrude Himmelfarb, however, who makes the same mistake about the McCarthy character in her review of Wreszin in Commentary, lacks such an excuse: she moved in those circles in the Forties and knew Macdonald personally then and later.

Both Hitchens and Himmelfarb pay too little attention to Macdonald’s strong anti-Communism. He wrote a book on Henry Wallace and made speeches against him during Wallace’s 1948 Presidential campaign on the ticket of the Progressive Party, which the American Communist Party had notoriously helped organise. In the same year Macdonald put out the largest issue of Politics, devoted chiefly to the exposure of Soviet totalitarianism. The next year Macdonald, Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell attended sessions of the famous Waldorf Peace Conference in order to ask probing questions of Soviet cultural officials about writers and artists who had been purged. A few years later, at the height of the Cold War and the hot Korean War, Macdonald announced that he ‘chose the West’ while in no way renouncing criticism of its injustices. Hitchens and Himmelfarb mention none of this, although it had a considerable influence on politically-minded young people inclined to the left such as myself.

Hitchens and Himmelfarb are scarcely ideological soul-mates, so they minimise Macdonald’s anti-Communism for different reasons. Himmelfarb wants to picture him as an utterly irresponsible utopian leftist, while Hitchens chooses to celebrate his reborn radicalism in the Sixties, a period which compares to the Thirties and Forties as farce or burlesque to tragedy. (Incidentally, Macdonald’s participation in what turned out to be the dying flare of a left sub-culture produced not a single piece of memorable writing from his pen.) In fairness, Hitchens and Himmelfarb may be reflecting Wreszin’s lack of emphasis: Macdonald’s son Michael remarked to me the other day that he thought Wreszin had underplayed his father’s hatred of Stalinism.

Dennis Wrong
Princeton

Du côté de chez Poggioli

What’s all this, in Piero Sanavio’s letter (Letters, 21 July), about Edmund Wilson’s reputation being ‘vastly exaggerated’? On the contrary, Wilsons work suffers from depressing neglect, as witnessed by the fact that so little of it is in print – apart from the Journals, about which Edward Said (LRB, 7 July) was so judiciously and appropriately unconvinced. Anyone who, like Sanavio, thinks that ‘large sections of Axel’s Castle, notably the chapters on Proust, are just bunk,’ is just not a very good judge. As for ‘his ignorance of everything that was not American’: Wilson could read Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Russian, Hebrew and Hungarian, and wrote brilliantly about all of their literatures. And as for ‘the great influence he could swing in the editorial and academic worlds’, the first edition of To the Finland Station sold five hundred copies. And if Sanavio can soberly declare that Dos Passos and Fitzgerald wrote better about Europe, then perhaps it’s just as well Wilson didn’t give him any of the whiskey he kept under his chair.

Barry Mitchell
Ipswich

It is a pity that Edward Said chose to devote so much of his review of Edmund Wilson’s The Sixties, first to an account of how he failed to meet Edmund Wilson, and then to a search for confirmation of his own prejudices. The Sixties shows Wilson pursuing his public enthusiasms for the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hungarian language. He tells us what he was reading in the last years of his life. He records his private life: his relations with his children, the emotional and physical aspects of ageing in general, and of its effect on his sexual life in particular, his growing attachment to place and his detachment from the world at large. He drank a lot, and he records the fact. There are flat passages, repetitions and dismissive judgments. But this is a journal, and as the reviewer notes, Wilson is not helped by the exceptionally heavy-handed editorial apparatus. Professor Said devotes most of his space, not to a critique of what is in the journals, but to an attack on Wilson for what is not there. Thus it is noted that he did not know South American literature in the original. This is hardly surprising, when Wilson’s dismissive attitude to Spanish literature is so well known. Above all, Wilson is attacked for not being a ‘philo-Arab’. But where is the attempt to understand why this might be so?

David Lewisohn
London NW8

Protest

Once more, in his review of The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats and Vivian Mercier’s Modern Irish Literature (LRB, 7 July), Terry Eagleton’s little red lamp flickers before the tabernacle of Irish nationalism, marking the presence of that ill-defined deity with all the authority of an Englishman.

For some years now, since the miraculous discovery of his Irish roots among the headstones of County Galway, this peculiar Marxist has parodied Irish history to the benefit of an English audience and a nationalist cause he has patently never bothered to understand. It is one thing to peddle Ladybird introductions to critical theory, feeding off the ignorance of Continental thought among the English educational establishment, of which he is such a conventional part, to pass himself off as an original thinker. It is quite another repeatedly to seed through his views on lrish affairs the latent sectarianism into which the English so often fall either from cunning or sloppy thinking. Everywhere in Eagleton’s work the word ‘Anglo-Irish’ is interchange-able with the word ‘Protestant’. This, of course, is entirely consonant with the strictures of a particular version of Irish nationalism, which needs to qualify the ‘nationalism’ of Protestants. For the god of Irish nationalism has many personae, only one of which, it seems, is permitted an altar.

The bottom line of Eagleton’s analysis is exposed if one imagines Yeats, Hyde, Mitchel, even Tone or Parnell, having been born Catholic. Out goes their ‘uncomfortably hyphenated status’, and out goes the consistent qualification of their nationalism as ‘colonial’, ‘cultural’ or ‘poeticised’. Out goes so much, in fact, that even a Catholic Englishman finds himself more Irish than the Irish themselves, with a place at left-back in the national squad. Were they only Catholic, Protestants with nationalist inclinations would be drawn close into the warm company huddled round the tabernacle from which the pure light of real nationalism sends out rays like the rising sun.

Out too would go the complications within that ‘real nationalism’ itself – complications which make it possible for an interloper like Eagleton to pursue a new intellectual colonialism without embarrassment, and which give to him a place in the sun denied to individuals whose entire energies were and are given over to the very real tasks of living in a violent island, 19th and 20th-century Ireland – Terry Eagleton’s intellectual Majorca. Those individuals who are or were Protestant, even if they be Yeats, or Mitchel, or the late Ronnie Bunting of the IRSP, are doomed never to have done enough to lose the sectarian tag of their birth.

Damian Smyth
Fortnight, Belfast

Proper Authority

Stuart Sutherland, in his review of Listening to Prozac by Peter Kramer (LRB, 7 July), disqualifies himself badly by having a go both at psychiatrists and psychotherapists. I expect a psychologist to do the former, but he has no basis for his scornful announcement that ‘the evidence strongly suggests that in most of its many guises’ psychotherapy ‘has little if any effect on personality or mood’. I cannot let this pass in the LRB, which has so many readers who’d just love to believe that Sutherland is right. Writing in the British Medical Journal, a proper authority, Jeremy Holmes, notes from an analysis of the research literature that the therapeutic effect of psychotherapy is greater than that of aspirin.

Sebastian Kraemer
Tavistock Clinic, London NW3

I hope he doesn’t have in mind the therapeutic effect of aspirin on mental distress.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Pass Degree

I’m sure that Robert Irwin would be interested to know that things have moved on, yet stayed strangely the same at the School of Oriental and African Studies (LRB, 7 July). During my recently completed anthropology degree I used to breeze in at around 11 to play ‘World Cup ’90’ in the Junior Common Room. The meditative qualities of video-game football were, I found, a perfect accompaniment to my degree: Lévi-Strauss puts in a hard tackle on Evans-Pritchard and dribbles up to the half-way line. A long ball to Michel Foucault results in an exquisite one-two with Roland Barthes before Jean Baudrillard is caught out by the reality principle trap (offside). I still haven’t heard whether I’ve passed.

Tristram Biggs
London SE10

Compatibility

Donald Davie’s reply (Letters, 23 June) to my observations on his unawareness of Biblical allusion betrays an ignorance of Christian hermeneutic tradition. The typological identification of the man from Edom with red garments from Bozrah (Isaiah 63) as Christ is not mine, as Davie asserts (‘whom Wilson calls “Christ" ’), but goes back to the Church Fathers, and persisted not only through the Middle Ages but into Reformation tradition as well – my letter noted it in the Authorised Version’s headnote (‘Christ showeth who he is’). Though Davie personally might find this figure ‘far form Christ-like’ he might fruitfully ponder its occurrence in Lancelot Andrewes’s Easterday sermon on this very text in 1623: ‘it can be none but Christ,’ says Andrewes, who gives the blood a double reference: ‘His owne, His enemie’s blood: One sanguis agni, the blood of the lambe slaine: the other sanguis Draconis, the blood of the dragon, the red-dragon trode upon. One of His Passion, three dayes since: the other of his victorie, as to day.’ As for the scarlet and purple robes of Matthew and Mark, they are the figural fulfilment of both Isaiah 63 and Canticles 5.10. Red, comments Andrewes, ‘was His colour at His Passion. They put Him in purple: then it was His weed in derision’; quoting Isaiah 1.18 (on our sins as scarlet) Andrewes says that ‘crimsin, of as deep die as any purple’ is ‘the true tincture of our sinnes … for, Edom is redd … So was it meet for crimsin sinners to have a crimsin Saviour.’

All this was once a commonly understood inheritance. John Norris’s ‘Pindarique Ode’ on Isaiah 63 (A Collection of Miscellanies, 1687; nine editions by 1740) has Christ say: ‘The blood gush’d out in streams, and checquer’d o’re / My garments with its deepest gore.’ Indeed, not all in the 20th century are uninformed in these allusions: David Jones’s Passiontide fragment. The Fatigue (1965), has the lines: ‘and look: the red-dyed skydrape /from over Bosra way’.

To ‘derive’, as Davie does, Isaac Watts’s crimson robe from a Polish Jesuit is bizarre in the light of such an ancient and common tradition, both Catholic and Protestant. Davie’s stance puts me in mind of a scene from Sheridan’s The Critic, III.1, in which, within a play, a Beefeater utters the line ‘“Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee" ’; those watching comment as follows:

SNEER: Haven’t I heard that line before?

PUFF: No, I fancy not – Where pray?

DANGLE: Yes, I think there is something like it in Othello.

PUFF: Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is – but that’s of no consequence – all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought – and Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.

Davie would say the line derived from the Beefeater; I would say it actually comes from Shakespeare.

Edward Wilson
Worcester College, Oxford

Straight Shooter

According to David Wootton (LRB, 21 July), ‘the Thirty-Nine Articles required all Englishmen to practise archery on Sundays.’ Would Professor Wootton please explain which of the Articles he has in mind?

Nicholas Denyer
Trinity College, Cambridge

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