I’m not at all sure that the intriguing item of research which Frank Cioffi cites (LRB, 22 September), to the effect that ‘depressives were better informed about their poor standing in the eyes of others than the healthy-minded’ is good news – for depressives. Knowing, in future, that when I am in depression, my estimate of the opinion of me held by those around me is a just one, rather than, as I would have hoped, an opinion degraded by the low state of my spirits, I foresee having a greater difficulty than previously in recovering the happy state of self-deception in which I, along, I always hoped, with everyone else, more commonly live. I had been made to feel good by Cioffi’s witty piece up until that point: only to have this dark thought hit me.
Michael Howard (LRB, 8 September) correctly says of resistance to the Nazis in Germany: ‘one of the less attractive features of the present German government is its attempt to deny the Communists any share of the credit.’ But he has a blind spot about resistance to Japan’s war of aggression (1930 to 1945) and the leading part played in it by the Communists. In fact, Mr Miyamoto, the present chairperson of the Japanese Communist Party (currently 360,000 members), spent 18 years in Japan’s prisons for his part in that resistance. The Japanese Communist Party can rightly claim to be the only political party which opposed Japan’s militarism and aggression.
I wondered what Tom Nairn (LRB, 8 September) understood by ‘Jewish nationalism minus the Zionist component’. Although presentday Zionism tends to wear the garb of divinely-guaranteed irredentism, Theodor Herzl for one envisaged a Jewish state in which religious institutions would occupy a strictly subordinate place, and would have been happy to build it in Cyprus or East Africa. Secular, ‘small-nation’ Zionism is not a contradiction in terms – which is not to deny that it is itself open to severe criticism.
I also wondered what led Stefan Collini in the same issue to include in his approving list of radical writers ‘with strong local roots and some pride in ancestry’ the name of the British Left’s greatest liability this century – a deracinated upper-middle-class blowhard, unencumbered by loyalty either to his (former) friends or to his own (former) beliefs, whose legacy to the Left was a political worldview populated by a spineless intelligentsia and a virile but mindless working class. I refer, of course, to George Orwell.
Edward Said is of course free to prefer Edmund Wilson’s criticism and history to his journals, and specifically The Sixties (LRB, 7 July). There is, however, a gulf between Said’s discerning celebration of the public Wilson and his cursory dismissal of the private man. He patronises Wilson’s witty social history, his ruthless anatomy of old age and ill-health. Citing anti-Arab comments made in an Israel about to be invaded in 1967, he accuses Wilson of race prejudice, ‘poverty of soul’, and a lack of compassion and caring ‘about anything or anybody’. Many scenes refute this account of The Sixties. Wilson darkly grieves at the funeral, on a Cape Cod hillside in January, of a writer friend who never learned his trade. When Betty Huling, once an editor at the New Republic, dies of cancer, receiving only a perfunctory notice in the New York Times, he writes: ‘so abounding in good nature and affection and energy and humour, to be extinguished as a suffering withered wisp like this’. The Sixties contains much gossip, but it is scarcely shallow.
At Columbia University in 1965, Edward Said was one of those before whom I defended my dissertation on Wilson’s early years. Generously, he joined my teacher and friend F.W. Dupee in predicting my present role as Wilson’s biographer. Said’s clarity and passion about Wilson that day came back to me as I read the tribute that opens his review. But there is no clarity when he blames Wilson for not organising his ‘episodic, meandering’ narrative so as to make it easier to dip into, or regrets my editing because my chapter titles are too ‘enticing’. ‘Auden, Mike Nichols and Flying in New York’ – a chapter of which he complains – is representatively rich. Its four pages include Auden on Falstaff, Wilde and the lack of class barriers in America; Nichols on Elaine May’s creation of a character based on him – with an aside on Mary McCarthy’s identification of Wilson with her wicked Uncle Myers; and a delightful paragraph in which Wilson and two others talk, at the Algonquin, about the height they fly above the ground in dreams. One of his friends remembered how the critic illustrated this by swooping about among the tables in his ‘ratty linen suit’.
Illogically, Said belittles the ageing tourist, who died in 1972, for lacking the sympathy and piety towards the Palestinians found in a recently published book by a woman Wilson met a quarter-century ago in then Jordanian Jerusalem. Wilson, a fighter for underdog causes and small nations, might well have come to endorse the rights of these dispossessed people, as so many have. ‘The tides of society can give a new configuration to all but the strongest personalities, if they do not sweep them away,’ Wilson wrote in 1939, near the mid-point of his own career. Said’s smug account of what he calls ‘these nasty notebooks’ tells us more about his own evolution over these thirty years than about The Sixties.
Edward Said writes: Imagining himself to be, if not Wilson, then the appointed champion of Wilson’s tediously banal journals, Lewis Dabney falls all over himself to right my wrongs. Unfortunately, however, the facts elude him in his rather feeble response. The Palestinians whom Wilson hated were dispossessed and their society destroyed in 1948, not 1967 as Dabney supposes; and they certainly weren’t ‘about to invade’ Israel in 1967. Wilson therefore had at least nineteen years in which to adopt the cause of ‘underdog causes’, but he simply didn’t in this case. ‘The woman’ – i.e. Aminta Marks – who wrote about them humanely did so when Wilson was staying with her in the Sixties although what she wrote then and later has indeed been recently published in book form. Besides, the comment by Wilson that I quoted, ‘à bas les Arabes,’ is dated 1969-70, well after Israel (for which he had unbounded admiration) had invaded and annexed several Arab territories.
Dabney has further confused himself by believing that a few choice sentences here and there reveal a compassionate, interesting person, forgetting perhaps that these occur very rarely in what is after all a 900-plus page desert of trivia, mean-spirited gossip, and repetitive (how many times do we need to be told by Wilson that ageing is an unpleasant business – fifty, sixty?) and fundamentally undistinguished observation. In his defensively sentimental reverence for everything about Wilson, Dabney has plopped into the worst of the biographer’s pitfalls, servile hagiography. I would think it better for him to apply the tough literary distinctions made by Wilson in his criticism to Wilson’s own writing. It might result in better biography.
Ian Hamilton writes (LRB, 8 September) of Auden’s juvenilia: ‘One never feels that there is anything of his own … pressing for a point of entry. As de la Mare, he can “see the fairies dancing in the ring"; as Housman, he exhorts, “Take up your load and go, lad/And leave your friends behind." ’ I wonder My father, who was Auden’s exact contemporary, could remember a schoolboy joke that went: ‘“Miss, miss, I’ve lost my rubber." “Then use the boy’s behind."’ Such puerile word-play certainly appealed to the grown-up Auden. Witness his observation in A Certain World (1971), under the heading of ‘Double-Entendre, Unconscious’: ‘It must have been sheer in-attention … that permitted Laurence Binyon to write: “Why hurt so hard by little pricks?" ’
Nor is it so far away from that which, on a more elevated plane, might have resolved Clarence Brown’s dilemma, elsewhere in the same issue. Brown writes that English cannot translate the play on byt and bytie in Russian, which hovers between ‘everyday existence and … higher – or inner – being’. The title of an Auden book which explored this particular intersection had a pretty good try: For the Time Being. Viktoria Schweitzer’s biography might well have been felicitously translated as Marina Tsvetaeva for the Time Being, or some such. As Auden wrote in 1953, ‘good poets have a weakness for bad puns,’ and it is ‘tall tales, the luck of verbal playing’ that can often best ‘trick [our] lying nature’ into the truth.
University of Dundee
Ross McKibbin (LRB, 22 September), while clearly sympathetic to trade unionism, follows a generally pessimistic line about the current and likely future position of the trade unions. It is a picture which many active trade unionists will recognise, but many fewer, myself included, will agree with. We have been told many times, by Tory MPs and media pundits, but also by trade-union leaders, that changes in the law in 1979 have effectively finished trade unionism as a significant force. It is clearly true that there are fewer trade unionists than there were, that disputes are way down and that collective bargaining is not the force that it was. Yet there are still as many trade unionists now as there were in the late Sixties, not usually thought of as a time of great union weakness. In an age of the decline of mass organisation, particularly the Church and the major political parties, the trade unions remain the one mass membership public body. Any trade-union activist will recognise immediately that these days members consult their representatives not just about jobs and wages but about all manner of personal issues previously dealt with in other arenas. In many areas large workplaces with high trade-union membership remain the norm. My large Central London workplace has over a thousand employees and 87 per cent union membership. Techniques designed to bypass unions, such as performance-related pay, merely succeed in enraging employees and increasing union membership.
Millward misses the point, as does McKibbin: the discontent which organised trade unionism represents and channels has not gone away just because it is not so often displayed on the picket line. In most workplaces there is tremendous anger and bitterness. The fact that this does not explode, as it has done in France, is not because trade unions are weak but because they remain comparatively strong in their ability to control and constrain their membership and, as a quid pro quo, to wrestle some concessions from management. Trade unions are not going to take over society, as the Right thought in the Seventies, because that was never their function or role. But they are an abiding feature of the industrial landscape and they are no more likely to wither away, in the short term, than the employers who, despite it all, they are still involved in facing down.
Secretary, London HQ Branch,
Gerald Long’s assertion that ‘there are no limericks in French’ (Letters, 18 August) reminds me of a dilemma that faced me some years ago when I was invited to deliver the concluding speech at an Anglo-Canadian conference of adult educators. I was required to provide a commentary on the discussions held during the previous three days, and thus the speech had, in theory, to be composed at high speed after those discussions had taken place. In the event, since I felt I could guess what adult educators were likely to say, I composed the key passages of my speech in advance, including a section which I was asked to deliver in French and to which I therefore gave a somewhat lofty and ‘philosophical’ tone. In addition I prepared some verse which I thought it would be fitting to include: to wit, that overwhelming utterance of Lear’s, ‘Pray do not mock me: / I am a very foolish fond old man’; and also – and we now come to the point – a limerick. As I couldn’t expect the lady who was translating simultaneously into French to translate Shakespeare off the cuff, I handed her in advance a rendering of Lear’s words by a M. Guizot (‘Je vous en prie, ne vous moquez pas de moi. Je suis un pauvre bon radoteur de vieillard’). I also gave her the text of my limerick, but without translation, in order, rather unkindly, to see how she would cope. For this composition was located in the middle of a passage encouraging English-speaking Canadians to spend the next twenty years learning to speak French with a modicum of fluency, and so it was appropriately bilingual:
Une belle professeuse, a French Miss,
To her English provincial said: ‘Chris,
I’m shocked que vous pensez
That your duty to Français
Is fulfilled in a bilingual kiss.’
The translators into French and English (both of them French Canadians, of course) solved the problem very neatly: they read my bilingual limerick in unison. As the French printed record of the Conference noted, ‘nous laissons ce poème sous sa forme originale.’ But I confess to Mr Long that I have yet to compose a limerick in French.
Freddy Hurdis-Jones (Letters, 8 September) has not ‘encountered’ aabba. The rhyme scheme of ‘La Mère Michel’ is, as correctly printed, aabbb.
Is Keith Thomas (LRB, 22 September) having us on? ‘Good manners in scholarly controversy’! Who wants those? They would emasculate more than the LRB’s letters page. So let me, as a supportive reader, say that Keith Thomas is talking through his hat.
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.