Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995

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Amis and Son

Julian Loose’s analysis of the ‘spot-on’ quality of Martin Amis’s novel The Information (LRB, 11 May) was itself absolutely spot-on, but why no honourable mention for Dad, who pioneered the technique? For example, and if memory serves, more than one person in the Kingsley oeuvre, too, wants to be able to smoke more cigarettes than the one he is actually smoking. Stunned with spot-on language, the reader is overwhelmed before he can add his humble quota of appreciation to the verbal potlatch. ‘Having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions’ was also a tactic of Amis père when younger, and one that the son of the house has carried to its logical conclusions.

John Bayley


John Sutherland begins his review of Adrian Desmond’s Huxley (LRB, 23 March) by claiming that Huxley is a hard subject for a biography, working as he did on squishy animals with long names that are not even in the OED. In fact, the story of Huxley’s life – apothecary’s assistant in the London slums, assistant Naval surgeon in the Pacific, and then an unemployed and grantless young scientist, eventually fighting, biting and backbiting his way to the very top to become president of such societies as the Royal, Ethnological, Geological, Palaeontological and the British Association, as well as university president, dean, Privy Councillor and major figure in educational reform – would thrill anyone interested in the history of science. Indeed, there have been five full-length biographies of Huxley since 1960.

But aside from the Horatio Alger aspect of the story, Sutherland misses Huxley’s importance in the transfer of power in Victorian science from the clergyman-naturalists of Oxbridge to the new professional scientists, and his role in establishing the institutions of this new organisation of science such as the journal Nature and, eventually, the Imperial College of Science. When Desmond says, ‘with Huxley the scientist is born,’ he very well knows that the term is William Whewell’s much earlier one. He is saying that Huxley represents the beginning of the era of the professional scientist who earns a salary for his research, and not as a fellow of some religious foundation like the Oxbridge colleges, not as a physician or clergyman, doing science on the side, and not as a Darwin, rich enough not to have to work at all. Similarly, Sutherland fails to see the insights into Victorian and contemporary science provided by the accounts of how Huxley and his buddies got together, first in the Red Lion dining-club and then in the X-Club, to conspire, fix elections, dispense honours, take over organisations and set new standards for science teaching and examination.

Sutherland claims that Huxley and Darwin had ‘intellectual differences’ which are ‘not easy to disentangle’. In fact, the basic differences were very simple: Huxley, like most of his contemporaries (except Wallace), never really accepted Darwin’s concept of natural selection, and unlike Darwin, tended to see evolution as progressive, not as an irregularly and randomly branching tree. Sutherland claims that Desmond’s quotes are ‘often unfootnoted’: perhaps he missed the (admittedly annoying) technique used by Desmond here and in previous books: putting superscript numbers every paragraph or so, he then piles up a list of corresponding references in the endnotes.

Sutherland might use his OED to look up ‘historiography’ and see it has nothing to do with ‘smuggling in science’. Desmond is simply promising to avoid detailed accounts of all the many relevant controversies among historians of science working on Victorian biology. In fact, many of them can be dug out of his notes. The book does seem to end in midstream: Desmond’s reason for stopping in the middle is probably that he is planning a second volume. His failure to point this out is a weakness, as are his accounts of some of the biology and the controversies in which Huxley was involved.

Although Huxley was an abolitionist and, for example, helped lead a campaign against abuses of black workers in Jamaica, he, like Darwin and most of his scientist contemporaries (but not Wallace), was certainly a racist. However, to lay genocide at his feet is going a bit far. There are many much better candidates among the psychologists and biologists of our century.

C.G. Gross
Wolfson College

In the Green Corner

Half the fun with John Gray is never quite knowing where he’ll pop up next. Fighting the green corner rather than the blue one these days, he makes some odd comments on world development (LRB, 20 April). What Gray calls ‘the Gatt project’ is surely rather a process – and one that’s been going on at least since the famous passage in the Communist Manifesto (1848) about capitalism battering down barbarian walls and compelling all nations ‘on pain of extinction’ to join in. One may not like it, but what to do? The only serious counter-project was the Communist one, whose failure is obvious. Gray’s answer is to endorse Green proposals for ‘relocalising a significant proportion of economic activity’. As a fellow in politics, has he thought through the politics of such economics? Nothing could be more calculated to cause the wars over resources which he rightly fears. While the sorrow and anger of individuals and communities that lose jobs and industries are understandable, a politics that mobilises around this can only be that of, how shall I say, national socialism. The way some American writers, who should know better, whip up indignation against Japan gives just a hint of the ugliness to come if we take that road.

Like many before him. Gray also worries about ‘the survival of local and regional cultures’. Such concern is either utopian or overdone. No society can now be kept in a museum or game reserve, and there is little evidence that these cultures want to be pickled in aspic. Though world history has long since become one big linked story, rather than lots of little separate ones, cultural difference seems alive and well. The country on which I mostly work, Korea, remains culturally distinct despite massive and rapid social change. Indeed, it’s almost a cliché (but one that Gray, ever undialectical, misses) to observe that one effect of globalisation is paradoxically to strengthen people’s attachment to what makes them different.

Aidan Foster-Carter
Leeds University

John Gray enunciates critically the ‘conventional wisdom’ that environmentalism is a result of Post-Modern satiety, of economic sufficiency. He says that this view has a ‘specious plausibility’ which my work may help come to prevail. This gives the impression that I support this interpretation of the arrival of environmentalism. But I do not; and I devote about seven pages in The Fading of the Greens to saying why I think such an explanation is thoroughly unsatisfactory and does not conform to the facts; indeed, I mildly parody this form of explanation as the ‘Holy Grail’ theory of ecologism: the knights had all they wanted and decided to gallop away after new ideas. (Maybe I was bending over backwards to be fair to these ideas.) And as he himself says, I link deep ecology in Central Europe with all kinds of cultural factors, and expressly say that deep ecology is not problem-related or economy-related. I try to return to a more old-fashioned mode of historical investigation, looking at the cultural roots in each country that coloured each variety of ecologism.

Where the misunderstanding may have arisen is that I do link ecologism to the West, the ‘Protestant triangle’. But that is not to link ecologism to economic factors, or find a causal explanation in them. It is a cultural issue. The dynamic developing economies of the Far East are on the verge of overtaking us in prosperity; their approach to natural resources and environmental values is not the same as that in the West, and I doubt if it ever will be. Anyone involved in international environmental policies will have seen that pressure for serious environmentalism comes from a small but influential group of North-Western countries; there may be the odd tree-hugger in the Himalayas or Chile, but strip away the Western foundations’ grants, and they would not, I fear, be very active.

Anna Bramwell
Task Force for the Implementation of the Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe Paris

Aesthetically Correct

Maybe Edward Said should make up his mind as to whether The Age of Extremes (LRB, 9 March) represents ‘one of the summits of historical writing in the post-war period’ or is only the by-product of ‘an earlier, manifestly positivist moment in historiographic practice’. Since positivism has a very bad reputation (I believe wrongly) among Modernists, Post-Modernists and Post-Marxists, this hardly strikes me as a compliment. Especially when this final statement follows two columns of suggestions on what Hobsbawm has missed, or should have taken into account.

Must we assume, then, that the distinguished British historian is somehow politically incorrect? In his Introduction Eric Hobsbawm reminds us that people of his – and my – generation, who lived and acted through most of the ‘short century’, talk and think ‘like men and women of a particular time and place, involved, in various ways, in its history as actors in its dramas’. He acknowledges that it is difficult to speak to ‘readers who belong to another era … for whom even the Vietnam War is prehistory’.

Of course Edward Said does not belong to this last ‘era’: he stands in the middle. Could it be, though, that he might have been affected by at least some of those ‘religious or ideological confrontations’ of his times ‘which build barricades in the way of the historian’? He tells us that Hobsbawm has made a major effort, considering his personal history, to stay away from the ‘interpretative quarrels’ of his times, so restoring our ‘faith in the idea of rational investigation’. But the ‘aesthetic is relatively autonomous’, and is not ‘a superstructural phenomenon’. Is there ‘aesthetic correctness’ too, then?

I would suggest, to the contrary, that Chapters 6 and 11 of The Age of Extremes give us the most compelling and up-to-date view of the main characteristic of the cultural revolution of our century, which has been the ‘common desire’ to come to terms with reality, making it the ‘century of the common people … dominated by the arts produced by and for them’.

Walter Benjamin and Antonio Gramsci would probably agree. And Sir Leslie Stephen would join them. In his last lectures of 1904 on the 18th century he had already suggested that so-called élite literature might be considered only as ‘a kind of by-product of the whole social activity’, and that its ‘characteristics’ correspond to those of a ‘very small minority of the nation’. According to Stephen, ‘the most important changes’ in the arts of the 18th century were already ‘closely connected with the social changes’ which had ‘entirely altered the limits of the reading class’. Now that the reading class has become an ‘audience’ is this any less true?

Gianfranco Corsini

Gentle Questions

Peter Wollen’s copiously documented article (LRB, 6 April) about Virginia Woolf’s involvements with British feminism, European Modernism and its attendant sexual revolution, and with her own social-intellectual milieu raised an uneasy question or two in my mind. For in the midst of his 630 lines there appear the following six: ‘James King’s new biography, punctilious but pedestrian, gives us an opportunity to think anew about these questions, condensing, as it does, twenty years of scholarship and research since Quentin Bell’s classic two-volume Life came out in the early Seventies.’ And this is all we are told about King and his 700-page book. But this leaves me asking whose scholarship and research is it that King has condensed: his own, or that of the multitude of journeymen and women who have trudged up and down this stretch of Bloomsbury turf for the past twenty years? Moreover, how much of Wollen’s very detailed story is a punctilious condensation of King’s pedestrian condensation – but without acknowledgment? In short, is the scholarship in this article, or only the ‘new thinking’, a product of Wollen’s own hard labour on Virginia Woolf? I presume Wollen knows the answers to these gentle questions, but if so he takes care not to share them with the reader.

Boris Ford

Peter Wollen writes: My review covered themes and areas James King scarcely touches on. There is no mention of Raymond Williams in his book or his bibliography, no mention of Diaghilev or Poiret or Carpenter or The Making of Americans. Harriet Weaver is characterised simply as a ‘devoted admirer’ of Joyce, and Rupert Brooke flits through a few breathless pages alongside a host of other friends, acquaintances and house-guests. Like the Bennett and Galsworthy novels Virginia Woolf disparaged in the Twenties, King’s massive door-stopper of a biography does little to advance ‘new thinking’. Next to nothing in my review-essay was derived from his work.


May I add a few points to the debate about Richard Noll’s book (Letters, 20 April)? It is striking that little has been written so far about how the Psychology Club of Zurich actually functioned. From my researches, published in the Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, it seems that Jung’s club of 1916 had its immediate roots in the Psychoanalytical Club of Zurich, which was formed when the Freud Society collapsed following the Jung-Freud split in 1913. The Freud Society had been formed in 1907.

There seem to have been a number of reasons why Jung instigated the formation of a club. I will focus on two that have not so far been mentioned. First, he had the idea of a ‘silent experiment in group psychology’ on the grounds that conventional two-person analytical treatment was ‘one-sided from the collective and personal point of view’. It is clear that everyone involved knew about this, so perhaps the experiment wasn’t as silent as all that. There was an interest in what would now be called group process, and the criticism of individual analysis has a rather modern ring to it. Second, Jungian analysis involves linkages being made between the material of the individual patient (dreams, fantasies, transference projections and so forth) and so-called ‘amplificatory material’ drawn from myth, legend, art and literature. As Thomas Kirsch has pointed out, the patient needed a suitably stocked library in which to look up his or her amplifications.

The procedure of amplification is not as odd as it sounds to modern ears when one considers a possible parallel with contemporary psychoanalytic practice wherein the here and now of the clinical interaction is, so to speak, ‘amplified’ by reference to infantile and other early or primitive mental and emotional processes held to be inaccessible to the patient’s consciousness in the session itself. There always seems to be this need in analytical therapy to turn up the volume, make things that seemed a bit thin more ample, convert one kind of material into another kind, and to establish that individual experience has shared elements – cultural, social, political – in it.

The club model eventually proved itself inadequate for the formation of the modern profession that Jungian analysis has become. To the extent that today’s Jungian analysis is a cult, this would surely be something it has in common with psychoanalysis or psychotherapy in general.

Andrew Samuels
Society of Analytical Psychology

In a Month of Sundays

Jeremy Harding takes an unwarranted swipe at Peter Dale (LRB, 20 April), calling his versions of Villon ‘rather desperate’ – this is apparently because they rhyme. Believing Dale’s Villon to be the best one available to us in modern English, I thought I’d better check I hadn’t been mistaken. I couldn’t see any signs of desperation. What I did see were things like this (chosen almost at random):

Item to Ythier Marchant to whom
I left my sword not long before
I now bequeath ten lines of gloom
to which he must prepare a score
for lute and voice to mourn the more
his former girls: a De Profundis.
Their proper name I shall ignore
or he’d hate me for a month of Sundays.

To hold metre and rhyme-scheme from a verse original while producing something entirely fluent in one’s own language is hard enough, as anyone who’s done even the smallest amout of verse translation knows. To then manage something as clever and entertaining as the original by rhyming ‘De Profundis’ with ‘month of Sundays’ where Villon had ‘De profundis’ and ‘je ne dis’ is surely remarkable. One could call this ‘desperate’, I suppose. But then, one could have told Dante to let up on the terza rima.

Alan Wall
London SW18

Catching On

Christopher Small (Letters, 20 April) might like to try an experiment with a dozen teaspoons to understand how zippers work. Take six spoons in each hand, interleaving the bowls and gripping the handles tightly: the spoons cannot be pulled apart. Reduce the pressure and they separate. The slide of the zipper opens and fastens the ‘spoons’ by causing them to hinge at the ‘handles’. As for an everyday use of the Möbius strip, the printer ribbon of the word processor I am using to write this letter is an excellent example: all of the ribbon gets used without my having to turn it over, since it only has one edge.

I cannot see what is so sexy about zips. Elastic was the erotic material of my childhood – but that was before the invention of Velcro.

Mike Kearney
Fismes, France


Reviewing Peter Levi’s Edward Lear: A Biography (LRB, 23 February), E.S. Turner comments on Lear the limerick-writer: ‘Notoriously, he often squandered the fifth line by making it a lazy variant on the first, whereas, we are told here, it should serve as a sudden crescendo, with a rhyme like a stone from a catapult. An obscenity, Levi says, is always a great help.’ By whose authority are Levi and Turner laying down the Law of the Limerick? Any primary-school child could think up a rhyming obscenity, but a good poet using an old form tries to do something a bit different with it. Lear’s deflationary tactics in his last lines, far from being ‘lazy’, seem beautifully calculated, and produce a range of effects. To name a few: triumphant, emphatic, mournful, disapproving, disbelieving. They may imply a wry ‘no comment’ on the preceding absurdity. The repeated word is usually a place-name, and there may be a sense of weary relief as the protagonist returns home after futile or disturbing adventures elsewhere (e.g. that politically most incorrect Old Person of Dundalk who tried to teach Fishes to walk, with disastrous effects on the students). Or there may be a dreadful banishment: ‘You shall never remain in Thermopylae.’ A frequent result of the repetition is to push the emphasis back onto a previous word in the line, perhaps a wonderfully apt adjective (nonsense-ish or not) which may create a jewel-flash of irony (see ‘That ingenious Young Lady of Poole’, for instance, who decided to heat up her soup because it had got cold), or a telling portrait of the character in question, e.g. ‘That abruptions old man of Thames Ditton’. Sometimes, it is a dramatic or violent verb that gets foregrounded: ‘smashed’ is a surprising favourite. If Lear were a contemporary poet, critics would be praising him for ‘deconstructing’ the limerick. Better, that, than taking him to task for failing to be predictable.

Carol Rumens

My Hard Graft

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s letter (Letters, 11 May) strikes a chord. A few people have asked me why my work is no longer broadcast. The only answer I can give them is that it’s a vile world to live in for the older creative writer (let me add that I’m a good deal older than Pitt-Kethley), under 35 is the litmus, and go dig a hole to hide in at 50, and remember that the past, if it wasn’t last week, never did exist. If it’s no more than cold comfort to Pitt-Kethley, let me tell her that after about forty years of writing radio drama and features for the Beeb – 66 original plays, one hundred and forty or so dramatisations, about twenty features and work which played a leading part in setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (saving them much money) – I have found myself persona non grata for the last three years, as well as being at the receiving end of some dirty financial tricks, to save the Beeb money.

Also, Fiona, I have found that it’s no good expecting close colleagues and old friends to help, they are all running scared – and in my case the best are dead. At an advanced age I don’t stand much chance of seeing the PC change and finding I’m back in fashion, but you, Fiona, need only to hang on out there and you’ll reap a comfortable old age, and live to see the present regime wither on the bough.

Frederick Bradnum

Readers of Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s letter could be forgiven for thinking that an item surely intended for the Classifieds column had – by some embarrassing mishap – achieved prominence in your Letters section. This is not the first time LRB’s Letters section has provided F.P.-K. with a platform to tout her dubious poetic talents. I suspect that not a few of your readers expect something rather different from it.

Garth Luetkemeier

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