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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 14 · 20 July 1995

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Down with Authenticity

In the course of his article about Muzak, Nicholas Spice takes a side-swipe at ‘authentic’ performance of classical music (LRB, 6 July). He opposes authorship (‘having something of one’s own to say about the music’) to authenticity (‘mimicking what someone else might once have had to say’), sweeping on to further generalisations before the swarm of questions begged by this plausible-sounding formulation hatches out.

But how, precisely, does a performer have something of her own to say about a piece of music? About, for example, the Mozart A Minor Sonata? Unless she improvises something new around the score she is working from – producing, in effect, a different work – she is left with the relatively uncreative task of interpreting the notes on the page, which – depending on the edition she is using – will be more or less close to what Mozart originally wrote down. She can only understand what he wrote down if she understands the conventions of 18th-century musical language. To assert anything different leads inexorably to the notion that she could interpret Mozart’s A Minor Piano Sonata without any knowledge of the conventions governing its composition – an absurd position. Indeed, Spice seems to be suggesting that her performance would be the better for her ignorance.

The modern search for greater authenticity in the performance of classical music has been inspired, quite simply, by a desire to know more about the musical languages of the past so as to understand better what they have to tell us. Is Spice seriously suggesting that we should abandon this effort in favour of anything that comes into our heads?

Daniel Eisenstein
London NW3

Training in Democracy

Ron Ridenhour’s essay on Vietnam was intelligent and finely argued (LRB, 22 June). I was openly opposed to that war, as were millions of other Americans. We’ve begun to feel quite lonely lately as history is rewritten to show we were crazy ineffectual nudniks. And as Ridenhour truthfully points out, the same ‘sorcery’ that put us into Vietnam (and created the legend of South Vietnam) was used in the Eighties to justify counter-revolutionary intrusions in Nicaragua and Salvador. Those activities were, at least, covered in the press. But the genocidal acts of the Government of Guatemala, aided by the CIA, supplied with Israeli weapons, and engaged in search and destroy operations against peasant communities, has received little attention. Until recently trying to get editors to provide coverage of what’s been going on in Guatemala has been next to impossible. Americans just haven’t been required to know what their secret government has been doing, and the result is a carnage that, at times, has been truly extraordinary.

I was also pleased that Ridenhour referred to the infamous US Army-sponsored School of the Americas, which is used to train indigenous murderers to kill peasants. Much of the mainstream press in the US pretends that the institution is a training course in democracy.

Richard Elman
Stony Brook, New York

Rights, Wrongs and Outcomes

Stephen Sedley’s analysis of human rights (LRB, 11 May) correctly identifies the variable character of such ‘fundamental’ provisions. Human rights laws are historical and political instruments shaped by their context and an essential subject of dispute. He is also right to look to the outcomes of rights-based strategies in promoting social and political goals. Sedley is for a sceptical and realist account of human rights in order to make them effective means of intervention, not in order to bury them. How successful can he be?

Sedley’s support for human rights instruments in Britain is premised on ‘our present epoch’s consensus about society’s ground-rules’, and the need to protect the weak and poor from the strong and rich. A short retort to the consensual premise is provided by the last 16 years of British politics which have revealed amongst substantial sections of society a deep-seated contempt for forms of social protection against ‘market forces’. Sedley himself identifies a tension between a democratic government’s right to intervene to promote substantive equality and the claims of private power to formal equality (and freedom) under law, but he argues that politicians and lawyers rigorously committed to substantive equality will be successful in ‘fireproofing the juridical elements of life in a democracy and … preventing the appropriation of legal rights and democratic processes for private or partial ends’. Yet Sedley himself is ambivalent about the state, endorsing current disillusionment with its role as provider and the danger of it becoming a ‘Leviathan’, while arguing for the need to build a substantive jurisprudence, an achievement only possible under an interventionist state. This ambivalence must surely temper Sedley’s larger statements of principle, but with what effect on his proposed human rights jurisprudence?

The problem he faces can be encapsulated by considering two conflicts arising from the central political and legal concept of ‘negative’, or formal, liberty. On one hand, this concept involves the protection of the actual individual and what s/he is, does or has. It is in conflict with the idea of an authoritarian state, entitled to impose its will upon individuals. On the other, it also conflicts with the idea of ‘positive liberty’ and the view that the individual requires ‘substantive’ social rights from the state to redress inequality and to be empowered.

This double tension leads to inconsistency across the range of democratic politics. Social democrats tend to be for negative liberty in support of civil and political rights against an authoritarian state, but to be against it, and in favour of positive social rights and state intervention, when it is a question of empowerment of the poor and the weak. By contrast, conservative opinion (apart from extreme libertarians) tends to be for authoritarian law-and-order statism and against individual civil liberties, but against the state and for negative liberty when the state seeks to empower through positive reforms. Both sides accentuate negative liberty in one context, and state power in another, mirroring each other’s standpoint. Both find it hard to be consistent because of the tensions within our figurations of law and the state, which embody broader tensions in our society: between capital and labour, economic entrepreneurialism and the ‘social question’ (including issues of race and gender).

The problem, therefore, is not just the ‘baggage of inchoate assumptions’ which English rights talk inherited, but the inherent conflicts within Western society and its legal forms. Sedley is right to anchor his argument in a particular political conception of human rights because, as he says, law will otherwise be conditioned by established wealth and power. But it is difficult to be sanguine about the possibilities of ‘fireproofing the juridical elements of life’ by being politically rigorous. The contradictions of a left-liberal position must inform his own conception of law. One must be for and against individual freedom, positive and negative, and for and against state intervention. To decide when to go one way or the other can only be a matter of shifting political judgment in a context of conflicting alternatives.

A second problem concerns the political force which can promote the human rights of the weak and poor. Sedley wishes to build on the race and gender jurisprudence of the Seventies. Some will point to the limits (and contradictions) of that jurisprudence, but the important point is that its forms were generated by a much more left-oriented political culture than today’s. Sedley must recognise that no jurisprudence can operate without the support of such a culture, yet in today’s climate he wants to go further, with fewer political forces in support. Europe may help marginally, but can hardly offset the weaknesses of the current Left in Britain. Without a strong left-wing social-democratic current, the kind of rights Sedley wants to see simply will not exist.

But if a substantive, rights-oriented, left-wing democratic political project emerged, how successful would its associated jurisprudence be? Sedley’s comparative examples of recent rights discourses involve situations where judiciaries ‘have moved to fill lacunae of legitimacy in the functioning of democratic polities’. These manoeuvres have often been halting and tentative, backtracking as well as innovative. He seeks to go further: to use legal rights in a radically reformist social and economic agenda. Allowing the implausible scenario of a British government committed to such a strategy, it would surely evoke the most fundamental ideological conflicts. Played out through law, such conflicts would exacerbate the contradictions of negative and positive liberty, leading to division, paralysis and incoherence in the jurisprudence and practice of rights. This may not be a reason for not pursuing a socially substantive human rights project, but we should, as Sedley acknowledges, be aware of the consequences of employing rights instruments before we adopt them.

Alan Norrie
Queen Mary and Westfield College

Designer Cancer

Mary Beard’s review of my book The Diary of a Breast (LRB, 6 July) is complimentary and thought-provoking and I thank her for this, but her phrase ‘designer cancer’ is demeaning. If my book had been published posthumously, would she have still used these words? A life-threatening illness is not about fashion. I have survived, but many other women, who started with the same symptoms as I had, have not. In the UK, 15,000 women a year die of breast cancer. Is my own experience to be belittled because I am still alive? Mary Beard makes a distinction between ‘cancer of the flesh’ and ‘cancer on the page’. I also had ‘cancer of the flesh’. Since I am a writer, I wrote about it and I naturally hope that my book will reach as wide an audience as possible. But I would not have chosen to undergo, first, the terror of my life ending halfway through, then the ever-present nagging fear of a recurrence, in order to perform a ‘fashionable’ literary exercise.

Elisa Segrave
London W8

League of Nations

Simon Kelner’s Diary (LRB, 6 July) reminded me of a poster I saw at the Sydney Cricket Ground in May 1968, when Australia were playing France in the final of the Rugby League World Cup. It ran: ‘Sydney Young Socialists say, FRENCH TO WIN THE REVO AUSSIES TO WIN THE FOOTY’. In Oz, I remember thinking, even subversives had their priorities right, which may help to explain why out record against them at Rugby League has been so dismal ever since 1963, the year Gasnier and Co. cut us to ribbons at Wembley.

But another reason for our poor showing is, I believe, the parochialism which Kelner lauds. I share his distrust of Murdoch, whose ambition it must be to fuse the two rugby codes and create an advertiser-friendly game like gridiron. But can you really blame the ‘butchers, bakers and bookmakers’ for pocketing the cash? The days when you could whistle down a mine and come up with another McTigue or Karalius are long gone. It can be no coincidence that Australia’s supremacy dates from the Sixties, when poker machines were legalised in New South Wales and clubs like South Sydney and St George at last had the resources to match Wigan and St Helens.

Michael Barber
London SW19

Vital Matters

Jenny Diski misses out the real legacy of the Sixties for today – as does Richard Neville in the memoir Diski was reviewing (LRB, 6 July). It is not beards and dope-smoking – vital though these are. It is that 1968 opened an era of social and political upheaval, and the ideas to go with it, from Trotskyism to anarchism, that is not only still with us but may yet have the last laugh over the PC Luffs of this world.

Keith Flett
London N17

Half a Nose

I was intrigued to see Nicholas Roe’s retrieved fragments from Wordsworth’s ‘lost’ translation from Juvenal, co-written with Francis Wrangham (LRB, 6 July), for which Dr Roe deserves congratulation. Among the new lines retrieved by Roe is a reference to ‘cross-legg’d knights … Some without ears and more with half a nose’. Roe rightly notes the connection with the Stone effigies in the Prelude description of Furness Abbey, but there is another reference in Wordsworth’s mind, too. The knight with half, or more than half, a nose, is almost certainly Sir John Coventry, ‘Ammon’ in Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, whose nose was cut off in an attack by the henchmen of the Duke of Monmouth in December 1670 The attack is mentioned elsewhere in Wordsworth and Wrangham’s translation, and it is almost certain that they knew of it from reading Marvell’s letter to William Popple of 24 January 1671. Wrangham appears to have owned Cooke’s 1772 edition of Marvell’s Works, which contained the letter.

I do not see why Roe believes that Blackwood, knowing the identity of Wrangham’s collaborator, would have been less likely to publish the satire; surely it would have made him more likely to have done so.

Duncan Wu
London W3

Monkey Business

I was fascinated to read in Ian Sansom’s review of Carol Ann Duffy’s Selected Poems (LRB, 6 July) of one of her recent verses, a four-liner entitled ‘Mrs Darwin’. The poem runs:

7 April 1852.
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him –
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

This, surely, must have been inspired by my own four-liner of 1986, published in 1987 in the New Statesman and in my collection of the same year, Private Parts. For those who are not familiar with it, my poem, ‘Evolution’, runs:

‘Some men are very wicked!’ my Gran said,
while looking at a monkey in the zoo.
His spectacles of flesh and blue behind
reminded her of someone she once knew.

I suppose it’s all part of the process of evolution that one person’s poem should evolve into another’s. Whether such ‘evolution’ is up or down the scale is a matter of opinion. Some might call it monkey business. I leave it to your readers to judge whether Carol Ann Duffy’s four-liner is any improvement on its ancestor.

Fiona Pitt-kethley
Hastings

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