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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995

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Unfair to Raymond Williams

In his review of John Willinsky’s Empire of Words: The Reign of the ‘OED’ (LRB, 8 June), John Sutherland asserts that no ‘post-Willinsky scholar’ could ‘do what Raymond Williams did in the Fifties and base a major intellectual enterprise on the confident assumption that the OED represents a “systematic, reliable and comprehensive history of the English vocabulary" – raw lexical material’. Sutherland describes Williams as possessing a ‘confident assumption’ concerning the OED. But Williams was at least as explicit as Willinsky evidently is in describing the shortcomings of the OED. He writes that he could summarise its major shortcomings ‘in three ways’.

I have been very aware of the period in which the Dictionary was made: in effect from the 1880s to the Twenties … this has two disadvantages: that in some important words the evidence for developed 20th-century usage is not really available; and that in a number of cases, especially in certain sensitive social and political terms, the presuppositions of orthodox opinion in that period either show through or are not very far beneath the surface … The air of massive impersonality which the Oxford Dictionary communicates is not so impersonal, so purely scholarly, or so free of active social and political values as might be supposed from its occasional use. Indeed, to work closely in it is at times to get a fascinating insight into what can be called the ideology of its editors … Secondly, for all its deep interest in meanings, the Dictionary is primarily philological and etymological; one of the effects of this is that it is much better on range and variation than on connection and interaction … Thirdly, in certain areas I have been reminded very sharply of the change of perspective which has recently occurred in studies of language: for obvious reasons … the written language used to be taken as the real source of authority, with the spoken language as in effect derived from it; whereas now it is much more clearly realised that the real situation is usually the other way round.

In other words, as Willinsky notes twenty years later, the OED excludes ‘the vernacular, the dialects of business’, and so on. It is, notes Williams, a narrowly-focused, ideologically driven work, and its value to scholars, for these and other reasons, is limited. ‘Few inquiries into particular words end with the great Dictionary’s account, but even fewer could start with any confidence if it were not there.’

Wayne Templeton
Surrey, British Columbia

Look over Your Shoulder

In his rather loopy defence of the new American populist and conservative fauna (Letters, 22 June) Richard Cummings defends Pat Robertson from the charge of anti-semitism and announces that, contrary to my claim, the names Warburg and Rothschild are ‘names found nowhere in Robertson’s pamphlet’. Let me refer him to the index of The New World Order (1991), which is now being passed from hand to hand by the Reverend Robertson’s audience. The entry for ‘Warburg, Paul’ reads ‘61, 65, 123, 124, 125, 178’ followed at once by ‘Warburgs, 126’. The Rothschild entry is not so voluminous but is in many ways more intriguing. ‘Rothschild, 123; Rothschild family, 123, 128; Rothschild, Lord, 111’, may seem colourless even if it leaves Mr Cummings looking – and dare I trust, feeling – a bit of a fool. More pregnant is the entry for ‘Rothschild publication, 7’. Anyone who turns up this page, or who is otherwise familiar with the work of the Rev., will find that ‘Rothschild publication’ is his term of choice for the London Economist. I rest my case.

In an exhaustive essay in the New York Review of Books, Michael Lind has shown the direct literary and political descent of Pat Robertson from classic anti-Jewish paranoids such as Nesta Webster. Given the venomous provenance of this world-view, I suppose it’s reassuring in a way that some of Robertson’s readers and followers are too dull to notice what he’s driving at.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

Monkey Business

I don’t know enough about poetry to judge whether Carol Ann Duffy’s four-liner is any improvement on its putative Fiona Pitt-Kethley ancestor (Letters, 20 July), but I do know enough about evolutionary theory to wonder whether the two poems are not an instance of parallel evolution – i.e. the tendency for the same ‘selection pressure’, as we say in the jargon, to produce similar results from very different antecedents.

The difference is that Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Mrs Darwin’ seems to be about Charles Darwin himself. Mrs Darwin’s comment is double-edged in that her husband’s appearance in the 1850s was – as any glance at a photograph taken of him at the time will confirm – disconcertingly like an ape (in later life it was disconcertingly like God, but that’s another matter), and she might also simply be saying that the chimpanzee reminds her of his theories. Ms Pitt-Kethley’s poem contains no such suggestion, unless she is saying that her Gran is old enough to remember Darwin personally.

‘Whether such “revolution" is up or down the scale’ I don’t know, but I think it’s only fair to warn your poetically, rather than evolutionarily, minded readers that ‘up or down the scale’ is a very tricky concept. However common it may be in popular ideas of evolution, it causes problems to professional evolutionary biologists (see the first chapter of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life). A tapeworm is as ideally evolved to its environment as a cheetah (and in evolutionary terms can be considered far more successful both in terms of present numbers and future survival), and brachiopods, which have quietly lived in the mud at the bottom of the seas for many geological eras without changing very much, can be considered equally far ‘up the scale’ in terms of their own needs as parvenu species like Homo sapiens.

Alwyn Arkle
London N17

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s claim that Carol Ann Duffy’s squib ‘Mrs Darwin’ copies her own lines about Man and Monkey is highly implausible. In any case, Anon of the Playground was there before both of them with an even more memorable quatrain:

Happy Birthday to you,
I went to the zoo,
I saw a fat monkey
And I thought it was you!

I first heard this chanted by subversive elements at a birthday party in 1986; but it’s obviously older than that.

Janet Montefiore
University of Kent

How clever you are: in the tradition of Joe Orton’s Edna Welthorpe, Humphry Berkeley’s Rochester Sneath and more recently Francis Wagstaffe you have invented the improbable Fiona Pitt-Kethley. She appears in every edition of the LRB: currently complaining about apparent plagiarism – quoting a frightful poem and then an even worse piece of verse which she alleges she wrote. May we see a photograph of her?

J.F. Fuggles
Rothley, Leicestershire

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s ‘Evolution’ must itself derive, evolutionarily no doubt, from a much better-known poem by myself. ‘For those not familiar with it’ (to use Pitt-Kethley’s rather presumptuous introduction to her own self-quotation), my old poem, in one of the many versions I have published, runs:

A widower born in Peru
Saw a female baboon in the Zoo.
It reminds me, he said,
Of someone who’s dead.
But he never would tell us of who.

Carol Ann Duffy must also have had me at the back of her usually inventive mind. I leave it, like Pitt-Kethley, to your readers to decide whether either of their poems is an improvement on their common ancestor.

Anon
Crediton, Devon

Down with Authenticity

In regard to Nicholas Spice’s discussion of Joseph Lanza’s book about canned music (LRB, 6 July): way back in the late Sixties, in an interview with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Mr U.V. ‘Bing’ Musico (who had just become president of Muzak) uttered a profound piece of wisdom which has haunted me ever since. The reporter asked, ‘Why aren’ t there other kinds of music on Muzak? Why is there never any blues, for example?’ Mr Musico replied: ‘The blues never did an office worker any good.’ Ah, so true.

Garry Goodrow
New York

I’m not sure that the problem of great performances (or lack of them) can be put at the doorstep of musicians’ lack of involvement with contemporary music, as Nicholas Spice seems to suggest. It is rather the dearth of great conductors which is responsible for the mediocrity of so much recorded and live music today. Orchestral managers world-wide lament the difficulties of finding conductors good enough to raise performance standards above the average. On the other hand, chamber music ensembles and soloists regularly turn out inspiring concerts because their sense of involvement with and responsibility to the music is necessarily greater; their audiences, however, tend to be proportionally smaller.

Roderick Shaw
Cologne

Dwarf-Basher

Although Peter Martin clearly finds both the personal character of Edmond Malone and the gentlemen’s-club social milieu he inhabited considerably more sympathique than I do, his response to my review of his conscientious and valuable biography in other respects greatly exaggerates our differences (Letters, 6 July). So far from cherishing an animus against ‘sound scholarly work, using primary sources and archives to get at the evidence’, for example, I actually perform it for a living; and so far from deriding Malone for his sense of the historical differences separating his world from that of Shakespeare, my review repeatedly points out that this is what makes his work so important – even if it is also what inhibits Malone from offering the fascinatingly different kind of criticism licensed by his friend Dr Johnson’s comparatively uncomplicated faith in the timelessness of human nature. (This is a faith, incidentally, which I do not share, pace Martin, much as I enjoy Johnson’s work.) I am, furthermore, in full agreement with Martin’s opening observation that my review is more about Malone than it is about his book (I admit that I find the former more interesting than the latter), and equally with his concluding point that Malone’s non-Shakespearean activities deserve serious attention too – although to fault a review of a book called Edmond Malone: Shakespearean Scholar for writing about Edmond Malone as a Shakespearean scholar might seem a little perverse.

What will not do, however, is Martin’s wild and completely unfounded allegation that I attribute the ‘impatience’ and ‘hostility’ found in some of Malone’s writing to a stereotypical notion of the Irish national character, a notion to which I in no way subscribe. What my review in fact wonders is whether Malone’s position as an expatriate Ascendancy Irishman helped sharpen the acute awareness of cultural difference which distinguishes his work so remarkably from that of his critical predecessors – which is hardly the same thing. Since I have no wish to become Joseph Ritson, however thoroughly Martin may identify with his great antagonist, I hope this will complete an exchange of letters which – such is the insidious longevity of Malone’s particular mind-set – is already in danger of sounding like something from the Gentleman’s Magazine of the 1790s.

Michael Dobson
University of Illinois, Chicago

Well-Read

For all that it advertises itself as appealing to a well-read and independent-minded readership, the London Review of Books seems increasingly to be happy to accept a limited definition of those terms. This is borne out in particular in the selection of poetry which is presented in the Review. Poets are seemingly drawn from a narrow coterie characterised by an overly easy metropolitan knowingness, claustrophobic self-absorption and metrical and linguistic banality, to take only the evidence provided by the offerings in two recent issues (LRB, 8 June and 22 June).

Though we concede that to pick on one example may be unfair, in the lines ‘when we no longer went there / like Hem to the War’ (22 June), the simile does little work other than to affirm the presumed importance of the poet-speaker’s ego. It does not engage in any of the issues which an informed, well-read reader would discover in the image of Hemingway’s war. In the same poem, as in others, structure and lineation are governed by the most prosaic and indolent of sense groupings rather than by any attention to the potential interaction between language and metre.

It is sometimes acknowledged that contemporary poetry from England is marked by diminished vision and reduced expectation: trademarked talents capable of turning a single trick time and again. We regret that the LRB seems so unconcerned about challenging or in any way meaningfully addressing this state of affairs.

Steven Matthews, Elleke Boehmer
Oxford

Tea and Buns

For years I have read, in fact and fiction, about the unique horrors of the Vietnam War as described in self-pitying terms by American veterans who parade their broken lives and postwar neuroses before us. I have so far confined my reaction to ironic comment to people of my own generation but Ron Ridenhour’s piece (LRB, 22 June), no worse than many another article, has moved me finally to write.

I don’t wish to sound like some dreadful veteran blimp (though I suppose I inevitably do) but, compared with our experience in the Burma campaign in the Forties, American soldiers had it easy. In Vietnam, soldiers had short tours of duty, helicopters to get them back to hospital if wounded, overwhelming material and air superiority and every creature comfort when out of battle. In Burma our duty tour was in practice the duration; getting to a base hospital was a long bumpy ride in a truck if the track behind you was open; we fought the Japanese, until perhaps the very end, on almost equal terms; and out of battle a van dispensing tea and buns was the best to be hoped for. I don’t of course know what happened to every Burma veteran but none so far as I know has claimed, in public at least, any great post-war traumatic stress. George MacDonald Fraser and I at least returned unscathed and I recommend his Quartered Safe Out Here as an account of jungle warfare written without self-pity or cannabis.

D.J. Richards
Evesham, Worcestershire

Neutral

Twice monthly it is my practice to read snippets from the LRB during happy hour at my local, the Goat and Compasses. Neil Rollinson’s poems (LRB, 20 July) caused considerable discussion way into normal drinking time. Wilf, over in the snug, dismissed the lot as Page-Three titillation under the guise of intellectualism. Thelma, along with nearly all the lads at the bar, critiqued Rollinson’s obfuscation. Poetics carry an obligation towards pragmatics. By what means, I’m told to ask, does the heroine, using a. rope, b. silk thread and c. a plastic tube with a pump on the end, resurrect the hero’s ‘thing’? Harry said Pitt-Kethley would never permit such anatomically-impossible deception to grace her work. Short-shirt-sleeve Sam claimed it had nothing to do with what we were all thinking – it was really an allegorical commentary on John Major’s reelection. I’m neutral on all this.

Peter Good
Bradford

Silly Hair

Jenny Diski states in her review of Richard Neville’s Hippie Hippie Shake (LRB, 6 July) that ‘the present generation are too busy wondering whether they’ll get a job … to go in for any threatening alternative lifestyles.’ The first part of this is substantially correct: there is uncertainty, an angry despair; the second part is more problematical. Any commentator on today’s young people needs to acknowledge the post-1988 dance scene, which has evolved and diversified into many different progressive styles. One may say: what’s threatening about people hobbling around in a field, tent or club, their consciousnesses enhanced by the use of dodgy substances? Yet still the civil-liberty-infringing Criminal Justice Act has become law. This generation is challenging social mores in the pursuit of a freedom, albeit a hedonistic and limited one. Were the Sixties really that different? Were the hippies in this country pushing for ‘threatening alternative lifestyles’, or were they just a vocal middle-class clique twatting about beneath silly hair?

Chris Walker
Bristol

Subjective

Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s review of my book Subjective Agency (LRB, 20 April) is so eager to make me a representative of academic complacencies that it ignores the book’s specific arguments – an ironic fate for a treatment of individual expression. Consider first his tone. Harpham claims that because I try to avoid depth models of subjective agency, I insist that ‘everything lies on the surface.’ He then adds: ‘At one point Altieri remarks casually: “I will ignore the many ways in which this model can go wrong." ’ Harpham ignores the context:

I want to be clear from the start that no amount of theoretical analysis will be able to overcome the ways in which our uses of expressivity and claims for identities involve us in self-delusion and subject us to manipulation by others. However, since I suspect that such delusions and manipulations will find a place in any model of behaviour we develop, and since it will prove difficult enough to get the positive possibilities clear, I will ignore the many ways that this model can go wrong. All I can do in this regard is to try to make the positive look good enough to make pursuing this view of human values seem worth the risk.

Such cavalier dismissal of careful qualifications as ‘casual’ remarks suggests a reviewer more eager to develop his own self-heroising (and decidedly academic) critique of academic superficiality than he is to work his way through complicated arguments. Harpham even misrepresents the overall structure of my book, as well as its most fundamental arguments about ethics and politics. For example, Harpham bases my entire discussion of subjective agency on the claim that ‘we become who we are by virtue of the “style" that marks our acts.’ Even if I ignore his ignoring my repeated claims that who we are is a complex and shifting matter of identifications in relation to situations, I must protest his failure to heed the difference I claim between the first part of my book, which builds to style as the richest embodiment of a Wittgensteinian approach to subjective agency, and the subsequent parts, which insist that ethical and political concerns require our investigating how agents supplement style by presenting or implying reasons for specific actions. Expressivity in these domains depends on how agents blend first-person desires for recognition by others with the third-person frameworks allowing others the terms by which to attribute identities.

When Harpham gets to my ethical arguments he claims that because I treat identity only as ‘an afterthought or attribution’, ‘the subject is diminished and political rights imperilled.’ My case offers only ‘a monument to calculation’. He can arrive at these conclusions because for him ethics must be a heroic domain where life without theology is given an imposing tragic framework built on a crossing of Foucault’s care for self and Derrida’s idealisation of responsibility framed by fatality. But I want to avoid the entire theatre, in part by insisting that it makes as little sense to speak of identity as an ‘attribution’ as it does to rely on oppositions between surface and depth, and in part by demonstrating that Derrida’s version of responsibility cannot take an adequate public form. Instead I seek a model free of the opposition between substance and attribute by concentrating on the ways we find ourselves able to appeal to predicates about identity because of the negotiations we maintain with other people, real and imagined. Rather than worry about projected deep psyches, I concentrate on how we develop and manipulate cultural expectations so as to earn ways of speaking about ourselves. Ethics then becomes a realm limited to the concerns we display when we have to justify actions: ethical responsibility resides simply in the quality of our reasons in relation to our actions. There are other, nobler domains of love and care and heroic struggle, but they rely on quite different practices even harder to describe.

Charles Altieri
University of California, Berkeley

Voluptuosity

No doubt Linda Holt meant to commend the Bailiff of Jersey when she wrote (Letters, 6 July) that he ‘had paid more fulsome tribute’ in ‘commemorating the bravery of 2600 political prisoners’. In fact, she rather insulted the gentleman. ‘Fulsome’ has a range of meanings beginning with ‘offensive to good taste’ and descending to ‘disgusting, sickening, repulsive’. This error, rare, I hope, in the British Isles, has unfortunately become almost common in the US, the Chicago Tribune newspaper and Health magazine being recent and prominent offenders. The two cases were particularly risible: in both, ‘fulsome’ was used to modify ‘brassière’ in the mistaken belief that the term refers to fullness or voluptuosity.

Stuart Silverman
Hot Springs, Arizona

Wordsworth’s Lost Satire

Wordsworth’s imitation of Juvenal’s Satire VIII, including the 145 lines described by Nicholas Roe (LRB, 6 July), will be published in full in our edition of Wordsworth’s Early Poems and Fragments, 1785-1797, which is due to appear from Cornell in late 1996 or early 1997. We are indebted to Dr Robert Woof for calling our attention to Francis Wrangham’s letter containing the first half of the satire.

Jared Curtis, Carol Landon
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia

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