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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995

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Breaking-Up

It is surely not truncating Tom Nairn’s article (LRB, 24 August) to the point of distortion, to suggest that he makes the underlying assumption that most Scots now want the break-up of Britain. We don’t. We never did this century. And there is something else. Your readers might like to know that many Scots have second thoughts when nightly on the TV news we see the results of the break-up of states, peacefully though acrimoniously in Czechoslovakia, in Mother Russia from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Baltic, and, yes, like it or not, in Yugoslavia. The comfortable assumption that ‘We’re different!’ is increasingly perceived to be a little bit complacent. I am not Jeremiahing that Britain would become like Yugoslavia: simply, that as a consequence of endless headline reports from that unhappy land, many people in Scotland are becoming more cautious about espousing a party which has as its ostensible raison d’être the break-up of the United Kingdom. (Tom Nairn himself was right to refer to those who supported the SNP in Perth and Kinross ‘less for its ideology than because it registers the most effective protest against Them’.) Just as there is the problem of the ethnic Russians in Latvia, so there is the situation, not only of the Scots (many occupying key positions!) in England, but of the English in Scotland. Of the views of the Sociology Department, I cannot speak, but your readers can be certain that there is a very different view about the break-up of Britain in those departments of the University of Edinburgh, particularly in the biological, medical, chemical and physical sciences, where the University enjoys a European and international reputation. Those like Nairn who argue for the break-up of Britain should recognise that many of their fellow Scots would be dismayed at the prospect of lurching into such a situation.

Tam Dalyell
Labour MP for Linlithgow

Keller’s Causes

Robin Holloway’s review of my edition of Hans Keller’s Essays on Music (LRB, 3 August) is a true pièce de résistance, though as much in the Freudian sense as in the conventional one. On the one hand, its length and impressive commitment lead inexorably and grandly to a ringing verdict of comprehensive failure; on the other hand, readers are bound to ask whether it is not curiously ‘in excess of the necessary’ to devote three lavish pages to a judgment which could be delivered in three succinct lines: ‘Notwithstanding a debt of gratitude built up a quarter of a century ago which I hereby acknowledge, I can find nothing of any value in Keller’s tortuous scribblings beyond half a dozen aphorisms’.

Of course, an informed majority might reasonably agree with some of Holloway’s strictures over a figure who dominated London musical life for almost forty years. There was indeed a stark contrast between the companionable and caring private man and the infuriating public oracle whose sardonic wit sometimes seemed less Krausian than merely oppressive: both figures jostle for control over the literary style. It is true that some of the essays breathe the vanished earnestness of the Fifties – Keller would have been one of Auden’s ‘twelve-tone boys’; it is certainly possible to challenge some of the analyses and question their scope; and especially in the later years one can see that Keller’s musical concerns ossified, so that recapitulation too often took the place of exposition (providing an incurable headache for at least this editor). All this being so, it might even be asked: why bother to resist Holloway? Why not just agree that, sad as it may seem, Hans Keller (1919-85) has had his day?

These questions deserve answers. For a start, Holloway allows his irritation with style to cloud his awareness of what Keller actually said. Here is his anguished reaction to the opening essay, ‘Problems in Writing about Music’: ‘The impression it gives, confirmed throughout with little alleviation, is of factitious verbal precision, logic chopping, a word-wasting that belies the oft-declared economy, all busily fussing at an awfully small nugget of paradox or provocation, and more often than not couched in psychoanalytic jargon that by now seems as dated as wax fruit under glass.’ Since he supports this wholesale anathematising with three extracts derived from later chapters (they are all perfectly coherent in context), the reader is left no wiser as to what the ‘problems’ are, and whether or not they are worth sharing.

So here, in Keller’s words, is a précis of the essay’s argument: ‘the “art" of music criticism has been invented as a shield behind which one can write about oneself without anybody noticing anything amiss unless he wants to,’ whereas ‘in proportion as one experiences and so understands a work of art, one loses interest in its evaluative criticism.’ With a new work, however, ‘evaluation is impossible without the standards the new upsets,’ so that ‘great art tends to be early and realistic criticism to come late.’ ‘Art, as opposed to a student’s exercise, is not intended to be good, anyway: it is created in order to get something across, ‘whereas badness is, ‘essentially, unoriginality’. In practice good critics ‘come to realise, with a succession of ever intenser shocks, that many of their most realistic evaluations do … harm’ and either ‘achieve nothing’ or ‘retard … development’; so that there is ‘no chance’ of a critic’s ‘leading a harmless existence as a writer on music if the responsibilities isolated [here] are not constantly born in mind’.

Precise, logical, paradoxical and even provocative all this certainly is, but in a positive sense: as the psychoanalytic undertones suggest (Keller’s ‘responsibilities’ demanded self-knowledge ‘as a precondition for an undistorted understanding and appreciation of the outer world’), it argues for criticism with a humane face. It also exposes a dynamic theory of musical reception which is developed as the Essays unfold.

Holloway, though, regrettably lacks the patience Keller advocates. Indeed, there is not a single chapter or issue which he addresses satisfactorily, hell-bent to deliver his closing execration as he seems to be. As it would take six pages of the LRB to contrast reviewer and the reviewed point by point (especially over Functional Analysis, history, repertoire and ‘pure Puritanism’), let me instead examine just one central issue.

In attempting to resist Keller’s theory of musical communication, Holloway unwittingly avails himself of his opponent’s weapons. Keller’s theory indeed posited that musical communication lies in the ‘foreground’ of ‘meaningful contradiction of expectations’ (the interrupted cadence, for example). However, it also necessarily admitted the ‘background’ fulfilment of expectations (the final cadence). Indeed, it was because of this tension that Keller described his thought as ‘two-dimensional’. Ironically, though, it is a lack of just this tension which Holloway imputes to Keller and then challenges. More ironically still, Holloway seems unaware that Keller held the very dynamic view of history he favours, whereby meaningful contradiction (foreground) for one generation became standard practice (background) for the next (interrupted cadences, for example, catch us by surprise in Mozart, but form the stitching of Wagnerian music drama).

Even past questions of substance, the review’s errors and contradictions (not to mention red herrings) come thick and fast. To take the two opening paragraphs alone: ‘Haydn to Brahms’ could not just be the ‘specifically musical repertoire’ of someone who wrote detailed analyses of Schoenberg’s chamber music and works by Shostakovich (a quartet), Britten (an ‘FA’), Stravinsky (a complete serial analysis of the Dylan Thomas setting) and others, but none (for good reasons) on Brahms. Keller did not put opera – or the opera he cared about – on the ‘back seat’, but (as the end notes of the Essays testify) wrote voluminously on the stage work of Schoenberg and Britten. And although the classical field toiled by the English analyst Tovey indeed overlapped with that of Keller (who was excited thereby to some misplaced contempt) it was not ‘exactly the same’ in any meaningful sense. Keller preoccupied himself more obsessively with chamber music, and would never have edited the Beethoven Piano Sonatas.

The saddest aspect of this altogether rather ‘sad spectacle’, though, is that many of the positive qualities of the Essays whose alleged absence the review laments are in fact there. Although Keller is wronged by what Holloway writes, I do not believe that were he alive he would have been angered by it for long: there is too much common ground of genuinely musical concern between the two parties. For his own sake, therefore, if not for everyone else’s, I urge Holloway, in all kindness, to return to the book and quite simply try again.

Christopher Wintle
King’s College, London

Sister-Sister

I expect much of the outcry against Terry Castle’s essay on Jane Austen (LRB, 3 August) was the result of the headline ‘Was Jane Austen Gay?’, a question I don’t think Terry Castle either asked or answered. Your readers ought perhaps to be made aware that the author of a review in your pages – or in those of your competitor the Times Literary Supplement – is not usually consulted by whoever writes the headline under which it appears. I have reviewed for both of you, and I know.

J.G.A. Pocock
Baltimore, Maryland

‘Sister-Sister’ was the heading under which Terry Castle’s review appeared. The author of a piece is never responsible for the magazine’s cover-line.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Find Your Level

As an evolutionary geneticist reviewing Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA, I would hardly be in the business of attempting ‘an ill-tempered attack on evolutionary genetics’ as misjudged by Harold Dorn (Letters, 7 September). The ‘molecular zombies’ in my review referred to the thousands of molecular biologists engaged in the sequencing of the vastness of the human genome and not to Dorn’s ‘theoretical geneticists’ (whoever and whatever they are). The central message of my review was that only through an evolutionary comparative approach to genetic organisation and biological functions can some corner of the unknowable nature of biological processes be lifted. In agreement with Pollack and with Steven Rose (LRB, 20 July), I emphasised that the ‘mess’ of biological processes, the inevitable products of a time-dependent, haphazard and contingent process of evolution, is, like history and economics, unknowable. Certainly the workings and evolution of the complex, interactive components that constitute a living organism will never be understood either through a ‘DNA sequence read-out’ or through the vulgar minimalism of the selfish gene.

Gabriel Dover
University of Leicester

Random

The excellent service you provide in pointing out your correspondents’ errors slipped up last week when you allowed Roger Pebody (Letters, 7 September) to write that since gay men are more readily found in London than Northumberland, geographically random sampling was inappropriate to measure the frequency of homosexuality. It is precisely because researchers are alert to systematic biases that they use random procedures. If you thought that homosexuality was evenly distributed throughout the country, you wouldn’t put yourself to the trouble of looking at it in a number of different locations.

Paul Taylor
London N4

Unfair to the ‘OED’

John Simpson complains that the attempt ‘to topple the established authorities’ can be disastrous if it endangers valuable work and that ‘the sporadic undermining of a valuable record is dangerous’ (Letters, 24 August). But the attempt to prop up a national institution such as the OED also has dangers, since the defence is itself open to obvious attack. In my own experience, the OED is far from satisfactory, and the new edition is more unsatisfactory than ever. Several scholars have publicly pointed out errors and omissions, and I have found all sorts of serious mistakes in my own areas of interest – mainly social and political thought. Moreover these are not just incidental but essential to the way the work has been done. For example, technical terms in anarchist and pacifist discourse have been traced back not to the specialist publications where they first appeared but to general periodicals where they appeared some time later. One search I made – into the term ‘libertarian’ – had the embarrassing conclusion of finding an article by myself in the Listener of 1969 cited, although it merely followed established usage.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Wa-Wa-Wa

I sympathise with Mona Morstein’s cri de coeur about French (Letters, 24 August). It’s worse in cowboy books. You are no sooner galloping along the mesa than you are pitched into an arroyo by a cuchillero wearing something that’s not even in a Spanish dictionary. But we LRB readers like to read things we can’t quite understand, like your Japanese letter. We expect it. Omne ignotum pro magnifico. Magnifico is one of those men in hotel lobbies in a white suit with gold epaulettes, who stops you getting in. Every magazine needs one.

Miles Burrows
Abu Dhabi

That’s an amazing letter from Darkest Montana: a self-styled ‘bumpkin’ has the brass to complain of the LRB’s occasional peppering of its articles and reviews with French. Here is one reader who begs you to continue dipping into any language you choose while pursuing your mission civilisatrice. I say that even though I hail from Darkest Illinois.

Leslie Schenk
Chevilly-Larue, France

Monkey Business

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s ‘idea of the connection between humans who look like monkeys and Darwin and his theories’ (Letters, 24 August) is hardly an original aperçu. Darwin was famously pictured as a monkey shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species, a caricature which is reproduced in Peter Washington’s excellent book Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. Washington also reports that Blavatsky was so enamoured of this image that she kept the stuffed baboon in her rooms, dressed in a frock coat and wing collar, with a copy of the Origin tucked under its arm.

Alan Benfield
The Hague

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