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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996

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Buying and Selling

I am intrigued by the remark of your reviewer of Ian Simpson Ross’s Life of Adam Smith, James Buchan (LRB, 14 December 1995), that he has ‘absolutely no propensity to barter, truck, or exchange one thing for another’. It is as though a reviewer of a biography of Freud were to claim to have ‘absolutely no propensity’ to engage in any form of sexual activity. Does James Buchan never negotiate royalties with his publisher, respond to the offer of a discount when he goes shopping, or relate the value of services he pays for to what he pays for them? There may be such people in the world, but I find it hard to believe that he is one of them.

Incidentally, I am hardly less puzzled by his assertion that the exchange of armour between Glaucus and Diomede in Book VI of the Iliad is ‘the locus classicus for the clash of money and heroism’. What happened is that the two champions agreed not to fight when they discovered that through their respective grandfathers they were ‘guest-friends’. They then exchanged armour, and Homer says that Zeus ‘deprived Glaucus of his wits’ because he exchanged golden armour for bronze. The passage has always given difficulty, but so far as I know is generally interpreted as a joke. Walter Leaf, in the 1900 edition of his Commentary, called it ‘an outbreak of conscious and deliberate humour, which is only so far isolated that it appears among men and not, as elsewhere, among the gods’; and G.S. Kirk, in his 1990 Commentary, agrees that ‘the action and its implications are self-evidently intended to be humorous in some way.’

There is, I agree, a serious issue about the practice of gift-giving in the context of theories of rational choice. But for a light-hearted yet illuminating discussion of it, I would recommend your readers to leave Glaucus and Diomede in their mythical past and look up instead Samuel Brittan’s article ‘Glad Tidings of Dear Joy’ in the Financial Times for 16/17 December. Suppose you paid £10 for a bottle of wine which now sells for £50, and you give a bottle to a friend. Do you agree that you are costing yourself £50? It’s the correct economist’s reply, but apparently not the one that most readers of an American wine newsletter gave – which perhaps gives your reviewer a point after all.

W.G. Runciman
Trinity College

Men on White Horses

In his Diary (LRB, 14 December 1995), my favourite journalist, Christopher Hitchens, missed an opportunity to link the despicable Henry Kissinger with the national-saviour-in-a-uniform archetype, Douglas MacArthur. This proud, wicked man, also possessed of egregious ambition and self-love, was the original ‘man on the white horse’, an expression, Mr Hitchens tells us, much favoured by Kissinger. MacArthur created the metaphor when he ‘saved’ Washington, and a craven, cautious Hoover Administration, from the so-called Bonus Army.

In midsummer 1932, some ten thousand unemployed World War One veterans descended on the Capitol demanding that Congress deliver on their promise of veteran bonuses. Spooked by anti-Communist rhetoric, Herbert Hoover called in the Army to disperse them. Leading the brutal charge on a makeshift bivouac of former soldiers (wives and children too), naturally mounted on a white horse, was the irreproachable figure of Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur – even then displaying, as Hitchens says of Kissinger, ‘a natural affinity with anything cruel or ruthless or atrocious’. Second in command of this shameful assault was an army major named Dwight David Eisenhower.

Robert Ostermann
Chandler, Arizona

Devil take the hindmost

I respect the warmth of Michael Foot’s enthusiasm for H.G. Wells and admire the polemical vigour and wit of his letter (Letters, 4 January). But he has not engaged with the central point in my review. It was that Wells advocated concentration camps and/or mass sterilisation for categories of the population who, in a moderately liberal society, would scarcely merit probation. He put this forward speculatively in A Modern Utopia (1905) and privately as his personal opinion in his notes to the Galton essay, which Daniel Kevles quotes. It is worth requoting that passage, which Michael Foot evidently finds very uncomfortable: ‘The way of Nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilisation of failures and not in the selection of successes for breeding that the possibility of the improvement of the human stock lies.’ Foot dismisses this comment as being in any way relevant with airy encomiums of ‘the true Wellsian doctrine, much more significant than any deduction to be drawn from his youthful excursions into the debates about eugenics so prevalent in the intellectual world of that age’. In 1905, Wells was 40. ‘Youthful excursions’?

John Sutherland
University College London

Mischief in Melbourne

Peter Craven’s account of the Demidenko affair (LRB, 16 November 1995) strikes me as a partial one – like so much of the debate on both sides. He does not mention that a third honour was given to the author of The Hand That Signed the Paper. At the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Adelaide in early July she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society. This is the oldest prize of its kind in Australia, and the list of recipients includes Martin Boyd, Henry Handel Richardson, Patrick White and David Malouf. Although the medal was given a little after the Miles Franklin Award was made, the judges were constrained publicly to deny Peter Craven’s assumption that they had ‘jumped on the bandwagon’: their decision had been made quite independently, over a month before the Miles Franklin announcement was made. So three separate committees of senior academics and literary journalists – Jill Kitson served on both the Vogel and the Miles Franklin – have decided that The Hand That Signed the Paper is a serious and important work. It is in the nature of such committees that conservative and established people are appointed to them. They may not be in tune with young radicals, but it is grotesque to suggest, as by implication Craven does, that they are incompetent literary judges, or likely to be sucked in by a fashion for ‘multiculturalism’. They may have accepted as genuine the ‘Demidenko’ persona assumed by Helen Darville. But it should be noted that she (for whatever reasons) had publicly assumed this persona as a student at the University of Queensland in 1992, before the novel was entered for the Vogel Award. It should also be noted that the book states firmly on its opening page: ‘This is a work of fiction. The Kovalenko family … has no counterpart in reality.’

I don’t know who the ‘few members of the literary world who had read the book’ and were ‘bewildered’ when it won the Miles Franklin may be. Perhaps those, like the three panels of judges, who have read it and admired it, are thereby excluded from membership of Australia’s small, scattered and fissiparous ‘literary world’. They should worry.

What should be interesting to the ‘literary world’ is not the ill-considered actions of a strange young woman, or the malicious pursuit of her by some of the media, but the book she has written, and the way it has divided opinion across all groups. There are Jewish intellectuals prepared to defend The Hand That Signed the Paper, in spite of strong attacks on it from others; some traditionalists who attack the book blame its approval on ‘modern theory’, which has removed all moral responsibility from the study of literature. But one of its defenders, Professor Dame Leonie Kramer, is a vehement opponent of ‘theory’ and has said so in high places. The ‘new men’ (and women) with an interest in literary theory are also divided. Philip Mead of Melbourne University defends the book in a radio debate with Robert Manne, one of its strongest opponents; while Ivor Indyk of Sydney University, where Dame Leonie held the chair of Australian Literature, is a strong opponent. There is no consensus: it is probably the case that opposition to the book has been more persistent and concerted, but that does not guarantee that it represents an overwhelming majority.

My own view is that the book is a serious attempt at a very difficult problem. How can her father and nice Uncle Vitaly, whom Fiona, the main narrative voice in the book, has known and trusted all her life, be monsters? Of course there are faults, and there are failures of taste and judgment in places, but overall it is an impressive attempt to grapple with themes perhaps too complex for so young an author. I do not find it anti-semitic: to my mind such a conclusion implies a superficial or naive reading that cannot distinguish between the views of the author and the statements of her characters. The critics of the book certainly do include some very unsophisticated readers – unable to recognise, for example, the irony implicit in recording the wish of a commandant at Treblinka to have his camp look ‘pretty’.

F.H. Mares
Balhannah, Australia

Machismo

Argentine society is no doubt plagued by a particularly feeble brand of machismo (anything from the novels of Manuel Puig to the current President), but the tango-strutting woman whose waist is ‘about to break’ (LRB, 14 December 1995) is getting neither ‘laid’ nor ‘killed’. She’s going to perform a flashy movement in a dance with dazzling scope for power and sensuality all round. The ability to quebrar la cintura, literally to ‘break’ or ‘dislocate the waist’, is required of everyone on a Latin American dance floor. It’s the trumpeting self-regard of the male speaker in Joan Acocella’s quote that could be deemed scary, not his pleasure in a partner’s perfect timing.

Lorna Scott Fox
Mexico City

Potter’s Flux

Jenny Diski misrepresents me when she states that in my book, Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen, I offer a ‘vindication’ of derogatory stereotypes of woman as whore and as angel in Dennis Potter’s work (LRB, 14 December 1995). The problem with the ‘Potter and women’ question is that because we live in such a journalistic culture, most commentators assess the writer’s female characters in terms of naturalistic criteria – i.e. of how far they fall short of being ‘real’ women. Potter, however, was less interested in realistic characterisation than in exploring how men project their own flawed fantasies and feelings onto women. In interview, he told me he used to laugh when critics said certain of his characters were tending to caricature: ‘What the fuck – they were caricatures to start with!’ he chuckled. Particularly in his early career, his female figures functioned as mere ciphers: projections of the inner anxieties of a troubled male protagonist who was the real ‘problem’ addressed by the plays. Nor, I think, did the writer simply acquiesce in conventional stereotypes – as Jenny Diski accuses. Instead, these became the very problem, an inherited problem, which his writing attempted to explore and overcome as it progressed. By the time of Blackeyes, what we see is him trying, in his own very narrow way, to show how badly men treat women and to acknowledge his own male complicity in the process. That was his big mistake – because it left him open to the charge that, far from a wider issue of society, the problem was simply a personal one of his. As the product of a particular generation and culture (not to mention the trauma of sexual abuse), Potter inevitably did have his problems with women but what I find interesting about his work is that as it developed, he did not simply accept this but tried to struggle against it. Alas, however, not many others, it seems, want to see the artistic flux.

John Cook
Denny, Stirlingshire

End-Time

I don’t, of course, deny Wendy Hammond’s assertion (Letters, 30 November 1995) that there are a great many dangerous people in the USA, including Bo Gritz and the members of the Aryan Nation. Nor do I deny that they hold many of the views that the supporters of prewar Fascism held. What I deny is that they have any influence on national politics, as distinct from the pleasure of living in rural Idaho. Even in local politics, it is worth noting that when Christian Coalition members get onto school boards, they are kicked off as soon as they try to change curricula to reflect their views. The public hankers after centrist good sense, not loopiness. As for the Republican Party, it is in the usual hands, not of millenarians, but of tobacco companies, oil companies, agri-business, property developers and doctors bent on making lots of money. The rest is decoration.

Alan Ryan
Princeton University, New Jersey

Degrees of Admiration

In his disappointed review of Modernist Quartet, David Trotter claims that he admires me ‘greatly’ as a critic (LRB, 5 October 1995). He makes the following claims: 1. That I represent Frost by a ‘handful of short poems’. In fact, I discuss over thirty of Frost’s poems. 2. That Eliot is represented by ‘“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and The Waste Land only’. Apparently, he never read the pages on Four Quartets and 15 other poems by Eliot. 3. That I devote almost as much attention to an early polemical essay of Pound’s as I do to the Cantos. Twenty-four pages are devoted to the Cantos, ten to the essay. Perhaps if David Trotter actually read Modernist Quartet, he might admire it a little more.

Frank Lentricchia
Duke University, North Carolina

What Amish Wear

In a narrative passage about driving through the Appalachians, Andrew O’Hagan, in his review of Kerouac’s letters (LRB, 5 October 1995), describes what he calls ‘an Amish family’: ‘Three children with stem expressions on their faces. They wore very long, dark green dresses and plain white caps that tied under the chin … The father came along behind them; his beard was the kind that just spikes out from the jawline, the front of his face was clean. He wore a round hat and sombre trousers.’ This is an accurate description of a Mennonite family. Amish women (and girls) wear only black dresses and never plain white caps. The father’s ‘round hat’ is accurate, too. Had the man been Amish, O’Hagan surely would have noted his broad-brimmed headgear, seen only on Amish men.

Karl Patten
Bucknell University,

Dive Dive Dive

Further to Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s complain about your change of mind concerning a poem of hers (Letters, 14 December 1995), I would like to describe a recent experience with the New Yorker. The poetry editor there accepted a poem of mine a year and a half ago. Such was her enthusiasm that she went as far as to telephone me, and to ask, in addition, to see the manuscript of my forthcoming collection, on which I should mark those poems still available for publication. As far as I know, the accepted poem, though paid for, has never been published. The manuscript, now published as Best China Sky, was never returned. Numerous polite enquiries were totally ignored. The fact that poems which might have been bought elsewhere were effectively blocked from their small market upsets me less than this silent ostracism: I feel I have become not only a non-poet but a non-person, that I have been disappeared. Could it be censorship, homophobia, perhaps? If it was belatedly felt that my poem (published in Best China Sky as ‘The Judas Magnificat’) might offend readers, the least I might have been granted was a courteous explanation. Needless to say, the poem was not intended to give offence. The fact that it was paid for is irrelevant. I intend to repay the amount as soon as I am able.

Carol Rumens
Belfast

The experiences of Fiona Pitt-Kethley, Ted Burford and Giles Gordon in the matter of delay between acceptance and publication put me in mind of another interesting example of delayed gratification in publishing. In 1989 Chatto joined forces with the Observer to launch a series of pamphlets called ‘Counterblasts’. One was asked to send a cheque in advance which covered the cost of an eventual box for the set when complete. Although variable in quality these were prettily designed and sufficiently noticeable to provoke a counter – ‘Counterblast’ series from the Claridge Press called ‘Claridgeblasts’. The first (and perhaps the only one) of these ‘Claridgeblasts’ was by the late Peter Fuller on ‘the posturing of the Left Establishment’.

In 1990 Chatto and the Observer did it again and some of us once again stumped up our cheques – only to find that, one short of the 20, the series suddenly stopped dead in 1991 with a ‘Counterblast’ against religion by A.N. Wilson, whose subtitle, ‘Why we should try to live without it’, now assumes a wholly different meaning. Nine of the second series, pining to be made into a decade and boxed, now languish, four years later, on many a radical-chic bookshelf. Both Chatto and the Observer refuse to reply to correspondence asking what has happened to the missing link, although they have spent our cheques.

Nicholas Murray
Presteigne, Powys

Such Toies

It was standard practice in the 16th and 17th centuries to abjure responsibility for allowing one’s work to be published. So if Katherine Phillips did supply the printer with copy and pretend to be furious when it was published, as Margaret Anne Doody describes in her review of Germaine Greer’s Slip-Shod Sibyls (LRB, 14 December 1995), she would have been following the precedent of many male writers (but not of her two most illustrious women predecessors, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and her niece Mary Wroth, who acknowledged their part in the publication of their works, the latter even though hers created a scandal). Nicholas Breton complains in the Preface to the second edition of his Pilgrimage to Paradise (1592) that the edition of the year before ‘was donne altogether without my consent or knowledge’ and that ‘I know not how he’, the printer, ‘came by’ such ‘toies’. Samuel Daniel professed to be outraged that his and Philip Sidney’s secrets were ‘bewraied’ by the greedy printer who published the Astrophel and Stella of 1591. In tact, in the body of the poems he more or less confesses to having engineered the publication, though modern criticism has naively believed his protestations.

Penny McCarthy
Tokyo

Bugger the reader

James Davidson (Letters, 4 January) does well, I reckon, to show just how open to over-interpretation that saucy Greek vase is – ‘well-known’ to those in the know incidentally, but not to anyone else: an illustration would have been a help. There’s still one feature of the ambiguous scene on the vase that Davidson has failed to explain, however: why is the ‘strange figure’ presumed to be approaching bent on buggery running? Was buggery an act thought by the Greeks to be more attractive or incisive when attended by a certain urgency? Or is the scene as shown perhaps a joke? I find it comic; did they?

Neil Forster
London N1

Reborn

Massey Hall, Toronto, seems an ill-fated venue for slightly over the hill recording artists. Twenty-nine years before Tony Woolfson (Letters, 14 December 1995) witnessed Bob Dylan perform there before an audience of two thousand, Massey Hall hosted the legendary Quintet of the Year concert, often touted as the last act of bebop, and featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. As Ross Russell, Parker’s biographer tells it, ‘the concert was ill-advisedly scheduled for the same night as the Rocky Marciano-Jersey Joe Walcott heavyweight championship fight, and attracted only about seven hundred people to the twenty-five hundred capacity Massey Hall.’ If Russell’s figures are correct the 80 per cent turn-out for Dylan doesn’t seem so bad.

Frank Phillips
Reading

Fletters

Tony Heal’s reference to Fiona Pitt-Kethley as an improbably named egotist (Letters, 4 January) is a blot on an otherwise impeccable letter. Are we really to dismiss people on the basis of their names? It is heart-rending to think of world-class geniuses, called (say) Shufflebotham, reluctant to publish for fear of the Tony Heals out there waiting to point and snigger. However, his emphasis on the name, along with his reference to Keith Flett, does nudge one towards an almost inescapable surmise. Is it a coincidence that all the letters of Flett’s name are contained in Pitt-Kethley’s? Are we not in the presence of a diabolically subtle anagram – hidden from us inveterate anagram-hunters by the faux-naif reproduction of Keith/Keth and the addition of six letters? One need only posit a fuller version of Flett’s name to have a perfect anagram: Keith Y. Piano-Flett or (a Spanish family longer established than the Portillos) Keith Flett y Piano.

George Schlesinger
Durham

Just recently in France hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets in mass protest against austerity measures brought forward at least in part to allow France to enter European monetary union. Perhaps Perry Anderson completed his review of Alan Milward’s studies of post-war Europe (LRB, 4 January) before these events got underway in November. If not it is singularly odd that one of the most distinguished post-war British Marxists should pass them over in a commentary on the making of the modern European State.

Keith Flett
London Nl7

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