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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 11 · 6 June 1996

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Undesirable

I’m concerned that the issue of T.S. Eliot and anti-semitism has so far produced only one brief and one trivial letter (Letters, 23 May). Surely LRB readers are interested in Anthony Julius’s study of the subject and have opinions they want to share on it and on the profound questions the book raises? It would be interesting to learn what Dr Julius thinks this tells us about the current state of British literary culture.

Tom Paulin
Oxford

Misunderstanding Yugoslavia

Basil Davidson, in his review (LRB, 23 May) of The Balkan Tragedy by Susan Woodward, rightly notes that in Yugoslavia after 1941 ‘the German army tortured and burned and killed with the worst of them.’ But unfortunately the ‘worst of them’ included many of the Yugoslavs themselves. Most of the Croats welcomed the Germans and supported the Fascist Ustashe, who were taking terrible vengeance on the Serbs trying to resist the invaders. And the Serbian chetnik guerrillas were not slow to respond in kind.

The Muslims also collaborated with the Germans, setting up numerous small armed groups to defend themselves against chetnik reprisals, and in November 1942 the Muslim clergy and other notables addressed a memorandum to Hitler, asking for these to be placed under direct German command. This was done, and in April 1943 the anti-British Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who had gone to Germany after the start of the war, recruited an SS division from around Sarajevo. Originally 12,000, this finally reached 20,000 men, a respectable total for a Muslim population of 1.6 million.

In the murky history of wartime Yugoslavia it is far from clear what these did, but they seem never to have been in action on the Eastern Front, nor in Italy and France. Presumably they were used for internal security in Yugoslavia itself, against the Serbian chetniks and, later, Tito’s Communist Partisans. The Serbs certainly suffered dreadfully at that time, some hundreds of thousands, together with a lot of Jews and Gypsies, being done to death in the notorious exterminations camps at Jasenovac and elsewhere.

After the end of the war, by ruthlessly suppressing all opposition, Tito was remarkably successful in keeping peace in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. And when this finally broke up in the early Nineties, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were able to establish ethnically more or less coherent republics, which were soon recognised by the United Nations as independent states. This left Bosnia. Looked at from outside, an independent multi-ethnic state would obviously seem the best answer, but that requires good will and tolerance among those concerned, which plainly does not exist. Although few of those directly responsible for what was done fifty years and more ago can now remain, memories in the Balkans are long and the recent civil war won’t have helped to remove them. The sad conclusion must be that a partition of Bosnia, probably with some transfers of population, may now be the best and indeed the only answer. Well meant though it was, the United Nations recognition of Bosnia as an independent multi-ethnic state within its original boundaries, may have been a principal cause of the present tragic situation in that un-happy country.

C.B. Goodhart
Gonville and Caius College

Moretti gets it right

George Steiner, while charitable to a number of its local insights, takes a somewhat dismal view of the general worth of Franco Moretti’s recent book, Modern Epic (LRB, 23 May). I take a very different view. That is clearly a matter of opinion. But what will not do is to give an account of the book that is in many ways misleading, mainly by omission. Thus, Steiner begins his review by rehearsing the idea of epic developed by Hegel (and Lukács), without, however, mentioning the fact that Hegel’s Aesthetic Lectures are explicitly Moretti’s own point of departure (he refers to this background as an ‘implicit model’ for Moretti). Moreover, where the Hegelian ‘model’ is concerned, Steiner gets it wrong where Moretti gets it right. Steiner wants Hegel and Lukács to be saying what Moretti denies they are saying: that the novel from Walter Scott to Tolstoy ‘necessarily incorporates epic attributes and purposes’. Neither Hegel nor (early) Lukács saw the novel in this way. On the contrary, Hegel very precisely argued that they were different cultural forms, as did the early Lukács of Theory of the Novel (it is only the later, post-Hegelian Marxist Lukács of Studies in European Realism who sought to graft the integrating ambitions of ancient epics onto the great tradition of the 19th-century novel). More important, Steiner charges Moretti with failing to have ‘wholly defined’ what he means by the term ‘world text’ (of which modern epics are alleged to be instances). This is crucial because the concept of world text is the intellectual underpinning of Moretti’s historical analysis and explanation of the modern epic. It is deeply unclear what a ‘whole’ definition might look like and who could conceivably supply us with such a thing. What of course is required is a satisfactory definition, and this Moretti goes to great pains to supply, notably on pages 49-55. These pages offer more than a definition: they give a historical account of the conditions for the emergence of the modern world text, linked to the creation of what the practitioners of world-history (Braudel, Wallerstein, McNeill) have called the modern ‘world system’. Steiner again does not so much as allude to this account. The unfortunate impression created by Steiner’s omissions and straw men is that Moretti’s book is the work of a dilettante, its author enjoying himself in a kind of Post-Modern DIY playground where no serious scholar would dream of joining him. This is a travesty of the facts and entails a most unfortunate neglect of what it is about Moretti’s book that makes it a quite major contribution to literary and cultural history. No review can ever begin to do it justice that does not centrally address the argument it puts forward linking the notion of modern epic to that of world text and its evocation of the history which produces that link.

Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge

Judges and Ministers

Professor John Griffith (Letters, 9 May) does not explain why he believes that the English judiciary are uniquely incapable of interpreting and applying a Bill of Rights. Nor does he explain why he regards the white and mainly male judges of the European Court of Human Rights as better qualified to protect our basic rights and freedoms without the benefit of a contribution from our own courts.

Professor Griffith refers to a series of cases since 1980 in which English courts have narrowly interpreted the right of free expression. I agree with his criticism of those cases, but his list is seriously incomplete. I would cite other cases like Spycatcher (1990), Derbyshire County Council v. Times Newspapers (1993), Esther Rantzen v. Mirror Group (1994), Elton John v. MGN (1995), Hector (1990) and George Blake (1996) as examples of a much more enlightened approach.

As for the Law Lords’ decision in Brind (upholding the Home Secretary’s decision to ban broadcasting by Sinn Fein and others), I do not understand how Professor Griffith can both object to that decision and oppose the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our legal system. What the Law Lords decided in that case was that they could not incorporate the Convention through the back door when Parliament had refused to do so through the front door. The only way in which our courts could have reviewed the broadcasting ban using European principles would have been by usurping the powers of Parliament and making the Convention part of English law. The central argument in my essay was that Parliament should incorporate the Convention and that our judiciary are at least as good as those of the rest of the Commonwealth and Europe in acting as constitutional judges giving speedy remedies for breaches of human rights.

Anthony Lester
London EC4

Advice to Crack-Dealers

It’s hard to take Edward Luttwak seriously when he believes (as he suggested in LRB, 9 May) that low-level crack-dealers in LA – peddling to schoolkids – will give up their easy money to take up gardening or digging ditches just because these jobs will be available under a Buchanan regime. The air in Washington must be very rarefied these days.

Michael Elcock
Sooke, British Columbia

Something Happened

Elaine Morgan, taking issue with Jerry Fodor on evolution (Letters, 9 May), seems to think that if ‘hidden constraints’ exist, they must depend on whether or not evolution progressed at a uniform rate or at a rate of ‘punctuated equilibrium’. But all formal definitions of type or species (say, like the ‘chreods’ discussed by Waddington and Thorn at the 1967 Sebelloni Symposium) describe a constraint outside time and space to which material evolutionary progress is supposed to conform; therefore the rhythm and pattern of their realisation in space-time is determined by material constraints already operating in the natural world as a result of prior evolution at any given time. The question which I believe concerns Jerry Fodor is whether, without the supposition of ‘hidden constraints’, evolution can be understood.

By implication, Elaine Morgan appears to argue like Occam (and others since) that they cannot exist, on the logical grounds that ‘a unitary thing cannot exist in a multiplicity of things.’ This nominalist argument presupposes that formal archetypes (and everything else) can exist only spatio-temporally. In this case, we cannot even discuss the existence of hidden constraints if we accept Occam’s (and others’) strictures about the nature of reality, for this determines our ideas about existence.

So what is reality? Reality is that linguistic consensus (on which the intelligibility of propositions in science depends) which defines the ordinary world we bump into every day: that the sun rises and sets and flowers bloom and wither is evident to everyone whether or not it is scientifically proven, and all discourse and behaviour depends on this ordinary consensus about reality. In this reality, although individuals are referred to and meant, when material existences and organisms are denominated by ordinary language their paradigms or archetypes are also predicated; words like cow or rock can be used to refer to particular cases only because they assume the a priori recognition of the species to which those individuals in space-time belong, and whose spatio-temporal existence science deductively explains; not because we are Berkeleyan idealists but because human cognition does not take place as an objective process outside nature. It perceives a relational and interdependent whole. Science is then a tool for testing the laws on which perceived phenomena depend. Both signifier and signified together denominate an epistemological unity of knower and known within the relational whole. Linguistic constructs reflect the a priori ordinary experience which determines our ideas about reality before science argues, using language, about its operation and process.

David Kuhrt
London N8

Sentimental

Aren’t there rules to protect private citizens from depressed diarists like Elisa Segrave? She reports (LRB, 18 April) meeting in Key West, at supper with ‘Judith and Irving’, an ‘old lady … called Helen Rosen’. Someone should tell Ms Segrave the next time she drifts out to the edge of her fishtank-like consciousness that that woman was indeed called Helen Rosen. But Helen Rosen does not have blonde hair; she did not travel with her children in Europe during World War Two (those travels took place in the Fifties); while abroad they were on a ‘tight budget’ but they did not eat at railway station buffets; and one wonders whether Ms Segrave can appreciate that the ‘Jewish physicist’ (mentioned by name that night) who helped tackle the problem of currents affecting the Normandy invasion was the eminent crystallographer Desmond Bernal.

Of course this much is just sloppy journalism. Much more disturbing is the tenor of her portrait of Helen: she sees Helen Rosen as an enfeebled and pathetic specimen of left-wing politics, a politics Ms Segrave seems to be at great pains to tell us that she has wised up to. She made a big mistake in picking on Helen Rosen and in particular by insinuating that she ‘has a very sentimental attitude towards Castro’. Helen’s ‘official visit’ to Cuba took place when she was already in her sixties, and beside talking face to face with Castro, she spent the bulk of her time there helping Cubans by testing their hearing. The sort of thing she had already done in China, the Soviet Union, the Sudanese outback, in fact all over the non-First World. Segrave also might have guessed from Helen’s mention of McCarthyism, that her ‘sentimental’ politics pre-date not only Castro but the Cold War as well. In fact, Helen and her husband Sam, an otolaryngologist, were the victims of blacklisting from 1946 until 1958, which meant the virtual loss of a very substantial medical practice (hence the ‘tight budget’ in Europe). The Rosens were not even Communists: they were simply tireless workers who put their time, their property, their social standing and personal safety on the line for the left causes of their time: the formation of trade unions and the attainment of civil rights for black Americans. The friendship and loyalty the Rosens showed to Paul Robeson, truly dangerous at the time, by itself would have earned them a spot on the honour role of those who offended the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Victor Menza
Buffalo, New York

Raising the Mind

Michael Wood’s excellent review of Frank Kermode’s Not Entitled: A Memoir (LRB, 9 May) needs correction in one detail. Talking of the consoling power of fictions, Kermode says in The Sense of an Ending that they enable us ‘to submit, as we must, the show of things to the desires of the mind’. Wood believes that this reworks Bacon’s claim that poetry can ‘give some show of satisfaction to the mind, wherein the nature of things doth seem to deny it’, and he puts weight on what he assumes are Kermode’s alterations. But this is the wrong bit of Bacon. A little later in the same section of The Advancement of Learning (II.iv.2) Bacon notes that, by virtue of being ‘nothing else but feigned history’, poetry ‘doth raise and erect the mind, by submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind.’

Roger Holdsworth
Manchester University

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