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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 16 · 22 August 1996

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Refugees and their Agents

Hirit Belai’s Diary (LRB, 18 July) explains that British immigration officials think that most refugees to Britain deliberately chose their destination, in preference to any other. Experience in Germany, which has the most generous provision of all EU countries, suggests that almost all asylum-seekers have been helplessly delivered into the hands of professional refugee agents – doubtful characters who exact large fees in return for a promise to smuggle their clients into a European country. Germany is particularly good for these purposes, not only because of its generous refugee policy, but because of its adherence to the Schengen Agreement, which allows passportless crossing of the German frontier from all countries except the Czech Republic and Poland.

The country to which a given asylum-seeker is sent entirely depends on the agent, nearly all of whom know which countries in Europe are easy to get into and which more difficult – and exact correspondingly higher fees if a refugee really insists on a particular destination. It is a grotesque impudence on the part of these agents to pretend they can succeed when in nearly all cases they are bound to fail. I hear every day of Moroccan youths who swim across to Spain, only to be turned back if they are caught; of Greek or Turkish fishermen who make quite a bit on the side by ferrying Kurds from Iraq or Turkey to a one of the Greek islands; of Polish agents who take large fees to get illegals across the German frontier. Mostly these attempts fail – but no matter, the agent has pocketed his fee.

On present figures, no less than 94 per cent of all asylum-seekers in Germany are disallowed, but only in very rare cases are they deported: they just stay on illegally. I suspect a comparative study of refugee policy in all EU countries would show that British practice is no worse than others — just a bit tighter.

Josef Elfenbein
University of Mainz

In Defence of Raymond Williams

When Fred Inglis approached me for information about my father, Raymond Williams, he told me that he was planning to write ‘a novel of the Left’, and perhaps that is how his book should be read (LRB, 4 July). I can confirm that Dai Smith is the authorised biographer, and my family has every confidence in him.

Merryn Williams
Wootton, Bedfordshire

As the publisher of Fred Inglis’s Raymond Williams, I feel I must correct several inaccuracies in Raphael Samuel’s review. 1. At no point in the book does Fred Inglis claim to be the ‘official biographer’ of Raymond Williams, nor did he ever claim to be so to the publishers. 2. Raphael Samuel suggests that some of those interviewed for the biography now feel that they have been misquoted. All of those interviewed were sent copies of what they had said; they were asked to edit or correct these transcripts, and in those cases where they were unhappy with the general impression created by a longer passage, then that passage was deleted. 3. Fred Inglis’s researches in a variety of archives connected with various periods of Williams’s life included extensive use of the records and reminiscences relating to the history of adult education in England compiled by Dr John McIlroy of the University of Manchester. Your reviewer states that Professor Inglis ‘contrives not to mention it in his acknowledgments’. His eye appears to have wandered here. If he looks on p. viii, he will find that the value of the archive and the personal help given by Dr McIlroy is paid full and generous tribute.

Mari Shullaw
Routledge, London EC4

Yes, Fred Inglis’s biography of Raymond Williams is a bad book, marred by inaccuracies, obtuse and obtrusive opinionation, and inept attempts at ‘imaginative’ writing. But to focus on these flaws, as Raphael Samuel does in his review, or to seek to restore the hagiolatry, as some of your subsequent correspondents have done, is to obfuscate the larger issues which the biography undoubtedly – and uncomfortably – raises.

For example, insofar as Inglis, according to Samuel, resembles Bob Hoskins in the BT advertisements in his account of Williams’s marriage and family life, he is a Brechtian Bob who breaks through the illusion of naturalness to pose a key question of sexual, and socialist, politics: that of gender inequality. Inglis quotes a number of observations, not merely his own, of Joy Williams’s apparent subordination – almost, at times, to the point of self-immolation – to her husband. These observations are necessarily partial, and may be inaccurately and selectively transcribed; but simply to ignore the issues they raise, as Samuel does, is to show contempt for that important strand in modern feminism which argues that a consideration of the way men treat women – in their ‘personal’ as much as their ‘political’ lives – is vital to any genuine ‘long revolution’. Such contempt is hardly surprising in a reviewer who turns a dynamic female ex-publisher into the passive occupant of a bathchair when he states that Carmen Callil is ‘wheeled on’ by Inglis to say that Williams is no novelist.

Perhaps most tellingly for socialists of Samuel’s ilk, there is the matter of Williams’s support, hedged round with qualifications and reservations as it was, for revolutionary violence. Philip Corrigan (Letters, 1 August) should re-read the interviews with Williams collected in Politics and Letters (1979) to remind himself that this man of ‘warmth, humour, kindness’ was ready in certain circumstances – because of that very ‘commitment’ which Corrigan also praises – to endorse and encourage violence against the state of a kind which historically has led, and in the foreseeable future is likely to lead, to death and suffering on a large scale. Inglis’s remark about Red Guards and rotovators, which Samuel quotes, is a vigorous and justified riposte to Williams’s approval of the way in which, in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, people were bullied into undertaking physical work on the land. The riposte is one of a number of occasions in the biography when Inglis raises the crucial question of Williams’s relationship to the kind of revolutionary violence which it is difficult at the end of the 20th century – and specially after 1989 – to see as leading, even in the long term, to a benign outcome.

To say this is, of course, to indulge in what Samuel disapprovingly calls in his review ‘the wisdom of hindsight’. That’s certainly no temptation for Samuel; he seems to have learnt nothing from history. From the credulous Communist who, according to Keith Thomas (LRB, 20 April 1995), wept at the death of Uncle Joe to the gawping consumer of the gewgaws of the heritage industry in the first volume of his Theatres of Memory (1994), Samuel has remained a sentimental gull, sloshing around happily in the lukewarm bath of political irresponsibility. Raymond Williams was not such a child; but we do no justice to his memory or his politics to seek to repress discussion of the possible contradictions, failings and evasions of his life and work.

Nicolas Tredell
Seaford, East Sussex

Now that LRB readers have debated the importance of Raymond Williams may I suggest that it is his statue that fills the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square?

Keith Flett
London N17

Disorder

‘What used to be called Traumatic War Neurosis, or something similar, is now labelled PTSD – what’s the big deal?’ This is what Sheldon Litt wants to know (Letters, 18 July) after reading Gerald Weissmann’s review of my book, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The answer depends on the meaning that Litt wishes to give to his first ‘what’. If, as it seems, he is writing about a phenomenon that supposedly transcends the nomenclatures and practices of psychiatry, then one would have to agree that that there is nothing really new about PTSD. But as Weissmann makes clear, it is precisely this idea, that traumatic memory is a timeless essence, that the book rejects. The phenomenon that psychiatry knows as ‘traumatic memory’ is a relatively recent development, and during the century and a half of its existence the character of its symptoms and the identity of its victims have been periodically reconceived. PTSD is the most recent chapter in the history of traumatic memory. Litt is correct when he writes that PTSD shares features with the traumatic neuroses of the First World War, but he is mistaken if he supposes that there are no important differences between these disorders, and that they merely rename a constant underlying reality. The character of the traumatic hysterias and neurasthenias was shaped by the moral sensibilities, political institutions and clinical practices of the 1914-18 period; the character of PTSD has been likewise stamped by American participation in the Vietnam War, by the domestic liberation politics of the Sixties and Seventies, and by the profound technological and social changes taking place in American psychiatry during the same period.

Litt also attacks Weissmann for comments he is alleged to have made concerning the disease taxonomy that has dominated American psychiatry since the Eighties, the so-called DSM system. His argument that the DSM system is not scientific is justified only if one thinks of ‘science’ as a technology for uncovering pre-existing truths rather than as one or more distinctive systems for producing and vindicating knowledge. If science is what scientists do, then the DSM system can be said to have revolutionised the practice of psychiatric science it the United States.

Allan Young
McGill University, Montreal

Sheldon Litt’s letter commenting on the DSM reminded me of this bit of wisdom from DSM-III-R: ‘Beliefs or experiences of members of religious or other cultural groups may be difficult to distinguish from delusions or hallucinations. When such experiences are shared and accepted by a cultural group, they should not be considered evidence of psychosis.’ In short, if we’re all crazy, then we’re not crazy.

Roger House
Sebastopol, California

Mind the gap

In his review of The Oxford English Grammar (LRB, 18 July) Hugh Kenner betrays an ignorance of at least a century of developments in grammatical description, including Sidney Greenbaum’s own landmark collaboration, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). As important and welcome as Greenbaum’s new grammar is, it is not, as Kenner suggests, the first to depart from what he ingenuously terms ‘the schoolmarm connotations of “grammar" ’. These are, I infer, a preoccupation with normative rules (as opposed to description), ‘accidence’ (as opposed to syntax) and written, as opposed to spoken, forms. Descriptive and syntactic grammars of English have been around for at least as long as the twenty years I have been teaching English (the language). Admittedly, their concern has been mainly with written English. Nevertheless, as long ago as 1761, Priestly premised his rudiments of English Grammar on the principle that ‘the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language.’

Nor is Greenbaum’s grammar ‘unique’ by virtue of the fact that it draws on a corpus of authentic texts for its citations. In Jesperson’s A Modern English Grammar (1909-49) all the citations are taken from published books; The Collins COBUILD English Grammar (1990) draws on an enormous computerised database of both spoken and written English housed at the University of Birmingham. Nor, incidentally, is Greenbaum the first to use the terms ‘monotransitive’ and ‘ditransitive’, as Kenner suggests.

Finally, his contention that coherence ‘simply follows from cohesion’ is demonstrably false. The following text, while notionally cohesive, is clearly incoherent: ‘Hugh Kenner lives in Georgia. And I’ve got Georgia on my mind. Mind the gap. Gap has got three letters, therefore.’ Kenner’s review reminds us that, whereas specialists in English (the language) have written engagingly and with great scholarship about English (the literature) – witness Michael Halliday and Henry Widdowson – the reverse is sadly not the case.

Scott Thornbury
Barcelona

Drooping

Daniel Kinney and Bracht Branham (Letters, 18 July) are worried that when, in the course of a generally favourable comparison, I noted that P.G. Walsh’s translation of Petronius’ Satyricon ‘hugs the Latin more closely’ I was casting aspersions on the accuracy of their own version. It would be nice to keep both the spirit and the letter of a translated text (and every other level of meaning in between), but since each language has its own peculiar characteristics and will not slip easily inside another’s skin, choices sometimes have to be made. It seems to me undeniable that Kinney and Branham when faced with this choice opted for what they thought was the Petronian spirit over the letter, while Walsh follows more precisely what the Latin actually says. Whether those who are faithful in spirit or those who are faithful to the letter are more faithful to Petronius is a question my review was not attempting to answer.

These differences are perfectly apparent in the passage chosen by Daniel Kinney for comparison, Encolpius’ description of his unresponsive penis. Professor Walsh’s member is of female gender and the eyes she fixes on the ground are two in number, which might lead some readers to suppose a disappointed woman is still in the room. In Kinney’s and Branham’s version the organ in question is an ‘it’ and it has a single eye with which to stare groundwards. This certainly produces a more vivid and more humorous image, but it is not Petronius’ joke. His humour is to be found in the mock-epic bathos, citing Vergil at this juncture and comparing the recalcitrant penis with Dido’s sullen ghost ignoring Aeneas in the underworld. It is hard to know how a translator could have conveyed this rather morbid mixture of lewd and pseud – ‘My dick ignored me, like the ghost of a jilted lover encountered on a trip to hell’ – but some quotation marks might have helped.

James Davidson
London NW3

Undesirable

Apropos T.S. Eliot, Nigel Jackson speaks darkly of ‘the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years’ (Letters, 4 July). Short of referring us to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, would he care to explain?

D.M. Roskies
Jakarta

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