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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996

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The Agathocles Story

Jeremy Waldron (LRB, 22 August) asks: ‘If Agathocles’ – in Machiavelli’s Prince – ‘is to be condemned as someone who has crossed the line into tyranny, how are we to distinguish him from other apparently unscrupulous princes, like Cesare Borgia, whom Machiavelli praises for their ruthlessness?’ The answer is simple, and evident from Machiavelli’s telling of the story: Agathocles had murdered his fellow citizens and destroyed the free constitution under which they lived. Borgia had not, but had brought order where there was only disorder. The reason this simple answer hasn’t been adopted is that scholars tend to assume that in The Prince Machiavelli is advising the Medici to destroy the surviving remnants of Florence’s shattered liberty. In 1967 C.H. Clough explained why this is a mistaken interpretation. Once one sees that Machiavelli believes in the use of wicked means to defend freedom, but not to destroy it, his repeated insistence that there are some things no one should be prepared to do becomes consistent and comprehensible. Waldron is right to think that Machiavelli does not regard the traditional distinction between tyranny and legitimate authority as meaningless – and that’s the point of the Agathocles story.

David Wootton
Brunel University, Twickenham

Raymond Williams

Of the three points raised by the publisher of Raymond Williams in her letter (Letters, 22 August), two are wrong and one is doubtful. 1. Raymond Williams’s official biographer? I have a letter from Fred Inglis, dated 18 October 1993, saying, inter alia, that he was now Raymond Williams’s official biographer, due to deliver his manuscript to Routledge by the end of 1994, and interested in talking to me. I understand that other people received a letter couched in similar terms. 2. John McIlroy. Inglis does indeed, in his prefatory acknowledgments, give fulsome thanks to Dr McIlroy for the loan of materials on Raymond Williams’s years in adult education, and salutes his ‘comradeship’. What he does not have the grace to acknowledge is that McIlroy has published a very substantial book on the subject – much more fully researched than Inglis’s treatment in two chapters. Elsewhere there are just three footnote references to McIlroy’s book: none of them expresses either appreciation or gratitude for a book which sets a new high standard of writing and research on adult education. 3. Oral History. To send interviewees transcripts of what they have said does not exhaust the writer’s responsibilities. Selective quotation can give a quite different twist to any extract. According to one who had to resort to it, there were two instances in which it was only the threat of legal action that persuaded Inglis to withdraw from the use he was making of the interview.

With regard to Nicolas Tredell’s letter in the same issue, I cannot see what is Brechtian about a biography which, so far from dispelling the illusion of immediacy, contrives to suggest that the author was an eye-witness to every incident, a participant-observer in every drama. The sexual politics of the book also seem to me murkier than Tredell suggests. I cannot see what is feminist about claiming – on the evidence of unknown women informants – that Williams had no ‘sexual presence’, or that a man who smoked a pipe was unimaginable as a lover. The belittling references to Raymond’s uxoriousness, and the sneering caption attached to the photograph of Raymond and Joy, suggest that Inglis, in common with many others on the left, finds the idea of a loving marriage difficult to contemplate. But whether he approves of its terms or not, he might have considered the possibility that this was one of the elements at stake in Raymond and Joy’s particularly close relationship. What struck me most in Inglis’s fumbling attempts to deal with the private man was that he could conceive of no independent being for Joy at all, and that far from emerging as the champion of feminist understandings of female subordination within the private sphere (which would require him, at the least, to have read the feminist work on Williams by Jardine and Swindells, Shiach, Kaplan et al, which he clearly hasn’t), he seems quite unconsciously compelled by his own masculine, even Oedipal relations to his appointed authority figures, not least Raymond Williams himself.

Among more thoughtful responses to my piece, Lawrence Goldman (Letters, 1 August) makes the very interesting suggestion that Culture and Society, so far from breaking new ground, actually presented the old adult education syllabus in new form, setting it out accessibly before a fresh audience in the expanding universities of the late Fifties and Sixties. This may be true, as Goldman suggests, of the pantheon of anti-industrial critics (Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris), but the centrality which Williams gives to Pugin’s Contrasts as a way of conceptualising the opposition between past and present in early 19th-century thought seems to come from somewhere else. More surprising is the fact that Williams chooses to start his narrative, and frame the problematic of his book, in terms taken from that age-old whipping boy of British radicalism, Edmund Burke. No less remarkable in a writer from the left is the absence of any reference to Burke’s great adversary, Tom Paine.

Raphael Samuel
London E1

Nicolas Tredell denounces Williams’s support for the Russian, Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, on the grounds that ‘violence against the state’ leads only to ‘death and suffering on a large scale’ – a point which, for some reason, became even more unarguable ‘after 1989’. This is a curious charge; I had thought that it was generally believed, and not only on the left, that revolutionary uprisings could be justified against some regimes, under some conditions. What those conditions might be, of course, is another question, and one to which my answer might well differ from Williams’s. Tredell’s criticism, however, could only have been preempted by Williams adopting either absolute pacifism or the defence of any and every status quo. In any case, Williams was far from being any sort of evangelist of revolution: keenly aware of the correlation between political liberation and immediate human suffering, in Modern Tragedy he went so far as to characterise revolution as tragedy. His judgment of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was complex and critical. But it wasn’t entirely negative – and that suffices for Inglis to render him a figure of fun, an armchair Maoist with no idea of the real implications of what he was saying (‘Rotovating a few beds of nettles … wasn’t what the Red Guards had in mind’). This shaft of derision – for Tredell a ‘vigorous and justified riposte’ – raises a few questions. Assume that Inglis had given Williams’s views on the Cultural Revolution the consideration they deserve and constructed a case against them. Could the line quoted above form part of such an argument? To ask the question is to answer it. Whatever arguments Inglis might be able to make – in his mind, perhaps – his method on paper is alien to debate: he proceeds by way of condescension, sneer and lampoon. (An approach which Tredell endorses, to judge from his own petulant swipe at Raphael Samuel.)

Phil Edwards
Manchester

Undesirable

I admire Tom Paulin’s strong readings, and I admire his willingness to unsettle reputations. But he could be right about Eliot’s anti-semitism while still being wrong about Anthony Julius’s book (LRB, 9 May and Letters, 1 August. Though it may seem odd to the likes of R.H. Marshall (Letters, 1 August), who appear to spend their lives in a fug of conspiracy theory about the canon, it is possible to find Eliot anti-semitic (which he surely was) while also finding Julius’s claim that Eliot ‘trained himself to be an anti-semite’ hysterical. In this context, it is not ‘petulant’ to point out that Julius’s book is misleading and incoherent.

It is misleading to complain, as Julius does, that The Waste Land, which mentions Vienna only once, ‘silences Jewish Vienna’. It is misleading to charge, as Julius does, that Eliot’s comment on Isaac Rosenberg – ‘The poetry of Isaac Rosenberg … does not only owe its distinction to its being Hebraic: but because it is Hebraic it is a contribution to English literature. For a Jewish poet to be able to write like a Jew, in Western Europe and in a Western language, is almost a miracle’ – is akin to Richard Wagner’s view when he said that a German Jew could never compose German music, but would always compose Jewish music. Wagner’s taunt is that the Jew will try to speak as a native but cannot help speaking as a foreigner, and that because of this, he will never produce anything great. But Eliot, who thought Rosenberg the greatest of the First World War poets, praises him for exactly the opposite quality; he praises him for the miracle of his self-preservation. And it is misleading to allege that Eliot’s poem ‘A Song for Simeon’, which is a version of the Nunc Dimittis, is ‘another one of Eliot’s triumphs over Jews’.

I am surprised that Paulin is so easily persuaded that Julius admires Eliot’s work just because he places that admiration ‘on record’. His book attempts a sustained erosion of Eliot’s quality as a poet. To observe this is not to want ‘to cuddle up close’ to Eliot. It is important because it leads Julius into incoherence, and unravels his entire thesis. His book makes two claims: 1. That anti-semitism is at the centre of Eliot’s work. 2. That anti-semitism is at the centre of some of his greatest work. Neither seems true: Eliot would not be cherished or even remembered today if we knew him only as the author of ‘Sweeney’, ‘Gerontion’ and ‘Burbank’. Julius’s argument that the three anti-semitic poems are great and important is disingenuous. For this is a greatness that Julius, far from being able to display or argue, cannot apparently find in the rest of Eliot’s work. And Eliot’s criticism? ‘At its best, it enlarged a particular tradition.’

Now this is senseless: Julius denies greatness or centrality to all the work that is non-anti-semitic, denies greatness to the work that most of us love Eliot for, while awarding importance, skill and centrality to the anti-semitic work. But what kind of ‘greatness’ or ‘centrality’ is this? The most that Julius can say about the anti-semitic work, despite his attempts to claim its quality, is that it is ‘charged’, ‘economical’ and ‘virtuose’. (These three words are repeated again and again.) This is a greatness and centrality manufactured by Julius, who needs it for his thesis. The greater the poems in which Eliot’s anti-semitism appears, the greater the anti-semitism in Eliot’s work, and the better things are for Julius’s argument.

James Wood
Washington DC

The Pleasure Principle

I found Adam Phillips’s article (LRB, 20 June) the usual mixture of the baffling and the thought-provoking. The topic of sublimation, and of an ‘interest’ that is not simply prompted by an adult translation of childish sexual curiosity, is one that needs thinking about.

One of the problems with Freud’s concept of sublimation is that it seems to presuppose an original form of instinctual and unsophisticated psychic drive, whose main aim is physical (‘sexual’) gratification, which we learn, painfully, in the course of education and acculturation to redirect towards ‘higher’ and less immediate pursuits – intellectual, scientific or artistic work. At the same time, sublimation seems to entail some qualitative transformation of these original drives. In this way Freud’s concept comprehends the two aspects traditionally associated with sublimation (in alchemy, for example): an upward aspiration combined with the refinement of a base substance. ‘Interest’ could then be seen as a form of psychic investment that is no longer simply driven by instinctual need, and that has something optional about it (as the financial analogy implies).

However, this model of sublimation just doesn’t seem to match up with experience. As we grow up, or at least older, the nature of our appetites – even the ‘basic’ ones for food, shelter, company or sex – gradually becomes more and more sophisticated. In other words, they are increasingly complicated by a weaving together of our personal experience with cultural and social influences. This happens unevenly: some people’s sophistication in matters of food is greater than in matters of sex; in some cases it seems hardly to have happened at all; and in others it gets taken to the kind of extreme in which particularity and perversity of taste are almost indistinguishable. But at no point can we, as adults, draw a line on one side of which is ‘raw’ need and on the other a completely sublimated derivative of it.

With ‘Art’ the problem is that there is a more or less evident ‘jump’ between the kinds of investment we make in forms of conversation, conviviality and decoration, and the rather different ‘interest’ we derive from those forms of art (literature, music, painting) that are in some way set apart from the everyday textures of life. This jump seems to match Freud’s concept of sublimation, because it implies a special kind of transformation or ‘work’. Take Freud’s famous comment about a group of avant-garde artists: ‘Meaning is but little to these men; all they care for is line, shape, agreement of contours. They are given over to the Pleasure Principle.’ One way of making sense of this is to suppose some failure of sublimation because these artists had got stuck at a preliminary stage of narcissistic and hedonistic pleasure and had not done the transformative work necessary for a ‘proper’ work of art. Staying with this example, we can infer that for Freud successful sublimation was intimately connected with a process of conventional refinement. But when the gap between immediate pleasure-yield, lusty curiosity, transformation and interest begins to close, as it does in many forms of modern art, it becomes increasingly difficult to sort out a conventional model for the sublimatory process: indeed it was one of the Surrealists’ tactics to aim at works of art that were anti-sublimatory in their effect.

David Maclagan
Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, Sheffield University

Night of the Living Dead

I was frustrated with the issue of LRB which carried reviews of recent books by Christopher Ricks (LRB, 1 August) and George Steiner (LRB, 1 August). Both Ricks and Steiner hold notoriously reactionary, anti-theoretical views. Why devote such attention to them? True, both Marilyn Butler and Andreas Huyssen expressed polite scepticism. But surely to dedicate such space to their work is a tacit endorsement of its spirit? Both men made important contributions to the field around thirty years ago, but are now markedly at odds with things. I would urge you to devote space to really important contributions of our decade, ones that are being talked about at the most interesting conferences in literary and cultural studies.

Ruth Parkin-Gounelas
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

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