Vol. 20 No. 4 · 19 February 1998
Why the ‘LRB’? Why anything?
Why does a literary magazine exist at all? It might have been the case that no magazine existed: no cover, no list of contributors, no contents. We have to go on and ask why we have the magazine we do have. Consider the Null Possibility. There could have been a journal with nothing in it. Consider next the All Worlds Hypothesis, in which our periodical would contain every possible kind of article. Somewhere in between is the publication we buy. Perhaps the Brute Fact View applies and we have to put up with what we get between the covers and not ask questions. On the other hand, there may be a Selector or a set of partial Selectors which determines what kind of magazine we experience. I am trying to get round, of course, to asking the ‘Selectors’ what was going on when they decided to publish Derek Parfit’s two-part article on the meaning of the universe (LRB, 22 January)? The world we live in is unfair enough, with the LRB appearing only fortnightly, and that terrible gap after Christmas, the deepest abyss in the year. To surrender two and a half pages in each of two issues to this meticulous but rather pontifical philosophical analysis is enough to make us cry out ‘Why?’ to the heavens.
Following contemporary cosmology, Derek Parfit writes of the sheer statistical unlikeliness of our existence (LRB, 22 January): ‘Of the range of initial conditions, fewer than one in a billion billion would have produced a Universe with the complexity that allows for life. If this claim is true, as I shall here assume, there is something that cries out to be explained. Why was one of this tiny set also the one that actually obtained?’ Parfit seems to think that the probability that God exists is greater than one in a billion billion, so that the existence of God is more likely to be true than the accidental existence of a life-supporting universe. But his stipulation that he’s assuming that the claims of current cosmology are true gives the game away. For even if you think that the odds that God exists are greater than one in a billion billion, it’s dizzyingly more probable that cosmology has it wrong. (After all, similar sorts of error are not unprecedented in the history of physics.) In fact, Parfit’s argument ought to embarrass cosmologists, not atheists. To paraphrase Parfit: cosmologists may reject this answer, thinking it improbable that their theory is wrong. But this probability cannot be as low as one in a billion billion. So even cosmologists should admit that, of these two answers to our question, the one that invokes scientific error is more likely to be true.
The many names which Chinese leaders and officials allegedly gave Chris Patten are by now widely known. In his review of Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Last Governor (LRB, 27 November 1997), Murray Sayle repeated the allegation that Beijing denounced Patten as ‘an eternally unpardonable criminal’ and ‘a triple violator’. These names and others still crop up periodically in the British press. It is unfortunate that few can check the sources and determine for themselves what the Chinese did or did not say. Lu Ping, the former director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, used the phrase qian gu zui ren when warning Patten that his reforms would disrupt the smooth transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong. The British media translated his phrase as ‘the greatest criminal in history’ or ‘a man cursed by a thousand generations’. Lu must have been shocked. Any student of Chinese can testify that qian gu zui ren is a scholarly expression, its usage restricted to statesmen who are deemed to leave negative imprints on the course of history. What Lu said was that if Patten were to go ahead with his reforms future historians would judge him harshly (qian gu = ‘history’; zui ren = ‘guilty figure’). We may disagree with Lu, but we can hardly accuse him of using abusive language.
Then there is the famous ‘prostitute’. The word was wrenched off a newspaper article poking fun at what the writer saw as Patten’s shocking hypocrisy and comparing the Governor’s sanctimonious pronouncements on democratic rights to ‘a monument to chastity erected by a prostitute’. This phrase is a folk idiom which may be translated as ‘a lecture on abstinence given by an alcoholic in the cocktail interval’. No Chinese official ever called Patten a ‘prostitute’ – or, indeed, a ‘jade-faced prostitute’ or ‘son of a thousand whores’ – and the offending word never appeared again in subsequent critical articles. But a different story gained currency in the West. During the Hong Kong handover ceremonies, BBC viewers were told that the Chinese President had called Patten a ‘whore’.
The label ‘thief’ had its origins in a Hong Kong China News Agency article which argued in support of China’s claim that Patten had awarded Jardine two container terminal franchises for non-commercial reasons. China had demanded open tendering for the franchises, which Patten refused: he countered by accusing China of trying to exclude Jardine on political grounds. The HKCNA article suggested that Patten’s counter-accusation was a diversion, an application of the tactic of zei han zhuo zei (‘the thief crying: “Stop, thief!"’). But zei han zhuo zei in the traditional idiom has no more to do with thievery than ‘pie in the sky’ has to do with pastry.
Jian L. Xiao
Type Caroline Crachami
John Hunter was not the first person to articulate an elephant’s skeleton, as Gaby Wood writes in her article about Caroline Crachami, the early 19th-century Sicilian Fairy (LRB, 11 December 1997), and it is ludicrous to point this out as his greatest claim to fame. Equally absurd is to describe Caroline Crachami as ‘Europe’s most famous dwarf’ when she was hardly known outside Britain. The most astonishing of Wood’s statements is that Caroline was just three years old when she died – which ignores the historical evidence that she was nine, and that she was just ‘a very small retarded child’. It has long been known that her dental age was that of a child of three, but this does not imply that this was Caroline’s age, since delay in bone and dental maturation is a feature of osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism (ODPD), the group of conditions to which she has been assigned by competent paediatricians. It would interest both Wood and the ‘experts’ at the Hunterian Museum who declared themselves ignorant of her diagnosis that a sub-group of ODPD has recently been termed ‘Type Caroline Crachami’. The thorough study of her case has helped paediatricians to differentiate a group of patients with disease characteristics similar to hers: namely, severe growth retardation of prenatal onset, absence of ‘bird-headed’ facies, and only mild mental retardation.
Knowing What You Like
Terence Hawkes finds me criticising Iris Murdoch for ‘simply knowing’ that Shakespeare and Tolstoy are great (Letters, 22 January). Since Hawkes has written repeatedly about the impossibility of finding greatness in writers (and particularly in Shakespeare), he is presumably delighted to see one of his opponents apparently doing the same. But I did not criticise Murdoch for ‘knowing’: I criticised her for ‘simply knowing’ – for recognising greatness too hastily, without appeal to criticism. For Murdoch, greatness seems to be almost the same as ostensive definition; she points at something and says: ‘There, that is great.’ I was arguing against this kind of philosophical (or Platonic) knowledge, in favour of substantiated critical judgment. It is the difference between ‘knowing’ God and knowing that Durham Cathedral is a majestic building. We know the latter by arguing for it. Yet Hawkes acts as if all critical judgments were like knowledge of God. He decides that critical judgments can never be made, that anyone who uses the word ‘great’ is a mere ‘undergraduate’ (an interestingly scornful term).
But of course, critical knowledge can be had, and critical judgments made, in the same way we gather other non-instinctual knowledge and make judgments from it: by referring to the world we live in, and to the texts in question; to other artworks; to our inherited and changing definitions of words and forms; by learning from people more knowledgeable than ourselves, and so on. We can never ‘prove’ that Durham Cathedral is a great building, and so we will disagree about its greatness, but it is nonsensical to infer from this, as Hawkes does, that we can’t make a judgment about it. Because our values change, value is not valueless. Hawkes once told me that he prefers jazz to Shakespeare; this is something he seems to ‘know’ well enough. So perhaps he would explain to readers how he enjoys jazz, and how he makes judgments about different players and songs?
Assault and Flattery
Evidently Frank Kermode (LRB, 22 January) found baffling the idea that in Titus Andronicus the entrance of Lavinia with her hands cut off and her tongue cut out is ‘Ovidian and Petrarchan in tone (the latter because the way her injuries are described is said to resemble the poetic blazon, or catalogue of female charms)’. Kermode’s ‘catalogue of charms’ is not an adequate description of the Petrarchan poetic blazon which creepily itemises female body parts in a way many critics have likened to an imaginative dissection. Fetishistic ideas about cutting women into pieces are often said to be relevant to the rape of Lavinia and to the description of Petrarch’s Laura, and if Kermode thinks they are not he might as well say so. It might reasonably be suggested that the appalling sight of the mutilated Lavinia in a performance of Titus Andronicus focuses attention on the relationship between rape and flattery (’the underside of male violence’, as Simon Shepherd put it). Before joining forces to gang-rape Lavinia, Chiron and Demetrius boastfully swear great love for her. If one thought that Shakespeare wished to cast doubt on certain kinds of proclamation of appreciation, then Marcus’ description of Lavinia’s disfigurement could be said ‘to scrutinise the art of Petrarchan representation’. For Kermode, ideas as simple as this have to be quoted ‘because paraphrase would lose the flavour of these extraordinary statements.’
Welford on Avon, Warwickshire
Age of Consent
In 1647, Thomas Rainsborough asserted that ‘every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ Rainsborough was not a political theorist and, so far as we know, published nothing on the subject. But as the colonel of a crack infantry regiment, as well as the leading spokesman for the Levellers at the Putney Debates, he knew something about the practice of political change. John Griffith’s belief (Letters, 5 February) that no one until the 18th century knew about either the theory or the practice of consensual government or ‘believed … that sovereignty was derived from the people’ is plain wrong. Losing does not obliterate the sometimes prescient beliefs of the losers.
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire
Memories of Barra
Penelope Curtis (Letters, 5 February) confuses the two Pabbays. The island I wrote about is near the south end of the Outer Hebrides and it was deserted, as I said, after four fishermen from its three families were drowned in a storm on May Day 1897. The Pabbay described in William MacGillivray’s diary of 1817 is 65 miles to the north, between North Uist and Harris. The islands there are low and smooth, composed of shell-sand and peat and well suited to grow the barley which once fed their corn-mills and whisky stills. If Ms Curtis reads Chapter 16 of my book On the Crofters’ Trail, she will find a good deal of information about the corn islands, their sweet songs, wild doings and brutal clearance by the Earl of Dunmore’s agents.
My love the lovely island
Where the corn would grow,
as a Pabbay woman called it in a song she made, is now owned by a Lloyd’s broker ‘for a help with his taxes’.
Rereading the Zonnets
Having read The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets from cover to cover (against Helen Vendler’s advice), I believe there are disturbing implications in her approach, outlined in Tom Paulin’s review (LRB, 22 January). Her reading and commentary rest on two pillars. The first is her premise that each sonnet must be read as ‘a contraption made of “words"’; Paulin approvingly quotes her: ‘I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content.’ The second is her shift of emphasis from the opening line to the closing couplet, to which she gives a primacy of place in the Sonnets which is revolutionary. For the common reader, these closing couplets have sometimes seemed artificially tagged on endings dictated by the structural constraint of the sonnet form, sometimes perfunctory ‘exit lines’ such as we find in the plays, and occasionally marvellous, transcendent resolutions of the contrary pull of the emotions in the preceding 12 lines. For Vendler the couplets are not just the terminus ad quem of the sonnets but, it would seem, their very raison d’être. For this reason, she constructs an elaborate edifice of ‘key words’, ‘couplet ties’, ‘defective key words’, when the key word does not occur in the couplet, and ‘couplet ties of a hidden sort’, which can be discovered only by ‘noticing’ some anagram, or collocation of identical letters within words. This connects with a third tenet, a proposed disjunction between the historical Shakespeare who wrote these poems and ‘Shakespeare’s speaker’, a ‘fictive self’: ‘In speaking about the relation of quatrain to couplet, one must distinguish the fictive speaker … from Shakespeare the author.’ A subsidiary point is the emphasis given to the Quarto text, especially to Elizabethan spelling and typography – for these are essential to Vendler’s view that the sonnets involve an elaborate, self-delighting play on sounds, anagrams and reversed and ‘scrambled’ letters, and on rhymes which are purely visual.
The flavour of the whole enterprise can be seen in the commentary on sonnet 29. In its absorption in Shakespeare’s ‘joyous play’ with sounds, what the commentary entirely misses is the play on the meanings of the ‘key word’, ‘state’. The poem begins in abject despair (’I all alone beweep my outcast state’), where ‘state’ means ‘condition, manner of existing’, or even possibly ‘a dirty, disorderly or untidy condition’. Then, as the memory of love returns, the speaker is transformed from an outcast into a man so ‘wealthy’ that he scorns to change his ‘state’ – ‘status; high rank; pomp’ – with kings. Shifting from meaning to meaning of the same word, the poem effects a revolutionary change of mood. None of this would cut any ice with Professor Vendler, however, for ‘meaning’ sucks us back into the ‘paraphrasable propositional content’.
Vendler’s alternative view of criticism is still more evident in her commentary on sonnet 15. The ‘key word’ is said to be ‘you’, even though it doesn’t occur in the first quatrain. ‘I suggest,’ writes Vendler, ‘it is phonetically hiding in ‘huge’, chosen precisely for its anticipation of you.’ Why is night ‘sullied’ in the same sonnet? ‘I have no doubt that night … is sullied because the young are youthfull and time is wastfull.’ Vendler adds: ‘the sonnet is bound together by one of those alliterative, assonantal and anagrammatic semantic strings in which Shakespeare delights.’ If there is any delight here I doubt if Shakespeare has a hand in it.
The entire undertaking is based on a single proposition: the rejection of an urgent, personal voice which has drawn generations of common readers back to these endlessly readable poems and to the palpable pressure of a voice which is saying something that we respond to. I remember sitting in the cramped apartment of a dissident poet in Moscow in 1962 when he produced a gramophone record, an ‘underground’ recording of a poetry-reading somewhere in the Soviet Union. One of the voices on the record was that of Boris Pasternak, reading sonnet 66 in a Russian translation, possibly his own. His deep voice nearly cracked when he came to the line, ‘And art made tongue-tied by authority’. There was no scope for delight in the sound or texture of the original, but every word was freighted with a burden of personal meaning.
Tom Paulin states that W.B. Yeats wrote only one sonnet. But in Collected Poems, as well as ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘Meru’, there is ‘At the Abbey Theatre’ (after Ronsard).
Coleg Harlech, Gwynedd
Melissa Benn (LRB, 5 February) says that Natasha Walter is ‘one of the first mainstream British feminists who can properly claim to be a daughter of the second wave – that is, of the women’s liberation movement of the late Sixties and Seventies’ – because ‘she has spoken of her mother as a Spare Rib-reading activist of the old school’. What about Kate Figes, author of Because of Her Sex (1994), daughter of Eva Figes, author of Patriarchal Attitudes (1970)?
Anyway, Natasha Walter in her Acknowledgments says, ‘Thank you first to my parents’, not just her mother; and I can state on first-hand authority that it was her father, a son and grandson of the first wave – that is, of the old feminist movement of the early 20th century – who was the Spare Rib-buying (and writing) activist of the old school.
Sign up to our newsletter
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.