I was pleased to find out, from reading Murray Sayle’s sympathetic essay about Eric Shipton (LRB, 7 May), that that silly ‘because it’s there’ line, still quoted so infuriatingly often, and à propos other supposedly barmy aspirations than that of climbing to the top of Mount Everest, was originally a put-down, an English gentleman’s uncharacteristically ratty squelching of a tiresome questioner.
How odd and how misleading that it should more or less ever since have been taken as the ideal expression of a certain kind of laconic amateurishness, one made the more compelling, sadly to say, by George Mallory’s subsequent death on the mountain. Even we plain-dwellers, happy enough to spend our lives and leisure at sea-level, can understand other people wanting to go up mountains and why, if you do that, and are good at it, you would want to go up the highest mountain there is. On the other hand, it’s not so easy to understand why so many people have continued to want to do that, now that it’s become such a hackneyed ascent that – I read – a party of mountaineers is currently on Everest solely for the purpose of ridding its long since deflowered slopes and cwms of the tons of garbage left behind by so many expeditions. Were these public-spirited Himalaya cleaners to be asked why they were risking life and limb to dispose of this rubbish, they at least could politely and reasonably say: ‘because it’s there.’
Arthur Schlesinger (Letters, 16 April) insists that neither he nor Henry Kissinger has ‘any recollection’ of that evening at the Harvard International Seminar. How I wish I could have overheard the ponderous discussion during which these two men, both congested by a lifetime of apologetics, agreed on this now classic line of defence. ‘Statements allegedly made nearly forty years ago’ cannot be expected to be remembered by such busy fellows, who are not too busy to recall with crystalline clarity that they would certainly have denied making them. So it goes. I sympathise with Schlesinger almost as much as with Mervyn Jones (Letters, 2 April) in this instance, because the task of keeping pace with his own protean story is indeed a daunting one. It defeats even Schlesinger. Your readers ought to get hold of Noam Chomsky’s short but annihilating book Rethinking Camelot (1993) and read pages 105 to 125. By the time they have read the multiple and incompatible versions of Schlesinger’s ‘stand’ on Vietnam, and seen how it has fluctuated over the years, they will have learned to appreciate that the job of the court historian, so subject to abrupt changes in fashion, is a queasy-making one at best. Mastering old Arthur’s shifty positions on Cuba is a simple matter by comparison, though Mervyn Jones should probably not have attempted it merely by relying on the evidence of his own ears and eyes. Who does he think he is – a witness? I have never seen any attempt by Schlesinger to reply to Chomsky’s close reading of his hilariously sinuous record, but I am pleased to learn that your correspondence columns are still open.
I read with pleasure Zachary Leader’s Diary in your 16 April issue until I saw his assertion that the Huntington Library possessed the ‘finest collection of early editions of Shakespeare’s works in the world, including four first Folios’. The word ‘finest’, of course, may have many meanings but in terms of quantity the Huntington’s collection, though fine indeed, cannot compare with that of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. According to the on-line Britannica, the Folger ‘possesses an unrivalled collection of Shakespeare’s folios – 79 copies of the First Folio (1623), 58 copies of the second folio (1632) and 24 copies of the third folio (1663-64)’.
James Wood’s review of Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More (LRB, 16 April) is an interesting attempt to set the record straight on the Man for All Seasons. More was, no doubt, a cruel and glib lawyer whose adventitious distinction between the Church’s role in purging heresy and that of the State in purging heretics exemplifies the ethics of his black-letter, black-spirited profession. While Catholic admirers have chosen to overlook More’s apparent slide from truth-telling humanism into apologetic Papalism, Wood condemns More equally for his cruelty and for his resistance to Reformation doctrine. Wood is certain of the ‘rightness’ of the Protestant cause. To support this confessional point of view, he takes the undergraduate position c.1955-75, denouncing More as a stick-in-the-mud and arguing, once again, that traditional medieval religious practice (feast days, processions) ‘had become an almanac of rote and rite, the codification of mass ignorance’. It’s as though Christopher Haigh and countless other students of the English and Continental Reformations had not spent the last twenty years demonstrating precisely how satisfactory and satisfying the traditional round of ceremonies and practices was to their practitioners; as though great cathedral churches were not still being built right up to the Reformation, thanks to the freely-given largesse of wealthy merchants and burghers; as though the efforts of historians to de-confessionalise the study of the Reformations and to place them in their proper late-medieval and political contexts had never happened. Wood’s tendentious and traditional Protestant misunderstanding of the availability and popularity of the Bible in the later Middle Ages, his Anglican misunderstanding of justification by faith alone, and his anachronistic condemnation of More for failing to live up to the standards of free speech in a liberal democracy all betray the work of a skilled journalist, not the trained historian who might have written a more analytic review of Ackroyd’s important book.
University of Alberta
In Michael Wood’s gentle essay on Wallace Stevens (LRB, 2 April), he remarks on the poet’s ‘devotion to nonsense’ in connection with ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’. This poem actually contains a good deal of sense – as once explained by the generous Allen Tate. It deals with a wake in a brothel of the most humble sort. The ‘roller of big cigars’ is the bouncer, the boys with flowers are the dead whore’s customers coming to pay their last respects. The scantily clad women are the other whores. The dead woman’s sad state is underscored by the incongruously gaudy fantail shawl that partially covers her. There are, of course, many ambiguities and sad jokes in the poem of the kind we know in all Stevens’s work, not least the couplet ‘Let be be finale of seem./The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’
The observation of a Tibetan nun that ‘it is conceivable that women in the West will be recognised as tulkus, incarnate lamas’ is a little misleading (LRB, 2 April). Alyce Zeoli, born in Brooklyn in 1939 and 100 per cent American, was recognised as the tulku of Ahkon Norbu Lhamo in 1987 by Penor Rinpoche, himself one of the highest tulkus of the Nyingma school. And in 1994, he recognised her as a tulku of White Tara. So this isn’t something that could conceivably happen. It’s already happened.
Mons la Trivalle, France
I suppose Tobias Jones’s well-informed article on football (LRB, 7 May) is a sign of football’s deproletarianisation. Even so, he doesn’t mention the fact that there is a growing socialist element among football supporters. I have even met Arsenal fans who at least claim to be socialists.