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Vol. 20 No. 21 · 29 October 1998

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Pulling Ranke

Writing in peevish opposition to what appears in his account to be the jejune empiricism of Richard Evans (LRB, 15 October), Peter Ghosh has some questionable claims to make about ‘the modern historian’s preoccupation with “discourses"’: specifically, the claim that this ‘is not a preoccupation with the nature of language per se’ – well, thank Heaven for that, since thus preoccupied, historians would be mighty slow in getting round to doing any history – but ‘with concepts, with organising sets of ideas at work in history which are distinguishable by their leading terms’. According to Ghosh, this preoccupation directs the attention of historians away from, among other things, ‘documentary fetishism’. I don’t see why this need be so, however. As Foucault surely showed, a preoccupation with ‘discourses’ can be – should be? – a preoccupation with historical documents, with the primary sources, and not immediately with the manner in which those sources have previously been interpreted. A fetishising of discourse can but sit very easily with a fetishising of documents, which is why Foucault once referred to himself as a ‘contented positivist’. The whole thrust of Foucauldianism is to make more apparent the discursive, i.e. the interpretable, nature of historical documents, instead of allowing them to masquerade as transcendental repositories of historical facts.

Neil Forster
London N1

Readers who enjoyed Peter Ghosh’s elegant dismantling of Richard Evans’s case for Rankean empiricism (LRB, 15 October) may wish to go on to read Quentin Skinner’s essay on Geoffrey Elton’s defence of history (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series, Volume VII, 1997), which it complements admirably.

William Lamont
University of Sussex

Confucian Confusion

Geoffrey Hawthorn (LRB, 1 October) misunderstands both the series of voyages undertaken between 1405 and 1433 for the Ming dynasty by the Muslim court eunuch Zhenghe and Confucianism’s role in economic development. The cost associated with building a magnificent new capital at Beijing, overcoming the always restive Mongol hordes and the effort to incorporate Vietnam within the Empire, overburdened the Emperor’s coffers and militated against further voyages. Confucian blandishments played only a minor role. Trade was not the main reason for the voyages anyway. The Chinese did not need to trade with India, the Middle East, Africa or Europe. The voyages had been undertaken to show the flag, to chastise pirates operating in ‘Chinese’ water, to extract obeisance from peoples outside China’s immediate cultural orbit, to gain interesting and useful information about worlds beyond China, but primarily ‘to carry to distant barbarians’ the benefits of the Emperor’s ‘auspicious example’.

When Hawthorn echoes Landes’s dismissive remarks about Confucians he also distorts what the West termed the Meiji miracle. The entrepreneurs whose efforts spurred the development of commerce in bakumatsu Japan had rules rooted in the Confucian tradition which sound very Weberian.

Tom Lansburg
Bellingham, Washington

Sonic Boom

Tardily happening on the LRB of 16 July, I wondered if I alone noted a series of coincidences – Walter Benjamin’s ‘library angels’ at work overtime. Reading the cover line, ‘A hoax barely worth the per petration’, for some reason I immediately assumed it referred to the notorious Aus tralian case of Ern Malley, the invented Modernist poet, before realising it dealt with Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Im postures. The more I read John Sturrock’s impeccable analysis of ‘l’affaire Sokal’ the more it reminded me of Ern Malley, an almost identical backfiring spoof whose supposed exposure of avant-garde fraudulence only confirmed the potential of that same avant-garde. The deliberately nonsensical poetry of the imaginary Malley has eventually come to be seen as a genuine achievement in Australian Modernism even if its intention was to rubbish that movement. At any moment I expected Sturrock to mention Malley and the parallels between the two cases. Two pages later I came across a review of the first biography of Ernie O’Malley, perhaps a source for the pseudonym Ern Malley. If that was not enough, on the page that separated these two articles there was an advertisement for Poetry Review mentioning a recent issue on hoaxing, much of which was indeed devoted to Ern Malley.

Adrian Dannatt
New York

John Sturrock (Letters, 15 October) gives us a typically Post-Modern performance in his continued attempt to defend the barely defensible. Having disarmed us with a perfectly acceptable comment on the dramatic impact that Einstein’s mass-energy equation has had on the world, he then glides smoothly into far more contentious areas in his second paragraph. Luce Irigaray’s intention, he asserts, is merely to ‘draw attention to the multiple ways in which the formula has been used outside a strictly scientific context’, one of which is ‘to support the masculinist bias in … science’. Curiously, he does not feel it necessary to give a concrete example of this apparently widespread phenomenon. Perhaps we should examine what Irigaray actually says on the subject. This is the quotation in Sokal and Bricmont: ‘Is E = mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possibly sexed nature of this equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.’ You do not have to be a physicist to see that this is just twaddle.

Alan Benfield
The Hague

After Monica

The hostility shown towards President Clinton in the British media, not to mention the American, has been so savage that one can almost believe Hillary Clinton’s suggestion of a right-wing conspiracy. Edward Luttwak (LRB, 1 October) provides another striking example of this biased commentary. He condemns Clinton’s inaugural address because it proposed specific programmes to help the poor and under privileged rather than some grand, windy project, and goes on to suggest that this amounted to a ‘brief for the defence long before Monica Lewinsky was in the news’ – a curious interpretation of a perfectly rational political decision. Clinton is blamed for using legal arguments to defend himself against a legal cross-examination by the Starr tribunal. He is blamed for following the advice of his military Chiefs of Staff and using Cruise missiles against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, rather than embarking on a hazardous commando exercise. He is even called to account for the fact that the Republican majority in Congress voted down his tobacco legislation.

Luttwak claims that the Starr investigations into ‘Filegate’, ‘Travelgate’ and Whitewater contain material far more damaging to Clinton than the Lewinsky affair, but says that Starr was under immense pressure to publish the Lewinsky findings first. Pressure from whom? And should an independent judge succumb to ‘pressure’? Starr is ‘inexorable’ in his search for truth, though having failed to turn up one iota of damaging evidence against Clinton, he was about to throw in the towel when the Lewinsky story surfaced. The Republicans, in their desire to bring down a President who has routed them twice at the polls and who has at least tried to bring in some legislation to improve the lot of the underprivileged, now claim that a casual affair is a high crime justifying impeachment.

L.J. Olivier
Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk

The Unrewarded End

H.V.F. Winstone (Letters, 1 October), who recalls the old Communists, writes: ‘It’s a pity that many of those larger-than-life figures seem not to have found a place in the memories of authors or reviewer.’ My book, The Death of Uncle Joe, does in fact mention all those he names. I remember Harry Pollitt for his oratory, but also for his behaviour when exposed. I remember Claud Cockburn less for his funny stories than for the extremely unfunny allegation made against him, in the last of Stalin’s great show trials, that he was a British spy. I remember Bill Rust as the man who concealed from his staff the terrible experiences of his daughter in the Soviet Union. As for J.R. Campbell, he is at once the hero and the villain of my book, a tragically divided human being.

The lies that all these people told us, and the series of events that completed our disillusionment, did indeed force many of us to leave the Daily Worker. Some of us then earned a living in Fleet Street, some in the provincial or trade press. I don’t think any of my former colleagues became ‘favourites of the Fleet Street barons’. The late cartoonist Gabriel (James Friell) worked for the Beaverbrook press for a time, but on the understanding that he was entirely free to express his own opinions. Winstone writes as if anyone who left the Communist Party did it for the money. Like many of my contemporaries, he is looking back at those old leaders through a romantic haze.

Alison Macleod
London N10

H.V.F. Winstone gives an encouraging response to my report of Alison Macleod’s memories of life as a Daily Worker journalist. His tribute to Harry Pollitt as an orator and a personality could not be better deserved. Nor could his praise for Claud Cockburn, the Party’s jester, one of its too few humorists. All the same, a party cannot be made up of a few giants alone; most of us must be rank-and-filers. I hope Winstone will reconsider some excessively dismissive words – for instance, about ‘bleary-eyed proletarian scholars’ trying to teach dialectics. Jonathan Rée did more justice to such men in his book on Proletarian Philosophers a few years ago. Kevin Morgan’s discerning biography of Pollitt recalls that most of those who attended his funeral were ordinary working folk who had caught from him ‘something of the “gleam"’.

Much has been done to keep alive the memory of that gleam, and of one of the most remarkable political movements in modern Britain. Some of its members are recorded, among a miscellany of left-wing figures, in successive volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography, edited by John Saville and Joan Bellamy. The Party archives are now stored in Manchester, under the custody of George Matthews and Francis King, and are open to all. Ian MacDougall began his fine series of Oral History studies in Scotland with a life, from its subject’s own lips, of the miners’ leader George MacArthur. Mike Squires has made a survey of the agitation in Battersea in support of Republican Spain during the Civil War. He is serving as secretary of the Socialist History Society, whose editor, Willie Thompson, has written a commendably objective history of the CPGB. Whatever can be done, in these or other ways, to save the collective memory from drowning in today’s frothy sea of trivial politics and trumpery amusements, is a service to the nation.

V.G. Kiernan
Stow, Galashiels

My dear, the noise

According to Jack Bevan, to whose authority I submitted on most topics, Ernest Thesiger, having taken his embroidery to work on in the trenches, summed up the Somme experience to a friend as ‘my dear, the noise, and the people.’ Of late – I think on the say-so of a dictionary of quotations – this comment has been re-assigned to an anonymous officer describing Dunkirk. When this attribution is accepted by John Bayley (LRB, 15 October), it’s time to worry. Can anyone shed light?

George Schlesinger

Put away your Gauloises

Commenting on Robert Stone’s assertion that ‘the interior of the hostel was redolent of France,’ with aromas of floral soap, sachet, varnish, Gauloises etc, James Wood (LRB, 1 October), snidely dismissive, observes: ‘apparently “French" just means nice French smells.’ Well, of course ‘French’ means nothing of the sort – or, at least, a good deal more and other. But Stone didn’t write ‘French’, he wrote ‘redolent of France’ and ‘redolent’, according to the dictionary I’m looking at, does mean ‘smelling (of) … hence, suggestive (of)’. So, apparent ly, ‘redolent of France’ would mean something like permeated with ‘nice French smells’ – though that ‘nice’ is, no doubt, arguable.

Nick Bozanic
Honor, Michigan

Merely Boorish

In an otherwise fine review of the Anthology of American Folk Music and Songs for Political Action (LRB, 17 September) I was struck by J. Hoberman’s cavalier use of the adjective ‘Stalinist’. Pete Seeger’s attempt to pull the plug on Bob Dylan’s electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival may have been narrow-minded and it may have been boorish – but was it Stalinist?

Chase Madar
Brooklyn, New York

Living Together

Timothy Garton Ash asks (LRB, 17 September): ‘Can Europeans really find no way of living together in democracies other than living apart?’ This is surely too negative. We offer Südtirol in Northern Italy as an example of ‘living together’, and this despite an unpromising historical background. At the end of World War One it was separated by caprice from the rest of Tirol, of which it had been an integral part for over five hundred years, and handed over to Italy. Mussolini then embarked on a programme of Italianisation, importing industry and Italians from the South and forbidding the local population to speak German; towns were given Italian names and an attempt was made to do the same with the people.

Hitler confirmed the Italian status of Südtirol and offered the German speakers the opportunity of relocation to Germany, and in case too many declined the offer, the Fascists suggested that those who remained would be shipped to the South of Italy. This ethnic cleansing was only halted by the outbreak of World War Two. At the end of the war the Allies confirmed Südtirol’s Italian status, adding safeguards for the German speakers, but the ensuing period had its troubles, including a muted German terrorist campaign when the Italian Government reneged on these safeguards, and an Italian backlash when it was felt that placatory measures had gone too far.

Despite some ‘old guard’ opposition to integration, there are few areas of life today where German and Italian speakers do not mix freely and amicably. Mixed marriages are increasing and in restaurants and bars it is common to find groups in animated conversation, moving between German and Italian as the mood or subject takes them.

Michael and Denise Hope
Merano, Südtirol

Revising Expectations

Richard Horton’s article on the National Health Service (LRB, 2 July) did not mention Canada’s successful health provision, Medicare. Last May I was stricken with life-threatening brain damage. I spent five months in hospital, in intensive care some of the time. In the first of three hospitals in which I received treatment, after a certain number of days I paid a minimal charge of $777 per month. In the second hospital there was no charge. In the third – a walk-in clinic to which I shall return for therapy – I paid for one meal and transport (in the US, one pays $1700 per day, plus, of course, charges for x-rays, scans etc).

A recent poll indicated that 97 per cent of Canadians are prepared to pay higher taxes to maintain the present standard of health services. In addition, the Federal Government in Ottawa has promised to spend millions of dollars more on Medicare after the next election. Nevertheless, we face some of the same problems mentioned by Horton, one of which is the increasing age of the population (I am 82). Ways of coping with these problems include cutting administration costs; recognition that patients with serious illnesses which are not life-threatening must wait until beds are free; meals on wheels; and local walk-in clinics with trained staff. The latter are located all around the city of Montreal; they are easily accessible for parents who bring their children for minor complaints and are less intimidating than large hospitals.

Ross Pratt

Don’t sleep with him

Michael Rogin’s review of Simone de Beauvoir’s Beloved Chicago Man: Letters to Nelson Algren (LRB, 17 September) quotes one of Algren’s three rules for getting through life: ‘Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.’ This leaves one eager to know the other two.

Ian Wylie
Holmes Chapel, Cheshire

Those Personal Ads!

I have scrutinised your personal ads and I can find no reference at all to anyone desiring a socialist with a beard. I can only presume this represents the capitulation of your readership to clean-shaven Blairism.

Keith Flett
London N17

Editorial note

Computer mischief caused a line to drop out of David Blackbourn’s review of the Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann (LRB, 15 October). The sentence should have read: ‘Both of their sisters, the bohemian Carla and the bourgeois Lulu, committed suicide, and neither Heinrich nor Thomas was ever close to their much younger brother Victor.’

Editors, ‘London Review’

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