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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 9 · 29 April 1999

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What Warburg did

Anthony Grafton states that Aby Warburg ‘was interested in looking at the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through’ (LRB, 1 April). But Warburg – and his disciple Erwin Panofsky – could not develop a method for doing this. Instead they and their followers in Kunstgeschichte developed the iconological method, dominant in art history of the medieval and Early Modern eras, of grounding artistic images in written texts. This method is still pursued at the Warburg Institute in London and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. Warburg and Panofsky did not attempt the historical sociology of art, partly because the methodology for doing it was so ill-defined and partly because it smacked of Marxism – Grafton makes Warburg out to be much bolder than he actually was. Art history in both the US and Britain has followed the cautious, picture-to-text iconological approach ever since. Not that this method hasn’t been fruitful; it has, but it has become increasingly sterile intellectually and redundant in its achievements in the past two decades. Grafton’s history of art history is Whiggish – he posits what he wants to see in it.

Norman Cantor
New York University

Žižeked

Richard Gott
London W11

Considering the fat Reichsmarschall’s drug habit, isn’t it more likely he would reach for his Coleridge or De Quincey than his Browning on hearing the world ‘culture’?

James Malpas
London SE1

Moderation or Death

The comments of Mark Lilly (Letters, 18 February) and Abla Mouhawi (Letters, 1 April) on the Guardian’s ‘support for supernaturalism’ conceal a far more complex state of affairs. On religion, as on other issues, the Guardian is sharply divided. It inherits a distinguished Christian Socialist tradition, and still appeals to a sizeable liberal Christian constituency; on the other hand, it has to make its way in an increasingly competitive market, and its coverage of moral and religious issues sits oddly alongside its new emphasis on lifestyle and entertainment.

The dilemma is nicely caught in a recent article by Madeleine Bunting reflecting, in the Church Times of 12 March, on her three-year stint as the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent. ‘A churchgoer on the Guardian,’ she writes, ‘is a rare species. The centre-left media is of a pretty uniform mind when it comes to faith: it’s a pile of tosh.’ Take the issue for 2 February: Simon Hoggart says that ‘all religion is bonkers and irrational.’ Steve Bell lampoons Roman Catholic beliefs as ‘mumbo-jumbo’. Joan Smith celebrates the fact that more and more married couples, ‘freed from the constraints of religion’, are discovering the delights of sexual infidelity. As Bunting says, ‘what a secular newspaper wants to publish about religion is largely what is ridiculous, freakish, scandalous or unjust.’

Andrew Conway
Durham

Positively Evil

Much of John Willett’s irritation (Letters, 1 April) is based on a misreading of my article on Brecht. I referred twice to his defence of Brecht against John Fuegi’s notorious charges and it is clear that my references to Auden’s attitude to Brecht are taken from Willett’s collection: ‘There are essays on his often turbulent relationship with Auden (who described Brecht as one of the three positively evil men he had ever met).’ I referred to ‘mosaic’ (though not montage) as one of the elements of Brechtian dramaturgy that can be described as prefiguratively Post-Modern. Willett is, however, right that the Methuen Collected Works he is editing is not new. I referred to Methuen continuing ‘its mammoth production of the collected works under John Willett’s co-editorship’ (which is accurate); an editorial gremlin credited John Willett as ‘co-editor of the new Collected Works’ instead.

David Edgar
Birmingham

The spuggies are fledged

Marilyn Bowering was apparently so smitten by Basil Bunting’s eyebrows (Letters, 1 April) that she has forgotten what year he was at the University of Victoria. It was 1971-72. Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’ was on the jukebox and my distinguished fellow alum was, if I recall, in charge of the mimeograph machine at the English Department, which always made visits there worth looking forward to.

Bunting that year got himself into a nasty scrape with Robin Skelton, one that eventually involved lawyers; but of course you can’t teach someone to write poetry, just as you can’t teach someone to be kind or a wizard with languages. Bunting’s method of teaching was simply to read good poetry aloud and, when possible, to have us listen to music. In this he favoured Dowland, Byrd and Purcell. I remember him playing a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as well, the first time I’d heard it. I believe he thought we might absorb some of the possibilities for rhythm in poetry by keeping our mouths shut and listening. Can you imagine trying to get away with teaching a writing course in this manner now?

August Kleinzahler
Austin, Texas

Lorca in His Underpants

John Butt lists the diverse handicaps experienced by the poets who were Lorca’s contemporaries (LRB, 1 April). Poor Jorge Guillén was cursed with ‘uncomplicated heterosexuality and a lack of interest in politics’. What other characteristics would now debar an artist from admission to the élite? Perhaps regular bowel movements and an interest in snooker.

Harry Bugler
Ballinasloe, Co. Galway

John Butt attributes to me a work entitled Federico García Lorca, published in 1985. This is misleading. In 1985 Editorial Grijalbo in Barcelona brought out the first volume of my biography, Federico García Lorca: De Fuente Vaqueros a Nueva York (1898-1929). The second volume, Federico García Lorca: De Nueva York a Fuente Grande (1929-36), appeared in 1987. In 1989 Faber published my much reduced English version of the book, Federico García Lorca: A Life, to which Butt is clearly referring. By silencing all mention of the original Spanish edition, and giving the reader to understand that the biography first came out in 1985, in English, he does me, unintentionally no doubt, a grave disservice. He says, for example, that Leslie Stainton’s new biography ‘contains some details missing from Gibson’s Federico García Lorca (1985), among them a ‘titbit from one quidnunc who caught Lorca in his underpants with a naked Luis Cernuda in 1931’. This episode, both amusing and revealing, is recounted in the second volume of the Spanish edition of my biography. Again, in commenting on Lorca’s political views, Butt adduces an incident relating to the poet’s alleged friendship with the Fascist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which he says I ‘chose to omit’. The incident is discussed, though, not only in my book on the latter (En busca de José Antonio, 1980), as Butt says, but in the second volume of the Spanish edition of my Lorca biography.

Ian Gibson
Restábal, Granada

All Antennae

Researching Arthur Koestler and his ties with the Russian novelist and prewar Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, I found, in the New Palestine of April 1928, an unknown essay by Koestler entitled ‘Jerusalem Letter: “Art as Propaganda"’. One paragraph particularly struck me: ‘Nothing is further from our thought than the idea of making Art subservient to political aims. No effort would be more fruitless and unreasonable, for the moment that Art obeys rules other than its own, it ceases to be Art.’ This suggested that he was much more politically sophisticated at this time than he let on in his autobiographical volume, Arrow in the Blue. He was not the naive convert to Communism he claimed he had been. He was, after all, started in journalism by Wolfgang Von Weisl, the right-wing former Austrian artillery officer, and wrote his first essay about Avigdor Hameiri, the Hungarian Hebrew writer who was rabidly anti-Communist. During the time Koestler was living with him in the Twenties, Hameiri was writing anti-Communist novels.

I had occasion to meet Eva Zeisl, a lifelong friend of Koestler on whose experience in the Lubianka he largely based Darkness at Noon. Zeisl spoke of Koestler with great fondness. She told me of youthful meetings with him, how he had taken her to hear Jabotinsky speak in Berlin in 1930, and how by the summer of 1932 he had become such a Communist Party stalwart that he would not talk to her about the famine he had recently seen inside the Soviet Union, because she was not a party member.

In contrast to David Cesarani, whose biography was discussed by John Banville (LRB, 18 February), I think that the key to Koestler’s literary works is to be found in his science books. In The Case of the Midwife Toad, for example, Koestler revives a scientific controversy on the theory of spontaneous regeneration, arguing that given the right environmental factors certain organisms can regenerate certain body parts. it’s the same argument he had been using regarding the Jewishness of Israelis, who he claimed lost their Jewish looks in the Israeli environment.

Louis Gordon
Los Angeles

Grigson’s Bile

In his review of Living in Time, my critical study of C. Day Lewis's poetry, Ian Sansom suggests that knowing a poet and admiring his work disqualifies a critic and compromises such criticism (LRB, 4 March). His review is the latest instance of the persistent and baffling determination in certain circles of the British literary establishment that CDL be not merely dismissed as a poet but eradicated. Nothing but scorched earth will satisfy. Geoffrey Grigson pursued CDL doggedly in a series of bilious reviews stretching from the Thirties to CDL's last volume, and Grigson's bile coughs up a ghoulish posthumous clot in Sansom's ad hominem remonstrations.

Albert Gelpi
Stanford University

What’s going on?

It was irritating to read the political correctness in Rebecca Loncraine's letter (Letters, 15 April). I couldn't care less about the gender of the authors of your reviews. My impression, during the nine months or so in which I have subscribed, has been that close to half the books reviewed have been by women. Isn't that much more significant? It may be, of course, that my impression is wrong. I've better things to do than trawl through a stack of papers to count them. If Ms Loncraine would like a consoling thought, may I suggest that more women are writing books than reviewing them – and I'm confident that the LRB reflects this.

Rebecca Smith
Pulborough, West Sussex

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