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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 4 · 17 February 2000

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Bennett Notebook

Alan Bennett wonders right about Iris Murdoch (LRB, 20 January). Sitting in a crowded Oxford to Paddington train with her one morning in, I suppose, 1981, I said something in favour of the miners, who were already being a nuisance to Mrs Thatcher. She turned her not un-Amis-like eyes on me and said briskly: ‘I think they should be put up against a wall and shot.’

Jeremy Treglown
London NW3

Alan Bennett’s version of the mispronunciation of La Fille mal gardée had me grinning, not least because of its perfect timing. The 20 December 1999 A.Word.A.Day e-mail featured the term ‘mondegreen’ – used to describe a word or phrase resulting from mishearing a word or phrase. The coining of the term followed the admission by the British writer, Sylvia Wright, in the November 1954 issue of Harper’s magazine, that she had long misheard the words of the Scottish folksong: ‘They hae slain the Earl of Murray/And laid him on the green’ as ‘They hae slain the Earl Amurray/And Lady Mondegreen.’ Since Wright’s confession, Jon Carroll, a journalist on the San Francisco Chronicle, has made ‘mondegreens’ into something of a cottage industry, devoting two columns a year to them. The most fertile sources are the lyrics of popular songs, hymns, prayers and company slogans, and the most often quoted mondegreen is ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear’. I wonder whether the term has earned a legitimate place in the English language. It certainly wasn’t recorded in any of the dictionaries I consulted.

Pat Hutley
Kelkheim, Germany

Poor Alan Bennett meets up with a ‘foul’ young businessman on the train who talks on his mobile to his girlfriend and says to her: ‘Be kissed.’ Am puzzled why the ‘foul’ – sounds lovely to me.

Sylvia Elias
London SW3

What’s wrong with the WTO

Lest Paul Seabright think that I have been cowed into submission by his angry defence of free trade (Letters, 20 January), I would like to emphasise that there is much on which he and I agree. True free trade would provide important benefits for the developing world, especially in the areas of agriculture and textiles; some transnational corporations are indeed attracted to well-educated, well-trained workforces – some of the time. Where we differ is in our willingness to question the motives – and ideological assumptions – of those who negotiated the WTO agreements, and those who now so ardently support that organisation. Having just survived the second ‘100-year storm’ to have hit North Carolina in the last six months, I cannot help but wonder whether Seabright is missing the big picture. Economic growth is important, but at what cost?

Michael Byers
Duke University, North Carolina

Incomprehensible Shakespeare

David George’s confidence (Letters, 3 February) that the obscurities in Coriolanus yield to an understanding that they have but two causes is more impressive than his evidence. The first cause, ‘severe ellipsis’, illustrated in his letter, is quite insufficient in itself to cover all the cases of rhetorical or grammatical bafflement. The other cause, said to be scribal/compositional corruption, must presumably be held to account for the difficulties that cannot easily be ascribed to ellipsis.

One would hardly guess from the letter that Philip Brockbank, taking the hint from Hilda Hulme, actually printed ‘ovator’ for the ‘Ouerture’ of the Folio text at I.ix.46, and was indeed the first editor to do so. He was ‘gloomy’ about it because he was aware of no evidence that the word existed in Shakespeare’s English. Since George calls it ‘rare’, and cannot mean that it is so rare as to be unique (for that would ruin his point), he may have found another instance, but if so he fails to mention it; lacking that support, and sure for no apparent reason that Shakespeare wrote ‘Ouature’, he presents as certain what Brockbank more sensibly presents as conjectural. Here is an instance, not very unusual, of the production of insubstantial textual evidence in officious support of a reading arrived at without its help. All it does is imagine the circumstances in which the reading modernised by Brockbank might have originated.

I have not yet seen Lee Bliss’s edition, of which so much is promised. Perhaps it will solve other problems as well. I.ix.46, though the most famous, is by no means the only baffling line in the play; not to go beyond the first scene, one could name lines 257-58, and 276-78. I look forward to this new editor’s observations on the speech of Aufidius in IV.vii, where, as Brockbank remarks, ‘the obscurity of the speech is part of its dramatic force, as if Aufidius’ thoughts are imperfectly clear even to himself.’ I only hope that he or she doesn’t share George’s revulsion from the ‘imperfectly clear’.

Frank Kermode
Cambridge

Fired Up

Reviewing Matthew Arnold’s letters Stefan Collini (LRB, 20 January) writes: ‘Reflecting during a frosty December on “how a fire to get up by is perhaps the greatest comfort in the world", Arnold was a man of his time and class in making no mention of how the fire might have got there.’ Readers acquainted with Arnold’s poetry will remember the extended simile in Sohrab and Rustum:

As some rich woman, on a winter’s morn,

Eyes through her silken curtains the poor drudge

Who with numb blacken’d fingers makes her fire.

L.P.E. Edwards
Oxford

Uses of the Holocaust

‘The Holocaust is more central to American cultural life than the Civil War.’ Setting the tone of Norman Finkelstein’s review (LRB, 6 January), this opening sentence is a particularly ridiculous generalisation. Millions of non-Jews who live below the Mason-Dixon Line, in the West, and in many parts of the North as well, never give a thought to the Shoah. But the Civil War has an abiding presence in the lives of these millions of Americans, Jews as well as Gentiles, even if many of their memories are shallow and inaccurate.

Finkelstein is right to suggest that the Shoah was not unique because it was an example of genocide, since history records numerous well-documented genocidal events. He makes an unforgivable omission, however, when he fails to say that the Shoah was terrifyingly unique because of its scope, the technology and logistics involved and the zealousness with which it was conducted against particularly vulnerable people, as well as the fact that it so easily recruited implementers, aiders, abetters and apologists – and not only in Germany.

He is also right to say that the Shoah is being exploited for crass, cynical and even contemptible purposes. Very little gets done in the States that does not involve private greed, whether for commercial gain or personal notoriety, and it would be odd if Shoah museums, for example, were an exception. Can he cite even one catastrophic or heroic or glorious or famous phenomenon that does not lend itself to such exploitation? The fall of an empire, the birth of Jesus, the death of a princess, the landing on the Moon, the Civil War – all are fair game. It is meretricious to blame a so-called Holocaust industry for the exploitation of the Shoah. The Holocaust museums and Holocaust Studies departments in the States are not encouraging people to claim falsely that they are Shoah survivors, nor are they producing silly films on Shoah themes, and they certainly haven’t been urging the animal rights lobbies to make tear-jerk analogies between gas ovens for Jews and gas ovens for dogs and cats. Do we blame the commercial exploitation of Christmas on the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount?

The issue is not whether or how Finkelstein has been unfairly criticised for this or that book, or what motivates Elie Wiesel, Jesse Jackson, Abraham Foxman, or Chelsea and Hillary Clinton. It is beside the point whether a Holocaust industry is good or bad for Israel, whether the Shoah is used to justify or condemn the Cold War, whether Jew-hatred is increasing or decreasing in the USA. The issue isn’t whether rich Jews were influential in setting up Holocaust museums, nor whether Nazi genocide against the Roma or the handicapped was as heinous as that against Jews (of course it was). And the issue is certainly not whether US blacks under and after slavery suffered more than US victims of Jew-hatred. Beyond question African Americans suffered vastly and incalculably more.

The nub of the issue is this: are we right to make major efforts and investments to keep the memory of the Shoah alive among all peoples, everywhere, or should we start forgetting about it? The answer is absolutely clear. We must make dignified, bold, continuous efforts to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. We must tell the not so simple truths about it, while refusing to mystify it, or to exploit or analogise or moralise its meaning. Long after the last Jew has been assimilated into the vast sea of Gentile cultures, long after Israel ceases to exist as a Jewish state, long after the world knows and cares less about Jews than it now does about Hittites and Etruscans, it will be important for people to remind themselves that the Shoah is a part of its tragic cultural evolution.

Any intellectual or scholar or student of history who writes about the Shoah and ends up without saying what I have just said is someone who does not understand what it means to be a human being, or a Jew-hater (self-hater or other-hater), or simply a common asshole pretending to be an intellectual. I don’t know where Finkelstein belongs.

Ivor Kraft
Honolulu

Wife Overboard

As a long-term admirer of John Sutherland, I was fascinated to read his review of my biography of W.M. Thackeray (LRB, 20 January). Naturally I take his correction of certain errors of fact on the chin. However, it isn’t true to say (Sutherland’s line about this being a ‘Cockney biography’) that no institution outside London was consulted or acknowledged. In fact, the preface thanks manuscript holders as comparatively far-flung as the National Library of Scotland, Eton College and the Surrey County Record Office. Neither, and much more important, is it especially ‘impudent’ of the publishers, or rather their blurb-writer (myself), to advertise the existence of new material. Leaving aside various unpublished letters, newspaper reports and medical records, all noted in the ‘meagre’ critical apparatus, Sutherland doesn’t seem to have noticed the numerous references to Thackeray’s recently discovered 1830s scrapbook, and the light it sheds on both his artistic development and the origins of Vanity Fair, or indeed the dozen or so illustrations – one of which looks very like a post-madness portrait of Isabella – taken from it.

Elsewhere, Sutherland charges me with a general disparagement of all Thackeray’s post-Vanity Fair work. While it’s certainly true that I like his post-1848 novels less than his early books, I seem to remember including relatively elaborate discussions of works such as Pendennis, The Newcomes and Lovel the Widower, at least two of which – if Vanity Fair is taken as the peak of Thackeray’s achievement – are judged to end up on a subsidiary crag.

As for Isabella’s crinolines, or their absence, I look forward to one of Sutherland’s mini-essays on the subject, but would point out that they were certainly a feature of 1840s couture. After all, Thackeray’s 1847 parody of Mrs Gore’s novels is entitled Crinoline. Sutherland ends his review with a rueful remark or two to the effect that he wishes he’d had a closer look at the typescript of Thackeray which he (very kindly and instructively) read for me this time last year. I might wish that he’d taken a closer look at the finished copy.

D.J. Taylor
London SW15

Whites Only

Elizabeth Lowry writes misleadingly that apartheid ‘began as an extensive affirmative action programme on behalf of the Afrikaner’ (LRB, 20 January). She evidently hasn’t been to Pietermaritzburg, where there is a statue of Gandhi: under it a short inscription explains how he was thrown out of a whites-only train carriage by British colonial authorities. To rework one of SAA’s slogans, the Afrikaners did not invent apartheid, they merely perfected it.

Charles Landon
Hanau, Germany

Third time lucky?

Michael Howard (Letters, 25 November 1999) asks how outlawing war ‘for a third time’ will make a difference. It is improbable that a new international treaty banning states from using force would fare any better than its predecessors in 1928 and 1945. But let us not confuse an international treaty with a true prohibition. Compare the example of anti-personnel landmines. Those who celebrated the 1997 Ottowa Treaty as the successful culmination of the campaign to ban landmines were mistaken. In the two years since the Treaty was signed there have probably been more landmines laid than cleared. But the cynicism of some critics of the ban is also misplaced. The campaign will have succeeded when there is as much moral revulsion against landmines as there is against, for example, chemical weapons – when a frontline commander instinctively recoils from planting mines because it is an inhuman thing to do. This is still some way off. Landmines do have short-term military utility: they allow a platoon manning an isolated outpost in hostile territory to sleep more easily. Enacting a ban by international treaty is only one part of the campaign – and it was probably given undue importance by some activists. The same will be true of outlawing war.

Alex de Waal
London N1

Get on with it

It could be true that the gods have abandoned us, or we them, but it does not necessarily follow that, as Jenny Diski suggests (LRB, 3 February), memory is our last solace as replacement. There is a third way which all organic life pursues, which in our case more or less resembles this: one rises in the morning, looks for things to do, gets on with it.

Jeffrey Sievert
Nara, Japan

Brutish Babies

I would like to thank Ruth Evans (Letters, 25 November 1999) for sending me off to read Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages (1999). I sense that Evans was giving voice to the frustration that medievalists often feel at the reluctance of early modernists to look backwards in time (often attributable to their inability to read Latin). On the other hand, I was more than a little perplexed by Elliott’s claim that attacks on clerical marriage in the 11th century gave rise to a new theory of the witch in the 15th century, as language which had begun as metaphor came to be accepted as a representation of reality. There are several problems here. First, why on earth did this new paradigm (unlike the other ones discussed by Elliott, such as a new insistence that the Virgin Mary was without sin from the moment of her conception) wait four centuries before it even began to make its appearance? Second, if witch beliefs are somehow linked to the psychic costs of clerical celibacy, why did they not disappear with the Reformation, when priests took wives and the monasteries and nunneries were closed? Third, is Elliott’s claim that the 16th-century witch-hunt was a natural outcome of the 11th-century preoccupation with clerical celibacy not at odds with her recognition that the ways in which demons were conceived altered significantly during the course of the Middle Ages for reasons that had little or nothing to do with clerical celibacy?

Evans is right that ‘structures of thinking do not come out of nowhere’ – this is why I find the familiars, the demonic cats and toads of Elizabethan England, so puzzling. Wherever they came from, it was not from clerical abstinence or scholastic debate, or we would find them all over Europe.

David Wootton
Queen Mary and Westfield College
London E1

How did Kate Croy get home?

Bernard Bergonzi's query about Underground stations in The Wings of the Dove (Letters, 3 February) can be easily answered. The twenty years or so that Henry James lived in London coincided with a rapid growth in the system of underground railways, with a consequent succession of maps, official and unofficial, keeping pace with the development of the different lines. For those of us accustomed to the ubiquity and uniformity of the present-day Underground map, there is a startling variety and lack of consistency in these early maps, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the naming of the station we now know as Bayswater, on the District and Circle Lines. Situated about a third of the way along Queen's Road (now Queensway), the station is variously called Bayswater; Queens Road; Queens Road Bayswater; Queen's Road (Bayswater); Queens Road Bayswater Station; and Bayswater (Queens Road) Station. Bergonzi is right in saying that the Central London Railway (now part of the Central Line), which had its own Queen's Road station at the corner of Queen's Road (Queensway) and Bayswater Road, was opened in 1900, two years before The Wings of the Dove appeared. James, however, had moved to Rye in 1898, and was quite possibly unaware of the new station and the ambiguity to which it might give rise in his book.

At any event, Kate Croy would have been sensible to stay on her Circle train from Sloane Square to Queens Road Bayswater, since the slightly longer walk from there to her aunt's house would cause her less trouble than changing to the Central London Railway at Notting Hill Gate – a change which, until the 1960s, involved crossing the road to a separate station.

Christopher Dolan
Buckhurst Hill, Essex

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