In his review of Douglas Murray’s biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, James Davidson (LRB, 21 September) states, as I assume Murray does, that it was Douglas who wrote the persistent bit of anti-semitic doggerel, ‘How odd/of God/to choose/ the Jews,’ usually attributed to Hilaire Belloc. In fact the verse was written by William Norman Ewer (1885-1976). The almost equally well-known reply was by Cecil Browne: ‘But not so odd/As those who choose/A Jewish God/But spurn the Jews.’ A less familiar riposte came from the American author and Yiddishist Leo Rosten: ‘Not odd/Of God./Goyim/Annoy/’im.’
The Woodlands, Texas
Exposure of blind spots is a generic feature of a new, politicised form of book review. Discussing John Seabrook’s Nobrow, Hal Foster (LRB, 21 September) says: ‘Seabrook needs to get around more; his fieldwork doesn’t take him far enough from home … Yes, there are now ten million households with $100,000-plus incomes in the US alone, but half of the people on this planet have never used a telephone.’ Foster invokes a forgotten political reality to assert the myopia of an intellectual who is attempting to assess the political impact of culture. Terry Eagleton uses the same technique when he claims (LRB, 2 March) that Stanley Fish ‘is silent about famine, forced migration, revolutionary nationalism, military aggression, the depredations of capital, the inequities of world trade, the disintegration of whole communities’ for which the United States is responsible. Because he is oblivious to the ‘unmetaphysical outside’ of the US, Fish ‘champions the social and economic order which helps to breed the effects he deplores’. That same kind of obliviousness is evident, Eagleton claims, in Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Post-Colonial Reason. Spivak’s use of ‘jargon’ shows no respect for her ‘most immediate Other, the reader’. Blind to her own participation in ‘an academic coterie’, Spivak fails to consider ‘her own compromised condition, as an academic superstar who speaks of caste and clitoridectomy’ (LRB, 13 May 1999).
The formula for this kind of review is to attack the intellectual for his or her own position, to bring in the forgotten victim and then claim moral superiority because of one’s own wider view. To use the phoneless, unmetaphysical masses in a rhetorical gesture of moral one-upmanship is, however, to exploit them. And of course (as 18th-century satirists were keenly aware) the reviewer’s own position is often no better than that of the allegedly myopic intellectual he attacks. Foster attacks Seabrook for confusing the New Yorker’s readership with ‘the Universe’, but to whom is Foster himself speaking? And what is Eagleton if not an academic superstar?
This rhetorical feature is one instance of a performative/cognitive contradiction of the type so well analysed by Paul de Man. What Foster and Eagleton perform, the exploitation of victims for the sake of academic achievement, undermines what they say – which is that intellectuals exploit victims by being oblivious to them. But we shouldn’t nihilistically throw up our deconstructive hands. Better to begin thinking hard about the meaning of this particular split. What is the political good whose loss is being mourned and simultaneously enacted in the politicised book review?
Miami University of Ohio
Edward Luttwak’s conclusion that ‘even higher oil prices’ are desirable is logical; in environmental terms it is morally worthy; but it is politically impracticable (LRB, 5 October). Both the US and the UK have faced the trebling of the price of crude oil, yet on average the pump price of fuel is three times higher in the UK. The US consumes 19 million barrels of oil a day, or 25 per cent of the world’s output of crude oil, and yet consumers enjoy one of the world’s lowest tax rates on oil products. Last February ‘truckers’ tantrums’ brought Washington DC to a halt in a protest against Opec and the major multinational oil companies. However, the hauliers’ anger in the UK, which brought the country almost to a standstill, was caused by the high rate of tax on fuel. A cursory comparison of the US with the UK reveals how culturally relative Luttwak’s analysis is. It fails to examine the political economy of oil, especially the impact of taxation. It is inconceivable that any mainstream political party would adopt Luttwak’s policy.
The editorial note printed after Judith Chernaik’s letter (Letters, 19 October) seems churlish. No doubt Longman, publishers of the Everest/Matthews edition of Shelley, are poor salesmen and should not have left the LRB in darkness about their second volume, published this June. Nonetheless their Volume I – the relevant one, since it more than covers the period of the Reiman/Fraistat under review – was published in 1989 and has been long established as the pre-eminent standard. While there are minor differences in attribution and dating between the two editions, every poem printed in Reiman/Fraistat has been available in Everest/Matthews for more than ten years, and with a full (though not bloated) scholarly commentary. Reiman and Fraistat quite naturally employ Everest/ Matthews throughout as one of their chief textual and critical yardsticks. To my knowledge, Geoffrey Matthews was freely offering Reiman, and all other interested Shelleyans, his help and encouragement, and access to primary discoveries and research, right up to his untimely death in 1984. Since that sad event, Kelvin Everest has of course acknowledged both Reiman and Fraistat in the two Longman volumes so far published. It seems a final meanness that the LRB’s note – unwittingly, surely – implied a one-way indebtedness only.
Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: No slur was intended on either the memory of Geoffrey Matthews or the Longman edition. Of course Reiman and Fraistat acknowledge and praise Matthews and Everest in their introduction, observing that ‘the modern fortunes of Shelley’s texts improved when G.M. Matthews … began re-editing all of PBS’s poetry for the Longman series.’ They also point out, however, that the Longman editions were ‘conceived as a series of student textbooks’, and that Volume I of Matthews and Everest’s edition ‘modernises some of the punctuation and orthography and does not include complete collations of either the primary sources or intervening editions’. Furthermore, Reiman and Fraistat have been able
to make effective use of the wealth of new textual evidence made available by the publication of Shelley and His Circle: 1773-1822, the catalogue of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library (10 volumes to date, 1961-), the Shelley volumes of Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics (9 volumes, 1985-96) and The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts (23 volumes, 1986-99), which were in the early stages of publication at the time of Matthews’s death.
This would suggest that, without in any way diminishing the achievement and contribution of Matthews, Everest and everyone else (including Judith Chernaik) involved in the Longman edition, or the importance and usefulness of those volumes, the Johns Hopkins edition promises to be the more complete, and to that extent closer to being ‘definitive’. Let’s hope this correspondence is now closed.
Editor, ‘London Review’
‘Sad’ meaning ‘loser’ is much older than Jamie Wetherall thinks (Letters, 5 October). If he had looked in Merriam Webster he would have found that ‘sad sack: an inept person’ was recorded in 1943. The original Sad Sack was the hopelessly inadequate comic strip character who made his debut in a May 1942 issue of the US Army’s magazine, Yank. Publication in civilian comic books began in 1949 and the phrase has been part of the (American) language ever since. Whether or not the editors of Private Eye in the 1980s knew this (Letters, 19 October), Zadie Smith’s character Shiva clearly did.
In his review of Anita Brookner’s Romanticism and Its Discontents (LRB, 19 October), Graham Robb speculates as to whether ‘some of the more ambitious forms of modern literary criticism will come to be seen as a late flowering of the Romantic spirit’. He doesn’t tell us which these ‘more ambitious’ forms are, but the idea opens up some curious perspectives, involving as they do the assumption that you can fairly extend labels such as ‘Romantic’ to those who interpret literature as well as those who write it. Were one to take Deconstruction as one of the more ambitious forms of modern literary criticism, would those who practise it, academics to a man and woman, feel comfortable at being classed among the contemporary Romantics, merely from the fact of their allegiance? I ask because it has often seemed to me sufficient for a writer to have been writing at a certain point in literary history for them to come down to us as a Romantic, whatever their philosophy may have been and however difficult it may be to force the content and tendencies of their writing into the appropriate mould.
Paul Pfalzner doubts whether Murray Gell-Mann took the word ‘quark’ from the phrase in Finnegans Wake: ‘Three Quarks for Master Mark!’ (Letters, 21 September). But one of the things about quarks (in quantum physics) is that they come in threes. Earlier in Finnegans Wake we have: ‘Talis … (I am working out a quantum theory about it for it is really most tantumising state of affairs)’ – which may have caught Gell-Mann’s attention. Presumably, Joyce knew about the German Quark, meaning ‘curds’. I had always assumed assonance, and association, with ‘quarts’, in spite of the apparent rhyme with ‘Mark’.
Zachary Leader (LRB, 21 September) messes up his example of scholarly preference for early versions when he says that the Cornell Wordsworth printed a ‘host of “yellow" daffodils … “golden", a second thought, is relegated to the apparatus’. The Cornell Wordsworth adopted Wordsworth’s text from Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) and printed ‘a host of dancing Daffodils’. The word ‘golden’ only appeared in 1815.
John Lloyd (LRB, 19 October) says that the trade unionists were once ‘great utopians’ and are now ‘severely practical’ and in doing so underlines his ignorance of what goes on at the grass roots of the labour movement these days. You need to be very practical when you are fighting to defend asylum seekers, or making sure that the minimum wage is implemented. But the more utopian anti-capitalist movement is gaining support among trade unionists. Haringey Trades Council was one of a number of trade-union organisations that sent a delegation to protest at the IMF meeting in Prague, because we still dream of a better society as well as doing what we can to make the present one livable in.
As an enthusiastic Airfixer in my early teens it was not until many years later that it dawned on me that the warm inner glow experienced on completing a model was largely a result of the involuntary inhalation of the fumes emanating from the glue supplied. At the time I simply thought it had an appealing smell.
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