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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 22 · 16 November 2000

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Eternal Romantic

Anna Levy (Letters, 2 November) wonders whether practitioners of Deconstruction would feel comfortable being classed as Romantics. In the US at any rate the answer is yes: Paul de Man repeatedly described Deconstruction as the inheritor of the Romantic legacy, and his brand of Deconstruction claimed to be a recovery of the most unnerving and powerful insights of Romanticism from Rousseau to Kant to the Schlegels to Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. Although de Man avoided psychoanalytic approaches to literature, many of his friends, colleagues and followers – among them, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Neil Hertz, Thomas Weiskel, Cynthia Chase, Cathy Caurth (even Laura Quinney) – compared Deconstructive approaches to the Romantic sublime with Freudian accounts of the formation of the psyche so as to argue that psychoanalysis was also a legacy of Romanticism. The watershed book Deconstruction and Criticism (1979), comprising essays by Bloom, de Man, Derrida, Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, was originally conceived as a series of Yale School readings of Shelley's The Triumph of Life; what de Man offers as pure critical exegesis of the poem is his most powerful single statement of his style of Deconstruction. Whether the New Historicist theory deriving from Foucault is also Romanticist is another question.

William Flesch
Brandeis University
Waltham, Massachusetts

The Phoneless Masses

When, in my review of Nobrow by John Seabrook, I invoked the ‘phoneless masses’, it was not to suggest, as Laura Mandell has it (Letters, 2 November), that I am deeply in touch with them: it was only to question Seabrook’s breezy assumption that everybody’s now on line and in line with the world of the media-entertainment conglomerates. it’s his totalisation that was at issue, not mine. Nonetheless, Mandell accuses me – and Terry Eagleton for good measure – of ‘the exploitation of victims for the sake of academic achievement’. Whoah. Those would be fighting words, but that’s way beyond my reach even on my megalomaniacal days. I mean, I’ve only exploited a graduate student or two. And it’s my rhetoric that’s out of proportion?

One thing I don’t get: this ‘new, politicised form of book review’ that Mandell laments – that’s a bad thing?

Hal Foster
Princeton

Laura Mandell has rightly pointed out that whenever one mentions a group of people in the course of making an irrefutable remark, one is exploiting them. I suppose we will have to wait for the oppressed masses to rise up against this form of exploitation.

Hugh Perkins
Cheltenham

The Inevitable Pit

My grandparents were born in Damascus and brought their children to the US in the 1890s at about the same time that Stephen Greenblatt’s grandparents arrived (LRB, 21 September). My family name identifies the origin of the family in Homs, northern Syria. The ‘y’ denotes ‘of the place’. My parents were raised in Boston, Massachusetts as were Greenblatt’s. They spoke English and Arabic at home but although I understand Arabic they made no effort at all to give their children any skill in the language. The Syrian Orthodox Church we attended performed the divine liturgy in Aramaic but the Sunday School classes were in English. In a single generation, the immigrant cohort of which my parents were a part dispersed widely into the suburbs of Boston and merged with the indigenous culture of New England. The region provided good schooling, of which I took advantage, with the result that I had the choice of automatic entrance to either Harvard or MIT. Ethnicity did not factor into entrance to either place. I married a Wasp in her Church (Congregational), which I admired for its Enlightenment roots and constructive efforts to enhance the quality of American life. My parents welcomed the marriage. I received a Fulbright to study in England (as did Greenblatt) and moved south to make a life for my family. My children in turn were raised and educated to be Americans without a hyphen.

From my earliest days at the Latin School in Boston, with its high percentage of Jewish students, I recognised their impulse to participate in the American experience yet remain apart from it. This is understandable, but the minority to which my parents belonged did not make a fetish of its ethnicity. The future of the United States is positive only to the extent that it resists becoming a country of hyphenated groups on the way to Balkanisation.

Charles Homsy
Houston, Texas

Self-Hugging

Andrew O’Hagan describes Samuel Johnson as ‘a great engine of self-admiration’, a ‘cut-purse narcissist’ (LRB, 5 October). Are we talking about the man who wrote, ‘I have made no reformation, I have lived totally useless … This is not the life to which Heaven is promised’ – and much more to the same purpose? O’Hagan has given advance notice that it is no good arguing with him. He pours scorn on Lawrence Lipking as someone who ‘wants us to pay attention to the great man’s paragraphs’, who appeals merely to ‘people who are fed up with jokes and well-worn tales’. Most LRB readers do not feel it beneath them to pay attention to paragraphs; many of them like jokes to be funny and even well-worn tales to be true.

Isobel Grundy
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Canada

Joan who?

J.L. Nelson claims that Joan of Arc was ‘little known even in France until the First World War’ (LRB, 19 October). This is to ignore the effects of Charles Péguy’s poem Jeanne d’Arc (1897) and his great religious drama in verse, Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc (1909), in which she becomes the exalted symbol of the unity of the two ‘cultures’ or ‘mystiques’ of Catholicism and France.

W.S. Milne
Claygate, Surrey

Sheffield looked after you

For someone like me – ten years older, economically one rung lower (two up and two down, cold water, toilet in the back-yard) and from Sheffield – Alan Bennett’s lament for the passing of the great municipal governments (LRB, 2 November) rings wonderfully true. Sheffield was Labour for most of the century. And Sheffield looked after you.

I failed my eleven-plus, but someone in the Education Office actually looked at the results and discovered the discrepancy between my IQ score and English Test, on the one hand, and the Maths Test, on the other. They told my headmaster to teach me basic maths in the summer term, and with no further exam gave me a scholarship to the grammar school of my choice. I contracted TB and Sheffield Health Authority (this was just before the NHS) sent me to a union convalescence home in Silloth. At Higher School Certs, I was offered a County Major Scholarship. I turned it down as I was awarded a State Scholarship and was twice offered further grants as I had ‘saved’ the city the money for my scholarship.

And what did I do for Sheffield in return? Bugger off as soon as I could to Manchester and then London.

Maurice Marks
London N2

Unlike Alan Bennett, I remember George Guest, the Director of Education for Leeds, less as a bureaucratic hero and more as a mean old sod, who was no match for the educational giants around him, like Alec Clegg in the West Riding and Bill Alexander in Sheffield; but then I also remember my West Yorkshire Road Car Company bus delivering me to Vicar Lane not Wellington Street. I was, however, at one with Bennett in his wish to get out of the place. This was one of the few emotions common to sensitive Leeds teenagers. The most powerful encouragement to do so in the Classical Sixth at Leeds Grammar School came from our teachers – who told us that if we didn’t work harder we would ‘end up at Leeds University’.

Chris Price
London SE21

Good Old Days

In his review of Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister (LRB, 19 October), R.W. Johnson tells us that when ‘the American republic was young’, the Presidency produced, among others, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was never President, and indeed was not strictly eligible for the post. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution (ratified in 1788) states that no naturalised citizen can become President, and the 12th Amendment (ratified in 1804) extends this prohibition to the Vice-President. The politicians of the day knew how to look after themselves, however, and so the restriction was ‘grandfathered’: those who were citizens at the time of ratification were allowed to stand for office. This meant that Hamilton (born in Nevis) was eligible for the Presidency, but it was an office he neither sought nor held.

Johnson’s error is useful in reminding us how fiercely Americans cling to ancient Constitutional restrictions. These prohibitions mean that J.K. Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Shalikashvili may sit in the innermost councils of their country, but may never share in the honours which it bestowed on George M. Dallas, Hannibal Hamlin, Garret A. Hobart and Spiro T. Agnew.

It is possible only to speculate why Johnson elevated Alexander Hamilton to Presidential status. Perhaps he is attracted by Hamilton’s view that the American head of state should be President for life, and the Senate ‘a permanent body’, consisting of ‘the rich and well-born’. I wonder where Hamilton got those ideas.

Ron Haggart
Toronto

Life and Opinions

Norman Vance’s review of the new edition of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (LRB, 2 November) explains the hero’s name Teufelsdröckh as meaning ‘devil’s dung or asafoetida’, but I believe it also refers to the waste stuff produced in the making of woven cloth – i.e. the name sustains the allusion to tailoring. Herr Teufelsdröckh was perhaps a relation of Scott’s Mr Dousterswivel and G.H. Lewes’s Wolfgang von Bibundtücker, and the three were surely descendants of Sterne’s Slawkenbergius, all of them mocked Germans.

I wonder if the Diogenes Carlyle was referring to when giving Teufelsdröckh his first name was not the great cynic, but Diogenes Laertius, who also made a major contribution to philosophy with a book entitled ‘The Life and Opinions of …’

Peter Williams
Cardiff University

Sarin in the Subway

The man who was mistakenly accused of the first sarin attack in Japan in 1994 wasn’t arrested or ‘held for a long time’, as Ian Hacking claims (LRB, 19 October). The police interrogated him but figured out after a short while that he wasn’t the culprit. That was why the media reports on the case were particularly irresponsible: they fingered a man who hadn’t even been arrested.

Peter Landers
Tokyo

We do not presume

I was teaching Dickinson last month, and after reading Martha Nell Smith’s letter on the Dickinson Electronic Archives (Letters, 5 October), I rushed to examine its ‘different and complementary editorial praxes’, but failed to find a way in or even to gain any idea of the criteria for access. An e-mail to the collective remains unanswered. Unless someone can enlighten me I shall have to continue to rely on the reassuring solidity of R.W. Franklin’s editions.

D.A. Reichardt
James Cook University
Cairns, Queensland

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