In John Barrell, the London Review tasked an eminent truffle hunter to examine Christopher Hitchens’s book Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ (LRB, 30 November 2006). But instead of sniffing out tasty morsels for salivating LRB readers, Professor Barrell chose to stick his snout in a cow pie.
He sneers that Hitchens ‘misrepresents matters of fact that are essential to an understanding of the context of Paine’s writing’. I would encourage any fair-minded reader to compare Barrell’s claims of ‘misrepresentation’ with the words that Hitchens actually wrote.
Here’s a selection of what Barrell considers ‘essential’ matters of fact. He notes that Hitchens uses Rights of Man and The Rights of Man interchangeably. Shall we put Moncure Conway on the block as well? He claims Hitchens inaccurately identifies gentleman-lawyer John Frost as ‘the’ secretary of the London Corresponding Society, a position occupied by the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. How so? John Frost was sent to Paris as a delegate for the Corresponding Society in November 1792. ‘Secretary’ at its root means ‘keeper of secrets’, and it is a perfectly good noun to use in describing Frost’s role. In any case, why would Barrell read so much into such a brief reference to a rather tertiary figure?
Barrell accuses Hitchens of writing that Paine communed with Dr Johnson’s ghost and endorsed Ricardo’s works before they were written. One could come to such ridiculous conclusions only by reading Hitchens’s phrases with a breathtaking literal-mindedness. And so it goes. Close scrutiny reveals Barrell’s damning indictment to be little more than magnified bits of gossamer based on a laughably exact reading of Hitchens’s text.
As for Barrell’s assertion that Hitchens has borrowed heavily from John Keane, if every book whose author unintentionally mirrored the words of a source was thrown into the dustbin, we’d hardly need libraries. Barrell’s comparison of passages from Hitchens and Keane is a cheap and easy trick he has used to denigrate Hitchens’s writing. Can he assure us that a careful reading of his own voluminous footnotes wouldn’t uncover an offending line or two?
As Tom Paine said, ‘a man may write himself out of reputation when nobody else can do it.’ Barrell’s crudely executed hit job, which masquerades as a review, is not the work of a serious academic. The London Review should be ashamed for printing such a shoddy, animus-driven temper fit.
John Barrell writes: Jennifer Verner claims that I made an error of fact only in the case of John Frost. Hitchens said he was ‘secretary of the London Corresponding Society’. I said he was too posh to have been a member of that society, whose secretary was the shoemaker Thomas Hardy. Verner replies that Hitchens was using the word ‘secretary’ in a sense described by the OED as ‘obsolete’, and last recorded in 1815 in an early novel by Sir Walter Scott, where the context suggests it was already an archaism. I don’t know whether Hitchens has a whimsical habit of using common words in long-obsolete senses, but even if he does it won’t help. As Michael Davis points out in the new DNB, on an occasion when Frost is recorded as attempting to attend a secret meeting of the LCS, he was turned away as not being a member of the society. But, Verner says, he went to Paris as a delegate for the LCS, so he must have been entrusted with its secrets. In fact, Frost went to Paris as a delegate of the Society for Constitutional Information; the notion that he went as a delegate for the LCS was invented by Holland Rose in 1912 and discredited by Albert Goodwin in 1979, in the standard narrative history of late 18th-century radicalism, The Friends of Liberty. Perhaps I did overstate the case in referring to Frost’s journey with Paine to Paris as among the facts ‘essential’ to understanding the context of Paine’s writings in the 1790s. Hitchens himself puts it no higher than to say such facts are ‘necessary’ to such an understanding, and I’m happy with that.
I said in my review that Hitchens appeared to believe that David Ricardo published before Paine. Verner claims that in this I was guilty of a ridiculously literal reading of what Hitchens wrote. The passage I was referring to reads: ‘In his exaltation of commerce and free trade over feudalism, he [Paine] not only seconded Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but also anticipated Karl Marx.’ The point of those contrasting verbs is perfectly clear. It is to suggest that Paine agreed with some writers who wrote before him, whom he ‘seconded’, and with another writer who wrote after him, whom he ‘anticipated’. You can’t read it any other way. It’s then hardly surprising that when – after encountering quite a few such errors of chronology (more than I listed in my review) – I found Hitchens saying that Paine wrote in order to ‘enlighten’ Dr Johnson, I assumed he believed that Johnson was still alive in the 1790s. I still do.
The business about the title of Rights of Man is, I agree, a small point, so small I made it in brackets, and I would not have mentioned it at all if the book had not been so full of inaccuracies. I don’t know what Moncure Conway has to do with anything. He published his life of Paine in 1892, when the conventions for referencing were entirely different. I should have thought Verner, a historian, would have known that.
Verner is big on punishing supposed mistakes. In an intriguing essay published on the twin neo-con websites laughably named Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia, she claimed that Dana Priest of the Washington Post was wrong in what she said about extraordinary rendition, mainly because she is married to an old leftie and writes for the Post; but that if she is right, she shouldn’t say it anyway because to do so subverts US foreign policy. I wonder if the subtext of Verner’s letter is that I must be wrong in my criticisms of Hitchens because I am married to an old leftie and write for the LRB, but that if I am right I shouldn’t criticise Hitchens anyway because to do so endangers the security of the US.
Reading Gary Indiana’s piece on Kathy Acker I was tempted to speculate about the mythical threads that bind reviewer and subject (LRB, 14 December 2006). In 1993, waiting for publication of my first novel, I found myself dogged by missing galleys – one set went astray in New York, another in Portland. I checked into a hotel in Haight-Ashbury, just around the corner from Kathy Acker’s apartment, to wait for a third set, and meanwhile ripped around San Francisco on the back of Kathy’s Kawasaki 650. It was a troubling few days. Kathy had just broken off a relationship that she had said was headed for marriage (that would have been her third; Acker was a name she gleaned from one of the husbands) and she had, she told me, found herself portrayed in someone else’s fiction. She felt angry and insulted.
‘Gary Indiana. I’m gonna sue the bastard.’
It took me a couple of days to convince her not to.
‘We don’t. We can’t do that. One novelist suing another for “representation"? The courts would be clogged to eternity. Besides, we don’t represent reality – we pillage it. Win or lose you’ll look vain and stupid.’
Still it rankled.
‘Supposing it isn’t you?’
‘Everyone’ll know it’s meant to be me.’
‘No they won’t.’
‘Everyone in New York’ll know it’s me!’
‘So – he says I’m a lousy tipper. In New York that’s close to criminal.’
The following year, publication of my novel having been put off until 1995, I went back into television to produce a series for ITV on American writers. On the short list was the name Gary Indiana. I gave Acker her nickelsworth of vengeance and struck it off.
Neal Ascherson makes what many military historians will consider to be an apology of sorts for Günter Grass’s military activities in the last months of the Second World War (LRB, 2 November 2006). Grass’s burning desire to volunteer to serve in the elite U-boat arm of the Kriegsmarine was a display of loyalty to both Führer and Reich. This force was in action from the first day of the war to the last and was an ardent source of Nazi Party recruits. It suffered astonishing losses: out of 40,900 crew who sailed in U-boats, 28,000 died and a further 5000 were captured. This was not a group of men to be joined lightly or without commitment.
Nor was the 10th Waffen SS Panzer Division ‘Frundsberg’ the ‘thrown-together formation largely manned by half-trained boys and Luftwaffe ground crews’ that Ascherson makes it out to be. Formed in early 1943 from 18-year-old racially pure Germans, this elite division fought at Tarnopil and Kamyanets-Podolsky in Ukraine, some of the hardest fighting of spring 1944. The ‘half-trained boys’ of the Frundsberg SS Division went on to fight against the British and Canadians in June to August 1944, at Caen, Avranches and in the Falaise Gap, where they suffered heavy casualties, but lost remarkably few as prisoners. By February 1945, the 10th Waffen SS was in Pomerania on the Baltic coast, engaged heavily against the Red Army in the brutal struggle for Stettin, then at Stargard, and in late March at Furstenwalde. It was among the last units facing the Red Army to lay down its arms in May 1945.
Grass knew exactly what serving in the ranks of the 10th Waffen SS Panzer Division Frundsberg would entail, and exactly what was expected of him and his Nazi comrades-in-arms as the Reich retreated in on itself. Ascherson’s image of a ‘half-trained boy’ does not reflect the facts Günter Grass himself reveals. Here was a young Nazi, seeking to serve the Nazi cause. Nothing else.
Neal Ascherson writes: Robert Morgan tries to prove, triumphantly, that Grass was a ‘young Nazi seeking to serve the Nazi cause’ when he was drafted into the Waffen SS. But Grass has never denied that he was a fully convinced Nazi at the age of 18. It’s exactly because he has always admitted it that his refusal to name the formation he served with is so puzzling. It’s also mistaken to imply that Grass chose the SS deliberately, when my review makes it plain that he did not. He was drafted into the Waffen SS, and did not object – a very different matter. On the military history Morgan has a point. I was wrong to suggest that the Frundsberg division was only formed in 1944. It was, as he points out, actually the renamed 10th Panzer Division, which had fought on many fronts. But after the losses and destruction it suffered in Alsace, it had to be completely rebuilt before going into action again, and at this point, as Grass makes clear, the desperate shortage of manpower meant that it was taking in young boys and even air force ground crews: hardly a crack Nazi unit by that stage in the war.
I do not want to take issue with the views expressed in response to my article on the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, but three points need comment (Letters, 30 November 2006). First, the passages mainly criticised were not mine but taken from my summary of Charles Gati’s argument ‘in the author’s own words’. Second, my article does not suggest, nor does Gati, that the Hungarian revolution was anti-semitic. If anything, he argues that ‘close to 75 per cent of the active anti-Stalinist intellectuals had Jewish ancestors’ (Gati, pp. 133-4), but that this only represents the familiar prominence of Jews in Hungary’s intellectual life. Nor does my article suggest that most Hungarian Jews were Communist sympathisers. Lastly, none of the books under review makes much of Ian Birchall’s workers’ councils (Letters, 30 November 2006). In a revolution that lasted all of two weeks they could hardly have been a major factor.
Perhaps, as John Hodgson suggests, Terry Eagleton was indeed talking about Christianity as ‘a structure of feeling’ (Letters, 30 November 2006). But I object to his assumption that a structure of feeling encodes no propositions, and is merely a kind of Wittgensteinian way of life, a peasant practice – or ‘popular culture’ – so habitually embedded that it has become simply inevitable, and impermeable to argument. On the contrary, Eagleton’s review of Dawkins advanced a number of highly contestable propositions, forcefully: God is the ground of our meaning; God created us; God has no need of us but we have great need of him; God may have regretted creating us at all; Jesus Christ is the incarnate revelation of this God; anti-religious scientific rationality can’t really question this, is possibly dangerous and certainly thoroughly ‘suburban’. Most startlingly – and phrased in a way I have not encountered since I had to attend, as a child, various ‘charismatic’ churches – Eagleton proposed that St Paul was right that Christ triumphantly showed Mosaic law to be ‘cursed’. Both sides can’t be right. Enter Dawkins, foaming with suburban rationality …
Lorna Scott Fox states that the House of Lords ‘cravenly’ sent Augusto Pinochet home as unfit to stand trial (LRB, 14 December 2006). In fact, a panel of Law Lords ruled 3-2 that he had no immunity from prosecution, opening the way to his extradition to Spain. It was Jack Straw who decided to return him to sender.
Anthony Julius (Letters, 19 October 2006) has added a new quotation to the two apparent fabrications sent to these pages previously by Eugene Goodheart to demonstrate the anti-semitism of the Hizbullah secretary-general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Citing a passage in Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s Hizbullah: Politics and Religion (2002), he attributes this statement to Nasrallah: ‘If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice, we do not say the Israeli.’ The source of the quotation is cited in footnote 20 of Chapter 8 of Saad-Ghorayeb’s book: an interview, not with Nasrallah, but with a Hizbullah member of the Lebanese Parliament, Mohammed Fnaysh, conducted by the author on 15 August 1997.
Saad-Ghorayeb informs me that the footnote is a mistake, although she is certain there is a valid source for the statement. However, when at my request she examined her PhD dissertation, from which the book originated, she discovered the same mistaken citation. Footnotes in a long work can easily go astray, but it is unfortunate that neither her dissertation adviser nor her publishers spotted the error. Therefore, until someone discovers where and when Nasrallah uttered the words above, the case is unproved.
Julius writes that my letter pointing out that Goodheart’s quotes are probably fictitious somehow implies ‘that Goodheart is wrong to describe Nasrallah, and by extension Hizbullah, as anti-semitic’. I am agnostic on Nasrallah’s alleged anti-semitism, and indeed anti-semitism was irrelevant to my original article, which concerned Hizbullah’s role in Lebanese political life.
There are so many distortions in John Bossy’s review of my Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (LRB, 14 December 2006) it is hard to know where to start. At first, he errs in minor details. He says Faversham was ‘not’ a Cinque Port. In fact, the town was one of the Cinque Ports of Dover in Marlowe’s youth. I never claimed Padua was an independent city state. Castelnau did support the idea of replacing the queen. More important, the coroner’s report on Marlowe has inconsistencies noted by specialists. It is not enough to say ‘there is no good reason for doubting the coroner’s verdict,’ as if unrefuted objections to the document did not exist. Bossy finds it wrong ‘to imply’ that Thomas Walsingham’s duties as in the Babington case were to watch ‘house and gardens’; but I implied no such simple thing. He forgets Thomas’s mediating role with the poets Watson and Marlowe, who both served as couriers. Whatever he supposes, there is no evidence that Thomas Walsingham ‘decided’ on events in the Deptford ‘story’. My account does involve the motives and initiative of Marlowe’s killer, Ingram Frizer, whom Bossy never mentions.
He claims that there was no such thing as an Elizabethan secret service. That is nonsense. By the 1580s, the Secretary ran a clandestine service, unrivalled in extent if not in pay, by other intelligence services at home or abroad. He had placemen from London to Turkey, some of whom were unpaid. Bossy’s speculations neglect Marlowe’s urgent need for funds and later for more dangerous work. It is silly to hold that there is no sign of his spying, and so overlook the Flushing episode and events that led up to it. Further, it is wrong to imply that official work did not occur at Seething Lane. More serious nonsense occurs in Bossy’s belief that the authorities cared nothing about ‘heresy’ after the eighth parliament. As for my writing, I shouldn’t have used ‘British’ for ‘English’ on page 148; but a few minor, correctable slips occur in any careful biography.
Ian Hacking writes that Pedro Almodóvar has directed the only major movie with organ donation as a central theme (LRB, 14 December 2006). 21 Grams, directed by Alejandro Gonzàles Iñárritu, is another.