Nicholas Penny’s assertion that the ‘elite academics’ invited by the Getty Research Institute ‘rarely have any interest in the museum’ (LRB, 4 January) represents the fundamental premise of his general polemic against them: that these pampered academic art historians are indifferent to contact with actual works of art. Can he offer the slightest empirical foundation for his claim? Without that – and he could not produce it if he tried – that stale curator’s canard counts as nothing but unsupported defamation.
He writes as one for whom appearances are salient, down to the ‘well-chosen fabric’ that society decorator Thierry Despont imposed on the interior of Richard Meier’s design for the Getty Museum. The damask wall coverings delight him, but the surface appearances of the scholars’ existence, gleaned from second-hand accounts, attract only his resentful sneers and unearned condescension. Count his references to the (small) swimming-pool at their residence – while reminding yourself what a common domestic amenity this is all over Los Angeles – and it becomes clear that he aims to accomplish by petty innuendo what he cannot achieve through honest argument.
It is true that the Research Institute makes every effort to remove any unnecessary impediment to Getty scholars getting on with their work from the moment they arrive. And it has the advantage of an unparalleled staff and physical infrastructure in its pursuit of this aim. Scholars are in residence for a limited time, many for three months and the rest for no more than nine (and none for the ‘whole year’ at which Penny marvels). Before and after they face the same constraints and obligations that affect every working lecturer, curator, practising artist or independent scholar (the Institute has them all).
In Penny’s imagination, ‘guests of the Provenance Index’, experts in Dutch inventories but ‘unlikely to be well versed in Benjamin and Barthes’, look on with ‘bemusement’ at the pretentious post-seminar conversations (poolside of course) carried on by the Research Institute scholars. It should be noted for the record that the Getty Provenance Index is firmly a part of the Research Institute and thus entertains no separate guests. Numerous specialists in the history of collecting and the art trade have been in residence under its aegis (one nine-month cycle was devoted to these topics), but none in my memory disdained acquaintance with Barthes or Benjamin – knowledge of whose thought being no more than the mark of an adequately advanced education. In that Walter Benjamin provides some of the most profound philosophical meditations on the cognitive power of objects displaced in space and time, that choice of example is singularly inept. When Penny wheels on his plain-spoken man, the warder posing ‘uncomfortable questions’ as the curator makes his rounds of the galleries, we know we have entered the realm of a drearily familiar philistinism. (And how does he know that Alex Potts or T.J. Clark could not respond to this warder’s queries just as well as he could, if not considerably better?)
On the topic of Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity, the object of some years of work by the staff of the Research Institute, I searched in vain for the one judgment any serious reader would most want: that is, an assessment of the quality of the translation and the rigour of its philological underpinnings. If Penny did not feel equipped to offer one, perhaps he should have passed on the assignment.
Director, Getty Research Institute
Nicholas Penny writes: I have no objection to the Getty scholars’ having the use of a swimming-pool, and my account of the life around it and in the library on the hill is not ‘second-hand’. I was, for a while, privileged to be one of those scholars – invited by the founder of the Provenance Index before that institution was ‘firmly’ subordinated to the director of the Research Institute. I never claimed that anyone ‘disdained acquaintance’ with Benjamin, but merely noted the mild discomfort of the minority which may not have read him (or Barthes). The idea that the Institute has given little attention to the museum receives unexpected support from Thomas Crow’s letter, which shows him to be unaware that the damask (on which the curator of decorative arts insisted) is not employed on the walls of the upstairs painting galleries – the rooms I specifically commended.
I am unaware of having made any allegation that either Alex Potts or T.J. Clark is incompetent to converse with warders. My observations on the dangers of privileged isolation for scholars – whether academics or curators – were not part of a ‘general polemic’ against academic art historians. But there certainly are some academics who have little interest in contact with real works of art, just as there are many curators who are indifferent to ideas, and I suppose that the former must constitute Crow’s ‘serious’ readers: those who will, he is sure, find it to be of no interest that a book about sculpture says nothing about where the sculpture can be found.
Park Honan says that it is hard to know where to start with complaints about my review of his life of Marlowe (Letters, 4 January). We might start with the trivial details. Faversham was never a Cinque Port. He describes Padua as ‘struggling with other small states against Hapsburg and Valois control’. On p. 123 he says that Michel de Castelnau, the French ambassador, ‘trusted that the queen could be killed’, which is untrue; in the letter he changes ‘killed’ to ‘replaced’. This is slightly more like it, but still untrue.
He reasonably complains that I did not discuss one of the incidents which has been used as evidence that Marlowe was a spy. This is his trip to Flushing over New Year 1591-92, when he was arrested for inciting a goldsmith to coin some money, including an amateurish Dutch shilling. I imagine Marlowe was trying to make some cash, or more probably seeing whom he could make a fool of. It is far-fetched to suppose, as Honan and others do, that he was on his way to an assignment spying on English Catholic emigrés in Brussels. I doubt if anyone sent on this mission would ensure that it coincided with a popular production, in London, of a play written by himself about the massacre of St Bartholomew and the murder of the Duke of Guise; or that he would share a lodging on the way with someone who, ten years before, had been very publicly exposed as a spy in the English college at Reims.
On Marlowe’s death, the only real complaint Honan has against the coroner’s verdict is that it said that Marlowe died ‘instanter’ from Frizer’s dagger, where another reporter says that he died ‘shortly after’ and a medical person suggests five or six minutes. I think ‘instanter’ can stretch to this. On the authorship of the alleged murder, Honan’s formal statement is that Frizer killed Marlowe because he thought that the death would please Walsingham and further his own career; his covert statement, in a fancy conclusion, is that Walsingham tipped him the wink.
Denis Donoghue handles the desperate writhings of Craig Raine over the primitive anti-semitism of T.S. Eliot with gentle dubiety (LRB, 25 January). Neither Raine nor Eliot deserves it. Dramatic monologues which carry the unchallenged malevolence of ‘Burbank/Bleistein’ and ‘Gerontion’ are no less malevolently anti-semitic for being dramatic monologues.
‘The jew is underneath the lot’ is beyond exculpation, pure Julius Streicher. Sir Ferdinand Klein, clipper of the lion’s rump, entertained by Princess Volupine, is clearly a Jew, hatefully about to enjoy a Christian woman. In part, this is the voice of the Old South, from whose borders Eliot derived. It speaks even more clearly of the anti-Dreyfusards, specifically of the intellectualised poison which flourished in France in the 1890s and had a long, vicious after-life. Will Raine please come to terms with the defiantly acknowledged influence on Eliot of Charles Maurras. The founder of Action Française is the source for all the organic community rubbish with which Eliot embarrassed his admirers. In 1945, Maurras, in his seventies, was saved from a firing squad for collaboration with the Nazis. His organic society was to be free from métèques, unorganic outsiders; it was his way of saying: ‘Keep France white.’ The famous passage in ‘After Strange Gods’ – not too many free-thinking Jews and all that – is carbon-copy Maurras.
It is very odd, at a time when any critic of the crimes committed by the Israeli government risks being called ‘anti-semitic’, to find Craig Raine blind to the words on the page and the hatred behind them. There is a larger case to be made about other twists in Eliot’s hyper-refined head: the fear of sex, the scorn for women, the loathing for persons of inferior station, the typist and apeneck Sweeney. Yet here, on the Jewish issue, Raine, like a literary first footman, is to be found polishing the family silver and denying the dirty secrets.
Thormanby, North Yorkshire
Tessa Hadley’s review of Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock mistakenly suggests that Thomas Boston was minister of Ettrick in the early 19th century (LRB, 25 January). Boston was admitted to the parish on 1 May 1707, the day on which Anglo-Scottish union came into force. Like most Presbyterians in Scotland, the people of Ettrick were ‘violently set against’ union, as Boston, himself an opponent, noted in his Memoirs. Their opposition points to an interesting corollary of what Hadley calls ‘a Protestant tradition of agonised self-scrutiny’: the enormously scrupulous attitude of godly Presbyterians to the politics of church and state.
Jeremy Harding says the French executed more of their own soldiers than any other army in the Great War, followed by the Italians (LRB, 30 November 2006). But the Italians executed 729 soldiers after courts martial, not five hundred, as Harding has it. The number of summary executions cannot be established; there were at least three hundred, but – in the vengeful chaos following the Caporetto defeat in November 1917 – the total may have reached several thousand. Therefore the Italian army killed, at a minimum, well over a thousand of its own men: almost twice the French total, though the French army was twice the size of the Italian.
Sue Rabbitt Roff’s letter in the previous issue described ‘non-heartbeating’ organ donors as ‘brainstem dead’. This was our mistake. The term ‘brainstem dead’ in fact refers to ‘deceased heartbeating’ patients.
Editor, ‘London Review’
The ‘narod’ may well ‘bezmolvstvuet’ but what about Vergangenheitsbewältigung etc (LRB, 25 January)? You provide a glossary to explain the Russian words, but not the German. Why do you assume that your readers are more familiar with one language rather than the other, when we all know that the English-speaking world is becoming more and more provincial?
Anyone can look up German words in a dictionary. With Russian words you have to know the alphabet before you can look them up and that may be asking too much.
Editor, ‘London Review’