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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 11 · 5 June 2008

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Death of the Author

It’s not very charitable of Terry Eagleton to complain that John Mullan’s history of literary anonymity contains only ‘an absurdly brief epilogue on Anon in the modern age’ (LRB, 22 May). I imagine the reason it’s absurdly brief is that it could hardly have been anything else, now that there are so painfully few glimpses of Anon to be had when gazing around at the world of print. Publishers have long grown used to insisting that we know more about the authors whose books they bring out than many of us have any wish or need to know, and just in case the cosy revelations about where and how they live fail to win our hearts and minds, they like to throw in what is usually a blatantly outdated snapshot showing the author at their loveliest. And all this when, as Eagleton has just before comprehensively shown, the whole Romantic notion of authorship has been fatally and one might have hoped definitively undermined. It’s all very frustrating and I can only suppose that the publishers’ publicity departments that Eagleton invokes are simply part of a much wider conspiracy to repress the unwelcome knowledge that authors never have been singular beings but are simply names of convenience allotted to an anonymous conglomerate.

William Grant
Cambridge

No Shangri-La

As someone who was brought up in Tibet, I found Slavoj Žižek’s regurgitation of the Chinese Communist Party line mind-boggling (Letters, 24 April). Žižek accuses the Western media of imposing ‘certain stories’ on the public but seems himself to have swallowed whole China’s version of the story of Tibet. Before 1949, he writes, Tibet was an ‘extremely harsh feudal society, poor … corrupt and fractured by civil wars’. China’s state publications on Tibet are full of this sort of language. Žižek’s letter reminded me of propaganda material we had to study at school in which Tibetans were described as ‘most barbaric, cruel, dark and backward’. We were told that our Chinese brethren came to Tibet to civilise us and bring us into the ‘modern world’. This is still one of the principal justifications used by the Chinese government to explain the invasion and continued occupation of Tibet. Admittedly, Sino-Tibetan history is complex. Neither Tibet nor China can be said to have exercised sovereignty in the modern sense over their respective territories. China was plagued by warlords, civil war and foreign aggression, and didn’t have a centralised government capable of enforcing law and order within the territories it claimed until the 1950s.

Also surprising is Žižek’s attempt to shift the blame for the destruction wreaked by the Cultural Revolution onto the Tibetans. The destruction of Tibetan monasteries and historical monuments began years before the Cultural Revolution. Monasteries in Kham and Amdo were the first to be ruined by the Chinese army when Tibetans rebelled against Chinese rule in the 1950s and the destruction spread to western and central Tibet. Farming villages and nomadic communities, towns and individual households were targeted as well as monasteries during the Cultural Revolution as a result of Mao’s explicit instruction to destroy the ‘Four Olds’. The campaign was spearheaded by Chinese cadres. Some Tibetans did take part, but faced with the alternatives – torture, starvation and death – what choice did they have?

Not only does Žižek rely on Chinese propaganda for his understanding of Tibet’s past, he also interprets the current tragedy through TV images selected and transmitted by the Chinese government. These images repeatedly show footage of riots, but not the peaceful protests whose brutal suppression triggered the uprising. The Chinese authorities haven’t produced any evidence to show that there was a programme of organised violence by Tibetans: the wave of human rights protests and demonstrations in support of the Dalai Lama was vociferous but predominantly peaceful. In the incredible pictures of nomadic protesters on horseback in Amdo Bora (Gannan in Chinese) captured by a Canadian TV crew, for example, not a single weapon is being brandished. These nomads have guns so that they can protect their cattle, and it is their custom to carry swords and knives. But because they support the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, on this occasion they left their weapons behind. Žižek tellingly remains silent about the gunning down of unarmed Tibetan protesters (more than two hundred were killed), the mass arrests, the flooding of the Tibetan plateau with Chinese paramilitaries, the lockdown of monasteries and schools and the barring of independent foreign journalists from the region.

Žižek implies what the Chinese authorities have explicitly stated, that Tibet should be grateful for Chinese investment in its economy and its education and health systems. The presumption that Tibet would have remained unchanged had it not been for the Chinese invasion and colonial tutelage is preposterous, but there is also a failure to acknowledge what China gains from Tibet. For decades it has been exploiting Tibet’s natural and mineral resources: there has been large-scale deforestation in Ngawa, and there is a seemingly inexhaustible gold mine in Machu. And the geostrategic benefit China accrues from its control of Tibet is incalculable.

Shego Jinpa
London N7

Slavoj Žižek is misinformed about Tibetan history. In 1947 (not 1948), the Tibetan army subdued a violent uprising of monks protesting the arrest of the corrupt regent. It was not a civil war; it was not fought between monastic factions. The CIA did train and arm Tibetan guerrillas, but that stopped after Nixon went to China in 1972. Žižek is correct that Europeans have dreamed of Tibet as a domain of lost wisdom. Europe’s fantasy predates the Chinese invasion by more than a century, long before James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon and concocted the name ‘Shangri-La’. That fantasy lives on in the minds of many outside Tibet, but it is merely a silly sideshow for Tibetans in Tibet.

Recent history suggests that authoritarianism is not always followed by democracy and capitalist growth; it is more often followed by more tyranny and more economic misery. This has been Tibet’s story. The Chinese have not replaced secret police and internment camps with capitalism. They have kept the secret police and the internment camps (currently filled with recently arrested protesters: monks, nuns and laypeople) while adding unbridled capitalism, in the form of massive subsidies, not to Tibetans, but rather to Han Chinese businesses.

Donald Lopez
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Slavoj Žižek argues that ‘it is not the case that Tibet was an independent country until 1949,’ that it was a feudal society in need of capitalist modernisation from above, and that in return for their benevolent efforts to develop the country ‘innocent Chinese immigrants’ have been repaid with ingratitude and violence, including attacks by ‘youth mobs’. Substitute ‘Palestine’ for ‘Tibet’ and ‘Israeli’ for ‘Chinese’ (and ‘settlers’ for ‘immigrants’ – the usual colonial euphemism) and you have the classic Zionist justification for the colonisation of Palestine and the repression of Palestinian resistance. ‘The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them?’ asks Rashid Bey, a Palestinian elder in Theodor Herzl’s 1902 utopian novel, Altneueland. Herzl’s expectations of Palestinian gratitude were the stuff of fiction: so is Žižek’s vision of Tibet.

Michel Thibaud
Paris

What Really Happened

Alan Rudrum believes that Jesus needed an ass to get into Jerusalem not because he was suffering a pleural effusion, as Roger James has it, and not because of his innate humility, as Frank Kermode suggests, but ‘because of Zechariah 9.9’, a concordance which, he asserts, also handily demonstrates that the New Testament is ‘latent in the language of the Old’ (Letters, 22 May). Rudrum is not the first person to discover Jesus’ Messianic credentials by putting the Old Testament cart before this New Testament donkey: the author of the Gospel of Matthew did the same. Matthew misread Zechariah’s reference to ‘riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass’ as referring to two distinct animals, where the repetition is simply a rhetorical flourish: Jesus didn’t even have an adult donkey, let alone a horse. Hence in Matthew’s account, ‘the disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their clothes on them, and he sat on them’ (21.6-7). This curious situation in which Jesus is riding two animals (hardly a mark of humility) is not found in either Luke or Mark.

Mat Pires
Université de Franche-Comté, Besançon

How much do you need?

In her essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets Barbara Everett referred kindly to my recent book, Shakespeare, ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ and John Davies of Hereford, and accepted my argument that this ‘aesthetically pretentious and emotionally vulgar’ poem was not written by Shakespeare (LRB, 8 May). But she describes my counter-claim, that the real author was John Davies of Hereford, as having been arrived at by ‘computer analysis’. In fact, as I mentioned in the preface, it derived from prolonged reading of Davies’s work, analysing his style. Only after I had identified his characteristic usages did I check online databases of early modern poetry and the electronic version of the OED, which credits Davies with having introduced more than six hundred Latinate words into English. Most of these were never used again, but they include several that appear only in the Complaint and in verse known to be by Davies. I also identified 80 passages in this poem of 329 lines with syntactical and prosodic structures, rhyme forms, imagery and classical allusions identical to those used by Davies, citing several hundred instances in his work.

Everett appears not to have digested this evidence, for she concludes that ‘until there is absolute proof that the poem is, or is not, Shakespeare’s, the case has to be left open.’ No sensible person working in authorship attribution would ever claim ‘absolute proof’, but I believe that the 145 pages I devoted to documenting the convergence of styles entitles us to attribute it to Davies with a high degree of probability. How much evidence does one need?

Brian Vickers
London NW6

According to Barbara Everett, Shakespeare’s Sonnets ‘search for the as yet unexplored voice of the inward self in love, while also serving love’s sense that a living human being and its world beyond the self are incomparably real’. As yet unexplored in English, she must mean, so as not to discount the love lyrics of Sappho or Catullus.

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich

Blame Suez

Colin Kidd mentions Hugh Trevor-Roper’s appointment to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford in 1957 (LRB, 22 May). His rival A.J.P. Taylor was thought not to have got the job because he had cultivated radio and television contacts and indulged in ‘mass-market column writing’ at the expense of his academic work. The more likely explanation is that the appointment of Trevor-Roper was made by the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who had been an enthusiast for the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956, of which Taylor was a wise and eloquent critic.

Salah el Serafy
Arlington, Virginia

All Those Henrys

The spectacle of ‘all those Henrys being succeeded by all those other Henrys’ may seem of a piece to Michael Dobson (LRB, 8 May). But the father who has killed his son and the son who has killed his father appear in the second act of Henry VI Part 3, not in Henry VI Part 2.

William Vesterman
Rutgers University

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