Vol. 42 No. 23 · 3 December 2020

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An Anxiety of Its Own

Tobias Gregory writes that Harold Bloom sees Shakespeare as ‘the poet who transcended all anxiety of influence’ (LRB, 19 November). It’s worth recalling that the first edition of The Anxiety of Influence pays scant attention to Shakespeare, understanding literary history from Homer to Shakespeare as a form of prelapsarian ‘generous’ influence. Anxiety was then, for Bloom, a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. In the second edition, published in 1997, he explains that he had previously ‘deliberately refrained from citing’ the Shakespearean origin of the key term ‘misprision’, which derives from Sonnet 87, ‘Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing.’ The word obviously sets Shakespeare at the origin of influential anxiety; and Bloom now introduces a further category to his arsenal, ‘the anguish of contamination’, the sole example of which is the relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe. In effect, this reinscribes in the relationship between writers a form of psychological agency which the original Oedipal theory had, of necessity, consigned to the realm of the unconscious. Doing so by returning to the text an original repression, the new edition witnesses an authorial anxiety of its own.

Neil Corcoran
Oxton, Merseyside

The Importance of Being Ernie

Ferdinand Mount quotes Churchill saying that Ernest Bevin was the ‘Labour man’ he wanted most in his war cabinet, having recognised, as Mount puts it, that ‘the greatest mobilisation and demobilisation in British history’ could be ‘finessed only by someone who knew the arts of manpower manipulation from the inside’ (LRB, 5 November).

Churchill had, in the course of his erratic career, been minister of munitions during the desperate final years of the First World War. His key task then had been to negotiate with the powerful and militant engineering trade unions. In 1940, as newly appointed prime minister, he saw clearly that managing the labour force would be crucial. The problem, as in 1914-18, was not that British workers were likely to be influenced by revolutionary or pacifist propaganda, but the century-old tradition of intransigent shop-floor organisation, characterised by an insistence on sticking to the rulebook on demarcation, ‘manning’, piece-rates and a host of other workplace issues, many of which were informally and locally negotiated. Throughout the mass unemployment of the 1920s and 1930s, employers had had the best of the bargain. Under conditions of wartime production, the tables would be turned.

Only an insider could begin to solve this problem, and Bevin was the obvious choice, not simply because of his individual qualities, but because of his position in the trade-union movement: the hammer of the communists, certainly, but by no means a pushover for the bosses. For the Tories, though, there was a price to be paid. As Alan Bullock put it in his biography of Bevin, ‘the organised working class, represented by the trade unions, was for the first time brought into a position of partnership in the national enterprise.’ The most important consequence of this was the policy of full employment pursued by postwar governments, both Labour and Conservative, down to the 1970s. The 1945 consensus began in 1940.

Howard Medwell
London N18

Ferdinand Mount writes that, as chancellor, ‘Churchill dumbly accepted Treasury orthodoxy and put Britain back on the gold standard, indifferent to or unaware of the inevitable consequences for wages and employment.’ That is unfair. As soon as he became chancellor in 1924 Churchill sent a series of memoranda to his senior civil servants, asking if there wasn’t some connection between the unique British phenomenon of chronic unemployment and the Treasury’s long determination to return to the gold standard. This favoured finance over industry, while he wished to make ‘industry more content and finance less proud’. But he was worn down by the persistent technical arguments of his top officials. By overvaluing the pound by 10 per cent, the return to the gold standard in 1925 raised the cost of exports, especially coal, thus worsening the mining crisis and resulting in the 1926 general strike. It was a policy decision Churchill long regretted.

Patrick Renshaw

Ferdinand Mount is right that Margaret Thatcher repealed much of Ernest Bevin’s Wages Councils Act in 1986, but incorrect to suggest that legally mandated minimum wages disappeared from the UK for 12 years as a result. In fact 26 Wages Councils survived for another seven years before being abolished by John Major in 1993. Perhaps Mount is recalling the 1983 Conservative Party manifesto, which promised to ‘ensure that Wages Councils do not reduce job opportunities by forcing workers to charge unrealistic pay rates, or employers to offer them’. It would be only natural if Mount remembered the pledge rather than the legislative reality, since he had, as a member of Thatcher’s Number 10 Policy Unit, played a key role in drafting the 1983 manifesto.

John Hare

Ferdinand Mount makes no specific mention of Ernest Bevin’s decisive role in the postwar arrangements linking Europe to the United States. Notably, he proposed the military pact between Britain, France and the three Benelux countries established as the Western Union by the signing of the Brussels Treaty in March 1948. This sent a clear message to the US that the European powers were prepared to work together on security and defence issues and were therefore worth defending. Bevin’s initiative was a necessary precursor to the April 1949 Treaty of Washington (Nato Treaty). The Western Union was expanded to include Germany in 1954 and renamed the Western European Union, with German forces in effect under British and – especially – French tutelage. This enabled West Germany to join Nato, as the US wanted.

A small point. Mount places Bremen in the British zone of occupation in Germany. Actually, along with Bremerhaven, it was turned over to the US, which otherwise would not have had a port in Germany.

Robert Hunter
Washington DC

Ernest Bevin’s outlook no doubt did, as Denis Healey put it, owe ‘more to Methodism than to Marx’. He did at one point, however, try to burnish his left credentials by claiming that, as a young man, he regularly had a copy of Capital under his arm. In response, the working-class communist and author T.A. (Tommy) Jackson observed that this simply demonstrated how little could be absorbed through the armpit.

Tony Dennis
Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Emily of Fire & Violence

I love letters, so it was with enthusiasm that I dived into Paul Keegan’s long essay on T.S. Eliot’s to Emily Hale, which are only now accessible to researchers at Princeton after fifty years resting in the vault (LRB, 22 October). Yet I quickly tired of the quotations from Eliot’s musings. (‘Dear me, I must control my elephantine gambolling.’ Yes, please.) It was one of Keegan’s phrases, though, that snapped me back to indignant attention: ‘[Hale’s] responses, which are easily gleaned from [Eliot’s] letters, seem weightless or flippant.’ To add insult to injury, towards the end, he says this regarding Eliot’s poems: ‘There is no sense of collaboration, of whatever kind, and Hale seems not to have responded to a line of Eliot’s poetry.’ Hale’s letters having apparently been destroyed by Eliot, the gap in the archive and the silenced voice of the less famous figure are presented as not actually a silence at all, but wholly knowable sight unseen, through the words of the one who threw the other’s away. They were probably uninteresting words anyway, we are told.

Keegan draws several comparisons between Eliot’s epistolary fever for Hale, and Franz Kafka’s for Milena Jesenská. Jesenská’s daughter, Jana Černá, has pointed out that the very fact of being Kafka’s pen pal (and translator) overshadowed her mother’s important career as a journalist. It is not Jesenská’s fabulous feuilletons that we read in college classes, but rather ‘of her’ via Kafka’s projections of himself.

A letter is a particular construction of oneself: who we are, or how we would like to be, only in that moment of writing and only for the intended addressee. Of course we cannot know the way Emily Hale wrote to T.S. Eliot solely through the letters he wrote to her. Keegan himself concedes that, ‘whenever [Eliot] speaks for both of them, as he often does, it is with an acknowledgment that he has no right to do so.’ Sound advice.

Meghan Forbes
New York

‘The’ or No ‘The’

There is some confusion about the title of the novel by Richard Hull mentioned by Ian Patterson in his piece on Ngaio Marsh (LRB, 5 November). It may seem a fine point, but it has a possible bearing on one’s reaction to the end of the story. The first Penguin edition (1953) is titled Murder of My Aunt, without the definite article. A.E. Murch (The Development of the Detective Novel, 1958) Julian Symons (Bloody Murder, 1972) and Martin Edwards (The Golden Age of Murder, 2015) all refer to this title. But in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017), Edwards adds the definite article, and The Murder of My Aunt is the title that the British Library Classic Crime series – which Edwards edits – uses. Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed it in September 1934 as The Murder of My Aunt, published by Faber, and this is what appears in the Bodleian catalogue. Yet according to WorldCat, Faber produced two editions in 1934, one titled Murder of My Aunt, the other The Murder of My Aunt. American historians of detective fiction, and American editions, include the definite article. So did Penguin tweak the title? For copyright reasons? Or was it because the ambiguity of the title is enhanced by the omission of the definite article? Without giving away the plot, those who have read the book might feel that this is entirely appropriate.

Jane Card
Harwell, Oxfordshire

Whatever Made Him

Reviewing Izabela Wagner’s Life of Zygmunt Bauman, Sheila Fitzpatrick comments on the rift between Bauman and Leszek Kołakowski, but doesn’t mention the fact that during the antisemitic drive in communist Poland, the much favoured Bauman could leave the country voluntarily, while Kołakowski was forced to go because he had a Jewish wife, now his widow (LRB, 10 September). Like Bauman, Kołakowski was initially allied to the Communist Party, but unlike Bauman, soon realised its oppressive nature. I’m proud to say that I played a minor part in securing him a fellowship at All Souls.

Unlike Bauman, Kołakowski never joined the communist secret service, which Wagner treats indulgently, as she does Bauman’s participation in it, although it was responsible for the torture and murder of many Poles who had resisted Hitler. My uncle, who had spent the war in a German POW camp, then spent years in prison in Poland. Kołakowski must have been well aware of Bauman’s secret service activities and, once in the West and free to denounce him, magnanimously chose to stay silent.

Adam Czerniawski

Contested Islands

Thomas Meaney writes that the Spratly and Senkaku Islands are contested between China and Japan (LRB, 5 November). The Senkaku dispute is between Japan, China and Taiwan; the dispute over the Spratly Islands is between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Altogether a volatile mix, which might benefit from the continued presence of the US in the region rather than its acquiescence in Chinese hegemony.

Amit Pandya
Silver Spring, Maryland

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