Vol. 43 No. 16 · 12 August 2021

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The Terrifying Vrooom

Colin Burrow writes that William Empson’s doctoral supervisor, I.A. Richards, ‘advocated what he called “practical criticism”, or the close analysis of passages of anonymised writing’ (LRB, 15 July). This is a widespread misconception. Rather, the practice that Richards pioneered at Cambridge during the 1920s of giving his students anonymised poems and asking for their responses was part of a psychological experiment designed to illuminate what happens in the reader’s mind when confronted with a complex piece of writing such as a poem. As a psychologist, he was interested in the ‘response’ side of the equation, not in the ‘stimulus’. Indeed, he recognised the artificiality and futility of approaching poems in a decontextualised way; giving his students anonymised poems was simply a means to an end.

It was his followers – Empson, and then the Leavisites and the New Critics – who turned ‘practical criticism’ from an experimental method of psychology into a technique of close reading, a turn that Richards disapproved of. In a letter from 1974, he wrote: ‘I can’t add anything about my “followers” – not having known who they could be or easily acknowledging any who seemed to regard themselves so.’ Focused on language, Empson was a proto-poststructuralist; focused on the mind, Richards was a proto-cognitivist. The path that each took differed greatly from the other.

David West
Münster, Germany

Colin Burrow’s piece on William Empson elicited memories. In the 1940s and 1950s, Empson’s books were much hailed in the US by the New Critics, who were often associated with the Kenyon Review. The US was already in a Cold War with the USSR, and anything Marxisant in Empson would be passed over without remark. In 1950, Kenyon College invited him to teach in the third and final summer of the Kenyon School of English. The faculty also included L.C. Knights, Kenneth Burke and Arthur Mizener; Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Delmore Schwartz and John Crowe Ransom were also around. I attended that summer session, on Kenyon’s small campus in Gambier, Ohio, to study with Burke. The Korean War had just begun, and there was Empson, newly arrived from China, claiming that the Chinese communists were essentially ‘agrarian reformers’. Almost at once a political split opened up among the literary celebrities, with Empson and Burke on the left-wing side. However, the political froideur was never openly voiced.

Another recollection: Empson would walk across the campus, reading a book, never looking up. When a student asked how he managed that, his reply was: ‘Oh, it’s much more difficult while riding a bicycle.’

Lauro Martines
London NW1

I’d like to add a frivolous note to Colin Burrow’s piece on Empson. As a graduate from Oxford in the 1950s, but in history not English, my exposure to Empsonism was far from academic. It consisted in an encounter with Empson’s South African wife, Hetty, a tall woman with enviably big, not to say leonine hair, who was reported to receive her lovers in a tent pitched in the Empsons’ large and chilly Hampstead drawing room. One summer’s day in the early 1960s, my boyfriend, a trainee solicitor, and I were visiting John Seymour, the guru of self-sufficiency, accurately described by another friend as a ‘publy’ man. He was an ex-lover of my boyfriend’s mother, and lived in a remote, chaotic cottage in Suffolk, full of children, animals and large jars of home-grown, home-bottled beans. Hetty arrived with one of her adolescent sons, rather lugubrious that day, possibly because his mother was also accompanied by her current lover, a large, hirsute truck driver she called Josh, who soon took my boyfriend aside to let him know, at some length, that I was too virginal. Among such lively and socially mixed company I imagine that quite a few words could and did have umpteen ambiguities.

Penelope Farmer
London W12

Not All Prime Ministers

‘Every prime minister since Blair has supported Britain’s involvement’ in the war in Iraq, Tom Stevenson writes (LRB, 1 July). At the time maybe, but not subsequently. In his memoir My Life, Our Times (2017), Gordon Brown writes: ‘We were misled by the Americans and the intelligence services. In retrospect I regret that I did not press as hard as I should have. By not questioning the evidence with sufficient rigour, I let myself and many others down.’

Chris Mullin
Callaly, Northumberland


James Meek writes about the uncomfortable tensions in the global green energy economy between, on the one hand, the desire for cheap, green, local power and, on the other, the reality of the working and living conditions of the global workforce that builds the technology needed to generate that power (LRB, 15 July). Something similar can be seen in the rapidly growing digital healthcare field, where the application of various technologies – AI, apps, smart homes, robotics and so on – is offered as an economically sustainable way of providing for the needs of an ageing population. Leaving aside the extent to which digital technology can actually meet those needs, and the suspicion that it merely provides a convenient, always-just-over-the-horizon policy response for politicians who aren’t willing to address the underfunding of health and social care, we are ignoring some of the crucial costs of these technologies.

Currently the hardware is constructed by workers in low-wage economies under conditions that would be considered unacceptable in Western Europe, and where its production pollutes and degrades the local environment, while the extraction and transport of the raw materials required, and the eventual return of those materials to landfill, damage the global environment. This is to say nothing of the energy demands of data server farms and of running and maintaining all these connected devices once they are pressed into service.

In other words, the health and care of our elderly will come at the expense of the health of workers in other parts of the world and, ultimately, the health of the planet itself. This does not sound like a sustainable solution to me.

Stephen Potter
University of Sheffield


‘By the 13th century, philosophical elements had become the cornerstone of Paracelsian medicine,’ Malcolm Gaskill writes in his review of The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 (LRB, 15 July). Paracelsus was born in 1493 and his influence on English medicine only emerged at the end of the 16th century, reaching a peak in the 17th century in the Royal College of Physicians. And although it is true, as Gaskill says, that the Western alchemical tradition was influenced by Avicenna, Paracelsus rejected Avicenna’s teaching, publicly burning his books in Basel.

Gene Feder
University of Bristol

Scratch ’n’ Sniff

While it may be that ‘fragrance strips’, as Sheila Fitzpatrick writes, have disappeared from magazines, they still find a serious use in olefactory research (LRB, 15 July). As a control participant in research to identify early predictors of Parkinson’s, I am occasionally sent booklets containing such strips, to see if I can identify certain smells. Once, I was doing a test while my dog slept peacefully on the floor nearby. Suddenly he went completely berserk and ran around my office barking as if chasing a squirrel. The smell was skunk. Pip had never met a skunk, but evidently it would have been very exciting if he had.

Peter Baker
Prestwood, Buckinghamshire

Getting Away with It

John Lanchester puzzles over Clive James’s paraphrase of Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘language games’: ‘A game consists of the rules by which it is played’ (LRB, 29 July). Wittgenstein is said to have come up with the analogy between games and language while watching a football match. As Lanchester demonstrates in his piece, cheating is a common property of many sports, but what constitutes cheating, and the degree to which cheating is seen as a ‘venial sin’ by fans, is different in different sports. In much the same way, Wittgenstein was pointing out both the similarities and dissimilarities between the ways in which we use language. Sometimes the concept of language games is mistakenly construed, as in James’s paraphrase, as meaning that the essence of using language is the strict observance of the rules of the game. What Wittgenstein actually meant was that the rules in both games and language are not only followed but also broken, altered and reinvented. In Philosophical Investigations he accepted that there is some vagueness in both the playing of a game and in the everyday use of language, regardless of what rules we might have written down beforehand. A game ‘is not everywhere bounded by rules; but no more are there any rules for how high one may throw the ball in tennis, or how hard, yet tennis is a game for all that, and has rules too.’

Finnian Brewer
Folkestone, Kent

John Lanchester writes that golf is ‘the only sport in which players call penalties against themselves, sometimes for things no one else has been able to see’. There is also snooker, in which players will admit to fouls that both referee and television cameras have missed, and are applauded by audiences for doing so.

Matthew Barr
Bangor, County Down

Approaching Oxford

Patrick McGuiness’s recollections of Oxford’s railway stations reminded me of my year on Park End Street in 1958-59 (LRB, 17 June). Christ Church, my college, had sought to solve its accommodation problem by dispatching a number of freshmen to a sort of rooming house with a commanding view of the station approach. Not for us the grandeur of the college’s spectacular quads. Why us? It was explained that as we were mostly ex-national servicemen, we’d manage being out of college more wisely than 18-year-olds. It struck me later that we were mainly from grammar schools and that there were no Etonians among us or lieutenants from the Hussars, clearly in need of the protective shelter of life in college, or perhaps sharing Edward Thomas’s opinion of the approach to Oxford or the Duke of Wellington’s distaste for the lower orders. Eventually, I suppose, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages, but it was a rather sneaky discrimination.

John Bailey
St Albans, Hertfordshire

Read Rossetti

Peter Howarth’s review of Rachel Mann’s selection of Christina Rossetti’s poems isn’t going to send hordes of eager readers to Rossetti’s works (LRB, 1 July). By concentrating almost entirely on Tractarian gloom, he ignores the beautiful later ‘Monna Innominata’ love poems and the gentle satire of ‘Winter: My Secret’ and ‘No, Thank You, John’, as well as the complexities of her political interests, her sympathies for ‘fallen women’ in ‘Maude Clare’, her concerns over vivisection, impoverished older women and abused wives. Maybe this is partly the fault of the anthology’s selection. Certainly, especially in Rossetti’s younger years, when she was undergoing a devastating breakdown, religious gloom does seem to dominate. A modern Christina might have bec0me anorexic or gender dysphoric – Victorian Christina focused on her sinfulness. Yet to a certain extent, she grew out of this. She wrote that while she had been very melancholy as a girl, she was a ‘very merry old woman’. Maybe not quite, but she wasn’t always sunk in gloom.

Frances Thomas
Llandrindod Wells, Powys

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