I hate it, I hate it, I hate it
SIR: It seems to be a convention that writers of critical and scholarly books may answer hostile reviews but novelists should not. It is easy to see why this convention should have arisen. What seems to be at issue in a book which deals with other books or with some aspect of the real world is something checkable, while, novels being mere stories, approval or disapproval of them is simply a matter of opinion. I have some sympathy with this view. At least I pity the poor fiction reviewer who has to spend so much of his life reading novels he doesn’t like – it’s as bad as having to spend one’s time shut up in a room with a person one doesn’t like, and I can’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would want to do such a thing.
However, matters are not as simple as this. On the one hand, as epistolary controversies in journals show, it is rare for a debate over a critical or scholarly book really to centre on checkable facts; while, on the other hand, reviewers of fiction have the unfortunate habit of suggesting that they themselves are dealing with matters of fact and not simply of opinion. Thus Graham Hough, in his review of my recent novel (LRB, 3 December 1981), even goes so far as to use the editorial ‘we’: ‘It is always a worry to know who is being talked about. Also to know where we are. We flit confusingly and often in the same paragraph between a hotel bedroom, a car, a house in the country.’ This, however, can be dealt with quite easily by the reader who does not like the sensation of flitting in this way, and Hough shows how it is done: ‘Readers of the French novel of 25 years ago,’ he says, ‘will recognise the symptoms – enigmas which never become compelling because they do not arise out of the material but are just put in to make it harder.’ I don’t think this sentence makes much sense as it stands (surely something needs to follow ‘harder’?), but one can see roughly what Hough means. Yet how does he know why ‘enigmas’ are ‘put in’? I cannot speak for that hybrid animal, the French novel of 25 years ago, but I can assure Mr Hough that as far as my own novel is concerned nothing was ‘put in’, either to make things harder for the reader, as he suggests here, or ‘to enrich the reader’s apprehension’, as he opines later.
I would not raise the matter were it not that there are two premises to Hough’s review which it may be of some general interest to bring to the surface. The first is enshrined in the dismissive phrase: ‘a lingering but still severe case of the Robbe-Grillet syndrome’. It’s a pity your journal had to make use of a reviewer so ill-informed that he still has to evoke the name of Robbe-Grillet as though it were synonymous with ‘the French novel of 25 years ago’. Pinget, Duras, Simon and Sarraute, as well as Robbe-Grillet, are still writing, and more interestingly than most novelists in the English-speaking world, it seems to me, and their novels differ from each other as much as, say, Muriel Spark’s differ from William Golding’s and Saul Bellow’s from either. Actually, if my novel owes a debt to anyone it is to Claude Simon. But the important point is this: why do people of Mr Hough’s persuasion not talk about the bulk of novels being produced today as ‘showing a severe case of the Charlotte Brontë syndrome’? Or of the ‘George Eliot syndrome’? Why is there this presumption that the novel as written by these two writers is somehow natural, while that written by Robbe-Grillet is fabricated-with-intent-to-confuse or with-intent-to-be-clever?
That is one question. The second is related. Mr Hough begins his review of my novel by saying that I am ‘prominent among those who are anxious to free the novel from any hampering subservience to the outer world’. I have no idea what this strange sentence means. How could any novel do that? Why should anyone want to do anything so peculiar? I can assure him that I have no wish to do so, and certainly no anxiety to do so. He also seems to think that a person would want to spend his life ‘exploring the possibilities of narration’. I can just about see that a structuralist critic á la Propp might be interested in this, but I can assure him that this particular novelist only wants to try and say what he feels he needs to say in the best possible way. That Hough may not like that way is his prerogative. As I said at the start, there seems to me no more reason why one should like a particular novel than why one should like a particular person. However, if one gets paid to review novels one ought to make an effort not to confuse gut reaction with matters of fact, and one ought to be particularly careful not to impute motives to authors. I can see, though, that ‘I hate it I hate it I hate it’ would not look like a very intelligent review. But then what we have does not look particularly intelligent either.
Graham Hough writes: I thought of mentioning Claude Simon as well as Robbe-Grillet in my review of Mr Josipovici’s novel, but in the end decided to use only one example. In what I said about his views on the relation of the novel to the outer world I was thinking mainly of his essay ‘The Lessons of Modernism’, with its demand for ‘other rules than those of verisimilitude, formal rules perhaps, such as exist in chess or football’, and its interest in stories constructed around sentences containing words that can be changed into other words by altering a single letter, etc. I confess to a certain impatience with all this, and if it has led me to misrepresent his opinions I am sorry.
SIR: There are certain forms of bad faith which, presented under a comely skirt of reason, are especially difficult to detect, or define. Of these, Noël Annan’s article on De-Nazification (LRB, 15 October 1981) was an egregious example. If one alleges that it was full of self-serving arguments and circularity, and that it connived at the suppression of disagreeable truths, one can be accused of mere rhetoric. Annan’s limpid style, his apparently dispassionate concern to set the record straight, his assuming air of inside knowledge worn as lightly as a spring coat, his wincing distaste for emotional enthusiasm make it awkward to challenge him without seeming to flail about and do un-British things with one’s hands, like raising objections.: May I nevertheless make a few points in particular, while emphasising that what is wrong with the article is dispersed ubiquitously by virtue of its tone of smug and frigid incorrigibility?
One of the strategies adopted is that of penning into discrete compartments those who hold views congenial to Annan’s thesis and those who do not; these sheep and those goats receive indisputable allocation. Thus Stimson’s assertion that the treatment of post-war Germany was to be determined by ‘whether the course proposed will in fact attain our agreed objective, continued peace’ is taken to be an accurate statement of Allied motives, requiring no further proof, brooking no contest. Why is Morgenthau treated with manifest derision when Stimson is endorsed without cavil? Do Stimson, Jackson and McCloy comprise a triumvirate from whose dicta there can be no dissent? What the Americans wanted was not ‘peace’ in the naive, pacific sense, but a speedy return to something like Coolidge’s normalcy, and they were not too bothered how it was achieved. McCloy’s decisive influence is hardly reassuring, not least in the light (over which Annan draws a blind) of his conspicuous indifference to the crimes actually being committed in Birkenau and adjoining places while he was Assistant Secretary of War and thus in a key position to order the bombing of camps which, in the later stages of the war, lay directly under the flight path of Allied aircraft. Nor should one forget, unless one should forget everything, that McCloy was prompt to release Nazis who had already been convicted by the courts, through his act of clemency in 1950. So much for the claim that it was judicial difficulties over obtaining convictions which aborted punitive measures. In passing, it may be said that the demystification of Nazism depends more on calling murder murder (and theft theft) than on any mournful or tortuous attempt to make genocide or deportation crimes in themselves. A not inept parallel lies in Thomas Szasz’s arguments against giving mysteriously cryptic status to mental illness. The Nazis did not commit some abstruse sin, more appropriate for a priest than an occupying power to divine and exorcise, but old-fashioned statutory crimes, recognisable, verifiable and punishable, even by tribunals whose members had important careers to consider. What the British and their allies did was, maybe, the best they could, but to argue that the reinstitution of democratic suffrage was triumph enough, while ignoring the importance of democratic justice and accountability, is to fail to see, or perhaps even to imagine, what membership of a decent society should entail. Annan is very grand in suggesting that Mr Bowers do a bit more reading (cut along now, Bowers), but it is appropriate to wonder whether he himself has read, say, Günther Grass, not to mention the history, convincingly potted in James Wilkinson’s The Intellectual Resistance in Europe, of the repression of heterodox post-war German radicalism which did not chime with High Commissioner McCloy’s ideas. One does not have to be one of those despicable utopians who want to change everything in order to feel some contempt for those who were happy to change as little as possible. To claim that McCloy won a battle to impose ‘an American legal solution’ is sheer humbug unless you acknowledge that the rehabilitation of Krupps and l. G. Farben was also among the lawyers’ ‘solutions’.
It is also a bit rich when Annan proceeds to call Henry Morgenthau a ‘barbarian’ (he attributes this verdict to ‘British officials’, but one so in love with officialdom seems unlikely to have dissented from it). Wherein lies Morgenthau’s barbarity, unless disagreeing with the Foreign Office and its placemen is the mark of beastliness? If the barbarians who murdered millions of defenceless people (whose escape would have embarrassed the FO) are suitable cases for re-employment, why does Morgenthau remain inexcusable? Truman didn’t like him: oh, and must we all like Truman? Morgenthau’s fear of a resurgent Germany was hardly the fantasy of a vindictive illiterate. (Besides, what democratic statesman ever expected his ideas to be adopted without modification?) By eliding justice and revenge, Annan seeks to make any retribution seem inelegant and impertinent, even though it may be recalled that during the war Churchill sought to placate those who begged for some help to be given to the victims of the Nazis by assuring them that at least the guilty would be brought to justice. Now we are told that some of the monsters turned out to be ‘irreplaceable’. Are we to gather that nothing is unforgivable if top people are a bit short-handed? By fair analogy, had there been a flu epidemic in Hilldrop Crescent, Dr Crippen would have been suffered to remain in practice. (Incidentally, even though Burke never said it, there is rarely such a thing as an irreplaceable man: Eden thought the Suez pilots irreplaceable and very foolish it made him look too.) Annan reproaches the naive Mr Bower, who works in television, the nobody, for being ‘high-minded’: to be high-and-mighty-minded is, one presumes, irreproachable.
Next, I should like to doubt whether this situation of Germany in 1945 can in any helpful or honest way be compared with that of France in 1815. However iniquitous Napoleon may have seemed to his contemporaries, or some of them, he surely left no stench or taint remotely analogous to that of Hitlerism. It may indeed be true that, on the ground and at the time, the Allies made the best of an intolerable job, especially since a lot of them understandably wanted to get home to tea, but to argue now, as it were while summing up for the record, that 1945 brought a peace comme les autres to an enemy comme les autres is an act of moral colour-blindness. We may have had enough of the wailing of hindsight: the callousness of the lordly also has its limits. If Annan really believes that it is ‘always wise in politics to consider the future instead of trying to rectify the past’, it makes one wonder why he has spent his life in academic pursuits, however administrative. Recognition of the abiding presence of the past when calculating any scheme for the future is surely instinct in any humane endeavour which is not wilfully fraudulent or crassly frivolous. It is a pity that Annan’s brief did not include a consideration of why it is that, as a recent study shows, the facts of the extermination camps are systematically scamped in the teaching of modern history. It is, presumably, because influential persons who know and have read everything (or everything they want to read) agree with Annan that for 1945 one might as well read 1815. What, after all, is to be gained by nagging on about a mass-murderous government whose surviving victims were often bullied and betrayed by their liberators but whose culpable functionaries were urgently needed for banking duties?
Noël Annan writes: It is a little difficult to reply to a scream and a sneer, but let me try. First the scream. If Mr Raphael refuses ever to speak to another German, it would be impertinent of me to reproach him. To stand in Yad ve-Shem is to feel grief and shame that one was a European at the time of the holocaust. But to translate rage into political action is another matter. Mr Raphael frankly admits he would have liked to implement Morgenthau’s plan for banning industry in Germany for many years: and shouts that if Truman and McCloy, or Attlee and Bevin, would not have it, they and their supporters were scoundrels. But it was not just Mr Raphael’s hateful top people who would not have it. There was never the faintest chance that the British and American people would endorse a policy of repaying barbarity with barbarity and giving the Germans a dose of Nazi medicine. They would not have been willing to starve millions to death, or use them as slave labour, still less pay for Germans to live in limitless idleness. Mr Raphael may feel that revenge would have been sweet, but his countrymen would not have agreed. They wanted, in however confused a way, to rebuild a Germany with genuine democratic institutions. The Cold War had begun. I do not see why they should be vilified.
Some British officials were vilified. There were eight damaging innuendos or distortions of fact about Mr Gunston in that book. Does that matter to Mr Raphael? Clearly it does not matter to him that Abs was never a Nazi and when put on trial by the Americans and prosecuted by American lawyers was acquitted on all charges of breach of laws which the Americans themselves had framed. Mr Raphael says no man is irreplacable. Certainly. But the Morgenthau directive on finance required the dismissal of every banker down to branch sub-manager. Morgenthau was not a villain: we owe him gratitude for persuading Roosevelt to institute Lend-Lease. But his plan would have had the effect not just of smashing Germany but of making it impossible for the Anglo-Americans to govern it.
Now for the sneer. Mr Raphael calls me smug, complacent, frigid and – of course – lordly. Ah, well. Since clearly he will not take my word for my zeal in de-Nazification in the Political Division, he might care to consult Herr Michael Thomas in Hamburg or my immediate chief, whom I hope he would respect – Mr Austen Albu, later for many years Labour MP for Edmonton. I did not suggest that any retribution was ‘inelegant’. I showed when I wrote of Mr Bradley Smith’s book that I thought the Nuremberg trials and their sequel were just; and I accepted Mr Bower’s contention that sometimes culpably, sometimes involuntarily, the British failed to bring many war criminals to account. All the same, on Mr Bower’s own showing we executed hundreds, sentenced thousands to long terms of imprisonment and (p. 226) interned in 1945 eight million Germans
Is Mr Raphael in such a lather because the fashionable game of literary protest of which he is a master has come up against historical analysis? I don’t expect him to understand politics. He has never had to execute a policy and modify it when the impersonal forces of history render that inevitable. But what worries me more than his inexperience of politics is his contempt for historical inquiry and the search for truth. Mr Raphael asks me if I have read Grass. I have; and Grass is as enlightening about German history as Bunyan is to anyone unravelling the issues of the Civil War. They explain a little, but the historian has to take the impersonal forces as well as human beings and their decisions into account. I try to follow Ranke: ‘People have thought it was the duty of the historian to judge the past and instruct the present for the benefit of the future. The present essay is more modest. It merely wants to show what it was really like.’ In fact, you cannot instruct the present unless you first try to see how complex life has always been. Mr Raphael is interested in part of the truth – the failure of, or refusal by, the Allies to bring every member of the German ruling élites (down to sub-manager) to trial: for that is what he advocates. I do not believe you can discover the truth about that unless you try to discover ‘what it was really like’ in 1944-50. History is not a television script.
SIR: Mr Hawthorn insists on defending his ill-worded review of books dealing with issues in ‘critical theory’. In his reply to my letter he accuses me of misreading his account of Ricoeur and he alleges that I present a ‘simple and tendentious’ sociology (Letters, 17 December 1981).
According to Mr Hawthorn, Ricoeur ‘takes language rather “as a medium, a mediation, an exchange between Telos and Ursprung”: two poles, one of pre-theoretical intuition, the other of utopian ambition, which ground reflection and hope together to reveal what we really may mean in what we say’. Let me unfold step by step the confusions contained in this passage. 1. When Ricoeur spoke of language as ‘an exchange between Telos and Ursprung’, he was commenting on and endorsing certain aspects of the theory of language in Husserl’s Logical Investigations. In this context, ‘Telos’ refers to the ideal of logicity – that is, of a well-formed logical system; it has nothing to do with ‘utopian ambition’, as Mr Hawthorn says in his review, or with ‘the hope of Resurrection’, as he says in his reply. ‘Ursprung’ refers to the pre-linguistic experience which may be expressed in language; it is identical neither with ‘pre-theoretical intuition’, as Mr Hawthorn suggests in his review, nor with ‘the memory of Exodus’, as he suggests in his reply. 2. At best, it would be very misleading to maintain that any of the six terms just distinguished served, in Ricoeur’s philosophy, to ‘ground reflection and hope’. Anyone who writes on critical theory should be more sensitive than Mr Hawthorn is to the weight which is carried by the expression ‘to ground’. Habermas’s formulation of the ideal speech situation is only the most recent in a long history of attempts, stretching from Marx to Marcuse, to establish a standpoint which would ‘ground’ the critique of ideology. One of the key issues in the debate between hermeneutics and critical theory concerns precisely this point: critique and self-reflection, maintain hermeneutic philosophers such as Ricoeur, are part of a process of interpretation which cannot be grounded in an abstract conception of ideal speech. Mr Hawthorn’s account ignores this point and slurs over an essential distinction. 3. As for the final phrase, ‘to reveal what we really may mean in what we say’: in my letter I asked Mr Hawthorn to explain what this ‘really may mean’. Since he did not say in his reply, it may be assumed that Mr Hawthorn himself has no idea. In view of such confusions and absurdities, it would be charitable to conclude that Mr Hawthorn has misrepresented Ricoeur’s position. Need I add that nothing of the richness and importance of Ricoeur’s Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences is conveyed by his convoluted sentence ?
His account of my Critical Hermeneutics bears even less resemblance to the contents of the book. In his review he claimed that I put forward ‘a disappointingly unargued and rather simple view of a very uncivil society’, and in his reply he defends this claim as follows: ‘He sketches Society as consisting of nothing but putatively free and perspicuous subjects who are “dominated” by unspecified institutions and ideologies.’ I make no attempt to sketch Society with a capital ‘S’, or to sketch any number of societies with little ‘s’s’. What I try to do in Chapter Four of my book is to elucidate some of the social conditions of action, conditions which I discuss on the institutional and structural levels. I certainly do not maintain that subjects are ‘dominated’ by these conditions in a way which would render them docile, ‘putatively free’. On the contrary, I contend that the very concept of action presupposes that the subject ‘could have done otherwise’; and throughout the book I emphasise the creative and transformative character of action, arguing against all forms of ‘social determinism’. This does not mean that subjects are always aware of the social conditions of their action – at least it cannot be assumed that they are. One of the points of critical theory, as I conceive it, is to seek to clarify these conditions through a depth interpretation of action. Whether such interpretation results in a clarification of these conditions, and whether these conditions can in turn be criticised as unjust, is not for the critical theorist alone to say. For these questions could be answered only by the agreement, reached in circumstances freed from asymmetrical relations of power, of the subjects concerned. I do not know whether this amounts to a ‘simple and tendentious’ sociology, as Mr Hawthorn alleges: but it is, evidently, too complex for Mr Hawthorn to understand.
Jesus College, Cambridge
Aux sports, citoyens
SIR: Douglas Johnson, writing about French sport (LRB, 3 December 1981), refers to an occasion, located by him in 1910, when ‘the final of the FA Cup (Tottenham Hotspur against Everton) was watched by 110,000 people.’ There never was any such occasion. Some one hundred thousand people did indeed watch Tottenham Hotspur play in their first FA Cup Final, but their opponents were not Everton but Sheffield United, and the date was 1901. The match, which was played at the Crystal Palace, was drawn and Tottenham Hotspur won the replay in front of a much smaller crowd at Bolton. They were then in the Southern League and it was the last occasion on which a club not belonging to any division of the Football League has won the FA Cup.
Cutting the universities
SIR: Not many academics will disagree with Professor Swinnerton-Dyer (LRB, 19 November 1981) that the recent cuts in university funding reflect a belief that universities will only reform themselves under financial pressure. They also reflect a widespread belief that the only reform of universities needed is a reduction in their size and intake. What will puzzle many academics is why he thinks that we have no choice but to accept the destructive consequences of these beliefs. Perhaps the clue is provided by his reference to the 13 possible economies suggested by the Department of Education and Science under Shirley Williams. Professor Swinnerton-Dyer implies that the universities’ ‘brusque rejection’ of this invitation to a ‘rational dialogue’ was the mortal sin for which due retribution is now exacted.
This approach to the present predicament can, however, be refuted. For it ignores a fundamental aspect of the Robbins-based expansion. The universities embarked on this expansion on the assumption that the valid model for undergraduate education was the model of Oxford and Cambridge. Residence away from home and intensive teaching in very small groups are among the essential features of this model. The 13 points were an unexpected shock, not because they were economies, but because they showed that the DES were completely unaware of the fundamental assumptions on which the universities’ work and achievements were based. This made rational dialogue difficult. With hindsight, we can now see that the universities should have embarked there and then on a public relations and education campaign, directed not least at the DES, to convince the public that high-cost, high-quality undergraduate education was a worthwhile investment for a democratic society. Late in the day though it is, such a campaign is essential now to forestall further cuts and to persuade an alternative government to depart from present policies, which are inspired by philistinism rather than the need for economies.
CND and LRB
SIR: Reading the comments on your coverage of the SDP (Letters, 5 November 1981), I regret the stridency in which the criticism was couched. It is nonetheless true that there has been inordinate space devoted to the SDP, not only in comparison to the other major parties (which could be justified), but, more aptly, in comparison to the other major political phenomenon of the past year: the CND (membership, national and local, estimated by the Guardian at 200,000-250,000 versus 65,000 for the SDP). A while back I wrote to you urging there be more debate in the LRB on disarmament questions, but there seems to have been little change on your part, despite palpably changing circumstances.
In little over a year, the LRB has published four articles (Clarke, Butler, two by Marquand) either on the emergence of the SDP or the general thinking behind it; in addition, there have been six pieces (Lever, two by Marquand, three by Peter Jenkins) which readers might honestly construe as espousing Social Democratic views. The first four were written either by actual participants in the SDP or those clearly sympathetic to its aims. The common denominator of the latter six was the reviewer’s animus against Labour and/or the Unions. Two SDP pieces and one anti-Labour appeared in the issue which irked your correspondents.
This is in contrast to the space allotted CND. On the basis of SDP coverage, CND might have anticipated several pieces on its growth, aims and organisation, plus at least a couple of others allowing sympathetic authors space to demolish such opponents as the Ministry of Defence, media simplification, Nato. In fact, there have only been four articles (Naughton, Dunn, Peierls, McKeown) in well over a year on nuclear themes, despite the quite phenomenal upsurge of interest in them over the same period. The LRB rightly claims a prescient interest in the SDP, but its track record on the very much more grave issue of nuclear weapons is relative silence. Two of these articles might be construed as sympathetic to the unilateralist position, insofar as they echo arguments of CND on civil defence and the medical effects of nuclear war; a third reviews scrupulously certain unilateralist options but concludes ambiguously; and the fourth, written by an early investigator of atomic weapons, reels through some well-known and obvious issues, and ends by rejecting unilateralism. In none, therefore, is the CND or unilateralism covered in its entirety as an actual political movement and comprehensive perspective. It rather appears as the propagator of certain piecemeal arguments considered in isolation. This is a crucial point, for the nuclear arms race and CND’s response to it must be comprehended as wholes to be comprehended at all. Whereas the SDP is already presented as a coherent philosophy and an unreckoned new political force, the LRB seems not to have conceded that the CND has become an organisation with over 1,000 local autonomous groups, numerous bookstores, extensive international contacts, a national office with a budget of £540,000, and a huge penumbra of sympathy beyond its actual members. This is despite the fact that the SDP has no defined democratic policy nor tested genuine mass following (unlike CND), and none of the roots which come with a tenacious and often embattled twenty-year campaign.
The LRB should have no problem finding competent reviewers for nuclear and disarmament themes in academe, bureaucracies, industry and the CND itself. The New York Review of Books, which appears less frequently, has managed over the same period seven articles on various moral, medical and technical aspects of nuclear arms, often quite lengthy and without exception deeply critical of the official stance. This is despite the unsympathetic surrounding culture and the lack of a vital peace movement as in Europe.
Wordsworth in Bed
SIR: I am grateful to Marilyn Butler (Letters, 19 November 1981) for the comments she makes on my review of the letters of William and Mary Wordsworth 1810 (published as a limited edition by the Trustees of Dove Cottage). Can she be right, though, to say that Shelley in describing Wordsworth as ‘a solemn and unsexual man’ was talking about his poetry, not his life? Shelley, after all, spent four months at Keswick in 1811-12, and though he didn’t actually visit the Wordsworths, he saw a lot of Southey, who knew them very well. And surely one has to accept that the marvellously funny stanza in ‘Peter Bell the Third’ about Wordsworth’s fainting erotic approaches to Nature –
But from the first ’twas Peter’s drift
To be a kind of moral eunuch:
He touched the hem of Nature’s shift,
Felt faint – and never dared uplift
The closest, all-concealing tunic –
is followed by a mischievous sideways allusion to Dorothy:
She [Nature] laughed the while, with an arch smile,
And kissed him with a sister’s kiss …
It should be said that ‘Nutting’ shows the poet removing Nature’s shift with the minimum of fuss.
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
SIR: Your issue Vol. 3, No 22/23 contained a review of Olivia by Olivia in which your reviewer, Susannah Clapp, referred to the correspondence between ‘Olivia’ (Dorothy Bussy) and André Gide. Miss Clapp, and your readers, may be interested to know that Oxford University Press is publishing a generous selection of these letters next year. The selection has been made by Jean Lambert and Richard Tedeschi, and Gide’s letters translated by Professor Tedeschi, from the full, three-volume French edition. These fascinating and moving letters offer new insight into Gide’s character and his strange relationship with Dorothy Bussy.
Oxford University Press