Vol. 7 No. 20 · 21 November 1985
SIR: You might suggest to Graham Hough (LRB, 17 October) that his monumental world-weariness prevents him from recognising one of the major reasons for the broad appeal of critical theory in some institutions of higher education: underfunded library facilities and the absence of other features which no doubt he would consider essential to the life of the civilised mind. Posh institutions, such as the one graced by Mr Hough for all those wearying years, offer their members plenty of books to read, and I dare say no end of time and opportunity for the purpose. But there is an academic world elsewhere which never sees or hears of much of the material that Mr Hough has at his exquisite fingertips. The broadly allusive, finely-tuned, widely-learned mode isn’t for the likes of us. How could it be? Theoretical and analytic work, which costs little and concentrates on and uses only a few texts, genuinely matches our resources. In short, it’s one of the few games in town: ‘paperback research’, you might say. Tell him that’s not the only reason for engaging in it. Tell him it has its own integrity and our students find it fruitful. Tell him its existence in places like Cardiff might even be the price he and his pals have to pay for their quite different concerns elsewhere. Then tell him to piss off.
Department of English, University College, Cardiff
Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985
SIR: If the health of literary education and criticism must be expressed in medical terms, as Graham Hough has done (LRB, 17 October), then ‘chronic hypochondria … entering an acute phase … in some quarters’ may well be the wrong diagnosis. A cursory glance at the patient will reveal that he evidently suffers from bulimia, and a thorough examination will show that his compulsion to gorge himself on food does not in the main extend to nutrients such as fish, fresh vegetables, meat, pulses, fruit, but appears to confine itself for the most part to sweets, the predilection being for trifles. Sophisticated trifles, of course, and preferably garnished with nuts shaken from trees adorning the Groves of Academe.
As Hough remarks, ‘the very word “criticism” has become synonymous with “academic criticism”.’ It has long been so: academic both in the objective sense that it is written in universities, and in the pejorative sense that it is irrelevant to practical purposes such as reading and writing literature. The academic critics, let it be repeated, sadly and wrongly depend on churning out secondary literature for ‘their salaries, conditions of tenure and prospects of promotion’; if they did not, they would be free to concentrate on reading primary literature and on teaching their students how to go and do likewise. As it is, the student is shellshocked by literary theory before he can confidently tell a villanelle from a novella – or, in George Steiner’s words, he or she has become ‘a high-wire acrobat who has not learnt to walk’.
Present-day critics routinely gambol on their tightropes, but are probably scared stiff of joining pedestrians for a stroll on a mere pavement. One day the point will be reached, if it has not been reached already, where students and teachers alike will know more about criticism and theory than about literature. To compound it all, it has become increasingly clear that criticism is concerned, no longer with literature, but with itself.
Why not let the deconstructionists, their motley friends, and their narcissistic relations, deconstruct themselves, and one another, so that we can put the ‘secondary’ back into secondary literature, and proceed to the primary sources, to read and enjoy?
SIR: Graham Hough, surely, protests too much (LRB, 17 October) in his indiscriminate inveighing against Literary Theory, and I share Terence Hawkes’s forthright expression of irritation (Letters, 21 November) at the caricaturing of some of the very real divisions within English Studies as it is at present constituted, as nothing more than a perennial ‘state of chronic hypochondria’. Not content with blaming upon French boots the faults of his feet, Professor Hough enlists in support of his case the evidence of his students’ perennial afflictions, it would seem, of the contemplative mind, whose legitimate anxieties he demeans as neurosis – ‘fussy little problems, their eyes on examination syllabuses and on plausible opinions to put in their essays’ – but who nonetheless share a desire which he will articulate for them, as what it always was, ‘to read the great works of the past’. His world-weariness is, it would seem, not unlike that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as indeed is his desire to reinvent reality as a contingency of thought. But I have more – unpalatable – news for Graham Hough. Given what is currently happening in university arts faculties outside the privileged centres of learning, even such convenient contradictions as his will no longer satisfy. Indeed, even the most disinterested observer may be forgiven for thinking that the internecine warfare that he is determined to sustain in favour of an aristocracy of taste derives its ‘civilised’ meaning from the barbarity to which his colleagues and their students in much less fortunate circumstances are currently being subjected. If in this academic context, Literary Theory gives what he may be disposed to think of as cannon-fodder a very effective armoury of weapons to think with, it is hardly surprising that he should feel the need for a dismissive strategy. After all, in some of its manifestations it seeks to provide serious answers to serious questions which a generation of students (as well as teachers), no longer at ease in old dispensations, are beginning to ask. As such, this kind of intellectual curiosity should surely be welcome, unless, of course, university literature courses really are the uncritical bastions of flawed ideologies. The regurgitation of dismissively urbane platitudes may be a way of alleviating the discomforting effects of gastronomic excess. At best, it fosters its own delusions of sanity, health and stability, disabilities for which intellectual austerity may provide a cure. But then, the human kind on whose behalf Graham Hough claims to speak never could abide very much reality.
University of Stirling
SIR: Judging from what Professor Hawkes tells Professor Hough in the last sentence of his letter, the English departments of some British universities must be veritable lavatories. It is even more remarkable that Professor Hawkes can expect the editor of the LRB to print this sentence. What would Professor Hawkes say if his students, critical, theoretical, or otherwise, were to tell him to perform what he asks Professor Hough to do? Would he quake in his pants? Since I am in the habit of encouraging my students to study at a British university for some time, if at all possible, to improve their minds and their English, I will henceforth advise them to greet their tutors and lecturers in Professor Hawkes’s manner. It may, after all, become the accepted way of academic discourse.
Department of English, University of Bamberg
Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986
SIR: It is disagreeable to have to disagree in public with my colleague Professor Terence Hawkes (Letters, 21 November 1985). But needs must … For while neither Professor Graham Hough nor those ‘posh institutions’ [sic] like Cambridge or Oxford need defending against his outburst, our own Department of English, ironically, appears to. Of course, we may all hanker after, even in weaker moments envy, ampler resources enjoyed elsewhere; and of course the Library at University College Cardiff, like not a few others, has been – given post-Robbins expansion – persistently underfunded. Too often there are, in our subject at least, too many undergraduates chasing too few books. But it is absurd to give the impression that a lack of resources has impelled us or our students into critical theory, or that our Library is terminally deprived of the kind of material that more privileged folk like Professor Hough have at their fingertips, ‘exquisite’ or otherwise.
The truth is that University College Library is, like most libraries in some respects both better than some and worse than others. Unquestionably it has its riches (notably in its Salisbury Collection) – as, incidentally, does the admirable Cardiff City Library, virtually around the corner and about to be rehoused in expensive modern premises. These riches may not all happen to be of interest to all of us all the time: but they are, for all that, real enough and of value to any ‘civilised mind’.
As for critical theory, maybe, in the circumstances, the less said the better. We in Cardiff have had (as who has not?) our fair share of contention and strong feeling over it; and even now we could, at the drop, as it were, of a brick, run the gamut of emotion, opinion, claim and counter-claim. Better far to stick to fact. I will not burden you with all the figures, nor with the details of Cardiff’s curriculum: but the fact is that ‘Modern Critical Theory’ is one of eight, very varied, options ranged alongside a compulsory ‘core’ of traditional literature courses, and is currently the least heavily subscribed of the options, with some ten takers out of nearly a hundred students.
For all Professor Hawkes’s populist language, critical theory (especially if truly comprehensive) can never be anything but a demanding and, for most students, recherché pursuit. The contention that in the absence of enough books it is tailor-made ‘for the likes of us’ simply does not, however you look at it, add up. For ‘one of the few games in town’, moreover, it seems to have acquired a singularly misanthropic air. Happily, our concerns in Cardiff are not ‘quite different’ from those elsewhere. Nor are they, as my colleague seems to feel, below the salt. Ours, like most students of English, persist in coming to university to try to enjoy, among other things, books. They want for the most part to read, learn and inwardly digest. We, like our colleagues elsewhere, still have plenty to offer them.
Department of English, Universtiy College, Cardiff
Vol. 8 No. 2 · 6 February 1986
SIR: The ‘MacCabe Affair’ lingers on. Eric Griffiths’s review of MacCabe’s Theoretical Essays (LRB, 19 December 1985) has all the single-minded venom of a Leavis trying to stamp out the latest life-destroying critical heresy. The enemy is ‘theory’, and unfortunately for me he came across my modest little introduction – A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory – and decided to rubbish it in a few insulting sentences in the course of his attack on MacCabe, the old Cambridge enemy.
I would have thought it beneath the dignity of your review to print the following: ‘This book belongs in the waste-paper bin, and its author in the pillory.’ On the other hand, such vehemence is in a sense flattering. Have I really written something so noxious? Do I really deserve martydom? However, Mr Griffiths also seems concerned that my ‘wretched book’ might sell, since I seem to have ‘a canny eye to the market’. I had no idea that literary theory was such a potential money-spinner. This distaste for cheap commercial motives (which I share) seems to inflame Griffiths’s mind. There is nothing new under the sun, he insists. That theory has something new to say about anything is absurd. He clearly feels that he has a mission to stop this poisonous stuff from flooding the critical market. It is merely retailing old ideas in specious vocabulary. The question which needs to be asked is why he and other recent reviewers have felt so threatened that they descend to virtual libel in their attempts at judgement.
When Mr Griffith condescends to comment on the book in detail he can only distort. My summary of Voloshinov’s theory of discourse includes a sentence in which I describe what I call his ‘central insight’. Griffiths perversely asserts that ‘Voloshinov is credited with discovering the fact that … ’, thus turning my account into a false claim for Voloshinov’s originality. He attacks me for not including in the bibliography works critical of some theorists, making no allowances for the book’s introductory function. He quotes without explanation two sentences of mine as examples of my laughable simple-mindedness. He could have spared me the insult and used the space to justify his contempt.
I would be the first to admit that my brief Guide often simplifies complex issues and does not treat the historical roots of recent critical theory. Even so, Griffiths very unfairly takes my opening remarks about the state of criticism before the late Sixties as a statement about English literary and critical history ab initio. Any sympathetic reader would have seen that I was talking about the consensus of Anglo-American criticism in the post-1945 period. But then Mr Griffiths was not aiming to be fair or just. He seems to have been determined to stir up a mood of sectarian violence worthy of Mr Paisley. All that eloquence gone to waste …
Vol. 8 No. 3 · 20 February 1986
SIR: Professor Hough talks in his review of Criticism in the University (LRB, 17 October 1985) of the appalling state into which we have all driven ourselves, and the impatient young. W(h)ither academic criticism, indeed! There is, I think, a cure, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would suggest that it lies in the organisation of university studies rather than in further ramifications of theory and method. Relevant considerations can be summarised as follows: 1. There are no philosophical problems peculiar to what we call literature as distinct from other forms of written and spoken communication. Philosophically speaking, literature doesn’t exist. 2. The active presence in society, none the less, of people who share the same inherited humane culture is certain to be beneficial in countless unpredictable ways. The alternative is barbarism. 3. There is a limit to what can go on being said by even the most intelligent reader about the books he has read.
If these are truths, the present undergrduate and postgraduate degree structure in the Humanities in the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent North America) ignores them. What would be far better is an indefinitely extendable degree course consisting of two-year units like those of the Cambridge Tripos, to which students, after taking two of them, and graduating as BA, could return at later stages in their career, adding degree qualifications in subjects they had previously been unable to study. This would not mean scrapping postgraduate research when that research was justified by the interest of the topic. However, a candidate for a lectureship in English would be considered qualified not necessarily because he had undertaken such research but because he had a degree in, say, English, Russian and English History and was planning to take leave of absence later on to do a course in Sociology or Latin or Greek or Italian. We would return to the practice of recruiting as teachers of the humanities learned men and women. Grants for postgraduate study would be made available, for the first time, accordingly. Plenty of interesting critical reflections are likely to arise spontaneously from the discovery by the individual of new areas of learning and of a fund of literature which, even within the accepted canon, can seem endless. Life is too short for lamentations on the state of academic criticism. Far better to go off and read Don Quixote.
Department of French Studies, University of Reading
SIR: Surely Professor Jochum’s students (Letters, 19 December 1985) have already been exposed to some bad language, even in Bamberg? I don’t know if Shakespeare, for example, is heavily expurgated in German, but then Shakespeare in German doesn’t bear too much thinking about. I was a foreign graduate student in Britain myself, and would offer Professor Jochum some gratuitous advice. If he is going to continue sending his students to British universities, ‘to improve their minds and their English’, he should be careful not to send them anywhere where the professors are known to make a cottage-industry of rejecting all things foreign out of hand. That is no place for young Bavarians. He should send those Bavarians somewhere where the professors, even if they are given to uttering the occasional oath, are known to be open-minded, informed, generous, and tolerant of strong accents as well as new ones. In other words: go with Cardiff.
Department of English, Yale University
Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986
SIR: After Professor Terence Hawkes’s suggestion of a negative correlation between library size and interest in critical theory (Letters, 21 November 1985), Professor Peter Thomas of Cardiff presents evidence to the contrary (Letters, 23 January). May I submit a converse counter-example? Yale University is the seat of the so-called Yale school of deconstructionism etc: yet it is also the possessor of the second-largest academic library collection on the continent. This is not to say there are no literary historians on the faculty, but the university is hardly known as a hotbed of Rezeptionsforschung.
Yale University Library, New Haven
Vol. 8 No. 6 · 3 April 1986
SIR: Geoffrey Strickland (Letters, 20 February) asserts that ‘there are no philosophical problems peculiar to what we call literature as distinct from other forms of written and spoken communication. Philosophically speaking, literature doesn’t exist.’ These, I take it, are philosophical theses – and about literature. The two claims are certainly not plain facts; they belong at the end, not at the beginning of a philosophical debate. If true, they are at least surprising.
Why is it that there is a well-established tradition for distinguishing some pieces of writing as ‘literary’ and not others? If there is no real basis for doing so, the consequences are enormous, as implied by Strickland’s recommendations for changes in the university curriculum. But the conclusions are too hasty. I suspect the idea that ‘literature doesn’t exist,’ philosophically speaking, is only an exaggerated way of denying any definitive properties of language, semantic or syntactic, which constitute ‘literariness’. Of course there are other ways of defining and demarcating literature – in terms of purposes or responses, for example, or in terms drawn from aesthetics. There are no sound philosophical reasons for dissolving literature, and literary study, in an inter-disciplinary soup. Significantly, it is Don Quixote, not The English Constitution (or the Daily Mirror for that matter), that Strickland tells us to go off and read.
Department of Philosophy, University of Sterling
Vol. 8 No. 7 · 17 April 1986
SIR: We in Brazil have followed with interest and amusement the exchange of letters in the LRB occasioned by Professor Terence Hawkes, who – quite properly, in our view – chastised Graham Hough (Letters, 21 November 1985) for disparaging the now not-so-new critical theories that are being evolved, debated and applied throughout the world, though, it seems, resisted by the Guardians of the Kingdom of English Literature. Given the resistance of conservative Britons to anything originating from their traditional enemy, the French, Hough’s highbrow deprecation of literary theorising is hardly surprising if somewhat disturbing.
And Professor Hawkes’s colleague at Cardiff, Peter Thomas, has taken Hawkes to account (Letters, 23 January) for suggesting that interest in theory may be partly due to the lack of scholarly resources at the less posh institutions of higher learning. We should like to say to Professor Thomas that at least in Brazil this is indeed the case. If resources are slim in Wales, imagine what they must be like in Brazil, which for the likes of the Guardians lies somewhere at or about the confines of the known world. Unable to compete in recondite scholarship, our students have embraced theory, with the additional boost of a traditional sympathy toward French culture and ideas. Not that they need any excuses! Theory, as Professor Hawkes put it, has its own integrity and, as Professor John Drakakis (19 December 1985) protested, seeks to provide serious answers to serious questions, an enterprise which is of interest even in these exotic climes and ought to be of interest to anyone dealing with learning, especially when concerned, as the new theories are, with exposing the ideologies behind theoretical positions – or the alleged lack of such positions.
Finally, as to Hawkes’s apparent insult at the end of his letter, which has so disturbed Professor Jochum from Germany (19 December 1985), anyone versed in literary theory would instantly recognise that in employing such a traditional British formula of dismissal as ‘Piss off’ (an American surely would have varied the verb but retained the particle), Hawkes was doing nothing more than altering the level of discourse – varying the code, as it were, in order to undermine the ritual of civilised insults typically exchanged by learned Guardians in their more disputatious moods. Nothing, Professor Jochum, to make anyone ‘quake in his pants’ if everything is all right under his hat.
Thomas LaBorie Burns and Ana Lucia Gazolla
Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil
Vol. 8 No. 9 · 22 May 1986
SIR: I’m reluctant from my present coign of vantage to add my mite to a debate that is showing every sign of rumbling inconclusively on in the pages of your journal for some weeks to come, but Thomas Burns and Ana Lucia Gazollas’s communication (Letters, 17 April) lets the cat howling out of the bag. The difficulty – I don’t say it’s the only one, merely one that is fudged here, and in a way that marries smugness to complacency – is surely to do with priority, even and perhaps especially in ‘these exotic climes’. If only in strict logic, there must be something desperately amiss when highly intelligent students at, for example, the distinguished Asian university where I’ve currently a visiting appointment can, so to speak, get up on their hind legs to prate on about Derrida, Lacan et al, whilst revealing an embarrassingly profound ignorance on the imaginative material formally under discussion. Experience suggests that such uninquisitiveness, allied to practical illiteracy and making excuses for itself, is to be found in the vicinity of the metropolis no less than in Brazil or the Republic of China.
But whatever you choose to call it, or however you ‘construct’ it, a spade remains a bloody shovel. Any theory of, say, The Novel must, to make sense and to persuade, be generated out of a knowledge of and affection for novels. Lots of novels are read and – dare one say it – enjoyed qua story before being recruited to the thrilling business of ‘exposing the ideologies behind theoretical positions’, for which warrior-dons like Burns and Gazolla, together with their more or less unfortunate students, are gearing up. Or are we so far gone in a rage to demolish, and in contempt of common sense, to accept this state of affairs as being on balance a Good Thing? Clearly I’m not alone in suspecting the answer to be yes, inasmuch as merely to have (tactless mistake) used a term like ‘common sense’ is instantly and invariably to call down wrath and pity from the quarters inhabited by your South American correspondents for alleged and culpably Leavisian benightedness in the matter of reading and talking about books.
National Taiwan University, Taipei
Vol. 8 No. 11 · 19 June 1986
The ‘Rising Sun’
Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986
SIR: How nice to see some Japanese in LRB (Letters, 19 June), and how nice to see LRB making such a cock-up of it. Did you read it before you published it? If so, one is intrigued to know why you published part of a review article explaining the recent Hough-Hawkes tiff to a Japanese audience as if it were a letter to the Editor, and why you felt obliged to decapitate the first sentence. Was it just to elicit a response such as this, or do you consider Japanese just amusing? Either way it is nothing but an embarrassment to us all, and I am at a loss to explain away such inscrutable behaviour to my Japanese colleagues.
Downing College, Cambridge
SIR: I was surprised to find in the LRB’s Letters columns something which is not a letter at all but a contribution to another organ: a comment on the recent exchange between Graham Hough and Terence Hawkes in the LRB, lifted from the long-established monthly journal Eigo Seinen (literally, ‘English Studies’). This journal’s English-language name is The Rising Generation – rather quaint, one may think, but at any rate not the Rising Sun, which is your attribution or invention.
The Hough/Hawkes exchange, incidentally, gave me useful material for a seminar I held earlier this year with members of the British Studies Faculty at Tokyo University on ‘British Literary Manners’, among whom was the contributor to Eigo Seinen whose work you published as a letter. I hope someone at the LRB has had the manners to tell him what has happened; or indeed to have asked his permission in the first place.
Low Tharston, Norfolk
I am sorry to have embarrassed Professor Bowring. The text in question was sent to us, and it seemed to us to represent – in its own way, in the manner of a kind of collage or art object – a contribution to the correspondence which it was evidently describing. We thought it would do no harm to anyone, and might even lift a few spirits, if we carried it on the Letters page. To do so was, in a sense – a sense we might have known that Anthony Thwaite would not be the first to see – a joke. But we also thought that you did not need to know Japanese to find the document instructive.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 8 No. 15 · 4 September 1986
SIR: I should like to thank you for a temperate reply to what may have seemed a somewhat intemperate letter (Letters, 24 July). I am also grateful to Anthony Thwaite for revealing the source of the article in question, although his Japanese leaves a little to be desired (Eigo Seinen means ‘English Youth’, not ‘English Studies’). The explanation of your motives does, however, raise some interesting questions. The document was indeed ‘instructive’: it told us that the Japanese are not only interested in selling us electronic equipment but are fascinated by our culture and are willing to invest tremendous time and effort in an attempt to understand us. (That these two facts might actually be connected is something that British industry and commerce has yet to fully comprehend.) The Japanese even read the LRB! They know about post-structuralism and semiotics and can even pop in ‘piss off’ in the original in the secure knowledge that it will either be understood or carefully looked up.
The point at issue, however, is this: a knowledge of their knowledge seems to be rather uncomfortable for us to accept on its own terms; it can only be absorbed by leaving it safely untranslated and thus transforming it into ‘a kind of collage or art object’. A nice gesture, and I appreciated it, I really did: but I wonder if the gesture itself does not reveal an underlying inability or unwillingness to grapple with the fact that a text like this might actually have some meaning? I know it looks like barbed-wire but from what he wrote I would judge Professor Takahashi to be not only extremely well-informed (he refers with more than a little insouciance to what the ‘other Terry’ might think of all this) but quite a stylist in his own right. Is it not slightly insulting to take something of this calibre and play with it? Your ‘Rising Sun’ bit in particular had us all racking our brains, but now I find it to be no more than a schoolboy joke teetering on the brink of tasteless-ness. I wonder if there is really any difference between what you have done and the young lady I once observed in the Tokyo underground with a tee-shirt covered in what looked like English! Closer inspection revealed the word ‘Tampax’ beautifully printed all across her back. A real little objet d’art it was.
Downing College, Cambridge
The misnaming of the publication in which the material appeared was due to a production error and owed nothing at all to any deplorable tendency to see foreigners as funny.
Editor, ‘London Review’