A professor of literary theory writes in to disagree
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
SIR: The letter from Katherine Duncan-Jones and A.N. Wilson (Letters, 17 October) is a reminder that mine is not the only conceivable view to hold of J.T. Christie. I was aware of this fact, and it was so as to make this point – and others – that I was at pains to present my view autobiographically. That I did so seems to have displeased your correspondents. In three small matters their letter stands in need of correction. 1. Of course anyone could admire Virginia Woolf’s sense of fun. What I do not believe is that anyone could admire her for – that is, primarily for – her sense of fun. That is the point at issue, and how – I must ask now – do your correspondents know that I splutter when I make it? 2. The evidence for thinking that Christie struggled with himself when he prayed comes from the book under review: it is supplied by Sir Roger Young’s memoir and by Christie’s religious addresses. 3. I have been ready at any moment in the last forty years to set down my opinion of J.T. Christie. It was the LRB that bided its time. I hope your correspondents are not suggesting that it is impermissible to write unfavourably of anyone unless he is alive and his family dead.
‘Biding its time’ is Professor Wollheim’s little joke. What we did was to arrange without expedition for a book to be reviewed.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: What a surprising essay about himself from such a distinguished philosopher as Richard Wollheim, masquerading as a review of J.T. Christie: A Selection of his Own Writings (LRB, 3 October). Every schoolboy hates some of his masters but the interests of later life usually obliterate provoking incidents even when a little unforgiving thought persists. The first half of Wollheim’s three-page reminiscence describes his self-education, before John Christie became Headmaster of Westminster, including his first year as a King’s Scholar in that prestigious school; since it belongs to the Royal Abbey, has any school more duty to teach Christianity, against which Wollheim rebelled? The second half is a recital of what Shakespeare called ‘scorns, despising of persons, and poutings fitter for girls and schoolboys’, all directed against Christie and depicting him as a pillar of salt. Wollheim admits that John was a uniquely inspiring teacher, but each merit is damned with faint praise and no allowance is made for a young headmaster’s worries: not only insolent boys, but critical elder masters, an occasional obstructive governor and, worst of all at Westminster, snooping reporters from the evening papers if a school row was noised abroad by day-boys. The deliberately offensive title attributed to Maurice Bowra derives, I believe, from a cartoon of Christie circulated by one of Wollheim’s contemporaries which any headmaster, to keep ‘a happy ship’, was bound to suppress. I knew both John and Maurice for nearly fifty years; they were lifelong friends, utterly different but rejoicing in each other’s wit. Christie certainly had a fierce side. One of his close Oxford friends admitted: ‘I sometimes hate him.’ Yet both Bowra and he would help any pupil who made a fool of himself when they thought reproof followed by encouragement would bring him to sense. Wollheim quotes the book he is ostensibly reviewing only three or four times, each time to Christie’s disadvantage. The concluding anecdote seems deliberately aimed to wound John’s widow, now an old lady still in touch with many of his pupils, who know that his marriage, five years before he came to Westminster, brought him lasting happiness (Wollheim declares, ‘Happiness was not what he sought’), and that she smoothed away his rough edges, of which all his friends had been aware. How pitiable that a successful, serious man should publish in detail the pains of fifty years ago, as if from an analyst’s couch: ‘who would not laugh if such a man there be, who would not weep if W. were he?’
SIR: I apologise for troubling Jenny Koralek (Letters, 5 September), and for causing unease to afflict Dr Pryor and her friends (Letters, 3 October). I had thought that, in my review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens (LRB, 23 May), I expressed, in passing, some fairly uncontentious opinions about one or two children’s authors whose work I don’t especially admire: however, it seems that what I engaged in was a ‘ferocious attack’ – an attack not only directed against certain sacrosanct classics, but one designed to call in question the whole basis of Christianity. Two letters have told me as much. The author of one, indeed, suspects me of being positively ‘anti-Christian’. I do not think that this is the case – not unless a certain distaste for C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ stories makes me so.
SIR: Memory’s a funny thing, and Clive James’s memories are usually funnier than most. When I heard he was writing a piece about The New Review Anthology, I rather hoped for some rollicking anecdotal stuff about his Days and Nights in Soho. After all, Clive was pretty close to the action in those days. Curious, then, and just a bit middle-aged and sad, to find one’s old drinking buddy coming on like the Chief Executive of Trust House Forte (LRB, 7 November). Where and how did Clive pick up this crackling business expertise? He certainly showed no signs of it in 1973 when we were misplanning the first issues of the New Review. In fact, one of the ‘excesses’ that we used to get most stick for was a series of satiric photo-caption essays that Clive jovially pressed upon the rear section of the magazine. As you can imagine, sir, these cost a bundle to print and design, and I really can’t remember Clive being other than delighted by our recklessness in this regard. He certainly never suggested that we check the financial outlay against the estimated mirth-return. But then, come to think of it, maybe that was shrewd management on his part – maybe all along he was checking everything against some secret budget of his own. I can’t help noticing that these silly (and, I’d still say, quite diverting) photo-pieces have been keeping Clive in hot dinners ever since. He’s still trotting them out in the Observer colour mag and on TV. I’m not bitter, though. Indeed, I’m actually sharing one of those hot dinners with my chum next week. I’ll see what more I can find out about this new, chairmanlike Clive James. If it’s looking really bad, I’ll get back to you …
SIR: Carl Orff has reached the age of 90 and probably does not need to care about the opinions of Professor Burrow (LRB, 17 October). It is nevertheless extraordinary that there should persist this snobbish dismissal of a splendid and inventive score that has firmly established itself in the repertoire and in the esteem of the public if not of some critics. On what knowledge of Orff’s music does Professor Burrow base his epithet ‘awful’? At the Staatsoper in Berlin I recently heard Carmina Burana and Der Mond in a double bill and came away again marvelling at the power and magic of the composer’s distillation of some of the simpler human emotions. Going on to Leipzig, I was lucky enough to hear an excellent and informative illustrated talk on Orff, with particular reference to his earlier work (including settings of Werfel and Brecht), by Professor Clement of Leipzig University.
Medieval Latin poetry used a language then still universal throughout Europe. Orff has made use of a similarly universal language, powerfully based upon rhythms that can appeal to a wide audience but able to embrace also some fine tunes (rather despised nowadays) and moments of spellbinding beauty – as in the final pages of Der Mond. I remain puzzled at Professor Burrow’s side-swipe, based as he thinks on some received opinion. If puns are the order of the day, he should abandon the tunnel-vision of the burrow and emerge into the primary colours of Orff’s vigorous world.
From the Other Side
On 12 September, Cambridge University Press published Essays on the Philosophy of Music by Ernst Bloch (250 pp., £27.50 and £10.95, 0 521 24873 6). The collection, which has been translated by Peter Palmer, is based on the German anthology Zur Philosophie der Musik, published to coincide with Bloch’s 90th birthday in 1974. The present volume has a long introductory essay by David Drew. A shortened version of this essay was published in two (LRB, 18 July) parts (LRB, 1 August) in this paper.
Editors, ‘London Review’