SIR: I have not yet read J. Arch Getty’s Origins of the Great Purges, but John Barber’s admirable review (LRB, 17 October) convinced me that I ought to read it. However, I was sorry to see him draw one conclusion which, while predictable, seems to me greatly misleading and depressingly trite. The book, he asserts, ‘also hammers a good many nails into the coffin of the totalitarian model of Soviet politics’. It is certainly true that the story Getty tells, as I understand it from Dr Barber’s summary, is incompatible with many of the vulgar or oversimplified versions of the ‘totalitarian model’. But if Dr Barber would take the trouble to go back and reread, for example, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, he would see that the bulk of Getty’s argument is quite compatible with – indeed, tends to support – the basic account of Soviet totalitarianism and its development given by Arendt. (Arendt, by the way, also made use of the Smolensk archives, both directly and via the work of Merle Fainsod before it was sanitised by Jerry Hough.) This is not to say that the arguments of Arendt, Richard Lowenthal and so on are without problems: but if any of Getty’s findings do them serious damage, this is not apparent from the review. Incidentally, some of the reappraisals which Dr Barber identifies as stemming from Getty’s book will seem less surprising to readers of, for example, the collection of essays on Stalinism edited some years back by Robert Tucker.
Harvard University Committee
John Barber writes: Mr Weintraub is quite entitled to question my assessment of J. Arch Getty’s Origins of the Great Purges, but it might help if he were to read the book. Unfortunately, he has failed to grasp its most important conclusion. Getty does not simply show, as others have indeed already done, that corruption, inefficiency, and resistance to official policies, existed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s: he also presents strong evidence to suggest that this was true of the Communist Party itself. Far from being an all-powerful monolithic apparatus, the Party suffered from real limitations as an instrument for imposing the regime’s will on society. This must call into question the ‘total dominance’ which Hannah Arendt and other theorists of totalitarianism saw as a central feature of the Stalinist political system. It is, however, highly misleading of Mr Weintraub to imply that Arendt made significant use of the Smolensk archive. A few references taken from Merle Fainsod’s Smolensk under Soviet Rule were included in the introduction to the third edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, but that was all. Getty’s book is the first to make substantial use of the Smolensk archive since Fainsod’s preliminary survey of its contents nearly three decades ago.
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
SIR: I was surprised that Clive James found time to mention the Literary Review in the course of his brown-nosing session about the LRB in the LRB (LRB, 7 November). The book we asked Clive James to review was about television, a subject he is well-qualified to write about. James thought we only asked him to review the book because it was by Francis Wheen, who had criticised him in previous pages of the Literary Review. I suggest that Clive James ceases to judge others by his own standards – and indeed those of the LRB whom he praises for indulging in the very same ‘adversarial casting’ policy that so piqued him when he thought it came from us. James makes heavy weather of the scrupulous ‘reluctance’ with which you ran pieces by Ursula Creagh and Richard Wollheim. If you object to that kind of journalism, why do you practise it?
Clive James might also learn a few manners. It is customary to reply directly when a magazine invites you to review a book. Given his tired remarks about the staff of the Literary Review, his reply might have been unpalatable. But not as tasteless as airing a spiteful – the word ‘chippy’ rises irresistibly to mind – prejudice months later in the pages of the LRB.
Editor, Literary Review, London W1
SIR: I have become totally charmed, zapped, entranced, amused by the poetry and wit of Miss Fiona Pitt-Kethley, whose work you have had the vision to publish from time to time in your estimable paper. Her drollery and delight in obscene piquancy appear to power the freshest voice I have read in years. Acid, too, has she. Although I am 60, a defrocked astrologer and recluse-about-town who meditates on the Self continually, I seem to be hopelessly in love with her, as I suspect one or two in your shop are as well.
I note that a book of her poetry has been published, The Tower of Glass, although you neglect to name the publisher. Since with free trade rampant there does not seem to be one bookstore in New York City that stocks English publications, I hazard the gambit of sending you $15 in the hope that someone in your office might have the good will to buy it for me and ship it to this country – keeping what’s left over for a drink in Fiona’s name. I would also like her date, time and place of birth, if such information is in the public realm, and should you be communicado with the young genius, will you tell her she is not without admirers in the New World.
New York City
The publication details proved hard to obtain at the time: The Tower of Glass was published by the Mariscat Press at £3.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: Your correspondent, John May (Letters, 21 November), takes exception to Professor Burrow’s remarks on Orff’s Carmina Burana in his review of my Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (LRB, 17 October). I have not asked John Burrow why he describes Orff’s music as awful (not as bad a pun as May claims), but I imagine that one of his reasons for choosing that accurate epithet is the ponderous musical pomposity which Orff considered a suitable setting for some of the wittiest, subtlest and most elusive lyric poetry that Medieval Europe produced. There is no need to invoke ‘received opinion’ to see why Orff does not attract Burrow, and why he appeals to May.
Pembroke College, Oxford.
SIR: John May’s spirited defence alludes to the deliberate anti-Modernism of Carmina Burana. But the ‘vigorous world’ of Orff’s music is surely less innocent than he thinks it is. When Carmina Burana first appeared in 1937, a year after the success of Orff’s music for the opening of the Berlin Olympic Games, critics spoke of a ‘Bolshevistic levelling’ of musical standards and, more positively, of a ‘spontaneous return to simple, natural, bodily and elemental things’. The Nazis’ exploitation of Orff’s style to help boost a ‘vigorous’, not uncontroversial anti-intellectualism in Germany in the Thirties is unlikely to harm the integrity of Orff’s work now. Nor is his successful career in Nazi Germany, despite a string of commissions, first performances (including Der Mond in 1939), and a public Declaration of Faith in the Führer in 1944 replete with a Horatian Ode in Latin, remembered as anything much worse than a minor blemish on a reputation more distinguished than most critics are prepared to admit. But don’t those bland, Black-and-Decker rhythms in Carmina Burana, appealing as they are to modern fresh-air fanatics tired of listening to contemporary music, sound just a bit more ominous if we remember when, and in which circumstances, they were composed?
Incidentally, Orff has not ‘reached the age of 90’ and certainly ‘does not need to care about the opinions of Professor Burrow’. Orff died on 29 March 1982 at the age of 86.
King’s College, Cambridge
SIR: As begetter and publisher of the book on John Christie, I felt reluctant to enter this correspondence until I saw Professor Wollheim’s letter following his review (Letters, 21 November). John Christie was also my headmaster at Westminster and I knew Professor Wollheim as a pupil there. I doubt whether he will remember me. He borrowed my bicycle pump. He has never returned it, but he is welcome to keep it now. He was certainly regarded in my day as something of a character. His progressive intellectualism and conflicts with authority did not go unnoticed by the school in general. But whatever Professor Wollheim’s personal recollections of John Christie may be, there were others of us who, both at Westminster and later in life, recognised in Christie a man of outstanding calibre as a formative influence on a whole generation and a personality and teacher of charismatic significance. It was for these reasons that we felt that the three brief memoirs of him and a small selection of his writings in many fields should be published and read: so that there might be some permanent record of this modest man’s achievement. The book has sold well and received many appreciative (if non-autobiographical) reviews during the 12 months it took Professor Wollheim to pen his own.
SIR: I have only just read Richard Wollheim’s fascinating piece (LRB, 3 October), in which he uses the pretext of reviewing a book on J.T. Christie to describe his own schooldays at Westminster. His vivid picture of his school contemporaries, who, it seems, were (with a few charming exceptions) a thoroughly nasty, brutal and caddish lot, reminds me irresistibly of the characterisation, in an old Victorian saying, of the four great public schools of England:
Eton, boatmen; Harrow, gentlemen;
Westminster, scoundrels; Winchester, scholars. The validity of traditional stereotypes sometimes persists with unexpected tenacity, so that Wollheim should perhaps recognise himself as a Wykehamist manqué, and see the tribulations which befell him at Westminster as the fatal result of being sent to the wrong school.
‘The Hunting Season’
SIR: Critics too numerous perhaps for your space to allow me to list have said of J.K. Mayo’s thriller that it is both original and exceptionally good of its kind – that is to say, that rare kind of elegant, witty and finely-written thriller. John Sutherland in his review (LRB, 5 September) said of it that it was ‘a transparent rewrite of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps’. He cannot possibly have read both of these books carefully, for apart from a dead body planted on the premises (loosely speaking) of the heroes of each of these novels at the beginning, they are two otherwise utterly unrelated plots.
Collins Harvill, London W1
SIR: Keri Hulme’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Bone People, discussed by D.A.N. Jones (LRB, 21 November) and on the Letters page by C.K. Stead (Letters, 5 December), leaves me, as a New Zealander, with a sense of painful recognition and of deep disappointment. Is this the best that New Zealand can offer the world? It is a world that is vitally aware of race relations and of national identities, and of the dehumanising elements within society which produce such phenomena as baby-battering. We are also aware of the need to conserve and protect the environment. All these issues are Keri Hulme’s concern, yet they are handled with none of the insight we might expect from a New Zealander whose country is now seen as a David fighting against the Goliath of European nuclear interests.
Instead, she reflects the inward-looking nature of our country and the oppressive nature of its geographical isolation. The sense of place can be suffocating in New Zealand, and there is no escaping the feeling of being poised on the rim of the known world: to the South lies the wasteland of Antarctica and to the North is America and Europe – the only way ahead. At the same time, there is always the feeling that New Zealand is God’s own country, and that its very remoteness gives it the distance necessary for the creation of a utopian state. This feeling of being separate, special and different brings with it a complexity of psychological problems, notably a reluctance to relinquish an obsession with self and to accept adult responsibilities.
This is the New Zealand I escaped, the country of my childhood where most of my generation were busy saving up for their passage to Europe. This need to leave was instilled in me at a very early age, at the end of the war. One of my most vivid memories is of a beach on the South Island coast, over the hills from Christchurch, with my mother saying to us: ‘Look children and remember, as you will never see this again.’ There, way out at sea, was the tall ship the Pamir, an old tea clipper, making her last run to Europe, romantic and remote with her white topsails set. The emotion of nostalgia was deeply imprinted in me, and I mourned with my mother an era and a world I had never known. The concept of England as Home was both magnetic and divisive, and the long windswept beaches of New Zealand were for ever afterwards a symbol of melancholy and a boundary to aspirations.
This was our family myth of the homeland. Meanwhile native New Zealanders, the Maori, held to the myth of Hawaiki, their ancestral homeland before the great migrations by canoe brought them to Aotearoa, the shining land in the south. Keri Hulme writes from the viewpoint of the Maori, a name which includes those of mixed European (Pakeha) and Maori blood. The novel’s spokeswoman says: ‘If I were in America, I’d be an octoroon … I am but an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit and inclination I feel all Maori – or I used to – the Mariotanga has got lost in the way I live.’ Mariotanga – Maoriness, as the necessary appendix tells us – pervades the book in the blurred consciousness of Kerewin Holmes, artist and obvious self-portrait of Keri Hulme, novelist, who is quoted as saying that her novel was ‘home-grown’ and that it took her 12 years to write. Perhaps this interval reflects the difficulty of expressing or achieving a national voice when the national identity in question is confused, diffused and derivative.
The use of the thinly disguised author’s name for the central consciousness of the novel is a device which evades the honest ‘I’ and has the effect of disconcerting the reader’s expectations to an extent I do not think the author intended. There is an uneasy blend of two cultures in the one personality, and the authorial voice tends to become like that of some short-sighted social worker who argues that Joe could not help his brutal drunken battering of the small orphaned boy because society put him up to it. Joe’s self-destructive drinking may have been due to loneliness after the death of his wife and child, but is no excuse for his savage attacks on the small boy, whose only crime is to remind Joe of his guilt and inadequacies. Similarly, Kerewin’s attitude is at fault, for her obsession with her identity, and her inability to love or to create, have blocked her comprehension of reality: like Joe, she retreats into drunken oblivion to avoid responsibility. On the one hand, we are offered a parable of the child healing the broken adult, and then the adult becomes in turn the destroyer. The paradox is explained in the title: the Maori phrase E nga iwi o nga iwi means both bones of the people or ancestors, and people of the bones – that is, the beginning people or progenitors. The constant tension evoked by this inherent paradox produces a lack of focus, and the author has to retreat into a lame ending with a Maori phrase which translates: ‘The end – or the beginning’.
There is an attempt to allow Joe a form of redemption by linking him to his ancestral past, but it fails to impress. Joe has served a term in prison, and the novelist then shows him in retreat. His meeting with a dying mystic, the old Maori man, brings him more closely in touch with his heritage. The romance convention offers him the chance to be guardian of a buried tribal treasure – a decaying canoe and a little stone god, or mauriora. The old man has believed it to be a symbol of the rebirth of the Maori nation as something ‘special and different’.
Joe retreats into a reverence for old burial customs and Kerewin has also retreated – to the mountains this time instead of the sea. In the high McKenzie country, sub-alpine sheep lands of windswept tussocks, she undergoes a dark night of the soul as she prepares to die alone from suspected stomach cancer. But she is returned to life again, and she sets herself to rebuild a dilapidated Maori meeting-house. This is to re-create the marae, the heart of the Maori community, and she announces to herself that she will concentrate on seven directions: recovery, renewed talent, rebuilding, tying up loose ends, trying not to dodge responsibilities, going into the world rather than moving against it, and, finally, ‘I will go when it is time – no choice! – but now I want life.’
The ending is a reunion of Joe, Kerewin and the child in a drunken, incoherent, sentimental coming-home: ‘all good cheers, and covered tears and matey friendship’. Kerewin has made peace with her estranged family and everyone is ‘aching with love to give, smothered by love in return’. There is no examination of the uncomfortable truths which haunt this book and which haunt New Zealand. Beneath all this togetherness, and the notion of a racial or cultural solidarity which accompanies it, there seems to be a dangerous exclusiveness. The sterility of the island mentality is not confined to places like New Zealand, of course – it exists in inner cities throughout the civilised world. But I would have thought that if this novel depicts the present state of its nation, then New Zealand still has some spiritual growing-up to do.
The Gargoyle Years
SIR: A memoir of the celebrated Gargoyle Club in Soho, created by David Tennant in the Twenties and of which he remained ringmaster for some thirty years, has been commissioned by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. The authors would be glad to receive recollections, impressions and anecdotes from those who went there at any period and under any circumstances. All material (including graphics) sent to the address below will be gratefully acknowledged and returned.
22 Eaton Square, London SW1W 9DE