Commenting on the liberal traditions of the Royal Italian Army, H. Stuart Hughes writes: ‘Here alone, as far back as the early 20th century, one could find generals who were Jews’ (LRB, 13 September). Hughes has evidently forgotten that the Austrian Army, too, included a number of generals of Jewish origin, starting with General Armand von Nordman (killed in action at the battle of Wagram in 1809). Nordman was a baptised Jew; but by 1910 there were at least two hundred and fifty Jewish officers in the Austro-Hungarian Army, including four generals, who were not baptised (see Erwin Schmidl, Jews in the Habsburg Armed Forces). The Army was strikingly successful in resisting the anti-semitism which permeated Habsburg politics. The tragedy is that this tradition did not survive defeat in 1918. Indeed, the last notable Jewish general to serve in the Austrian Army, Johann Friedländer, perished in a concentration camp in 1944. Compared with the record of the Italians (to which Hughes rightly pays tribute), the number of Austrians who attempted to save Jews from the Nazis was extremely small.
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
James Wood’s claim that he still has in his veins ‘the hot blood of the academy’ some two years after graduating (Letters, 16 August) is a testimony to something more disturbing than his confused hot-headedness, and confirmation, should those who have followed the Bardbiz debate require it, of a hysteria that is uniquely, if not predictably his own. The occasion of the initial dogmatic parading of his ignorance was Terence Hawkes’s generous, witty and entertaining review of a number of books on Shakespeare that, coursing blood notwithstanding, Wood appears not to have bothered to read. The occasion of Alan Sinfield’s response (Letters, 19 April), and of my own (14 June), was Wood’s caricature of a range of radical critical positions all of which he labelled, with Neanderthal simplicity, ‘cultural materialism’. Now I have no desire to castigate Wood for his ignorance – though I am saddened by it – so long as he keeps it to himself. What is unacceptable and embarrassing is his public posturing as a mandarin of High Culture capable of conjuring up ‘opinions’ out of thin air. I can quite understand Boris Ford’s worry that Terence Hawkes, Alan Sinfield and I may not read ‘one of Shakespeare’s major plays’ as we might ‘listen to one of Bach’s unaccompanied cello sonatas or Mozart’s string quintets’ (Letters, 2 August), although I think he is in great danger of configuring Art as an alternative to the National Health Service, in the hope, I presume, that the quasi-religious triumvirate (Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart) is an adequate compensation for the practical deficiencies of the latter. Such a view has an engaging anti-intellectual eccentricity to recommend it, but, on closer inspection, becomes offensive in its obfuscating naivety.
The nub of James Wood’s argument, as it has now emerged, is an objection to ‘style’. He castigated Thomas Cartelli; he then turned his attention to Barker and Hulme, and then to Jonathan Dollimore, before finally returning to a passage he quoted (Letters, 24 May) from Paul Brown’s essay on The Tempest. As it happens, Brown’s comment, even out of context, makes perfect sense to anyone not suffering from a surfeit of hot blood, but, of course, that is really not Wood’s point at all. He is more interested in mystery than sense, so that his only substantive riposte to what he takes to be an objectionable method is to confirm his ‘amateur’ status, a position that goes hand in hand with his insistence on the autonomy of the writer. But then he asks: ‘Why can’t an author be a complex thing’ – a locution he has obviously, or perhaps ‘unconsciously’, borrowed from Yeats – ‘both determined by history and controlling it, both intentional and unconscious, the originator of language and the possession of language’s semantic multiplicity?’ This is the language and the ‘thought’ of a paid-up, card-carrying member of the chattering classes, who seems to think that an author is whatever you think ‘it’ (to use Wood’s derivative terminology) is. Clearly the complexity of the position that Hawkes, Sinfield and I have laboured to place before Wood has escaped his notice. He wants to accept and resist what I suspect he believes is a mechanical ‘determinism’ because such manoeuvres appear to be fashionable but he also wants to hang onto authorial autonomy, since a challenge to this is a challenge to ‘freedom’. In fact, his argument boils down to a kind of fudged relativism which, in the final analysis, defies any form of rational analysis.
‘Literature,’ he tells us, ‘challenges the thoughtful critic.’ Perhaps, but I have two simple questions: does Literature define itself, or is this category of language constructed? And if so by whom, and for what purposes? To borrow Boris Ford’s suggestion that Art is somehow ‘spiritually restoring’, I think I would like to know how to recognise the restorative and whether or not I am getting a pure distillation (assuming for a moment that there is such a thing) or something that has passed through other agencies. Of course, it is of the nature of language that it is always already in existence, so the notion of a literary text as an unmediated object is itself a nonsense.
The second question concerns Wood’s implied suggestion that Criticism is a slave to the literary text, and has no freedom to question it. What is wrong with the questioning of texts? Wood’s apparent response to such a question seems to be that Literature is ‘original’ and that criticism should simply imitate that originality in its response. One cannot but admire the novel precision of such a suggestion; it is so original that any thinking person would be embarrassed to lay claim to it. Can this really be the effect of a university education? What Wood seems unable or unwilling to grasp is that it is precisely because of the affective power of literature that materialists, of whatever persuasion, treat this category of language – rightly, in my view – with caution. Certainly it remains to be argued that a text is consciously or unconsciously subversive, and whether Wood likes it or not, there are ways in which such issues can be decided, however provisionally. Moreover, the good critic is something more than a mere purveyor of cliché’d opinions which s/he seeks to make her/his own by spurious claims to originality; also, reading is not a passive, submissive (stereotypically feminised) activity, but rather offers opportunities to resist even when what one is resisting is the language attributed to an ‘authority’ such as Shakespeare.
Finally, such criticism requires some degree of knowledge, especially when it comes to dealing with the literature of the past, and it so happens that one of the institutions where that knowledge might be found is the University, an institution which bears little resemblance to that of James Wood’s peculiar imagination. Perhaps it is the gap between reality and Wood’s reading of it that occasions his angst. Of course, since we live in a democracy of sorts, he is free to exercise a Thatcherite Philistinism in seeking to marginalise intellectual activity, but in order to do so successfully he is going to have either to proscribe certain forms of investigation which he regards as uncomfortable – as evidenced in the fanaticism of his earlier contributions to the debate, from which he is now desperate to withdraw – or seek to refute them through the mobilisation of superior intellectual arguments. The question of ‘authority’, academic or otherwise, does not enter into the matter, since only those possessed of Wood’s dogmatic zeal will want to insist, either positively or negatively, upon its constraints. Only then will the kind of criticism which he claims to represent be taken seriously. In the meantime we must be grateful to James Wood for having aired his ‘opinions’ so fully. Let us hope that he is not rendered completely ineducable by the persistent rushes of hot blood to those parts of his anatomy which in the rest of us are reserved for thought.
University of Stirling
An omission in the published version of my last letter, and Malcolm Evans’s suggestion (Letters, 13 September) that I may be spectral rather than palpable (and a front for Cambridge University and the National Theatre to boot), will allow me, I hope, a last word on Bardbiz and cultural materialism. What was omitted from my last letter was the (obvious) point that literary criticism was born into intellectual status early in this century hating its own inexactitude, its dependence on the slippery polyphony and polysemy of narrative and language. Criticism needed to assert its difference from literature. Hence the attempt, every twenty years or so, to create a rigorous, self-contained ‘science’, a series of purifications: I.A. Richards with his grand, pseudo-scientific theories, the New Criticism with its rigid lexicon, the anthropological, sociological and philosophical languages of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction. My point was that this constant striving for precision is not bad, so much as inevitable and doomed. It is a condition of literary criticism, and one about which it should be aware, even humble.
In this context, cultural materialism makes sense: a criticism without this self-conscious humility, refusing to be aware of its literariness or of the metaphorical approximateness of its language (what does it mean to call Edgar’s bastard rebellion an ‘emergent’ insight ‘folded back into a dominant ideology’?). Above all, cultural materialism, though it espouses a radical metaphysics, works to tie down, to fix, the complexities of literature and language in the glue of its own pseudo-precise simplicities.
The more intelligent practitioners (and Hawkes is one of them) don’t do this, but that is because these critics are more intelligent than the methodology they apply. Malcolm Evans is another such critic, and (to answer his question) I reviewed his book favourably because I thought it managed to outwit much of the glumness of cultural materialism.
I am not an ‘opportunist’, nor a copywriter for Viz, nor a front for Cambridge University. I do not think that Malcolm Evans is a threat to society. My dislike of cultural materialism arose out of work I did at Cambridge on The Tempest. I found that contemporary criticism of the play was dominated by ‘left pessimistic’ readings of that play, and that Althusserian Marxism and its materialist off-shoots were licensing such readings: namely, that the play is fatally complicit with the discourse of its age and that it will work to recuperate moments of vision and radical insight (like Gonzalo’s ‘commonwealth’ speech in Act Two); and more, that these moments are things that happen to texts anyway, because of the way discourse works. These moments cannot be purposive, but can be turned to liberating effect only by those radical critics who are willing to brush texts against the dominant ideological grain. A characteristically hubristic reading: the poor text can do so little on its own! It needs the critic! Cultural materialism makes texts curiously powerless, and so denies the ‘Utopian’ heritage of materialist thinkers like Benjamin and Bloch, thinkers who were wise enough to see that there are moments of release, of insight, of radical breakthrough, which are beyond the grip of ideological categorisation – beyond the grip even of the critic.
Pouncing on the doctor
Dinah Birch, in her review of Mrs Humphry Ward (LRB, 30 August), makes some finely-judged points about the problems which feminist historians need to overcome in order to ‘grow in confidence and maturity’. As she says, ‘detailed historical scholarship of the kind needed to substantiate new women’s histories’ demands months of patient and meticulous research. How sad, therefore, that her own comments then retreat into the sort of dismissive polemicism which allows men not to have to take women’s history seriously. Her remarks concerning the 19th-century psychiatrist Henry Maudsley lack both substance and the substantial research that she has just advocated. Led on, presumably, by the tenor of Cynthia Eagles Russett’s work, she appears unable to resist making a most unscholarly pounce upon the doctor, declaring that it is ‘one of the more cheering ironies of history that a man like Henry Maudsley, eminent psychiatrist and virulent misogynist, has turned out to be such a friend to feminism. His writings provide an apparently inexhaustible mine of pronouncements on women, compounded of such stupidity and malice that simply to quote him will always help to clinch a feminist argument with a flourish.’
Henry Maudsley was many things but he was neither stupid nor malicious. Through his writings he gave to his profession, and to the 19th century, the most extraordinary insights as to what it was like to be mentally ill. His descriptions of the suffering associated with delusion, dementia and depression mark a turning-point, for both patient and practitioner, in the history of English psychiatry. His work was indeed influenced by a dark pessimism and misogyny which declined, with the century, into a bitter, Fin-de-Siècle hopelessness, but this was not directed exclusively, or even particularly, at women. Maudsley’s belief was that ‘no one can escape the tyranny of his organisation.’ Perhaps a more interesting irony for feminist historians is Maudsley’s early advocacy of a woman’s right to hold a periodic ‘open season’ on men. He certainly acknowledged PMT as a clinical condition which had a ‘notable effect upon the mind and body’. Feminist history cannot eat its cake and have it.
Birkbeck College, London WC1
So, Fiona Pitt-Kethley ‘can employ but at the same time heighten … such language as men and women really use’, and that saves her from the charge of insulting women and men in her crude artless poetry? I don’t think William Guy (Letters, 26 July) is answering the question. The line ‘while lover boy is fiddling with my tits’ offends because it is unhealthy for sexual partners to spectate. Never mind the question of love, this is a recognised pathological problem. One partner will spectate, and not fully participate, in order to retain power, humiliating the responsive or giving partner. That way, you can both cash in and disparage. These are some of the worries dealt with in Ian Hamilton’s excellent ‘Soliloquy’ (LRB, 26 July). To write brutally is to start to think brutally.
Victoria University of Wellington,