Love and Hate
Nicholas Spice (LRB, 26 March) gives an interesting account of the commercial development of the piano. He pinpoints two very real problems, often mentioned by my contemporaries and myself: that of over-repeated pieces in the ‘classical music canon’ inevitably running the risk of losing their meaning (I trust he means for audiences as well as for performers); and secondly, for concert pianists locked into the somewhat conventional trappings of the piano recital to have about them a whiff of the dinosaur. Although I myself have no intention of jettisoning the medium, these are nevertheless nagging and unresolved problems. But the essence of his article is of course about Gould and Brendel. I never heard Gould live, but his recordings have variously enthralled, provoked and repelled me in equal measure – likewise some of his views, at their best revelatory, at other times idiosyncratic to a degree. But why will Mr Spice not allow Brendel a measure of idiosyncrasy too? Brendel’s sense of humour in music is also not something I have always felt happy with, but it is totally outweighed by other unique qualities he possesses, none of which are mentioned by Mr Spice. In fact, he talks of Brendel the writer in cutting terms, and only mentions Brendel the performer briefly and then in even more cutting ones. Gould, who claims his real interest – and that is his prerogative – is portrayed far more completely, if hardly more objectively. This is not the place to quarrel with Mr Spice’s views on these two men, but I submit that an article comparing and contrasting them from such extreme positions of love and hate is effectively invalidated from the start.
Richard Mayne (LRB, 26 March) sums up 35 years of Community history, hoping to crush those who might suggest that shuffling towards ‘an ever closer union’ is not an adequate agenda for the post-Cold War European Community. He raises seven key controversial issues about the EC: but why does he call them the ‘seven heresies’? The Maastricht Treaty has started debate on the big European questions in Germany, and even in France. Why not in the UK – traditionally the centre of sceptical and cautious analysis of what the ‘European idea’ is about? Mayne says that these ‘heresies’ are being put about solely in the hope of diluting or diverting the Community. Surely he does not wish to return to accepting quasi-theological maxims that should have died a death in the Sixties?
To take just one of the ‘heresies’ – ‘the end of the Cold War has made the Community obsolete.’ Mayne argues that the ‘subtraction of one superpower from the global equation makes no essential difference’. He says both that the end of the Cold War makes little difference to European integration, and also that this question should not be raised, as it is part of a ‘last-ditch effort to resist the movement that is already carrying the European Community well beyond the Single Market’, i.e. that it is politically-motivated. On both grounds, he is wrong.
The relationship between the Cold War and European integration raises complex and urgent questions for historians and policy-makers. France’s reconciliation with Germany may well have been possible only because she was cushioned by the knowledge that Germany was, by 1950, hobbled by the Cold War division of Europe. This division was overseen by the military might of the US. Did not the American military umbrella also provide the security blanket that enabled civilian integration in Western Europe to proceed, albeit haltingly and erratically, through the subsequent decades? If this is so, is it logical to assume that the Europeans will now have better luck with security/defence integration than they have ever had previously? Some federalists may respond that the Cold War played its part early on, but that other factors are now driving an integration process that is implicitly accepted as a good thing. This may be true: but we simply do not know if it is.
Mr Mayne’s ‘heresies’ are not Euroheresies at all, but a basis for open discussion. We do not need more transport analogies – climbing on unmarked aircraft, catching or missing European boats and trains. And subscribing to Maastricht by the back door without openly re-assessing our assumptions and goals can only be bad for British – and European – democratic accountability and debate.
St Antony’s College,
Alan Ryan (LRB, 26 March) confirms my suspicion that the view from Princeton is often a myopic one. Of his many sweeping statements about American black students (with no evidence he has spoken to any) I wish to respond only to one. Ryan pontificates: ‘Well-meant programmes to help black students through college only add to the pressures on those students.’ Part of the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s so-called Great Society was a series of programmes designed to take intelligent but ‘culturally-disadvantaged’ students, as they were then called, and insinuate them into the college mainstream. I taught in two such programmes – AIM and Upward Bound at SUNY Stony Brook – for a period of six years in the Eighties. Despite its dated-sounding name, Upward Bound over a period of twenty years had taken a thousand high-school students identified as almost certain drop-outs and mostly from difficult family situations and brought them to campus for classes on Saturdays during the year and for most of the summer over a period of three years. As a result, every student graduated from high school, and many went on to college afterwards.
AIM consisted of students who had been admitted to Stony Brook for the fall term but who would not have got in under ordinary admission procedures (a form of the dreaded affirmative action). In both cases, my task was to acclimatise these students to the vagaries of Freshman English, which they would all face in their first year. Ryan notes that black students are more likely to drop out than white ones, but the problems are often more cultural than intellectual. After several false starts, it became clear to me that the best thing I could do for these students was to outwit my former fellow graduate students. Thus we read Zen and the Art of Archery, John Barth, and other icons of the middle-class white Eng Lit teachers they were about to encounter. Most of the staff was not white, but we all felt that in my subject a cultural paradigm shift was in order. Many of the students survived to graduation.
One of the best compliments I ever had as a teacher was a return visit by one who was not my favourite student. I asked him how he was doing in his Freshman Lit course and he replied: ‘Remember all that bullshit you talked to us?’ ‘Yes, Dennis, I remember.’ ‘Well, I got this teacher who’s talking the same bullshit. I never thought there was anyone else in the world who talked like that.’ When it transpired that he was more than passing the class, I felt a surge of satisfaction Dennis would have thought absurd.
By the time Reagan pulled the plug on this particular Upward Bound programme, his policies had rendered the USA so egalitarian that almost half our students were white. We knew we could not do enough to stem the tide of these students being alienated from American society. But we did something, and it irks me to hear the likes of Ryan sitting in their ivory towers at Princeton dismissing the achievements of those who laboured for so long in a much less luxurious vineyard.
Can it be true that no one has commented on Michael Wood’s observations (LRB, 13 February) about JFK? Having waited in this distant cave to read some response in my delayed copies, I now, after two disappointments, beg a little space. If I have not been entirely defeated by his subtleties, Wood sees the film as an exercise in myth-making fuelled by overweening paranoia (a little is OK) and a yearning for despotism. Where Stone gets to the tin-tacks of presenting a case – the big, fat conspiracy theory – he relies on ‘flimsy clues’, meaningful only to those who have prejudged the matter, on ‘hypothetical meetings’, ‘supposed discussions’ and so on. Besides, ‘truth’ is a slippery notion, and it was naughty of Stone to try to persuade us of anything.
Whatever else JFK did, for good or ill, it presented crateloads of evidence that can’t simply be dismissed under these epithetical headings. Indeed one must marvel at just how much of it was packed into the film without weakening its dramatic thrust. A few examples: 1. The route of Kennedy’s motorcade was changed at the last moment to take in a hairpin bend that slowed it to a crawl. 2. The single assassin scenario requires one of the bullets to follow a truly amazing trajectory. 3. The military surgeon performing the autopsy was ordered by a superior officer not to undertake procedures that a normal approach to the job would have demanded. 4. A woman told Warren Commission investigators she was positive about having seen Jack Ruby ferrying armed men to the scene of the crime before the event; the Commission reported her as saying almost the exact opposite. 5. A photograph of a rifle-toting Oswald produced as incriminating evidence is an obvious fake. And 6., the big one: normal security arrangements were not in place. What persuades Wood that none of this has any substance? Is he wanting to say that Garrison and Stone made it all up? If not, what is he saying? Plain, please.
I am comfortable with the notion that we are no longer to see the simple connections we once thought existed between discourse and reality – or whatever we used to call reality is now supposed to be. But I cannot help thinking that something has gone horribly wrong when a professor of English can review a film such as JFK and choose not to come to terms with it at the level of its central preoccupation.
Perth, Western Australia
I am glad for David Craig (Letters, 26 March) that he can look back with satisfaction on 23 years teaching creative writing. I can say the same of my ten years in the same trade. But only just; and I was glad to give it up. I found that such teaching is more emotionally draining than any other, because one has to be in a special way intimately responsible for one’s pupils, even through their subsequent lives long after and outside the classroom. I wonder if Craig would agree. I suspect he would not, for he nowhere writes of ‘pupils’ but only of an undifferentiated ‘we’. My pupils were perhaps more ambitious than his; they aimed to perpetuate and possibly ‘move forward’ the ancient art that they were studying. However, they were as much ‘unprivileged people’ as those whom Craig has worked with, and like them they were equal in opportunity, since all were at liberty to enter the international competition by which I and my colleagues, on the score of submitted work, chose whom to admit to our classes. Does David Craig operate no such qualifying system? I know that there are admirable people who set themselves no such lofty goals as my pupils aimed at; they ask less of their teacher, who accordingly is less personally distressed when they fall short of me standard they had in view. In short, I suspect Craig and I are at cross-purposes, since his clientèle and mine are radically different. I have been into ‘a few of the rooms all over the country’ that he speaks of, and have found there a few greatly gifted individuals, along with many more who (no shame to them) practise verse-writing as a hobby to share with like-minded companions. According as we cater for the one clientèle or the other, our practices, also our principles and horizons, must differ. My objection to books like The Poetry of Survival, as to poetry competitions, is that they blur the two sorts of person, and the two sorts of need, into one. My position is not, as Craig predictably alleges, ‘political’; it derives from the incontestable fact that the arts are of their nature undemocratic insofar as artistic gifts are unevenly distributed.
Peter Jay (Letters, same issue) objects that I mentioned ‘not one poem’. I will make good that omission:
The first colour? Just like a captive
at the moment sentence is passed.
The second? Like lost
soldiers falling down
in huge soft heaps.
And the third? The colour of the third –
it is you.
My beautiful three-coloured banner!
This is offered as a complete poem by the Hungarian Janos Pilinszky. And it is a composition by Peter Jay, who, besides being Daniel Weissbort’s publisher, is also one of his translators. What does this piece amount to, if not a blank cheque on which we are invited to inscribe whatever sentiments we may readily summon concerning convicted prisoners, dead soldiers, and ‘beautiful … you’? There is no intellectual gristle at any point. And as for the shape of the utterance (for instance, its lineation), it appears to be determined by nothing but whim. What did Jay, and after him Weissbort, imagine that in such a piece Pilinszky had to say to an English-speaking audience? Or did it never occur to them to wonder?
I for my own part wonder, recalling what Clive Wilmer wrote fifteen years ago about the versions of Pilinszky by Ted Hughes that stand side by side with Peter Jay’s in Weissbort’s anthology: ‘You would never guess that any formal structure or lyrical impulse lay behind most of the poems, though Pilinszky is technically a very traditional poet.’ However we interpret ‘traditional’, there is no way to fit that term to what either Hughes or Jay make of this Hungarian. Wilmer wrote in 1977, of Hughes’s versions (done with Janos Csokits): ‘Nowhere do these translators indicate what technical means are used … This is especially damaging with major poems like “The French Prisoner” and “Frankfurt 1945” whose long stanzas crammed with documentary detail need the articulation of form that only rhyme can give: as it is, they appear shapeless and prosaic.’ Both poems occur in Weissbort’s anthology versified by Hughes as shapelessly and prosaically as ever.
Peter Jay can bluster and impute motives as he likes; the truth is he has given his imprint to a book that is unscholarly and insufferably arrogant, as well as profoundly damaging to the practice of poetry in this country.