Say hello to Rodney
In the midst of his review of Celeste Olalquiaga’s book The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of Kitsch Experience (LRB, 17 February), Peter Wollen takes a sneering detour through my life and work that is so wilfully misguided that I would like to call attention to its infelicity. Wollen is perfectly welcome to his opinion of what he thinks I said, of course, and my actual views are readily available in print, so I do not wish to labour this point. The ad hominem snottiness of his tone is troubling, however, since I neither know anyone named Wollen nor recognise the critic with my name whom he takes to task. Wollen’s ‘Dave Hickey’, it would seem, is at once the putative inheritor of Clement Greenberg’s mantle (huh!) and a capitalist kitschmeister guilty by association with such bad characters as Liberace, Norman Rockwell, Jeff Koons and somebody named Thomas Kinkade, a commercial artist whom Wollen proposes as one of my ‘heroes’. He isn’t.
As to my other colleagues in this kitsch conspiracy: yes, I have written about Liberace with affection and respect and speculated on the consequences of his endeavour. No, I have never proposed him to be anything other than the shrewd entertainer that he was. Yes, I have written about Norman Rockwell with affection and respect as a gifted and knowledgeable narrative picture-maker with an enormous and sustained public vogue. I have even gone so far as to suggest that hanging one of Rockwell’s pictures in a museum gallery with the work of Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and other American artists of that period would pose no great threat to the Republic. As to Jeff Koons and Clement Greenberg, I have mentioned each of their names exactly once in thirty years of writing, on the same page of Air Guitar, citing them both as public figures whom we invest with imaginary power in order to make our attacking them seem more daring and courageous. In this tiny, limited sense, at least, I seem to have momentarily inherited Clem’s mantle, if not the picture over it.
Las Vegas, Nevada
The True Sentence
When Richard Rorty says that only a sentence can be relevant to the truth of another sentence (LRB, 16 March), one wants to reply, on behalf of the millions of human beings murdered in the 20th century, say, that what makes the sentence ‘millions of human beings were murdered in the 20th century’ true, and is therefore relevant to its truth, is not a sentence, but the (non-linguistic) fact that millions of human beings were murdered in the 20th century. One wonders if he means what he says, or knows what he is saying, especially when one remembers the remark, in his 1993 Amnesty Lecture, about the contempt we always feel for losers – Jews in the 1930s, Muslims in Bosnia.
Jesus College, Oxford
A tree is justified in its fruits
Ian Hamilton can think what he will (LRB, 2 March) about Randall Jarrell’s poems and essays, but his account of the man ought not to be let stand. Hamilton makes Jarrell sound unmannerly, oblivious, unbearably ego-driven, ‘pretty good at looking after Number One’. Jarrell, he writes, ‘was praised as one of America’s best war poets but saw no military action’: in fact, he underwent training for combat flying in early 1943, but (as he put it in a letter) ‘washed out (I got into a spin on a check ride and the chief pilot … decided I wasn’t a safe flyer)’. If Jarrell’s principal goal was protecting himself, this seems a roundabout way to do it.
What about his marriages? Jarrell ‘had with stunningly abrupt efficiency exchanged an insufficiently worshipful first wife’, Mackie, for Mary, who put her interests second to his. Randall married Mackie in 1940; his wartime letters testify to their affection. In Salzburg in 1948, Randall began a romantic friendship with the Austrian sculptor Elisabeth Eisler – a friendship he moved to cool down by the end of that year, out of deference to Mackie. Randall and Mary met (and fell in love) in 1951. Some ‘efficiency’.
Jarrell, Hamilton alleges, ‘wrote successful children’s books but had no children’. Mary brought two pre-teen stepdaughters into their marriage. Perhaps she didn’t want more children; and whose idea of ethics obliges children’s authors to procreate? Hamilton says Jarrell wrote ‘in the voices of downtrodden women but was fairly adept at downtreading them himself, or so it seems’. Hamilton doesn’t say who got trodden underfoot, unless he means Mary, whose attitude towards her late husband, Hamilton admits, remains ‘adoring’. All the published evidence suggests that Jarrell was practically the only male poet of his circle who didn’t sleep around.
Jarrell attacked with gleeful ferocity the works of art he disliked but he didn’t, as Hamilton thinks, encode insinuations about their authors. Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren’s poems, Jarrell wrote, stand to John Crowe Ransom’s as ‘two nightmares’ to ‘a daydream’. Hamilton thinks this a coded dig at ‘lovable Red Warren’, who ‘might not have been as cheerful as he seemed’. But the comparison – among poems, not people – makes sense without any inside dope: ‘lovable Red Warren’s’ early poems fairly crackled with carnage and chthonic sin, while Ransom’s were fragile, formal and pastoral. (The contrast between pleasant Warren the man and bloody, violent Warren the poet can be found in Jarrell’s letters, too.)
Hamilton sees in Jarrell a critic who couldn’t admit that he was wrong. But were Jarrell’s ‘changes of mind (on Stevens, Graves, Williams, and – somewhat – on Marianne Moore) … vehemently unashamed’? Jarrell thought Moore a superb poet, but didn’t like her war poems – a position that never changed; he loved, consistently, Book One of Williams’s Paterson but thought the later books a letdown. Jarrell attacked Stevens’s The Auroras of Autumn (1950), then praised Stevens’s earlier and later poems in an essay on the 1954 Collected. He wrote that Stevens’s
marvellous successes with his method, in its last bare anomalous stages … make me feel that the hand of the maker knows better than the eye of the observer, at least if it’s my eye. Without his excesses, his endless adaptations and exaggerations of old procedures, how could he ever have learned these unimaginable new ways of his. A tree is justified in its fruits: I began to distrust my own ways, and went back to the poems (in The Auroras of Autumn) that had seemed to me monumental wastes … I managed, after a while, to feel that I had not been as familiar with the poems, or as sympathetic to the poems, as I ought to have been. And there I stuck. Whatever is wrong with the poems or with me is as wrong as ever; what they seemed to me once, they seem to me still.
What would Hamilton rather have had him say?
New York City
What’s wrong with estate agents?
Bravo to Terry Eagleton for ‘spearing’ Stanley Fish (LRB, 2 March). As for the ‘mental decline’ of the United States, as an American I must confess not to have noticed it. This has always been a stupid country. Over a century ago, Josiah Royce was considered a great philosopher, while William James was ignored. And that was at Harvard. How stupid can you get? Our stupidity is our strength. It is, quite frankly, the reason we rule the world and probably always will. As someone said of Richard Nixon after he was finally elected President in 1968, he was too dumb to know he was licked.
Bridgehampton, New York
I thoroughly enjoyed Terry Eagleton's lambasting of Stanley Fish until I came to the bit where he equates the university with the US corporation. Now that's an insult. Professor Eagleton could on his own evidence have said in the next sentence that you can hammer your colleagues knowing that they subscribe to the principle of tolerance and believe you're entitled to say what you think. Believe me, we know a little something about that around here. By the way, will Professor Eagleton tell us what he thinks Oxford University is a microcosm of?
Terry Eagleton’s filleting of Stanley Fish is all the more welcome because Fish speaks for a growing orthodoxy on American campuses. I think Eagleton goes wrong only when he momentarily agrees with Fish that his book ‘is quite right to insist that there are views which should not be tolerated, and that free speech is thus in any absolute sense an illusion’. The liberal, Enlightenment free speech principle implied in the first amendment to the present US Constitution should be defended, even though it is often observed in the breach. Noam Chomsky is right when he says that either we believe in free speech for views we despise or we don’t believe in it at all.
If Terry Eagleton wants to slag off Stanley Fish, that’s perfectly fine with me, because Fish, like Trump, makes a lot more money than I do. But does he have to take down the entire United States in the process? Eagleton’s squeaky insults about cosmopolitanism smack of empire-envy. My wife, who is German, informed me of her first job in this country: ‘I’m answering the phone for some guy named Trump.’ I’m willing to bet that even The Donald in his worst white suit talks to more foreigners on an average day than Eagleton.
When the driver doesn’t stop
I was disappointed that Jane Binyon (LRB, 16 March), like everyone else whom I have read on the topic of rail safety, failed to address the following question: why is it not a criminal offence for a driver to pass a signal at red (and indeed for his employers to cause or permit him to do so)?
Not so Boring
That John Bayley (LRB, 17 February) doesn’t much care for Stendhal is a pity but does not, of course, disqualify him from commenting on a new translation of The Charterhouse of Parma. What does, however, disqualify him is that he does not seem to have noticed that Fabrice Del Dongo is not, in fact, the scion of an ‘ancient Piedmontese house’: he is the son of the penniless Frenchman, Lieutenant Robert, to whom the Marquise regularly reports on the boy’s progress and who later becomes that Napoleonic general whose horse is so ungently replaced by Fabrice’s own during the Battle of Waterloo. This means, among other things, that Gina Sanseverina is not Fabrice’s aunt and (unlike him) knows it, having been a wide-awake adolescent witness to the Marquise’s affair with the Lieutenant. It also means that all the social advantages Fabrice enjoys during the restoration era are based on an ironic misapprehension. This surely casts an oblique new light on many of the events in the later chapters John Bayley finds so boring, and perhaps even on the novel’s much-discussed mysterious title.
It is true that Stendhal differs from Scott and Balzac in that he does not remind us over and over again of the basic facts of his stories. He takes the efficiency of our memory for granted, and if his confidence turns out to have been misplaced, that’s too bad.
In his review of John Cooley’s Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (LRB, 2 March), Roger Hardy states: ‘an incongruous member of the alliance was Israel, which helped arm and train the Muslim militants but was more successful than others in keeping its involvement secret.’ According to Hardy, Israel, with China, America, America’s key Arab allies and Pakistan, helped to create violent Islamic groups now waging wars in many parts of the world. Most previous claims of Israeli involvement were based on the subsequently refuted statements of an Israeli called Ari Ben-Menashe. An on-line search on Israel’s involvement in Afghanistan turned up remarks from unnamed Pakistani intelligence sources and the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the pro-Soviet Afghanistan Government of the 1980s. Since none of these sources is dependable, can Hardy make known what evidence he has from reliable sources to support his claim?
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
Call that a breakfast?
I thought you’d be inundated with letters correcting the psychiatrist joke which Adam Phillips quotes from Ted Cohen’s book (LRB, 17 February). In Cohen’s version, you remember, the patient has phoned the shrink about a dream in which he has committed every sex-crime in the Freudian calendar: ‘I rang you as soon as I’d had breakfast.’ ‘What did you have?’ ‘Just coffee and toast.’ ‘You call that a breakfast?’ The point, however, is that the patient has phoned the shrink and said: ‘I dreamt you were my mother.’
While I was an undergraduate, the University Film Society showed a series of Mae West films. I think I went to all of them and in the process noticed that, while the women in the audience got all the jokes (as far as I could tell), the men got about half – that is, they did not get the ones about men. My understanding of Osgood Fielding’s line ‘Nobody’s perfect’ in Some Like It Hot has always been what I thought was the obvious one: that being a man and being imperfect go together. Yet Michael Wood (who is not that rare thing – a female contributor to the LRB) doesn’t include it among his subtle and intricate interpretations of the joke (LRB, 2 March).
How fortunate was Douglas Haig to be born in this country. In what other country could a general lose 20,000 men in a morning (1 July 1916) and be promoted only a few months later?
Can you spot the reader?
I am a 13-year-old boy from Germany. Wendy Doniger’s article about Harry Potter (LRB, 17 February) tells us that ‘Harry has been raised by his horrid Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley,’ who ‘starve Harry, and when he’s forced to spend summer holidays with them, they intercept his letters from his schoolfriends, his only link with the world of people who care for him’. So far, so good, but the Dursleys intercept letters from Hogwarts, his school: not from his schoolfriends. How could they? The little house elf Dobby intercepts these letters before the Dursleys can. (Dobby thinks there’s a plot against Harry at Hogwarts and so wants to stop him going back there. Dobby thinks that Harry won’t return if nobody writes to him.)
Straight or Curly?
I am thrilled to read of Diana Hendry's interest in my recently straightened hair (Letters, 16 March). I wish I had a simple answer to her question. The only conclusion I can come to, short of reversing my long-held belief that the idea of fairness and justice is a charmingly human contrivance in a universe that doesn't give a toss about the agony of the curly-headed, is that my hair has become straight in my fifth decade through sheer strength of character. A case of mind over follicle. I fully expect any day now to revert to the muscle tone and lithe limbs of my twenties, to say nothing of remembering names, faces and ex-lovers at the snap of a finger.
I am currently working to develop a method of passing on my new-found powers, and will announce my counselling service in these pages as soon as ever may be.
I read with interest in J. Arch Getty’s review of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s book on everyday life under Stalinism in the 1930s (LRB, 2 March) that ‘discrete channels of information reported on the popular mood.’ Clearly this worked rather better for Stalin than it did for his imitators at Millbank, hence Ken Livingstone’s appearance as an independent candidate for London mayor.
Jim Cook (Letters, 16 March) rightly pointed out a mistake in my review of Johnny Got His Gun. It is of course Terry Molloy’s decision to testify to the Crime Commission which provides the climax to On the Waterfront, not Joey Doyle’s. However, I think the film constitutes something worse than, as Cook puts it, one of Elia Kazan’s ‘wriggles around the fact that he betrayed his friends to save his career’. The implicit parallel between a brave longshoreman standing up to racket-ridden and violent union bosses and Kazan and his writer Budd Schulberg’s decision to inform on their friends so they could continue to make films was a shameless attempt by the two men to glorify their own actions.
We introduced at least one error into each of the last two issues. We persuaded Jim Cook to claim in his letter that the Hollywood Ten pleaded the Fifth (rather than the First) Amendment. And we made a mess of a sentence in Terry Eagleton’s review of The Trouble with Principle by Stanley Fish. The sentence should have read: ‘And since you do not relate to your convictions as you relate to your socks, selecting a sombre or stylish brand as the fancy takes you, you are as lumbered with them as you are with the size of your feet.’
Editor, ‘London Review’