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This item is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

Letters from Denise Riley, Peter Marsden, Malcolm Evans, Dudley Young
A Worry about Comment


Is there, across a swathe of journals now; too much comment which consists not of reviewing the poetry, but of reviewing the poet?

Reviewing which reads a poet's work mainly as further evidence of the deficiencies or virtues of a group with which s/he's 'linked' is as useful as a gossip columnist's euphemistic linking of names. Literary history or taxonomy is fine when, and if, that is what's being proffered; a history of tendencies as an exercise in literary politics may be helpfully or be shallowly written. But to assess an individual writer exhaustively via a real or imaginary social alignment is to prefer a (frequently contemptuous) sociogeography to an examination of the work. Then what is offered in the name of political revelation may end up as perversely anti-democratic, because it reads mostly in order to garner proof of a prior contention; it wraps up a package; it elides.

This feeds a paranoiac vision of a near future in which a poet's psychosocial tics are hunted out, the work toothcombed for the odd line to be hauled up as evidence of flaws in his, occasionally her, group persona by the glittering reviewer. Is it only a fantasy-driven anxiety which asks if readers want to be supplied with character references for, or assassinations of writers; at times under the guise of lists of their assumed associates, their rumoured club memberships, their regimental ties worn; and all in the name of informed reflection on the work? Any poetry will display myriad slips of personal 'weaknesses' which can easily provide ammunition of that kind, unless it's an exercise of impossibly icy control, or a work by several hands. But it's not engaging or inspiriting to read about x's poor theorisations derived from his contact with y, or y's lamentable infantilism, or speculations as to why poet z who as we know works as a hairdresser, should display, in an elderly phrase, such an aversion to conditioning mousse. In a deeply conventional manner, this genre of reviewing uses its space to exercise irritation with the imagined associations of the poet, in the name of a critical attention to the writing. Meanwhile the poetry itself leans in the corner, largely unnoticed and silent. As if writing were a reprehensive form of risk-taking, which then deserved to be viewed solely as an emanation of the person-produced-as-group member, to be cut down to a size figured as apt by commentators who don't like those team colours. Or sometimes, less commonly, to be granted an oath of personal allegiance.

If this is what gets done on paper as the stuff of all too much published criticism, then it's hardly to be distinguished from the malice exercised at any bar after any poetry reading. Is this fuelled by a conviction of being excluded by some established power from another place, and is that then shored up through, at the cost of, sustaining a pseudocol-lectivity of those inside the corral? A collectivity then fed by mechanisms like displays of contempt for those readers who aren't educated enough to follow supposedly radical work? And sometimes you still hear expressions of anxiety about the restricted social groupings of the contemporary poetry following from those who, trained in the arts of rhetorical back-stabbing, are also temperamentally able to enjoy this! Internal differences, ostensibly papered over, are slipped not just into the usual pond of gossip, but are also translated into that comment which then anchors the rumour-drift in print.

Away perhaps to get the politics back into politics could be - to remake a more formalist criticism; and to differentiate that from a rethought and so a properly political history.

So I do find it puzzling when poetry's public world is presented as a prefiguration of the good. No-one could advocate a programme of rinsing the bad feelings off the surfaces we get, to achieve some glow of amiability. But while it may be fun to be malicious in private, there are, aren't there, ideals for published criticism? So as the seepage of psychic 'weaknesses' into poetry is inevitable, is often the motor of the work anyway; and as it's also inescapable if not readily acknowledged that vanity and loneliness, fear and narcissism, just are inter-cut with the bonhomie of the public social relations of poetry - then the climate of comment now could try to interrogate its own sadism before it speeds, on to blur the two in its practice.




As an academic working in the English Studies field, with a specialism of some years' standing in the New Literatures in English, I was deeply shocked to hear that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is intending to cease funding the Commonwealth Institute after March 1996.

Quite apart from the sheer bad taste evidenced in the timing - is this the Government's idea of a centennial birthday present? - such a move strikes me as mean-spirited, short-sighted, and a blatant denial of the cultural values represented by that uniquely loose and multifarious association of states that go to make up the Commonwealth.

The Government's plans appear particularly ironic at a time when interest in the Commonwealth countries and their cultures is noticeably on the increase in such Continental countries as Germany: there is a thriving academic association for the study of the New Literatures in the German-speaking countries, many universities are beginning to include authors from the Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries in their teaching syllabi, and even the German press has started to feature the subject.

London, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world are going to be the poorer if the Commonwealth Institute has to reduce its cultural services to the community. I hereby protest in the strongest possible terms against the Government's decision.


How Insular?


On reading Michael Hambuger (PNR92), I fished out my Penguin copy of Multatuli's Max Havelaar 1987, first published by William Heinemann in 1967.

The back cover quotes D.H. Lawrence on Multatuli.


Origins Revisited


I am of course very grateful for the kind words from Raymond Tallis in his review of Origins of the Sacred (PN 95) but perplexed by the intemperate tone of his criticisms. If the book is even half as good as he says it is, who wrote the bad bits? Is there a Mr. Hyde in the house?

Violence and the brain. To say that 'violence is built into our brains' misleadingly points toward Frankenstein Country: better to say that the brain lacks violence-inhibitors, and hence culture (with its lawlines) is called for. This is a commonplace of ethological thought, nowhere seriously disputed. Paul MacLean's 'triune' theory is certainly speculative, but it has received a good deal of respectful attention in the past twenty years. As for its hardening into holy writ in my prose, p. 54 does say that 'MacLean's mechanistic approach to the brain already seems rather old-fashioned to a number of biologists'. Mr. Tallis, as the avenging angel of scientific probity sent to chasten my errancy, would seem to be driving without due care and attention. (And since this is the only instance of science-abuse that he cites …)

The triune theory, pretty though it is, in any case is not essential to my argument, which is mostly just a layman's version of Lorenz and Tinbergen: man is not'by Nature' a particularly violent animal, but he does lack an inner police force, and hence his bad dreams can get (and have got) out of hand.

Science vs mythology. Readers of PN have already heard from me on this matter, so I shall be brief. 'No real difference between science and magic' is a caricature not worth answering. Tallis correctly quotes me as saying the book attempts 'to enlist science in the cause of mythology' but then he omits the next phrase, 'and vice-versa'. Significant omission. Yes, the hero of the book is 'the shaman or myth-making poet' (as one might expect from a literary man) but the figure I propose as hero of the modern mind, around whom we (of the Two Cultures) might sink many of our differences, is Mr Charles Darwin, the shaman of science. Clearly such reconciliation is not going to happen overnight, but equally clearly, if we don't begin to try, and fairly soon, the Western mind will break in two, if it hasn't in fact already done so. The auguries at present are less than encouraging. In America the battle-lines for a nasty shootout are already being drawn: the scientists (as defenders of reason and enlightenment) are proposing to run their critics (hippies and fundamentalists and luddite post-lefties) out of town.

Feminist fellow-travelling. Golly, and I thought I was writing a kind of upmarket Iron John, for the resurgence of the male. What I do say however, is that the male will find a lot of his lost masculinity locked up in the feminine - which many feminists also believe. And yes, females (both chimp and human) are less violent than males (by Nature and by culture, testosterone and war-paint) but they are certainly no strangers to the argey-bargey: the obvious thing to do if you lack muscle-power is to make your move in the dark. What might just about be called 'feminist' is my belief that, for some time now, the Western mind has been power-mad: the dynamics of aggression and domination fascinate, whereas the virtues of gentleness (whether in the suckling mother, the gentle-man or the song of lamentation) gather little admiration. It is clearly time for a correction; and yet one needn't call this 'feminist': it is merely human.

What the book quite certainly does believe is that for such a correction to take place we must study the past, with a view not only to remembering things we have forgotten and denied, but even to retracing our steps to the road less travelled by, along which our journey may properly re-commence. I certainly think the likelihood of our doing this in large numbers is not very high, but then one never knows: the year 2000 is on the horizon, and the millenial carnival might call for a General Awakening. But even if not, some of us may plausibly sit embooked in our Protestant rooms, imagining 'fit audience though few'.

Dionysus and the Dance (or Notes Towards a General Awakening). I wouldn't like to be thought humourless, but being compared to Edith Sitwell does leave a fella feeling somewhat debagged. Still, the nettle must be grasped, and the fact freely confessed that Euripides and I do believe in dancing - for truth-telling, for humility, and for generosity - and that it is particularly appropriate for those who spend too much time under the consoling cover of words and mathematics. Pentheus refused to join the dance, and his psyche fell to pieces. Are we not comparably disordered? Music gives the lie to High Talk, and in the attempt to discover our devils we could do worse than, for instance, go back to the Sixties carnival and ask when our dancing turned towards death rather than life's renewal. Thus might we catch a glimpse of our absented selves, and begin to arrest that dismal declension through punk rock, disco-doodle, heavy metal and rap, which has left the young spaced-out in computerland. No revolution without a marching band, and no change of heart without a song and a dance; or as the poet said, 'Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.'

Myth versus History. This is a complex matter which I must summarize crudely: suppose Freud was more or less right in Totem and Taboo (pace Levi-Strauss) in proposing that we marked our departure from the African monkey world and our entry into the human with a dreadful parricide - a stomping and chomping on Father. The mythic evidence for this is moderately good, and so too, surprisingly enough, is the anthropological. The means whereby such an 'event' (yes, it must be in quotes) could have been 'wired in to the phyletic memories of man-kind' is outlined (a mite hastily, I admit) with regard to Jonathan Winson's recent theory of 'neuronal gates' whereby significant dreams are engraved in the brain's hippocampus: these gates may offer some scientific explanation for the appearance of what Jung called 'archetypes', and Adolf Bastian before him called 'the elementary ideas of mankind' (Elementargedanke) which abstractly seem to subtend the 'ethnic ideas' (Völkergedanke) that vary from culture to culture.

Tourist or Pilgrim. Tallis wonders what kind of passport I'm travelling on: do I actually believe in this thing called pneuma, or am I just another Durkheimian sociologist saying 'A belief in the sacred is good for cultural cohesion'? In a sense this question simply dismays me, for it means that my language has failed to persuade him, not only that pneuma IS WHAT IS, but even that I am no doubting Thomas; and yet I think I can see a discussable part of the difficulty here, in his objecting to my 'profoundly blasphemous' notion that we should perhaps allow the chimps a pew in the First Church of Pneuma.

What the book proposes are some 'Notes towards the Natural History of Religious Experience' (emphasis on natural); and its not-so-hidden rhetorical intent is to persuade the reader that since cultures go crazy when they lose track of (or give up on) the sacred, it might be reasonable to conclude empirically that the experience of 'sacredness' (or pneuma) is a necessary condition of full human sanity. Then in somewhat relaxed Kantian mode (almost Wordsworthian) we might say that sacredness is either a law we give to Nature, or Nature's law that is given to us, and wouldn't it be both more modest and more generous to choose the latter? And thus our elusive old friend the 'a priori synthetic' heaves into view, and what was all the fuss about? Bertrand Russell argues that our knowledge of morality is a priori. Origins proposes that so too is our kenning of that ineffable thing that calls upon us to acknowledge morality.

Tallis may be cautiously sympathetic to such an undertaking, but baulks at the possibility that this 'law' (or rather meta-law) should be given, however slenderly, to the chimps as well. I was certainly astonished, but when I looked closely at their raindance and their waterdance, my pious natural scientist was forced to admit that they more or less qualified. And isn't this a good thing? Darwin would certainly think so. Gods who withold themselves from the brute creation are decidedly dicy: Christianity has always needed its pagan ballast.

Tallis's deepest misgivings seem to centre on what he sees as my dalliance with darkness: for all my bookishness and professed concern for culture, am I not finally just another irrationalist whoring after the night? Perhaps I am, though I hope not: the day needs the night. Since I think he overrates 'explicitness' and bright lights, I would suggest he look again at the Goethe epigraph from my book that he cites perplexedly in his review: what the study of the past 3000 years importantly provides, says Goethe, is not a Wissenshafting museum-tour of the splendours of civilization, but 'acquaintance with the things of darkness'. To live without such acquaintance is to live alienated and jumpy, 'only from day to day', in a light without shadow.

Golly, I wish I'd said that. Mr. Tallis seems unconvinced of its wisdom: I suspect he may be a closet Poundian.


This item is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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