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This item is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.Letters from Roger Poole, Agnes Wedderburn, M.J. Walker, Donald Davie, Laura Wakeling
Sir : May I, through the courtesy of your columns, be permitted to emerge like Kierkegaard's 'Silent Brother', to contribute my small part in the debate currently going on about 'The politicization of English'?
I am that mysterious reviewer of Re-Reading English referred to by Antony Easthope in his letter in PNR 40, and again anonymously referred to by the Editor of the TLS in his reply to Mr Easthope. To be referred to twice without being named is indeed a fate fit for a Kierkegaardian pseudonym, but since the matter is one of substance, may I be permitted to add my word about the status and nature of the suppressed 'first' review of Re-Reading English?
The review of Peter Widdowson's volume, which I was given to review by the TLS on 15 March 1982, basically said three things. 1) The New Accents series as a whole was helpful, intelligent and constructive, and did a lot of good informing people of basic facts and presenting basic issues. 2) This particular volume, Peter Widdowson's, might well be the most important volume in the series to date, because of the fundamental nature of the questions it poses, but that one did not need to share the political convictions of some of the contributors to see how necessary it is to answer some of those basic questions; and 3) the present state of chaos and loss of direction in 'English' being what it is, the efforts made by the Widdowson contributors to bring a fresh insight into this chaos was to be welcomed.
When I sent my review in, it was turned down, 'on stylistic grounds'. I was told on the phone that the piece was so badly written that, not only was it unprintable, but that it was also unrevisable. I was also assured on the phone that there were no 'ideological' objections to the review.
I have been writing reviews in various well-known journals for twenty years, so it came as a shock to me to learn that, this time, my luck had run out. I had written a review which, in the words of the [TLS] Editor's resumé in the penultimate issue of PNR was 'irredeemably weakly argued and badly written'. On the whole I had in the past been assured that my reviews were rather well written. And hey presto! I was suddenly not only unrevisable but irredeemable!
The review which did finally appear in the columns of the TLS (Claude Rawson's on 10 December 1982) was reported to me on all sides, before I had read it, to be so intemperate a hatchet-job that any faults in my style must surely be forgiven in the face of Claude Rawson's performance. When I finally read the review myself, I must say I agreed with them. I wrote to the Editor of the TLS to point out that 'The whole review as published is an interesting proof that, if a reviewer's ideological prejudices fit in with received opinion at the TLS, then the editor and sub-editor will actually pass and allow to be printed far worse "style" than anything an independently-minded reviewer will be allowed'. The Editor did not print this letter, nor did he reply in writing, but he rang to tell me that I was quite wrong about Rawson's style, that it was really very good, and that I should go away and read the review again. I did so, but came to the same melancholy conclusion I had come to on the first occasion.
For some months, the story of this suppressed review went the rounds, and I received several letters from persons whose judgments on style I had every reason to trust, that my review of Re-Reading English was indeed well-written (it was circulating in xerox like a Samizdat) and that, to quote one of my kind consolers, 'Clearly the TLS rejection had nothing to do with "style", and I cannot imagine that anyone would think that Rawson's display represented an improvement, stylistically or in any other way!'
'Clearly the TLS rejection had nothing to do with style'. This judgment was repeated to me many times. To find that Jeremy Treglown is prepared to put in print that my review (for everyone in this saga knows who wrote the first review) was 'irredeemably weakly argued and badly written' is, in view of its injustice, a bitter pill to swallow. So may I add a personal word about what I think the ideological status of my review actually was?
Re-Reading English was, and remains, a dangerous book. It indicted the status quo with deliberateness and showed that the very subject itself, 'English', had come into existence in a recent past at a certain ideological juncture, and that it had now lost its raison d'être. The book made the general disarray in 'English Studies' suddenly very apparent. The lack of coherent rationale, of ideas, of enthusiasm, of commitment or belief, indeed of any trace of genius in the subject, was made apparent.
The medicine prescribed for this state of affairs was largely Marxist or post-Marxist. In my review, I rejected the medicine while endorsing much of the diagnosis.
The Editors of the TLS could not, obviously, bear either the diagnosis, or the medicine, but I shrewdly suspect that, curiously enough, it was the diagnosis, rather than the medicine, that was found unacceptable. Hence there had to be found a reason for turning down the review.
Claude Rawson's review ridiculed both diagnosis and medicine. This stylistic Caliban was printed, and then supported from the sides as particularly well written.
The conclusion is too plain. Re-Reading English contains a great deal of truth. My review said as much. The TLS intervened to save the £. But alas, alas, all the problems still remain . . .
Department of English, University of Nottingham ROGER POOLE
Sir: In PNR 39, amongst all the comments made on C.H.Sisson's love of words and identification with the Saxon past, there was not even a glancing reference to the probability of the name Sisson being cognate with Sassen in Sassen-ach or Sassen-agh, Saxon-people, as they are called by the Irish and the Scots. This, of which Mr Sisson must be, though perhaps not actively, aware, cannot be separated from our understanding of his particular romantic interests.
It does not, of course, entirely explain his preoccupation with Cerne, a legendary figure whose widespread manifestations as the horned Cernunnos in Celtic legend, Dhu el Qarnayn in North African legend, Hari na gamesi in Jain legend in India (whose name probably provided the Danes with their old king-title Harri, as well as contemporary central Saharan speech with its respect title Abba Kyari or Cari), have an origin, perhaps once as a single-horned and not a two-horned progenitor, so far removed in time that to do more than to suggest an ultimate provenance would be invidious.
Stiffkey, Norfolk AGNES WEDDERBURN
Sir: May I, as an almost casually (in the Californian manner) long-'uprooted' suburban lower-middle-class European Englishman, be permitted to comment on a rather suppositious point made by Donald Davie in PNR 39 (pages 5-6)? As to the common cult of Amor, I would 'guess' that his knowledge of Catharism ('Albigensians', by the way, was merely a kind of outsiders' nickname for what were called 'heretics' by the people of the Languedoc) is derived from Denis de Rougemont's Passion and Society, which was quite unacademically current as a Faber paperback more than 20 years ago, since he makes the same mistake of attributing this same cult to the Cathars, something in fact quite foreign to that heresy, now known popularly all over Europe from Le Roy Ladurie's bestseller Montaillou. Since Mr Davie also invokes Ezra Pound, it is worth remembering what the latter wrote (circa 1915?) in 'Cavalcanti': '... the troubadors are also accused of being Manicheans, obviously because of a muddle somewhere' (Literary Essays, p. 150). Clearly, de Rougemont was not being original.
As far as the 'guess' is concerned, anyone who has read of the sometimes necessarily secret visits of the Parfaits (heretical priests) to one of their 'domus' would recognize the reference at once, which seems to me clearly identified by the word 'consolation' at the end of the relevant passage of Milosz's poem - an allusion to the 'consolamentum', a kind of verbal communion administered by the priest.
Surely the controversy about 'purity' is rather fatuous? Is C.H.Sisson's allusion to the legend of Brutus' landing at Totnes any purer than a reference to the Cathars, simple because it is related to the matière de Bretagne? Poets, not to mention TV programmes, modify the cultural matrices by which we live; but unlike the mass media they shore up the fragments whirling out of the vortex of those matrices and, restoring to them the sacred rhythms inherent, like a promise, in their profane contexts, recover their aura.
A last point, on Mr Davie's conclusion: does a poet speak more urgently to us because he reflects our fate? I could imagine, given a change in the means of distribution (a pretty large condition, I know), a community of Sisson readers emerging in California, readers who felt he spoke urgently to them of origins and orisons worth recuperating. And urgency is a matter of rhythm, not reference.
Frankfurt M. J.WALKER
Donald Davie writes: M.J. Walker guesses wrong: I have never read Denis de Rougemont's Passion and Society. Mr Walker makes his point that he is more learned about Catharists and Albigensians in mediaeval Languedoc than I am, or than I could expect readers of PNR to be when I wrote my essay with them in mind.
As for 'purity', the controversy about it is certainly 'fatuous' if like Mr Walker we give to the word a meaning quite different from the very special and limited meaning that I gave to it, quite explicitly I thought, in my essay.
When we write to or for PNR, are we trying to score points off each other, or are we trying to help each other to an understanding of poems-for instance, Milosz's in translation?
LITERATURE IN THE ARTS COUNCIL GARDEN
Sir: In your report (PNR 40) on Arts Council literature policy, you speak of the need to discriminate. You discriminate a lot yourself. Can you say that no 'important works' have in fact been written with Arts Council support? Have you seen the evidence? Have you spoken to the scores of writers who have enjoyed the modest benefits? And what of all those books with acknowledgement to the Arts Council? Are they sub-standard, do you think? Is money going to PNR and other journals, to presses and writers, to keep down the quality of literature? You seem to suggest that-is that what you mean?
Colne, Lancashire LAURA WAKELING
This item is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.