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This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.Benedetto Croce
[This essay was originally delivered as a lecture. It is included in a collection of Montale's essays Sulla poesia (Mondadori, 1976, with whose kind permission it is printed here). It forms part of Montale's Selected Essays, to be published in 1978 by Carcanet.]
-translated by G. Singh
I CONFESS to my extreme embarrassment, since I don't know in what capacity I have been called here to speak-I who have lived for many years far from what Anatole France would call the city of books, have not had for years (through no fault of my own) even one book of Benedetto Croce's in my bookcase, and have got on with my work on a practical, earthly plane, far from the lofty spheres of philosophy and erudite criticism.
I met Croce twice at Florence before the last war, when wanting to see him and to speak to him was not altogether an easy task. I think I met him first at Bonciani Hotel and later at the house of Luigi Russo. On two other occasions I visited him at his house in Naples during the last years of his life. I don't remember what we talked about but it was certainly not about my own work. Yet the fact that I went to see him was in itself indicative; Croce remembered me twice-once when he was kind enough to send me a copy of his Aesthetica in nuce and once when through a common friend he sent me, with his kind dedication, his book La poesia, which had just been published. Nevertheless the fact is that I did not belong to the restricted circle of Croce's friends and disciples-comprising, for the most part, the official representatives of culture (i.e. academics and university people). And yet I have breathed the air of other milieux in which Croce's teaching penetrated indirectly. Thirty or forty years ago there were writers, journalists, artists and men who had absorbed different kinds of culture and who, without being `Crocians' in the strict sense of the term, had in some way felt Croce's impact. These men were different from the intellectuals of central Europe of that period; for even though they were not apparently brilliant, they distinguished themselves by virtue of a neatness and clarity of judgement, which it would have been impossible to find elsewhere in a different climate. Although they themselves did not invent anything, they were eminently endowed with good sense and looked upon Croce as a master who was by no means indulgent towards other philosophers and high-ranking university professors, although habitually kind towards an outsider who was free from any prejudice and therefore in a better position to do justice to his philosophy. Thus my first friends and masters were men who could be called Crocians, though not in any strictly conventional sense of the term.
Some were illustrious philologists, like Giorgio Pasquali, always in polemics with Croce, and yet unable to do without him; others were men of letters and men of action like Gobetti and Ragghianti. The latter was barely seventeen when he started talking to me about Croce, while I used to advise him not to neglect Chariot and the despised 'decadent' writers. Others like Emilio Cecchi and Pietro Pancrazi were very close to Croce, yet they maintained a large margin of personal independence. Still others like Alfredo Gargiulo tried to rebel against the master by proposing a categorical division of the arts on the basis of a few scattered motifs deduced in part from Winckelmann and in part perhaps from Lessing. To these names I could add that of Mario Fubini, one of the most independent Crocians, and Luigi Russo, a Crocian who was at times very orthodox and at times furiously heretical for reasons that were not always philosophical.
This is all I know of Crocianism as it affected me in my youth, but whether it had any importance in my development I am not qualified to judge. One thing, however, is certain: that when I read L'Estetica-both the original version and the one that was subsequently entitled Aesthetica in nuce-as well
as the essays on the literature of the New Italy, I was already, in a certain way, a cautious initiate; and from then on I preferred men who were 'refreshed' (as it used to be called) by Crocianism to those who professed to be its more orthodox custodians.
I began with L'Estetica almost without knowing any other work written in that field, except perhaps De Sanctis's Storia-a necessary antecedent. I cannot say that I was very surprised by it, for in that work I found Croce moving towards a concept of poetry which had already been in the air for many years. And although I had read the poets, I hadn't read the theorists of poetry. The poets I read all seemed to be agreed that poetry was something that lay outside of eloquence and rhetoric, in fact outside of all that can be regarded as hedonistic, discursive or decorative (or rather illustrative) in a poetic composition; in short, outside of what the idealist philosophers considered to be a practical, utilitarian spirit. From Coleridge through Baudelaire onwards, there was in vogue a notion of pure poetry which the early Crocian aesthetics did not explicitly contradict, although in his own practical criticism Croce didn't seem to have much use for it. He himself expounded a theory of poetic diction which identifies intuition with expression and puts philosophy and logic and even economics and morals on a higher level in the life of the spirit (although at first sight the distinction might leave us indifferent). Prima facie I could not say if that quadruple division of the human spirit struck me as satisfactory, nor if even today it doesn't seem more absurd than other divisions which make all the faculties of the spirit coexist even in the face of what common sense suggests. Tell a man in the street who has not been to university that a man can be both a great artist and, at the same time, an immoral man, or even a criminal. The man in the street will have no difficulty in recognizing that a given individual may embody two, three or four people, all different from each other. Generally speaking, the fact that the poetic faculty in a man is different from other faculties proves that it is neither vain nor foolish to inquire what place poetry occupies in the sphere of the human spirit. In this sense Croce was a great liberator. At a time when erudite positivism and scientism used to look for documentary evidence and raw material in the work of art in order to conduct historical and philological research into its form considered as a kind of shell from which one had to extract a 'content' to be studied as an object which can be evaluated according to moral and psychological criteria-a tendency scarcely opposed by aestheticizing and even superhuman spiritualism-Croce restored to the poetic faculty its dignity and autonomy. Hence from Lombroso, Fogazzaro and D'Annunzio one went back, through the Neapolitan school of idealism, to the truths intuited by Vico.
I don't know when I first heard of objections raised against Croce's Estetica as a linguistic science. These objections can be summed up as follows: if every cognitive act is intuition, then how can artistic intuition be distinguished from the other types? One might say 'by means of taste', i.e. by means of the empirical faculty. In that case is there any point in formulating the theory of philosophical aesthetics? I don't remember what Croce objected to; but for my own part I can't conceive of an aesthetic system which, in its application, leaves taste out of consideration. Nor could Croce himself imagine such a system, if he wrote that 'the limits of expression-cum-intuition which are called art as distinguished from the limits of what is commonly called non-art, are empirical; it is impossible to define them. The difference is therefore all quantitative and hence, as far as philosophy is concerned, irrelevant; since philosophy is scientia qualitatum.'
Croce worked on his Estetica a long time. We can follow the various stages of the development of his concept of art as immediate intuition-expression to his concept of lyricism which was defined as a totality of artistic expression. These stages are outlined in his most important works such as Sul carattere lirico dell'arte (1906), Brevario di estetica (1912), Il carattere di totalità dell'espressione artistica (1917), L'Arte come creazione e la creazione come fare (1918), Aesthetica in nuce (1929), La poesia (1936). In these works Croce dug deeper into his own thought than ever before, but at the same time he also laid himself open to other charges. If in every form of spiritual activity other forms of the spirit are also co-present or implicit, how then can one base aesthetics on an intuition that is both immediate and alogical? It is true that formal synthesis suspends judgement as to the existence of its content, but if content cannot be left out of consideration since it enriches art (and Croce at his maturest never doubted this), then to what extent can aesthetics based on pure intuition be regarded as adequate? After all no one has ever doubted that art is also intuition; but Croce's originality, in his early aesthetics, lay precisely in his making art coincide with a pristine intuition from which he later seemed to dissociate himself. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that in its initial stages Croce's aesthetic thought was not tied to any rigid idealistic system of the spiritual faculties, whereas later on he had to come to terms with his own system. Taste no longer sufficed as a means of judgement, even though I don't know to what extent taste, nurtured by a long contact with works of art in their concrete historical development, can be considered empirical and alogical. In fact, many Crocians, in defiance of Croce's own system, went in for taste. Nevertheless the inner logic of the idealistic system did not concede anything to the empirical system, and taste, however necessary-since poetry 'can be explained only through poetry that lives in him who is receptive to it'-could not but be regarded as something marginal or extraneous to the system. Given a philosophy that admitted of a material externalization of intuition, the realization of a work in the wake of intuition would have led to an inadmissible dualism in Croce's system. But for Croce-and this is the indispensable foundation of his thought the moment it gets formulated in an idealistic sense-the intuitive act is purely ideal and the work of art is already perfect in it. The picture that has been painted, the poem that has been written on paper, the music that has been translated into notes are all manifestations of the ideal work and form part of the communication of the work, not of its creation. This is the stumbling block that Croce did not seem to be aware of, for his experience of art was always limited to verbal art. Nevertheless it was a serious stumbling block for one who wished to be faithful to Croce's thought in the field of the other arts. And yet it is an integral part of the Crocian system, for to admit that the subject-matter of art could in some way react to an ideal intuition and modify it would be tantamount to casting doubt on the very principle of the fundamental unity of all the arts and would invalidate the basic principle of the ideal nature of art.
The result was what we all know. Croce's criticism, originating as it did from a principle of absolute formalism, could not come to terms with the idea of form conceived as subject matter and hence it had to operate in conformity with the view of the content and harmony implicit in it as well as in conformity with the concept of the relationship between the content and the principal motif. To a certain extent Croce's system made him distrust art that was too lyrical or too impassioned, insofar as it was too compromised by the presence of an intractable and ever changing subject-matter. That is why Croce was always at home with writers who were completely 'anti-lyrical', and wrote in perfect accordance with the central motif and with a complete single-mindedness. Artists like Ariosto and Verga seemed to suit Croce's ideal perfectly because everything they wrote embodies their art and personality in its totality. Not that these artists are lacking in a structure or a 'mechanism' which dictates their poetry; but simply that fantasy gets the better of abstract imagination in them and renders innocuous a content that is already free from any problems. One can certainly study their language, but this is part of the business of stylistic criticism which deals with art as it has been communicated, with the object achieved, and not with the ideal work. But the aesthetic critic is not obliged to do this: it is enough for him to have ascertained and pinpointed the poetry that existed in each one of these artists and that permeates, like a basic tone, the whole fabric of their work. Nor would the aesthetic critic be able to delude himself that there is a linking corridor or a conducting thread between the various artists. If poetic intuition is individual it cannot be the subject-matter of history, nor can it provide a history of art or of poetry except in a monographic sense, reliving and pinpointing, case by case, the intuitive operation of every single poet. But this operation cannot be applied to complex situations and hence the many histories of art and poetry (including that by De Sanctis) are so many histories of a particular period of the human spirit, of customs, of literary and cultural traditions rather than histories of poetry. In conclusion, so far as the theoretic aspect of aesthetics is concerned, one can say that the criterion of the fundamental unity of the intuitive and aesthetic act cannot obviously be upheld without discarding the prejudice of the so-called literary genres, which, nevertheless, may be considered as so many empirical aspects of the development of the art of poetry.
That is why what we have is a rigorously formal system of aesthetics which is, at the same time, equally rigorous in maintaining the ideal character of the form. This accounts for the almost total lack in Croce's criticism of any technical order, any linguistic analysis, or any predilection for the particular or the fragmentary which can be isolated and enjoyed for its own sake. Thus conceived, poetry achieves the harmony of its contents; that is to say, a kind of purity which is synonymous with a total absorption of the ideological matter (whether in terms of a more or less indiscriminate state of mind or in terms of the substance of thought) in the process of non-judging and suspended contemplation called poetic imagination. It is a kind of purity which gradually came to permeate Croce's thought, taste and character and carried him far away from the modern post-romantic and non-rational concept of pure poetry. Such is, in brief, the synthesis of Croce's aesthetic philosophy which is implicitly or explicitly present in the wide range of his literary criticism dealing with Greek and Latin writers, Arcadia, the whole of Italian literature of the nineteenth century as well as some foreign authors in that century, besides poets like Dante, Ariosto, Shakespeare, Corneille and Goethe and Italian literature of the Renaissance and the Baroque period.
In Croce's aesthetics and his criticism of more modern literature, there is no contradiction in his denying the possibility of a history of poetry on the one hand and his engaging himself in such intense critical and historical activity on the other. For he did not regard poetic activity as a bolt from the blue, or a miracle that happens in the void. He placed poetry alongside literature that has a positive character of its own, although belonging to a different order. It is this which allows the historian to outline the framework within which the true poetic fancy, at once alogical and ahistorical, takes flight. It is possible to write a history of literature because literature belongs to the philosophical category, even though it probably occupies a lower place in that category, just as criticism properly so called-that is, criticism which is to be found not merely in critical manuals or aesthetic treatises, but also in the thoughts, reflections and non-poetic writings of poets like Flaubert and Baudelaire-is essentially philosophical.
Thus Croce's criticism is based on a rigid theory, even though some might think that there is a contradiction in Croce between the primitive concept of art as immediate lyricism and the more sophisticated concept of art as totality and universality. But noble sentiments often produce bad literature and the most correct theories are not enough to make one a good critic. Saint-Beuve, who did not have any philosophy of art, was a good critic; whereas some of Croce's followers, who were incapable of making his theory live or even of forgetting it, were mediocre. Croce, for his own part, was less Crocian than many of his followers, and this for the simple reason that he almost never let his theoretical ideas dominate his taste and temperament.
Moreover, he was not afraid of contradicting himself as, for instance, in the case of Manzoni. The art of I Promessi Sposi seemed to him weighed down by a moralistic intent, until he realized and openly confessed his error, although the error was an integral part of his system and hence not really a theoretical error. Moreover, we do not know if in his last years he would have rewritten that essay of his on Dante which is based on such a rigid distinction between poetry and structure . . . For in his most important criticial analysis there is almost no trace of that material or rather topical distinction between poetry and non-poetry; and this because he came to see for himself that such a distinction was untenable. On the other hand, in his essay on Pascoli, which I consider to be substantially correct, there are some traces of this theoretical distinction. Pascoli's was a temperament completely opposed to Croce's, insofar as it was effeminate, unaware of its limits, and completely devoid of that firmness of character and inner security which even a poet like Baudelaire (father of so many subsequent decadents) certainly possessed. Croce could not but have been aware of this. But as a result of this awareness it was not necessary for him to differentiate with such insistence between the beautiful and the ugly, which are after all present in every poet, even in Baudelaire . . . It was also Croce's temperament which enabled him to give us, in a few pages, a wonderful portrait of Foscolo or to advance the reservations he does concerning Leopardi-reservations which in fact apply to the whole of our classical poetry including that of Carducci (not to mention Tommaseo) and even to the poetry of the early twentieth century.
But what did Croce require of a poet? I would say character; character either in the form of fidelity to one's own themes, or in the form of immunity from any pressures other than those of the poetry itself; either character as a pure faculty that justifies the whole man, even though the poet might seem to be only half a man (as is the case with Ariosto), or character as an impure faculty which always asserts itself whenever a man emerges from poetry, does not succumb to the forces of evil and meets his destiny unflinchingly. One might say that Croce liked those poets whom he would have liked as men had he met them; whether they be Olympian and demoniacal like Goethe or Catholic and reactionary like Balzac, the marvellous Nievo or the robust and sanguine Carducci, the last standard-bearer of a poetry that aimed at re-moulding man.
It has been said that by postulating the principle of art as totality, and not as a primordial lyricism, Croce ran the risk of leaning towards that theory of unifying sympathy (Einfühlung) for which he had always had a weak spot. This gift of identification (fatally tied up, as it was, with taste and character) was the basis of Croce's critical judgements on poets and writers, and constitutes the strongest and most durable aspect of his criticism. At times Croce finds it impossible to achieve this identification, as for instance in the case of Kleist, that strange and perfectly translatable poet who carries the objectification of his world to a point of apparent frigidity and gratuitousness (and certainly Kleist the man, incapable as he was of harmonizing his dissensions, must have been antipathetic to Croce); or as in the case of Pirandello who must have seemed to Croce to belong to the class of the philosophizing poetasters which was in fact partly true. Instead, Croce was in sympathy with some religious poets like Hopkins, because religious feeling as a subject-matter in art was always promptly recognized by him, whereas his essay included in Discorsi di varia filosofia (Vol. 1) shows little understanding of Hölderlin's poetry.
I have listed the cases that I remember, and perhaps they are not the most significant. But what really matters is that Croce managed to write the history of poetry and brought to bear on this task a passionate and whole-hearted confidence in the human spirit. He was the last of the great critics who had faith in life and who considered man as the only true and concrete expression of universal life.
But now that he is no more-and times had no doubt changed even before he died-we must compare the age when he started writing with the age in which we live; and we must ask ourselves if the hostile forces which he tried to combat are still around us under different names. It is here that my difficulties increase. For Croce was not just an aesthetician and a literary critic, and my account of him, which is purposely not exhaustive, touches only on a very small part of his legacy. In an early essay of his entitled `Di un carattere della più recente letteratura italiana' (1907), he lists the various attitudes and vices of the time: positivism, a legitimate theory insofar as it was opposed to the fatuities of a facile philosophy of nature and thus revindicated the autonomy of the exact sciences; verism, which had a mistaken programme but which was honest in that it was based on the study of man; an erudite form of positivism represented by historiography which proposed to study human history without considering human ideals. While summing up in his charge of insincerity the defects of the major poets of his time, Croce went on to analyse the greatest fault of the early twentieth century: namely, its having abandoned the principle of the power of thought to engage and dominate the whole of reality; which really amounts to the abandonment of thought and spirituality and to going backwards, in spite of what Kant, Fichte and Hegel had achieved in the realm of thought.
And as far as philosophy is concerned, the path backwards seems to continue irretrievably. Absolute empiricism, the analysis of language, efforts in the direction of a resurgent religious spiritualism, Marxist positivism and, till the other day, existentialism in its dual acceptation (atheistic and religious) and the contemporary theory of phenomenology which seems ready to accept any form of reality, including the one most likely to advance the social and academic career of philosophers-such are the preoccupations of our time. Thus the dangers of yesterday still exist in an aggravated form today, although under different names; and their effect on the general condition of art is obvious to all. It is no longer a question of insincerity but of a proud proclamation of universal ignorance. It is said that man is undergoing a crisis because society is undergoing a crisis; that metaphysics is dead and buried and that its place has been taken over by science; that the individual exists only in relation to other people (which is true), but since the emphasis always falls on the other people, the individual always turns out to be excusable, innocent and irresponsible. In the early stages of his career Croce too believed this, but not later on.
Such is the prevalent spiritual climate which presents different faces, according as to whether one has faith in the conquest of science (that science which idealism had, unfortunately, rejected) or considers life as tragic solitude, and industrial progress as the transformation of man into a machine which he has created, but which is destined to devour him. Agnosticism, confidence or the lack of it in the less responsible part of man, the break-down of language to the point of reducing it to sign language, the development of civilization in purely visual or spectacular terms, art regarded as a kind of drug or as a product for immediate consumption and preferably to be replaced by good surrogates-this is what our age stands for and indeed embodies. In this climate of dismal vitalism, of passive confidence or gloomy distrust in a science that is ignorant of its own aims and that consigns man's destiny to the realm of the probable and not to that of certitude, it is hard to imagine what sort of future idealistic philosophy can have. I do not know, and even if I did it would not be appropriate for me to say so on this occasion. But as far as a possible philosophy of art is concerned-which is only one aspect of Croce's thought-the problem is to see to what extent the aesthetic philosophy expounded by Croce is valid in the context of a world and a history that are no longer idealistic. Is it possible to believe in the autonomy of art even though one is convinced that the subject-matter has no dialectic relationship with man, and that it stands before us as an obstacle which is different from us? I for my part think that it is possible, since common sense sanctions that autonomy and everyone knows that a certain quid differentiates an arid moral tract from a truly poetic composition which is inspired by the same ethical principles.
Some years ago there was a curious debate in England. T. S. Eliot asked how one could admire the work of a poet (in this case Goethe) whose ideas and view of life one did not accept. The problem was considered insoluble. And yet the problem had already been solved by Marx, an admirer of Greek tragedy which was rooted in a social framework and based on a concept of the world which was certainly not his own. Even Nietzsche did not reject Wagner's art when he declared that Die Meistersinger constituted an outrage against civilization; nor did he pose such a problem because he recognized that there is no necessary cause and effect relationship between aesthetic admiration and critical consent. In any case it would be impossible to pose such a problem in Italy because Italy has had Croce.
Another vital, though somewhat controversial, point is that of the unity of the arts. There is a profound, subterranean unity verified by the reciprocal influences of the various arts, by their growing interdependence, and by the fact that in their past history the same schools, same problems, and same tendencies have been operative in various arts, often contemporaneously and sometimes in successive epochs. Thus without classical poetry there would not have been centuries of great sculpture, without romantic poetry we would not have had German symphonies, without architecture polyphony would not have made any sense, without the painting of the late nineteenth century the subsequent poetic and musical impressionism would have been incomprehensible, and without the expressionism of the poets the musical expressionism of the Viennese school would not have been possible. Is there then a thread that keeps the arts united? In Italy this thread is always present in the work of the best critics because of Croce; outside Italy, there is a belief in the myth of particular and independent aesthetics, ad hoc, but the sense of the human and universal value of art has disappeared. Forms are studied abstractly, almost as if they had an autonomous life of their own; similarly the abstract psychological motifs underlying them are studied and there is a failure to realize that art as a formal 'piece', history as an imaginary museum, painting as the radiography of psychosis, are ancillary to the end of art: the forms and even the motifs of art can be created by the culture industry, but the kind of art which is destined to endure is no longer relished by unthinking mankind.
There is still another extremely difficult, yet fundamental point. I do not think that either written poetry, or a painted picture or the music marked on the stave is the duplicate of an ideal image that pre-exists in the artist's mind. The artist is what he is only insofar as he creates an object in which he recognizes himself and of which he had no exact notion before he created it. This, however, does not mean that art and technique coincide with each other or that the analysis of the artist's technical procedure is all that literary criticism is about. For the fact is that although the technical quality is present in every work of art, it is not art itself nor is it necessarily conducive to it. Technical quality is something that is not only perfectly imitable, but also traceable in the various stages of its progress; no reasonable person, however, at least in Italy, believes in the progress of art. And this, too, we owe to Croce.
But then can one extrapolate these three points from such a complex system as the Crocian system of the philosophy of the spirit? Perhaps one should consider them in relation to the other sides of his philosophy as a historian and as a logician who carried the immanentist concept of life to the verge of a terrestrial religiousness which sees man as engaged in a perpetual struggle to realize his liberty and to overcome the dark forces of a vitality which the later Croce sees as a primitive spring of life, but also as an evil to be combated and to be rooted out. I do not know what the concept of art will be tomorrow, nor do I know if art as it has been understood during all these centuries as being a creation of forms that express individual thoughts and sentiments, will last. For me Tommaso Ceva's notion of poetry as a dream dreamt in the light of reason is still valid. And I do not think that Croce would have found Ceva substantially wrong, even though for Croce reason meant logic, whereas for Bettinelli it doubtlessly meant something quite different. The fact is that in his major writings Croce not only displayed the pure intuition of a critic, but also the fullness and complexity of his spirit as well as his profound conviction that in the artist one must look for the whole man. Moreover, Croce had a very lofty notion of art, the loftiest to be found in the history of thought in modern Italy. Of course, it is true that in his complex system the poet might appear to be a man confined to the intuitive stage of the spirit and endowed with a grace that in virtue of its own nature feels itself imbued with the whole of life, since there is no distinction which does not involve all other facets of the human spirit.
However, when confronted with a creative writer for whom he felt an instinctive sympathy (not only Goethe, but also Ibsen, Carducci and Maupassant) Croce's admiration was such that it conveyed the sense of his whole-hearted celebration of art as the supreme value in life and, indeed, its very raison d'être. That is why Croce made such an impact in Italy in all fields of art and scholarship. Even today, when times have changed, and a new age has started which is partly an age of renovation and partly of blind rejection of our inherited culture (which has always been a great humanistic culture), if there is still anyone in Italy who does not consider art as a mere 'gesture' of throwing colours on a canvas or words on a page, or a game of puzzles consisting of algebraic combinations of notes, this too, although one may not be completely aware of it, is the fruit of Croce's teaching. To say this is to say a great deal; and yet it is merely a part (and perhaps not the most important part) of the prodigious activity of a philosopher who was also a great writer-certainly the last great writer in Italy-and who believed in man and in his capacity to fight for and win his liberty in and through his faith . . . Thus Croce is alive for us not only because of his aesthetic thought and his literary criticism, but also for his defence of the liberty and responsibility of man-a defence on the part of one who regarded man as the transmitting antennae of the Spirit and who saw history as an unalterable process of evolution not from evil to good, but from good to better. Perhaps Croce, who did most to help us in the most difficult years of our life, contradicts his own early principles, but what matters above all is his faith . . . which was like that of the Stoics. It is this, more than anything else, which brings Croce nearer to us and makes us feel his presence still. For now that the dance of the irrational and the instinctive has become so frenetic, Croce's reproof against the relatively innocuous `decadentism' of sixty years ago strikes us as almost ludicrous. But his faith in man, his belief that the forces of reason cannot go under in final defeat, will never lose its validity or its appeal.
This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.