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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.

A Reply
It is extraordinarily difficult to respond to the welter of remarks that Simon Curtis makes. I shall try to remove some of the more troublesome misunderstandings before attempting to bring his polemic to some sort of point.

It is easy to list the names of poets, and to propose alternative 'humanisms'; but since I took some care to specify exactly who and what I was talking about, such a strategy will not lead to a refutation of my arguments. Of course I recognize that 'the years 1910-1920' were a 'complex' period; but to cite the names of critically acknowledged writers again misses my point: the disputes of that period have settled, leaving a measure of agreement (though I would indeed prefer not to speak of Robert Bridges); Dr Curtis and I, however, are in the middle of affairs, trying to make sense of them. It is our business to assess, in Dr Curtis's appalling phrase, 'the rate of quality' of our time.

I do not disagree with Simon Curtis's analyses of what Jonathan Raban or Ian Hamilton have to say, or what Michael Fried has written; it is just that I cannot take them as seriously, as individuals, as he does. For me, such writing is symptomatic. That is why I tried to make more general and inclusive points about the significance of such writers. It is the validity of these general arguments-indeed, the legitimacy of making them at all-to which Dr Curtis objects. I am convinced that he does not understand the kind of argument I am conducting. To understand our own time, we have to order our experience of it. Dr Curtis has his ordering (around the word 'individual'), which I regard as superficial and inadequate; and I have mine.

An important difference between us is in our understanding of the relations of culture. For him, there exist accidental collocations of individual writers, all producing at a certain 'rate' those works which will 'succeed', or not. In poetry there are a mass of 'individual accents' which nevertheless-and surely this is a difficulty?-constitute a 'manifold' or pluralistic culture. My 'strategy of oppositions', however, is neither 'helpful' nor 'stimulating' (though Dr Curtis seems sufficiently provoked). How, then, is one to account for the demarcations between what the New Review prints, and what it does not? Dr Curtis would perhaps explain that it is because Ian Hamilton is a bad editor who happens to have gained control of a magazine. But why has be been given control? Why should be receive Arts Council funding-now running at £25,000 a year- and not another editor or critic? 'Individualism' is an insufficient explanation. I tried to account for this situation by showing that there is a consistency of outlook in the writers whom the New Review took seriously; and that this consistency lay in a form of liberal humanism existing in a number of writers' work prior to any question of the 'quality of expression'.

Dr Curtis has difficulty with this kind of argument (and I write this reply because I do not think he is alone); for he does not contest my evidence to show how a number of writers defined and defended their own position by rejecting a supposed threat from the values of the 'counter-culture'. When a number of writers begin to say the same thing, as a means of self-legitimation, that is significant and it does not matter much whether they are saying it well or badly. In such a situation it is the critic's legitimate business to examine this collective viewpoint, and its implications for the control of forces in literary culture. Since Dr Curtis starts from the assumption that all writers are isolated a-social individuals, each speaking with a voice to which we must 'listen' with great attention, he will not be in the best position to notice that they may all be saying the same thing (though doing so at a satisfactory 'rate'-observe the assimilation to the values of industrial production).

My argument receives support from an extremely amusing article in Bananas No.3, in which pronouncements by Margaret Drabble, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, Pamela Hansford Johnson, John Wain, Anthony Thwaite and others were placed together without identification. It was almost impossible to tell them apart. The same attitudes, the same narrow provincialism, the same 'forthright' tones struck again and again-'style' as the negation of individualism!

Dr Curtis thinks that the variety he finds-or hears-in contemporary poetry 'might be something to do with an "Open Society" '. This phrase I take to refer to parliamentary democracy and its associated institutions. If such 'open' conditions encourage a situation in which it is impossible to distinguish between the attitudes, and the prose' mannerisms, of the dominant post-war English writers, how can it be argued that the necessary consequence of existing political arrangements is a healthy 'individualism'? For if Dr Curtis's individuals really existed, he need not have introduced his 'Open Society' argument: either they are true individuals, or their work and thought is in some degree culturally and politically determined -he cannot have it both ways. But of course the notion of 'individualism', manifesting itself in criticism as an injunction to 'listen' to 'individual accents' itself performs a limiting and controlling function; such language is the justification and rationalization (not the substance) of the cultural conditions endured in an 'Open Society'.

Simon Curtis's avoidance of any direct confrontation with the political implications of my argument is evidence, not only of his own incapacity, but also (despite his protests) of his own acceptance of the terms under which the New Reviewis edited. He is an exponent of criticism through the auditory nerve: the passive consumer of a certain 'rate' of production, for whom whatever is produced has a certain legitimacy by virtue of its very existence. An alternative distinction will place the critic in a more active position: there are writers who justify the world that exists, and those who stand against it (but not necessarily by making overt political statements in their work). Those are the writers who will engage our full critical faculties ('listening' included).

Wyndham Lewis, despite the failure of his political sense in the 1930s, is one of them. Most of those promoted by the New Review are not.-Alan Munton

This item is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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