Vol. 4 No. 3 · 18 February 1982

Search by issue:

Quality Distinctions

SIR: ‘Ten years ago,’ wrote Borges in 1940, ‘any symmetry with a semblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?’ Forty years later philosophers continue to construct their own versions of Tlön and intellectuals continue to be entranced by them and to submit to them. Often they do not do so until they have first projected onto whichever rigid intellectual system is in question – whether it be Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Althusserian Marxism, or any other version of mechanical idealism – their own intellectual flexibility and vitality, their own aspirations and social hope, their own historical awareness or poetic sensitivity. The great danger of this pattern of projection, a pattern which lies at the heart of all messianic movements, is that, in succumbing to it, we give authority to the very people who may ultimately seek to ignore, denigrate or attack the qualities and values we have projected onto them. It is to the climate which results from the prolonged indulgence of such intellectual self-deception that Edmund Leach’s bullying and arrogant review of Graham Martin’s The Architecture of Experience belongs (LRB, 17 December 1981).

In the course of being disgruntled about Martin’s book Leach reaffirms the view that ‘British children who devote their energies to learning how to assemble a motor-bicycle or write computer programs may have a better grasp of reality than teachers who expect them to write essays about the plays of Shakespeare.’ From the context it is evident that Leach is putting forward a kind of epistemological axiom according to which, in an ideal world, the whole of our intellectual housekeeping would be conducted. In an expanded version his argument would run something like this. ‘Since the social and psychological reality which lies behind our everyday existence resembles the affectless and value-free structure of bicycles more than it does the affective and value-loaded substance of Shakespeare’s poetry, then taking bicycles apart and putting them together again is a more appropriate apprenticeship for the social scientist than reading literature could ever be. Indeed, mathematical and mechanical models are the basic tools of all knowledge. Anyone who expresses doubt about this self-evident truth must be either a fool or a literary critic and is certainly the mortal enemy of 20th-century rationality. The discipline of literary criticism should now be recognised for what it is: a luxury refuge for the soft-hearted and the soft-headed who prefer the soft-bedded luxury of emotional indulgence to the bare boards, cold baths and other rigours advertised in the latest prospectus of the social sciences. In a time of higher education cuts and government austerity it is to such rigours as these that we must increasingly submit ourselves; they will be even better for our souls than unemployment, although this latter fate might well, without too much loss to our intellectual culture, be meted out to literary critics. Leach does not quite say all this but this seems to be what he believes.

There are, of course, many conservative arguments which literary critics might advance against this view. But there is also a radical argument – one which is concerned not only with the vitality of criticism but with the vitality of the social sciences as well. For in their present state the social sciences are dominated by mechanical models and reductive, crypto-theological theories. As long as the arena in which social scientists operate remains cordoned-off from real history, and the unruly facts of human experience and affective behaviour are ruthlessly policed and frequently detained without trial by ideology which masquerades as methodology, the rule of such reductive theories will remain unchallenged. Let those facts emerge with their full force, however, as they do in many of the most intimate areas of human behaviour, and as they do also in poetry and literature, and all those cherished theories and elegant abstractions will soon lie in shattered fragments on the ground. Only then can the true work of theory-building begin, and theories which mystify social reality can be replaced by theories which possess genuine explanatory power.

This cannot be done until the social sciences admit fully the reality of affective behaviour. The particular value of our literary tradition to our intellectual culture lies in the manner in which it does this and thus affirms the very dimensions of human and social reality which are denied elsewhere. So long as that denial is maintained by the social sciences there will always be works of literature which contain more psychology than psychology, more history than history, and some which, in addition, contain more democracy than any parliament. One such work is King Lear. Another, from our own times, is D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel.

It is because of the enduring power of the literary imagination that it might once have been suggested that a literary education, or one which included a strong literary component, was the best training that any aspiring social scientist could have. If that view is now in doubt it is because many of those who have been entrusted with teaching literature in our universities appear not to understand the nature of that trust, and to understand still less the wealth of the literary tradition of which they have become the guardians. Edmund Leach, who returns now and then from the remotest corners of the wilderness of the social sciences to prophesy to us, should not worry so much about the decadent sensuality of literary critics. For many of them have long been clamouring to join him. See how they are leaving the oasis in droves and walking deep into the barren desert carrying their tyre-levers and their spanners in their hands. Edmund Leach should really not grow so depressed. Social anthropology will not be on its own for long. Soon, if we are not careful, literary criticism, too, will be a branch of higher bicycle mechanics and everyone can assemble bicycles together, regretting only that, in this part of the desert at least, there is no oil.

Those who, craving distinction, seek to purge themselves of ordinariness will always follow prophets into the wilderness. Into whichever wilderness its critics may wander, however, literature itself will remain, and its wealth will remain an ordinary wealth. Some works of literature have always possessed the capacity to evoke the whole range of human emotions. At the same time novelists, dramatists and poets have observed the intricacies of human character which are associated with these emotions. They have evoked the complexity of human relationships and human society, and the mystery of human motives, and have gone a long, long way towards unravelling those complexities and solving that mystery.

It is, no doubt, a mark of our own poverty that we should need to resort to literature at all in order to experience our own nature fully or meditate fruitfully upon it. But we cannot afford to conceal that poverty. For when we do that it is never very long before we begin to mistake poverty for wealth, and parade it and invest it and multiply it as though it were our only capital. That indeed is something we began to do long ago. Edmund Leach now calls upon us to extend our investment in poverty. His call should be resisted.

Richard Webster


SIR: I resisted comment on Lord Annan’s highly critical review of my book Blind Eye to Murder because I felt that, despite the appalling number of errors he made, its self-delusory bombast said more about the reviewer than the book; unintentionally he underlined my assessment of the character and motivation of British officials responsible for the administration of post-war Germany. He did himself a disservice, repeated to a larger audience on BBC Television. Now, however (Letters, 21 January), he digs an even deeper grave. Faced, not with a youthful ‘black-and-white’ television producer, but with a reputable author, he throws out accusations which are simply defamatory.

Lord Annan claims that ‘there were eight damaging innuendos and distortions of Mr Gunston in that book.’ I would like Lord Annan to name just one. But before he reaches for the book he should be aware that every fact about Mr Gunston was not only told to me by Mr Gunston himself, but cross-checked with at least four, and usually more, of the other participants. I phoned Mr Gunston at least twice, to check his account, and on the final occasion read a list of the facts which I intended to publish and asked for corrections. There were none. Before publication, Mr Gunston was proud of his role in re-establishing Hermann Abs as Germany’s foremost banker and key advisor to the West German Government. Publication of the book and serialisation in the Times provoked a public response to his hitherto unknown work which undoubtably wounded his confidence and pride. Secondly Annan writes that Herr Abs was ‘put on trial by the Americans and prosecuted by American lawyers and acquitted on all charges’. The truth is that Abs was never prosecuted, never tried and never acquitted.

Lord Annan writes about Frederic Raphael: ‘What worries me more than his inexperience of politics is his contempt for historical inquiry and the search for truth.’ How extraordinary.

The whole point of the Abs story is that the banker who regularly lied to the world bankers on Schacht’s behalf so that his master could finance German rearmament, who masterminded his bank’s enormous plunder of occupied Europe’s industry, and whose bank financed IG Farben’s infamous factory at Auschwitz, was not prosecuted as a war criminal after the war despite the politicians’ pledges. Instead it was Gunston and the British authorities in Berlin who deliberately protected Abs (and many other alleged war criminals) and welcomed his rapid re-emergence as an influential power-broker. Of course, Lord Annan was by implication party to the employment of those war criminals, except that his own role is barely perceptible. He is rarely mentioned in the thousands of files now available at the Public Records Office. Or in any written record, other than his own.

Tom Bower
London NW3

‘Gwendolen Harleth’

SIR: Readers of F.R. Leavis’s ‘Gwendolen Harleth’ (LRB, 21 January) may be interested to know that Chatto and Windus have in hand a collection of Leavis’s essays and papers which includes this piece. The collection will be published in the autumn under the title The Critic as Anti-Philosopher.

D.J. Enright
Chatto and Windus, London WC2

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences