SIR: It is possible to be glad that Mary Brunton’s novel Self-Control (1811) has been republished without being able to perceive that it is, in Pat Rogers’s words (LRB, 7 August), ‘beautifully constructed’, still less that, as the blurb says, it ‘still has great significance today’. But it ought not to appear under the protection of Jane Austen. Sara Maitland’s statement in the Preface that ‘Austen was a great admirer of Self-Control’ is misleading. Jane Austen’s considered opinion is given in a letter to Cassandra of 11 October 1813. ‘I am looking over Self-Control again and my opinion is confirmed of its being an excellently-meant, elegantly-written work without anything of Nature or Probability in it. I declare I do not know whether Laura’s passage down the American river is not the most natural, possible, everyday thing she ever does.’ As this suggests, there are a great many other incidents that Jane Austen might have made game of – notably Laura’s painting The Choice of Hercules as a present for De Courcy, whom she is eventually to marry, with De Courcy as Hercules ‘while the form and countenance of Virtue were copied from the simple majesty of her own’. But it is the absurdity of Laura’s Canadian exploit that Jane Austen most delights in. She refers to it in a letter of 1814. To gain credit with someone who has found fault with Mansfield Park she will, she says, produce ‘a close imitation of Self-Control … I will improve upon it; – my Heroine shall not merely be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself, she shall cross the Atlantic in the same way and never stop till she reaches Gravesend.’
SIR: A few years ago I wrote an essay in which I attributed to Professor A.D. Hope (amongst others) the misconception that the mainly South Australian poets of the Jindyworobak movement wanted to assimilate Australian culture, and especially Australian poetry, to Aboriginal culture. I would not expect Professor Hope to have heard of my piece (‘Survival of the Jindyworobaks’, Kunapipi, 1984). However, in reconsidering the subject recently, I decided that I had done Professor Hope an injustice: it seemed that in his hostile review of books by Rex Ingamells and Ian Mudie published over forty years ago in Southerly, and certainly in his comments on the piece when he collected it in Native Companions (Sydney, 1974), he had grasped the central point of the Jindyworobak idea, even if he disagreed with it. I was therefore surprised to find Professor Hope repeating what I originally took to be a misconception in his recent review of the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (LRB, 4 September): ‘The so-called Jindyworobak movement of the Thirties was so extreme that it failed to take on. It urged Australians to cut all ties with the white man’s culture and to develop a new art and literature based on that of the Aborigines.’
The Jindyworobak movement was based on the simple idea that there was a disjunction between the culture which Europeans brought to Australia and the environment in which they found themselves. Far from being a new or ‘extreme’ idea, it was apparent to Barron Field, who claimed the honour of being the first Australian poet. In his Geographical Memoirs of New South Wales (1825), he wrote: ‘All the dearest allegories of human life are bound up in the infant and slender green of spring, the dark redundancies of summer, and the sere and yellow leaf of autumn. These are as essential to the poet as emblems as they are to the painter as picturesque objects; and the common consent and immemorial custom of poetry have made the change of seasons, and its effect upon vegetation, a part, as it were, of our very nature. I can therefore hold no fellowship with Australian foliage, but will cleave to the British oak through all the bareness of winter.’ In other words, since the seasons in Australia did not exhibit the changes of vegetation, and so on, which provide the allegories in which European poetry is steeped, it made Australian poetry, for Field at least, impossible.
The Jindyworobaks differed from Field (on this matter) only in their belief that in order to write truly Australian poetry, it was necessary to bridge the gulf between the culture they inherited from Europe, and the environment. That is why they adopted the Aboriginal word jindyworobak, which according to them meant ‘to join’. They used it to denote a joining, not of white and Aboriginal culture in Australia, but of the cleft between culture and environment in the civilisation which Europeans had brought to the country. The Aborigines came into the Jindyworobak theory only secondarily for, as Rex Ingamells saw it, theirs was a culture in harmony with the environment. They exemplified the possibility of achieving the connection suggested by the word jindyworobak, but the Jindyworobak idea did not entail the belief that white Australians could make the connection by copying the Aboriginals. The Jindyworobak poets knew they were writing in the English language for a start. The point is, rather, that the Aboriginals had a culture which embodied an ultimate respect for the land, or the environment.
This touches the nub of the argument, which is really between those who believe the Australian environment can be subdued by European culture and those who hold that Australia is the place where man’s faith in his ability to control nature runs out, like the rivers flowing off the western slopes of the Great Dividing range, which deceived early explorers into the belief that they would find water at the centre of the country. Forty years ago, when he reviewed the Jindyworobak writings, Professor Hope seemed to belong to the first category, for he urged the Jindyworobaks to pay attention to evidences of the Europeanisation of Australia – the windmills, railway trains, sheep stations, vineyards, and towns like Broken Hill and Canberra. He could point to even more evidence now, if he is still of the same mind, yet maps of Australia still mark a huge area of the western centre of ‘no significant use’, presumably the region Les Murray described in his recent poem ‘Louvres’ as
the three quarters of our continent
set aside for mystic poetry.
Surely Professor Hope does not think Australians should ignore this, and pretend that their country consists only of the coastal strip in which the majority of them live. Some of the events surrounding the mysterious Azaria Chamberlain case, particularly as it is depicted in John Bryson’s new book Evil Angels, suggest that Australians wherever they live are still influenced by an environment they do not fully understand.
The Jindyworobaks, and particularly Rex Ingamells, were sometimes inclined to state their case badly (as Professor Hope mentions in Native Companions) or to overstate it. They also wrote a lot of bad poetry and their excessive use of aboriginal words in some, but by no means all, of their poems, were easily ridiculed. Yet the fact that the most vociferous of them were poets of modest attainments should not be a reason for rejecting their diagnosis of Australian culture. It is also slightly misleading for Professor Hope to confine the whole movement to the Thirties. The Jindyworobak idea was first enunciated in the Thirties, but Rex Ingamells was active as a poet and publicist until his death in a car accident in 1955, and a Jindyworobak anthology was published every year from 1938 to 1953. Moreover, poets with roots in the Jindyworobak movement, or affiliations with it, like William Hart-Smith and Roland Robinson, are still publishing and still admired.
The Jindyworobak movement is treated seriously in Judith Wright’s Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965); and in her paper ‘Some Problems of Being an Australian Poet’, collected in Because I was invited (1975), she stated what is essentially the Jindyworobak idea in different words: ‘Somehow our landscape threatened our identity … it offered nothing to get a grip on with the instruments provided by English language and literature.’ Her poetry, as well as her discursive writings, suggest that she shared the basic Jindyworobak view of culture and environment in Australia. Since Judith Wright acknowledged the significance of the Jindyworobak movement, Les Murray has several times claimed affiliations with it, even as recently as his interview with Carol Oles, published in American Poetry Review, (March/April, 1986). One of the many remarkable qualities of Murray’s poetry is that it is evidently working out a philosophy about Australia and the rest of the world which is founded on the same idea of culture and environment which inspired the Jindyworobaks, but Murray has thought more deeply about it than its original proponents. His recent prose book The Australian Year is a splendid elaboration of the Jindyworobak idea.
It would not have been worth going on at this length about a subject remote from many of your readers were it not for the fact that at the end of a long review, full of percipient observations about Australian literature, Professor Hope uses what he suggests was the collapse of the Jindyworobak movement as a clinching argument to prove that the literature remains provincial because of its ‘failure to generate any theory of literature or criticism which has its origin in the country and is purely Australian in character’. He reinforces this argument by suggesting that Australia has yet to produce a writer who could exercise ‘a profound influence on the literary climate of the mother country’. But the essential Jindyworobak idea was not extreme, and was not forgotten. It persisted through the writing of Judith Wright, not to mention a number of other poets from her generation down to some of the youngest now writing, and it is flourishing in the work of Les Murray, who may well be the Australian writer bound to make an impact on the literary climate of the ‘mother country’, not that it matters.
Bruce Clunies Ross
SIR: I was shocked to read The Red and the Blue by Andrew Sinclair. The book, which hasn’t been reviewed in your paper, draws misleading conclusions from an account of physics in the Thirties which contains so many errors that I can point only to a small fraction. The thesis is that the free exchange of scientific information did more harm than the activities of all the spies. To establish this he has to tell us that nuclear fission was found in Cambridge in 1932 (it was discovered in Germany in 1939), and that Kapitsa was sent to Cambridge to collect information on nuclear physics (he worked on solid-state physics, and all Cambridge work in physics was openly published anyway). Sinclair has to represent the Kapitsa Club in Cambridge as pioneering the open exchange of information. In fact, this has always been a guiding principle of all academic scientists – the Kapitsa Club helped to stimulate discussions between Cambridge physicists.
The whole of Sinclair’s confused account of Cambridge in the Thirties is based on the idea that people were then thinking about an atom bomb. In fact, at the time nobody could foresee that an atomic weapon would become a possibility. This depended on the phenomenon of nuclear fission, whose discovery in 1939 came out of the blue, and had no direct connection with the Cambridge work then being done. The discovery, by Hahn and Strassman in Berlin, was stimulated by experiments done by Fermi in Rome, and explained by Lise Meitner and Frisch in Sweden. Without scientific information being freely exchanged, none of this would have been known in this country.
Should one stop scientists publishing or openly discussing their findings? The book is clearly building up to this conclusion, but shrinks from it in the end. Instead, it recommends, in the final paragraph, reducing support for subjects like nuclear physics and molecular biology, which may influence our lives and generate politically important secrets, but encouraging astrophysics, where the free flow of information is harmless. Sinclair does not seem to realise that modern astrophysics uses the results of nuclear physics. It is as impossible to select what the scientist will find as it would have been to tell explorers to find only friendly tribes. Keeping secret one’s plans for the application of scientific discoveries may make sense. The distinction between basic science which, in everybody’s interest, should be open, and military or otherwise sensitive applications which would be kept secret, is often difficult. Such problems are not helped by the kind of distorted history provided in this book.
SIR: Two correspondents in the last number of your paper take issue with me. We should ask the first, Vera Liebert, if we are to kill severely retarded children for their sakes, or for ours? And is it all right to kill the senile as well, provided they are senile enough?
Gerard Elfstrom seems to have missed the long central paragraph of my review in which I single out for reasoned criticism the mistake that James Rachels and others have made in denying moral relevance to the distinction between allowing something to happen and bringing it about. It is a grave charge against utilitarianism that it cannot accommodate this part of our everyday morality.
University of California, Los Angeles
SIR: Although I grant much of Rorty’s critique of philosophy in ‘The Contingency of Language’ (LRB, 17 April), I also think that more illuminating tasks can be assigned to philosophy in its ‘postmodern’ phase than simply spinning out new language games. In particular, Rorty seems to want to avoid saying anything systematic about how one language game supersedes another: hence the rhetorical function of ‘contingency’ in his title.
He is certainly correct to say that Hegel’s picture of reason unfolding in history remains gripping if we still think of the ‘European mind’ as having decided to accept Galileo and reject Aristotle. But Rorty’s diagnosis of this paradigm shift as really being ‘no more an act of will than a result of argument’ reveals his belief that none of the consequences of introducing a new language game can be controlled, and that, as a result, there is no reason to think that either activism or argument on behalf of a new language game will have the desired efficacy. This position gives rise to at least three serious problems.
1. Cultural revolutions are so difficult to explain, in part, because their boundaries are so poorly defined. If Rorty simply believed that the meaning of ‘Galilean Revolution’ were exhausted by the phenomenon of European scientists coming to talk like Galileo, then this process of cultural transmission could be fairly well documented and explained. Ian Hacking, a post-modern philosopher who models his work on Foucault’s, proceeds exactly in this way, with very interesting results (see The Emergence of Probability, 1975). However, people who talk of revolutions usually mean both more and less than the circulation of certain words. Much turns on which concepts are identified as distinctly ‘Galilean’ and ‘revolutionary’, as well as how instances of those concepts are identified in the discourse of the historical agents. At this point, when the phenomenon itself becomes elusive, the explanation, not surprisingly, also becomes elusive.
2. Even granting that cultural revolutions are complex to the point of being little more than a cluster of historical accidents, it does not follow that we have no control over which language games we find ourselves speaking. Indeed, we might be able to improve our control over these phenomena, say, by learning more about the micro-structure of cultural transmission. Sociologists have made great strides towards demystifying the ‘invisibility’ of scientific revolutions by showing exactly which arguments persuade whom, when clout and capital make a difference, how to identify the stage of the revolution at which one finds oneself.
3. I suspect that, like Popper, Rorty believes that interaction effects between knower and known make the planning of any major social change impossible. However, the lesson here may simply be that if one wants to introduce a new language game or institute some other complex cultural transformation, then perhaps one should not proceed by saying what one intends to do or how one intends to do it. In less Machiavellian terms, cultural revolution may be the sort of thing that can be caused only as a by-product of something else that one is explicitly trying to do (see Jon Elster, Sour Grapes, 1983). In that case, even if decisive arguments could not be made to persuade enough people to change their paradigm, decisive arguments could still be made for those people pursuing a course of action of more immediate interest which would also have a paradigm change as an indirect yet anticipated long-term consequence.
Admittedly, we are far from having the sort of knowledge that my position requires, but not as far as Rorty’s contingency thesis would suggest. And in the course of gathering that knowledge, a new role for the philosopher would emerge – that of a Platonic philosopher-king in the guise of a research grant administrator who decides between language games.
Editor, Social Epistemology, Boulder, Colorado
SIR: Alan Brien casts doubt (Letters, 18 September) on my assertion that a disproportionate number of the three-quarters of a million British servicemen killed in the First World War were from the upper classes. What, he asks, can be the authority for such a statement? I did, in fact, make it clear in my review that I was reporting one of the key findings of Jay Winter’s The Great War and the British People. This book is the first thorough statistical analysis of the demographic consequences of the war, and it furnishes a number of different proofs of the social bias of the casualty figures. By way of illustration, here are his figures, calculated from the annual reports of the British Army, for the percentages of officers and other ranks killed at various stages of the war:
If Alan Brien will agree with me that, broadly speaking, the officer corps were recruited from the upper classes, these figures alone should settle the question. The explanation is probably that junior officers set an example by leading the attack, often in a daredevil spirit.
University of Edinburgh
SIR: Your reviewer of my book on Agnon’s fiction (LRB, 4 September) contends that ‘the thesis is a bad vehicle for literary cogitation.’ This may be true of many writers, but Agnon is one of the exceptions. He is one of the most scholarly of modern writers. He did not intend his work merely to be ‘read’ but to be studied and learned almost as one studies Holy Scriptures. In one of his most revealing stories, the author-narrator stands outside a synagogue on the eve of the Day of Atonement and sees that an original work of his own is included among the scrolls in the Holy Ark. The oblique, allusive nature of Agnon’s style is ideally suited to scholarly interpretation. Most of the finest critical writing on Agnon has come from the universities. It is interesting, too, that Agnon’s closest friends and acquaintances were not his fellow writers, most of whom he despised, but scholars such as Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber and Dov Sadan. For these reasons and others it is hard to form an accurate picture of Agnon’s achievement on the basis of a single work in English translation. His works – which span six decades – are interconnected and built on one another. The meaning of one story is often elucidated by another. It is true that a scholarly approach has its limitations, but so does every approach to literature, including – as Virginia Woolf and many others have pointed out – book reviewing. One wonders what is worse: a DPhil student who knowingly focuses on a particular limited approach as it sheds new light on a complex writer, or a reviewer who, whether out of ignorance, bafflement or indifference, fails to come to grips with the substance and implications of this approach.
Department of Jewish Studies, McGill University, Toronto
SIR: Patrick Hughes is right (LRB, 24 July): ‘metaphasis’ is not in the OED. In fact, as far as I can see, it is not in any dictionary. But couldn’t it be that there is a distinction to be made between ‘metaphasis’ and ‘metathesis’? The OED defines the latter as ‘the interchange of position between sounds or letters in a word’ (my italics). An example would be Old English bridd becoming modern bird. This leaves ‘metaphasis’ free to describe what Spooner did: transpose sounds between different words, like his classic ‘our queer Dean’. True, Tony Augarde doesn’t make the distinction in The Oxford Guide to Word Games, and uses the two terms indifferently. But they can serve a useful differentiating role.
Patrick Hughes writes: There is a word in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, on the same page 1315 as ‘metathesis’, called ‘metaplasm’, as used by Quintilian. This describes the bridd-bird business. Let’s keep ‘metathesis’ for what it has been used for for three thousand years.
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