Vol. 20 No. 16 · 20 August 1998

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The People’s Mouth

As I read Colm Tóibín’s enthralling piece about the history of the Great Hunger in Ireland (LRB, 30 July), and noted his wish for the ‘living, speaking voice’ and ‘the perspective of those who were not administrators or politicians or landlords’, I began to think that at any moment he would make use of Thomas Gallagher’s Paddy’s Lament: Ireland 1846-47, which teems with such material. Gallagher, an American writer whose father had emigrated from County Roscommon, was able to get close to the Famine itself and the ways in which people suffered, retaliated and escaped, because he used, in addition to a great many contemporary newspapers and official records, the 2600 pages of transcribed interviews, conducted in 1955, with people ‘old enough to remember their parents’ stories of the famine’. These are stored in the Irish Folklore Department at University College, Dublin.

From them, via Gallagher, we can learn how the first smell of the potato rot, like ‘the bilge water of a ship’, stole over the countryside and made the dogs howl. (I heard on Barra how the same thing happened in the same year in the Scottish Hebrides.) The fog that was common during that damp July is still called the ‘potato fog’. Starvation soon followed, people began to fight for turnip cuttings, pick up fish offal with their toes in fish markets, and gather nettles from graveyards to make broth. They died exhausted, their ‘entire alimentary canals, from mouth to anus … completely empty’, or their intestines destroyed by gangrene so that their ‘stools would resemble water in which raw meat had been washed’.

People expressed their despair in hopeless sayings: ‘There will be nothing for us but to lie down and die.’ ‘If the English desert us now, God in His glory they’ll never see.’ ‘I swear by the broken heart my mother died of, the hand of God is in this. It’s a curse that has fallen on the land.’ Jeremiah Hegarty of Galway died in a ditch of starvation because, worried that his family would be evicted, he had refrained from eating the barley earmarked to pay the rent. Many others were less well behaved and stole sheep, leaving behind the head and the bell and skinning the carcass on a flat tombstone before taking the flesh back to be cooked in a hiding-place. The farmers retaliated by building pits full of spikes: the thief fell in, was held there by his pierced feet and then clubbed to death. So people were reduced to eating rats, dogs, the carcasses of diseased cattle and ‘the joints of starved horses’.

It was the death of a whole culture. The quietness of the stricken countryside came to be called ‘the famine silence’. Sports and pastimes ‘disappeared’, said an old woman. ‘Poetry, music and dancing stopped. They lost and forgot them all … The Famine killed everything.’ The starving tenants who could not pay their rent were evicted, their houses ‘tumbled’ – torn down with crowbars and ropes. One woman demolished her own house in the belief that she would be paid five shillings for the work – she did not get it.

Gallagher’s work should be seen as central to the history of the Hunger. In Brecht’s phrase, it ‘watches the people’s mouth’, giving primacy to what people themselves said as they were caught up in history’s terrible wave. When Tóibín writes that ‘there has not been much attempt’ to catch their ‘living, speaking voice’, he is sliding uncomfortably close to the hist or ian of the Highland Clearances, J.M Bumsted, who wrote in The People’s Clearance (1982) that it was difficult to get close to the cleared people because they largely lacked ‘the skills of writing and the ability of fluent self-expression’. It was my disbelief of this that led me to travel through Scotland and eastern Canada, ‘watching the people’s mouth’ and gleaning the hundreds of stories of clearance and famine that I recorded in On the Crofters’ Trail. If only Scotland had had done the work of those 22 interviewers who wrote down the oral record of the Irish events!

David Craig

An Irish friend, on realising how ignorant I was about Irish history, once lent me Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger. This book shocked me and has haunted me ever since. It describes how an English woman, a representative of the Methodist Church sent to find out the facts, came to Skibbereen. In one part of the town she found a market trading in an apparently normal way but, as she went into the poorer parts, she became aware of the emptiness of the streets and of an odd silence. When she looked through the door of an apparently empty house she found a family dead from starvation, and then she found others. I am still amazed and horrified that the wealthiest nation in the world should have allowed such a disaster to strike its own – proclaimed – citizens. Perhaps the reason for the Great Silence is stupefaction at this realisation.

Joseph Nuttgens
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire


Any guide-book would have told Benedict Anderson (LRB, 18 June) that the Lao festival of Songkran is a solar, not a lunar, festival. (It’s the only one in an otherwise lunar calendar.) The better ones also point out that the beauty contest to choose Miss Songkran (Anderson’s Miss Luang Prabang) is the oldest element of the festival, dating back to prehistoric fertility rites. It therefore follows that the contest is not ‘a commercial innovation of the late Sixties monarchy’. Grand father Nyeu and Grand mother Nyeu are indeed the original ancestors of the aboriginal peoples of the Mekong region and thus very ancient indeed, but they usually have their own festival and have nothing to do with either Songkran or fertility rites. As for the ‘corrupt, disliked traffic police’ of ‘many urban parts of Thailand … who, for the duration of Songkran, have to smile grimly as they are doused by all and sundry’, I have to say that in 34 Songkrans, I have seen lots of doused Thai traffic police but not one grim smile among them.

Tim Sharp
Chiang Mai, Thailand


Michael Dobson claims (LRB, 16 July) that I have no sense of Shakespeare’s ironic perspective on the marvellous tradition with which he was involved: I am, he says, ‘alarmingly deaf to Shakespeare’s wry sense of the corniness of some of his own dabblings in this area’. Here, as in several places in the review, I wondered whether Dobson finished my book. All of the Shakespeare chapters, and especially the one on The Tempest, highlight Shakespeare’s use and scrutiny of the marvellous: ‘Shakespeare interrogates both sides of the issue by at once satirising and championing the power of wonder,’ I wrote.

To recognise that I have some sense of Shakespeare’s self-critical, self-mocking tactics would make it very difficult for Dobson to sustain the central distortion of the review: that mine is an overly pious, ‘New Age’, ‘sacramental Shakespeare … a purveyor of sacred mysteries’. To write about Shakespearean wonder, for Dobson, is almost inevitably to disfigure ‘a remarkably secular body of plays’. My Shakespeare is, in fact, a very secular one; the book claims that the figure of wonder – and what Shakespeare does with it – inevitably resists both Christian and critical pieties.

Dobson claims that, in order to be faithful to what he sees as the truth about Early Modern wonder, I should have paid more attention to material, popular cultural and political forms of wonder. He laments the absence of analyses of catchpennies, broadsides and pamphlets. These are not the focus of my book, though I admit in my Preface that there is very interesting work to be done in this area. I also spend several pages in Chapter 3 on wonder books and prodigy pamphets, which were hardly the stuff of an élite culture. Recognising the way in which wonder could be manipulated by those in power, I explored the political uses of the marvellous in court masques. Popular culture and politics were not central to my book, but they were not ‘strenuously resisted’.

My book, Dobson says, does not discuss ‘the way a distinctively Shakespearean version of wonder arose from its social and historical context’, and thus wants to ‘preserve that wonder from the threat of any explanation at all’. This is not so: but my explanations of some of the ways that Shakespearean wonder developed are different from his own. I thought Terence Hawkes had taught us, in the pages of this journal, that there are a variety of ways in which Shakespeare means. My point is that there are other contexts worth exploring as well as the court, social history and the cultural construction of the ‘Shakespeare phenomenon’. There are even different ways of looking at a material Shakespeare. The mechanics of the marvellous in the theatre and the ways that his plays elicited wonder are as important as wondrous events and language.

I think what Dobson really wants to avoid is a discussion of the aesthetic. (The word ‘sacramental’ does not appear in my Shakespeare chapters, but variations of the word ‘aesthetic’ do.) He seems to me to reveal a terror of a return to an overly pious aestheticism. But the role of the affective – the way in which Shakespeare’s plays evoke joy, pity, terror, astonishment – cannot be ignored. I have no interest in a return to New Criticism or l’art pour l’art: Shakespeare studies would be an impoverished thing without the many contexts and discourses foregrounded in the last twenty years. I would argue, however, for a method of reading Shakespeare and Early Modern texts similar to what Leonard Barkan in his forthcoming book calls (a little sheepishly) the ‘New Aestheticism’. This is a theoretically informed aesthetics which recognises that delight and pleasure (and even horror) are as important as instruction to literary, dramatic and visual art.

Peter Platt
Barnard College, New York

Plato’s Gulag

Readers who enjoyed Charles Simic’s comparison of Plato’s ideas with those of Stalin (Letters, 2 July) may be interested in Solzhenitsyn’s reflections, in The First Circle, on the intellectuals who lived in the ‘soft’ prison of Mavrino. Forcibly detached from their families and the pursuit of all ordinary satisfactions, and with nothing remaining but to devote themselves to friendship and the consideration of timeless things, they may – he believes – have been the first people in history to realise what Plato meant by excellence: ‘They were not hungry and not full. They were not happy and therefore not disturbed by the prospect of forfeiting happiness … A spirit of manly friendship and philosophy hovered over the sail-shaped vault of the ceiling. Was this perhaps that state of bliss which all the philosophers of antiquity tried in vain to define and describe?’ On my reading of D.M. Thomas’s biography, Solzhenitsyn, once free, tried ever after to re-create the prison atmosphere around him so that he could continue to benefit from that ‘excellent’ ascetic discipline.

Lesley Chamberlain
London SW12

Internationalist and Revolutionary

It’s ludicrous to suggest as Christopher Hitchens does (LRB, 4 June) that British Communists in 1968 ‘yearned for a quiet life’. The Communist Party of Great Britain opposed the invasion of Czechoslovakia and supported the Prague Spring unequivocally (this is a matter of record). And there never was an ‘ingratiating’ attempt ‘to keep in with the Labour Left and the trade-union apparat’. What was launched, long before 1968, was an open public campaign to develop a ‘Broad Left’ movement based on, but not confined to, the Labour movement. Myself and hundreds of others, Communists and non-Communists, distributed tens of thousands of leaflets inside and outside factories and elsewhere. The movement paid dividends over the years: against incomes policy and wage restraint; in developing TUC campaigning; in the 1972-74 miners’ struggles; in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ successful fight; against British involvement in Vietnam. Hardly a quiet life. Our experience was that Tariq Ali and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign were a factor for disunity and not helpful in our attempt to build a broad movement: storming the US Embassy and punch-ups were a distraction.

Hitchens writes that the Communist Party ‘took the day off’ when London dockers marched to Westminster in support of Enoch Powell, but the Communists in Britain have a record second to none in the fight against racism. The CPGB must, however, accept justified criticism of its failure to speak out against Stalinism. It has to be admitted that the Trotskyists were correct in many of their characteris ations of the Soviet Union. Ideological differences should not preclude open political discussion in which innuendo and sneers have no place.

John Kay

Sonic Boom

John Sturrock (LRB, 16 July) is quite right and his account of the delusions of poor Sokal and poor Bricmont gets to the heart of the matter. Their confident belief in a readily-graspable distinction between ‘discourse and language’ on the one hand and the ‘facts’ to which these refer on the other, indicates simple-mindedness of a rare perfection. No doubt Sokal finds it acceptable that his original contribution to Social Text is currently tricked out in terms as comfy as ‘hoax’ or ‘spoof’. What would he think if it were to be called a ‘fraud’?

Terence Hawkes
Penarth, Glamorgan

Nowhere will science, or its practitioners, qua scientists, find the answer to human problems. Science can’t write a humane constitution for a nation; nor can it resolve the issues that divide the citizens of Northern Ireland. In saying this, I am not contending that Derrida can either – much less that he can add significantly to the list of known compounds. But he can inspire Sokal to write brilliant hoaxes that make us all cudgel the two halves of our brains. And that in large part, I suppose, is what John Sturrock wants to celebrate. Ironically, in Peter Forbes’s letter (Letters, 30 July), where the views of the pro-Sokal forces are most clearly and succinctly expressed, the unsung villains are not the imaginative Derridas and Lacans, who thumb their Gallic noses at science. It’s the Russells and the Ayers, who tried to make a science of philosophy and a philosophy of science.

Richard L. Spear
Tokyo Woman’s Christian University

John Sturrock refers to the campaign of one Ivor Brown against the LFF or Latest Foreign Fraud. I think we were meant to infer that the LFFs in question were Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, rather than Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. But it would be interesting to know how, if at all, Sturrock would discriminate between the former and the latter. Perhaps the latter would be regarded as encouraging ‘adventurism in ideas’. I think we should be told.

Sturrock uses an intellectual model so self-contained that it is difficult to decide at which point to prise it open and examine how it works. Perhaps the appropriate point is a consideration of the assertion that ‘facts that are not contained in a discourse cannot be known,’ a piece of post-structuralist dogma that is demonstrably false. The history of science abounds with examples of empirical facts which called into question dominant theories (models, paradigms or, if you insist, discourses), the most well-known, perhaps, being the Michelson-Morley experiment, and the discrepancies in the orbit of Mercury, both of which challenged the dominant Newtonian worldview, and led eventually to its supersession by the Einsteinian model.

Sturrock’s denial of the existence of facts independent of theory leads him to the extraordinary conclusion that ‘theoretical purity’ is ‘guaranteed by never being exposed to the risks of expression’. This is the diametrical opposite of the way science operates. To use Popper’s terminology, theories are conjectures which must be exposed to the risk of falsification. Of course one does not have to be a Popperian to see the role of empirical testing as fundamental: this is common to all scientific methodologies. To deny the possibility of discrepancy between dominant theory and empirical fact will not, as Sturrock hopes, force science ‘to be as explicit as feasible in making its own social, political and scientific case’, but, on the contrary, will eliminate the most powerful method of distinguishing good science from bad.

Alfred Webb
London SE6

In reporting one’s conclusions in the sciences or in history (my trade), it is writing unambiguously, precisely and with ‘stultifying rigour’ (as John Sturrock, in his open-minded way, puts it) that is ‘extraordinarily’ difficult. Next time Sturrock flies, he should be sure that his jet has been assembled with ‘stultifying rigour’; likewise, when he next reads a history book – about, say, Northern Ireland or race relations in France.

Arthur Marwick
Open University, Milton Keynes

For every book that challenges or debates ‘theory’ there are probably a hundred that don’t. A look at publishers’ catalogues and academic job adverts is enough to establish that theory is the orthodoxy in the humanities, and its foundational texts just as canonical as whatever canons they have displaced, questioned or enriched. Sokal and Bricmont have every right to debate the elements of theory that they find fraudulent or cavalier, and Sturrock’s review of their book is simply unfair. He portrays them as schoolboy hoaxers and reactionary lightweights, when all they are doing is questioning a system unused to being challenged from the outside. Book for book, market for market, debate for debate, Sokal and Bricmont are so outnumbered that the sight of Sturrock stamping them down is disturbing. His review is a godsend to those who, unlike Sokal and Bricmont, really do have their knives out for theory. As the editor of Structuralism and Since, Sturrock could have used the space to show how ‘theory’ has extended and enriched the terms of our engagement with ideas. He could also have acknowledged why such a book as Intellectual Impostures came to be written, what it is that provoked two left-wing scientists to write it.

The level of engagement with Sokal and Bricmont is already low. Intellectual Impostures has been called, in France, the product of a ‘Belgian inferiority complex’, Kristeva has called it ‘misinformation’, while Derrida just says ‘le pauvre Sokal’. Sturrock’s review is more intelligent, but it is firmly in that lineage. It is not just that he disagrees with what is said, but that he does not think anyone has the right to say it. The book will not change anything. How could it? Its supporters will read it as confirmation of things they think they already know (as your letters pages amply show), while its critics have shown that they will not tolerate dissent. It is just as well for Sokal and Bricmont that they are scientists, because they are now shafted in the humanities job market.

Patrick McGuinness
Jesus College, Oxford

When I circulated Alan Sokal’s hoax-piece in Social Text among my undergraduate students, relatively unschooled in the ways of ‘critical theory’, most realised what was going on about ten lines into it (two of them, non-scientists, spotted the technical flaw in the subtitle: ‘Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’). How many historical journals would accept for publication articles about events which had not occurred, or which referred to non-existent sources, or which consistently misapplied prevailing terminology or ideas? Social Text’s crime is exactly equivalent, and no amount of liberal rhetoric or posturing will change this. Sturrock has elsewhere accused thinkers who work in his own, more reassuringly nebulous field, of being inaccurate or misrepresenting a case indicating that he does think that some versions of the ‘truth’ are more acceptable than others, however unstable and unprovable they may be.

Sturrock offers a (perhaps deliberately provocative) ‘defence’ of Luce Irigaray’s claim that E=mc2 is a ‘sexist’ equation. Such ‘wild and contentious theses’, he argues, are ‘far better’ than the ‘stultifying rigour so inappropriately demanded by Sokal and Bricmont’. This truly beggars belief. Beyond every social manifestation and intervention of science, beyond every sexism, racism and other ‘-ism’, beyond even the existence of humankind on this planet and that of any other life in the universe, E will always be equal to mc2.

D.P. Morgan
Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Not the Milkman’s

Susan Ryley Hoyle (Letters, 18 June) is right to point out, apropos of my review of Clara Pinto-Correia’s The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation, that the belief that children are related to their parents has not been universal. I am nevertheless sceptical about J.M. Good’s much-quoted claim that everyone in the second half of the 18th century with a smattering of medical education ‘was convinced that his children were no more related, in point of actual generation, to his own wife, than they were to his neighbours’. What kind of survey did he do, and what would be the result of this belief? Did enlightened medical men point out that wealth could be retained in families if marriages were arranged between, for example, a widow’s son and her daughter by a new husband, because the pair were related only by convention?

Science represents itself as replacing superficial impressions with deep truths, and Pinto-Correia was evidently taken with the idea that the superficial impression that women are importantly creative was debunked by 18th-century empiricists armed with microscopes. But the belief in male prepotency in generation antedates and postdates the acceptance of spermist preformation theory. Breeders of racehorses still found it credible a few years ago. May be the notion is innate and attracts various rationalisations. My youngest child holds that fathers contribute more to their offspring than mothers because men are ‘more distinctive’ than women, where their hair is concerned.

Catherine Wilson
University of Alberta, Edmonton

Opium, Jazz, Pederasty etc

Lawrence Rainey may, alas, be right when he writes in his review on Mary Butts (LRB, 16 July) that John Rodker ‘is chiefly known today for his activities as a publisher of deluxe editions’. But there is no longer any excuse for this. Andrew Crozier has produced an exemplary edition, with an ex cellent Introduction, of Poems & Adolphe 1920 (Carcanet, 1996) – a book which shows that Rainey’s description of Rodker as merely ‘an aspiring writer’ is ungenerous and limiting.

Charles Swann
Keele University

Excessive Guffawing

After paying due tribute to M.A. Screech’s learning, Gerald Hammond (LRB, 16 July) goes on to accuse him of a couple of errors. This is for me a temptation to a mild guffawing, because Hammond himself makes the schoolboy blunder of confusing Elisha with Elijah. And the so-called ‘children’ (Revised Version) who shouted ‘Go on up, you baldhead’ to Elisha (not Elijah) are in the New International Version rightly called ‘youths’, i.e. teenage yobs. This rather wrecks Hammond’s opening ‘joke’. Whether the youths deserved to be mauled by bears is another matter.

In the matter of Hagar, I think that Hammond is a bit unfair to Abraham. If we take this old saga literally, we can see that Hagar was certainly unpleasant to Sarah, but while Ishmael was Abraham’s son, Sarah had to put up with it, just as Hagar had to ‘submit’ to Sarah’s position as lawful wife. Once Isaac was born, however, Sarah could exact her revenge with impun ity and demand the expulsion of Hagar. But at least Abraham was ‘distressed greatly’ and gave her and Ishmael some iron rations. The angel of God completed the rescue by pointing out a local oasis which Hagar had not noticed.

Very Rev. Alfred Jowett

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