Vol. 20 No. 22 · 12 November 1998

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I can be of some help to John Coleby (Letters, 17 September) in his quest for traces of Rimbaud in Cyprus. The British Governors’ old summer retreat in the Troodos mountains now serves, as does the former colonial residency in Nicosia, in the office of Presidential mansion. As a luncheon guest there in the summer of 1984, during the tenure of President Kyprianou, I asked about a plaque to Rimbaud of which I’d once heard and was taken by one of the staff to the rear of the house. Rather narcissistically, perhaps, I had myself photographed in front of the weathered piece of stone that can still be seen, and the resulting sunlit shot requires, for decipherment of the ipsissima verba, the strong magnifying glass that my own frame does not. The best I can do with a good lens is this: ‘Arthur Rimbaud, poète et génie français, au mépris de … nommée a contribu … ses propres mains à la construction de cette maison MDCCC … ‘

I take this to say that ‘the French poet and genius Arthur Rimbaud, heedless of his renown, was not above helping to build this house with his own hands.’ The inscription does not give the provenance of the plaque. Perhaps, therefore, Rimbaud was more than the supervisor on the site and shared also in the joys of manual labour. Mr Coleby says that Rimbaud ‘left the island under some sort of cloud’, which put me in mind of Anthony Blanche’s variation on this theme: ‘I left school under a “cloud", you know. I can’t think why it is called that; it seemed to me a glare of unwelcome light.’ In the case of the ‘poète et génie’, we may allow ourselves to imagine a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. But the possible Kitchener connection leaves a very gruesome taste in the mouth.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

Don’t sleep with him/her

The first two don’ts in Nelson Algren’s warning-for-life, which were requested by Ian Wylie (Letters, 29 October), are ‘Never play cards with a man called Doc; Never eat in a diner that offers “Mom’s Cooking".’ The third, as I heard the rules from an American journalist in Poland many years ago, was ‘Never sleep with a woman who has more problems than you.’ But did Algren invent these rules? They sound like postwar American fiction – but maybe not his.

Neal Ascherson
London N5

I think Algren’s other two life rules were ‘Never play poker with anyone called “Pop" and ‘Never eat at any place called “Mom’s".’ An imaginative Oedipal theory could no doubt be advanced to cover all three.

David Warren
Kingston, Surrey

Algren’s other rules were ‘Never play cards with a guy named “Doc" and ‘Never eat at a place called “Mom’s".’ In my opinion, these are all excellent pieces of advice and when my son turned 20, I passed them on to him.

Adam Wilkins

Caught Carnapping

I congratulate Jonathan Rée on showing (LRB, 15 October) how Richard Rorty’s rejection of ‘theory’ is based, at least in the case of Marxism, on ignorance of the intellectual traditions he criticises. Rée shows that Rorty’s article ‘The End of Leninism’ naively recapitulates Lenin’s (and Stalin’s) own anti-theoretical, ‘pragmatic’ stance.

Since Rudolf Carnap’s name occurs over a dozen times in Rée’s review, however, it would also have been helpful to point out that Rorty’s ignorance extends even to the very ‘philosophical revolution’ in which, Rée tells us, Rorty entertained ‘youthful dreams of playing a part’ and then, in his maturity, rejected. Those youthful dreams evidently did not extend to anything so extravagant as reading Carnap’s actual writings. Or else the young Rorty skimmed them so lightly as to understand the opposite of what Carnap wrote. A typical example is to be found in a text discussed by Rée, Rorty’s introduction to The Linguistic Turn. Here it is, for example, claimed that, in the mid-Thirties, in his book The Logical Syntax of Language, Carnap proposed a notion of the ‘logically correct’ which a sentence could measure up to or fall short of. This is false: Logical Syntax is precisely the book where Carnap broke free of the notion of logical or linguistic correctness.

Rorty goes on to speak of ‘the’ logic in Logical Syntax, and Carnap’s supposed illusions about its universal correctness. There is no such single logic in Carnap’s book, but an infinity of possible logics. Carnap picks, for systematic development and discussion, two that he proposes as formal embodiments of well-known stand points in the philosophy of mathematics – intuitionism and logicism. Far more important, though, than the specifics of these two languages is the ‘principle of tolerance’, which Carnap summarises as follows: ‘we don’t want to set up prohibitions, but to state conventions … in logic, there are no morals.’ Rorty attributes ideas to Logical Syntax directly opposed to those contained in it.

A.W. Carus
Wolfson College, Oxford

In the State of Barbarism

Stephen Holmes’s review of The Communist Manifesto, edited by Eric Hobsbawm (LRB, 29 October), parades the usual anxieties of his profession and class. The press is full of articles which seek to assess the Manifesto from a Western capitalist perspective, and which fail to note in the rush to denigrate the value of socialism that nine-tenths of the world is still in the state of barbarism.

Both Holmes and Hobsbawm miss the central message of the Manifesto: that the emancipation of the proletariat can only be the work of the proletariat themselves (the Spanish Civil War and the British General Strike of 1926 are two very different examples of class collaboration leading to failure). Hobsbawm, a skilled apologist for labourism, has no interest in highlighting the clarion call of Marxism because to do so would undermine the position of the apologists of reformism who largely control the British Labour Movement. Those predicting the failure of Marxism should bear in mind two things. First, that while humans live, socialism is a distinct possibility, so we have a while to go yet before consigning the Manifesto to the academics. Second, Marx showed that proletarian internationalism needs to be fought for. Socialists must continue to work to that end – irrespective of the criticisms of liberal thinkers – if the barbarism that afflicts most of this world is to be ended.

John Calderón
London E8

The Unrewarded End

So far those with memories of the old Communist Party (Letters, 1 October) seem to have overlooked the Party’s major theoretician Rajani Palme Dutt. He was the best political journalist since Bernard Shaw, and his ‘Notes of the Month’ in Labour Monthly, which ran virtually uninterrupted for over forty years, were a tour de force. It was for the sheer pleasure of reading him that some of us subscribed to that journal. His influence on those who – like myself – would never dream of joining the Party but were content to remain fellow-travellers on the Zilliacus wing of Labour was very considerable. We knew in our hearts that the USSR was nothing like he described; but we were equally convinced that it could be. What we were waiting for was not for Stalin to die but for the Stalin Constitution of 1936 to be implemented. When it was not, and, worse still, when it was replaced by the Brezhnev version of 1977, we simply lost interest.

Brian Thomas
Bentley, Hampshire

I am working on a bibliography of the CPGB and if any readers possess, or know of, obscure collections of CPGB pamphlets and journals, I would be grateful if they could contact me.

Dave Cope
7 Hambledon House
Cricketfield Road
London E5 8NT

My dear, the noise

Apropos George Schlesinger’s pertinent query (Letters, 29 October) about the origins of ‘My dear, the noise, and the people’, I suppose all wars invent stories and myths which are in fact second-hand. In 1943, when I first heard the story, it was quoted as coming out of Dunkirk, but whoever said it (if he did) might well have remembered hearing the Thesiger 1916 story. Or, just conceivably, he might have himself been inspired to make the same comment. Where noise and people are concerned all wars are much alike.

John Bayley

Surely every schoolboy knows – certainly I was told as a schoolboy – that Lord Sefton was the Guards officer who, having escaped from Dunkirk, and being quizzed about his experiences while drinking at his club, replied: ‘My dear, the noise, and the people.’ Sefton had kept a fixed pose of nonchalance since boyhood, when his sister went mad in front of his eyes in the nursery. George Schlesinger’s attribution of the phrase to Ernest Thesiger at the Somme sounds awry. When the First World War broke out, Thesiger fancied himself in a kilt and applied to join a Highland regiment, but as the accent he assumed for the occasion proved unconvincing, he spent much of the hostilities teaching embroidery to disabled ex-servicemen.

Richard Davenport-Hines
Ailhon, France

I knew the story, located in the Somme, in the middle to late Thirties.

John Griffith
Marlow, Buckinghamshire

I cannot be exact, but I read it many years ago in the chat column of a newspaper, quoting the response given by a gentleman at a cocktail party to his hostess, on being asked: ‘Did you have a good war, General?’ I am often reminded of it while travelling on the Underground.

David Tipping
Sherborne, Dorset

Those Personal Ads!

I have waited for 15 years and one month to work out why I am still on the editorial board of your journal. And at last I have the answer. The audacity and sheer brilliance of the ‘personals’ (LRB, 29 October) beggars all belief: I find myself, in the composite sense, a ‘Hackney-hearted, like-minded, illiterate old bastard, jacked up on Viagra, bald, fat, ugly, heavenly man’. I cannot thank you enough for making sense of all those – heretofore – lost and lonely years. New York Review of Books? Dead – at one fell stroke.

Michael Neve
London E8

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