It is one of the chief distinguishing features of the philistine that he thinks himself, above all things, “openminded.” While the converse of this proposition is untrue, modern culture having witnessed an explosion in the doctrinaire varieties of philistinism, it is nevertheless a fact that the trueblue, classic philistine, of the kind described by the Russian word obyvatel’, who has passed, without mutation, from the world of Chekhov’s short stories into real life on the front pages of the New York Times, has “an open mind.” It is his open-mindedness that allows the philistine to mention, with a disarming sincerity, that his club is open to “anyone” (“except, you know, those pushy types”). He cannot be confused with the bigot, whose mind is closed, because the philistine never hears himself; put another way, the bigot is an intellectually superior being, harmless in the overall scheme of cultural existence, because, unlike the philistine, he has the capacity for self-examination. The bigot may be seen as an introspective loner, whose gloomy, rude, or cynical outlook sets him apart from his philistine contemporaries. By contrast, the agenda for the philistine’s friendly, chatty openmindedness is set by the fellow members of his club, that is to say, by his milieu.
As in all social and cultural matters, in the domain of literature (our present’ concern) the open-minded likes and dislikes of the philistine’s milieu are forever in flux, undergoing perpetual revision and transformation in reaction to the changing habits of society as a whole and in response to those scattered individuals whose achievement, often belatedly or posthumously, invariably asserts itself as the one and only true criterion by which a creative epoch is measured. By the turn of the century, at least in Russia, no poem was thought to be truly elegant if the nightingale failed to put in an appearance somewhere in the third stanza; by the 1920’s, it took the superhuman originality of divine Pasternak to restore the little creature to the poetic vocabulary (just about everyone else was writing about radium). In the United States today, the nightingale seems to have been replaced by phenomena which, for the sake of precision if not modesty, must be described as netheromphalic, and once again superhuman courage is needed to seek out the prose of an Anthony Powell or the verse of a Philip Larkin.
The philistine rides high in the pages of London Reviews. In his “Introduction to the London Review of Books,” the lead piece in this collection anthologizing the paper’s achievements of the last three years, editor Karl Miller sets the stage for the orgy of open-mindedness that is to follow:
I remember a remark which came at this early point from Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review, to. the effect that he saw himself as giving people the chance to have their say.
This remark made a vivid impression on Mr. Miller, whose paper was set up with money from the New York Review, and he agreed with it. He, Karl Miller, would follow the example of his American friend Bob Silvers and give people the chance to have their say. There is, however, a danger in this sort of compassionate, liberal attitude: Not only will people take advantage of you, they will think you a Milquetoast besides. Mr. Miller senses that an intellectual, while being openminded, must hold his own, and he hastens to qualify his position:
Now that people seemed to be having trouble in reaching agreement, there might be a merit in publishing their debates. I need hardly add that the commitment to hospitality and diversity was a long way from boundless. I am talking about a fairly small matter of degree.
Indeed he is, although he does not hear himself But let us listen to the “debates” themselves.
The political debates of London Reviews reflect without exception the trivial politics of the American left, parochialized ad absurdum (at least from the American vantage point) to fit the creaky cradle of democracy. The anthology opens with Peter Pulzer’s essay on “The Oxford Vote”; that is, “the vote on 29 January by Congregation of Oxford University, by 738 votes to 319, not to award an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law to the Prime Minister.” The politician is bad; she takes bread from orphans and gives the rich hydrogen bombs which they can use against defenseless seals while factories are closing and Reagan plays Russian roulette with our children’s future; Oxford University is good, because it voted, by a majority vote (unlike, one thinks, the British nation electing its Prime Minister), not to honor the bad politician. Oxford’s courage is slight by American standards; here, Jeane Kirkpatrick is not even allowed to speak on campus, while the hecklers get to wear pretty armbands and spit on the university president’s doorstep.
In the sphere of literary criticism, Mr. Miller’s debates are equally broad. Take deconstruction, for instance, a critical phenomenon to which his periodical seems rather devoted. Here is the opening sentence of “Derrida’s Axioms,” by E.D. Hirsch Jr., a review of Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction: “Deconstruction . . . must be judged, simply by virtue of the commentary it has generated, an important cultural phenomenon.” Had this sentence been antecedent to Mr. Hirsch’s discussion of the Abominable Snowman, I daresay all would be well; but why should an intellectual judge something an important cultural phenomenon simply by the virtue of the commentary it has generated?
Deconstruction, from the very beginning but especially in its present “movement” form, is the great bold initiative on the part of American “Ivy League” literary academics to redistribute, and thereby expropriate and appropriate, the intellectual wealth of past generations by a kind of tweedy grave-robbing. Their motive is a thief’s motive (property being, Proudhon’s slogan notwithstanding, much less like theft than theft), and I have the distinct feeling Mr. Hirsch suspects this when he insists throughout his review that—Hello, Mr. Miller!—”intellectual culture thrives upon debate”; that is to say, that his detailed review of the thieves’ rhetoric is undertaken by him purely in the interest of scholarship (one wonders how he would approach, for instance, Stalin’s contribution to the study of linguistics), and is not to be taken for a fellow traveler’s Bon voyage! In a word, he has an open mind. Perhaps not as open as his editor’s: Mr. Miller opines in his “Introduction” that “it is probable that the monuments assailed by Deconstruction—the literary text, the literary tradition, authorship—will . . . survive. But that is not to say . . . that the exciting work of destruction will have been wholly in vain.” Yet Mr. Hirsch possesses a mind open enough, it would seem, to get him into the pages of the London Reviews.
In the purely literary sphere, where the open mind reigns supreme, there are some exceptions here, most notably Ian Hamilton’s “Diary” excerpt in which Doris Lessing, in her prizewinning role as Jane Sommers, is savaged, cooly and merrily. But Mr. Hamilton is hardly a member of Mr. Miller’s club, having come into his own as he had in the pages of a genuinely pluralistic (read: bigoted) British press and only later catapulted into relative transatlantic stardom with his book on Lowell. He is rather an Honorary Member (“We’ve got to get this guy in. So what, I don’t care if he is!”), whose achievements entitled him to club membership on his own terms. That freedom, however, the privilege of being part of a group from which he ordinarily would be excluded, may prove a gift that is easier to bestow than to bear. This is relevant because Mr. Hamilton is the editor of an anthology of his own.
The New Review Anthology, the cover blurb tells us, “is, quite simply, a selection of the best in contemporary writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and poetry.” Advertisements like this, quite simply, bode ill for the product, and one is relieved to read the editor’s calm, lucid, and unpretentious two-page preface in which not once does Mr. Hamilton allude to the openness of his mind. In fact, on reading the selections from The New Review, which Mr. Hamilton edited from its inception in 1974 to its passing in 1979, the reader is not disappointed. Or, at the very least, the reader does not scream with rage, as well he may after buying a copy of London Reviews.
Since The New Review Anthology contains no literary criticism as such (unless Robert Lowell’s marvelous and important memoir of John Crowe Ransom is literary criticism), while London Reviews contains no fiction, their editors’ relative sensitivity to prose cannot be compared. (Mr. Miller makes an appearance in Mr. Hamilton’s collection in the guise of a writer, although the sheer stratospheric innocuousness of his little sketch is of no help in settling the issue, suggesting only that the editor “knows the score.”) What both anthologies do contain is poetry.
The poetry section in London Reviews begins with Tony Harrison’s “V.,” a sinister blend of epi-Larkinian matter-of-factness with virulent American-style obscenity. Mr. Harrison’s 1975 Palladas: Poems (Anvil) gave one hope, as old-timers used to say: to borrow a Pasternak metaphor, one could hear the anapest of Mr. Harrison’s thought rummaging, like a mouse, in the bread-box of his writing. That sound is not heard in “V.”; it is a soulless, concrete-and-corrugated-metal garage-like structure where passersby-do not linger for fear of being raped. Other poems in the anthology are slightly better, but some are a good deal worse; consider Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s “Sex Objects”:
I learned from a friend’s porno mag that men can buy the better class of plastic doll (posh ones are hard and unyielding, not the pneumatic sort that fly from windows when they’re pricked), in slow installments, torso first.
Is this poetry? Journalism? Autobiography? I just don’t know. But I do know that the editor of London Reviews has an open mind.
Mr. Hamilton starts the poetry section of his anthology with Douglas Dunn’s “The Tear.” I need only quote one line of it, the very first line, set apart:
Dawn comes remembering the
dawn, and you.
Poetry? Yes. Original? Yes. Does Mr. Dunn “keep it up”? Read the remaining 27 lines, and you will find out. Is Mr. Dunn a Great Poet? That will be judged by history, but he is a poet most surely. Other contributors to the poetry section are Robert Lowell, D.M. Thomas, Andrew Motion, A. Alvarez, James Fenton, Seamus Heaney, and a few more “names,” along with several less audible voices (John Fuller, Peter Potter) that clearly deserve being heard; only D.M. Thomas’ “Lorea” may be said to approach Fiona Pitt-Kethley in awfulness, a screaming black stain on the surface of Mr. Hamilton’s taste.
Which brings us back to the question hinted at, if not asked outright, earlier. Is Mr. Hamilton’s taste intact, now that he is an Honorary Member of the Philistines’ Dining and Dancing Club? Is his taste as pristine as it was a decade ago when his magazine was launched, or does it take a Fiona Pitt-Kethley or a volume of London Reviews to make it seem white by comparison? And, if it is not white but gray, then just how gray is it? On reading the poetry and the prose Mr. Hamilton has chosen for his anthology (“Facing Backwards” by Beryl Bainbridge, “The Beginning of an Idea” by-John McGahern, and “Down With Dons,” John Carey’s thoughts on Maurice Bowra and academic life, come to mind), I must confess that I am amazed at how well Mr. Hamilton has survived as a creative being amid the deafening noise of open-minded twaddle. No intellectual of his caliber would have done half so well in America, where the ruling academic establishment would have aerosolled his taste black by the time he left college. This is in part a tribute to Mr. Hamilton’s talent, but also, without doubt, a great symbol of the genuine cultural freedom that still exists in Britain to the detriment of the “open mind.”