In his review of books about the European Union, (April 1), Hugo Drochon devotes considerable space to the city of Mechelen (Malines), but without mentioning its principal significance in modern European history: as the place where the Jews of Belgium were summoned to assemble by the Nazi authorities, prior to their deportation to Auschwitz. Similarly, he writes approvingly of Gabriel Naudé’s idea of a coup that is “done at night, in obscurity, in fog and darkness”, but without noticing its close resemblance to the Nazi “Night and Fog”Nacht und Nebel) programme, under which opponents would be abducted and vanish without trace. A classic example of the coup d’état as Naudé defines it, “carried out by the state itself to reinforce its rule”, would presumably be the emergency decree “For the Protection of People and State” which Hitler had President Hindenburg sign on the night of the Reichstag Fire in February 1933; this suspended fundamental civil rights and formed the foundation of the Nazi dictatorship. The last thing that the EU needs is this sort of action, especially if it is rooted in some Nietzschean strongman fantasy of “great politics”.
Hugo Drochon rightly emphasizes Anthony Pagden’s assertion, after Kant, that state sovereignty has held back attempts at European co-ordination. Drochon’s review starts with a list of the, largely failed, attempts at European integration from the most successful (Rome) to the present era. There is, however, one important omission: the Hansa.
It is often objected that the Hansa did not contribute to the pursuit of European unity for two main reasons; First it was dominated by the free north German cities and second it was largely a trading, not a political, enterprise. However, neither of these objects are entirely true. At its height, the network of Hansa towns stretched east–west from Novgorod to the coasts of France, and to the north reaching Bergen and Gotland. The east coast of England, notably King’s Lynn, still retains remnants of Hanseatic history, and the Steelyard in the city of London, although never popular with Londoners of the day, was nevertheless important. On the second point, in the fourteenth century, led by Lübeck the Hansa fought the might of the then powerful Danish state, winning notable victories.
As with much of the rest of the German lands, the Thirty Years War devastated and finally extinguished the declining Hansa, but surely it deserves a place in the history of attempts at European integration?
In his eagerness to contrast the treatment Cornwallis received on his return in defeat to England in 1781, and that of Burgoyne in a similar circumstance just four years earlier, Norman Poser (Letters, April 1) may oversimplify. Indeed Cornwallis was treated better and indeed this may have been due to his higher social status, as Poser posis, but the harsh treatment of Burgoyne was not universally accepted and was, in fact, the subject of considerable debate. James Boswell glances at it in one of his essays for the London Magazine, pseudonymously published as “the Hypochondriack” (September 1778): “Some nice spirits amongst us were offended even at the metaphorical expression in the late letter of a gallant, though unfortunate general officer, who ‘threw himself at his majesty’s feet for actual employment ‘”. Unfortunate became Burgoyne’s epithet and his gesture – throwing himself at His Majesty’s feet – the subject of a political and quasi-legal debate that surely made it memorable to Boswell and others.
That Burgoyne’s treatment had become a political football is to witness in Observations on a Pamphlet Entitled, A Short History of Opposition, During the Last Session of Parliament … by a Member of Parliament (1779), 38:
The people of England are no longer in the dark, for the reason which justified the court in adhering to the etiquette that excludes officers, who have been unfortunate, from the royal presence, till they are acquitted by a court martial. The Pamphleteer has told the reasons; General Burgoyne offended the ministry, and the etiquette was rigidly adhered to. Though he threw himself at his Majesty’s feet, he had it seems some of the stubborn sulleness [sic] and honesty of an Englishman; he was too proud to throw himself at the feet of his Majesty’s ministers, and too spirited to father the blunders of a detestable junto, and a servile, compliant, and corrupt cabinet.
Perhaps by 1781 the government was eager to avoid with Cornwallis the controversy its treatment of Burgoyne had caused.
Robert G. Walker
St Petersburg FL
The picture accompanying the review of the new biography of Lord Cornwallis demands some clarification (March 18). Although the artist, John Trumbull, did entitle it “The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis”, Cornwallis himself is not featured. Rather ungallantly pleading ill health, Cornwallis deputized his subordinate, General Charles O’Hara, to offer the sword of symbolic surrender. For his part, George Washington delegated General Benjamin Lincoln to accept the sword, not wishing to receive it from one of inferior rank. These are the two officers shown in the center of the painting, Lincoln on horseback, the red-coated O’Hara standing to his right. Washington, also mounted, watches the ceremony from the other side.
Kevin V. Mulcahy
Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge LA
Having enjoyed Frances Wilson’s passionate, unconventional biography of Thomas De Quincey, I was interested in what she had to say about my life of Elizabeth Hardwick (January 14). But rather than reviewing the book I wrote – a biography, not a literary study – she offered only a haughty dismissal of my supposed failure to understand Hardwick before launching into her own portrayal of Hardwick.
Wilson apparently views Hardwick as such a Great Mind that it is somehow beside the point to write about the quotidian details of her extraordinarily eventful life. But unlike Wilson’s subjects – De Quincey, Dorothy Wordsworth, D. H. Lawrence – Hardwick was virgin territory for a biographer. It stands to reason that the first book about her needs to give the fullest possible picture (within the limits of a compact volume) of her formation, her milieu, her personal struggles, her marriage to Robert Lowell and the nexus between her life and her work.
My aim in writing A Splendid Intelligence was not to address the coterie already enthralled by Hardwick’s inimitable style. Rather, I seek to construct an accurate and engaging biographical narrative that would spark interest in her work by introducing readers who may never have heard of her to the trajectory of her life and the range of her interests and opinions.
I was delighted by Jeremy Noel-Todd’s stalwart sense regarding concrete poetry and the folly of reductionist criticism (April 1). At Cambridge in the 1970s, as aficionados promoting an Ian Hamilton-Finlay exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, we sensed that concrete poetry was the coming thing – which for the British public never quite came. For ten years, I ran a creative writing course for St Andrews University at which we introduced students to a range of visual poetry. I would start the course – as Noel-Todd does his review – with Eugen Gomringer’s “Silencio” (1954), a rectangle of that printed word repeated over and over but with an empty space in the middle.
“What’s it about?”, the students would ask. We identified two opposing readings. There is, in King Lear, Edgar’s terrifying observation that “The worst is not, so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst'”. The empty space is, on this reading, that awful final moment where we cannot even say the word “silence”. And yet, in the same instant, it is the supreme evocation of tranquillity, when even speaking the name of silence is unnecessary. It is the simultaneous existence of these two readings – the horrifying and the entirely calm – that makes “Silencio” such great poetry.
Nelly Kaprièlian’s review of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, and your correspondents’ reactions to it (March 18 and Letters, March 25, April 1), underline the key, and to my mind only marketable, quality of his work: its trendiness – the author’s opportunism at jumping on the latest sensational developments in French political life. These commentators scarcely question his literary importance. I first heard of Houellebecq, like many in Britain, through the English version of Plateform; I was so disappointed by it that I bought and read his next novel in French, to check whether I hadn’t been misled by the translation. I hadn’t been misled. It’s rare to find a modern French author whose style is so leaden and uninventive – so functional. Compare the moving elegance of Modiano; compare the brilliance and originality of Laurent Binet (HHhH); these are worthy exemplars of modern French writing, and they also display both the “wit and profundity” that Kaprièlian clams to find in the morose and misanthropic Anyantir. I hate to throw cold water on topical debates, but to me Michel Houellebecq just isn’t a very good writer.
I was most impressed that Henry Hitchings in his review of my book Doomed and Famous (March 25) managed to identify the one actually fictional character among my obituaries, namely “Zogdan Palashi”, and equally pleased that he quoted Auden’s supposed line about him, “Balkan keeper of the silent bolts”. However, I should point out that this imaginary figure was not my creation, but rather a parody of my style by my father, the revered modernist architect Trevor Dannatt, written in his ninety-eighth year.
I enjoyed En Liang Khong’s review of Ai Weiwei’s new book (April 1). Interesting to consider how we in the West generally view his art as forming part of his activism, or vice versa. This is not the case for the Chinese Government. Speaking at the Cambridge Union in February, Ai told us that the party has rarely blocked the export of his works from China, where he still has them made. It was the activism they were concerned about, he said, rather than the art. I’m not sure the distinction holds up – but who’s to say?
Queens’ College, Cambridge
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