Shakespeare’s private life

Following Lee Oser’s advice for full disclosure (Letters, August 19/26) when discussing Lena Cowen Orlin’s Private Life of William Shakespeare, I declare that I have encountered her on several occasions when she has used the library where I am employed as a librarian – that is my only connection. Bart van Es’s review of Orlin’s book (July 29) was flippant and dismissive of what is surely one of the most important contributions to the biography of Shakespeare in a generation. He seems to be particularly upset that Orlin has added new evidence to Samuel Schoenbaum’s Documentary Life, as if it were a sacred text that must not be altered and cannot develop. He praises Orlin’s rigorous documentation, but then dismisses it as hardly being worth serious consideration. Orlin’s new assessment of the Shakespeare memorial in Holy Trinity, Stratford, is groundbreaking, should be taken seriously and deserves to be further researched. But Van Es mocks the proposal as “little more than a resemblance between the cushion featured in the Shakespeare memorial in Stratford and the cushions in a number of Oxford memorials”. If he has read Orlin’s book with the care that it deserves, then he must know that his statement was both unkind and untrue.

Peter Ross
London EC2

Lee Oser’s letter raises interesting questions about the protocols for letters to the TLS. Authors can usually respond if they need to correct something in a review; do authors’ professional friends and colleagues have the same right? In this case I thought I was correcting the emphasis of Bart van Es’s otherwise well-written and favorite review. And when does self-disclosure become self-advertisement? In the interests of brevity I decided not to say that I had had the privilege of reading Orlin’s book before publication or that I would have benefited enormously from her archival research when I was writing my own Shakespeare biography. I now think the first would have been desirable self-disclosure, but still feel the second would have looked like self- advertising. However, by quoting praise of my book from an interview that I didn’t even know about, Professor Oser has actually done the advertising for me.

Lois Potter
London EC1

Yambo Ouologuem

Examining the maelstrom of fact and fiction created by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel La plus secrete mémoire des hommes (Henriette Korthals Altes, August 12), the TLS overlooks one important fact. The accusations of plagiarism against the real-life author Yambo Ouologuem, based on borrowings from Graham Greene – which ultimately led to the suppression of the Malian author’s brilliant novel Le Devoir de violence – were first unleashed in the pages of this very journal, and anonymously: “Something New Out of Africa?”, May 5, 1972. (An earlier comparison of the same novel to André Schwartz-Bart’s Le Dernier des justes produced no ill effects; Schwartz-Bart said he was flattered.) Anonymous reviewing was the TLS house custom until 1974, I know; but anonymous accusations are quite another matter. If anyone knows who wrote it, would they please speak up, for the sake of literary history?

Christopher L. Miller
Yale University

The Elizabethan Mind

Richard Strier (Letters, August 19/26) misses the point. Descartes, like the Shakespeare of King Lear, was troubled by the apparent proximity of human and non-human forms of animal life; Montaigne, largely on account of his religious convictions, was able to regard it with amused equanimity.

Rhodri Lewis
Princeton University

What are you like?

Christopher Eddy asserts that it is “the mantra of the consciousness studies movement” that there is something that it’s like to be a bat (Letters, August 19/26). That assertion cannot survive a skim of any of the relevant journals or conference proceedings. “Consciousness studies” is a broad church. There is no catechism. Some parishioners agree with Thomas Nagel; some don’t; Many don’t know if they agree or disagree.

Eddy is right to say that “likeness is not an object of sense” but “a relation that only similes and metaphors can conjure up between either of sense or of abstract objects”, but Nagel, in “What is it like to be a bat?”, made it plain that he wasn’t using “likeness” in that way. He wrote a footnote that shows Eddy’s criticism is misconceived: “the analogical form of the English expression ‘what it is like‘ is misleading. It does not mean ‘what (in our experience) it resembles‘, but rather ‘how it is for the subject himself’” (original emphases).

In any event, my review cited Nagel only to support the general contention that the subjectivity of others is inaccessible. I did not distinguish – and did not intend to distinguish – between Nagel’s argument (that in principle such subjectivity is inaccessible), and the epistemological argument that subjectivity is as a matter of fact inaccessible (which Nagel explicitly does not address). The epistemological argument is surely the stronger. Eddy’s argument about “likeness”, even if well-founded, does not significantly eliminate the general contention.

Charles Foster
Exeter College, Oxford

The New Atlantic Order

Professor Urdank’s suggestion about Woodrow Wilson’s changing approach to the postwar settlement is interesting, but empirically rather implausible (Letters, August 19/26). As Patrick O. Cohrs shows, Henry Cabot Lodge, like most US Republicans, perceived the Germans as the guilty party in the First World War and had strong sympathies for England and France. Wilson’s movement towards imposing a peace settlement on the Germans was, as Cohrs also demonstrates, a result of the difficult negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference. In adopting this position Wilson was actually moving closer to the Republicans’ views, rather than further away from them.

Jonathan Sperber
University of Missouri


Reading Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s delightful review of Lucy Lethbridge’s Tourists (August 19/26) reminded me of the exiled Comtesse Brulart de Genlis and her immensely popular handbook, first published in Berlin in 1799 for the French in Germany, then enlarged and improved with an obvious eye on the English market until at least a twentieth edition in 1839: The Traveler’s Companion, being a collection of such expressions as occur frequently in traveling, and in the different situations of life. The “situations” include being sick when crossing the English Channel, becoming pregnant and looking for a wet nurse while abroad, inevitably being overturned in one’s coach, being unjustifiably imprisoned somewhere in central Europe and, eventually, dying. It was clearly necessary to know the French, German, Dutch or Italian for “You must place some andirons in the chimney”, “These sheets have certainly been already used” and “Where are the gravy ewers?” As a curious coincidence, I dramatized these dialogues for BBC Radio 4 and the result, directed by John Theocharis, was broadcast forty years ago on August 17, 1982.

Patrick Pollard
Birkbeck College, London

Irish democracy

Bartholomew H. Sparrow, in an otherwise excellent letter (August 12), comments regarding dysfunctional government in the United States: “an attempted coup on January 6”. He is entitled to his opinion, but this has nowhere been established, and indeed investigations are continuing, which makes his comment disingenuous. This does not excuse the disgraceful actions of the rioters, but I might point out that saying something does not make it true: there is a history of riots in the US stretching back quite some way into the past, many of which have resulted in extensive Property damage and loss of life on a scale far worse than January 6. None has been considered a coup, or even an insurrection. An “attempted coup” is a serious matter for the courts to decide, and commentators should let them do so before making any claims, or at least say these claims are speculative.

James Colby
Eugene OR

Georges Perec

Georges Perec’s Lieux made great and eventually unsustainable demands of its author: as Karl Whitney notes (August 12), after four years’ effort “1973 is a blank; in September 1975 he stopped completely.” But in the space between he produced Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, written in the cafés of the Place Saint-Sulpice over three days in October 1974 and published in a small journal the following year, then in book form in 1982. Deceptively simple and banal, this is a quite brilliant and sui generis experiment in sociology. , anthropology and ethnography. Dispassionate observation and the aim of objective description compete with Perec’s playful, creative impulses. Lieux might exhaust those new to Perec – but the fifty-page Tentative d’épuisementlucidly analysed by Michael Sheringham in Everyday Life (2006) and readily available in a translation by Marc Lowenthal as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Parisshould be in every Paris wanderer’s pocket.

Adam Watt
University of Exeter

What Homer means

I have been in Greece doing research in the Venetian archive on Ithaca, with a stash of unread issues of the TLS packed for afternoons at the beach. One very suitably contained Barbara Graziosi’s piece on Homer (May 6) and on what “he” means to whom. Here on the ground, so to speak, the parameters that bound scholars matter little to the endless supply of (otherwise rather charming) amateur Homerists dropped at the port all summer long. This chain of pilgrims is an antidote to mass tourism, which the island has escaped.

When they learn of someone like me working on the island’s history (a few thousand years’ gap between Odysseus and the Serene Republic are no matter), an opinion is always solicited on one of the several fanciful attributions of half-excavated ruins to one or another passage in the epic. Hearts are poured into proving that the rubble at this or that site matches best the description of Odysseus’ palace. Everyone has skin in the game except the archaeologists, who have moved on. At dinner I pose the question, how does all this rather pedantic pebble-counting account for the “Homeric question”? Does the oral tradition not represent a slight bump on their “road to Ithaca”? The silence is deafening: I have just raised religion at the dinner table!

K. Galatis Nikias
Vienna, Austria

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