‘The Waste Land’ at 100

I was intrigued by Helen Vendler’s mistranslation of the Spanish title of a famous sonnet by Gérard de Nerval, “El desdichado”, as “the disinherited son”, which she then links to TS Eliot’s quoting of the poem’s second line, “Le prince d ‘Aquitaine à la tour abolie’, in The Waste Landand sees as reflecting Eliot’s parents’ disapproval of his marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, and his consequential disinheritance by them (October 28).

Desdicado means unhappy, wretched, ill-fated, in Spanish, and is used as a noun in the title of Nerval’s poem. There is no reference whatsoever in desdicchado either to disinheritance or to family descent, of a son or a daughter. The Spanish for disinherited is desheredado; There is no exclusive word in Spanish to refer to disinherited children.

It remains a moot point whether Eliot himself believed desdicchado to mean disinherited, though I suspect the balance of probabilities goes against it, and I think the quoting of Nerval’s line must be for another reason, autobiographical, as Vendler would wish it, or not. In particular, the previous line of Nerval’s poem, the first of the sonnet, “Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, l’inconsolé”, makes it unlikely that Eliot is thinking of himself in terms of this financial mishap and equating disinheritance with the three radically negative conditions enumerated by Nerval, all of them pointing to the loss of a loved person by death.

But the possibility that Eliot shared Vendler’s mistaken understanding of the Spanish expression cannot be excluded, however unlikely, because her mistake has a surprising pedigree, more than two centuries old. Desdicado is the name by which Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a character disinherited by his father, first appears in Scott’s eponymous novel, where other characters assume this condition to be the meaning of the Spanish word.

Daniel Wissbein

Helen Vendler refers to “mélange adultère de tout” as “Eliot’s self-definition in a comic poem”. Self-definition it may be, but the phrase is, of course, word for word from Tristan Corbière’s poem “Épitaphe”, from his collection Les Amours jaunes. I am sure Professor Vendler knows this, but Eliot was a huge admirer of Corbière and I think we should acknowledge the source of his self-characterization.

Terence Denman
Totnes, Devon

Helen Vendler praises Matthew Hollis, author of The Waste Land: A biography of a poemfor linking the title of the opening section of Eliot’s poem to the Anglican funeral of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in November 1920. The connection was first made by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue in their groundbreaking study The Poems of TS Eliot: The annotated text, Volume I, Collected and Uncollected Poems (2015, p601).

Sam Milne
Claygate, Surrey


On the constitutional status of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Peter Meredith is quite right to say that it remains an arm of the Department of Justice (Letters, October 28). My reference was missing an adverb (“practically”, “virtually”) to clarify my rhetorical intent. The DEA is a fully armed unit that maintains an academy at the Marine Corps base in Quantico. It is headquartered in Arlington VA, opposite the Pentagon. It uses the Department of Defense’s communications system, runs field divisions in sixty-nine countries, engaging in crop eradication, the destruction of freelance laboratories and more lethal activities, and has regularly been accused of violating national sovereignty. In short, it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck.

Stuart Walton
Torquay, Devon

The decline of metaphysics

In my letter (October 7) regarding Stephen Gaukroger’s review of my book, TheKingdom of Darkness (September 23), I identified several misrepresentations and factual errors. Professor Gaukroger (Letters, October 21 and 28) does not apologize or even respond to most of them; I shall have to be content with the validation delivered by his silence.

Grudgingly, he now acknowledges that I did discuss Euler, but uses this as another opportunity to trumpet his own work: an article published in 1982, which he imperiously brands “the first comprehensive account of Euler’s metaphysical mechanics”. Gaukroger seems unaware of (or deliberately ignored) a well-known essay on the topic from 1974 by the famous Jewish scholar Yehuda Elkana. Incredibly, his other counterexamples to my thesis about the decline of metaphysical physics are taken from my book, apart from his reference to a nebulous “French natural philosophy tradition”. I have no idea what this refers to (I discuss in detail many French thinkers who all had very different views), so it’s hard to see how I could have “disingenuously” described it as of “no import”. Of course, I said no such thing.

Gaukroger now tells us that he was really concerned with only “two fundamental questions”. The first involves the putative “central role of morality … in the understanding of metaphysics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”. On this subject Gaukroger is as idiosyncratic as it gets. And no wonder: ethics does not appear in any metaphysics textbook of the period. The most famous of them, Suárez’s Metaphysical Disputations (1597), explicitly states that “the consideration of the ultimate end in relation to morals is not its [metaphysics’s] function” (p199 in the new translation by Shane Duarte). That ethics was a part of philosophy more broadly neither I nor anyone else has ever denied; In fact, I make a long revisionist argument for Bayle’s moral rationalism (ignored by Gaukroger).

Any careful reader of my book will find that there were many different opinions about the status of metaphysics by 1600, just as there were many different reactions to Descartes’s Principia. As I show, condemnation of the latter as overly metaphysical had its roots in numerous trends that had developed over the previous two centuries, in medicine, alchemy, mathematics, theology, philology and conceptions of Asian philosophy, as they were all embedded into the system of higher education. But because Gaukroger does not work on any of these things, he wants everyone else to ignore them too. And so (his second point) he continues to credit a single diplomatic event, Westphalia, with a determining effect on European philosophy. He presents no proper evidence for this colossal claim; all his letter does is to restate his airy assertion. It certainly does not clarify it: in the review he said that Westphalia “undermined the claims of metaphysics”; in the letter that because of Westphalia, “the claims of metaphysics become a pressing matter of wide interest”. I must leave readers to choose between accepting his grandiose, unfounded and ever-shifting pronouncements, and reading the detailed account of the actual intellectual changes, and their many causes, that I set out in my book.

Dmitri Levitin
All Souls College, Oxford

Gentlemen’s clubs

Not all London gentlemen’s clubs were in London (see Andrew Martin’s review of Behind Closed Doors, October 28). When at the seaside for the summer, the London beaux had a home from home at Raggett’s in Brighton. Founded by George Raggett in about 1792 on the corner of St James’s Street and Old Steine, this establishment offered the wealthy a good dinner, followed by high-stakes gambling in the back rooms. “All the play in which you ever acted”, observed Sir Philip Francis in 1803, “is mere pippin squeezing compared to what is perpetually going forward here at Raggett’s. Every day we hear of ten or twenty thousand won or lost.” According to Osbert Sitwell: “In these rooms George Johnstone procured the means to give his grand parties, while it may have been here that Mr Mellish, less fortunate, played away his estate, by staking as much as £40,000 on a single throw” . In 1801 £1,000 was staked on a late-night game of billiards. In 1806 Lord Barrymore quarrelled with Humphry Howarth, MP for Evesham, over a game of whist: at dawn they faced one another with pistols on the Steine. When Lord Byron spent the summer of 1808 in Brighton with John Cam Hobhouse and the professional gambler Scrope Berdmore Davies, they inevitably resorted to Raggett’s.

It is usually said that Raggett founded his club as an offshoot of his London enterprises, but I suspect the opposite was the case: that he began in Brighton and gave up his business there when he took over White’s in London. Raggett’s was gone by 1815.

Graham Chainey

Alan Rickman’s diaries

I am heartened that Hal Jensen so enjoyed Madly, Deeply, the diaries of Alan Rickman (October 21). My task as the book’s editor was to distil well over a million words to a manageable and readable length. Jensen would like to know how I went about this. Is it not self-evident? It’s what editors do. What has been left out? A lot, obviously, that could have been accommodated given more space, but nothing that needed to be highlighted. Uppermost in my mind was the need to ensure that Alan’s inimitable voice is heard loud and clear, and that Madly, Deeply is true to his spirit.

Perplexingly, Jensen finds my admission – that I do not know whether Alan would have liked to see his diaries published – “startling”. Is it? Without Alan being around to inform us otherwise, all else is speculation.

Finally, Jensen asserts that “there are no reflective sequences on the art and craft of acting”. Allow me to quote from Alan’s early diaries (kept sporadically from 1974 to 1982), which are extracted in an appendix: “Fine always hits an audience with the force and oneness of the well-aimed bomb – one is only aware of the blast or series of blasts at the time – afterwards you can study the devastation or think about how a bomb is made. And yet no analogy suffices – the chemistry is too variable to construct an equation: an actor is about the only artist whose instrument is himself.

Alan Taylor
Bowden, Scottish Borders

Chips Channon

Michael Holzman is wrong to allege that Simon Heffer expurgated “many” references to Chips Channon’s sexual activities in his edition of Channon’s diaries (Letters, October 21). As Heffer told the Cliveden Literary Festival in October, he only expurgated one (particularly disgusting) sex act, and the rest of the ellipses related to Channon’s long lists of party guests. Mr Holzman therefore does not need to “quibble” over what he rightly calls Heffer’s “heroic editing” after all.

Andrew Roberts
London SW1

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