TCS’ Senior Editors take a look over the letters from our readers this week…
There was a rather good article published on the 18th of August about the Gilgamesh epic. An interesting account of the history of the epic’s reception and a pertinent interrogation of the way we think about ‘the canon’, it sent me scurrying back to The Legacy of Rome, edited by Richard Jenkyns. This fine collection of essays about Rome’s influence on later centuries makes for good bedtime browsing.
The observations are not always particularly profound or original – there are only so many books and articles one can read by the late, great David Watkin asserting the vitality and recurrence of Roman ideas about architecture in the history of the West and rubbishing the Renaissance-Greek Revival-Gothic Revival-Modernist chronology. But this book is no virtuous, tasteless gruel. It is rather, as Waugh put it in the Preface to Brideshead Revisited, ‘infused with a kind of gluttony for the splendours of the past’.
As the parade of heroes passes before Aeneas in august succession in the underworld, one noble Roman name following fast on another (which Auden memorably satirised as ‘hindsight as foresight’ in ‘Secondary Epic’), so the reader of Jasper Griffen’s chapter on Virgil’s legacy surfeits on a veritable cornucopia of great literature. From Chaucer’s charmingly apologetic reworking of the Aeneid‘s prologue in The House of Fame (‘I wol now singen, yif I can / The armies and also the man’ – has there ever been a more accurate encapsulation of English shyness than the blushing ‘yif I can’?) to Marlow’s bombastic Dido Queen of Carthage, Milton’s Paradise Lost and the playful burlesque of the eighteenth century Augustans, Swift and Pope, from the Earl of Surrey’s translation of the Aeneid to Dryden’s seminal effort, the familiar list of names testify to a dazzling influence.
More unexpected are some of the more acerbic comments on the Roman poet. The Romantics (with the exceptions of Keats and Wordsworth) preferred the grim, torturous Lucan to the ‘harmonious plagiary and miserable flatterer, whose cursed hexameters were drilled into me at Harrow’ described by Byron. Virgil fiercely divided the Modernists. T.S Eliot’s grand praise is tempered by the spectacularly caustic judgment of Ezra Pound, who wrote ‘he has no story worth telling, no sense of personality. His hero is a stick who would have contributed to the New Statesman‘.
This golden Augustan afternoon, when the fiery debates of 1866 between Gladstone and Robert Lowe could ‘exhaust the Second Book of the Aeneid‘, when a Virgil-soaked curriculum produced paintings by Turner of Carthage and the Virgil-inspired garden at Stourhead, has long since passed. Churchill’s clumsy remarks in the House of Commons are a fitting epitaph; ‘I must now warn the House that I am going to make an unusual departure. I am going to make a Latin quotation…’ The quotation? The most hackneyed Latin tag, ‘arma virumque cano’. The (mis)translation? ‘Arms and the men I sing’!
– Pretentious in Peterhouse
It is difficult not to grimace at the irony of TCS removing an article about ‘wokeness’ because of ‘upset’ that may have been ‘caused by this piece’. I am writing about the recent drama surrounding “J.K. Rowling and the Woke Misogyny” by Samuel Rubinstein, which was published by TCS on the morning of the 6th of November, before being taken down on the afternoon of that same day. My time as a student at Cambridge has taught me to expect this sort of conduct from Varsity, which I doubt would even publish the piece in the first place. I had hoped that TCS would have greater journalistic integrity.
Mr Rubinstein’s point, as I understand it, was that, whatever you think about J.K. Rowling’s views on trans issues, the abuse that she has received is reprehensible and misogynistic. The article was a discussion of the insidious ways in which misogynists and bullies try to get away with their misogynistic bullying by deluding themselves into believing that they are fighting for a noble cause. If J.K. Rowling is subject to horrific vitriol, these unpleasant individuals suggest, she either deserves it for being a ‘TERF’, or she is necessary collateral in the great moral crusade of our times.
Such a worldview is obviously appalling, but I take comfort in the knowledge that it is held by only a tiny minority of people. It happens that this tiny minority enjoys outsized influence in Cambridge, and it happens that they are loud and obnoxious enough to get TCS to take down articles they don’t like. But in the real world, beyond this echo chamber, these people and their ideas are negligible. Even on the left-of-centre media, their position is peripheral. The Guardian and The New Statesman have published articles similar to Mr Rubinstein’s, which were not subsequently removed. In the world beyond Cambridge, where media outlets don’t acquiesce to the ridiculous demands of this fringe group, people who try to contest or qualify the unambiguous statement that ‘rape threats are bad’ are treated as highly suspect, not worthy of being taken seriously.
And even in the Cambridge echo chamber there is still a glimmer of hope. Look no further than the backlash against TCS over the removal of the article, which seems far greater than the initial opposition to the article itself. Even in Cambridge, most people saw the contents of the article as entirely reasonable, its underlying point, if anything, being a bit bland. The small group who celebrated TCS’s decision to take the article down ended up bolstering the author’s point: not only do the woke misogynists sincerely believe that they are justified in the abuse they direct towards Rowling and other ‘TERF’ women; their perspective on the world is so absurd and so fragile that they require everyone who disagrees with them to be censored.
To condemn the online abuse of J.K. Rowling – the rape threats, the death threats, the dismissal of her experience of abuse – as despicable and misogynistic is not a controversial or offensive opinion. That it had to be stated in the first place is remarkable enough. That the article was then taken down, and that TCS felt obliged to apologise for it, is downright disturbing.
– Troubled in Trinity
I am writing to express serious concern about your Sex and Relationships editor. I had come to expect (or sex-pect…) useful tips for my carnal activities and mild titillation from this excellent section. In light of this, the most recent articles have proved spectacularly disappointing. Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that your editor has never even had sex. Surely this is an essential (and, perhaps, the only) qualification for such a coveted editorship? I think a confessional article or interview of some sort would go a long way towards clearing up the confusion.
– Randy in Robinson