This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In defence of Seeley
Paul Sagar is surely right that renaming the Seeley history library at Cambridge is a distraction from helping current victims of oppression and injustice and benefits no one (“FIGHT THINGS THAT REALLY MATTER”, APRIL). It seems to me, however, that more can and should be said in defence of John Richard Seeley.
Seeley was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and a liberal-minded, erudite, imaginative, and even prescient geopolitical thinker. His goal, set out in his best-selling book The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures (1883), was to create a federal or confederal state that would combine the United Kingdom with other Anglophone countries which by then had nearly achieved de facto independence: mainly Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand.
Seeley’s geopolitical goal in proposing an Anglosphere federation was to counterbalance the power of what he saw as the emerging super-states of the future: the Russian Empire, Bismarck’s German Empire, and the vast, continental USA.
Seeley conceived his projected Anglophone federal state as a voluntary, equal union of peoples with shared history, culture, and language, as well as common legal and political values and institutions. These included, pre-eminently, the rule of law, individual liberties, and representative government.
The campaign to “cancel” Seeley is based on ignorance of history and the target of its hate grotesque.
Murdoch on the mat
Alexander Larman (“HOW TO BECOME A CULT WRITER”, APRIL) makes reference to Kate Winslet’s statement about Iris Murdoch: “I’m a great fan of hers, but I’ve never read any of her books”. Larman then claims “two decades later, this would attract little opprobrium”.
Leaving aside what Winslet found to admire in Iris Murdoch other than her written works (her tumultuous love life? Her famously messy house in Oxford?), why a woman who won the Booker prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea and was made a Dame in 1987 for services to literature should have receded so dramatically in our cultural consciousness deserves greater consideration.
One argument is that Murdoch’ wrote for — and about — a world that no longer exists: stuffy male-dominated academia, posh London finishing schools, and gothic Scottish castles. If the plot of a Trollope novel could be exploded by a phone call, then the plot of an Iris Murdoch novel could be exploded by the alcoholic, cheating, somewhat underachieving lead male character being made redundant in a drive for greater departmental diversity.
But surely that can’t be the case: the sometimes supernatural, highly artificial world of Murdoch’s fiction never depended on “relatability” for its success.
Rather, it must be the uncompromisingly moral nature of Murdoch’s fiction that has alienated modern readers. Murdoch — herself a practicing philosopher — puts moral dilemmas in her work: crises of faith, questions of “goodness”, people beholden to seemingly arbitrary laws. Her characters are not all “good” (murderers, adulterers, and narcissists among them), but they do force her readers to consider human life, and human nature, on a far bigger scale than the type of novels currently in vogue.
There is, of course, also the possibility that Larman’s assumption is wrong and that Kate Winslet’s statement might attract opprobrium now. Earlier this year, Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman published Metaphysical Animals — a book which made clear Murdoch’s contributions to philosophy. But, then again, the Iris Murdoch Archive Project seems to be dedicating itself to working on a book about Iris Murdoch’s beermats. What a fairly dishonourable defeat.
The war before
I agreed with much of what Marcus Walker said in his column (“OVER THERE IS NOW OVER HERE”, APRIL). I do, however, disagree with his assertion that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Europe’s first “state-on-state” war since the end of the Second World War.
It is true that the rump Yugoslavia of Serbia and Montenegro invaded Slovenia and Croatia before those former Yugoslav states achieved international recognition. But the JNA (the Yugoslav National Army) participated in the attacks on Zvornik and Bijelina in Bosnia just after Bosnia’s statehood was recognized by the UN in 1992, while the JNA and Serbian interior ministry paramilitary troops, known as the Red Scorpions, also participated in the justly notorious 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
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