I get a real jolt, usually on Saturday mornings if the French post office obliges, when I open my Times Literary Supplement (TLS) to the letters page and watch the long knives slide in and twist, often with considerable finesse.
The London-based magazine specializes in mind-stretching book reviews and esoteric essays but it is the letters page that I go to first -- and I suspect I'm not alone. In fact I know I'm not. "The letters are addictive, even when I don't know what they're talking about," says Canadian author Ann Tudor, a friend and a longtime TLS reader.
Here on public view every week are the world's most cultivated men and women, most of them established academics, venting their spleens over a critical barb or a well-turned sneer in a previous issue. The indignation in these little gems -- sometimes just a paragraph or two -- is sometimes almost comic.
As Henry Kissinger once said, paraphrasing Woodrow Wilson, "Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small."
The TLS letters are no mere blogosphere rants by nameless individuals. They are weighty cudgels from the academic crème de la crème. And their passions exist in some kind of parallel universe -- detached from the real world of politics and oil spills.
I have been collecting my favorite TLS letters for the past six months or so, looking for patterns. Alas, I'm like that Canadian writer. I often barely understand what they're talking about, much less what's at stake.
The letters are in two categories: yelps about a reviewer's comments, and yelps about a letter knocking a review. Sometimes the thrusts and parries go on for months, with several professors dragging out factoids they are eager to display.
Having a letter published there is almost as good for an academic career as getting a bona fide article accepted. One's colleagues notice.
A long-running debate over Dostoevsky's state of mind while writing The Brothers Karamazov is one of the more exhaustive cases of viciousness over small stakes. Dostoevsky dominated the letters page off and on from January to April over the relationship between psychological disorders explored in his classic novel and Dostoevsky's own ailments, including epilepsy and paranoia. Prof. Emeritus James L. Rice of the University of Oregon probably had no idea what a firestorm he was igniting with his erudite 4,000-word essay.
Rice, a Harvard Magna cum laude graduate and respected voice in Slavic literature, found himself attacked for "fanciful speculations" and "applying (medical and psychiatric) ideas to Dostoevsky's texts and thereby distorting them to make them fit." Cambridge University Prof. Diane Thompson, the letter writer, accused him of "a sustained exercise in reductionism."
Another letter in the same issue informed us that the innocent reader "has not, unlike myself, published five volumes on Dostoevsky's life and works," and went on to pick at Rice's essay.
A few weeks later Rice shot back that some of the comment on his work was "pure sophistry and pointless bravado." The fight was not yet over. Prof. Thompson seemed determined to wipe the floor with him. His defense, she wrote in a subsequent edition, was laden with "serious errors and misreadings," and proceeded to instruct him in a secondary meaning of the Russian word "zhizn" (life). Prof. Rice concluded the debate with a couple of withering barbs, accusing Prof. Thompson of, among other things, being "deaf to Dostoevsky's irony."
Separate from the Dostoevsky debates, I saved another letter that required two or three readings to grasp. The writer took an author to task for hopeless confusion. "It is true," he wrote, "that post-Impressionist painting, Darwinian theory and Heidegger's question of Being all participate in modernity's radically altered understanding of human existence and our place in the world…. Notwithstanding their shared reliance on the word 'origin,' Darwin's and Heidegger's ideas move in utterly different conceptual spaces." I guess he had a point. At least a small one.
In the obscurity category came a letter from an author about a very small world indeed. Responding to a previous letter criticizing him, he explained, "Readers of the TLS unfamiliar with the field of historical scholarship on Madagascar may find themselves perplexed by the emotional tone of a recent letter." The letter-writer under attack had claimed to be a leading historian of Madagascar, to which the aggrieved author retorted, "I would like to point out that in the English-speaking world, there are only three of us."
Sometimes the letter-writer admits to confusion. "In his review of Amartya Sen's 'The Idea of Justice', John Tasiolas mentions that a footnote in the book reveals that the famous anecdote about Piero Sraffa brushing his chin with his fingertips, in a familiar Neopolitan gesture of skepticism, and demanding of Wittgenstein 'What is the logical form of this?' may be apocryphal." The writer claimed to have asked Sraffa once to confirm the anecdote, which he did, and to demonstrate the gesture. "Unfortunately, the writer adds, "I can no longer remember how you do it."
Another wounded author took a deep breath and set things straight. "Shlomo Sand's response to my review of the parody of historical scholarship he presents in his book illustrates perfectly the accuracy of my critique. In his letter, he substitutes belligerence for argument, and misrepresents the research by others which he quarries. His letter is replete with irrelevance, innuendo and inaccuracy."
Another letter notes that an author was unhappy being caught out in an argument over the meaning of "prime mover" as used by Latin Aristoteleans. "I called the confusion 'a howler'. Professor Hart now pleads guilty to the lesser charge of laziness in failing to make the distinction clear. But it is good to learn that he is very much better informed on these matters than is evident from a reading of his book."
The surprise ending category includes this letter, worth quoting in its entirety:
I have just read Jon Garvie's review of Jan Morris's book 'Contact!' and I found the review to be so rude, disdainful and ill-considered that it was with great pleasure that I ordered the book immediately."