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Sarah Gellner on Ernest Gellner

In response to Stefan Collini’s article on Ernest Gellner in the London Review of Books, Sarah Gellner wrote a letter detailing personal memories of her father and his opinions. I don’t think this needs any commentary other than to say that her account coheres with my general picture of Gellner Sr., and that it perhaps holds some clues to understanding better the intellectual milieus he both inhabited and fought against, particularly their limitations.

Vol. 33 No. 16 · 25 August 2011

From Sarah Gellner

It was good to read Stefan Collini’s attempt to get a grip on the difficult and contradictory person that was my father, Ernest Gellner; an attempt I’ve been making and failing at all my life (LRB, 2 June). Funny, Dad’s professional reluctance to occupy a ‘field’, the point that everyone makes about him. Actually, ‘field’ in the academic sense was one of his favourite terms. ‘That’s not your field’; ‘What’s his field?’ As a pony-mad girl, I, like Weber apparently, found this mildly amusing, but my father wasn’t being funny.

I never got on with him. I believed he never liked me, never admired anything I did, made me feel constantly inadequate and disappointing, if not downright embarrassing. Perhaps the problem was due simply to my being a certain type of woman. Whatever else he was, Ernest Gellner was not a feminist. Anyone familiar with his work would agree that the absence of interest in gender in his anthropological and sociological output is striking given that, as Collini says, he wasn’t a man to let his own ignorance on any subject hold him back. I think that, sensing his own instincts here were out of place, he never found anything acceptable to say on the subject. Many of his favourite jokes were frankly unacceptable. ‘Rape, rape, rape, all summer long’ was one. But that didn’t hold him back in private.

So although most of what Collini writes is spot on, as far as I can judge, I think he is wrong to call him a sexual liberal. If there was one thing Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men. He was not happy to receive a request in the 1980s, asking for him to support the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16. I remember being baffled by his appeal to me on quasi-feminist grounds: that this would make young men vulnerable in just the same way I claimed young women already were. ‘So you think the age of consent for girls should be raised to 21?’ I asked. He just walked away. Perhaps this is all part of the elusive unlikeability Collini is looking for. I think so. My father was frank and honest to a fault about many things, but not about everything, and not always about himself.

Politically, he and I were on opposite sides in the 1980s. He was enamoured of Margaret Thatcher, just when my left-wing fervour was at its peak. He also hated the Guardian. His closest friends then, and later, were conservatives; Ken Minogue, Oliver Letwin’s mother, Shirley. He had long since fallen out with Ralph Miliband, I believe on political grounds. In earlier decades he might have voted Liberal, but never Labour, in the deep Tory countryside where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was nowhere there; all the daring bohemian types voted Liberal. My father loved it there, in the English Tory heartland; they were the happiest days of his life.

Sarah Gellner
London SE11

In general I enjoy Ernest Gellner’s writing even when I find him to be too dismissive of speculative theorizing, but I do think that details like the ones Sarah Gellner provides are integral to his intellectual stance, and not irrelevant personal peccadilloes.

(See also Cosma Shalizi’s overview of Gellner.)

Michael Hofmann on Thomas Bernhard: Missing the Point

I was disappointed in Hofmann’s article on Bernhard, Reger Said, in the LRB, not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. Yes, there is a lot of ranting in some of his books, particularly the one Hofmann is discussing, Old Masters, as well as the contemporaneous Woodcutters, but it is only one side of Bernhard’s work, and it is always contextualized.  It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target. (And since Hofmann translated Bernhard’s rather rantless early novel Frost, for which I give thanks, he knows there is more.) But if Bernhard were the grumpy caricature Hofmann paints him as, his books would be nowhere near as affecting. So I will interrogate the article to draw out the depths.


They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant.

I would say that the seams show, constantly. For all Hofmann makes of how the voices in a Bernhard book merge together into a unity, the constant lurch into the histrionic and the lack of proportion, the way in which a Bernhard narrator will go from attacking Nazis to, say, attacking cheese, makes his rants somewhat less than focused bursts of fury. He is not Karl Kraus and nor is he trying to be. (He’s better.) Extinction is where this agonized self-undermining is most on display. It’s his deepest rant, as the narrator constantly defers dealing with the real monstrousness at hand, a monstrousness for which he feels intensely responsible, by focusing on smaller topics and frivolous insults:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it.


This is not a focused rant, nor even a curved one, but a looping spiral collapsing inward on itself. Opinion gives way to the very hatred of one’s self for expressing an opinion. To express an opinion is to lower yourself to the level of what you’re attacking, as the narrator of Woodcutters realizes over and over again, not that he can stop. But what can you do?


Something is being clobbered so hard that we laugh – quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re nervous, we don’t think anyone could say all this and mean it. He means it, all right.

The indefinite antecedents here–“all this,” “it”–are precisely the crux of the issue. He means what? All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount. Odd that Hofmann should mention Nietzsche, one pole of Bernhard’s rhetorical world-view, without mentioning the other: Beckett. Nietzsche was determined to be anything but a nihilist, to be the very greatest non-nihilist there could be, to say “Yes” to life. Though Bernhard grasped Nietzsche’s subversive tricks in his rhetoric and his staged exaggerations, Bernhard would never give that Yes. Hell, Bernhard wrote a book called Yes in which the titular “Yes” is the dubious answer to the question “Will you kill yourself some day?” Hofmann seems to have missed the other pole. Ranting is an affirmation of an opinion. The narrators are in no condition to make affirmations. Their affirmations are empty. They are evading.

The rant is a dodge. If the narrator shuts up for a second, the real wretchedness, the void and the evil and the pain, will come crashing down. And it always does. Philosophically, Bernhard is Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche exhaustingly rejected for his endless NO.


The book ends with a cautious stab at a little more of the world: Reger has, ill-advisedly in view of much that has gone before, purchased a couple of theatre tickets, and invites Atzbacher to take in a show with him. It is Kleist’s comedy The Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater. ‘The performance was terrible,’ Atzbacher notes in the book’s last put-down. It is a real ending, slight but real, no mean feat.

In fact, this is only the denouement, the final punchline. Considered apart from what has gone just before, it is only another insult. But that last put-down comes, crucially, after the veil has briefly fallen and the narrator’s energy has failed him.

A person today is at everyone’s mercy, unprotected, we are dealing today with a totally unprotected person, totally at everyone’s mercy, a mere decade ago people felt more or less protected but today they are exposed to total unprotectedness, Reger said at the Ambassador. They can no longer hide, there is no hiding place left, that is what is so terrible, Reger said, everything has become transparent and thereby unprotected; in other words there is no hope of escape left today, people, no matter where they are, are everywhere hustled and incited and flee and escape and no longer find a refuge to escape to, unless of course they choose death, that is a fact, Reger said, that is the sinister aspect, because the world today is no longer mysterious but only sinister….

The death of my wife has not only been my greatest misfortune, it has also set me free. With the death of my wife I have become free, he said, and when I say free I mean entirely free, wholly free, completely free, if you know, or if at least you surmise, what I mean. I am no longer waiting for death, it will come by itself, it will come without my thinking of it, it does not matter to me when. The death of a beloved person is also an enormous liberation of our whole system, Reger now said.

Old Masters

This is serious stuff. This is not a rant. What follows–the return to the rant, a few more tossed-off insults–is just the evasive engine turning over a few more times, the continuation of the futile effort to will one’s self out of the pain of living. It only further offsets Reger’s prior naked moment. And yet Hofmann ignores that moment. How could he miss it? It’s the wrenched heart of the book. Hofmann only disparages the wife, as though she meant nothing to Reger, when in fact she quite obviously meant everything, a fact Reger tries furiously to ignore, only to finally give up, at least for a moment. It’s as if Bernhard were writing a character named Michael Hofmann but forgot to insert all the self-doubt and self-hatred and sorrow. All the meaning, as it were.

Keith Thomas on Research and Notetaking

Keith Thomas wrote, among other things, Religion and the Decline of Magic, which, like all his books, is a monstrous, almost Robert Burton-ish, tome of obscure facts carefully arranged. I found his reflections on his working methods to be touching and, I think, humble:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

Yet as I pick my way through my accumulation of handwritten material, I don’t feel depressed. The thousands of used envelopes themselves give me a good deal of nostalgic pleasure; they remind me of old friends, of institutions with which I have been associated and of the secondhand booksellers who have sent me catalogues over the years. Admittedly, they also remind me of many false starts: topics I began on, tired of or discovered were being written up by somebody else. But that is a challenge to reorder my materials as the world moves on and my interests change. In his essay ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, appended to his The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills reassuringly remarks that ‘the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added, is an index of your intellectual progress … As you rearrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination.’

Keith Thomas

Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman

Rejecting any possibility of an essential identity, his notion is of the self as purely contingent, a shape-shifting construction of altering circumstances. The individual, Goffman says, arrives into an already established social world, and is shaped by, rather than shapes, his environment. All interaction is performance; each individual (or ‘team’) performs for the other and is the other’s audience. Careful ritual and fear of embarrassment are all that hold social order together, which results in the social actor’s impression management being colluded with (if it is not too incompetent or absurd: the comb-over in preference to a bad wig) by the audience, which no more wishes to be embarrassed by the unmasking of the other than the other wishes to be unmasked.

Thus we are actors or con artists or gamblers or audiences or team members or marks, who walk into discrete situational frames and become whatever will get us through. There is no essential morality, only human nature, anxious risk avoidance or calculative dealings. Read Goffman all these years on, and you see the ghostly images of sociobiology and Thatcherism to come. He made no pretence that he was doing anything about the world, he merely described it, using the metaphor of drama as a tool. When he was accused, as he had to be in the early 1970s, of making no attempt to analyse the world in terms of social or economic advantage or disadvantage, or to reveal the true reality behind appearances, he shrugged: ‘I think that is true. I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.’ He had no interest in endearing himself to others.

More than thirty years later, academic sociologists are still enraged or delighted by him for his refusal to conform to the rules of sociology, his lack of political passion, his early perception of the fragmented, postmodern, socially constructed individual, his contempt for orthodoxies (we sociologists ‘haven’t managed to produce in our students the high level of trained incompetence that psychologists have achieved in theirs, although, God knows, we’re working on it’). According to Thomas Scheff’s essay, his work is ‘so advanced that we haven’t yet understood it . . . none of us, not even his fans are yet as free of the assumptive world as Goffman. We haven’t caught up with him yet.’ Norman Denzin, on the other hand, believes he offered a sociology ‘that seemed to turn human beings into Kafkaesque insects to be studied under glass’. He did not address ‘social injustice, violence or war under capitalism’. Goffman’s actors were men and women in grey flannel suits who did not resist, ‘they conformed to the requirements of a local and global capitalism that erased class, race and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature . . . Capital was a missing term . . . His was a universal sociology, part of a pandisciplinary project, that moved from linguistics to psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics.’

I am still unable to understand what is so wrong with a pandisciplinary project, but I can see the rest of Denzin’s point. Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where there is nowhere to run; a perpetual dinner party of status seeking, jockeying for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes a nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are performing; either type of performance is believed in or it is not. There is, as Goffman repeatedly says, no real reality. Still, you wonder, what is it then in either actor or audience that’s doing the believing or not believing? And when the individual is alone, does she continue to perform for herself? Always? And when she is asleep and dreaming? And if she is ever not performing, what or who is she? Certainly something, because Javier Treviño tells us Goffman acknowledged that the self is ‘always “anchored” in an individual’s “continuing biography” before and after every social event’. I remain baffled, no image comes of this accrued history sitting alone in her bath with flashes of me-ness in between performances. Marshall Berman is quoted as writing of Goffman: ‘Although he was magnificent at evoking human situations, he seemed . . . to lack empathy with actual human beings. People seemed to exist for him only as manipulative players in an endless series of games people play. Feelings, emotions, love, hate, the self, did not seem to come in anywhere at all.’

“Think of Mrs Darling,” LRB, 4 March 2004

But I don’t see how Berman’s assessment can be. For me the anger seeps off the page in his books, especially Asylums, which had to be the inspiration for Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies a few years later. He just knew how difficult the task of action would be, and abdicated responsibility.

And how much more concrete and realistic his visions are than the abstractions given to us by our contemporary social theorists. If we can’t generalize from the reality at hand, the one Goffman described, to the greater world situation, that is our blindness and not his.

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