LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Letters


Demonising Nationalism

Tom Nairn cannot have meant to understate the nature or impact of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia when he wrote that the term may have originated with Jose-Maria Mendiluce, the special envoy of UNHCR, and might therefore be a sort of journalistic vernacular (LRB, 25 February). Actually, Mendiluce told me that he thought he’d come up with the term himself (blushing to recall that he’d originally said ‘cleaning’) and had only later discovered that the phrase was consciously used by the Serbian militias. At least as early as last April, the reporter for Belgrade TV happily described the Bosnian city of Zvornik as ‘clean’ after the enforced departure of its surviving inhabitants. The use of that journalistic vernacular might suggest that the term was not unfamiliar to the intended audience, or to the programme controllers. Mendiluce, incidentally, is a Basque with a fine record of humane work in Kurdistan, and has ideas of his own about the rights of small nations. It is the Serbian irredentists, unable to countenance any co-existence with weaker and smaller neighbours, who are most in need of Nairn’s advice about the virtues of disseminated self-determination.

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC


White Coats v. Bow Ties

Susan Wilsmore concludes oddly that I would advocate the removal of an 18th-century nose from an antique bust because this would bring the sculpture closer to its original condition and to the artist’s original intentions (Letters, 11 March). I have, in fact, complained in print about the rash removal of old restorations to sculpture. If the nose is well done, I would recommend that it be kept and precisely because the sculptor did intend that there should be a nose. If the nose job changes the character of the face or if the nose (being in plaster) has discoloured, then it may be a different matter. Generally if a nose is removed I would recommend adding a new one, not least because chiselled scars are more distracting than natural breaks. It would be best if it were obvious that any new nose was new, but only on close scrutiny – that is where ‘tact and presentation’ come in. As for ‘familiarity’, it is surely the case, with a collection in which ancient sculpture has not been restored, that we soon get into the habit of adding noses in our imagination, and also true that if we are expecting restoration we learn to look for it.

Ms Wilsmore also repeats claims about solvents used in cleaning oil paint – not a problem addressed in my review. Were it to be established that a solvent used in cleaning destroyed the oil paint to which it was applied, there would be no argument in favour of its use. Mr Daley, in his letter in the same issue, refers to shadows recorded by copyists soon after Michelangelo had finished painting the Sistine ceiling. The copies – they are drawings and prints, not paintings – made of the ceiling in the 16th century are illustrated and discussed in the catalogue of the exhibition Michelangelo e la Sistina held in the Vatican in 1990. Few have survived which were in fact executed soon after the ceiling was finished and not all of those made later constitute reliable evidence, but none of them support the claims Daley makes. I am surprised to learn that it is a ‘matter of record’ that the painting was ‘praised precisely for its unprecedentedly dramatic chiaroscuro’. As for the cracks on the ceiling, one went across the chest of an ignudo and when it was repaired in the 1560s a portion of the original painted plaster was buried within it: this was found to be without trace of the glue-painting which Daley believes to be by Michelangelo. Here, too, the reader is referred to the Vatican catalogue, which records an examination of the ceiling far more profound than any that could have been undertaken in the last century.

Nicholas Penny
London W9


The Paris Strangler

While I was in jail in Pretoria for two decades in consequence of my pursuit of the Marxist ideal, one of my fellow inmates, serving a mere seven years, had spent some time in the Sorbonne reading for an MA in politics. He had sat at the feet of Louis Althusser (LRB, 17 December 1992), and expressed his admiration for the maestro by running seminars on the thought of Althusser for us. Marxists are not merely concerned with a delineation of Communist society – an ideal which seems somewhat further away now since my release. In fact, Marx himself was rather coy about a detailed description of Communism for fear of being regarded as a utopian. Marxists also present a critique of capitalism in much greater detail. A part of this is the analysis of the state, which was particularly the concern of Lenin.

In prison, we discussed Althusser’s notions of ideology and ideological state apparatuses. According to him, these serve to bolster the capitalist state, and he lists the family among other institutions as an ideological state apparatus. Thus, if one is opposed to capitalism, one can contribute to its downfall by undermining ideological state apparatuses. Therefore it might seem logical to destroy that foundation of capitalism, the family, by strangling one’s wife.

My comrade was not impressed when I put this to him after we heard of Althusser’s action. He continued in his respect for Althusser’s erudition and incision by imitating his style to some effect, although not in spouse-strangling. In deciding whether Althusser was motivated by lunacy or logic, it would have helped if he could have strangled some children as well, but it seems that none came to hand.

David Kitson
Harare


Down with decision theory

John Allen Paulos’s odd non-review of the unfortunately-titled Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (LRB, 11 March) did nothing to assuage my concerns about mathematicians’ imperialist meddling along the interesting borderlines between rational thought or behaviour and this ‘Other’ of ‘irrationality’, apparently to be reviled. There was a widely-differing range of ‘examples’ Paulos mentioned in his piece, though with no discussion of what each contributed to identifying or understanding irrational thinking. He generally cited studies by others rather than discussed what Sutherland had to say about them – assuming they even were from his book. At times, it was quite unclear whether what we got was just Paulos telling us about a motley collection of studies (e.g, the Wason experiment on cards) that he knew about.

Paulos informed us that a sequel to a great movie being not as great as its original may ‘simply be another instance of regression to the mean’. Eh? Pretty implausible, I thought but how to defend against such a claim? Does ‘regression to the mean’ explain anything – or merely explain away? What on earth could ‘the mean’ mean here, where there is at best a highly finite, underlying (and only potential) distribution (with the possible exception of the Rocky collection of films)?

The situation he reported with regard to the two different sums of money won with different probabilities shows a similar problem. The fact that mathematical comparison fails to distinguish the two scenarios may actually be a criticism of mathematics for not reflecting or attending to salient distinctions. The point is surely with the stage scenario that you can make the decision at stage one – and it depends on your gambling nature whether you take the then certain £30 or continue on for a second risk. The situations are not equivalent to me! His discussion certainly suggests that probabilities are things of this world that can be known or discovered. But probability is not part of the material world. It is not observable. Everything that happens, happens with 100 per cent probability every time. And I am often not interested in average expected gain. I am interested in the actual outcome when I carry out an action – and probability has almost nothing to say to me about that singular occurrence that has never happened before nor can again.

Consider the following situation. I have to decide whether or not to inoculate my child against whooping cough. I am told that the statistics about the vaccine causing brain damage are 1 in so many. I am also told that the statistics on child deaths from whooping cough are 1 in some other many. What do I do? My decision cannot be just to compare the two rates. That is to compare unalike things. My vaccination decision is now – and at the end of it I will either have a brain-damaged child or I won’t. The statistics on death from whooping cough only refer to a future possibility – once my child catches whooping cough. So I am trying to compare a present about-to-be-actual state with a possible future state. And these apparent probabilistic ‘facts’ fail to make important distinctions – the rates are not uniform geographically, nor across social class, to name but two. I can continue to make distinctions, until I get down to the actual circumstances of our life, even the genetic make-up of my child. Because that is what I am interested in – not average rates and likelihoods.

Paulos in passing mentions QALYs. On a TV programme a while ago, the sociologist inventor of QALY (the Quality-Adjusted Life Year) was interviewed and asked the pertinent question: is this a helpful way to think about the value of human life? In the telling subtitle to his book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, Joseph Weizenbaum identifies precisely my major area of concern: namely, the way in which human judgments are being devalued and eventually ignored in preference to calculations – as if the latter were somehow preferable.

I end by offering a more interesting form of ‘irrational’ thinking, Gregory Bateson’s spectacular pseudo-syllogism:

Grass dies;
Men die;
Men are grass.

I think Bateson is onto something fundamental about how humans think creatively (and the implicit role of metaphor). But Bateson had no need of clothing such a style of creative argument (known pejoratively as ‘affirming the consequent’) in the virtuous trappings of ‘rationality’ and ‘logic’. There is much work to be done on the development of human rationality. I think it also worth exploring the concomitant fear of irrationality, one which I felt lurking beneath the surface of Paulos’s piece. He seems to see rationality as objectified with rules and procedures of its own – so I imagine that current discussions with regard to whose rationality, discourse and rules and procedures (e.g. Women’s Ways of Knowing by Belensky et al, or Gillingan’s In a Different Voice) will leave him cold.

I have not yet read Sutherland’s book. But if Paulos is giving an accurate reflection of the tenor and range of examples, it seems to offer a far from full account of thinking, which is a far more interesting phenomenon than certainly Paulos would have us believe. Richard Noss has written: ‘the belief that mathematical thinking is genuinely superior to practical thinking is deeply embedded in Western culture; it forms part of the ideology of what it means to think abstractly, perhaps even what it means to think.’ I claim mathematics actually plays a far smaller and less significant part in rational thinking about the material world around us. What’s more, I bet Paulos believes people wouldn’t gamble if they understood probability theory a bit more.

David Pimm
Faculty of Mathematics,

John Allen Paulos writes: Mr Pimm raises the spectre of mindless cretins churning away at scientistic and inadequate algorithms and in the process oppressing us all. Unfortunately, this vision is at best tenuously related to the contents of Mr Sutherland’s fine book or my review of it. On a more positive note, he has discovered that any situation can be analysed in greater depth, with more attention to nuances and complications. This is a remarkable insight and he should be proud of himself.


Nationalising English

Francis Bennion (Letters, 11 March) is quite wrong on a number of counts. That Standard English may from time to time aid communication between speakers of different varieties of English is undeniable. This does not mean, however, that all other English dialects should be replaced by Standard English, rather than living alongside it as equally respected varieties of the language. This is not necessary; witness the Swiss Germans who have achieved one of the best standards of living and one of the highest educational levels in the world while still all speaking dialect. At a time when, apparently, the Minister of Education wants us all to speak the same dialect – his own, no doubt – those of us who delight in the English language in all its manifestations should resist such government-inspired drives to uniformity.

Peter Trudgill
University of Lausanne,


Monstrous

Perhaps, in his sesquicentennial year, we can dispense with citing the denunciations of Henry James, cub critic, as though his literary disdain, once incurred, remained fixed for life. Like other sentient mortals, he some times changed his mind; and his slam at Drum-Taps (Letters, 25 February) dates from 16 November 1865, when the clever carper was 22. By century’s turn his opinion had changed. Edith Wharton recorded that ‘it was a joy to me to discover that James thought [Whitman], as I did, the greatest of American poets. Leaves of Grass was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from “The Song of Myself” to “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” … and thence let himself be lured on to the mysterious music of “Out of the Cradle”, reading, or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy.’ ‘Oh, yes, a great genius; undoubtedly a very great genius! Only one cannot help deploring his too-extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.’ (A barb one might have aimed against Hank himself.)

Anyone who reads in chronological order James’s gathered writings on Trollope, or George Eliot, or George Sand or many others (conveniently collected in two stout Library of America volumes) will recognise how the novice reviewer’s sympathies broadened and deepened as the seasoned artist matured. How many of us latecomers were just as assertively mistaken about our elders and competitors, when we were two-and-twenty?

Warren Keith Wright
Arbyrd, Missouri


Magnum Opus

I have not yet found a publisher to commission my magnum opus, The Red-Light Districts of the World. Consequently, I am having to employ more devious ways of funding my researches. I have already trawled the depths of Dublin, Cairo, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Kyoto, Izmir and Istanbul, Athens, Tel Aviv and Toronto, but need to cover another thirty destinations. What I would like to ask, therefore, is that LRB readers resident in cities with a thriving vice trade petition their local branch of the British Council to invite me over for a poetry reading or lecture tour. (I could then head downtown after my official job was over …) I would also be interested in receiving the names and addresses of readers’ favourite brothels, strip joints, live shows, massage parlours, dens of iniquity etc. All I can promise in return is an honourable mention on the Acknowledgments page (or anonymity if preferred).

If any reader on this side of the water is in a position to commission travel articles for a newspaper or magazine, I would be prepared to write up the more respectable side of any city while researching its under-belly after hours. Contrary to popular belief, I am amply qualified to comment on culture as I have a degree in fine art with a distinction in art history. I have also almost completed my second travel-book – a travelogue based on the sites connected with the god Pan.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
7 Ebenezer Road, Hastings


Bad

Andrew O’Hagan’s Diary (LRB, 11 March) brought some note of honesty and reality to the sad death of the little boy in Liverpool. I myself remember torturing one of my brothers, four years younger than me, whom I adored, by putting him in a cage of chicken wire and feeding him rotten walnuts. (I was seven.) Seeing on television the adults going berserk and trying to storm the van containing the ten-year-olds on their way to be charged was horrific. Once I was in New York at night when a man snatched a woman’s handbag. He was then pursued by two young men who chased him up Lexington Avenue, knocked him down, and kicked him savagely in the stomach encouraged to do so by the people watching. Their ‘justified’ brutality seemed worse, because of the hypocrisy involved, than the original crime.

Elisa Segrave
London W8

I was not clear, having waded through Mr O’Hagan’s catalogue of beastly and criminal behaviour, what point he wanted to make. It could have been that deep inside any ‘nasty persistent juvenile little offender’ is an assistant literary editor trying to escape. It could have been that most families in Scotland on dog-infested Badlands council estates, with parents in dead-end jobs and violence the norm in family life, behave in an anti-social way. O’Hagan offers no explanation. ‘Why’ is never asked. There is no insight given: there is nothing constructive offered. My own childhood and those of my friends was probably no better or worse off than his but bore no relation whatever to what he described. At a time of public hysteria over juvenile and adult crime, this article merely seems to say that cruelty and crime is a perfectly normal way of passing your childhood. Or am I missing something?

David Townsend
Director of Social Services, London Borough of Croydon