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Think of Lear

The point that is lost in Ruth Padel’s essay on ‘The Female Role in Opera’ (LRB, 23 January) has to do with two elements that often play a role in male musical and literary laments: exile and death. While women, as Padel points out, are left behind by their mobile lovers and mates, it is men who are pushed out, or away, or made somehow unable to return – think of Oedipus or Lear – to a lost homeland, order or world. This relation to things and source of suffering may well recapitulate the early experience of birth and then childhood: of expulsion and separation from the mother, a fate equivalent for the male to abandonment. Oedipus, after all, laments, as does Lear – and in male, not female, terms. They lament the loss of homeland, family, power, their good name. They, too, have in a sense been ‘jilted’, just as the many female figures Padel mentions have been. While this is not obviously sexual, one could argue that the sense of expulsion, of the eternality of a condition close to damnation, recapitulating as it does the earliest male experiences, also recapitulates sexual experience; the male, who pursues, enters and is then inevitably expelled, losing (or at least giving up) the paradise or home in flesh he has momentarily found. It may be possible to see or understand all male lamentation about exile or loss as a lamentation about the loss of a relation to women, and as expressive of a sense of eternal solitude that parallels, but is not expressed through, female laments. The second possibility – that death rules the lamentations of men – may be even more significant. Death after all is the single power which proves stronger than masculine dominion over women and the world.

Peter Marin
Santa Barbara, California

The Passing Show

I was married to Martin Orr Milligan from 1955 to 1972, and would like to rebut the remark made by Ian Hacking in his review of On Blindness (LRB, 2 January) that Martin Milligan was a ‘womaniser’. Nothing could be further from the truth. He certainly enjoyed verbal flirtations with women but that was as far as it went, or needed to go, on both sides. Being totally blind, he made the best use of his main form of communication: speech. Nor did Milligan ever live in the slums. He had to attend school there and took the trouble to learn of the conditions in which his schoolmates lived. This made him realise why many poor people were unable to take advantage of the excellent teaching which was available in the Thirties even in the poorest parts of Glasgow.

Jeannette Taylor

Until he was seven years old, Martin Milligan lived on a newly-built Glasgow council estate and, thereafter, in Strathaven – a small, historic and delightful country town. It should also be said that he was the very opposite of a womaniser – a continuously caring man. In all his relationships, personal and political, he sought to square his personal conduct with his ideals and his philosophy. He gave a generalised expression of this in his essay on ‘Marxism and Morality’ (Marxism Today, January 1965).

Jim Milligan

Ordinary Monsters

Peter Pulzer’s review of D.J. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (LRB, 23 January) raised several questions I had found myself asking about the book. One theme which emerges from personal accounts of life in Germany between the wars is how coarsened daily life became after 1919. The language of the trenches, one old soldier remarks, was now the ordinary speech of Germany. This seems to indicate that the ‘brutalising process’ had started to happen before the Nazis, before the onset of the Second World War and before anti-semitism had become epidemic. Hitler and his friends often complained about how hard it was to alert the Germans to the ‘Jewish threat’, how the public simply didn’t understand the problem. This doesn’t suggest a universal enthusiasm for their anti-semitism. We’re all aware of what box-office disasters Goebbels’s first anti-semitic films were. The public was disgusted by the crudeness and brutality of his approach and indeed the Nazis learned to disguise the worst of their anti-Jewish activities from the public well before the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland. It is also clear how carefully personnel were selected for the work of killing. Austrians were considered particularly good material. Himmler and other SS idealists believed it took an exceptional type to fulfil the duties of death-squad personnel.

You had to go to great lengths to know nothing at all in Hitler’s Germany, but frightened silence is still not the same as active connivance in murder, especially when no authority accepts that murder is being committed. From the mid-Thirties, Goebbels developed all kinds of systems to ensure civil obedience. By rounding up innocent middle-class professionals – academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists – and savagely beating them, releasing them, imprisoning them again, beating and humiliating them, then releasing them once more, sworn to silence about what they had experienced, the Nazis soon created a passive and exemplary bourgeoisie and any potential protester was pretty clear what would become of him if he made even the mildest complaint. Meanwhile the petit bourgeoisie behaved as it always has. The mass of people continued to enjoy increased stability and wealth and idealised Hitler accordingly. The average German citizen of 1937 had no more interest in uncomfortable actuality than the average TV viewer in modern Dallas or Derby.

I’d guess that roughly the same proportions of sadists and psychopaths, useful for genocidal work, exists in any society and emerges at appropriate times. It’s apparently impossible for an ordinary middle-class person to imagine the deep lust for power at any price, the violent sexualised fantasies and ambitions of that frustrated sadist who could very easily be a neighbour, a colleague or even a spouse. Most of us would prefer to think such people exceptional. Or fictional. Or foreign. I believe that they represent a fairly large percentage of the world’s population. One indication of this is where you have an uncontrolled press of some kind. Over-the-counter sales figures of sadistic pornography should offer a rough indication of the numbers of people who find the infliction of pain and humiliation enjoyable and/or acceptable pastimes. Taking a few other factors into account, we could work out, for instance, what the French market for S&M comics represents in demographic terms. Discover what’s selling off your local top shelf along with Guns and Ammo and Survivalist. Then we’d know how many potential executioners we probably have for neighbours.

Michael Moorcock
Bastrop, Texas

Peter Pulzer offers guarded praise to Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners for raising ‘important and, to some extent, new questions’. The truth is that it is the most pernicious rubbish ever written on the Nazi phenomenon. The one and only question raised is the state of an intellectual culture that takes such ineffable nonsense seriously. Goldhagen argues that fanatical anti-semitism was ubiquitous in pre-Nazi Germany. Yet the SPD forcefully denounced anti-semitism and, as the single largest political party, commanded the allegiance of fully one-third of the electorate by the early 20th century. Goldhagen suggests that only ‘the core of the socialist movement, its intellectuals and leaders’ repudiated anti-semitism, merely a ‘small group’.

The only source he cites, however, is Peter Pulzer’s Jews and the German State, which enters no such stipulation. Indeed, turning to Pulzer’s authoritative companion study, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, we learn that: ‘anti-semitism drew little strength from … the working-class.’ A compelling example of fanatic German anti-semitism cited by Goldhagen is the recurrence of ritual murder accusations: ‘In Germany and the Austrian Empire,’ he reports, citing Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism, ‘12 such trials took place between 1867 and 1914.’ Turning to the cited page, we discover that Pulzer’s sentence continues: ‘11 of which collapsed although the trials were by jury.’

Goldhagen asserts that ‘the vast majority of the German people … were aware of what their government and their countrymen were doing to the Jews, assented to the measures, and, when the opportunity presented itself, lent their active support to them.’ For ‘far greater empirical support for my positions’, he advises, readers should consult David Bankier’s study, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism. Consider then Bankier’s conclusions. During the first years of Nazi anti-semitic incitement, most Germans (‘large sectors’, ‘the bulk’, ‘sizeable parts’ of public opinion) found ‘the form of persecution abhorrent’, expressed ‘misgivings about the brutal methods employed’, ‘remained on the sidelines’, ‘severely condemned the persecution’.

Norman Finkelstein
Brooklyn, New York

Art v. Heritage

It’s true that I write a column for Stand, but the notion that I ‘watch over the health of the nation’, as the advertisement on the back page of your issue of 23 January suggests, is not one that has ever been found living at this address. What I actually do is throw out a few ideas and provocations about literature and the current scene, and try to widen people’s reading habits.

I also wish there was something we could do about the monstrous stinginess of the Arts Council towards literature, about the foolish notion that poets and novelists are or should become (cheap) social workers, and about the regressive transformation of the arts minister into a heritage minister. Heritage is all about tourism and making money. Art isn’t. Will a Labour government be interested in the difference, I wonder?

William Scammell
Aspatria, Cumbria

Whose Greece?

Philip Hoy (Letters, 23 January) laments my failure to discuss the substance of Mary Lefkowitz’s criticism of my work as opposed to the ‘alleged agendas of the people responsible for them’. In my review I drew a sharp distinction between the contributions to Black Athena Revisited, which I see as academically conservative, and the intentions of the editors, who combine this with undoubted political conservatism. It was impossible to respond to the many substantive criticisms made of my work in a review of limited length, indeed the editors rightly cut out a number of my attempts to do so. In fact, I have published detailed responses to all of the previously published criticisms in scholarly journals.

In their letter Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers blame me for publishing various versions of the same review elsewhere. Their charge is correct. I did this because I did not think that many readers of the LRB would read the Ithaca Book Press, which is the only place I reviewed Black Athena Revisited. Even more to the point, 90 per cent of Not Out of Africa and 70 per cent of Black Athena Revisited are recycled from previously published material. They then ask: ‘Why is Bernal afraid to let our books be reviewed by anyone other than himself and his associates?’ This is endowing me with extraordinary powers. I have no control of or even influence with the journals wishing to review Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited.

What Mary Lefkowitz and Guy Rogers are unable to accept is that this is not a struggle between good and evil, or truth and lies, but an academic debate in which some scholars fall on one side and others on the other.

Martin Bernal
Cornell University

Martin Bernal (LRB, 12 December 1996) contends that ‘the idea of Egypt as the source of Greek and hence of Western civilisation was the conventional wisdom’ during the late 18th century; elsewhere he has claimed that prior to the 19th century this so-called ‘Ancient Model’ had always been the conventional wisdom, going back, as its name implies, to ancient Greece itself. In one of my contributions to Black Athena Revisited I present evidence showing that, beginning with the Greeks themselves, there never was a single monolithic model of ancient history; in the 18th century, among other leading thinkers, the distinguished archaeologist and antiquarian Bernard de Montfaucon, as we1l as Voltaire and Diderot, were intensely sceptical about ‘Egyptian wisdom’. And such scepticism did not spring from racist prejudice against the Egyptians, since, as Bernal would agree, the Egyptians were not thought of as black at this time.

Bernal might continue to argue that the choice of a model for ancient history by later historians was influenced by racist considerations if he could convict any such historians of racism, of believing the Egyptians to have been black and of adducing no authentic scholarly reasons for rejecting the Ancient Model. Bernal has, in fact, singled out one such later historian, the German K.O. Müller (1797-1840), as the culprit primarily responsible for overthrowing the Ancient Model. Müller is accused by Bernal, if not of racism, then of anti-semitism, and also of neglecting the field of ancient Egyptian history, including the newly deciphered hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, each of these charges against Müller has now been shown to be a travesty of the truth.

Although I have never done this before, I feel compelled now to state certain facts about myself: in my recent research I have received no financial support from any individual or organisation; I am not tainted by a classical education; my political friends and foes all agree that my political convictions are left-tending (sort of like the LRB).

Robert Palter
New Britain, Connecticut

Thee and Thuh

Having been born and brought up in South London, I naturally regard North Londoners as a separate tribe, or possibly, species. Nicolas Walter of London N1 (Letters, 23 January) confirms me in this view. I have never pronounced the in any way other than thuh before consonants and occasionally before a long e, and thee before vowels for emphasis. I have been listening for Mr Walter’s ‘normal’ pronunciation, thi, but have not detected it so far. I have also tried, with great difficulty, to use it myself and have been getting some strange looks – even from North Londoners.

John Burchell
Old Coulsdon, Surrey

Gospel Truth

I find it passing strange that Frank Kermode, in his review of my Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus (LRB, 2 January), ignores the detailed lexicographical analysis of the key Greek word, paradidomi, ‘to hand over’, based not on any theological bias, but on a critical reading of Greek texts. The word simply does not mean ‘betray’, in any ancient Greek text I could find, including the Bible itself. The difficulty of this translation has been noted before by many authors I cite but this point was never pursued or carried to its logical conclusion in the case of Judas. One can only convict me of error if the same texts are analysed and evidence provided that the term in fact means ‘betray’.

Despite Professor Kermode’s suggestion to the contrary, I approached my mandate to write a life of Judas with the firm conviction that Judas was a traitor and that all the Gospels were unanimous in portraying him as such. In time that conviction had to yield to the evidence. This turnabout has been one of the most difficult discoveries of my life, for it seemed incredible that noted lexicographers and translators would have been so misled all these years.

Kermode’s review also illustrates how his own bias against Judas holds him hostage. For example, four times in the space of his review he refers to the ‘bribe’ that was paid Judas. Not once does that word or a related word appear in any of the Gospels. Surely it is possible to visualise the transaction between Judas and ‘the Jews who want Jesus arrested’ as something quite traditional and standard for Jews who informed on someone to the High Priest This is certainly what David Daube taught us, as have other scholars who are familiar with the Jewish society of that time.

There is no hint of a bribe in the Gospel texts. My suggestion that Judas was acting as a faithful Jew, carrying out not only God’s will as understood by Jesus but also the will of Jesus himself, at least deserves some consideration. Perhaps Judas retained his loyalty to the High Priest as guardian of the Temple. If that is granted there is little room to speak of a ‘betrayal’. In any case, there is only one later textual support for ‘betrayal’ (Luke 6:16), which alone uses the precise Greek word meaning ‘traitor’. Perhaps the notion of betrayal arose from the bitterness of the early Christians, influenced by the fact that Judas may very well have been seen as the first defector from their community. Certainly the New Testament lacks any evidence that Jesus felt betrayed and what it was that Judas betrayed has never been defined.

Professor Kermode suggests that I came to the Judas research with a built-in bias. However, there is not one conclusion in this book that fits the theology with which I began. To be sure, once I had done my basic language analysis, an area in which Mr Kermode admits he is not ‘qualified to argue’ with me, I had to follow the evidence and apply it to Judas. I follow not ‘what fits my thesis’ but the results of my research, because I was taught that the study of ancient texts should begin with the language in which they are written (not, in this case, the King James Version), and let the conclusions speak for themselves.

William Klassen

Bad at Sums

Whether or not Paul Groves (LRB, 23 January) was well-advised in preferring a career as a poet to that of a meat-packer, others may judge. Certainly he is no more dab a hand at maths than his uncle if he believes there are but 48 weeks in the year. ‘He was crap at school, and at times like this/it shows.’

Mack Schlefer
New York