Cosmopolites, Pseuds and Poltroons
Thomas Laqueur (LRB, 13 November) mentions that Félix Faure ‘died in the arms of his mistress’ and then a few lines later says that ‘he took the sacraments on his deathbed.’ Where can I apply for these sacraments?
Fermat’s Last Stand
Michael Wood, writing about Derrida (LRB, 27 November), doesn’t mention that Levinas’s image of viscounts chatting about viscounts with other viscounts ahead of the ‘deconstruction’ of France in 1940 is derived from Mireille’s song ‘Quand un vicomte’: a big hit for Maurice Chevalier in 1937. The song’s message is that we talk most comfortably with people in the same line of business as ourselves and about others similarly engaged.
For weeks now, I have been puzzling over a curious line in Benedict Anderson’s review of José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (LRB, 16 October). Since Rizal wrote in Spanish, Anderson claims, ‘he wrote as much for the enemy as the friend, something that did not happen with the Raj until the work, a century later, of Salman Rushdie.’ I surmise that the colonists are the enemies and those with the same mother tongue are friends, but I am still left with questions. Since (as Anderson notes) far more of his enemies than his friends knew Spanish, wasn’t Rizal writing more for his enemies than his friends? Whatever the merits of post-colonial theory, surely Rushdie’s work appeared after the Raj? Innumerable Indians before Rushdie wrote for their enemies, from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to A. Madaviah, who wrote four novels in English for the express purpose of enlightening the British. I believe Tagore won the Nobel Prize for his English-language writings. Many of these writers also wrote in their own languages – and their bilingualism much better suits the phrase ‘as much for the enemy as the friend’. Nor is Bengali an ‘ancient’ language any more than, say, French, and there’s something odd about the remark that Tagore wrote for the ‘huge Bengali population of the Raj’. Surely Tagore wrote for the huge Bengali population of the world?
In his review of John Ingamells’s Dictionary of British and Irish Travellers in Italy 1701-1800, Hugh Honour (LRB, 13 November) laments the ‘premature demise, incomplete’ of the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, and concludes his essay by asking: ‘Might the Italian state or some international organisation come to the rescue?’ I am rather puzzled by that question. Has there ever been an Italian state? It is rather ironic that the Dizionario, begun on the hundredth anniversary of ‘a geographic expression’ has terminated at ‘F’. No wonder! Only dozens of ‘states’, never an Italian ‘nation’, have existed since Etruscan times.
Malcolm Bull, in his review of Empire (LRB, 13 November), describes the arrest and conviction of Antonio Negri: ‘The pentiti accused Negri of complicity in only one action,’ Bull writes, ‘and that was more a hideously bungled prank than an act of terrorism: in the “kidnapping” of a Potere Operaio supporter by his friends to extract money from his wealthy parents, a chloroformed handkerchief was held for too long over the young man’s face.’ Why is the word ‘kidnapping’ in quotation marks? Was it not a kidnapping really? Did the victim follow his friends voluntarily? And what about the death, if that is what it was? What does he mean that the handkerchief was held over the victim’s face for ‘too long’? Did it make him sneeze? If the victim died, I would rather that Bull had said so directly. Negri is said to be ‘complicit’, but what exactly he did is left unexplained. Did he mastermind the whole thing? Did he have second thoughts and leave before any harm was done? It makes a difference.
Martin Amis, Film Star
Paul Seabright rightly criticises the inadequate recognition by the French authorities of the risk posed by the 1249 ‘Seveso’-type chemical plants (i.e. plants containing substantial amounts of inflammable liquids or explosives) located in French towns (Letters, 13 November). But help may be at hand. If the ‘phasing out’ of CAP subsidies, reluctantly accepted by France at the WTO meeting in Doha, ever happens, French farmers will eventually have to stop dumping excess cereal production on the world market, and there will be less need for the chemical fertilisers produced in such plants. Farmers in the Third World will be pleased; France’s urban inhabitants will sleep easier in their beds; and country-dwellers will benefit from an end to the system of hyper-productivist agriculture which has been turning the once beautiful French countryside into a treeless, hedge-less, chemically-polluted wasteland.
José Bové and Jean-Michel le Métayer both arrived at Doha in the baggage train of the French ministerial delegation, and were lumped together by international observers as ‘French farmers’ representatives’. They are in fact the leaders of two farmers’ unions representing diametrically opposed visions of the future of French agriculture. Bové’s Conféderation Paysanne does not support the CAP regime of agricultural subsidies. Le Métayer’s FNSEA does, but it has tapped into the anxiety about food quality and the craving for a return to traditional food represented by Bové’s campaign against McDonald’s, and turned it around as propaganda in defence of the CAP. The Conféderation Paysanne is opposed to the overproduction of cereals, and the destruction of hedges and copses and excessive use of nitrates which it entails. This form of agriculture is sustained by the dumping of excess production on the world market, a practice only the WTO can stop. The marriage between the CAP and the WTO, consummated in the Cold War epoch, should now be taken to the divorce court.
The history of Africa and of its relation to the European colonising powers is depressing enough without the night being further darkened by R.W. Johnson’s recriminations against state and society in Algeria (LRB, 16 October). The picture of Camus constructed by Olivier Todd, and overwhelmingly endorsed by Johnson in his review of Todd’s biography, has all the antique charm of a text of the Cold War period – of, say, an article in Encounter c.1956. It was surpassed thirty years ago by Conor Cruise O’Brien’s little book on Camus – written before O’Brien’s own vertiginous swerve to the right – which so skilfully punctured the afflatus of clichés and sterile paradoxes that were to constitute Camus’s contribution to political thought. It was Sartre who pointed out, when Camus made his famous statement about putting the life of his mother before the operations of justice, that it was difficult to see why these should demand the head of the blameless Mme Camus. More generally, O’Brien made Camus responsible for the mistaken notion that a crime committed in the name of a philosophy of history is more heinous than one committed at random.
Johnson suggests that Camus’s separation from other writers was a consequence of his social origins – a view inflected by the conditions of English snobbery rather than of French intellectual life. For one thing Camus’s rise through the republican-aristocratic educational system of inter-war France is one of the least contentious elements of his biography; for another, intellectuals of ‘humble’ origins (though a minority) have never been scarce to the point of being real curiosities in France. Among direct contemporaries of Camus must be counted Genet and Fanon; in earlier generations Michelet, Zola, Vallès, Barbusse. Two who, like Camus, submitted to their own myth of the absolute authority of the intellectual caste – Péguy and Céline – ended up, in 1914 and 1944 respectively, on the extreme and the ultra right, a shift which maybe tells its own story.
Camus’s politics of grudge and insult was notoriously idiosyncratic and unstable (’obsessed’ to the point of supporting Suez; almost ‘forced’ into the OAS – how can one judge this rationally?). It was the devious, cunning, dishonest Sartre whose flat was bombed by the OAS after he had incited military rebellion in an attempt to end the war: the man who judged him ‘too little to be hit’ was careful to restrict himself to a call for an oxymoronic ‘civilian truce’. Camus owed much of his career in political prominence (one can hardly call it a political career) to a reputation gained earlier on the left, while performing for the Right as the rebel who repented. In this he was neither the first nor the last – but in his ability to deceive Johnson’s small and, it would appear, heroic South African group he would seem to have been among the most plausible.
All this is of small account beside your reviewer’s total denigration of the Algeria which existed for 30 years, from Liberation to the present barbarism. Anyone visiting the country in those years will have had ample evidence, in virtually unparalleled hospitality and intellectual generosity, of the ‘precious Mediterranean synthesis’ – which Camus allegedly yearned for and which the FLN allegedly ‘destroyed … utterly’. ‘Corrupt’ the FLN regime certainly was/is; though in terms of pots and kettles it is distressing to see the new hypocrisy of South Africa taking over with such faultless ease from the old hypocrisy of the Mother Country. What ‘social regression’ might mean in the country with the highest literacy rate in the area and a social security system based on the French is anybody’s guess. The suspension of free elections has had the most appalling consequences: yet supposing in January 1933 the SPD and the Reichswehr had agreed to suspend the German elections and ban the Nazi Party, might not even such determined liberal individualists as Camus have been tempted to approve? And ‘authoritarianism’ in the People’s Republic? Camus (unlike Sartre – Les Temps modernes, 1945, passim) took little interest in the oppression of Algerians whether in Algeria or in liberal democratic France; comparison of the FLN regime with its regional neighbours would doubtless be unsatisfactory to a thoroughgoing liberal-moralist, but might, I suspect, yield some revealing parallels with effective liberty in France at the time of the First Empire and in the crumbling feudal states ranged against it.
The grossest suggestion is that ‘women were forced back into the veil.’ One of the most attractive sights in an Algerian town before the present crisis – now, sadly, only to be seen in Algerian society in Paris – was a family group out on a Saturday night: grandma in her veil, mum and dad in formal dress and suit, granddaughter in a miniskirt. Many of these teenage girls have had their throats cut for refusing to be intimidated by Islamist fanatics into giving up their miniskirts. Their heroism is as great, it seems to me, as that of any woman in this century.
Memories of Barra
David Craig’s Diary (LRB, 30 October) about the Outer Hebrides mentions the Coddy, ‘Barra’s famous memorialist or seanchaidh ‘. I discovered Barra in 1945: the Coddy was in full flight and Compton MacKenzie had a house on the Cockle Strand. The Lochearn left Oban before daylight and carried a cargo of sheep and a white stallion which was swung over our heads to the hold. The journey to Barra took almost 12 hours and we were met by the Coddy in his car, of which he was inordinately proud. Other visitors to the island travelled on the back of the coal lorry.
The Coddy took us all around the island and told us the most hair-raising stories of second sight. The evenings were spent sitting in front of the glowing peat fire listening to more tales told by a priest. I have lived in Australia for thirty years, but when I hear the wind in my pine trees here, I imagine it is the sea roaring on the white strand.
Yass, New South Wales
New York Hankies
I was much taken by Mary Hawthorne’s tribute to the late Maeve Brennan (LRB, 13 November). Miss Brennan was one of the first people I met when I joined the staff of the New Yorker in the early Sixties. She was as remarkable-looking as Mary Hawthorne describes and she had that wonderful Irish lilt and a very impish sense of humour. On one occasion I ran into her on 43rd Street in front of the New Yorker offices. With no explanation she said: ‘McKelway’s gone into the Royalton to buy handkerchiefs.’ McKelway was her ex-husband and the Royalton was then a somewhat seedy residential hotel. ‘The Royalton,’ she went on, ‘has the best handkerchiefs in all of New York. You’ll have to be knowin’ things like that now that you have moved into the City.’ And then she vanished into the hotel.