One Sunday morning in that first peace-time July our doorbell in Belgrade rang with insistence. The maid went and a large man in a lodenmantl strode past her, saying that he had to see the doctor instantly. I resented this tempestuous invasion but the visitor had a ready reply: ‘Who in his senses would stand on ceremony with his wife’s brother dying despite the remedy being right to hand?’ I asked him to explain himself and he said that the Belgrade newspapers had published an UNRRA release about the arrival of penicillin. This drug saved lives and that was what interested him.
I told my visitor that a tiny consignment had indeed arrived and had been delivered through the correct channels to the Faculty of Medicine in Belgrade University, where a special … At this point he let out a roar of rage, threw his hat across the room onto the opposite wall and said: ‘Government
… Faculty … official channels … don’t give me that stuff … there is a human being dying in Vrsac. By the time we finish talking and writing letters my brother-in-law will be dead. You do not look like a fool and you will certainly have kept some in reserve. I just want a dose to save a life. What are you here for? To talk or be useful?’
His case, put with typical Balkan force, was appealing but I could not start the doorstep distribution of penicillin on simple demand. I was not prepared to take on cases myself – a Yugoslav doctor had to be responsible for treatment. His reply was instantaneous: ‘All this we shall do, let us start for Vrsac right away.’ Unashamedly we did exactly that. If it was unadministrative it was also the right decision. I learnt more on that trip than in a month of ministry meetings.
I had to find jerry-cans of fuel, open up the office and get an ordre de mission established, so it was afternoon before we crossed the Danube and got onto the war-destroyed roads for Vrsac.
My visitor was a Magyar-speaking lawyer from the last Yugoslav town in the Banat before the Hungarian frontier, where our potential patient, his brother-in-law, owned the local brewery. By nature this lawyer was a jolly, choleric country squire of enormous energy. He instantly mobilised a Dr Bogosavljevic, who sat in the front of the jeep beside me. He spoke good English, learnt in the 1914-18 war when he had been brigaded with the British on the Salonika front. He boasted that he was a triple colonel: he had worn British, then Yugoslav Royal and now Tito’s uniform – and he had always faced the same enemy.
On the way Dr Bogosavljevic came to the point. He wanted to know what arrangement I had made about our professional fees. He put it plainly: we could quite reasonably ask for gold – they were bound to have sovereigns. We could equally well take it in kind, hams, salami and so on; very easy to place in Belgrade. If the worst came to the worst we could accept to be paid in dinars. His point was that it was always best to have things clear at the start, particularly as the patient’s state seemed critical enough to end with an exitus lethalis. He was relieved to learn that I was not a fee-for-service man.
At dusk we entered the brewery courtyard in a corner of which was a substantial villa. We went straight upstairs to see the patient. In the centre of a large double bed lay a very sick man, semi-conscious and breathing badly. After a ritual after-you-ing, Bogosavljevic sounded the chest of this obvious pneumonia while I took stock of the horseshoe array of small coffee tables surrounding the sick-bed. On each table was a plate or bowl displaying some appetising delicacy. It was like a culinary fair: quails’ eggs in aspic, grilled trout, pilaf, paper-thin smoked ham, a roast suckling-pig with an apple in its mouth, champagne in an ice-bucket and a dozen other temptations. The patient’s mother had initiated this gastronomic display, while her son was quite evidently sinking, in the hope that he would spot a favourite dish the eating of which would allow him to turn the corner to recovery. If it distracted me it was certainly worrying Bogosavljevic, who said that the sooner the young man got his penicillin the sooner we could get down to supper.
Bogosavljevic presiding, I filled the syringe with distilled water, dissolved the fabled penicillin and handed it to him; together with two local doctors, he then advanced and administered the injection. Later on, the patient told me he would not have entrusted the two local MDs with the care of one of his horses. We then went downstairs to a gargantuan meal. Mama stayed with the patient. Two hours later, she reported that he was breathing more easily. Soon afterwards he smiled at her, and 24 hours and a few injections later he was round the corner.
It would have soon been safe to leave our patient but Bogosavljevic was by now Mama’s firm favourite. She was having the countryside searched for smoked goose. He gave us the breasts, saying that the legs were something of which he had been dreaming for the last two years – they are, he said, the ham of the angels. We got away a couple of days later with the jeep loaded like a Fortnum and Mason delivery van. The triple colonel had received his personal honoraria in gold sovereigns. If Bogosavljevic had been dreaming of smoked goose legs for years, I am still dreaming of the wonderful white spirit distilled from Vrsac raspberries together with foie gras the like of which I have not tasted for fifty years.
On 23 May 1999, Sky News reported that Nato had bombed Vrsac, which is hundreds of miles from Kosovo. No one in Vrsac had asked to be put under Serbian rule when the region was detached from Hungary after the 1914-18 war. Has the life saved by American antibiotics in 1945 been ended by American bombs in 1999?
There is no better index of the poverty of the Left’s imagination today than Terry Eagleton’s review of Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Post-Colonial Reason (LRB, 13 May). Not only does Eagleton fail to offer us anything in the way of a substantive engagement with the actual text (one that he grudgingly acknowledges to be a significant work by a major intellectual), but he abuses the occasion to pillory Spivak for a range of political and aesthetic vices, from ‘obscurantism’ and a lack of style, to the seductions of ‘good old American eclecticism’, all of which he sees as artifacts of ‘the politically directionless Left’ in an era of US-dominated globalisation.
On scrutiny, Eagleton’s soapbox is creaky, the posturing of a Eurocentric leftism too tired to imagine a radical politics that articulates anti-racism, feminism and class struggle together. More insidious, presenting himself as the keeper of a true, austere socialism against Spivak’s ‘market-driven’ excesses, Eagleton works to pit politically diverse, oppositional intellectuals from the formerly colonised world against each other, annexing the ones he favours to a defence of ‘the socialist project’ under the aegis of his unexamined, British metropolitanism. Anti-feminism is the unfortunate vehicle of this divide-and-rule strategy, as he writes that Spivak herself is ‘too deeply invested in feminism and post-colonialism to launch a full-scale socialist critique of these currents’. As predictable as the positioning it decries, Eagleton’s review fails both as a political intervention and as a critique. By contrast, Spivak’s work challenges its readers to create more exacting solidarities and more ethical forms of criticism.
Nikhil Pal Singh, Alys Eve Weinbaum, David Kazanjian, Brent Edwards, Josefina Saldana
New York University, University of Washington, City University of New York, Rutgers University, Brown University
What made Albert run
In his review of Ian Hacking’s Mad Travellers (LRB, 27 May), Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen wonders with Hacking whether such transient illnesses need a (fashionable) ‘ecological niche’ in order to exist. To be bracketed, named and collated perhaps they do, but you can become a fugueur when no such niche is apparent. George Orwell describes just such a victim in Dorothy, the submissive spinster daughter in his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935). Though Orwell does not explain the nature of Dorothy’s breakdown, Borch-Jacobsen’s supposition ‘that it all happens in a state of absence’ – ‘you arrive somewhere, dazed, without the slightest idea of what happened in the interval’ – perfectly describes her arrival on the streets of London from her East Anglian parish home.
The label may vary from one era to another but the illnesses remain.
The logic of Ian Hacking and Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen is very simple: science does not advance, it only changes. I disagree absolutely. Take hysteria: the cases treated by Charcot or early Freud were in many cases genuine illnesses, misdiagnosed as hysteria. They ‘disappeared’ with the advance of brain research, not because of a new niche. For Borch-Jacobsen, it makes no sense to ask whether an illness is real or not: he agrees with Hacking that all illnesses are the result of a co-operation between the patient and the clinician. The only question to be posed is whether an illness propagates or not!Let me just recommend that Borch-Jacobsen and Hacking read (and reread) Terry Eagleton’s excellent review of Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Post-Colonial Reason, which neatly makes mincemeat of these kinds of idiotic academic game. It is a very important distinction whether an illness is real or not.
University of Helsinki
Anna Vaux, in her review of Jane Dunn’s biography of Antonia White (LRB, 27 May), says of White: ‘We are not to forget that she was mentally ill, impoverished and a single mother at a time when children were not considered “smart” and unmarried motherhood was desperately unconventional as well as difficult.’ Perhaps the time has come to extend a similarly generous attitude to her third husband (my father), Tom Hopkinson. In Vaux’s review he again receives a bad press for Antonia’s plight. Given that she was already mentally ill, suffering from writer’s block and a single mother before they met, the ‘blaming game’ cannot find him culpable for the situation which he, as a 25-year-old provincial looking to make his way in the capital, strove to find solutions to.
Perhaps the most ‘unconventional’ solution he came up with was that Susan (her elder daughter) be immediately brought home from the orphanage where she had been placed and that Lyndall (born during their relationship, also not his child) be raised as his own. From the start Antonia’s own needs were overwhelming. The only way Tom could begin to hope to meet them was by prioritising them night and day. At night, Antonia was insomniac, frequently maniacal, and given either to mounting the windowsill or the Embankment with threats to hurl herself down, or to wild nightmares which, she believed, required instant Freudian analysis, for which Tom’s assistance was essential. (He eventually developed a form of ‘sleeptalking’ that seemed to do the trick quite nicely.) By day, Tom took on long shifts at a thankless job in an advertising agency to support a wife, one of whose less endearing manias was to spend uncontrollably. After their separation, he continued to support her and educate her children, who spent their holidays from boarding school with him. That he was the origin of a technique which others later practised of providing her with regular ‘reading deadlines’ is disparaged as ‘wringing’ the words out of her. But it was also the only way Antonia ever succeeded in completing anything. Whatever the miseries involved in sitting down at the twin desks they’d bought to celebrate their wedding and their commitment to becoming ‘real writers’, they were hardly greater than those, also described, of latterly taking three weeks over not completing a book review for the Tablet.
With such efforts on his part it seems a little churlish to conclude, with Vaux, that Tom ‘got off relatively lightly in the blaming game, though he contributed quite thoroughly to the mess’. If blame is what’s wanted, she need look no further than Tom’s own autobiography (Of This Our Time) in which self-blame is very much the name of the game.
For what it’s worth, my own feeling about ‘Aunt Tony’, as I was taught to call her, was that she really didn’t know one end of a child from the other. The ferocities of her Edwardian upbringing conspired with her naturally bohemian tendencies in rendering her an unpredictable mixture of the authoritarian and the anarchic. It took me a while to forgive her for using her favoured greeting – ‘Hail, Peachbottom!’ – quite so loudly across all the tables at Lyons’ Corner House, where we met for tea and walnut cake. But once past my 12th birthday I had apparently reached the age of reason: sherry was substituted for tea at 5.30 p.m. and she’d trade ancient bedhopping gossip about the ‘Bloomsberries’ for the latest tame doings in the dorms after dark. And the sense of being at once consulted and confided in by a ‘fellow adult’, introducing alcohol, scandal – and even Catholicism – into the equation, was an eye-widening delight.
Like What Our Peasants Still Are
Landeg White’s defence of the anti-historicity of extreme Afrocentrism (LRB, 13 May) seems disingenuous. He argues that, in the end, because it affects only ‘Black Studies departments, those sealed academic ghettos created by affirmative action’, such irrationality is not ‘dangerous’. Would he say the same if Protestant British-Israelism took a foothold in English Studies programmes and intimidated scholars who could not accept the claim that the British are the Lost Tribes? Or if German departments were pressured by adamant proponents of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s race theories?
W.E.B. Du Bois Institute
Landeg White objects to the claim I make in Afrocentrism that false or mythical beliefs cannot possibly be helpful to oppressed people. These, he says, ‘are the words of a political philosopher, not a historian’ and one ‘who focuses on truth as something written, not as something experienced’. He asks rhetorically whether slaves who sang of their hopes of walking ‘all over God’s heaven’ were ‘wrong to find comfort in such self-evident myth’.
Well, maybe they were, insofar as belief in otherworldly happiness has hindered efforts to improve or contest their earthly position. But I wouldn’t call belief in Heaven and personal salvation a ‘lie’ or a ‘fantasy’, as I would beliefs that one human group is inherently superior to another, or that Aids is a manufactured tool of genocide. The ideas to which my book devotes hostile attention make claims about the world which can be demonstrated to be wrong, and in some cases damaging to the life-chances of those who are taught them.
White’s two kinds of truth seem to me to be falsely counterposed; his notion that one is peculiar to the political philosopher, the other to the historian (for what it’s worth, such academic qualifications as I have are in history) is also curious. People come to believe that certain things are true – though they may be mistaken – in part through their experience. For literate people, much of that experience is gained or mediated through writing. I have never visited Malawi. But I think it is probably true that there is a district there called Magomero, very much as described in a brilliant historical study I’ve read. Indeed, I suspect that the author of Magomero – Landeg White – would be rather disconcerted if I didn’t find ‘truth as something written’ in it.
Ruskin College, Oxford
Landeg White could have been a little more severe in his handling of Stephen Howe's diatribe against Afrocentrism. Cheikh Anta Diop may have started as a lone voice, but he lived to see a much wider consensus that Egyptian civilisation was African in nature as well as in location. Research has shown the growth of several advanced Neolithic cultures along the Nile Valley during the preceding millennia. Add the availability of gold, copper and good building stone in Nubia and Egypt and all the ingredients were present locally for the birth of such a civilisation. As to its priority, there is not much doubt. By 3100 BC Egypt was a united, literate kingdom with an overall system of flood-control, law and administration. This is several centuries before comparable developments in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley or China.
Add that Africa is now recognised as the birthplace, not only of the human species, but of Homo sapiens sapiens, and the Afrocentrists have quite a lot to boast about. Ironically, it was Charles Darwin, later dragged here and there by the apostles of racism, who was the first to suggest Africa as the cradle of us all.
What Warburg did
I don’t know where to begin with Norman Cantor and his confusions (Letters, 29 April). Aby Warburg’s work was indeed what Cantor denies it was: a broad attempt at the ‘historical sociology of art’; it was profoundly concerned with ‘the methods of particular artists in the context of the economic, social and spiritual history they lived through’, as Anthony Grafton so aptly put it. The notion of lumping together Warburg and Panofsky in the way Cantor does – let alone under the banner of what, for some reason, he chooses to call ‘Kunstgeschichte’ – would hardly occur to anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with their work. To see the differences clearly, one need only read the great essays by Warburg on Botticelli, on the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinità in Florence, on the role of magic, astrology and divination in the Reformation, and on portraiture and 15th-century Florentine society. So, too, with his remarkable study – now much commented on – of the serpent rituals of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and northern Arizona.
Warburg’s work was of an entirely other order than the iconological research pioneered by Panofsky, though in attaching to Panofsky the label of ‘the iconological method’ Cantor seems ignorant of the good early Panofsky (e.g. the remarkable essay on ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’), and unaware of what was genuinely Warburgian in Panofsky’s thought.
Cantor’s knowledge of institutions is just as flimsy as his grasp of historiography. Most people who have spent more than an hour at either the Warburg or the Institute of Fine Arts are able to see the stark differences between the two. Following the departure of Gombrich and Baxandall, the art historians at the Warburg have indeed been engaged in rigorous – and often narrow – iconographical research; but those at the Institute of Fine Arts cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called either Warburgian or Panofskian.
It is true that American art history suffered for a long time from its fascination with Panofskian forms of iconographic interpretation (‘iconology’ is a different matter); and that much of the discipline in the US was barely competent enough, philologically and archaeologically speaking, to carry out such research. It is also true that the work of Warburg has lately come to be identified in many circles as deeply conservative. But ‘Marxism’ in this methodological context is a red herring.
The spuggies are fledged
Marilyn Bowering and August Kleinzahler, in conjuring up Basil Bunting’s eyebrows, and memories of a dispute during his visit to Victoria in the early Seventies (Letters, 29 April) provide details which could still be improved on. I’m pretty sure wax didn’t come into the picture, for instance – though it could have stiffened Bunting’s beard and moustaches in the very early days. There were at least two factions involved in inviting the poet to the University of Victoria – Robin Skelton being party to one of these – and there were tensions throughout the visit. Once there, Bunting did, as Bowering relates, say to a local paper that poetry couldn’t really be taught – inflaming Skelton, who had fought to get creative writing on the university curriculum. He fired off a reproachful and intemperate letter to Bunting, and made the mistake of putting copies in various faculty pigeon-holes. Bunting, discovering this, threatened suit. When my colleague Lawrence Russell was sent as an intermediary, I went along as someone friendly to both parties. Basil met us at the door of the house provided for him on the Victoria waterfront and said: ‘This is a bad business!’ He then said something along the lines of ‘Skelton retracts, or I blow him out of the water.’ Lawrence and I said nothing to this, though it was clear the message would be relayed. We moved inside to be regaled with drams and stories. Skelton in due course had a change of heart, and any lawyers on the scene would have twitched their tails in disappointment.
Paul, the Nanny and the Baby’s Cap
In her review of Elaine Feinstein’s Pushkin (LRB, 13 May) Patricia Beer writes that Tsar Paul was assassinated in 1799 – ‘the year of Pushkin’s birth’. In fact, the assassination took place in March 1801. In the context of a Pushkin biography, this is a significant error: Pushkin liked to refer to a family legend according to which, when he was aged one, he met Paul during a walk with his nanny. Paul, crazy about etiquette, is said to have chided the nanny for not taking off the baby’s cap.
Beer (or Feinstein) makes an even worse mistake. Regarding the line Pushkin scrawled near his sketch of the five hanged Decembrists in the margins of the manuscript of Eugene Onegin – ‘I, like a clown, might have hanged’ – Beer notes: ‘“clown” was an odd word in the circumstances.’ ‘Hanged’ is not one of Pushkin’s words. The Russian is ‘shut na’, an idiomatic expression. An exact translation would be: ‘And I might, like a fool upon’ – the line is not finished.
Journey to the Dome
The reason that the bored police officer could not tell Simon Cockshutt why the site of Blair Peach's murder was cordoned off on the 20th anniversary of that event may well have been that they were both in the wrong place (Letters, 27 May). According to the report of the Unofficial Committee of Enquiry into the events of 23 April 1979, chaired by Professor Michael Dummett, Blair Peach was struck at the junction of Beechcroft Road and Orchard Avenue – minor roads, some way from the junction referred to by Cockshutt. It is worth mentioning that Blair Peach did not die at the site of the assault and was conscious when the ambulance arrived. He died in hospital about four hours later.
Only in the Balkans
Misha Glenny is probably justified in suggesting that our attitudes to Balkan peoples are a mixture of dream, condescension and scarcely restrained humour (LRB, 29 April). We understand, after all, so little of the attitudes that prevail there. But having lived in Athens for a bit, I still understand little. Support for Serbia in Greece in the current struggle is almost 100 per cent. Most Greeks, even if they mumble some criticism of Milosevic's methods, would wish to see the many Albanians in their midst take the same road out of their country as their Serbian neighbours have forced the Albanian-speaking Kosovars to take. And if that led to a bit of discomfort, too bad. The fact is Albanians here are frequently treated as animals.