Third time lucky?
Alex de Waal concludes his article on the conduct of war (LRB, 11 November) with the suggestion that it would be ‘much better to re-embark on the project, neglected for half a century, of outlawing war altogether’. War has been outlawed twice: once by the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1927, and once in the Charter of the United Nations. How will ‘outlawing’ it for a third time make any difference?
Who mended Pierre’s leg?
David Bell (LRB, 11 November) misses one fascinating aspect of the miraculous cure of Pierre de Rudder’s fracture. As Ruth Harris notes in Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, Pierre did not make the pilgrimage to Lourdes, but to a replica of the grotto in Oostakker, in Belgium. The 19th-century taste for reproductions is evident in the proliferation of facsimiles of the Lourdes grotto across Europe and the Americas. They can now be found all over the world – in Conwy Town in Wales, Inchicore in Ireland, Bühlertal in Germany, Baguio City in the Philippines, Mar del Plata in Argentina and Manitoba in Canada, for example. The existence of these replicas does not conflict with Christian belief, because the holy is not believed to reside in a fixed place. The holy object, whether a building, a human body or an image, can be dismembered, moved from place to place and copied but still retain its ability to heal or work miracles – fortunately for Pierre, as he could neither afford the fare nor muster the physical strength to make the pilgrimage from Belgium to the South-West of France. He reached the original grotto eventually, however. After his death, his body was exhumed, his leg dissected to find evidence of the miraculous cure and the stripped bones were then shipped to Lourdes. Ruth Harris informs us that the bones are displayed in a glass case next to the Medical Bureau, and in true Lourdes style, bronze replicas can be seen in the museum there.
‘O Happy Dames’
In his review of W.A. Session’s Life of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Colin Burrow persuasively argues that the sources from which Surrey’s poetry sprang are to be found among those who contributed to that key document, the Devonshire Manuscript; that Surrey was not necessarily an originator, but that his genius lies in ‘his ability to refine the labour of others’; that, in particular, he was ‘a habitual hearer of the voice of female complaint’, and that some of his most powerful poems ‘adopt and absorb the voices of women’ (LRB, 11 November). Thus, in commenting on the possible contributions of Mary Shelton and Lady Margaret Douglas to the Devonshire Manuscript, that ‘most complex poetic collaboration’, Burrow says, correctly, that ‘it is impossible to know for sure whether or not these women composed any of the poems.’ His concluding comments as to the relationship of this problem of authorship to our ‘picture of the English Renaissance’ raise some fascinating questions, but they all, it seems to me, fall short of raising the fundamental query: what if Surrey is not the author of all of the works attributed to him?
Uncertainty about the authorship of the poems in the Devonshire Manuscript should not, then, lead us to fall back on the ‘it must have been Surrey’ assumption which Burrow makes in his conclusion. ‘O happy dames’, for instance, ‘is spoken by a woman’. Could it just as well have been written by a woman? If this possibility is accepted, then Surrey’s sister, Mary Howard, briefly married to Henry Fitzroy, the King’s illegitimate son, and intimate of Surrey, could be a candidate for authorship of that magnificent poem. She was part of the courtly group which created the Devonshire Manuscript, and she knew all about the position of women left by their lovers or husbands. There is a remarkable similarity between the handwriting of her letters and that of ‘O happy dames’. Might the brat be taken down a peg or two on behalf of his sister, and the search for the origins of the English Renaissance at least focus a little attention on the ladies?
In his review of Anthony Sampson’s Mandela (LRB, 19 August), R.W. Johnson maintains that Indian Communists spread stories about the active role of whites in the 1949 Indian-African riots in Durban. Despite Johnson’s denials, whites were looters, gave active support and viewed the events with satisfaction. Unproven stories of whites initiating the riots did surface immediately afterwards. I have not heard that Indian Communists put these about. Does Johnson have contrary evidence?
Johnson also claims that MK, the ANC’s military wing, was a South African Communist Party initiative and that Sampson naively follows Slovo’s ‘whopper of huge proportions’ clouding tight Communist control of MK from beginning to end. Johnson should look at the primary material, including SACP documents, released over the last five years. Much supports Slovo’s memory. Further, despite Johnson’s claims, Slovo was never MK’s supreme commander.
Many of Johnson’s apparent revelations have long been accepted as accurate historical interpretation. For example, it is acknowledged that the Freedom Charter did not simply spring from ‘thousands of scraps of paper’ sent in by distant ANC branches and communities, as some ‘Struggle’ legends once suggested. But accepting this does not mean subscribing to Johnson’s approach to history. His claim that Lionel Bernstein drafted the Freedom Charter is interesting, too: Bernstein does not admit to this in his autobiography. Johnson should reveal his sources.
Johnson’s political analysis is sometimes wanting. He criticises the United Democratic Front for lying about its links with the ANC, but leaving aside complications in the relationship, does he seriously expect the UDF to have announced itself as the public face of the outlawed, exiled, underground and hunted ANC?
Johnson claims that the ANC is turning its own distorted history into an official orthodoxy. He is wrong. The South African landscape is littered with white triumphalist monuments. Further, as documents from the pre-1994 National Monuments Council reveal, many monuments commemorating 19th and early 20th-century events were erected only during the late Seventies and Eighties: when white power in South Africa was facing its ultimate challenge.
In dealing with the conflicts which climaxed at the banks of the Ncome River in 1838, later renamed Blood River as part of modern Afrikaner (nationalist) mythology, Johnson appears to believe that any interpretation which fails to view the trekkers as victims amounts to a ‘classic’ (black) ‘nationalist rewrite’. Could Johnson please tell us exactly what the trekkers were doing in the Zulu Kingdom?
The 16 December 1838 battle between Zulu warriors and land-hungry white trekkers is central to African, Afrikaner and Zulu nationalist and South African histories. MK was founded on 16 December 1961; its final parades were held on the same day in 1993. On 16 December last year the Minister for Arts and Culture unveiled a monument to Zulu warriors killed defending the Kingdom 160 years before. Alongside it is the monument to trekker victory in that same conflict, which is to remain. The day has long been a public holiday: in Nationalist times, the ‘Day of the Vow’; since 1994, the ‘Day of Reconciliation’.
R.W. Johnson seeks to discredit the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission through his laudatory review of a book by Anthea Jeffery (LRB, 19 August). He mentions the hostile reaction within South Africa to her earlier book on the conflict between the ANC and Inkatha. But since, in his view, she is an impressive and impartial scholar, he attributes that reaction, as well as the equally hostile reaction to her present book, to political correctness. In an essay which accuses the Commissioners of dishonesty and partiality, it might have been fair to mention that in South Africa Jeffrey's earlier book was mostly criticised for clear bias in favour of Inkatha and poor research. Her book on the TRC is being dismissed within South Africa for similar reasons. It is important to stress that this has been the view inside the country because Johnson has sought to pre-empt debate by claiming that people outside South Africa are ill placed to contradict his view of events. The LRB is lucky to have a reviewer with unique access to the truth.
University of Toronto
Everything I have heard or read about J.M. Coetzee has misconstrued him badly. That includes Elizabeth Lowry's review of Disgrace (LRB, 14 October). Has Lowry ever been to South Africa, let alone lived there? Coetzee's message is much deeper than is so idly passed around by so-called professional crits. Why not ask the people who are, thanks to first-hand experience, able to interpret and analyse his works? I suggest you contact South African academics in our excellent English departments at our excellent universities to assist your crits in arriving at plausible conclusions.
Elizabeth Lowry writes: I suspect that Ms Crompton is offended by the reference in my review to the students of the protagonist David Lurie as typical products of a ‘Post-Christian, post-historical, post-literate’ South African secondary school education. Ms Crompton should note that these words are Coetzee’s not mine. However, I agree with him. I am a South African and a graduate of Rhodes University in Grahamstown (near Salem, the town in which Disgrace is set), where my teachers in the English department spent five years undoing the effects of the Transvaal Education Department’s high-school curriculum. Later I experienced the challenge involved at first hand, while teaching in the same department as a graduate assistant.
David Wootton berates English historians (LRB, 11 November) for assuming that witchcraft was the same the world over – an ‘elementary misconception’, as he sees it. But what of the elementary misconception that witchcraft somehow sprang fully formed out of the head of the early modern period? Was there no pre-modern cultural formation from which the witch emerged? Missing from Wootton’s almost exhaustive bibliography is Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages, published earlier this year, which explores a set of connections that make the materialisation of the witch in the early modern period, in Elliott’s closing words, ‘virtually irresistible’. It traces a structure of thinking in which are knotted together the clerical quest for an impossible ritual purity, anxieties over supernatural miscegenation, the repression of clerical wives, the elevation of the Virgin Mary, the preoccupation with the material presence signified by transubstantiation, the reconceptualisation of demons as disembodied, and the subsequent embodied return of the repressed clerical wife in the figure of the witch. Structures of thinking do not come out of nowhere.
William Myers objects to my gloomy view of Augustine and original sin (Letters, 28 October) and suggests that my review ‘gets some things wrong’. Alas, he gets more things wrong. He corrects me for claiming that original sin is Augustinian in origin. Actually, I never claimed this in my review of Garry Wills’s book; but if I had, Myers would still be wrong, because Augustine can certainly be said to be the originator of a particular emphasis on Adam’s sin. Augustine’s belief is particular in three ways: in its insistence that Adam’s fall corrupted the whole of human nature; that this corruption is transmitted through the sexual act; and that this corruption cannot be lifted by our own free will but only by God’s gratuitous grace.
Myers suggests that theologians who preceded Augustine were similarly preoccupied. Yes, softer versions of Augustinian doctrine can be found among early Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Origen. But they generally stress, as Augustine generally does not, our free capacity to escape that taint. Tertullian wrote, in very non-Augustinian fashion, that ‘God’s justice should then judge individuals and not the whole race,’ and goes so far as to suggest that the soul is Christian by nature, something Augustine would never have hazarded. And the Gnostics, of course, often explicitly rejected pre-Augustinian ideas of inherited sin.
Myers then corrects me because I wrote that, according to Augustine, Adam’s sin is ‘physically transmitted to all his descendants through sex’. Not so, says Myers, it is transmitted through heredity. But by heredity Augustine means sex, and says so on numerous occasions. Augustine believed that Adam’s sin had tainted sex itself, that this was one of the punishments of the Fall, and that sex was both distorted by, and the vehicle of, original sin. ‘The very root of sin lies in carnal generation,’ Augustine wrote in De peccatorum meritis. Henry Chadwick puts it like this in his book on Augustine: ‘the physical act was, he urged, the vehicle for the transmission of the flawed human nature subsequent to the Fall.’ Augustine’s belief in transmission through sex enabled him to argue in the Enchiridion that Jesus was not tainted in this way, because the Virgin Mary had not had sex in order to conceive him.
Myers is clearly on something of a crusade to defend the notion of original sin, and takes issue with my assertion that Cardinal Newman was ‘devoured by his apprehension of hereditary evil’. I’m sure Myers likes Newman more than I do, but it is hard to read Newman’s Apologia and not recoil from its consuming and consumed obsession with sin and evil, an obsession that bulks so large that Newman comes very close to defining the Church solely as an institutional response to evil: ‘a power as tremendous as the giant evil that has called for it … it is because of the intensity of the evil which has possession of mankind that a suitable antagonist has been provided against it’. So the great Church has been shrunk to a ‘suitable antagonist’ of evil! It is this apprehension that sanctions Newman’s truly repulsive declamation: ‘The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul … would commit one single venial act, would tell one wilful untruth, or would steal one poor farthing without excuse.’ Christianity has written no greater self-condemnation than this sentence of Newman’s, unless it is Augustine’s equally cruel comment in the Enchiridion that ‘infants are involved in the guilt of the sin not only of the first pair’ – Adam and Eve – ‘but of their own immediate parents’.
One Per Cent
In his review of Niall Ferguson’s history of the House of Rothschild, Jonathan Steinberg (LRB, 28 October) mentions that Gutle Rothschild continued to live in her house in the ghetto long after her sons were the richest men in the world. I wonder if this was altogether voluntary. In The Jews of Germany (1992), Ruth Gay says: ‘Mayer Amschel continued to live in the Frankfurt ghetto subject to all the constraints hampering his fellow Jews. When at the height of his fame he requested permission to take walks outside the ghetto for the sake of his health, the city council did not hesitate to refuse.’
Doomed to Sincerity
If John Murphy (Letters, 14 October) seriously believes that ‘Sab:’ in the title of Rochester’s ‘Sab: Lost’ stands for a male called Sabinus, can he explain why the person whose loss is described is called ‘she’ and ‘the first of women’?
Phil Edwards criticises me for relating the Situationists’ psychogeographic wanderings to their critique of the spectacle (Letters, 28 October). However, the whole point of Simon Sadler’s first-rate book is to show how psychogeography and Debord’s notion of ‘unitary urbanism’ were an integral part of what would become the concept of the spectacle. It was therefore of signal importance for Debord, as Henri Lefebvre himself points out, that Constant Nieuwenhuis first used the term ‘situation’ in the Situationist sense in his 1953 work Pour une architecture de situation. As Lefebvre put it, it is impossible to believe that Guy Debord, irrepressible intellectual magpie, had not read this book before January 1956. One of the problems of writing Situationist history is that the current generation of Debord’s admirers take his version of events at face value. As he himself said, ‘le jeu est sérieux, funeste, parfois sanglant, sacré, mais il n’en est pas moins un jeu.’
University of Wales
Someone’s aorta ain’t where it oughtta be
Paul Foot’s heart may be in the right place but his head certainly isn’t, not with an aorta ‘which runs from heart to head’ (LRB, 28 October).
Peter John Shreve