The Baader-Meinhof Gang
In Peter Wollen’s article (LRB, 5 April), Gerhard Richter: ‘October 18, 1977’ is listed as having been ‘edited’ by me when in fact I wrote it, and not, as Wollen states, ‘on commission’ from the Museum of Modern Art (as if it were some assigned curatorial duty), but out of my own conviction that the series of paintings discussed in it deserved a different, closer reading. Despite the many things Wollen has to say about the Baader-Meinhof Group in his piece, he almost entirely ignores the book itself, preferring instead to gloss its contents in an essay that focuses in large part on how the members of the Red Army Faction might have died that October night in Stammheim prison, those speculations coming at the expense of a more careful examination of the paintings Richter made on that theme or of the interpretation of them being advanced.
As Wollen might have noted, the book is unusual for a museum catalogue to the extent that roughly half of it is given over to a description of the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Group, and an analysis of the political context in which their vain attempts at revolutionary insurrection unfolded. The decision to devote so much of an art book to detailing the bitter and chaotic circumstances that engendered the Red Army Faction was based on three assumptions: 1. that many who were witness to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s have forgotten all but the distorting generalisations imposed on them by an increasingly conservative culture; 2. that many younger people who have recently discovered Richter’s work have never known anything but those generalisations; and 3. that any work of art dealing with the problem of historical memory requires a forthright account of the events in question in order that the reader can evaluate the claims being made for the art which strives to represent them.
That said, my book is, first and last, about Richter’s paintings and the complex aesthetic problems they raise. Indeed, as the introduction goes to some lengths to explain, one of the reasons Richter decided to sell the paintings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York was his growing realisation that so long as they remained in Germany they would continue to be viewed as topical pictures or ‘history paintings’ in the narrowest sense, and as such be used as an occasion for rehashing insoluble issues of who-did-what-to-whom and for refighting old ideological battles. Although Wollen has some things to say about the paintings as paintings, he nevertheless seems to have fallen into the trap of treating Richter’s October cycle as an epiphenomenon of current or past events rather than as works of art that attempt – and I believe succeed – in fundamentally repositioning the viewer in relation to a brief, confused but tragic chapter in the 20th century’s running narrative of utopianism and despair.
Museum of Modern Art New York
In his declaration that the word ‘tough’ in Kent’s valediction on King Lear seems like an ‘absurd American misprint’, and that the phrase ought to read ‘this rough world’, John Bossy (LRB, 24 May) hits on an issue that divided scholars for some time. In his essay ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’, Hazlitt quotes the phrase, and uses the word ‘rough’. He dedicated the essay to Charles Lamb, who, in the Athenaeum, also quotes the phrase, but uses ‘tough’. Editions of Shakespeare which maintain that the word ought to be ‘rough’ are relying exclusively on the Second Quarto (1608). Close inspection of that Quarto shows that the letter which looks like a sloppy ‘r’ is, through a printer’s error, actually a decapitated ‘t’. An absurd misprint is the source of the confusion, but the fault is not American.
New Haven, Connecticut
Sink the ‘Bismarck’!
Lawrence Hogben’s Diary (LRB, 19 April) about the sinking of the Bismarck reminded me of a street chant current in North Devon early in the war:
Roll out the Rodney,
The Nelson, the Hood,
’Cause this ruddy Air Force
Is no ruddy good.
Got that wrong then.
Glen Newey (LRB, 7 June) claims that the Corinthians worshipped at the tomb of the unknown god. It was in fact the Athenians – at least according to St Paul, who found that particular altar.
Rev. Tim Russ
St Dennis, Cornwall
On the Couch
Detractors of psychoanalysis such as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen (LRB, 24 May) often reproach psychoanalysts with slipperiness in seeking to shake off a Freudo-centric approach to the subject. The fallacy in this argument is the belief that psychoanalysis is indelibly wedded to Freud. After all, as these revisionist historians adroitly point out, psychoanalysis is merely a chapter in folk psychology, underpinned by highly specific cultural and historical conditions. As Borch-Jacobsen insists, psychoanalysis is a ‘zero theory’, but only in the sense that it harks back to the year dot. It is ‘everywhere’ because people who are suffering have always turned to others for solace, and this has been informed by some kind of symbolic exchange. Psychoanalysis purposefully defies clear definition just as it resists any attempts at unification, thus allowing the reconfigurations that its detractors abhor. Borch-Jacobsen is correct, however, to ridicule the notion that such reconfigurations constitute ‘progress’. Folk psychology can’t progress any more than rock ’n’ roll.
The Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis London NW3
I am currently on the couch for analysis, and would like to remind anyone who will listen that the purpose of analysis, as Wilfred Bion often said, is to relieve mental pain – and I have been much relieved of mental pain by psychoanalysis. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen's criticisms follow on the heels of Wynne Godley's account of his analysis with Masud Khan (LRB, 22 February) as well as an earlier Borch-Jacobsen review in similar vein (LRB, 13 April 2000). All these pieces purport to be devastating critiques of analysis. They are not. Of course the LRB is not unusual in its faddish rejection of psychoanalysis, but then repetition is always a symptom of neurosis.
In the Scottish Borders, brass bands are the largest distinguishable group of amateur musicians. They give public concerts and play at gala days, charity events, common ridings, flower shows and coffee mornings, agricultural shows, church services and civic ceremonies. The recently reformed local brass band association organises workshops for players and lobbies local government for better funding and recognition. Membership is quite diverse in terms of age, sex, occupation and social class. David Buckle’s letter (Letters, 10 May) describes the ‘shocked silence’ when he asked at an Arts Council meeting why the organisation didn’t support brass bands. Brass bands should certainly be assisted from time to time by the Arts Council and other sources of public (or semi-public) money. The money is always useful; but, more important, such actions recognise the place of brass bands in our national musical culture.
Galashiels Town Band
Freud Memorial Lecture
Philip Schreibman (Letters, 7 June) claims that the editor of the LRB told us ‘distinctly what is “Jewish” – something only the Nazis previously succeeded in doing’. Mary-Kay Wilmers (Letters, 19 April) actually wrote that she was ‘able to see a distinction between the words “Jewish” and “Israeli”’ and knew ‘how closed a mind must be to fail to see this distinction’. In my experience, fascists and anti-semites are far more likely to collapse this distinction than to emphasise it: the conflation of nation and ethnicity is, after all, their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can only find one statement in this whole correspondence which unambiguously ‘tells us distinctly what is “Jewish”’. It came from Lois Oppenheim, who averred that a visit by a ‘participant in anti-Israeli violence’ to Freud’s home would be ‘deeply insulting to the Jewish community at large’. This, of course, was the letter which prompted the editor’s comments.
James Meek (LRB, 24 May) clearly hasn’t enjoyed a Happy Meal recently. Many of his criticisms of ‘corporate gigantism’ are difficult to disagree with, but can McDonald’s and Burger King really be blamed for the assembly line, or the power that technology has to constrain working life? It is easy to find plenty of ugly examples of the way corporate capitalism affects people’s lives, but it also generates and sustains countless jobs: McDonald’s is the biggest employer in Brazil. And multinationals contribute to the tax income that subsidises, well, things like the LRB.
James Meek misses a key issue in his discussion of how the junk food industry could be forced to change for the better. Companies like McDonald’s have been ferocious in their resistance to trade-union organisation. However, new legislation in Britain, while not stopping union-busting tactics, does provide legal underpinning for workers’ attempts to gain union recognition. A milestone for Labour’s second term?
Breakdown in the Bush
My car, like R.W. Johnson's (LRB, 10 May), broke down in a remote part of Zimbabwe. Like him I thought a white mechanic would be best able to help me. I was wrong. The black mechanic from the nearest town quickly identified the problem and set out for the Tribal Trust Lands to get a spare from an old car that had been abandoned there years before. A white mechanic might well have taken days to find the part. My mechanic friend saw Mugabe and his Party as a bunch of crooks and gangsters. This was 12 years ago, when the newspapers Richard Gott writes for were still largely ignoring what was going on in Zimbabwe. Perhaps they didn't want to sound like the Daily Telegraph? All of this makes me think that Gott's letter (Letters, 24 May) was foolish. Africa is not Scandinavia. Many of the hotels are little different from bordellos, or to use Gott's term, whorehouses. Aids is not spread by the wind.
Forncett St Peter, Norfolk
Every writer strives for an arresting first sentence, and the first line in Richard Pankhurst’s review of the biography of James Bruce certainly stopped me in my tracks (LRB, 24 May). ‘Ethiopia was by the Middle Ages the only Christian country outside Europe and thus of great interest to medieval Christendom.’ There were a few other medieval Christian countries outside Europe which attracted the interest of medieval Christendom, including the Byzantine Empire, Armenia (both Greater Armenia and Cilician Armenia) and Georgia.
Katia Kapovich’s poem ‘Forbidden Fellini’ (LRB, 24 May) describes Amarcord as having been a ‘restricted’ film in the Soviet Union, but it was widely shown in the period before perestroika at distinctly non-elite venues. I remember going to a cinema in Moscow to watch it.