Memories of Michael Rogin
One thing left unmentioned in Stephen Greenblatt’s tribute to Michael Rogin (LRB, 3 January) was that Rogin was an unforgettable classroom teacher, not least because of some of the attributes pointed out by Greenblatt: the enormous vitality, the deep and empathetic intelligence, the subversive imagination, the humour, the honesty. Especially to be treasured was his year-long course on American political thought, a brilliant if disturbing journey which over the years became a Berkeley institution. Part of Rogin’s trick was the inventiveness of his ideas: he would illuminate Jefferson’s politics through Jefferson’s triangles, Melville’s writings through the notion of an American Marx, Lincoln’s Presidency through images of Lincoln’s changing beard, the American 1968 through the European 1848. There was also his charming and inimitable lecture style which brought an urgency and intensity to the proceedings. Raised in a socialist milieu and informed by the Berkeley of the 1960s, Rogin was a critic of prevailing forms of political and economic liberalism, and shaped his ideas from a remarkably wide range of sources, with the traditions of Freud and Marx especially important. He kept in view both the material and the symbolic, the public and private, the ‘outer’ culture and ‘inner’ psyche, while also insisting on the interpenetrations between these terms. He was intent on showing how the problematic aspects of the American political tradition formed the basis for our relations and our selves, and I think he wanted us to feel the discomfort of this fact, to work through its implications, and, with luck, to be transformed in the process.
Assault on Knowledge
As a non-Israeli anti-Zionist Jew, I am well aware of the need to distinguish between peoples and ideologies. It is J. Behar (Letters, 14 January) who appears to be ‘morally unsavoury’ when he equates Edward Said’s lamenting of a ‘Zionist presence’ at Princeton with the wish of some Jews in Israel to be rid of an Arab presence. To be rid of an Arab presence is to engage in ethnic cleansing. To be rid of a Zionist presence is to be rid of those who would engage in, or excuse, ethnic cleansing.
The assertion that ‘Jonathan Rée has recently been made redundant by Middlesex University, where he worked as a lecturer for more than 25 years’ is not only factually incorrect: it is also mischief-making. While it is true that he will leave the service of the University at the end of the 2001-02 academic year, after 12 months of fully paid research leave, he does so voluntarily. The rest of the distinguished team, awarded a 5 in the recent Research Assessment Exercise and an aggregate score of 23 out of 24 in the Teaching Quality Assessment, will continue to offer students some of the best facilities for the teaching of philosophy in the UK.
My mother was a child in Kiukiang during the Boxer Rebellion, and owed her life less to the presence of the Japanese troops guarding the foreign enclave than to the fact that just as the assault started it began to rain, and the Chinese insurgents very sensibly went off home. Like Sir Robert Hart, who is said by T.H. Barrett (Letters, 14 January) to have acknowledged the part imperialism played in provoking the Rebellion, my grandfather worked for the Chinese Government in the Imperial Customs Service – as had his father and grandfather before him. Wilfred Scawen Blunt’s remark that the Chinese were ‘very properly knocking the foreign vermin on the head’ was a typically silly overstatement on his part.
You Muddy Fools
Ian Hamilton (LRB, 14 January) acknowledged that Oscar Mellor’s Fantasy Press was ‘pretty famous’ in the 1950s, and added that Oscar ‘was an odd figure … last heard of in Exeter’. Oscar deserves to be awarded a little more substance than that. He was born in 1920 or 1921, moved from Manchester to Birmingham with his parents in 1939, and in due course started to produce paintings in the Surrealist vein. In 1951 he moved to Oxford and with very simple equipment set himself up as a jobbing printer – this was the start of the Fantasy Press. Meanwhile, he taught himself photography and produced regular and distinguished work, for the Oxford Playhouse in particular. Both skills were initially learned so that he could earn money and continue painting. He had a deep distrust of business people, and sidestepped opportunities which might have led to the recognition he deserved. He eventually accepted the post of Senior Lecturer in Photography (Fine Art) at Exeter College of Art but continued to paint prolifically, until recently.
Neither Dan Jacobson’s interview with Ian Hamilton nor any of the obituaries I have read gives any hint that Hamilton’s interests extended beyond writings in English. One issue of the Review was devoted to Wittgenstein, another to Hölderlin, a third to Zbigniew Herbert, with a pioneering essay by Al Alvarez. I sent my set of the magazine to an admirer in Poland, but the censor there must have found it too subversive, For it never reached the addressee. In the New Review Hamilton published my translations of Tadeusz Rozewicz, together with my extensive conversation with him.
Unfair to the Chief Rabbi
Jeremy Newmark’s insistence that the Chief Rabbi is the head of an organisation ‘entirely separate’ from the United Synagogue (Letters, 3 January) is disingenuous. Not only is the United Synagogue the main financial backer of the office of Chief Rabbi but its very constitution and the Act of Parliament establishing it enjoins it so to be. Conveniently, the Synagogue’s principal is always chairman of the Chief Rabbinate Council.
G. Colin Jimack
A Golden Zep
J.F. Darycott (Letters, 3 January) claims that ‘hydrogen, while readily flammable, is not … as explosive as petrol.’ Many people, fed on Hollywood imagery, believe that petrol is a highly explosive liquid. But that is not the case, as anybody who has seen a match thrown into a bucket of petrol will testify. All that happens is a rather smoky, though energetic, burn. For petrol (liquid at standard temperature and pressure, or STP) to explode, in the sense of a supersonic-type ignition, it needs to be well mixed with an adequate supply of oxygen, which is not easy without some external intervention, for example the mixing of petrol vapour with air in the combustion chamber of an engine. The main problem with hydrogen is that it is a gas at STP and readily migrates, mixing with air as it goes, to places where there are potential ignition sources.
Soto de la Marina, Spain
Jerome Shipman isn't quite right. Helium is, as he says, present in the gaseous emissions from natural springs in the US, but it is also present in natural gas at levels of 1 per cent. Helium, however, can be obtained from the liquefaction of natural gas. This isn't easy (it doesn't undergo adiabatic cooling on expansion until very low temperatures are reached), but it isn't impossible: the Germans would doubtless have pursued this technique if they had had the will, as E.S. Turner suggests. They could also have obtained helium from monazite sands by heating to 1000°C – the sand was at that time available from Australia.
I am fortunate enough to possess Marguerite Steinheil’s My Memoirs (1912) acquired for 50p at Kingsland Waste Saturday Market, and can shed further light on the death of the French President Félix Faure, contradicting the versions of both Thomas Laqueur and Roger Stuveras (Letters, 3 January) on significant points of detail. The President’s use of stimulants is confirmed. Mme Steinheil relates that when Faure seemed to be recovering he said to her: ‘the trouble is over; I am going to rest a little … I’ll take no more of that wretched drug, I promise you – I swear it.’ She then said to Blondel, Faure’s private secretary: ‘don’t trouble to let me out; I will leave the Elysée by the main door.’ Steinheil goes on to state:
Towards midnight (I had been in bed for some time) I was awakened by the bell of the telephone in my room. It was M. Bordelongue, a director in the Ministry of Postes et Telegraphes, and an old friend. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. And then I heard the news, the dreadful news: ‘The President is dead.’ I could not believe what I heard. ‘It’s impossible,’ I exclaimed. ‘I saw him today. He was tired, weak, upset, but there seemed to be nothing particularly wrong with his health.’ I asked Bordelongue all kinds of questions, but he merely replied: ‘Nothing is known. They say the President died of an apoplectic stroke.’
‘O quel cul t’as’
James Wolcott (LRB, 13 December 2001) is right. The Surrealist painting in question is Clovis Trouille's Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta! of 1946, No. 78 in his catalogue raisonné.
The name of the painting is, of course, the pun Alan O'Brien refers to (Letters, 14 January). It is a work from 1946, by the weekend painter/full-time factory worker adopted as one of them by the Surrealists in 1930, Clovis Trouille, by then fairly old. His day job was making wax shop-window dummies.
The pun works because the painting shows a naked, draped female in a sort of Rokeby Venus pose, with a fleur-de-lys (or something similar) on each cheek of her bottom.
Frank St George
The Mitford girls have always been presented as larger than life. India Knight (LRB, 3 January) claims that they had 16 great-grandparents, so their tetraploidy would explain this.
Is Janos von Almasy who is mentioned in India Knight's review of The Mitford Girls the same man who was on Rommel's staff – the officer who figures in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient and the film based on it? As an intelligence officer in Cairo in 1941 I had him on my card index of German officers in the Afrika Korps and tracked down in Cairo University library his book on the Western Desert (which he had explored prewar). In it he quotes Herodotus as saying that large quantities of Greek vases were imported annually to Egypt, where they disappeared. They were, he was convinced, used to store water on the desert routes. On the basis of this material I wrote a paper suggesting that Almasy was setting up supply dumps in the desert. These, I believe, were discovered being used by him to help infiltrate agents into the Nile Valley.
Livia Svevo's Memoir of Italo Svevo, discussed by James Wood (LRB, 3 January), is published in this country by Libris.
Libris, London NW5