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Witty Scalpel

On 23 May you published Jenny Diski’s review of my edition of Philip Larkin’s ‘Trouble at Willow Gables’ and Other Fictions. On 27 June you followed this with a letter by Mike Taylor, which accused Diski of wasting her readers’ time as much as I had wasted hers. Larkin can fend for himself, but I hope that I may be allowed to respond to the casual brutality to which I have been exposed in your pages. Diski asserts that: ‘after a false start in 1981 (Writers and Politics in Nigeria), he has devoted himself to the cause of Philip Larkin.’ This is not wit; it is a sneer. As a result of this ‘false start’ two of my recent PhD students have just published books on African writers. Nor do I possess the religious ardour which the words ‘devotion’ and ‘cause’ imply – not for the writing of Larkin, nor for anything else. She continues:

There is indeed a strong sense that Booth hasn’t got enough to keep his mind occupied. Otherwise why would he bother with footnotes informing his readers that Hugh Walpole was a ‘popular novelist’, Benny Goodman an ‘American clarinettist and bandleader (1909-86)’ … Does he imagine that Larkin’s avid readers are too young to have heard of Benny Goodman? Or is he merely trying to justify the time and fill out the pages of the little he has to work with?

Does Diski imagine that all the readers of my edition will be as old as, or older than she is? Working in a university I know that many of Larkin’s most avid readers are students (or schoolchildren). Some are also Italian or Japanese. These readers know little of Benny Goodman, and they certainly haven’t a clue who Hugh Walpole was.

James Booth
University of Hull

On the Road to Ramallah

Raja Shehadeh's Diary (LRB, 25 July) prompts me to report a recent harrowing experience on the Birzeit-Ramallah road. After several weeks without respite I heard that the curfew was to be lifted for a few hours. I set off from my home in Birzeit heading for Ramallah seven kilometres away, where I planned to visit my 90-year-old mother and my sister, a journey I made almost daily before the recent Israeli incursions.

Before I left, I asked about the situation on the road and was assured that it was safe. The soldiers manning the military checkpoint had gone, although cement blocks remained in place to prevent cars from passing through. In order to get to Ramallah one had to walk through the area around the checkpoint, a distance of about a kilometre.

I was happy at the prospect of being able to spend an ordinary day, to make a familiar journey. I passed a group of people from Ramallah, mostly students from Birzeit University, heading for the campus. We have a future to live for, I reminded myself.

I enjoyed the reunion with my sister and my mother, who smiled doubtfully when I promised I would resume my daily visit. She knows how difficult it is to keep such promises under the prevailing conditions. The time passed quickly and soon I found myself once again part of the milling crowd around the checkpoint. Suddenly an Army jeep appeared from around the bend, speeding crazily through the peaceful crowd. Instantly the quiet road resembled a battlefield. There were shouted orders coming from the jeep which no one could hear properly. All I knew was that we were being chased and dispersed and that there was panic and fear on the faces of all those around me. There were hundreds like me, running, scared, wondering what was happening: men carrying goods, women with shopping bags, their children confused, traumatised, clutching at their skirts, other women holding babies or trying to push prams, students with books, old people pleading for someone to help them along. Some took refuge in the rocky terraced hills, others in the vineyards and orchards below and some like me opted to remain on the main road. All this time tear-gas canisters were being thrown from the jeep.

Was the Army playing some kind of trick, we wondered, in removing checkpoints and then suddenly reinstalling them, creating this pandemonium? I remembered the Kufr Qassem massacre, when farmers from a northern Palestinian village were returning home after a long day in the fields, not knowing that a curfew had been imposed on their village by the Israeli Army. Without any warning they were shot as they approached their homes.

I struggled uphill among the scrambling crowd; the heat was suffocating. The jeep screeched to a halt next to me. A soldier jumped down and waved a tear-gas canister in his hand. I wanted to scream at him, but fear got the better of me and I kept running. A young woman warned me that the soldier was about to throw the canister. I ducked as I heard the explosion behind me and choked on the gas. I ran, coughing all the way, until after what seemed like an eternity I managed to get into a passing car that took me home. Behind me the madness continued.

This sort of incident happens almost every day in Palestine. The injustice is unbearable. There was no provocation. There was no threat. There was no danger to the security of Israel. Our only crime was that we dared to be ordinary citizens in our ordinary land.

Tania Tamari Nasir
Birzeit, West Bank


It was not the Prussians who trained the Chilean Army, as Christopher Hitchens claims in his review of Andy Beckett's Pinochet in Piccadilly (LRB, 11 July), but the Germans: after 1871, the Prussian Army became part of the Imperial German Army. Incidentally, until Pinochet's coup the Chilean Army had an unequalled record in Latin America of not interfering in politics. It required the dismissal of General Prats, its Commander-in-Chief, who opposed the planned coup (and was later assassinated in exile), to put the Army firmly under Pinochet's control. Admiral Toribio Merino, on the other hand, of the British-trained Navy, was a key figure in Pinochet's coup and a senior liaison officer with its US backers.

Theresa Heine
London NW5

On an Egg

Sarah Rigby (LRB, 11 July) repeats the claim that Fay Weldon coined the slogan ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’ It was in fact Dorothy Sayers who thought it up. Sayers was at the time working for an advertising agency, which she used as the setting for Murder Must Advertise.

Joan Rockwell
Aalborg, Denmark


Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s review of my book, La Fatigue d’être soi (LRB, 11 July), has already been published in practically the same form in a French journal (Ethnopsy, 4 March 2002) and in his book Folies à plusieurs: De l’hystérie à la dépression (the relevant chapter is called ‘La Grande Dépression’). The publisher of both is Philippe Pignarre, author of Comment la dépression est devenue une épidémie, which Borch-Jacobsen reviewed in the LRB alongside my book. Pignarre pans La Fatigue d’être soi in his volume, which is fair enough, but is it proper for an author to review his own publisher’s book, especially when that review is an apologia?

Because my book is not available in English I think I should give an account of what it does say. It is the final volume of a trilogy on contemporary individualism, and addresses two questions: why and how has depression become such an important illness, and what does depression tell us about changing notions of the individual at the end of the 20th century? Two hypotheses are proposed: the first concerns the relationship between depression and the transformation of democratic society since World War Two and holds that there has been a reduced emphasis on guilt and discipline, in favour of a stress on responsibility and personal initiative. Borch-Jacobsen sees this as a proposition that depression is a ‘simple reflection of changes in society’, but I make clear that social norms do not penetrate people’s heads the way that rain is absorbed by the ground: mediation is necessary. The second hypothesis concerns the role played by depression in the transformation of individual pathologies during the same period: I argue that depression’s prevalence can be attributed to the reduced importance of the notion of ‘conflict’, which was the basis of ideas of neurosis in the late 19th century.

I also contest the idea that the invention of antidepressants created depression. Such a thesis is a by-product of technological determinism. I distinguish two eras of contemporary depression. The first begins with the invention of ECT – not antidepressants – and ends in the early 1970s. During this period, depression was an appendage of neurosis; psychotropic medications were used as ‘boosters’ for psychotherapy. This paradigm was then rejected, in large part through the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III in the US, but also because of the evolution of the place of depression in psychoanalysis (the increasing attention paid to narcissistic pathologies). Depression is now used to refer to a whole range of problems, from fatigue to psychotic melancholy.

It is inaccurate to claim that I lose ‘sight of the link between the epidemic and the marketing of antidepressants’. For that link, my book refers the reader to David Healy’s The Anti-Depressant Era, as well as to his volumes of interviews (The Psychopharmacologists). But I contest Borch-Jacobsen’s use of the word ‘epidemic’ here as metaphoric at best, absurd at worst; and in accounting for the ‘success’ of depression as a diagnostic category, I would want to emphasise sociological conditions (which seem not to exist for Borch-Jacobsen) as much as chemicals and their marketing.

Contrary to what Borch-Jacobsen writes, Roland Kuhn thought – as did other psychiatrists in the 1950s and the early 1970s – that antidepressants could also be used to treat neuroses, particularly obsessional ones. By diminishing the intensity of symptoms, they allowed the patient to engage in ‘talk’ therapy. Also, neurosis in the psychoanalytic meaning of the term is not a ‘reaction’, but rather the expression of an internal unconscious conflict. And so on.

Alain Ehrenberg
Centre for Research on Psychotropics and Mental Health, Paris

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen nods approvingly at Philippe Pignarre’s so-called syllogism. ‘1. I feel depressed; 2. I want to feel better. 3. I’m going to get a prescription for antidepressants.’ This elides the distinction between ‘depression’ as a clinical diagnostic category and as a description of how I’m feeling. Pignarre ignores the institutional and professional conditions under which a clinical diagnosis is established through dialogue. These conditions are under increasing pressure, to be sure: salesmen for Eli Lilly recently mailed out free samples of Prozac. But there’s still a difference between getting antidepressants and ordering a nice dinner. ‘The point is,’ Borch-Jacobsen writes, ‘that I wouldn’t feel “depressed” if I didn’t know that there were drugs for treating it.’ Slipping the scare-quotes around ‘depressed’ clears a nice space for condescension here, separating the tough-minded from the corporate dupes. I would, however, still be feeling something – melancholia or acedia, ennui, despair, nameless dread or another such psychic state historically lacking effective treatment. No doubt Borch-Jacobsen finds these conditions nobler than depression because accompanied by a sense of helplessness.

Rick Livingston
Columbus, Ohio

Adventures of a Messiah

In his review of John Freely’s The Lost Messiah: In Search of Sabbatai Sevi, Richard Popkin (LRB, 23 May) writes: ‘Freely has omitted all of Scholem’s scholarly apparatus, which has the advantage of making his book easier to read, but the disadvantage that we don’t know what the sources are for various elements in the story.’ In fact, Freely sometimes fails to recognise the difference between sources that are works of fiction and those that are historical documents. A poem that I wrote and published in Turkish in 1999 appears in The Lost Messiah as a 17th-century work.

Marc David Baer

GM Mantras

In his piece about GM crops James Meek (LRB, 11 July) devotes only a few lines to hybrid superweeds and pest resistance. Consider a hypothetical local example. Along the coast of New South Wales there are tens of thousands of hectares of Bitou bush, an imported weed that is as virulent and uncharitable to the local flora as it is boring and awful to look at. On a walk a year or so ago we encountered a weary young man on a four-wheeled runabout, topping up his spray equipment with fluid from plastic canisters. We swapped notes. The concentrate he was using is widely known as Roundup or Zero (glyphosate). He told us that the only thing he knew of that killed the Bitou bush (and only narrowly at that) without harming the native flora was a calculated low dose of this herbicide. Imagine then that some genetic modifier gets the idea that you could suppress the weed in crops with glyphosate if the crops themselves had been engineered to be immune to the weedkiller. Then think what would happen if a hybrid between the crop and the Bitou bush developed. Suddenly the one cheap and acceptable thing known to stem this noxious plant would be useless.

Such a scenario draws two reactions from GM advocates. First, they want to argue about which crop might hybridise with which weed. This might give them a small debating victory but misses the big point. Alternatively, they want to assure us that around every GM crop there will be a buffer zone, keeping the crop and the weed (and their pollens) from contact with each other. But even if it were possible to do this on a small plot beside the Cam it wouldn’t be practicable in most farming situations (and especially not in countries like China where GM crops already cover hundreds of thousands of farms). Weeds tend to be genetically similar to the crops they infest, and grow beside them because they enjoy the treatment the crops get. (Hence the biggest family of cereal weeds worldwide are grasses.) This fact makes the type of hybridisation I have suggested even more probable.

It seems easier to scare people about poisons that GM manipulation could generate or contaminated viruses that might develop in our gut than to get them to understand the ecological hazards. ‘Eat organic’ – which for now implies non-GM – might sound like a good solution to the problem, and it would be in a completely GM-free region. But in time there may well be no ‘organic’ produce to eat. Hybridisation will inevitably occur between ‘organic’ and GM crops. This scenario doesn’t require a far-fetched chain of accidents in the tangles of protein or obscure transformations in the gut. It is very straightforward and as serious as it is probable.

Peter van Sommers

In his account of the uncertainty surrounding the transfer of genes or proteins from GM crops to other organisms, James Meek does not confront some scientific truths. First, it isn’t just a matter of stirring up the desired gene (call it A) in a pot with cells of the organism that you want to modify. To get the gene to fix, a ‘promoter’ has to be included, which is commonly a virus: for example, a cabbage virus in the case of GM rapeseed. Furthermore, in order to know which cells to clone for your product, you need to know which cells gene A has got into, which means including a marker gene that you can quickly identify and which migrates with A – a gene for antibiotic resistance, for example. All of this means that the potential consequences are much more serious than if the presence of gene A were all that was at issue.

Second, GM enthusiasts (whether blinkered professors or profit-seeking businesses) carry out only the safety tests that have occurred to them or that are required by regulation. What they do not test for are the problems they haven’t thought of, and if those problems emerge in the ecosphere there won’t be much point testing for them. And it is well known to biologists that you can never prove a biological negative; you can only suggest that it is statistically ‘unlikely’. There is a world of difference between modifying E.coli bacteria to make perfect copies of human insulin in sealed vats and then using these copies to treat people with diabetes, and putting GMOs out in fields or in food. One is helpful, the other is speculative.

C.W. Burke
Beaworthy, Devon

Cond. Dis.

Magistrates may not – unlike John Upton (LRB, 25 July) – be lawyers. But at least we know that a Conditional Discharge does count as a criminal conviction, and does have to be declared.

Peter Hogarth

A Month on the Sofa

John Lanchester writes in his World Cup diary (LRB, 11 July) that Brazil ‘squeaked into the finals, narrowly ahead of mighty Honduras’. But Honduras didn’t even play in the same qualifying competition. They did, however, eliminate Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2001 Copa America, which may be what Lanchester has in mind.

Lucy Penhaligon
London W2

I hope that the LRB will one day carry a piece about the World Cup glory of the Romanian team. In the meantime, I'll settle for petty one-upmanship over John Lanchester. Rivaldo is a midfielder, not a forward.

M. Rudonja
Kolozsvar, Romania

Eastern Hordes

J.C. Grayson wonders whether West German opera houses cut the lines from Lohengrin about the ‘hordes of the east’ (Letters, 11 July). The cut made in the East German Lohengrin he heard ‘in the early 1980s’ was also made in a production staged at Bayreuth in 1979. According to Barry Millington in The Wagner Compendium it is a ‘traditional’ cut (although usually 39 lines are deleted rather than merely the two cited by Grayson) to be regretted on dramaturgical rather than ideological grounds.

David Cormack
London SE26