Though Ben Ehrenreich gives a solid summing up of the current state of play in the war between the Mexican drug cartels, he doesn’t quite capture the extent to which narco culture has confused class dynamics in the country (LRB, 21 October). The cartels are able to sustain themselves because options for Mexican farmers, since Nafta, are scarce: many really do have no choice but to sign up to the drug industry, with the result that now 97 per cent of inhabitants of the region round Badiraguato are involved on some level. But it’s not just the poor who are susceptible to being lured into the world of drug trafficking. Yudit del Rincón, a congresswoman and vocal critic of Calderón’s drug policies, has expressed concern that her teenage sons – born into comfortable lives in the suburbs, future members of the political class – ape the behaviour of drug lords, listen to their music, wear gold chains and so on. No wonder, when the singers of narcocorridos, songs celebrating the escapades of key figures in the drug trade, are among Mexico’s most popular performers: the group K-Paz De La Sierra, for instance, whose lead singer was assassinated by cartel members in 2007, sold thousands of records, would command $100,000 a show, and were rewarded with two Grammys. In a country riven with corruption, this counts as a serious problem: Mexico’s middle classes aren’t just dazzled by the narcos, they’re being groomed to support them.
José de Pietro
What has evil to do with kitsch?
I am interested in the subject addressed in Glen Newey’s review of Terry Eagleton’s On Evil (LRB, 23 September). Among the reasons for this are my past exposure to evil: as a lead negotiator on the Cambodian Peace Agreement, thus dealing with the Khmer Rouge; and as executive chairman of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq, thus dealing with the Saddam regime. I am shocked that you allowed Newey’s piece to go unscathed – in particular its appallingly pretentious penultimate paragraph. Truly, why did you let through such sentences as ‘Evil could be seen figuratively as an intolerance of kitsch’? Mr Newey is possibly a kitsch representation of an academic, but sadly not funny, when dealing with such a serious subject.
Glen Newey writes: Of course one can say that the enormity of acts like those of the Khmers or Saddam overwhelms any attempt to make sense of them. In line with that claim, talk about the mindset of evildoers, as I suggested, seems to require double vision about whether or not they belong to the moral community. If so, it is forlorn to try to pin down a specific psychology of evil, such as the nihilistic one that Terry Eagleton highlights in On Evil. Some, like sadists, want to seize value rather than annihilate it. Appropriators and annihilators share the psychic basis of envy, the sense that the self is threatened because value lies outside it, and must therefore be introjected or destroyed. But if attitudes to evil are double-minded, and so literally incoherent, talk about its ‘psychology’ can only be taken metaphorically. My suggestion that it be seen as intolerance of kitsch was meant not as a joke but as a metaphorical account of it. Kitsch objects shut out viewers from value, reducing them to voyeurs. That provokes the urge to reassert the self by reappropriating or destroying value. Sadists, again, try to solve the problem of envy by depriving the other of value, and reclaim value for themselves in so doing. However, if evil-doing is nobody’s state of mind, such descriptions cannot be literally true. Doubtless that is frustrating for moralists, but the philosophical problem goes as far back as Plato.
Colin Kidd, in his essay on Adam Smith, notes that in the last decade there have been a number of attempts by liberal thinkers to ‘liberate him from the monopolistic embrace of conservatism and big business’ (LRB, 7 October). But Smith was hardly in need of such liberation: he was rescued some 40 years ago by Marxist thinkers of the Braudelian ‘world systems’ school. Their account of the origins of capitalism was an explicit attempt to fuse Marx’s ideas on modes of production and Smith’s insights into the workings of markets and trade. Not for nothing did Robert Brenner, in a 1977 critique of this school in New Left Review, refer to their arguments as ‘Neo-Smithian Marxism’.
Get a real degree
Mark McGurl, quoted by Elif Batuman, argues that the ‘ultimate commitment’ of the discipline of creative writing ‘is not to knowledge but to what Donald Barthelme called “Not-Knowing”’ (LRB, 23 September). If this is McGurl’s view, it runs counter to the spirit of an exchange recorded by John Barth in his introduction to Not-Knowing, a posthumous collection of Barthelme’s essays and interviews, in which Barthelme, asked by a student how to become a better writer, suggests reading the entire history of philosophy ‘from the Presocratics up through last semester’. The student worriedly replies that Barth has already advised his class to read all of literature, ‘from Gilgamesh up through last semester’.
‘That too,’ Barthelme agrees, and adds: ‘You’re probably wasting your time on eating and sleeping. Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature. Also art. Plus politics and a few other things. The history of everything.’ Barthelme’s fiction presumed an encyclopedic historical consciousness and proceeded from, as he put it elsewhere, the effort ‘to attain a fresh mode of cognition’. His fiction, with its multiple references and allusions to the histories of literature, art, philosophy, architecture and politics, certainly bears the traces of his own study of the history of everything, as well as a melancholy recognition of how useful that study might ultimately prove to be; asked why he wrote the way he did, he liked to reply: ‘Because Samuel Beckett already writes the way he does.’
As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen points out, bipolar disorder was thought until recently to afflict perhaps 1 per cent of the adult population (LRB, 7 October). It is also true that, over the last decade and a half, it has come to enjoy such popularity, in one or another of the fast-growing number of ‘variants’, that no one feeling a bit better today than yesterday can hope to avoid the diagnosis. Certainly, Big Pharma’s preoccupation with the ‘bottom line’ is one of the factors behind what some psychiatrists, myself included, consider a misuse of second generation anti-psychotic medications as ‘mood stabilisers’ to treat so-called bipolar disorder. However, at least two other aspects of the situation should be considered.
First, we psychiatrists are, for the most part, fond of thinking ourselves members of an enlightened and entitled fraternity, a virtual priesthood of the sensitive. Consequently, we tend to dismiss the six most important words in the diagnostic manual: ‘not better explained by another diagnosis’. The unruly child, the child who hits or bites others, the child who breaks things or who ‘curses viciously in anger’, is likely to be called almost anything in an attempt to avoid saying that he has a ‘conduct disorder’. To diagnose a child with bipolar disorder is, in other words, to say that he is unfortunate rather than odious. Child psychiatrists who go along with this tend not to linger over the inconvenient fact that historically the diagnosis has been applied only to adults.
Second, bipolar disorder, in at least one of its many ‘variants’, is very responsive to traditional and relatively cheap treatment. Consequently, medical insurers have welcomed the diagnosis and seldom denied authorisation for the treatment regimens proposed by psychiatrists. As almost anything can be opportunistically miscast as a sign or a symptom of bipolar disorder, it ought not to be much of a surprise that the diagnosis came quickly to enjoy ‘most favoured’ status when applied to patients of any age.
Remember the referendum?
Gordon Edwards reminds Bruce Ackerman of the real aim of the 1975 referendum (Letters, 21 October). James Cameron had a wonderful way of summarising his opinion that it was neither important nor unimportant, but more like being asked ‘whether one wanted one’s appendix put back’. I think he meant that for reasons of comfort, convenience and minimal future medical intervention we had to vote in favour of staying in.
The Highest Fruit
Boleslaw Bierut, who in Slavoj Žižek’s account appears to have died as Khrushchev was making his speech at the 20th Party Congress, in fact died on 12 March 1956, a full two weeks after Khrushchev’s turnaround, and much speculation surrounds the cause of his death (LRB, 21 October).
More important, Alexander Fadeyev shot himself on 13 May 1956, more than two months (not ‘a few days’) later. Nor is Fadeyev’s case quite that of a ‘brutal manipulator’ who lost whatever faith he had in the objective value of the regime. As it happens, authentic manipulators thrived in the heyday of Khrushchev’s ‘cult of personality’ because they knew how to turn the new rhetoric to their advantage. In contrast, Fadeyev’s final letter to the Central Committee spells out the reason he took his life: ‘Literature, this highest fruit of the new regime, has been humiliated, oppressed, exterminated. The self-satisfaction of the Leninist neophytes … earned them a complete lack of trust on my part. The things you can expect from them are much worse than from the satrap Stalin.’ The letter was published in 1990 in the 15th issue of a magazine whose name may strike many in today’s Russia as old hat – Glasnost.
Laguna Niguel, California
What about Edith?
Colin Galloway points out, as an example of an English king who married someone other than a woman from France ‘or one or other of those not quite so French areas such as Flanders’, that Henry I married Edith, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland (Letters, 21 October). So he did, just as Edward I married Eleanor of Castile, or Richard II Anne of Bohemia. But all of them also married women from France or adjacent areas: in the case of Henry I, Adeliza of Louvain.
Tom Paulin writes that Larkin continued to use Yeatsian compound adjectives despite his rejection of Yeats in favour of Hardy (LRB, 21 October). He may also have borrowed ‘blent’ from Yeats. The second verse of ‘Among School Children’ has ‘it seemed that our two natures blent/Into a sphere from youthful sympathy.’
Memories of Frank Kermode
I am not at all surprised to learn that Frank Kermode kept a cannabis plant on his desk in 1977 (Letters, 7 October). By all accounts, trying to deal with the English faculty board in Cambridge at that time would have sent any sane man potty.