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Less than Meets the Eye

As I measured the length and eloquence of Jacqueline Rose’s essay on Marilyn Monroe, I began to hope for that rarity, a detached, scholarly insight into Monroe (LRB, 26 April). I should have noted the first words of special pleading, from Monroe herself: ‘Like any creative human being, I would like a bit more control.’ Why do you have to be ‘creative’ to deserve more control? And isn’t it fanciful to claim that Monroe was the one star who got the better of the moguls? Her partnership with Milton Greene was prompted by Greene’s wish to protect her business ineptness (and promote himself). It led to two films: Bus Stop (her best work it seems to me, though not mentioned by Rose) and The Prince and the Showgirl, which is a mess. Nothing else came of Marilyn Monroe Productions. She failed the key test for stars of the 1950s: taking charge of their own careers. Rose may wonder why Elizabeth Taylor got ten times Monroe’s fee for a film. Was it that Taylor followed better advice? Or that she had a box office record (A Place in the Sun, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and an Oscar (BUtterfield 8)? That prize was charitable, but the generosity reflected the industry’s regard for Taylor. She was smart, hardworking, expert, on time and word-perfect since childhood. Richard Burton’s diaries tell how much he learned from her. Who reckons that Monroe could have attempted Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland had challenged and defeated the contract system. Katharine Hepburn contrived her own material as early as The Philadelphia Story. Ingrid Bergman made her bold journey to Italy to make ‘real’ films. Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Susan Hayward rode the studio attitudes of the 1950s without breaking down. Kim Novak was shy and limited as an actress, and vulnerable to male estimates that she was merely sexy. But she did The Man with the Golden Arm, Strangers When We Meet and Picnic – not great pictures, but worthwhile. And she was Madeleine and Judy in Vertigo. Does anyone believe Monroe could have done that film, or lived up to Hitchcock’s need to trap anguished actors in his taut frames?

Yet if Monroe could not generate her own projects, then surely it was up to her to seek the best opportunities available? That fits Judy Holliday, who sometimes reminds one of Monroe as the ‘dumb blonde’, Billie Dawn, in Born Yesterday. Holliday was not dumb, though she was neurotic, but in Adam’s Rib and Born Yesterday she found a democratic intelligence within the dumb blonde archetype that surpasses anything ‘Lincolnian’ in Monroe’s career.

There is an even more telling example of what could be done. When Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall had its debut in 1964, directed by Elia Kazan, the role of Maggie (plainly based on Marilyn) was taken by Barbara Loden. Kazan had had an affair with Monroe before her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, and in A Life he spoke fondly of her. But this inspired discoverer of performers did not make a film with or for Monroe, just as Lee Strasberg’s admiration for Marilyn’s reading of Anna Christie never led to a stage production. Had they realised that Monroe’s spasmodic glow (so magnificent in stills) was hardly viable in a complete dramatic context?

On the other hand, Loden wrote, directed and acted in a poignant, independent movie, Wanda, where she plays a fragile unsmart woman involved with a minor criminal. Wanda is a pioneering achievement, showing that an unfulfilled actress could do something for herself. Much the same applies to Gena Rowlands in A Woman under the Influence and her other work with John Cassavetes. Wanda cost only $200,000 but Loden needed six years to raise the money. She took control and responsibility. Monroe left an estate of just over $90,000, which ended up with the family of Lee Strasberg. Control in Hollywood is more frequent, and more complicated, than Rose allows.

David Thomson
San Francisco

Jacqueline Rose decided not to include any mention of Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judaism. The Spring 2010 issue of Reform Judaism published newly released letters from the rabbi, Robert Goldburg, who officiated at her conversion at Congregation Mishkan Israel, in New Haven. The letters, it would seem, reveal not only that Monroe was a serious convert, but that she continued to identify as Jewish after her divorce from Arthur Miller.

Yisrael Medad
Shiloh, Israel


What to say about Lanzmann?

Hilary and Steven Rose misrepresent Rudolf Vrba, a true hero indeed, fraternal companion from childhood of a relative of mine who died in Auschwitz before his eyes, as Vrba recounts in his memoir, I Cannot Forgive (Letters, 26 April). Vrba was a convinced Communist and active Party member before and during his imprisonment, but became a convinced Zionist even before 1945, having realised that neither the Communists nor the Bundists nor the religious leaders had done anything useful to protect Jewish lives, whereas the Zionists had done everything they could to get Jews out of Europe. As he told me and others, Vrba left Israel in 1960 because it was then a very poor country in which professionals like himself earned salaries that made a bicycle a luxury, as he put it. His support for Israel continued to be total and unconditional.

The Roses write that when Vrba and Alfred Wetzler (his fellow escapee from Auschwitz) warned the Zionist leader Rudolf Kastner of the imminent deportation of Hungary’s Jews – those in Hungarian-ruled Transylvania, where I was then a child, had already been deported – Kastner did not act on the warning but instead ‘bribed Adolf Eichmann to permit a group of 1684 Jews to escape by train for Switzerland, abandoning the remaining 437,000 to their deaths’. They imply that Kastner did not inform his fellow Jews but instead somehow whispered it to just 1684 of them, having accomplished the impossible feat of bribing Eichmann. The truth, which is fully documented, is that Eichmann released a trainload of Jews as a token of his willingness to release one million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks, a fantasy scheme but an opening that the Zionists did their best to exploit. Another Zionist activist, Joel Brand, first went to Turkey with Eichmann’s laissez passer, but the Turks refused to take any Jews even on transit visas unless the British would accept them in turn, which they refused to do.

The Roses write that when Vrba reached Israel from postwar Czechoslovakia, he found there ‘the same Zionists in power who had earlier betrayed their communities’, citing Kastner, who betrayed none but could save only a few. What betrayal? Zionist leaders everywhere had tried all they could to save fellow Jews with miserably scant means, but most, inevitably, starved and died in their communities. It was Churchill’s British Empire that blocked the one possible path to salvation: trains ran every day to Istanbul from Budapest and Bucharest through my native Arad. But my family could not board those trains. As the British consul in Istanbul explained to our highly placed local friend when he refused family visas: there are too many Jews in Palestine already, and in London too. Is that why British publications are by far the most anti-Zionist outside the Arab world?

Edward Luttwak
Chevy Chase, Maryland


Who mattered more?

Eric Hobsbawm chides Tony Judt for studying the ‘marginal and ineffective world of the Left Bank’ rather than ‘the Brasserie Lipp, where the politicians gathered’ (LRB, 26 April). But it could be argued that, for example, Sartre’s influence on young people who refused to fight in Algeria was more significant in bringing about the end of the war than the assorted politicians of the Fourth Republic, who seemed powerless to do anything at all, and those of the Fifth, who simply did what De Gaulle told them to.

Ian Birchall
London N9


The Dismissal of Bo Xilai

Wang Hui’s predictable take on the fall of Bo Xilai – it’s all a neoliberal plot – makes no mention of the basic reason why the former boss of Chongqing was defenestrated (LRB, 10 May). He had simply become too big for his boots ahead of the selection of a new Politburo Standing Committee at the Communist Party Congress later this year. When word spread that he sought the internal security portfolio on the Standing Committee, his downfall was guaranteed. All his peers needed was a weapon to wield against him. This they got with the defection from his camp of the Chongqing police chief, his extraordinarily clumsy handling of the affair, and the death of the British businessman Neil Heywood, which could be worked up into a murder case against his wife.

So far, so normal: another big prince of the city, Chen Liangyu, was ousted as boss of Shanghai before the last Party Congress for defying the central authorities. But Wang Hui sees it all as a neoliberal plot against a defender of the true nature of the People’s Republic. In this, he ignores the downsides of the Chongqing model and the way Bo brought his fate on himself – not to mention the evident disjunction between Bo’s proclamations of social equality and the flaunting of his family’s wealth.

What Wang dismisses as neoliberal reforms are just the changes China needs if it is to progress. The economy is losing its original advantages because of rising wages and costs and contracting export markets. The state sector and its ‘vested interests’ – whom Bo represented – have been the prime beneficiary of the stimulus programme launched at the end of 2008. Agriculture is hobbled by the absence of land ownership rights. Control of energy and water pricing leads to huge inefficiencies in usage. Credit is decided by administrative quotas that result in big misallocations and financial repression of households. The need for reform is evident, even if it faces powerful opposition from a strange alliance of the New Left (I know Wang dislikes the term as too Western) and the plutocracy that has done so well out of growth, the state security apparatus and the Party bureaucracy. To decry this as neoliberalism is deeply conservative.

Jonathan Fenby
London WC1


Historical Logic

Perry Anderson notes two things (beside great erudition) that mark Carlo Ginzburg as an unusual historian, and both things bother him (LRB, 26 April). The first he poses as ekphrasis: Ginzburg’s essays consist of a ‘cascade’ of references, ending not with ‘the conclusion of an idea or an argument, but the unannounced intimation of another one, at a tangent to what has gone before, pointing in a new direction and abruptly closing on it’. The second he poses as a question: ‘Why does epistemology figure so prominently in the work of a historian who has otherwise often expressed his aversion to intellectual systems?’

Both remarks undercut themselves. The metaphor of a tangent works against Anderson’s meaning: by definition the tangent to a curve (the curve of ‘what has gone before’) at any given point gives us the direction of that curve. When we take the tangent at the end of a curve, the direction of that tangent is not ‘a new direction’, but the final direction of the curve. Anderson’s treatment of epistemology isn’t any clearer. Epistemology is a type of inquiry, not an intellectual system. What Anderson poses as mystery is in fact necessity: historians averse to intellectual systems must occupy themselves with epistemology, precisely to avert all intellectual systems.

Like Ginzburg, Anderson is concerned with the nature of historical evidence and argument: that is, with claims about historical truth. He thinks historical argument should be based on equivalence relations. Ginzburg, instead, relies excessively on ‘polythetic’ relations, ‘in which there is no need for all members of a given category to possess the same traits; they may instead be linked as in a sequence – abc/bcd/def – in which the last unit in the series may have no trait in common with the first.’ By this logic, he claims, ‘anything can ultimately be connected with anything.’ That is a questionable conclusion, but logic aside, it seems impoverishing to history as a discipline to apply the adjective ‘objective – that is, non-arbitrary’ only to classifications that come from equivalence relations. Just as impoverishing is the argument for rules over anomalies. Ginzburg ‘has often contended’, Anderson tells us, that ‘the anomaly tells us more than the rule, because it speaks also of the rule, whereas the rule speaks only of itself.’ Anderson objects on the grounds that the existence of a rule is necessary for the existence of an anomaly, while the converse is not true: we can have a rule without anomaly. The objection does not touch logically on Anderson’s version of Ginzburg’s claim, which was only that anomalies are ‘epistemologically richer’. Nor does it tell us what such rules without anomalies might be. ‘Mathematical ones,’ he says, ‘but not only them.’ Can he give any example outside of axiomatic-logical discourse? Anderson’s critique of Ginzburg (and Marc Bloch) rests on the claim that there are rules without anomalies available to the historian, but he abstains from offering any.

The same is true of his distinction between ‘comprehension’ and ‘explanation’. Comprehension is ‘subjective’, the reconstruction of the mental states of historical subjects. Explanation is the ‘objective’ exhibiting of causation. In physical science, this means the identification of the laws the event under consideration is an instance of. Where there are no general laws without exception that apply to the case in hand, we can give no ‘explanation’. If we follow Anderson’s logic to its conclusion, then the same is true in history: knowledge and objectivity depend on the application of rules without anomalies. Anything else is at best subjective psychologism. Given the stakes, it would be nice to know what anomaly-less laws of history he has in mind.

David Nirenberg and Ricardo Nirenberg
Chicago, Illinois
Albany, New York

In his discussion of Carlo Ginzburg’s use of the term ‘proof’, Perry Anderson neglects to point out that the word’s primary meaning in Germanic languages isn’t ‘substantiate’ but ‘test’, a usage that survives in English idioms such as ‘the proof of the pudding’s in the eating’ and ‘the exception proves the rule.’

Richard Tagart
Antwerp


A Lifetime of Being Not-Picasso

I am sorry to have piqued T.J. Clark over his misunderstanding of Turner’s so-called Interior at Petworth into such a silly riposte (Letters, 10 May). Because I pointed out recent research into the picture that he has overlooked, he accuses me of philistinism. I didn’t offer an aesthetic appreciation of it, only an explanation of what it actually is in Turner’s creative process; so his comment is uncalled for. As a lifelong curator of British pictures, and particularly of Turner (I published the defamatory Italian cartoon he cites in 1987), I do not think I can be labelled so crudely. No, he has merely reinforced my point: that people who want art history to lead to – and culminate in – modernism, are wilfully indifferent to facts.

Andrew Wilton
London SW11


Nighthawks and Chancers

When Andrew O’Hagan describes Leigh Bowery as a ‘Blitz Club kid’, it is a bit like referring to a Beatle as a Quarryman (LRB, 26 April). The club which defines the career of Bowery was not the Blitz but Taboo, which he founded and hosted in the mid-1980s. This Fellini-esque circus of nighthawks, chancers and freaky deviants was one of the first venues in London where ecstasy was taken regularly and en masse.

Having witnessed some of the charivari, as part of a television crew shooting a documentary about Bowery, I’d disagree with O’Hagan’s assertion that ‘Leigh Bowery never looked as much like Leigh Bowery as he does in Freud’s paintings.’ Freud does not capture the Bowery whom I observed at Taboo in all his glory; neither does his depiction of Bowery’s flesh match what we filmed of him in his bath in his flat in a Whitechapel highrise. To have rendered Bowery ghastly, part of what O’Hagan calls the painter’s ‘universe of putrefaction’, was Freud’s choice. Titian, whom Freud loved, as O’Hagan reminds us, paints life as well as death – the ecstasy of flesh not just its horror. The extraordinary and unclassifiable Leigh Bowery was worthy of some Titian-like Assumption even though he would probably have found heaven – both the eternal reward and the gay night club – a bit too straight.

Paul Tickell
London W9


The Hopeless Lib Dems

Ross McKibbin’s prognostications about the Liberal Democrats make depressing reading for any genuine Liberal (LRB, 5 April). At the time of the 1983 general election I was president of the Liberal Party, and Shirley Williams president of the SDP: we very amicably shared platforms on which we endorsed the policies on which we agreed and openly expressed our differences about those on which we did not. The election yielded the best poll result for the Liberal Party for sixty years. The rot set in in the late 1980s, when the decision was taken to merge. After that, the creeping disease that was Blairite economic Toryism gradually infected the distinctiveness of postwar Liberalism.

I share McKibbin’s view that as things stand the Liberal Democrats are likely to be annihilated in the next general election. Had they recognised that there was no need to join a coalition headed by the Tories but instead made it clear that they would vote in support of any legislation of which they were in favour and would abstain on or vote against any with which they disagreed, the Conservative leadership, eager to remain in office, would not have brought forward its legislation on the NHS or education, let alone got it onto the statute book.

John Griffiths
Coleford, Gloucestershire