Jacqueline Rose writes that Courtney Love ‘may or may not have been fully aware of what she was talking about’ when she opened a concert on Mother’s Day this year with the words: ‘Happy Mother’s Day. I got flowers for mine with a note saying: “Thanks for not breastfeeding”’ (LRB, 19 June). Ms Love could scarcely have been unaware of what she was talking about, since this is the singer whose best-known album, Live through This, returns in song after song to the metaphor of breast milk. ‘Plump’: ‘I’m eating you, I’m overfed/Your milk’s in my mouth, it makes me sick.’ ‘Softer, Softest’: ‘And all your milk is sour/And I can only cry/And I can only cower/And I can only cry/You have all the power.’ ‘I Think That I Would Die’: ‘I want my baby, where is the baby/I want my baby, where is the baby/There is no milk/There is no milk.’ Love’s relationship with her mother has been notoriously embattled and that’s putting it mildly. When a journalist asked the mother at what point she decided that she couldn’t help Courtney any more, the answer came back: ‘When she was nine.’
Why are there no artistic representations of the erotic pleasure a mother gains in breastfeeding her child, Jacqueline Rose asks, following the psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche. She is delighted to find Liberale da Verona’s Two Studies of a woman with head tilted back and eyes closed, her child at her breast by way of exception. We might also ask why there are no artistic representations of what a woman actually sees as she looks down at her breastfeeding child: no images of puckered mouth, or yearning eyes, or mutual pleasure.
A historical perspective helps. In the 19th century, writers like Lydia Sigourney celebrated breastfeeding as the ‘highest pleasure’ and the touchstone of bourgeois motherhood. As the historian Marylynn Salmon has recorded, their less sentimental early modern forebears were ready to use mother’s milk to save the life of a baby not their own, or an adult in need. Breast milk was food for the weak and medicine for the sick. In the 17th and 18th centuries, most women spent more than a decade pregnant or nursing, and motherhood was primarily a physical activity.
Indiana University, Bloomington
‘The Conservatives are promising that if they win the 2015 election, austerity will continue well into their second term,’ Jacqueline Rose warns in an aside to her excellent article on the ambivalent cultural investment in mothers. I hope Rose isn’t consoling herself with the prospect of a Labour victory in next year’s election. That sort of thinking makes the prospect of political change recede further with each shrinking turnout. Eds Miliband and Balls were Blair and Brown’s right-hand men in the second stage of a neoliberal revolution begun under Thatcher. They have repeatedly made clear that they are committed to the coalition’s programme of cuts. They have no intention of rocking the boat, and will do no more than make pretty speeches about social justice. If Rose sees herself as even broadly in sympathy with the left, she should surrender the fantasy that she is any longer represented by the Labour Party. She hasn’t been for twenty years.
The Italian Disaster
Not a word could be subtracted without loss from Perry Anderson’s commentary on Italian politics, but there are a few things that could be added (LRB, 22 May). One is the differential impact of the euro on the Italian South. Its introduction made the region grossly uncompetitive, to the point that unemployment rates average 40 per cent, with a good many of the remaining 60 per cent employed by almost entirely useless municipal, regional and state bodies. On the relationship between Matteo Renzi and Marco Carrai: a local businessman like Carrai can support a promising local politician disinterestedly, in the hope that he, along with everyone else in the area, will benefit from better local government. But if Renzi fails to separate himself from Carrai completely now that he has national office, the potential for corruption is clear. Finally, Anderson might have said something about Italy’s magistrates and judges: openly politicised, often blatantly publicity-seeking (one of them delights in having famous people arrested on flimsy evidence; most aren’t even sent to trial), with a notable aversion to hard work, this most caste-like of Italian castes keeps failing the Italian Republic, especially in regard to Berlusconi.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Like Alan Bennett …
Alan Bennett may not have been well enough bred for Trinity in the 1950s but his social origins would not have been a problem at King’s in recent times (LRB, 19 June). It has been among the most liberal Cambridge colleges in admitting state school pupils. Still, a child at private school is nine times more likely to go to Cambridge than a state school pupil. A day or two before Bennett addressed the dons, the head of ‘widening participation’ at the Cambridge Admissions Office was reported as saying that it was difficult to see how the university could increase the proportion of state school students unless their number of top grades went up. Yet in spite of all their disadvantages, there were enough state school pupils last year who got AAA or better in their A-levels to have filled up all the Cambridge colleges five times over; and, a few days after Bennett spoke, the IFS published research showing that state school pupils were 10 per cent more likely to get ‘good’ degrees than privately educated university entrants with the same A-level grades (and that comprehensive pupils were fractionally more likely than grammar school pupils to do so).
Like Alan Bennett, I too sat the entrance exam at Cambridge, and looked around at this beautiful place finding it inconceivable that I would ever go there myself. I even memorised a turret on a building in Market Square and wondered if it would become a regular part of my visual landscape or never be seen again.
I was less aware than Bennett, however, of the whole public v. state school issue. A nice chap I sat next to at dinner in King’s asked me to his room for coffee, and when I said I was from a grammar school he said with some astonishment: ‘Really? I’ve never met anyone from a grammar school.’ It was a sign of my naivety that I thought he must therefore be from a secondary modern. He was actually from Westminster.
Newbold on Stour, Warwickshire
Inevitably, the lessons in Alan Bennett’s splendid sermon will not be heeded by the louts currently in power. But a more pressing worry is the metaphorical threat of the two items of footwear on the cover. I hope he isn’t thinking of hanging them up.
Barnard College, New York
The back-cover advertisement for Tate Britain’s new show, British Folk Art, is headed ‘Discover extraordinary objects made by Britain’s forgotten artists’ (LRB, 5 June). The lower half of the page shows the head and shoulders of a striking cockerel made of bones. ‘During the Napoleonic wars,’ the caption reads, ‘French prisoners were kept at a camp near Peterborough. They were allowed to make and sell things: one soldier crafted this intricate sculpture using bones left over from his meals.’ So, the sculpture of a cockerel, one of the national symbols of France, is created by a French prisoner, and it is a piece of British folk art?
In the Bank
Christian Lorentzen mentions that John Updike ‘took the precaution of having the New Yorker hold his stories for months and years if the episodes he was treating were still too raw’ (LRB, 5 June). Like all magazines the New Yorker had a ‘bank’ in which William Shawn deposited articles of all kinds until he could or could not find a spot in the magazine. It drove the writers crazy. We were consoled by a story about Updike. He joined the magazine in 1955 and began writing ‘Talk of the Town’. An early piece was called ‘Time on Fifth Avenue’ in which he looks for a clock. It was probably written around 1957. It was put in the bank and not published until 1963.
Christian Lorentzen writes: In his biography Adam Begley discusses the New Yorker’s bank, but also mentions that there was a ‘shadow bank’ for stories of Updike’s that veered too close to recent personal events. At the LRB, we have a ‘box’. I’m not aware of a ‘shadow box’.
John Lanchester’s recollection of the 2002 World Cup match between Italy and South Korea is faulty (LRB, 19 June). Focusing on the referee Byron Moreno’s subsequent antics, Lanchester ignores the fact that there was only one incontestable and important mistake in the whole game, an incorrect offside decision against Tommasi that robbed him of a dangerous-looking one-on-one with the South Korean goalkeeper. But that decision was an extremely close call, certainly not a ‘flagrant howler’, and in any event, was made by the linesman, the Argentinian Jorge Rattalino.
The only other refereeing decision in the game that could be called controversial was the sending off of Francesco Totti for diving. Totti was notorious for deploying this form of cheating, which was considered acceptable by much of Europe’s football and media elites. Whether Totti actually dived or not is impossible to say for sure, but again his sending off was no ‘flagrant howler’; the decision was widely applauded in most of the non-European world. That superstars such as Totti will be allowed to get away with this kind of cheating is only to be expected; but it is far more corrupting of fairness than the occasional disputable decision by a referee.
Moreno was the fall guy for a number of decisions in earlier games that also upset the Italian team, although, for example, the Danish linesman and English referee (Graham Poll) who incorrectly disallowed a goal by Italy when they played Croatia have never been subjected to the same barrage of criticism. No one who is familiar with Italy and Italian football will be surprised by the immediate assumption that a conspiracy was afoot; in 2002, unable to deal with defeat at the hands of South Korea, a conspiracy theory fitted Italy’s psychological needs perfectly. It also revealed an underlying arrogance; Korea’s pressing and hustling game was blatantly disrespectful of Italy’s assumption of superiority – an assumption shared by the two other sore losers of 2002, Spain and Portugal, who have created similar (and equally bogus) narratives of Oriental dirty tricks to explain their defeat. The truth is that the Italian team in 2002 was largely outplayed by South Korea in a very tight game. They were also handicapped by missing both first choice central defenders, Nesta and Cannavaro, and were playing with a makeshift central defence. But this was no vintage Italian team; two years later, more or less the same squad failed to get out of their group in the European Championships.
The fact that many Italians are bellyaching about this defeat 12 years later is perhaps understandable: given Italian football’s endemic problems with match-fixing and bribery of officials it isn’t surprising that this is their go-to explanation. But it is disappointing that so many of the Italian team’s fans in the international media have swallowed the story about 2002 so uncritically, particularly given their general silence about the blatant nobbling of Ronaldo by the French before the 1998 World Cup Final. Now that was a fix.