SIR: In his article on D.M. Thomas (LRB, 3 December 1981), Alan Hollinghurst suggests that in The White Hotel the powers of precognition possessed by Lisa Erdman are manufactured by the author in order to make an implausible turn of the plot appear more probable. There are at least two points which should be made here.
Firstly, Lisa’s powers of precognition are larger than Hollinghurst indicates. The first violence done to her at Babi Yar is the stamping on her left breast and the breaking of her pelvic girdle. Earlier in The White Hotel ‘Freud’s’ case-history of Lisa begins by citing her symptoms, in particular, severe pains in her left breast and in the pelvic regions. This, however, does not counter the criticisms of authorial manipulation of the precognition theme. Indeed, it might seem to be another example of that tendency. This brings us to the second point, the interest Freud himself had in the phenomena of telepathy, thought transference and prophetic precognition. Freud’s interest is well-documented – for instance, the section on ‘The Occult’ in Paul Roazen’s Freud and his Followers. It is also significant that Freud wrote his first paper on telepathy at Gastein, in the Austrian Alps. Returning to The White Hotel, we find that Lisa’s narrative of her phantasy is titled ‘The Gastein Journal’ – although this is perhaps an unintended coincidence, the more probable source of the location being that in the case-history of Fraulein Elisabeth Von R., in the Studies on Hysteria, Gastein is several times mentioned as a hydropathic resort frequented by Freud’s patient.
It is clear that a major narrative line of the novel is a fictionalisation of incidents in the history of psychoanalysis, and of elements of the theory. Thomas presumably includes the theme of precognition as part of this general strategy – and not because, as Hollinghurst suggests, he needed to make the violence done to Lisa at Babi Yar seem plausible.
SIR: In the rather curious exchange between Professor Aarsleff and Sir Isaiah Berlin (LRB, 5 November 1981), in the course of a good deal of pedanticism on both sides, it seems to me that essential issues got lost sight of. The question to be asked is: what purpose lay behind the study of language in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries? Neither Locke nor his contemporaries studied language as an object of pure intellectualising. Locke had a most important practical purpose – to reform the evils of the ‘understanding’ and its misuse, which, he believed, had terribly afflicted the world during its whole history. He thought that words should reflect clear and distinct ‘ideas’, the perceptions of actual, existing things. The relations between these simple ideas constitute our notions of values, of laws, and everything else. When Professor Aarsleff says that, in Locke’s opinion, ‘if languages were made by illiterate men, they bear no testimony to the truth of things, but only to the minds of those who made the words,’ Locke would say that, unfortunately, this is correct: but – and here is where Locke momentously leaves the company of such modern writers as Saussure – he emphasises that this state of affairs need and should not be.
The mind, Locke stressed, has an innate power of seeing the true relationships between the simple ideas, which are universal, and universally true. ‘These simple ideas, when offered to the mind, the understanding can no more refuse to have, nor alter, when they are imprinted, nor blot them out, and make new ones itself, than a mirror can refuse, alter or obliterate the images or ideas which the objects set before it do therein produce.’ Professor Aarsleff, it seems to me, is clearly inaccurate in attributing to Locke the notion that ‘since ideas [simple ideas] are private, there is an irremovable subjective element in language which precludes that one speaker can ever truly know what another meant to say.’
Professor Aarsleff is also wrong in saying that ‘languages, being made by men, are pre-logical and bear no relation to the true constitution of things.’ Insofar as this statement is applied to the age of Locke, it is clearly wrong. Languages most certainly do have a relationship, even though imperfect, to the order of reality which exists, immutable and clearly perceptible, outside us. In his Manifesto, ‘The Conduct of the Understanding’, Locke set forward, with great enthusiasm and urgency, a programme for vast and sweeping reform, which would produce a correct way of thinking. If he had had any such notion as the one given above, he would have given up in despair before starting to write. What we need to do, he says, is to ‘reflect’ – to observe, impartially and calmly, the relations between the simple ideas in our minds. Then we are guaranteed success. But, because of passion, ignorance, absorption in our own thinking, associations of ideas, etc, we all too seldom do regard the clear and obvious connections between the ideas printed on our mental retinas.
As to Vico, it seems to me he expresses another view of the human mentality. In short, he expresses something like the romantic idea of the Volk – the notion that each people has developed, from a deep, mysterious source, peculiar to itself, a unique sense of the universe, expressed in folk art, the early epic etc. He is partially anticipated – in his attitude towards the pre-literate ‘age of poets’ – by Blackwell and others: but I am inclined to agree with Sir Isaiah that Vico is more an ‘anticipator’ than an influencer. He expresses, early, attitudes that were to become commonplace in the age of high Romanticism.
University of California, Berkeley
SIR: In his appraisal of Maxwell’s scientific work, Nevill Mott (LRB, 19 November 1981) rightly referred to Maxwell’s ‘exceptional capacity to shake off the received ideas of the time’. I have no intention to dispute the truth of this statement, but perhaps I may be allowed to draw attention to a singular instance of Maxwell failing to shake off one particular received idea of his time, an instance which appears to have passed unnoticed by physicists and historians.
Maxwell correctly showed that ‘light is an electromagnetic [em] disturbance propagated through the em field according to em laws.’ In other words, Maxwell showed that the luminiferous medium (then known as the ‘ether’) is the background em field which fills all space. Thus one would have to refer the velocity of light c relative to the frame of this em field, and relative to this frame only.
Maxwell described the em field as ‘that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric and magnetic conditions’. Now the body most prominently in em conditions is Mother Earth (at least as it appears to her inhabitants). Consider the first laboratory measurements of c by Fizeau (1849) and Foucault (1862) to which Maxwell referred. On the basis of the em theory of light, one must conclude that the medium through which the Maxwellian light waves (involved in these experiments) are propagated is the em field which contains and surrounds the Earth: the geofield, which is generated by the Earth. Moreover, one will have to refer the measured c with respect to the geocentric frame, and with respect to no other frame: for the local em field is permanently and securely attached onto the body of the Earth, not the body of the Sun or Sirius or anywhere else.
Prior to Maxwell’s identification of the background em field with the ether, the received idea was that the latter was ‘tied’, so to speak, to the so-called ‘absolute space’ through which the Earth is supposed to move. It was therefore believed that the ether blows right through the body of the Earth: in the words of Thomas Young, ‘with little or no resistance, as freely perhaps as the wind passes through a grove of trees’. But as outlined above, Maxwell’s em theory proved this ill-conceived idea to be totally incorrect. So Maxwell ought to have rejected this ‘ether wind’ hypothesis, and put forward an ‘earth-generated em ether’ hypothesis.
Paradoxically, Maxwell did not draw (from his own premises) these vital conclusions. For he later proposed experiments, and in fact carried out one himself, in order to ‘detect the velocity of the Earth with respect to the luminiferous medium’. Ironically, Maxwell did so despite the fact that he knew about the geofield: he even included a whole chapter entitled ‘On Terrestrial Magnetism’ in his monumental Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. And despite another fact: that Maxwell remarked that c was measured ‘in the space surrounding the Earth’.
It therefore appears that in speaking about ‘the velocity of the Earth with respect to the luminiferous medium’, Maxwell overlooked and contradicted his own em theory of light. And sadly it also appears that it was Maxwell’s singular inability to shake off the received idea of ‘ether wind’ which caused this unpalatable oversight.
SIR: Richard Altick (LRB, 3 December 1981) says of Grantland Rice: ‘He wasn’t an “American poet". He was a sports writer.’ A poet Rice may not have been, but a poetaster he was, being the author of those well-remembered lines:
And when the one great Scorer comes
To write against your name
He writes not if you won or lost
But how you played the game.
Rice also made films with lush commentaries about abstruse American sports, which used to be shown in the ‘News Theatres’ which flourished in London until the Fifties.
SIR: Might your readers be interested in a letter the Times thought unfit to print? The very gracious rejection slip I received told me the letter had created great interest ‘around the office’, which gives me hope. Unfortunately, in a fit of vagueness or pique, I lost the original text, but my memory tells me that the reconstruction below is very largely accurate.
Sir, David Lean, in a recent interview in the Times, uttered a remark so astonishingly ignorant as to make one hope for his sake that he was misquoted. ‘I haven’t seen Dickie Attenborough’s Gandhi yet,’ he stated, ‘but as far as I know nobody has ever managed to put India on the screen.’ Presumably, in Mr Lean’s opinion, Satyajit Ray is nobody. Mrinal Sen is nobody. And Shyam Benegal. And all the fine film-makers in an industry which is, after all, rather larger than Hollywood. It appears that Mr Lean is soon to direct A Passage to India, a book never previously filmed because of Forster’s fear that no director would be able to achieve a proper balance between the Western and Eastern sensibilities in his novel. On the evidence of his casually bigoted remark, Mr Lean is clearly the wrong nobody for the job.
Perhaps it is in place to add that the Times has since seen fit to print the following letter:
From Professor Edward Garden
Sir, I recently received a letter addressed to ‘Mr
Editor, ‘London Review’