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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 19 · 12 October 1989

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Alternative Medicine

Sylvia Lawson’s enthusiasm for the strengths of Rosalind Coward’s The Whole Truth: The Myth of Alternative Health (LRB, 31 August) leads her to gloss over at least one striking problem. That is the way Coward lumps together all and any alternative remedies, therapies and philosophies. Whether by design or not, she has thus simply adopted the rhetorical strategy of mainstream medicine and science, whose institutions have an obvious interest in discrediting any alternatives. We are all familiar with this technique, otherwise known as damning through association, and often used against the Left. (Let’s assume Coward is a socialist: would she herself therefore accept a close association with revolutionary communism?)

Such a crude strategy diminishes the value of her book. What worries me particularly is that in adopting it, she aligns herself willy-nilly with people whose views are highly problematic in relation to one of her aims (which I happen to share): namely, greater social and political awareness, and therefore more real choice, in such matters. It is useful to recall here (and I for one shall never forget) a recent late-night television show. It featured a smug and aggressively-biased Jonathan Miller, mixing personal abuse with laughable positivist nostrums, and John Maddox, the fearsome editor of Nature, in full cry after a bemused Frenchman – and the only working scientist present – whose crime was to have conducted research the results of which could be construed as supporting homeopathy. I can assure Coward that these people have even less interest in politicising or democratising medical discourse than your average faith-healer. Yet by its approach, her book casts its lot in with them, and will undoubtedly prove (selectively quoted) grist to their mill.

We do need a sharp social critical sense – but one set firmly in the context of a pluralist medical glasnost, and not restricted to a highly interested and selective debunking. The latter will only strengthen those whose complacency and arrogance has already contributed considerably (in ways which Coward leaves unexamined) to the rise of alternative medical practices. In that case, she cannot complain if people continue to put matters of health and disease into other hands, including their own; and even if that does offend a marxisante sensibility, one which whispers that since structure is more real or important than agency, most agents are fools, and personal responsibility largely a chimera. I imagine the BMA would agree.

Patrick Curry
London W14

As far back as 4600 years ago, herbalists in China began to experiment on the human body and went on to discover the pulsory system, acupuncture, anesthesia, the circulatory system, all internal organs, human anatomy, physiology and pathology. They concluded that good health was the result of maintaining harmony and balance in the body with proper nutrition. Attention was also given to suppleness, beauty and longevity, and herbs were consumed to strengthen and control the brain. Since records were kept of these studies (some on jade), they cannot be considered mythical and to regard them as ‘alternative’ in any way is woefully provincial. As someone returned to life and high energy by eating herbal foods based on the knowledge gained nearly five thousand years ago, I can testify to the ingeniousness of past and present studies in this field. However, as one of those ‘transformed individuals’ (as Ms Coward would call me), I am now surprised by the amount of people who choose (however unconsciously) to be ill rather than to be well. This is perfectly understandable to me and if Ms Coward has not discovered that it does take an act of will to face health (which can sometimes be as frightening as sickness), then she has not looked deeply into the psychology of disease. I would not dare to say where the mind takes over from the body, or vice versa, where sickness is concerned. But I am sure of one thing: an open mind is a good beginning to a healthy and harmonious way of life.

Ursula Debreczeni
New York

Self-Aggrandisement

It is Caroline Humphrey’s privilege (LRB, 31 August) to disapprove of my introductory study of Margaret Mead. Nevertheless, I regret that she failed to address herself to the main thrust of my argument – namely, that Mead was driven by self-aggrandisement. Humphrey admits that Mead’s research methods were primitive (and, implicitly, that her conclusions were suspect), but apparently it is bad manners to mention that the Empress is wearing no clothes.

Phyllis Grosskurth
New College, University of Toronto

Value-Judgment

James Smithson is mistaken in believing that J.H. Prynne is ‘a poet little-known outside Cambridge’ (Letters, 14 September). Five volumes of his poetry have been translated into French, a volume of selected poems appeared this year in Norwegian, and a selection was also published this year in Italian by Mondadori. We are informed that translations are under way in Latin America. J.H. Prynne is widely reviewed and read in the USA and the UK; the first edition of his collected Poems will shortly be out of print. The London Review devoted more than a page to a review by Elizabeth Cook of this volume (LRB, 16 September 1982).

Anthony Barnett
Allardyce, Barnett, Publishers,

OED2

I think Mark Wainwright’s letter (Letters, 28 September) confirms my point. A dictionary that announces itself as ‘the Second Edition of the most authoritative and comprehensive dictionary of English in the world’, and claims to provide ‘the first up-to-date coverage of words and meanings in one alphabetical sequence since the original edition was completed in 1928’, might do better with 20th-century vocabulary, both English English and non-English English, especially when it makes special claims to this effect. See, for example, Burchfield on this in the Preface to the Supplement Volume One (incorporated, of course, in OED2): ‘Our aim has been first and foremost to ensure that all “common words" [sic] (and senses) in British written English of the period 1884 to the present day … are included.’ And there are the following remarks in the publicity material:

In the 20th century, American English has come into its own – a shift reflected in everything from the jargon of Wall Street (sick market, Fortune 500) to the vocabulary of popular culture (rapping, break dancing). The language continues to develop throughout the world, so that the English of today is truly international. The Oxford English Dictionary records all these influences minutely.

All monolingual general dictionaries of the same language copy from each other (to a greater or lesser extent – this has been true since before Johnson’s time). OED, the Supplement and OED2 were/are completely honest about this since they list other dictionaries in their bibliographies. Hence my point that omitting words like service break seems difficult to justify.

Charlotte Brewer
All Souls College, Oxford

Blaming teachers

Jane Miller and Norman Stone are at odds over the problem of poor standards of English spelling: yet, like most native speakers of English, neither of them appears to understand the real nature of the problem, let alone its solution. In fact, it is not entirely clear that Jane Miller accepts that misspelling is a problem at all, while Professor Stone at least admits he is stumped. It does credit to both that they do not really want to blame either teachers or children for poor spelling. But if teachers and children are not to blame, then who is? The answer has been known for four hundred years, yet it is rarely mentioned these days when the problem is discussed. We need to remind ourselves of a few elementary linguistic facts.

When languages are first written down in alphabetic form, the method used is, as far as possible, to match the letters to the sounds they represent. So it was, more or less, with Anglo-Saxon, and so it is today, more or less, with most languages other than English and French. To the extent that the spelling of a language follows this basic alphabetic principle, correct spelling and indeed the acquisition of literacy skills in general pose little difficulty. Sometimes teachers have used a regularised phonetic spelling system for teaching basic literacy skills in English, the Initial Teaching Alphabet being a recent example, and the results have always proved dramatically better than has ever been possible with conventional spelling. Conversely, when one examines the many mistakes people make in conventional spelling, it is obvious that they arise when spellings are unphonetic and when there is no unambiguous correspondence between the pronunciation of words and the letters used to spell them.

Thus we do not often find words such as rag or forbid being misspelt. But the spelling mistakes quoted by Jane Miller and those deliberately used by Norman Stone all show an element of ambiguity. The sound does not tell us which spelling to use for the first syllable in persue, pursuade, and it is hard to know how the final syllable of privilidge should be written when we have such a variety of possibilities such as in village, college, knowledge, vestige, porridge. Why should not receive follow the model of believe, why should not educationalist follow nihilist? Nothing in the sound of the words tells us why not, yet the sound is the only information on which, in the heat of writing, the native speaker can base the spelling of most words.

Two points are clear: 1. the function of alphabets is to represent the sound of words, and 2. when they do not, literacy suffers and misspelling is an inevitable consequence. However, we have to go further than this: we have to recognise that the pronunciation of languages changes in the course of time, and that the spelling should be expected to change with it. Many languages have taken steps in the 20th century to ensure that their spelling is aligned more closely with their pronunciation. But in English there has not been for the past three hundred years the necessary understanding of how writing systems work to enable such modernisation to take place. The occasional adjustment such as show for shew, fantasy for phantasy, medieval for mediaeval, has been just a drop in the ocean of our antiquated, cumbersome and for all too many people cripplingly inconvenient writing system.

Christopher Upward
Birmingham

Intellectuals

I was a little bemused, as well as amused, by Karl Miller’s review of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals (LRB, 17 August). He says that ‘intellectuals are understood to be located’ in ‘the media, schools, universities’. I think it is going a bit too far to include the media, staffed as are the BBC, ITV companies, newspapers and magazines with unashamedly ignorant men. ‘Paul Johnson was once a socialist intellectual, and an editor of the New Statesman.’ I should have thought the two descriptions antithetical. Kingsley Martin (it was years before I learned that it was not a Miss Martin, hurrying home to cat and kipper at the end of the day) was not an intellectual, just a hypocrite and a cantankerous, mean fool, nearly always wrong, like the leader writers of the Guardian, another old dustbin.

As a university professor, I would like to think that institutions devoted to research and education were staffed by intellectuals, but in the United Kingdom this is certainly not the case. Nearly all the thinkers have gone, those who could to Japan, the others to the USA and Australasia. Most of the spies and traitors have gone, too; a few of them were certainly intellectuals. There are Englishmen who have chairs but only a first degree. They often call themselves intellectuals as barely educated Italians call themselves dottore, professore (middle-school teachers), cavaliere (especially those who have never seen a horse), and so on. It is as well to be suspicious of men who describe themselves as intellectuals, just as only a dolt would believe a girl who wore the lapel badge ‘I am a virgin.’ I have just been asked to write a textbook for a survey course in world history which will be acceptable to all, Left, Right, turncoats, Oxbridge slags and perverts, the sodomised from the English public schools and the pogromised in old Bubbles Gorbachov’s crumbling Empire. That is a right and proper task for an intellectual.

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
University of Osaka Gakuin, Japan

Majesty

There is no mystery about the ‘extract from a Japanese poem’ that Daniel Kevles (LRB, 17 August) reports Max Delbrück modestly sending friends who congratulated him on his Nobel Prize. It is taken from the opening and closing 16 lines leading off The Tale of the Heike, the third and by far the handsomest translation of which, by Helen McCullough, has recently been published by the Stanford University Press. The majestic opening is the cultural counterpart of the beginning of Paradise Lost.

Earl Miner
Emory University, Georgia

Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice

Craig Raine’s misconceived, if not mischievous attempt to undermine Chinua Achebe’s attack on Conrad (LRB, 22 June) has elicited some welcome criticism from your readers; but none, alas, from Achebe himself. So perhaps it’s worth reporting what he said when given the opportunity. This was during a break in filming an Open University programme recently. Achebe had not read the LRB piece, nor did he then have time: but after I gave him an account of Raine’s objections to his view of Conrad as a ‘thoroughgoing racist’, he was silent for a moment and then, with a wry smile, remarked: ‘I could give up “thoroughgoing".’

Dennis Walder
The Open University, Milton Keynes

I am still waiting for someone to point out that the flurry over Eliot and prejudice currently taking place in your pages was occasioned by a review of a book of essays by the Nigerian author Chinhua Achebe. The review itself was devoted almost exclusively to one essay out of many, which I found disappointing; your readers, evidently more comfortable with Eliot than Achebe, have buried the latter in their haste to praise or dismiss the former. One cannot help but speculate on the ironical possibility that this has something to do with Achebe’s bad taste in being born an African. Eliot and prejudice, indeed!

Davis Oldham
New London, Connecticut

At least we spelt Achebe’s name right. His views did, in fact, come under discussion at various points in the correspondence. We wonder what good Mr Oldham thinks he is doing by charging (particular) people with racial prejudice on such insubstantial grounds.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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