Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991

Search by issue:

Cold Fusion

Nicholas Wade’s review of Frank Close’s book on the cold fusion work conducted by Fleischman and Pons (LRB, 29 August) suggests that Wade would profit from reading Michael Polanyi’s book Personal Knowledge. In the latter, Polanyi offers an account of the way science really works which differs drastically from the conventional wisdom. Peter Medawar’s acerbic correspondence with Arthur Koestler which relates to Medawar’s critical review of The Act of Creation also indirectly illuminates various aspects of the unfortunate Fleischman-Pons episode. The cold fusion fracas differs from many similar scientific scandals in that the preliminary experimental results implied large economic benefits in the future. In other words, the investigation had important technological consequences which inevitably swayed all sorts of decisions related to it at Utah and other research institutions. As Medawar observes in the review mentioned above, there are no rewards (either accolades or money) for coming second in the scientific-technological enterprise.

Finally, although science and technology are not the same thing, they are not distinguished carefully in the examples Wade cites in relation to the University of Utah. The scientific reputation of the University of Utah is a very high-order abstraction, but if granted existence, it would relate more to the stature of the late Professor Henry Eyring and the excellent team of physical chemists he led for many years. I am sure that many chemists remain puzzled by Eyring’s failure to get a deserved Nobel Prize. On the other hand, the aberration of Pons and Fleischman and the invention of a defective heart machine will soon be forgotten. One does not judge a team by the mistakes that are inevitably made by some of its players.

J.M.W. Scott
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Newfoundland

Marxist Empires

If we must have long history lessons from Marxist academics about the final collapse of the Marxist empires, they might at least be accurate. Perry Anderson (LRB, 26 September) attributes the ethnic diversity of Eastern Europe to ‘two opposite historical movements – successive waves of nomadic incursions from Asia, and colonial settlements from Germany’. He thus overlooks two other historical movements of equal and indeed continuing importance: the survival of various indigenous peoples in many places, and the expansion of Slav peoples over the whole area.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Black, white and centre

Nick Blanton (Letters, 12 September) pleads for a ‘taste of complexity’. He plainly objects to the attitude of Alexander Cockburn, Harold Pinter and others that it is impossible to celebrate the creation of the United States on account of the massacre of its native population. Rather than paint a picture of saintly victims and vicious oppressors, Blanton seeks complexity in a more balanced apportionment of moral qualities. I would like to suggest something slightly different: namely, that it is only in the honest attempt to write a national epic that we can accommodate the different and competing individual experiences which must jostle for our attention as we try to appreciate the development of American society.

Pinter’s agit-prop historiography never attempts to consider what is worth celebrating in the creation of modern America. Happily, other writers have more of a taste for ambiguity. An obvious example is the frontier. One view examines only the elimination of the native population. Another, that of Owen Wister’s The Virginian, by its opening lament for the loss of the wild conditions of 1880s Wyoming and Idaho, shows us the potential for self-realisation in taming the huge expanses of the West. We do not need to be told that there were victims to this process. Huck Finn does not head West, but he is a symbolic figure for the manner in which he cuts loose in order to realise himself. Yet he has a passenger. The further South Huck travels in search of personal freedom the further he takes another victim, Nigger Jim, into slavery.

Under the aegis of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells encouraged the production of a mass of realist literature describing the new America of the closing years of the 19th century. There may not be a lot about native America in these books, but there is plenty about the victims of the American dream. Howells’s own character Dryfoos is marketed as the great representative of the rough diamond individualism which is building America. He is also shown to have broken strikes by the violent intervention of Pinkertons, and it is in a similar act of strike-breaking that he loses a son and that we see the death of an ageing socialist lauded for his sacrifice in the struggle to preserve the Union, but condemned for his collectivist beliefs.

Native Americans, slaves and working people of all sorts were victims of the creation of modern American society. Some had America forced on them, others, like the Lithuanian immigrants of Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards, were, at least initially, complicit with the ideology. I would like to say that I regard what was created as something magnificent. Some of us are too blind, others too evasive, to confront all that is so worth celebrating about the United States. Anyone reading America’s numerous national epics, just as anyone reading Virgil’s Aeneid, has to conclude that it is impossible to create something great without taking victims. Those of us coming to terms with the society which we have inherited require a taste for complexity and an aversion for the simplistic and knee-jerk oppositionism of Pinter and friends.

Matthew Leigh
St Hugh’s College, Oxford

On and off the page

It’s a minor point, but I must dissent from Thomas Nagel’s stern pronouncement that the banning of pornography would cause infringements of ‘negative liberty’ (absence of restrictions) which take precedence over the ‘positive liberty’ (empowerment) which it might promote (LRB, 25 July). My problem is that I don’ t share Nagel’s ready confidence in the distinction between positive and negative liberties. In my experience, ‘freedom to’ (e.g. to go to work in jeans) is hard to disentangle from ‘freedom from’ (e.g. from the office dress code). Arguably, our society’s pornographic image-culture infringes a basic negative freedom: freedom from degrading representations of oneself and one’s group. (Not that censorship is the answer: apart from anything else, the problem runs rather deeper than top-shelf pornography, as a cursory look at the newsagent’s other shelves will demonstrate.)

In any case, it is not clear precisely which negative freedom Nagel is defending here. Freedom of speech? If so it’s a freedom mainly enjoyed by a few large businesses, and the ‘speech’ in question is repetitious to say the least. It seems more apposite to describe the freedom to traffic in images of naked women as the classic capitalist freedom to sell whatever will sell. Viewed in this light, what Nagel is really doing is privileging economic over civil liberties: a legitimate position, but one which should be argued as such.

Phil Edwards


Robert Allen is right (Letters, 29 August) to call my version of recent Grenadian history in my review of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English bizarre. I apologise to the editors of the Companion and Merle Collins, and thank Mr Allen for his very clear and concise correction.

John Sutherland
California Institute of Technology

Fourteen Hours a Day

So Fiona Pitt-Kethley has discovered the rough side to men and women in a fairly rough trade (Letters, 12 September). I didn’t know those powerful poems all came from Squirrel Cottage, Halcyon Drift or the House at Pooh Corner.

Jenny Hinton
Charlbury, Oxford

Henry lets her have it

Henry Reed’s many friends and admirers must all be obliged to Jon Stallworthy for his concise biography of Henry (LRB, 12 September) and for ‘L’Envoi’ (LRB, 12 September). He mentions the poet’s ‘staggering memory’. Here is an example. Henry, knowing he needed some kind of psychiatric help, had read and admired the works of Melanie Klein (‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ was the felicitous title, I think, of one of the Hilda Tablet radio series). When I told him, teasingly, that I was going to the theatre with her he asked to join us, and he did. After the performance she invited us back to her flat for coffee and little Viennese cakes. Almost before we were seated, Henry, a shy man, said: ‘Mrs Klein, I want to tell you how much I admire your books.’ She, who had a good sense of humour, replied, wagging a finger in amusement: ‘Young man, people are always telling me that and then I find they haven’t read my books!’ Henry then reeled off one or two misprints with page numbers. A happy evening ended with great success!

James MacGibbon
Manningtree, Essex


‘The argument,’ says Jon Bate (Letters, 12 September), of his Romantic Ecology, ‘was that it might now be useful to read Wordsworth with the grain … instead of against it.’ It might well be: but first Professor Bate has to show us how he knows which way the grain runs in Wordsworth’s writing, and why he is so sure that his intentions and Wordsworth’s are the same. In the meantime, I can’t begin to recognise my remarks on his reading of ‘The Ruined Cottage’ in his own account of them. Nor did I suggest – well of course I didn’t – that Bate believes that ‘New Historicist literary critics were responsible for the environmental devastation of Eastern Europe.’

‘Marxist criticism,’ according to Romantic Ecology, ‘claims to bring texts down from the idealist stratosphere into the material world,’ but the Marxist version of materialism it thereby fosters is like ‘high capitalism’ in ‘privileging the wealth of nations over the wealth of nature’, with all that this has entailed for the destruction of the environment. All this is said in the context of some remarks about the industrial pollution of Eastern Europe and a comparison of Chernobyl with Three Mile Island. My point was simply that if Marxist criticism must bear some responsibility for encouraging the pollution of the planet, then surely Professor Bate’s apparently even-handed acknowledgment of the environmental damage done by high capitalism should lead him to attribute a similar responsibility to varieties of literary criticism which have been on easier terms with capitalism.

In my remarks on the Constable catalogue, I was not at all scornful, as Arthur Marwick (Letters, 12 September) suggests, of its attention to factual detail, which I described as admirable. What I objected to was the catalogue’s refusal to make any attempt to attribute meaning to Constable’s picture’s, and its way of rejecting, without even a show of argument, the interpretations of other critics. 1 was not at all put out that Professor Marwick regards my own accounts of the past as fictitious, and of course I was pleased that he finds them so fascinating. As for the rest of his letter, I can’t imagine why he wrote it, and I have no idea what would be an appropriate comment on it. As far as I can make out, he wants to say that no historians are Marxists, that David Solkin’s Richard Wilson catalogue is a tissue of Marxist clichés, that Marxist interpretations of history and art are ‘usually wrong’, and that Cultural Materialists and New Historicists are ipso facto Marxist. He also seems to think that I am a Marxist, which I’m not at all sure about. If he cares to say why he thinks these things, I may care to roll up my sleeves and reply, but I doubt it.

John Barrell
University of Sussex

I write in a spirit of considerable gingerliness to take exception to John Barrell’s treatment of Constable (LRB, 15 August). Not only is anyone who loves the paintings deeply in his debt for his treatment of both Constable and Turner in the past, but he has shown himself to have a quite terrific way with those who disagree with him. Surely the thing about Constable is exactly that people can find in his pictures an answer to their need ‘to identify a people and its territory’. Somewhere in the preface to Single Spies, Alan Bennett says something to the effect that treason has fallen out of fashion because people are no longer clear what there is to betray in their country, and do not know what to love in it. Amen to that, we might say, after 12 years of Mrs Thatcher and her Goths in Parliament. The power of Constable is, however, that he shows so plainly what there is to love.

It hardly matters whether a day in the country is spent in the Home Counties (at the name of which John Barrell might well have a number of his characteristically bitter jokes to make), or Constable’s so unhomely East Anglia, or among Thomas Girtin’s Yorkshire abbeys. The resonant name of John Constable serves, as they say, as signifier for all these other names which so reliably and reassuringly teach millions what to feel in front of their pictures and their metonymous landscapes. Patriotism is now none the worse for having shrunk to these familiar and uncontentious places.

Fred Inglis
University of Warwick

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences