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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 17 · 10 September 1992

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Side by side with Strauss

M.F. Burnyeat’s review of Fukuyama’s End of History (LRB, 23 July) so trivialises the important debate that ought to be opening up with the collapse of Communism that it deserves some protest. Nearly every action the democracies take presupposes the superiority of democracy, human rights and equality to every other system. When we disregard their claims, our most callous statesmen have to use ‘budgets’ or ‘realism’ or ‘vital interests’ to justify it. And we don’t think that democracy in England is just good luck, something racial, or a rare family tradition-we think it isn’t senseless to demand it in Peking or Moscow. In other words, we assume that there are powerful forces working for democracy in history. We usually don’t try to make these assumptions entirely clear. But the collapse of Communism has made many people suddenly wonder whether our vague, unarticulated assumptions may not be more literally true. Why not try to think through the implications of such an assertion to see whether they are defensible? This is Fukuyama’s starting-point. I am not convinced by the conclusion, but what is there to sneer at here?

The issue of Irish Home Rule totally determined the shape of British politics from 1884 to 1914, but in retrospect it hardly seems as significant as the contests between capitalism and socialism, aristocracy and egalitarianism, faith and doubt. If we tried to define where a Victorian thinker wound up on questions of science and faith by spotting his ‘insinuations’ about Home Rule, we would drop into inextricable confusion at the very beginning. But this is precisely how Burnyeat proceeds, in seeing Strauss’s philosophic position, which arose when Hitler was destroying the German Jews and German culture, as some kind of simple-minded cover for a ‘message to practical politics’: i.e. Reagan’s message fifty years later on a different continent. It is at this level that Burnyeat apprehends the contemporary intellectual scene. It is the level of a mind that can actually produce the words: ‘in 1992 … the Earth was lost at Rio.’

I was delighted to learn that Fukuyama (and Kojève too, I guess, and Hegel) is a conservative, because I am one. But I am puzzled, because I know Fukuyama well, and I had thought him, to the extent that these labels really describe, something of a liberal. He is an environmentalist, a passionate defender of equality and minority rights, and so forth. Burnyeat’s attitude illustrates a tendency of contemporary liberalism that we conservatives regard as profoundly salutary: its extreme intolerance. You keep exposing people as closet conservatives, against their protests, forcing them into our camp. Long ago Jefferson and Lincoln, Locke and Gladstone and Lloyd George were driven to seek refuge with us; now all the white males in the world are being forced toward our trenches at the point of the bayonet. It’s getting crowded over here. Allan Bloom, intensely irritated at sharing his mess tin with Solzhenitsyn and the pope, keeps trying to sneak away, but is greeted by you with fusillades. Now it looks as though we will have to fight side by side with Strauss, who urged his students to vote for Stevenson in 1952, Kojève, the teacher of Sartre and his crowd, and Hegel, the inspirer of Bakunin and Marx.

We view the purges racking the enemy camp with astonished satisfaction: how could any movement that wishes to compete for political support be so self-destructive? My own guess is that this is the last, fossilised vestige of the High Victorian faith in progress. Only if you are at the peak can you complacently exclude the thinkers who fall a bit short or express it a little strangely: what was radical in 1830 already looked reactionary in 1864. The difference is only this: the Victorians knew what they were progressing toward, you don’t. And thus has the lofty, commanding confidence of Lord Macaulay given place to the frozen sneer of Burnyeat.

Charles Fairbanks Jr
Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, Baltimore

Selfish DNA

Nicholas Wade’s review of The Code of Codes (LRB, 20 August) reveals a misconception unfortunately too common among those captivated by the power apparently offered by molecular biology to explain life. ‘Nature,’ he informs us, ‘requires only five million pieces of information, the units being the base pairs strung along the chemical backbone of DNA, to specify a bacterium … 3000 million for a mouse … the genetic specifications for a human are no more complex: 3000 million base pairs suffice.’ The mistake lies in) assuming that the information content of an organism – or even its specification – can be reduced to the number of DNA base pairs in its genome. To start with, this ignores the fact that a good portion of this DNA – more than 90 per cent in humans – is so-called ‘selfish’ DNA with no known informational role at all. The remainder constitutes the 100,000-odd genes the human genome program plans to map and sequence. Lest this statement should seem to reduce the relevant ‘information’ content for humans to an even trivially lower figure, it should be emphasised that the combinatorial powers of these 100,000-odd genes, their capacity to code for and differentially express multiple proteins, vastly increases the base figure for such a ‘specification’.

Even this, however, masks the main issue, which is in what sense genes can be said to ‘specify’ an organism. This modern version of preformationism fails to take into account that an organism is not the sum of its genes, but the expression of a developmental process which results, in the human, in some thousand billion cells organised into tissues and organs in interaction with each other and their environment. The human brain alone contains more than ten billion nerve cells, each making up to 100,000 connections with its neighbours, with an ‘information content’ that currently beggars calculability. This is one of the reasons why the informational metaphor is so misleading when applied to living organisms. Anyone interested in seeing this argument developed in more detail should turn to Susan Oyama’s excellent book The Ontogeny of Information (Cambridge, 1985) or, if I may hold a small flag aloft, my own The Making of Memory, published later this year by Bantam.

Steven Rose
Open University, Milton Keynes

Goodbye Columbus

I am puzzled by Eric Hobsbawm’s one-sided or undialectic treatment of borrowings west to east (LRB, 9 July). Surely the most important or ‘major’ contribution of the new world to the old was the fertility and extent of its soil, on which could be grown crops (maybe originating in the old world – does this include Africa?) like sugar, coffee and cotton. These, cultivated on latifundia and plantations by slave or peon labour, transformed European civilisation.

Each is more important than any plant Hobsbawm mentions except maybe potatoes. But of course no plant or product really transforms anything by itself. Alcohol was distilled, and named, in Islam, then banned for non-medical use – fairly effectively too, compared with the daft experiment earned out in the US between 1919 and 1934. Whatever their origin, all these substances entered culture areas where they were endorsed and desired or not, and subsequently gone after or not. What the soils of the American South, the Caribbean islands and the South American foothills gave to Europeans was the opportunity to satisfy the desire for sweets; and for coffee, and for a variety of clothes (don’t forget the connection noted by Mintz in Sweetness and Power between the calories in sugar and the energy workpeople of the Industria) Revolution needed to spin and weave cotton – a connection which should reach a little further back to include the salt cod that New-foundlanders made to feed the slaves that grew the cane). These interrelations make it impossible to sustain any unidirectional currents of ‘contiibution’ from one part of the world to another. What counted all along the chain was not this plant, or fish, or ‘product’, but the abundance and fertility which allowed Europeans to gratify and profit from their already existing wishes.

Stuart Pierson
Memorial University of Newfoundland

What if?

P.N. Furbank’s criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (LRB, 20 August) reminded me of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins flinching away from a novel he is offered and hiding behind a book of boring sermons instead. Because the meat of Furbank’s criticism is not that the book is a bad one – he spends a whole paragraph admitting that it is a very good one. What he objects to is that anyone should write an ‘entertainment’ about this theme. He doesn’t want the imagination to trespass on what he seems to regard as the exclusive territory of historians. So Furbank states that Hilary Mantel had no right to suggest that Camille Desmoulins might have had homosexual encountets, because he can’t find any suggestion of it in either of two biographies. But it is the business of the imagination and of the novelist to make the connections that the historians can’t allow themselves to make, to say to us ‘What if?’ It is also the business of the novelist to abolish the split between the personal and the public, to ‘humanise’ characters, as Furbank objects to Hilary Mantel humanising Robespierre. It is our job to point out that the political is always personal to someone or other, and generally to rather a lot of people. Besides, Furbank tries to have it both ways. He criticises Hilary Mantel for using her imagination and at the same time – in a series of bewildering intellectual contortions – praises other writers for quirkiness in their handling of the past. Nor does he turn his guns on Georg Büchner, whose Danton’s Death I studied as part of a highly conservative course in German literature about twenty years ago.

It certainly isn’t true to say that A Place of Greater Safety ‘reduces’ the events to the personal. The book is not the story of a clique, a cosy tale of Georges and Max and Camille, Lucile et al. From the first page of this gripping novel the larger issues are there, vital and structural. It reminded me of the Tolstoyan view of history, that history happens in spite of the efforts of individuals. I felt Robespierre was comparable to the figure of Kutuzov in War and Peace, a man who permits the inevitable. For Robespierre that meant that a whole generation, a whole world, and himself too, must be annihilated in order that the new world could be born. It is an appalling idea. Isn’t it a valid one to put forward in a novel, a challenging ‘What if?’ But Furbank feels that one cannot write a historical novel about the French Revolution because it is still with us, and has not been reduced to the ‘harmless, understood past’. It’s a very strange concept. I have just written a novel about a witch precisely because the topic was dangerous and misunderstood: it seems to me that Furbank hasn’t the foggiest idea of what a novel is doing.

In any case, history can’t be corralled in a nice pen where only approved personnel may go. It lies about on the lids of biscuit tins sneaks into the language, gets hung up as decorations in pubs. It even gets turned into Asterix cartoons. We never stop dealing with the past, and novels are certainly part of the process. It is ludicrous for Furbank to instruct us what we may or may not write novels about. He had better protect himself by clutching the book of sermons in front of his more vulnerable parts.

Leslie Wilson
Caversham, Reading

Yaaaggghhhh

J.L. Sievert announces (Letters, 20 August) that ‘Ian McEwan’s mean-spirited attack on Craig Copetas … diminishes him in my mind as both a writer and a man.’ This news would be as unremarkable as the rather silly but more innocent article that sparked this correspondentce, but for his protecting Copetas much as one would a wounded bird, an attitude which – judging from the other’s consistent tone – is unnecessary. Personally (and I realise that this is no more significant than Sievert’s view: but you printed his), I think McEwan no more capable of exercising ‘cruelty’ to his alleged old flatmate than the latter is of any sound criticism of his work. They seem to be speaking different languages. Having read Black Dogs and the rest of McEwan’s writing, I do have an opinion as to which is the more communicative.

Max Schaefer
London SW11

I’m on a C-130 out of Belgrade en route to Sarajevo. A. Craig Copetas is still on the ground trying to amuse the Serbs, and I’m extremely unhappy. I happen to have found in the cockpit a copy of your influential magazine which contains a somewhat derogatory attack on my colleague and friend Craig (Letters, 23 July), by this person of whom I’ve never heard, though Mr Copetas assured me over the sat-phone a few moments ago that this person truly exists.

I’ve also just consulted Dr Hunter S. Thompson and other medical experts as to the validity of Mr Copetas’s existence and background. These experts assure me that everything that happened during that period with this chap McEwan is totally and utterly true (surprise!). If McEwan honestly believes that he shares no past with Mr Copetas, I suggest that he contact Woody Creek directly, where I’m told McEwan’s book, Black Dogs, is about as popular as The Life of Lenin, and should McEwan arrive within the immediate community, he might consider having a flak jacket (which Craig might reluctantly lend him) in his wardrobe. It seems that McEwan and others have reacted like mad dogs over Craig’s humorous and extremely poignant piece on Black Dogs. Now the British literary establishment is daring to take up McEwan’s call to arms … Yo, Saddam!

Shaun Conroy-Hargrave
Sarajevo Airport

Skjymping

Having spent the last month in Reykjavfk, I have only just caught up with Chauncey Loomis’s review of Lawrence Millman’s Last Places (LRB, 23 July). It is not clear whether it is Loomis or Millman who writes of the ‘migratory eastward route of those cranky, restless people the Norse, from Norway to the Shetlands to the Faeroes, then to Iceland, Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland’, but I recommend he consult a map. The innocence of the Newfoundlander who thought the Pope lived in Ottawa seems to have been catching.

Judith Jesch
Nottingham

Despondent

Edward Wilson’s ear for religious ‘catch-phrases’ is not as good as he thinks it is (Letters, 20 August). The one at the end of his attack on Jenny Turner normally reads ‘eyes have they and see not. They have ears, and hear not.’ Since he knows his Bible so well, he might like to move on to the Book of Common Prayer.

David Saunders
University of Newcastle

Grains and Finches

Keith Flett (Letters, 6 August) is right in claiming that the Ham Concordium disapproved of salt; it disapproved of most cooked foods and all stimulants. The wife of George Holyoake, the co-operative socialist, who wished to cheer up her breakfast raw cabbage, was allowed salt ‘concealed in paper under the plate, lest the sight of it should deprave the weaker brethren’. But the Alcott House community at Ham Common (though twice visited by Robert Owen) was far from Owenite. Its inspiration was the ‘sacred socialist’ and mystic James Pierrepont Greaves, who was acclaimed as ‘essentially a superior man to Coleridge’.

Jackie Latham
Richmond, Surrey

Absolute Victims

Margaret Anne Doody’s review of Susan Faludi’s Backlash and Marilyn French’s The War against Women (LRB, 23 July) is conducted in a style of leftist analysis – out of Marx by Foucault – in which there are no admissions of common or even relative responsibility, or common or relative failings. History is a scene of abuse, of absolute power exercised over absolute and pure victims. Society itself is ‘a war’, an ‘enslavement’; we live in a ‘rape culture’. There is no point in comparing different states of society: everything is absolutely bad, which means that everything moderately good can be discredited by association with the worst discoverable case.

The examples Doody gives from her authors vary from the trivial to the profound, with the trivial in greater evidence. High fashion abuses women (eek!); women are not encouraged to enjoy their bodies (has Doody seen Cosmo, Madonna, the Olympics?); worst of all, a study out of Harvard and Yale misleadingly suggested that men might be in short supply for educated women. It is men who want marriage, Doody trumpets, but if so, why were women so disturbed by the study in the first place? Even these trivial examples are misleading. We are told that Sharon Gless’s Cagney in Cagney and Lacey was turned anxious and alcoholic because women have to be shown weak. In fact, it is widely known that the show reflected some of (Gless’s own struggles: a lot of men and women identified with this unusual piece of television realism.

Michael Cotsell
University of Delaware

Ploy

Was it a coincidence or a deliberate ploy to follow Marina Warners review (‘Watch your tongue’) of books on Medieval and Renaissarue female stereotyping (LRB, 20 August) by an advertisement for your own journal entitled ‘Make up your mind!’, with a cartoon of a half-naked woman looking at herself in the mirror?

Katie Wales
Royal Hollowav and Bedford New College,

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