Vol. 15 No. 3 · 11 February 1993

Search by issue:

Tiananmen Revisited

Amnesty International have published a report entitled simply Torture in China. It shows how limited and unimaginative the Nazis and the Japanese were in their torture techniques during the Second World War. The French practice of electrocuting genitals, nipples and tongues – fondly copied by the Chileans and Argentinians in the Seventies – or the long-standing favourite of beatings on the soles of the feet, or our own British invention of hooded disorientation, are as nothing compared to the banquet of tortures that today’s China practises.

In addition to beatings and proddings with electric batons and truncheons the Chinese have subtle, long-lasting refinements. One is the ‘shackle board’ which consists of a ‘wooden door laid flat on four short legs, with handcuffs fixed at each corner of the board. Prisoners are attached to the board with their arms and legs spread out and handcuffed at the corners. A hole in the board allows evacuation of urine and excrement.’ Prisoners are left attached to the ‘shackle board’ for several months, with some going mad, reports Amnesty. Another torture is Su Qin bei jian or ‘Su Quin carries a sword on his back’. This refers to the way a Chinese warrior carried his sword strapped to his back. One arm is reached back over the shoulder and the other arm is twisted behind the back and the two are tied together. The prisoner, in intense pain, is left as long as his guards desire. Then there is liankao or ‘chain-shackling’, which involves shackling prisoners’ feet and hands behind their backs. The refinement is to force both wrists and ankles into a shackle designed only for the wrist: pliers and hammers are used, Amnesty notes. Piansanlum or ‘bending three wheels’ consists in ‘shackling together two prisoners, with the hands of one tied to the feet of the other’. They squat and shuffle along, trying to eat, sleep, piss and shit for day after day at the guards’ pleasure. One guard at the Mian County Detentions Centre boasted he knew 39 ways of shackling prisoners. For those who want a quicker thrill, an alternative is laoniu gendi, or ‘the old ox ploughing the land’. Two prisoners are handcuffed together, back-to-back, and a rope attached. Other prisoners are forced by beatings to pull the rope and the two handcuffed victims at a faster and faster pace around the prison yard. Soon one prisoner falls. His yoked comrade must keep dragging him along the ground. When the concrete is covered in blood the torture stops.

When it was finished Xie Baoquin’s back was but a massive wound which took several months to heal. The wounds suppurated throughout the whole winter. He did not receive any medication and it was left to his cell mates to take care of him. His back was covered with a cotton blanket which became regularly soaked with pus from his wounds, impregnating the cell with the smell of rotting flesh.

Most of the people thus treated were imprisoned during or after 1989. While the Chinese authorities now and then let out a prisoner who has won international recognition, there are still an estimated ten million people held in Chinese prisons and labour camps.

Amnesty notes that ‘the unemployed, vagrants, workers or peasants’ are more likely to be tortured because they ‘do not have the social status, economic means or political connections which often constitute a shield against ill-treatment in detention’. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, Peng Yuzhang, a retired university professor in his seventies, was arrested in 1989 after taking part in a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Changsa. He was placed on the ‘shackle board’ for three months and then transferred to a psychiatric asylum. His relatives were denied permission to visit him and do not know if he is alive. Amnesty also lists many students who have been tortured but states that ‘there are few reports of ill-treatment in detention of people of high social standing, such as prominent intellectuals.’ It looks therefore as if it may still be possible for a senior member of the English Literature Department at the University of York to visit China without fear that she will encounter any of the horrors daily taking place (LRB, 19 November 1992).

Denis MacShane

The Paris Strangler

As Paddy Lyons (Letters, 28 January) sees it, the strangling of Hélène Rytmann by Louis Althusser was a folie à deux: she wanted him to kill her and he in a moment of lunacy obliged. This is one ‘explanation’ of his act offered by Althusser himself in L’Avenir dure longtemps. But how, by accepting it as the right explanation, does Lyons make things any better for Althusser who, it now turns out, has destroyed his own life in the performance of an act of charity? By my reckoning, that makes his autobiography even more of a hard-luck story and enhances the self-pitying theme of ‘oblation’ apparent all the way through it: the still living Louis is suffering in the place of the dead Hélène for having done as she wanted. As for the idea that L’Avenir dure longtemps was written in answer to Claude Sarraute’s ‘smear’, that I don’t understand. There was no smear: Sarraute complained, and rightly, of the way the murder had been glamorised in the reporting of it, which was none of Althusser’s doing. By comparing his case with that of the disgusting Issay Sagawa, she wasn’t suggesting that Althusser, too, was a monster, only that both these (male) murderers had been given a starring role to the complete occlusion of their (female) victims. To answer such a ‘smear’ by then writing a whole book about yourself seems perverse, to say the least.

Lyons find my propellant in what I wrote to have been a ‘drive to equate Marxism … with self-pitying madness’. What a very silly ambition that would be. The sorry story of Althusser does nothing so far as I am concerned to undermine Marxism, which seems quite capable of undermining itself; it does, however, raise very interesting questions of a psychological kind about why he should have become and remained some sort of Marxist. I can’t for the life of me detect the ‘satiric inflection’ that Lyons claims to detect in what Althusser has to say about the ideal, i.e. Communist society of the future. He accuses me of shortening before time my quotation about the river of shit; let me now carry it on, beyond the point where he himself leaves it: ‘I believe indeed – and think that on this issue I am in line with the thought of Marx – that the one possible definition of Communism – if it is one day to exist in the world – is the absence of market relations, therefore of relations of class exploitation and domination by the State. I believe that there certainly exist in our present-day world very numerous circles of human relations from which all market relations are absent.’ Where is the ‘satiric inflection’ in all this? Or, for that matter, in the equally deluded account he gives of life in the then Soviet Union on pp. 182-3?

Talk of delusion brings me to the ‘arrogant assumptions’ I am supposed to have made about John Stuart Mill (Ethna Viney’s letter, same issue). They are arrogant, I assume, for not allowing that Mill’s extraordinary hymn to Harriet Taylor in his Autobiography may be no more than she deserved, that she really was the moral and intellectual paragon he describes there. If so, and I’ve not come across anyone before who thought it might be so, I can only say that the decent thing for Mill to have done was to make sure that Harriet Taylor got her due in her lifetime and not suffer her to wait until she was dead and to receive it by way of his own book about himself.

John Sturrock
Lindfield, West Sussex

I was dumbfounded by the tastelessness of the title of the review of Althusser’s recently published volume of autobiography and of the first volume of a biography. It would have been repellent enough in some daily rag; it was its appearance in a journal of the quality of the London Review that was so staggering. Still, on second thoughts, perhaps it was not entirely inappropriate for a review of the giggling, tittering, sniggering kind over which it appeared.

W.A. Suchting
Ultimo, New South Wales

Harder still

I see that R.W. Johnson is a fellow in politics at Magdalen College, Oxford, a victim, no doubt, of the view that ‘man has expectations to fulfil … which are … simply harsher, tougher, more inescapable than the challenges women face’ (LRB, 28 January). Well, as he has mentioned the comparative IQs of Joe and Jack Kennedy, I have the IQ of a university professor, but my easier – ‘women can be passive’ – challenge was to be removed from school at 15 to work as a bank clerk, because, in spite of being top of every class I was in, one was a girl, and if one wanted anything one had to marry it. I spent twenty years being told that I was ‘too intelligent for a girl’ and that ‘girls should be amusing and not too serious.’ I might not know a lot about the pressure to have irreducible erections – aren’t all erections reducible? – but I know a lot about minor tranquillisers. Compulsory passivity is hard work.

‘In sex, as in life, a woman can be passive and get away with it’: but what if she doesn’t want to be passive? Getting away with it is in this case the fantasy of the envious male: Johnson can identify with the pressurised Kennedy boys, but not with Rosemary, who, being ‘difficult’, was lobotomised by (male) doctors on the orders of her father. Having noted en passant that ‘some thought he [her father] had sexually abused her early on and wished to cover up the fact,’ Johnson pauses only to point out that Jack and Joe were probably not that interested in the fact that their sister was a ‘human vegetable’, before eventually concluding that ‘one is left pondering what it is we do to boy children.’ On the evidence of the Kennedy family, it is as nothing to what we do to girl children, who are first lobotomised, and then written out of the script.

Jacqueline Castles
London W2

Billiard-Ball Man

In his notice of Caroline Moorehead’s Bertrand Russell (LRB, 19 November 1992), Colin McGinn relates that Russell ended his collaboration with A.N. Whitehead after Principia Mathematica, indeed ended his work in logic, as a result of not finding a satisfactory way out of the paradox of self-exclusive sets. It may be that Russell ‘lost interest … in formal logic’ after that. But his and Whitehead’s each going his own way is another story. Russell put about more than one version of why he and Whitehead did no work together after PM was published. In his obituary of Whitehead in Mind he claimed that the effort of producing PM ‘was so severe that at the end we both turned aside from mathematical logic with a kind of nausea.’ Furthermore, ‘it was … inevitable that we should turn aside in different directions, so that collaboration was no longer possible.’ In his Autobiography Russell printed a letter (of 1917) from Whitehead complaining about the use the former had made (in Our Knowledge of the External World, 1914) of some of the latter’s ideas. Russell remarked that Whitehead’s letter shows how ‘vexed’ he was: ‘In fact, it put an end to our collaboration.’ Then, running through subsequent references to Whitehead in the Autobiography is a vivid strand of bitterness on both their parts regarding Russell’s pacifism and arrest in World War One (Whitehead was King and Country). At one point, Russell, writing to Ottoline Morrell in 1918 and thanking her for her friendship: ‘I am wonderfully touched by what all of you have done; the people I don’t trust are the philosophers (including Whitehead).’

In addition, I had this story from Dr Satish Kapoor, when he taught at the University of Washington (Seattle) in the early Sixties. Kapoor had done a thesis on PM, and had a chance – this would have been in the Fifties – to ask Russell why he and Whitehead did nothing together after it. ‘Well you know,’ said Russell, and one can hear the reedy tones floating high, ‘in cosmology, there are jelly men and there are billiard-ball men. Whitehead was a jelly man, whereas I, well, I have always been a billiard-ball man. When the fact of this difference was borne in upon us we of course recognised that further collaborative work was completely out of the question.’

Stuart Pierson
Memorial University,

Give us a break

Reviewing M.B. Parkes on Punctuation in the West (LRB, 7 January), Danny Karlin earns our gratitude by opening the subject in arresting ways. He also leaves me feeling (such is readerly ingratitude) that his apertures need enlarging. He quotes with approval Parkes’s remark: ‘the merit of scriptio continua was that it presented the reader with a neutral text.’ After it has left the author, every text is neutral: in the strict sense of being unknown until known, interpreted by a reader. The rest is a matter of codings that can or cannot be known (Linear A, B; a ‘foreign’ language etc). The manner of knowing may be trivial or important to the author, the reader and those between: oral v. written transmission, scroll v. codex, manuscript v. printing, recited (holy writ, hymns) or played (stage) from memory v. read, etc. Karlin concludes, pace Parkes: ‘the point is that authors and printers’ – presumably also other intermediaries – ‘collaborated to restrict the interpretative scope of the reader’. In a sense that is true, but there is no meaning anything without the implication that all else is not being known. And it is a prior ‘point’ that those ‘authors and printers’ enable the suitably equipped reader to know something in the first place. Would his worship banish and choke all the authors and printers of the town?

The subject of ‘punctuation in the West’ is far more complex, which is not to say always earth-shaking. How much difference is made by the fact that the blind Milton ensured that his three greatest poems were the first in English numbered by lines and printed on ruled pages? What do people mean practically by crediting Seneca with invention of the paragraph? Is there really a conspiracy involved in the writing (or printing) of Hebrew and Arabic unpointed for vowels? Or the addition of such pointing for valued texts such as the Bible and the Quran?

The whole subject – ‘in the West’ – is parochial. Chinese and Japanese were written for centuries without punctuation, without word breaks, and of course with no capitals. (Korea is its own special case.) For long, Chinese and Japanese verse was printed ‘like prose’; that is, without breaking for lines as in all Karlin’s quotations of that stanza from ‘Resolution and Independence’. The earliest mss of the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) are the harder to read for being totally unpunctuated and without paragraphs in any familiar sense: the only indentations signal the beginning of a poem. The harder also for being written in that kana syllabary (and not modern kana although reproducible in that) which women used: i.e. with few Chinese characters. There were also none of today’s familiar diacritics indicating voicing of consonants (zu from su, pa from ha etc). Yet young women (and old men) once read the graphs with ease, and probably aloud, whether to themselves or others. Only a very small number today can do so. In fact those lengthy, complex sentences (if they are sentences in our sense) omitting topics and subjects of verbs, require glossing as to who is speaking or thinking (an alternative not always clear) to or about whom. We rely on editors for signals: addition of abbreviated names with particles along with punctuation. Each of us reading a modern text knows that the editors have intervened with their interpretations, ruling out others when they rule in their own, although not thereby wholly controlling what individual readers will think, something impossible. Some editions of the Genji (but not solely it) even print ‘modern language translations’ (gendaigo yaku) as aid to the serious and no doubt as cribs for the lazy. How regrettable the interference – in a puristic sense such as applies to no practical end! The assisted (and thereby limited) understanding provided by a scholarly specialist of tenth and 11th-century Japanese is unquestionably a limiting (and a crucial) assistance.

The subject is often truly important and, even when not truly important, interesting. But there is no need to demonise ‘authors and printers’ – or to restrict the matter to that ‘in the West’. Surely a more reasonable place to begin is with scepticism about our own powers unaided by those breaks, marks, larger letters, initials, numbers, and much else that we take for granted solely because we think they can always be assumed?

Earl Miner
Princeton University

Who, me?

Patrick Dennis’s 1961 book Little Me differs somewhat from Philip Purser’s recollection, as given in his review of Leni Riefenstahl’s autobiography (LRB, 3 December 1992). Little Me chronicles a career that undulates with the fortunes of the American film industry, spanning silents, talkies, the studio-star system, and the descent of television: six decades which leave the legendary actress Belle Poitrine, at ‘Frankly Forty’, a show-business icon. The ‘multi-talented luvvy’ recalled by Purser – who could ‘conduct the symphony he had composed for the inaugural concert in the splendid new concert hall’ he himself had designed, and write admiringly about it all afterwards – is, I think, more likely to be the latterday Renaissance Man in S.J. Perelman’s Vinegar Puss (1975). ‘I Have Nothing to Declare but My Genius’ attests Patrick Foley de Grandeur. (Perelman’s invention was inspired by awed reports of Kipling’s untutored pan-lingualism and screenwriter Sidney Sheldon’s lucrative unstoppable productivity.) Able to toss off fat novels in mere days, improvise Gershwin-quality piano suites, sculpt to shame Rodin, out-pointillist every Post-Impressionist, and fill his own teeth, he is solicited to script all CBS’s varied programmes, and comes to grief – and confinement – only after he boils all Shakespeare’s ‘euphuistical bombast and sesquipedalian twaddle’ down into ‘tales comprehensible to the veriest moron’. Nota bene, Leni!

Warren Keith Wright
Arbyrd, Missouri

PC or not PC

Doubtless Tom Shippey (LRB, 7 January) is expecting someone to protest about his casual observation that rape charges, ‘one has to reflect’, frequently aren’t proved, so I won’t give him the satisfaction of pointing it out, or of entering what would be a fruitless debate about whether or not Chaucer was really guilty of rape. I do not assume, as Shippey seems to do, that Chaucer is ‘clearly presented’ by the documents collected in the Life Records. However, as one of the contributors to a volume he accuses of ‘presentism’ in its desire to seek out only some acceptable Chaucers and to reject ‘inconvenient ones’, I think it only fair to ask what it is that enables him to locate the real Chaucer and to evade ‘the wishful thinking of modern literary and ideological criticism’ which he clearly finds so distasteful? The problem raised by biographical material is not simply one of interpreting the existing ‘facts’ or of producing, through scholarship, new ones; it is that of constructing a model of the relationship between authors, history and (literary) texts which avoids seeing the text as an emanation of the ‘authentic’ personality of the author. Without such a model criticism can only ever circle hopelessly around competing views of what the author really meant. While Shippey appears to recognise the futility of this in his ironic reference to the possibility of countering Dinshaw’s argument about Chaucer’s quarrel with Gower by saying that it could be due to ‘textual misunderstanding caused by failure to understand manuscript variation’, the problem is not resolved by shrugging one’s shoulders and saying: ‘No matter.’ That is tantamount to refusing to engage with the arguments of feminist critics like Dinshaw.

Ruth Evans
Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory,


Peter Campbell (LRB, 28 January) rightly observes that a biography of Delacroix cannot hope to surpass the journals. Unfortunately the opportunity to see why has now become all too rare, since they have been out of print for more than a decade. It is hard to think of a book which is on so many reading lists and so few shelves; and, given the number of completely worthless art books remaindered every year, the suppression by neglect of this classic is even less excusable.

G.J. Cook
Westgate, Kent

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