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Letters

Vol. 18 No. 14 · 18 July 1996

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He’s got a point

I wonder whether you could ban from your reviews the use of the word ‘famously’ in the context of literary allusion and quotation? To take an example from your issue of 20 June, James Wood mars an excellent review by writing of Seamus Heaney, ‘The young poet of direct statement felt, famously, in “Digging", that he could not dig like his farmer father.’ In a recent New York Review of Books, even that usually impeccable stylist Gore Vidal writes that Mark Twain ‘spent his boyhood, famously, in the Mississippi town of Hannibal’. There are countless other examples available in publications all over the English-speaking world, especially here in Australia. There would seem to be two reasons for the use of this obnoxious term. First, one-upmanship: ‘I’ve known this famous literary detail since I was a child, but I don’t expect you’ll have heard of it.’ Second, mock modesty: ‘Of course I know that you’ll know this famous quotation, but we’ll both enjoy it if I use it once again, won’t we?’ The fatuity of the habit is perhaps best exposed by pushing it to extremes, something like: ‘The young Jesus Christ famously thought that his Father was in heaven.’

Geoffrey Dutton
Glasshouse Mountains, Queensland

Disorder

I fail to see the point of Gerald Weissman’s article about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (LRB, 6 June). Is he trying to say that it is a great advance to exchange one label for another (’the field changed radically when the nomenclature was revised’)? What used to be called Traumatic War Neurosis, or something similar, is now labeled PTSD – what’s the big deal?

As clinicians know, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is a loose hodge-podge of fuzzy theories, speculations etc, paying lip service to the needs of the times. It is hardly a profound scientific document. Yet his review exclaims: ‘the publication of DSM-IV is a signifying moment.’ This must be the overstatement of the year; DSM is at best a useful rough tool for insurance forms and hospital administrators who must fit patients into neat rubrics. Weissman’s high praise for the so-called experts, ‘pioneers of psychiatric nosology’, is high nonsense. When I was a student, the DSM listed homosexuality as a disorder. These rather desultory listings are decided not on the basis of scientific research, but as a result of personal interest, the Zeitgeist, backroom lobbying, trends etc. How about Multiple Personality? Is that in this year? Or just re-labelled Dissociation?

Sheldon Litt
Stockholm

Drooping

Bracht Branham and I appreciate James Davidson’s intelligent review of our version of Petronius’s Satyrica (LRB, 6 June), and we found it especially pleasing that of the two new English texts he reviews, Davidson chooses ours for all his illustrations of what makes Petronius’s work even now so chaotically, archly compelling. We are troubled, however, by Davidson’s intimation that though our version is indeed more engaging than P.G. Walsh’s new version from Oxford, this in some sense depends on our rendering the Latin less accurately or less closely than Walsh. We believe that our version succeeds where it does because it hugs Petronian idiom more closely, not less, emulating at all turns the risqué rapidity, the velocitas and fortunata audacia, that already for Leibniz sufficed to distinguish authentic Petronius from his counterfeiters. Not to labour the point, here is the three-line Virgilian pastiche Davidson quoted, for Petronius a deftly outrageous remapping of epic estrangement and loss onto his feckless hero’s defiantly dodgy anatomy, i.e. his unco-operative penis:

illa solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat
nec magis incepto vultum sermone movetur
quam lentae salices lassove papavera collo.

Here is Walsh’s new version, a scholarly rendering in which Dido’s shade (ghost) from the subtext, Aeneid 6, very much dominates:

She looked away, and kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
Her face was no more softened by these opening words
Than pliant willow, or poppy with its drooping head.

And now ours, in which Dido’s shade comically sinks to below-the-belt snubs without ever quite losing its plangency:

Its eye fixed on the ground it turned away,
as little roused by what I had to say
as willows limp or poppies drooping sway.

It is time to retire the ex-wisdom that faithful means dull in translations and mates; it is unfair to mates and translations, at least to the lively and faithful ones, Walsh’s and ours.

Daniel Kinney
Charlottesville, Virginia

No Exit

David Runciman’s review of our book, The Boundaries of the State in Modern Britain (LRB, 23 May), criticises our view of the state as simplistic and misleading: simplistic because it encourages a view of the state as ‘extending’ or ‘rolling back’ at any given time, and misleading because it confuses what governments do – things for us or against us – with what the state is, namely ourselves in our political form. Thus, according to Runciman, there may be questions about how we organise ourselves, but not about whether this state is encroaching upon, or retreating from, our lives.

But is Runciman’s characterisation of the state either helpful in itself, or more accurate than our territorial image? Our book stresses the uneven changes which the activities of the state have revealed in contemporary Britain; in this sense we share Runciman’s view – indeed it was one of our basic points – that there is no simple story of extension and retreat. Our use of the term ‘boundaries’ also implied a state which was ‘ours’ but – and this is crucial – which could appear to be against us; similarly, one which might in some moments be present, in others, absent. Few, we suspect, pace Runciman, will find such a view unacceptable. It embraces the state as embodying part of our needs – for law, for welfare, for economic stability, for the deployment of force, for the acknowledgment of sacrifice – but also challenges our judgment about what kind of state, and how much state activity, we want. This seems to be the only way to describe what amounts to real changes in the way we will tolerate power over us in our name. And it is because there are, in this sense, changing boundaries to the state that we find stakeholding such an uncertain idea. To the extent that it means a stake in someone else’s private or corporate property, it may be a cause of unease, even legitimate opposition.

Runciman also offers criticisms of two statements made in the conclusion. (a) He criticises the seeming conflation of states and monarchs in the sentence: ‘For good or ill, the British state is less frequently obeyed and more frequently criticised by its subjects than ever before.’ States, he helpfully points out, do not have subjects, only members; states cannot be disobeyed, only criticised. True, in the abstract. But the British state, to which we clearly and specifically referred, is monarchical in its form; headed by the monarch, activated in her name. A monarch does have subjects, and can be disobeyed. Did we really mislead anyone here? (b) He picks up on the apparent conflation between governments and states in the phrase ‘fewer and fewer national governments’ are willing to pay for universal state benefits. Fair enough. But the unfortunate phrase is his, not ours. We pointed out that, indeed, it was the state which paid state benefits. As he rightly observes, that is what makes them state benefits. We referred to a ‘price’ in diminished labour activity/social participation which fewer and fewer governments were willing to pay. Nowhere in the relevant sentence did we refer to ‘universal state benefits’ or, in fact, to the state at all.

S.J.D. Green and R.C. Whiting
University of Leeds

Rather Amusing

In his discussion of my book Juan Carlos of Spain, Self-Made Monarch (LRB, 6 June), Sebastian Balfour claims that there is ‘little sense of any evolution in Juan Carlos’s ideas or indeed any sense of what these were or have become’, a remark I find rather amusing. However admirable his role in his country’s transition to democracy may have been, Juan Carlos is not the most intellectual of men, and his views on issues other than those relating to his position as Franco’s anointed successor and later head of state (which are amply discussed in the book) are, to be honest of very limited interest.

Balfour also believes that my account of the transition to democracy between 1975 and 1977 ‘lacks context’. Admittedly, the fact that I was writing with Spanish as well as British readers in mind may have led me to take too much prior knowledge for granted. My aim, however, was to write a biography, and not a general account of the period. Those seeking more ‘context’ are strongly encouraged to read Paul Heywood’s The Government and Politics of Spain, about which Balfour has surprisingly little to say in his article.

Charles Powell
Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset,

Many-Modelled

Ian Hamilton asks whether the theory that Nancy was Ashburnham’s daughter in The Good Soldier has been proposed before. An essay by Dewey Ganzil in the Journal of Modern Literature in July 1984 proposed the same theory in persuasive detail, although little notice seems to have been taken of it since.

Edward Mendelson
Columbia University, New York

Wine and Poses

Philip French’s memoir of Jeremy Wolfenden stirs other memories, some confirming but others contradicting his version, as Rex Winsbury shows (Letters, 20 June). French speaks as one of the stars alongside Wolfenden in the Oxford firmament forty years ago; but things looked different to those who were closer to the ground, who had neither sought nor received commissions during National Service, who subscribed to the anarchist paper Freedom out of conviction rather than as a gesture, who preferred ordinary life to undergraduate life. To take just one example, I well remember the occasion when a friend and I were rebuked by Philip French for saying that we thought Jeremy Wolfenden was strictly phoney (Holden Caulfield was also an influence in those days). But he was, wasn’t he?

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Judges and Ministers

The answer to Professor John Griffith’s question (Letters, 4 July) is contained in my Human Rights Bill, which was passed by the House of Lords last year. I believe that the European Convention on Human Rights (and for that matter the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) should be given the same status in English law as European Community law. In other words, existing and future legislation should be construed so as to comply with the obligations contained in those international human rights codes. May I ask Professor Griffith a straight question of my own? Why does he believe that our courts should give less effective remedies under the European Convention than can be given by the courts of most other European states?

Anthony Lester
London EC4

Porch Puppy

It was good of Christopher Hitchens (Letters, 20 June) to acknowledge one mistake in his attempted hatchet job on Clinton but why did he skip the other one? Arkansas, ‘right-to-work’ state or not, does not have a ‘Third World minimum wage’. The federal minimum wage of $4.25 per hour, soon to be increased by legislation, applies nationwide. A few states have higher minimums; none can authorise a lower.

Richard F. Riley
Silver Spring, Maryland

The Man with No Name

I wanted to tell you that I’m subscribing to the LRB primarily in hope of reading more of the sort of thing that Ian Gilmour wrote in the ‘Diary’ (LRB, 23 May). I don’t believe we would ever see anything quite so frank published in this godforsaken country. I’ve given up all hope of seeing someone like Noam Chomsky in the New York Times. Not his work. Just his name.

Dan Latimer
Auburn, Alabama

Sentimental

Victor Menza (Letters, 6 June) accused Elisa Segrave of ‘sloppy journalism’ for her account of an evening with Helen Rosen in Key West. Menza dissects her copy in the depressing and clinical manner of a biology student dissecting a frog. His list of complaints is endless. He objects to Rosen being called an ‘old’ lady (which she is), he claims she does not have blonde hair (though Segrave, who met her twice, insists that she does, and suggests that perhaps Rosen lightens her hair). He then gives a rather long-winded tribute to Mrs Rosen and her tireless work testing hearing in the ‘non-First World’. By the end of his three-paragraph tribute, Helen Rosen stands shoulder to shoulder with Mother Teresa. The point that Menza missed was that Segrave’s account of the evening was a complimentary one. Perhaps Menza is not a fan of her prose style. In fact, it was his letter rather than Segrave’s article which I found unsettling, unkind and unfair. His attempts to defend what he sees as an ‘attack’ on Rosen – which, in fact, I do not think Segrave intended at all – result in a rather vicious attack on Segrave.

Janine di Giovanni
London W11

Bugged

Tom Vanderbilt makes some good points about Douglas Coupland’s book Microserfs (LRB, 6 June), but when he attempts to place it in some kind of technical context, his painful ignorance of his subject-matter becomes apparent. ‘Coke-and-junk-food-fuelled insomniac bouts of technical programming have largely been replaced by friendlier mechanisms like “html" that can be learnt in one day and used to create World Wide Web sites the next.’ This simply isn’t true. HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) is indeed a simple way of formatting Web pages, but most code is and will continue to be written in languages like C++ by highly skilled programmers who, I would hazard a guess, are likely to continue staying at work too late, drinking cola and eating an unbalanced diet, regardless of Vanderbilt’s rather tenuous grasp of shifts in computer culture.

Hari Kunzru
Wired, London SE1

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