Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997

Search by issue:

The Cat’s Mother

Jenny Diski confuses two subtly different ideas in quantum theory (LRB, 2 January). One is a fundamental (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), while the other is a thought experiment (Schrödinger’s cat). She is right that her mother may indeed correspond to a kind of Schrödinger’s cat if she has made no contact with her, and has no knowledge of her whereabouts, or even her existence. However, this is not the Uncertainty Principle, which instead is concerned with what happens when a measurement has actually been made on a quantum mechanical object. In particular, it relates the uncertainty involved in attempting to measure simultaneously both the momentum and position of the object. Since she has made no measurements of her mother’s position, let alone her momentum, the Uncertainty Principle is irrelevant.

Mark Harris
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

There is a minor error in Jenny Diski’s piece: Prince Monolulu (whom I met a number of times) was never a bookmaker: he was a racing tipster.

Barbara Smoker
Bromley, Kent

Après the Avant Garde

Surely one can write an essay on the post-war avant garde that clustered around Tel Quel without the identification of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Mao Zedong with Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle – the latter three grotesquely thrown into the same mix with Mussolini and Hitler. Clearly, Fredric Jameson (LRB, 12 December 1996) knows better, but to claim that ‘Modernist politics has been organised around ostensibly mass parties with an élite vanguard leadership’ is thoroughly to confuse and confound the difference between democratic and dictatorial regimes. Such a view relativises politics and weakens cultural analysis. Can one even imagine the rise, much less the influence of a publication such as Tel Quel in Communist Russia, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy as they evolved after a brief revolutionary moment? Even to suggest such a possibility is to invite rebuke and justifiable ridicule. Or is this not what Professor Jameson was trying to assert?

Irving Louis Horowitz
Rutgers University

Fredric Jameson correctly isolates the key Tel Quel word, théorie, but then fails to elaborate its full significance. It is just this one word, théorie, with no adjectival addition – no Marxist, Maoist, Lacanian, Saussurean … or even structuralist! For the leading (i.e. most frequently published) Tel Quel writers, Pleynet, Sollers, Kristeva, theory was understood in its most pragmatic – one might even argue, anarchic-opportunistic – sense, as providing a textual framework in which to consider a specific object thought to be of relevance at the time of going to print. Few Tel Quel articles were devoted to topics such as Language, Writing, the Signifier, the Signified, the Unconscious, Contradiction, Dialectics and so forth. Most were highly specific: devoted to a particular aspect of Marx, Mao, Freud, Artaud, Sade, or to a particular painter, composer, etc – even to a particular postcard from Freud to Breton.

The epistemological and stylistic issue (clumsy phrase, yes) of theory was raised in a number of divergent ways in both the journal and in the titles published by Seuil in the Collection Tel Quel – which was by no means exclusively devoted to either literary or cultural theory, but included poetry and literary experimentation. It is difficult to glean any scientific ‘theory’ from the typographical jouissances of Denis Roche.

Depending on one’s personal preferences, one can declare that certain contributions to individual issues of Tel Quel were obscurantist, self-indulgent – perhaps even acts of textual poaching. But there was certainly no slogging uniformity of approach. That this was so was, in my opinion, due to this underlying recognition of jouissance in whatever the textual enterprise undertaken. That cultural analysis need not be presented in a coldly analytical, ‘objective’ puritanical style, but that it could be the occasion for textual innovation in its own right – this was one of the main contributions of Tel Quel. Like one of Jean Tinguely’s painting-machines, Tel Quel was eye-catching. It whirred, gyrated, clanked, contorted, made obscene gestures, left traces, spattered the audience … and then spasmically self-destructed. But, by golly, it was damned lively and entertaining. Provocative – and optimistic.

Optimistic, risk-taking, inventive – which is more than can be said for the boring drivel now being pumped out by farts old and young in British academe and their literary journals and periodicals primarily intended for academic consumption. Is that yourselves included? Well, if the cap don’t fit, you look even dafter continuing to wear it, if you think it don’t…

Grahame White

Fredric Jameson, in his smooth discussion of the anfractuous trajectory of Tel Quel, neglects to warn prospective readers of Patrick ffrench’s The Time of Theory that it is nothing more than an unevenly microwaved PhD thesis masquerading as theory. Even read in a spirit of jouissance, the first fifty pages or so trudge by in an orgy of name, academy and movement-dropping. Is it too much to ask a reviewer to call an unreadable book unreadable?

Harold Teichman
Rutherford, New Jersey


May I please ask you to allow me to correct two statements made in Alan Bennett’s account of 1996 (LRB, 2 January). The diaries handwritten by my father, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, were typed by my mother as she received them during the First World War. After questions about their accuracy were raised by Denis Winter the typed manuscripts were checked against the handwritten diaries by John Hussey and found to be accurate. It is also a fallacy to say that my father ‘never visited the actual front’. Many visits are recorded in his diaries. It is for historians to understand the purpose and the results of those visits. In my view the programme on Timewatch on 3 July last year tried to do that and was certainly no whitewash. It did do something to record some of the achievements in the war rather than denigrate, which is what Alan Bennett is trying to do.

Haig of Bemersyde
Melrose, Roxburghshire

Alan Bennett errs in consigning the railway station at March, Cambridgeshire to the dustbin of history. Though dilapidated, the station still exists and can be reached by overheated railcoach from Peterborough or Ely. Bennett missed not only the extant state of the station but also the conversion of one of its buildings into the Alpine Fitness Centre – a nice irony given its location at the centre of a vast plain. The far-back quality of the Fens also lives on. On my return from a recent trip the ticket collector told me that at Peterborough it would be ‘Platform Two for Londinium’.

D.J. Walsh
London W11

Alan Bennett is right to say that the Barnes and Noble emporia are congenial places to sit and read. Certainly the English chains are merely tacky when they try to do something similar (on a recent visit to Brighton, I marvelled that Blackwell’s, Dillons and Waterstone’s all had such misshapen stores and truncated opening hours). One must, though, lament that Manhattan is losing so many of those independent stores whose staff know the whereabouts of the stock – and its contents – without recourse to a keyboard.

Montagu Bream
Chinnor, Oxfordshire

Prussian Blues

David Lodge tells us (Letters, 2 January) that the Paternoster lift in the fictional University of Rummidge, which so fascinated Morris Zapp, is inspired by the Paternoster in the Muirhead Tower of Birmingham University. I think I know how this ‘wonderfully suggestive’ machine came to be installed.

It was in 1964, or possibly a little later. The late Sir Ellis Waterhouse was dean of the Faculty of Arts and I was his assistant dean. The new Arts Faculty Building (later called the Muirhead Building) was in the planning stage, and Ellis attended a number of meetings with the architects and with the Bursar’s department, although it was only rarely that I had to be present. I was surprised, therefore, when Ellis said that the two of us had to go into the city and choose a lift for the new building, unaccompanied by anyone from the Bursar’s department. Thus one morning we were driven into an unknown part of Birmingham and entered a large building. There we were greeted by an affable man who knew our names – and other things, judging by the readiness with which he offered Ellis a particular drink which he always accepted. After some talk we moved to a mezzanine floor from which we had a good view of the Paternoster.

Before long, Ellis was leaping on and off the Paternoster, and as he changed carousels the air was filled with shouts of ‘it’s heaven.’ He certainly did the round trip, but whether he thought the same thoughts as Morris Zapp I cannot say. He was delighted to show that he could jump on and off without spilling any of his drink, and when his glass was refilled he was keen to demonstrate this again. He refused to call the machine a Paternoster but always referred to it as a ‘bain-marie’, which greatly amused the men who were selling it, although I did wonder how many of them knew what a bain-marie was.

Naturally I was obliged to try the machine in my turn and I too experienced a certain exhilaration. But I had to play my part in the team and I asked Ellis if such a lift would be suitable for the Faculty of Arts. He had no doubts, and immediately gave an example. He was, at that time, having a quarrel with one of the classics professors and they were not on speaking terms. It was highly embarrassing for them to find themselves in the same lift when the lifts were of a traditional nature. They were obliged to stand looking at different corners of the lift with Ellis, at least, praying that there would not be a breakdown. But if they were using the bain-marie, then it would be easy to change carousels, and if they both changed together, then that would be delightful. He went on to give another example. It was not often that the Vice-Chancellor came to the Faculty, since we usually had to go to his offices. When he did come he was a bit distant and cool. But if there were a bain-marie then he would take every opportunity to visit the Faculty and would be in high good humour. He would, Ellis said, lose his air of gravitas. And we might hear less about university expansion. Another of our colleagues, a senior lecturer, appeared to spend his time watching what was happening and complaining about it. He had protested officially to me that one of the professors of theology was using a lavatory in the English Department. The installation of the Paternoster, and its working, would keep him occupied. We ought to have it. The decision was taken.

Now I learn from David Lodge’s letter that the lift is no longer in operation. So the story of how we decided on the Paternoster is a story of the past, with little relevance to the present, except as an example of the everyday life of academic folk in the good old days of British universities.

Douglas Johnson
London NW3

Arafat’s Palestine

The volley of letters by Said, Laor, Levi and Bilgrami, and Shahak, responding to four questions I posed, respectfully I had hoped, to Edward Said, curiously holds me responsible for the uncritical qualities of American Zionism (nowhere did I embrace all its positions or enthusiasms), the chequered history of British and Israeli Labour Party views about Palestinians since the Forties (Shahak’s version is partial and deeply distorted), for failing to preface my reaction to Said’s painful account of Palestinian suffering with an inventory of harms Israel has generated (when is such required as the entry ticket into a political conversation?), even with the inadequate preparation of the Palestine Authority’s negotiating team. For my politics – in support of a negotiated two-state solution (a position I have held for a quarter-century), a preference for Peres and Labour over Netanyahu and Likud, and a disapprobation of terror even by the disinherited – I have been pilloried by Said for ‘moral idiocy’.

His account of current conditions on the West Bank, I repeat, was gruelling to read. I did not argue with its reportage, only its author’s pathless politics. As Levi and Bilgrami note in the most serious of the letters, Said’s report ‘had not suggested anything positive’. They wish I had been more specific as well. They are right to want to shift the dialogue to issues of politics, negotiation and practice; but they are wrong to accept Said’s account of Oslo I and II as definitive. They repeat his indictment that these agreements validate a policy of Bantustans. But, like Said, they leave out the fact that the Accords specify four stages of Israeli withdrawal before the final status talks commence and as they proceed, not just the initial step directing an end to Israeli control of the main population centres. I think it critical that all these military removals be made to happen and that the anticipated negotiations about conclusive borders and arrangements proceed. The Oslo agreements are neither immaculate nor sufficiently exact. If a better option exists for either side, however, we have yet to hear it.

Ira Katznelson
Columbia University

Whose Greece?

How curious! In Black Athena (1987 and 1991) Martin Bernal argues that the ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians ‘massively’ influenced early Greek civilisation in religion, philosophy and science. In our books, Not Out of Africa and Black Athena Revisited, we, along with 18 other ancient historians, archaeologists, Egyptologists and anthropologists, show that Bernal’s historical claims are not supported by the ancient evidence. Instead of asking an independent party to read our books and compare our arguments about the evidence to those of Bernal, the LRB invites Bernal to review our works (although Bernal already has published versions of the same review in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education and the Ithaca Book Press). How surprising, then, to discover (LRB, 12 December 1996) that he objects to our criticisms of his claims. Why is Bernal afraid to let our books be reviewed by anyone other than himself, or his associates, Eric Cline and Jacques Berlinerblau? Perhaps after Bernal has published Volume III of Black Athena, he should simply write his own review of it for the LRB, and then send in letters of support to the editor. That would spare your readers any possible criticism of Bernal’s historical assertions or arguments. According to Jasper Griffin, in his review of our books, all of those assertions and arguments ‘have been refuted’.

Mary Lefkowitz
Wellesley College, Massachusetts

Martin Bernal’s article contains the following claim: ‘Lefkowitz is basically right to deny such extreme Afrocentric claims as that Socrates and Cleopatra were black.’ Why only basically? The implication is that Lefkowitz’s denial, though it cannot be rejected outright, cannot be accepted outright either, but Bernal says nothing to justify this, and it is hard to see what he could say. This is not the first time that Professor Bernal has shown himself willing to give with one hand and try to withdraw with the other. In Black Athena, he denies that the concept of race in general has any utility, but immediately goes on to say that ‘Ancient Egyptian civilisation was fundamentally African,’ adding that ‘many of the most powerful Egyptian dynasties … were made up of Pharaohs one can usefully call black.’ It is surely regrettable that Bernal says as little as he does about the criticisms put forward in the books under review, and as much as he does about the alleged agendas of the people responsible for them.

Philip Hoy
London N8

Thee and Thuh

John Lanchester accepts Robert Burchfield’s claim in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage about the double pronunciation of the word the (LRB, 2 January); but it is surely as false as many of his other claims, which do so much damage to the rest of the book, as they previously did to the Oxford English Dictionary. It is true that the is pronounced thuh (neutral schwa) before words beginning with a consonant, but it is untrue that it is pronounced thee (long e) before words beginning with a vowel. On the contrary, it is only ever pronounced thee for emphasis – at least in Britain, whatever may be the case in New Zealand. It is normally pronounced as thi (short i) before most vowels, and as thuh frequently before e and occasionally before other vowels in stressed syllables as well.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

John Lanchester expresses the hope, at the end of his fine review of the new Fowler, that someone will produce ‘a clear, unequivocally prescriptive account of contemporary written English’. The thing has already been done, by Michael Dummett, in his brief, forceful, crystalline, comprehensive Grammar and Style for Examination Candidates and Others (1993).

Anthony Quinton
London W1

Bad Day at Amherst

Though I did invite other writers to ‘confirm or dispute the findings and interpretations’ in my The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, I might have reconsidered had I known Adam Mars-Jones would pursue the latter option so vigorously (LRB, 19 September 1996). He finds my reading of Bad Day at Black Rock, which stars Spencer Tracy as a one-armed World War Two veteran who ‘penetrates’ a Nevada desert community, to be particularly chafing. (‘Are women deserts?’ he scoffs. He might do well to view The English Patient for an answer.) In reference to Black Rock, he wrongly attributes to me an ‘equation of disability with an internal defectiveness’ which is ‘so thorough that it seems to have bewitched him into overlooking a rare exception, where the character who is physically impaired is the one to embody integrity’. I hardly overlooked the Tracy figure’s moral and heroic qualities. Despite Mars-Jones’s assertion that ‘all Norden can think of to say is that Tracy’s character is “remasculated" through his heroic deeds’ (an assertion he contradicts in his very next sentence), I described the Tracy figure at length, calling him a ‘courageous lead character’ who ‘expertly deflects’ the villains’ assaults on him through karate and judo. More important, Black Rock’s hero is by no means a ‘rare exception’. The Cinema of Isolation is loaded with discussions of virtuous, heroic movie characters who happen to have disabilities: Helen Keller, Monty Stratton, Jane Froman, Marjorie Lawrence King, FDR, Jill Kinmont, Leonard Gillespie of the many Dr Kildare films, disabled veterans and others.

Judging by the Schliemann/Troy analogy that begins his review, Mars-Jones views the films as artefacts to be dusted off and appraised in objectivist terms. I, on the other hand, regard them as forms of political discourse designed to perpetuate mainstream perspectives and to keep disabled people in their place. As I note in the Preface’s first sentence, ‘Every history is an act of interpretation laden with biases, and this one is no exception.’ Mars-Jones is astonished that I often expressed my opinions in a direct and admittedly caustic way, but I did so for a specific reason. Social scientists have long known that able-bodied people tend to avoid interactions with their disabled counterparts, so it is reasonable to assume that members of the majority get their ideas about disability primarily from the culture that surrounds them – Biblical stories, novels, films, TV programmes and the like. If we are to have any hope of breaking the cycle of oppressive images that bombard us daily, we must speak out against them in the strongest terms.

Martin Norden
University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Patrice Higonnet’s phrase ‘élitist cultural appropriation’, used about Harvard’s adoption of Benjamin Franklin (LRB, 14 November 1996), deserves wider usage. For instance, it expresses more succinctly than the contemporary couplet what Elgin did with the marbles:

Noseless himself, he brings back noseless rocks,
Theirs weathered down by time, his by the pox.

Simon Currie

Between Man and Man

I enjoyed reading Paul Seabright’s reflections on the representations, in economic orthodoxy, of inflation as a kind of sexual addiction requiring staunch restraint (LRB, 12 December 1996). It both reminded me and made sense of a speech by Patrick Jenkin, then Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State at the DHSS, at the Cambridge Union Society in 1980. The subject of the debate was the acceptability or otherwise of a moderate level of inflation as a corollary of economic growth and full employment. I remember Jenkin describing inflation in terms of a disease that ‘corrupts the relationship between man and man’. Rather bemused, I commented to a friend that it sounded as if he was talking about syphilis, and put it down to the pre-debate hospitality.

There is perhaps a parallel between UK economics and the sexual double standards evidenced by ministers’ failure to live up to the pronouncements of ‘back to basics’. This is the perceived acceptability, even desirability, of inflation in house prices. During the Lawson boom-years, when this phenomenon tended towards incontinence, and thereafter when interest rates were soaring, the Treasury came up with an ‘underlying rate’ of inflation in an attempt to pretend that rising mortgage payments weren’t really inflation at all. Perhaps when ministers appear publicly with wives and children, having been caught in moments of weakness, they are trying to demonstrate their ‘underlying’ family values.

Tim Sanders

Terra Nullius

Janette Turner Hospital (LRB, 12 December 1996) states that in 1827 the population of New South Wales ‘is somewhere around 25,000, of whom two-thirds are convicts’. I find it hard to believe that after 40,000 years, the indigenous population of the continent was ‘somewhere around’ 8250. Or maybe she is unaware that the old legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’, whereby Australia was deemed by the British to have been uninhabited in 1788, has been overthrown.

Gordon Kerry


Richard Boston (Letters, 2 January) can keep his Aeneas to himself. Of course I know that ‘fiduciary’ is a word derived from ‘trust’. (My old school motto was, and I dare say still is, In Fide Fiducia.) It’s for this precise reason that the financial system has ‘fiduciary’ instruments. More to the simple point I was making, the term ‘trust fund’ is indissolubly linked to marriage arrangements in the upper reaches of American society, and any female member of the Bouvier family would have learned to lisp it before she could say ‘gymkhana’. I think he’ll find that this also meets his pathetic attempt at a distinction between ‘break’ and ‘cancel’. ‘Cancel’ is no doubt better used for contracts than for promises. That’s just what I intended to convey about Bouvier betrothals.

Christopher Hitchens


New Year, new tabloid size for the LRB! Do I take it that the new size is in preparation for Saturday-morning street sales of the paper alongside Socialist Worker once Tony Blair gets to No 10?

Keith Flett
London N17

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.

Read More

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