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Letters

Vol. 19 No. 3 · 6 February 1997

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Complacent about the Clitoris

Like Mary Beard in her review of Compromising Traditions (LRB, 23 January), I have reservations about the way the distinction between the personal and the non-personal is made by some contributors to the volume (indeed this is the subject of the first part of my own essay). Nonetheless the content and tone of her piece had the effect of making me increasingly sympathetic even to the less sophisticated proponents of personal voice criticism. In the list of contributors Beard (or the editor) offers this ironised (self-) description: ‘Mary Beard is a middle-aged, middle-class, white female, who writes from one of the securest positions within the academy: Newnham College, Cambridge.’ The irony backfires, and it is all too fatally easy to see this as a precise, un-ironic characterisation of the voice that speaks (or is spoken) within the review. This voice displays a mandarin complacency about issues of hegemony, is parochially obsessed by the importance of Cambridge and one particular classicist there, and seems utterly incapable of problematising its own stance and sense of cultural superiority. Throughout Beard uses the academy and scholarship as powerful (if unexamined) signifiers with which to pour scorn on the unhip embarrassments of confessional writing. Of course she is right to say that the sexual is not necessarily the prime, or even a particularly important, site of the personal (a point made specifically both by myself and my colleague Dr Vanda Zajko). It is depressing to see women who describe themselves as feminists and who have reaped some of the benefits of feminism rubbishing the campaigns of the past that have helped make such successes possible. Beard scoffs at the (putative) application of the clitoris test by the youthful Zajko (a matter that does not feature in Zajko’s essay): but even in the enlightened West (maybe even in Cambridge) there are women for whom the clitoris is, with some reason, still an issue – so let us not be complacent about the clitoris.

Charles Martindale
University of Bristol

The Passing Show

It seems obvious to me, as I am sure it is to most people who think about it, that we members of Homo sapiens perceive the world through a keyhole, and having read Ian Hacking’s review of On Blindness: Letters between Bryan Magee and Martin Milligan (LRB, 2 January), I am surprised that Magee should have thought that such an exchange with another member of the same species, albeit another philosopher (whose blindness seems to me to be totally irrelevant in the context of such an enquiry), would shed light on the limitations of our sensory systems. He would have been more profitably employed corresponding with a zoologist about the sensory systems of other creatures, such as ants, bees, birds or dogs. The evidence seems to suggest that they know the world as we do through touch, sight, smell, hearing, but that the range of their senses is different, frequently wider, as in the dog’s smell and hearing faculties, and it may be that the extraordinary navigational systems of many species hint at senses we don’t possess, at least to any significant degree.

J.D. Manson
London W1

Commenting on the famous Molyneux Problem, Ian Hacking claims that ‘the old philosophers’ denied that the newly-sighted man could tell a cube from a sphere before touching them. However, Leibniz was one old philosopher who thought otherwise. In his Nouveaux essais sur l’ entendement humain, a critical response to Locke’s Essay, Leibniz argued that if the newly-sighted man were told that he was being shown a cube and a sphere, then ‘it seems to me indubitable that [he] can distinguish them through the principles of reason conjoined with the sensitive knowledge previously given to him through the sense of touch.’ For Leibniz, the tactile geometry of the congenially blind must be conceptually congruent with the visual geometry of paralytics or others deprived of the normal range of tactile experience. So because there are no points on a spherical surface that are visually distinct from others on the same surface, whereas a cube has eight such points, Leibniz believed the newly-sighted man would discern this difference through sight alone, given his previously acquired tactile knowledge of the difference between spheres and cubes.

Alan Gabbey
Barnard College, New York

Arafat’s Palestine

Jacob Mendlovic accuses me of being ‘highly selective’ with my facts (Letters, 2 January), but that is only because all his factual statements are misleading or simply wrong. For example, he talks about the Palestinians’ ‘endless slaughter of Israeli civilians’. Any slaughter of Israeli civilians is deeply deplorable, but has Mendlovic already forgotten the Israeli slaughter of Arab civilians at Qana last April? Is he really unaware that the number of innocent Arab civilians killed by Israelis vastly exceeds the number of innocent Israeli civilians killed by Arabs? When he points to the Jordanian destruction of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem and the Jordanian refusal of all access by Jews to their holy places, is he not being more than a little selective in failing to mention the 450 Palestinian villages wiped off the map by Israel? As to the Jordanian denial of access, has he forgotten that Israel expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and country in 1948 and refused to allow them to return? Which does he think the greater crime: the Jordanian refusal of jewish access to Jerusalem for worship, or the Israeli expulsion of 750,000 Arabs?

I have been wondering whether Mr Mendlovic is a man of infinite jest or just one who lacks humour and knowledge, because of his statement that the Israelis ‘have acted with Gandhian restraint in the face of relentless violence by Arabs since 1967’. Leaving aside the false claim that mere has been relentless Arab violence, one sees of course what he means. After 1967, Israel heavily bombed the Egyptian canal towns as a tribute to Gandhi; and Gandhi’s most celebrated apostle, Mr ‘Mahatma’ Begin, launched a non-violent invasion of Lebanon which just happened to kill 20,000 Arabs, most of them civilians. General Sharon’s devotion to pacifism at Qibya, Gaza, Sabra, Chatila and elsewhere is too notorious to require further praise. During the intifada, Yitzhak Rabin issued a Gandhian commandment to Israeli soldiers ordering them to break the bones of Palestinians, who would thereby gain much spiritual benefit. In the same spirit of peace and goodwill, Israeli troops were prepared to endanger their own lives by using live ammunition against stone-throwing Palestinian children, killing hundreds of them. The Israeli Government similarly evoked the Mahatma by its frequent recourse to collective punishments and by legalising torture, as well as by a little light kidnapping from time to time and the occasional assassination. And last year, Mr Peres in his inimitably peaceable way drove hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from their homes, his benevolence enabling them to see a different part of their country. Gandhi would have been proud of his Israeli disciples.

Ian Gilmour
House of Lords

Prussian Blues

My only experience of a Paternoster lift was in the early Seventies, at the University of Leeds, in the course of an interview there during my final years at school. As, at that time, Leeds boasted of being the largest – numerically – of the British universities, I had entertained hopes that one or more of its alumni would have reported the existence and/or current status of this conveyance. However, they have not, and I can thole the silence no longer. Perhaps Alan Bennett can be instructed to make a trip to the University, for the specific purpose of tracking down this Paternoster, and its fate, and reporting back, through the medium of his 1997 Diary. He will also be pleased to know that ‘thole’, meaning ‘to tolerate or suffer something, especially anything of an irritating or annoying nature’, is in daily use in Scotland, and is clearly cognate with the Yorkshire ‘thoil’, discussed in the extracts from his 1996 Diary (LRB, 2 January).

Rob Close
Drongan, Ayr

The Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield has a fully operational and quite maddening Paternoster lift of the sort David Lodge fell in love with in Birmingham’s Muirhead Tower (Letters, 2 January).

Louise Johnson
Sheffield

Creepy-Crawlies

In his response to my letter on wartime Albania, David Smiley (Letters, 12 December 1996) denies having affirmed Eden’s immediate assent to Abas Kopi’s evacuation. My source here was his own Albanian Assignment: ‘Having found out the fate of McLean’s signal to the Foreign Secretary we therefore sent him another urgent one, to which Mr Eden replied at once, recommending that Kopi be evacuated.’ Smiley’s Irregular Regular is consistent on this point. The wider issues of Albania’s wartime conflicts, and of SOE’s role, require careful study of often contentious accounts. David Smiley’s vivid memoirs remain an important resource for this task. Jessica Douglas-Home’s blunderings (Letters, 17 October 1996) are only an obstacle.

David Hayes
York

By-Word for Wayward

John Kerrigan (LRB, 2 January) would have us believe that the Fulcrum Press, publisher of Roy Fisher’s Collected Poems (1968), was a ‘by-word … for … wayward experimentalism’. Kerrigan also implies that Fulcrum had no desire to ‘reach mainstream readers’. Fisher’s work in fact appeared alongside that of Basil Bunting, Ed Dorn, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Allen Ginsberg, Lee Harwood, Robert Duncan, Jeff Nuttall, Tom Pickard, Jerome Rothenberg and Gary Snyder. Most of whom, if still alive, have become ‘mainstream’, if only in America.

It was in 1964 that, as COItus Press, I first published Fisher’s The Ship’s Orchestra, at the request of Michael Shayer of Migrant Press, prior to its publication by Fulcrum. Any review which encourages one to compare a poet’s output over the years is to be welcomed and I, too, find some of Fisher’s changes hard to follow. The Migrant Press edition of City (1961) had a supplement the following year, Then Hallucinations City II, which seems entirely to have disappeared from subsequent editions, just as another Fulcrum publication, Matrix, has lost 51 of its 54 pages in the collection reviewed by Kerrigan.

Fred Hunter
Kingston upon Thames

The Cat’s Mother

Whose failure of understanding is the greater: the person who confuses Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, or the sort of pedant that responds to a piece of writing as intensely moving as Jenny Diski’s ‘Skating to Antarctica’ with an observation as arid as that of Mark Harris (Letters, 23 January)? And who gives a fuck if Prince Monolulu was a bookmaker, racing tipster, or even an employee of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire?

Matt Fretton
London, W1

Mistake

The diagram that accompanied Donald MacKenzie’s article in the last issue (LRB, 23 January) depicted the process of implosion of a simple atomic bomb, not two different types of weapon, as our insertion of the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the caption suggested. Similarly, a misunderstanding on our part led to the erroneous statement, in Linda Melvern’s piece on the UN and Rwanda (LRB, 12 December 1996), that all countries are members of the UN and all legally obliged to intervene when genocide is intended. In fact, only those countries which have ratified the 1948 Convention on Genocide are bound by law to intervene.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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