As far as I can tell, Richard Rorty (LRB, 16 March) is seriously confused. it’s a leitmotif of his piece that ‘understanding is always of objects under a description,’ a principle from which he apparently thinks it follows that there’s never a way of getting ‘behind’ the description to the object that you’re trying to understand. I doubt that does follow, but bother the inference – the premise isn’t true. Not, at least, if you parse it the way Rorty apparently wants to: viz, it’s always objects under descriptions that understanding is of.
‘Why is Fodor in such a snit?’ ‘Because he’s late for work again.’ What’s explained here is Fodor being in a snit, which is a property of Fodor tout court, not of ‘Fodor under a description’ (whatever, exactly, a Fodor under a description might be). The point is this: if ‘because he’s late for work again’ explains Fodor being in a snit, then it does so however Fodor may be described. Suppose (what’s arguable) that Fodor is the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher. Then if Fodor being late again explains his being in a snit, it likewise explains the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher being in a snit; and, mutatis mutandis, the husband of Mrs Fodor being in a snit; and the friend and patron of Mr James the cat being in a snit … and so forth, world without end, for whatever descriptions Fodor satisfies.
What is true is not that understanding is of things under descriptions, but only that we understand things by invoking descriptions that they satisfy. It explains my being in a snit that the description ‘is late for work’ is true of me. This is a not frightfully illuminating way of saying that it explains my being in a snit that I’m late for work; which is where we started. And from which, I imagine, nothing of any great epistemological interest follows.
Richard Rorty’s critique of Gadamer became a little ‘fuzzie’ during his discussion of descriptions of objects, and of what makes one ‘better’ than another. His gloss on the process of one descriptive paradigm replacing another stated that ‘new predicates are attributed to the things previously identified by old predicates … making these new attributions cohere with the older ones in ways that save the phenomena.’ But often the phenomena are not saved: the universe as described by Newton is fundamentally different from the universe as described by quantum mechanics. If we accept that we have no understanding of objects, only of sentences about objects, we are faced with a paradox (our ability to see that descriptions can be contradictory and still refer to the same phenomenon) which Rorty attempts to sidestep by rejecting metaphors of depth and penetration in epistemology while himself using a weaker version, comparing objects to onions: we peel back layers of descriptions to reveal new ones, ‘but without a non-linguistic core that will be revealed once those layers have been stripped off’. I would like to know what we do when we run out of onion.
I laughed like a drain all through A.N. Wilson’s review of Christopher Logue’s memoir Prince Charming (LRB, 16 March). It is really quite perfect. But it was only after finishing it, and weak at the knees from mirth, that I realised Wilson was an actual person and that the article was not a send-up of a high-handed, querulous review engineered by the mischievous Logue himself or some arch sub-sub-editor at the LRB. My favourite bits were: ‘Logue is quite a short man – 5l7ll, he says here, but he seems smaller in life.’ And at the end of his piece: ‘I have too many images in my mind of him masturbating in rich men’s lavatories or striking silly beatnikish poses to be able to hold that admirable Logue in focus.’ ‘Admirable Logue’, now there’s a grabber. I know Logue; he’s a miscreant, albeit a very amusing one.
Good on Michael Coates (Letters, 16 March) for adding to the stock of ‘mondegreens’ by including Muir and Norden’s clever My Word productions. I think, however, that the genuine article is a product of childish misunderstanding, perhaps aided by a sprightly unconscious. Here’s a true story. A child in Melbourne produced a drawing of a nativity scene in class last Christmas. The teacher recognised the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus but, puzzled by a fat monk hovering nearby, asked who he was. ‘Round John Virgin’, the child replied.
Before I retired I worked as an engine driver on the Metro-North Railroad, which operates suburban services out of Grand Central Station in New York. I found the story told in Jane Binyon’s piece (LRB, 16 March) hard to believe. A train departs on its first journey of the day with the cab signal and speed control apparatus ‘switched off’ because the driver has never been trained to use it and the mechanism itself is defective. He is allowed, in fact expected, to run at normal speed – that is, at 125 mph. Then, on reaching its destination, the train continues in use until its day’s tasks are completed. The recording of defects in safety equipment is casual, which means that ‘surveys’ have to be made in order to ascertain the real frequency of problems.
Since early in the 20th century, American railroads have been required by law to employ both cab signal and speed control apparatus when speeds exceed 79 mph. It is a serious violation of Federal Railroad Administration regulations for a train to leave its starting point if any safety appliance isn’t working. If the ‘door closed’ or ‘brake release’ light in the cab fails, if a warning whistle doesn’t sound in the cab signal and speed control apparatus, or if it sounds continuously, if the picturesquely named ‘dead-man feature’ is not successfully tested, management has three options: change trains, correct the problem or cancel the train.
If a defect develops en route in the AWS or ATP the driver reports it to the train dispatcher and proceeds at a much reduced speed – at 40 mph on Metro-North RR – governed by signals that guarantee the train a clear journey from one interlocking (a safety mechanism involving the locking of points and signals) to the next. And until it reaches the first interlocking after the problem has occurred, the train’s speed cannot exceed 15 mph. The system gives management a tremendous incentive to avoid failures in safety appliances since the result will be serious delay, and, as Binyon correctly observes, ‘real pressures … are about avoiding delays.’
Is it ironic that the US, with its skeletal passenger network and dearth of investment, should solve this safety problem so neatly? Not at all. Passenger rail travel, aside from a few suburban networks, is so overwhelmed by the automobile-based suburban culture that the industry has no clout. The regulatory agencies have a great deal of power, however: the entire New York suburban network will soon be protected by ATP. Freight railroads, on the other hand, have more clout and more accidents. And when passenger trains conflict with the mighty trucking industry at level crossings, safety loses.
In Britain, a safety programme that resulted in higher fares or less frequent services might actually lead to more deaths on the road, as passengers switched to car travel. (Most train operators, with all their faults, have years without passenger fatalities, while there is no motorway with zero deaths.) It would be like an all-out war on pot smoking that resulted in greater cigarette use. Lower fares play an important part in safety – though private ownership has made them difficult to achieve. A limited programme of investment focused on the 20 worst signals would make sense. And on the Great Western line, electrification would eliminate the built-in hazards of high-speed diesel trains with incendiary fuel-tanks. Is there another example in Europe of a heavily used high-speed network operated by diesel traction?
The articles by Jane Binyon (LRB, 16 March) and David Rose (LRB, 16 March) illustrate how hard it is to raise safety issues. Binyon had to retire before she could speak out. Sarah Friday, a Rail, Maritime and Transport Union safety representative, has just been sacked by South-West Trains. A train driver for 12 years, she was dismissed because she took up her legal right to request ‘risk assessments’ for drivers working long hours. Her colleagues have voted five to one to strike in her defence. As a frequent rail user, I will be joining them on the picket line.
I suspect a certain crossing of wires in Stephen Sedley’s correction of the psychiatrist joke as quoted by Adam Phillips from Ted Cohen’s book (Letters, 30 March). The Cohen version – patient confesses to innumerable sex crimes, psychiatrist is concerned only with what he had for breakfast – is clearly a variant of the ‘Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ gag. Sedley’s is the version I know, but he underplays the subtle point that the mother in question is Jewish and that the psychiatrist’s reply isn’t ‘You call that a breakfast?’, but the much funnier ‘That you call a breakfast?’ Rhythm matters in jokes.
Leah Price (LRB, 3 February) writes of Norton’s ability to use its anthologies ‘to breathe new life into old texts’ and describes it as ‘uncanny’. As a teacher, I would prefer to draw attention to Norton’s ability to suffocate its old editions, which seems extraordinarily canny. Each Norton anthology is current only for a few years: when a new edition comes out the anthologies on students’ bookshelves are immediately worthless: second-hand bookshops will not buy old editions, and academics and university bookstores cannot order them.
But there is a larger question here. From the age of 12, right through to the end of university, some students never see a copy of, say, Yeats’s Selected Poetry, let alone his Collected Poetry. A play is simply sixty pages in a bulky volume which contains many other plays, hundreds of poems and short stories. Interspersed are commentaries by established critics and by students learning to write about literature. The lesson is surely that individual pieces have no independent existence and that the main purpose of ‘literature’ is for students to write about it as those in the anthology have done.
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Charles Nicholl’s Diary (LRB, 16 March) mentions the ‘rusting military hardware’ along the road from Harar to Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. I wonder whether it still includes the Italian lorries which retreated too quickly down the precipitous road to Dire Dawa after the surrender of Harar in 1941. Several of them were lying on the slopes between the hairpin bends when British troops advanced towards Addis Ababa a few days later.
I can believe that Harar has changed little within its walls in sixty years, that the coffee is just as good and that the drowsy Ras Hotel is the place we knew as the sleepy Albergo Imperiale. But it is unlikely that the town square was jubilantly festooned during the Rimbaud celebrations as it had been in 1941, with inflated contraceptives looted from military stores.
Does Edward Luttwak (Letters, 16 March) regret that the Guardia di Finanza generally refrain from sinking Albanian boats filled with men, women and children? Given that Italy has an alarmingly low birthrate, as he himself points out, creating the possibility of lawful immigration would seem to be a sensible response – and one sure to reduce demand for the services of illegal traffickers.
As for attributing ‘an exceptionally high criminal propensity’ to the Roma, this is the kind of remark that breeds hatred of, and violence towards the Roma in many parts of Eastern Europe, ultimately forcing them to look for protection elsewhere.
Christopher Tayler asserts (LRB, 30 March) that my novel is ‘unreadable’, yet from his rather misguided review, it appears that he managed to read it. Yet surely if he wanted to read something that ‘explicitly or implicitly claimed to deal with questions of police power and its abuses’ then he should have got a copy of the Macpherson Report (that too is ‘bizarre, depressing’ – more so, indeed, than my own novel), rather than affecting to criticise Ike Eze-anyika, Irvine Welsh and myself for our failures to perform this function. Perhaps Tayler would like to write to me care of the editors of the LRB and let me know which ‘questions’ he thinks my next novel ought to ‘deal with’. I’ll happily suggest a dark place where he can put his agenda. Better than that; I’ll give him a hand.
Hilary Mantel mentions Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton in her review of Colin Haydon and William Doyle’s Robespierre (LRB, 30 March). The central ‘character’ in that film is neither Danton nor Robespierre, but the guillotine itself, the inanimate menace behind all the rhetoric and posturing. It looms like Death at the beginning and end of the film, and appears intermittently during it. Unwrapped from its sticky, stiff tarpaulin cover, it is revealed as the reality underlying the Revolution’s abstractions. As for the ‘small’ numbers who went to the guillotine compared to those killed in one Napoleonic battle, it is the nature of the machine that interests Wajda. He uses it to evoke the cold, calculating, rational nature of the state itself (vertu, justice, integrity, whatever you want to call it). What better embodiment of the paradox of Robespierre himself and the ‘progressive’ politics and technologies of the Enlightenment: butchery in a basket, the clean shave if you step out of line.
I don't understand how Julian Burgess (Letters, 16 March) can blame Mahatma Gandhi for not opposing the system of apartheid since, as Richard Thompson explains in the same issue, it did not come into being until after Gandhi's death. Surely this is a sly attempt to discredit him and Burgess should not be allowed to get away with it.
Despite Bernard Bergonzi’s crisp formulation (Letters, 16 March), I am still not sure it matters whether Henry James got his Underground stations confused in The Wings of the Dove. Is it not perhaps too sweeping to apply the same criteria to all writers in a category as broad as the realistic tradition? Compare, for example, the significance of James’s London with Hardy’s Egdon Heath. The proper answer to the question ‘how did Kate Croy get home?’ is ‘by public transport because she could not afford a private conveyance’. The sequence of Underground stations is there to punctuate Densher’s approach to her and the implied declaration therein. It is the interior reality of the characters which matters.
Much as I enjoyed Terry Castle’s account of Colette’s sexual and psychic odyssey (LRB, 16 March), the distinct impression remained that both she and Judith Thurman are far more intoxicated by ‘le tout Gomorrhe’ than Colette ever was. The only abiding passion of this urbanised Burgundian was for the physical labour of writing, weeding among the adjectives like a true daughter of the soil.
Myron Kaplan (Letters, 30 March) asks what evidence there is that Israel helped to arm and train the Afghan Mujahidin in the 1980s. Instead of trawling the Internet (the modern but lazy way of looking for information) he should go to a good library. Several of the standard works on the Afghan conflict of 1979-89 tell us that some of the weaponry captured by Israel in the course of the Arab-Israeli wars was recycled to the Mujahidin, via the CIA. See, for example, Barnett Rubin’s The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (1995) and The Bear Trap by Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin (1992). The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz ran the story on 29 November 1984, citing the New York Times as its source. At the time, such activity fitted in naturally with Israeli co-operation with the CIA. The fuller context is provided by an Israeli academic, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, in The Israeli Connection (1987). But he, like the Ha’aretz journalist, was a whistle-blower and Kaplan may disapprove of him. In Unholy Wars John Cooley writes that there was ‘possibly only a token Israeli role – which no Israeli government official would want to acknowledge, now that Islamists around the world have turned so strongly against the Jewish state and against the US-initiated Middle East peace negotiations’.
Zachary Leader (LRB, 16 March) comments in passing that J.P. Morgan used to cross the Atlantic on White Star liners. Before the Titanic sank, the ships of this line were thought of as transporters of the rich and famous. Morgan would have been keen to maintain their exclusive image: he owned the company.
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