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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000

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Sleeping around

I was fascinated by Anne Enright’s account of the ‘immortal cells’ of Henrietta Lacks (LRB, 13 April), but she should not think that the presence of papilloma virus type 18 in HeLa cells necessarily means that Lacks had genital warts and that she ‘slept around’. It is true that this virus is occasionally found in visible genital warts and that population studies show that the major risk factor for acquiring genital papilloma virus infection is sexual behaviour, particularly multiple sex partners. However, genital papilloma virus, or any other sexually transmitted infection, can be acquired through a single sexual encounter with an infected person.

Joe Baker
Dunedin, New Zealand

Do Freud’s fibs matter?

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, reviewing Der Fall Freud by Han Israëls (LRB, 13 April), pleasingly suggests how psychoanalysis might escape the taint of Freud’s lies by acknowledging that for Freud the psychoanalytical dialogue only ever set out to establish an artefact, not a set of facts.

The words ‘hidden’ and ‘disguised’ recurring in the review confirm my view that it is equally important to remember the central place of the secret or the lie in Freud’s theory, and to relate the generation of the theory of the unconscious to his personal weakness. In fact, Freud makes a good job of showing how this works in The Interpretation of Dreams; and even if we doubt aspects of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, this book still stands as a great autobiographical text and apologia pro vita sua.

Freud’s interpretation of three of his own most complex dreams, Irma’s Injection, the Botanic Monograph and the Three Fates repeatedly exposes his readiness to evade the truth and emphasises his professional ruthlessness and envy. The dreams deal with more than one serious medical blunder Freud made, and also with his betrayal of his colleague and longtime friend Wilhelm Fliess. In Dreams and in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he directly refers to two of his patients who died after he had overlooked their physical symptoms in his anxiety for psychoanalysis to succeed. They now haunt him in his sleep. Summing up what happens in the Irma dream, he comments: ‘It seems as if I were looking to highlight every occasion when I could reproach myself for insufficient medical conscientiousness.’

Just as distinguishing between fabrications and lies may help psychoanalysis recover from being branded unscientific, so Freud himself stands to benefit from being seen as a special kind of liar or fabricator – namely, an artist. It has always been noteworthy in Freud’s otherwise unsatisfactory account of art and artists that he stresses the way the artist manages to disguise his own primal nastiness. Once again he seems to be talking about a process of faking it which he has learnt from self-observation.

Lesley Chamberlain
London NW3

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen overestimates Han Israëls’s luck in finding the transcripts of Freud’s letters to his wife Martha in the Sigmund Freud Copyrights. As Israëls concedes in his book, he learnt about the existence of these letters, as any attentive reader could have done, when he read the biographies of Freud by Ronald Clark and Peter Gay. He did not just ‘stumble across’ them by ‘a stroke of luck such as seldom occurs in the life of a researcher’. The difference between Gay and Israëls is not that the latter discovered what the former missed, but that the latter used the transcripts extensively in order to demonstrate that Freud was a liar. Israëls has employed the transcripts in the same truncated way as his predecessors, merely quoting those passages that fit his thesis.

Dany Nobus
London NW2

What is it in the Zeitgeist that allows a reputable journal to publish Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen’s description of Freud as a consummate liar? Every charge that Borch-Jacobsen levels against Freud could itself be described as a ‘lie’, or at least a deliberate distortion of the historical record. Freud never claimed that psychoanalysis rested on Breuer’s successes in the Anna O. case but instead cited it as a distant progenitor, and far from lying about the therapeutic successes of psychoanalysis, his writings were consistently cautionary. Other points that Borch-Jacobsen cites against Freud, such as his mistakes concerning cocaine or the seduction hypothesis, simply use his own admissions against him. The truth is that Freud was wary of his followers’ idealisation of him because he knew that it often carried an ambivalent undercharge.

Eli Zaretsky
New School for Social Research
New York

When an individual convinces others of the reality of their beliefs where the rest of the world sees only exploitation, we normally talk of a cult. Why is psychoanalysis different? Why the pussyfooting around? All those seminars; all those shelves groaning with journals and books; all those profound thinkers, all those reputations … all worthless? It's unthinkable.

What comes through clearly when you study Freud, amusingly for someone supposed to have probed more deeply into the human mind than any other thinker, is his remarkable lack of self-awareness. What about his grotesque decision to psychoanalyse his own daughter, the hapless Anna? I'm reminded of Woody Allen, who took as his lover a girl to whom he'd been a father, and failed to see what all the fuss was about. It takes years of psychoanalysis to get that obtuse.

Mick Hartley
London N4

Like the vast majority of scholars outside psychoanalysis, Borch-Jacobsen writes as if psychoanalysis began and ended with Freud. In fact, the exploration of the theoretical and clinical implications of the co-construction of reality in the analytic situation has been a (perhaps the) major theme within contemporary psychoanalysis for the last thirty years. Freud's problems with the truth are certainly of historical interest, but they are hardly a fair basis on which even to begin to consider contemporary psychoanalytic thinking and clinical work.

Stephen Mitchell
New York

Not so

There was only one major omission in Dan Hawthorn's admirable article on the problems and constraints faced by the incoming mayor of London (LRB, 13 April): the City of London. Thanks to the all too typical gutlessness of New Labour when faced with Old Capitalism, that richest square mile in the world remains virtually an independent city state. Until the mayor can get his hands on the immense wealth now in the hands of the City of London and its lord mayor his power will be even more circumscribed than it is in Hawthorn's description.

Nicholas Faith
London N7

I must take issue with Dan Hawthorn’s statements about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s ‘successful’ workfare programme in New York City. While workfare has taken an estimated 440,000 people off the welfare rolls, the city has not disclosed exactly how many of them have found permanent employment. The estimate posited by leading newspapers and investigators in New York is somewhere between nobody and 30,000 people, with private agencies either working independently or employed by the city being slightly more successful. Furthermore, workfare has created a new class of working poor. Participants are being paid at or below the minimum wage (the equivalent of about £3.50 per hour) and are not provided with sufficient childcare or health benefits. As these people can no longer claim food stamps, they can no longer feed their families, and food charities cannot cope. Half a million individuals are now malnourished in one of the richest cities in the world. Finally, since the jobs provided by workfare are almost entirely menial ones (sweeping parks, assembling boxes), and because many who had previously been using their welfare benefits to fund education and training were removed from schools and sent to workfare jobs, these people have been left with almost no possibility of advancement in the future.

Anna Hayman
Brooklyn

Say hello to Rodney

I'm sorry – I didn't mean to imply, in my piece on kitsch, that Dave Hickey was Clement Greenberg's heir, as his letter presumes (Letters, 30 March). In fact, it was Michael Fried whom I thought of as the heir and consequently I was struck by the paradox of Hickey subsequently making use of Fried's work to inflate the reputation of Greenberg's particular bête noire, Norman Rockwell. On further reflection, I am happy to agree that if Hickey feels that the Greenberg cap fits, he might as well wear it. After all, he is America's leading art critic today, deservedly so, even if we don't agree about Rockwell or the market. The point that I wanted to make about Koons and Kinkade was that Dave Hickey's faith in the market as regulator of value in the art world was flawed, even from his point of view, because it could just as well favour artists like Koons or Kinkade, whose work he doesn't praise, as it could a Norman Rockwell whose work he champions.

Peter Wollen
Los Angeles

One of the Frightfulest

Charles Swann (Letters, 27 April) accuses me of an injustice to Thomas Carlyle, perpetrated in my piece on Robespierre. I am guilty as charged. It is true that I haven’t the facts about precisely how the housemaid – I shall call her, from now on, ‘the legendary housemaid’ – lit the fire with the first draft of Carlyle’s manuscript on the French Revolution. It is indeed possible that she went on to stuff some pages in the kitchen range; or that she had merely kindled a spark with an epigraph, when big boots stamped it out. I am indulging in picturesque history, am I not? The kind that Carlyle taught us.

In cheering on this wonderful domestic, I am not so much questioning Carlyle’s interpretation of the events of 1793-94, as simply regretting – rather whimsically, perhaps, and not altogether seriously – that his book on the French Revolution ever saw the light of day. My point is that the English imagination can’t get past it and that naive people (I am sure Charles Swann isn’t one of them) think it is holy writ; they count themselves well up in the topic if they’ve read it. For the longest time, I didn’t know Carlyle was to be taken seriously. I read his history of the Revolution in my teens, and, having no faculty of awe, thought it was a comic turn. Then, when I had my novel about the Revolution published, I was amazed that reviewers were keen to drag in references to it, so that we’d know they knew their stuff; and kind people asked me: Were you not very much influenced by it? Was it not the book that fired your interest?

W.S. Milne’s letter in the previous issue points to the primacy of the image of the guillotine in Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton. I agree with his analysis of the film, though I might not go so far as to call the guillotine a ‘character’. The issues are complicated and I don’t want to seem dismissive of the many interesting studies of the guillotine as icon of the Revolution; however, though it is unfashionable to say so, I am not sure that a concentration on iconography helps us to understand what happened in the Year II. Or perhaps I should say, it helps us to understand what happened from our point of view, but not from theirs; it helps us to formulate elegant intellectual trivialities, and distracts us from the less exciting business of working through speeches and writing to see what the Revolutionaries themselves thought they were doing. The guillotine was not invented or designed as an instrument of the Terror, but came into use in 1790, in very different conditions. Wajda, Milne says, ‘uses it to evoke the cold, calculating, rational nature of the state itself’. But we need not capitulate to Wajda’s imagination, any more than we need to capitulate to Carlyle’s: any more than you need to capitulate to mine. The guillotine offered, according to Milne, ‘the clean shave if you step out of line’. Which line would you have walked, if you wanted to stay alive in 1794? The line taken by one of the factions in the Committee of Public Safety? The Police Committee’s line, if you knew what it was? The Commune’s line? I am not sure that rationality had much to do with the events of those months. No one who went to the guillotine thought he was suffering because Robespierre was being too reasonable today.

Hilary Mantel
Knaphill, Surrey

The True Sentence

Maybe Jerry Fodor is in such a snit (Letters, 13 April) because he believes that Rorty’s insistence that ‘understanding is always of objects under a description’ means that Rorty must think that sentences have no referents. Rorty’s point, as I see it, is that the ways by which we make references – and thus the way we construct referents – always take place within already existing contexts and conventions (or ‘under descriptions’, as G.E. Anscombe first put it, I believe). We will always know ‘Jerry Fodor’ as something (a mammal, a person, a citizen, a philosopher, the result of a genetic code etc), seen from a certain angle, as it were. The ‘real’ Jerry Fodor, seen from the view from nowhere, we will never know, however: there is no real, true Jerry Fodor to know.

Michael Steger
New York

Jerry Fodor’s refutation of Richard Rorty was weakened by his self-chosen descriptions. As a practising counsellor I can imagine meeting him, maybe to understand his ‘being in a snit’. In the process we might experience an in situ snit, perhaps occasioned by his lateness for an appointment. By observing this without reaction or response I might be doing something extremely valuable for him, although I would need to use language to describe his behaviour and my thoughts and feelings. Through this process, by making connections with other observations, his history, some reports of other people’s histories and perhaps some theory, Fodor, myself and my supervisor would come to a greater understanding of him, his snits or why the phrase ‘the world’s most ill-tempered philosopher’ could occur in any text produced by or about him even for the sake of argument. Perhaps, following Rorty and Gadamer, I would argue that we would never understand him partially or ‘tout court’ without description, nor could we justify our understanding without explaining the point of view behind our descriptions which would privilege one set of observations over another.

Finally, some time after our work together was finished, Fodor and I might bump into each other in Central Park and become friends; he might, by virtue of the photographs I took, the presents I bought, the guests I invited to dinner with him, and in countless other small ways, come to feel understood. Could we be sure this was understanding without bringing him under description again? isn’t this epistemology?

Melvyn Firth
London SE24

(Sorry)

I am sorry that so interesting and well-written an article as Mary Beard's (LRB, 27 April) should convey so bitterly one-sided an impression of my book on A.L. Rowse. His encouragement of fellow writers, his practical kindness and hospitality towards them, certainly bulked larger in my mind when I was writing it than the splenetic egocentricity that led him into all too well publicised excesses.

It is humiliating for any author to have failed so signally in what he set out to do. I am reminded of Congreve's witticism that bad portraitists are obliged to write the name of their sitters at the bottom. So may I, likewise, ask LRB readers to accept that my view of Rowse is emphatically not that presented by Mary Beard.

Richard Ollard
Morcombelake, Dorset

I was cheered to see in the contributors’ notes that Mary Beard will soon publish a book about Jane Harrison, but my spirits were duly dashed when reading her piece about Noel Annan and A.L. Rowse: 42 sets of brackets is the stuff of a first draft rather than a polished, pleasant read.

Frederick Barker
Unthank, Leicestershire

Johnson’s Bottom

I am not a practising Catholic and do not consider myself a Defender of the Faith, but I attended Catholic schools for 11 years and two of my sons spent a total of eight years at a Christian Brothers preparatory school. In my own experience in the 1930s and 1940s I recall precisely one instance of a teacher striking a boy. At my sons’ Christian Brothers school in the 1960s neither was ever struck by a teacher and neither recalls any of their classmates being so punished. R.W. Johnson says he was ‘flogged two or three times a week’ at the Christian Brothers school he attended (LRB, 30 March). Flog means ‘to beat with a whip or rod’, presumably on the back or bum. If the youthful Johnson was indeed assaulted at that rate it means that in the course of a school year he would have been beaten about a hundred times, which seems more Dickensian than Dickens and surely must have left the little Johnson tush in irreparable tatters. And since he seems to have attended this hellhole of a school for more than a year, one wonders how the badly battered boy ever managed to survive, let alone sit at a keyboard to tell the tale.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York

Shit, Christ, phone Cher

Christopher Hitchens missed one point in his review of Saul Bellow’s new novel (LRB, 27 April). Ravelstein is an anagram of ‘vital sneer’.

John O’Byrne
Dublin

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