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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 13 · 6 July 2000

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Southern Africa’s Land Wars

After thirty years of exile I returned to South Africa in 1991 to participate in a literary conference in Johannesburg. I took the opportunity to revisit the Natal village where I went to school. It is part of what is called the Valley of a Thousand Hills. I was astonished by the extent of the overpopulation and land hunger. Some households were scratching a miserable living on plots of ground the size of a London back garden clinging on the hillsides. On a small plateau above the hills, acres and acres of land belonging to a white farmer were lying fallow. Some of it used to be planted out with wattle trees: forty years ago we collected firewood here, illegally – I suppose this was an incipient ‘land war’. In South Africa, as in South America, any social change worth the name, to say nothing of elementary justice, requires genuine redistribution of land. R.W. Johnson (LRB, 1 June) is inclined to think a ‘concentration of ownership’ by less than 1 per cent of the population is better for all those land-starved peasants. With counsels like these, land wars will continue to engulf East and Southern Africa. Mugabe is only a red herring.

Rereading Nadine Gordimer, I found a passage in The Conservationist in which a white woman admonishes Mehring, the business tycoon and landowner. ‘That four hundred acres isn’t going to be handed down to your kids, and your children’s children,’ she says sardonically. ‘That bit of paper you bought yourself from the deeds office isn’t going to be valid for as long as another generation. It’ll be worth about as much as those our grandfathers gave the blacks when they took the land from them. The blacks will tear up your bit of paper. No one will remember where you’re buried.’ Gordimer’s novel was published in 1974.

Lewis Nkosi
Basel, Switzerland

Varian Fry and Walter Benjamin

I was struck by the serendipity of T.J. Clark’s article on Walter Benjamin appearing in the same issue as the review of Andy Marino’s book about Varian Fry (LRB, 22 June). It was Varian Fry who was responsible for organising the expedition over the mountains in which Walter Benjamin attempted to leave occupied France. But his group was refused entry at the Spanish border on 26 September 1940, and fearing repatriation to an internment camp, Benjamin killed himself with morphine that night. The next day the group crossed the border safely. He had already been interned in September 1939, in the Colombes stadium in Paris and his sister Dora had been sent to the Gurs internment camp. Arthur Koestler had also been detained in Colombes and knew that Benjamin had been carrying morphine pills since the burning of the Reichstag. Koestler wrote in Scum of the Earth:

Walter Benjamin, author and critic, my neighbour in 10, rue Dombasle in Paris, fourth at our Saturday poker parties, one of the most bizarre and witty persons I have known. Last time I had met him was in Marseilles … and he had asked me: ‘If anything goes wrong, have you got anything to take?’ For in those days we all carried some stuff in our pockets like conspirators in a penny dreadful, only reality was more dreadful. I had none, and he shared what he had with me, 62 tablets of a sedative … He did it reluctantly, for he did not know whether the 31 tablets left him would be enough. It was enough.

Agnes Grunwald-Spier
Sheffield

Small Questions about Prams etc

At the end of his review of my edition of The Letters of Kingsley Amis (LRB, 1 June) Ian Hamilton asks ‘a few small questions’. These include: ‘What has happened to Amis’s letters to Robert Conquest that are quoted from in Eric Jacobs’s biography of Amis (“May want to borrow your flat at times like the early evening, for an hour or two, to entertain a young lady"; “I used you as an alibi on Friday afternoon – you know I’d do the same for you any old time, eh?")? And how was it that Amis became the piss-frothing Dylan Thomas’s literary executor?’

When I began work on the Letters I wrote to Eric Jacobs, at Robert Conquest’s suggestion, asking him for permission to borrow the photocopied Amis letters Conquest had sent him for use in the biography. Jacobs, who would himself have edited the Letters had he not lost the trust of the Amis family, never replied (‘I don’t mind your telling Leader where the letters and so forth are,’ Jacobs wrote to another recipient who’d photocopied correspondence for him, ‘but I shan’t be making any efforts to lighten his load myself’). Conquest then generously photocopied all the letters again – no small task, given their number. Recently he has confirmed that he photocopied everything he could find.

The letters Hamilton asks about (dated between 1956 and 1960) were not among the photocopies Conquest sent me and he has promised to look again to see if he can find them. Jacobs’s photocopies, meanwhile, have been deposited in the Huntington Library, and will therefore be available for inclusion in a revised second edition. Readers of the first edition will have to make do with several undated alibi notes (left in Conquest’s flat after assignations and signed, variously, ‘Ted Hughes’, ‘Martin Luther’ and ‘Dom Moraes’). These world-historical documents can be found in Appendix H of the first edition.

As for how Amis became a trustee of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate, an appointment he owed to his friend Stuart Thomas (no relation to the poet), this is explained in a footnote on p.1056.

I have a question of my own. On 24 April 1978 Amis wrote to Philip Larkin about the John Betjeman poem ‘Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden’, the first line of which reads: ‘Miles of pram in the wind and Pam in the gorse track’. ‘What the hell is that pram doing in the Pam poem?’ Amis asks. ‘I always assumed it was some odoriferous plant you could smell for miles (in the wind), but it can only be a flat-bottomed boat or a perambulator says OED. Neither quite fits.’ Larkin couldn’t help, advising Amis to ‘write to the old boy himself’. If he did, the letter doesn’t survive (at least not in the University Archives and Special Collections of the McPherson Library, University of Victoria, Canada, where the Betjeman papers are kept, or in any other repository of Betjeman correspondence). The word ‘pram’ also appears in the poem’s eighth line: ‘Then which path shall I take? that over there by the pram?’ But this doesn’t help either. All I could come up with in my footnote was a passage in another Betjeman poem, ‘NW5 & NW6’:

my memory sifts
Lilies from lily-like electric lights
And Irish stew smells from the smell of prams
And roar of seas from roar of Irish trams.

Here at least, a smell of prams contributes to a ‘pot pourri’ of smells, though the location is urban rather than suburban. ‘Miles’ of pram, on the other hand, suggests vegetation. A free copy of the Letters (from the editor’s generous ration of six) to the first LRB reader to come up with a more satisfying answer.

Zachary Leader
University of Surrey, Roehampton

(Sorry)

I hope readers will not be deceived by Mary Beard's suggestion (LRB, 27 April) that the demands of audit and economy have done away with the distinctions between the lives of academics at Oxbridge and other universities. She may choose to dine at home (where else do the rest of us get to dine?), but the material and emotional effect of government audits on family mealtimes is more severe away from Oxford and Cambridge.

Matthew Fox
University of Birmingham

Do Freud’s fibs matter?

Eli Zaretsky’s wholesale dismissal (Letters, 18 May) of the documentation brought forward by Han Israëls would be more convincing if it were buttressed by specific evidence. Was Freud ‘consistently cautionary’ about the therapeutic results of psychoanalysis, as Zaretsky contends? It is true indeed that he soft-pedalled his therapeutic claims towards the end of his life, thus making public at long last doubts that he had shared only with confidants such as Fliess and Jung: ‘It is not possible to explain everything to a hostile public,’ he wrote to Jung on 6 December 1906. ‘Accordingly I have kept certain things that might be said concerning the limits of the therapy and its mechanisms to myself, or spoken of them in a way which is intelligible only to the initiate.’ But this only makes it harder to justify the false therapeutic claims with which Freud launched his career – and which he never recanted. Zaretsky contends that ‘Freud never claimed that psychoanalysis rested on Breuer’s successes in the Anna O. case.’ I suggest that he consult, for a start, his copy of Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17): ‘The sense of neurotic symptoms was first discovered by Josef Breuer from his study and successful cure … of a case of hysteria’ (Lecture 17); ‘This discovery of Breuer’s is still the foundation of psychoanalytic therapy’ (Lecture 18). Further quotations in the same vein are available on request. Such public statements about Breuer’s ‘great therapeutic success’ (‘Psychoanalysis’, 1923) are of course all the more inexcusable as Freud was, at the same time, making no bones about Breuer’s failure to ‘initiates’ such as Marie Bonaparte, Ernest Jones, Otto Rank and Abraham Brill.

Zaretsky would have us believe that Israëls unfairly uses against Freud his ‘own admissions’ regarding the cocaine episode and the seduction hypothesis. One wonders what ‘admissions’ he has in mind. Freud never revealed to the public that the ‘therapeutic successes’ of which he boasted in his 1896 lecture on ‘The Aetiology of Hysteria’ were imaginary, and we would not even know about this were it not for the much-delayed publication of the complete, uncensored edition of his letters to Fliess (letters which he tried to acquire in order to destroy). It took him 17 years publicly to acknowledge the fictional nature of the ‘memories’ of sexual molestation that he extorted from his patients, and when he finally did, he gave a self-serving account of the episode that is demonstrably false and misleading, as has been amply documented by Israëls and other Freud scholars such as Frank Cioffi, Jean Schimek, Anthony Stadlen and Allen Esterson. As for the Fleischl fiasco, Freud mentioned it publicly only once, in the famous analysis of his ‘Irma dream’ in The Interpretation of Dreams (Israëls, oddly enough, does not quote this important passage): ‘I had been the first to recommend the use of cocaine … and this recommendation had brought serious reproaches down on me. The abuse (Missbrauch) of that drug had hastened the death of a dear friend of mine … I had advised him to use the drug internally’ – i.e. orally – ‘only, while morphia was being withdrawn; but he had at once given himself cocaine injections.’ We know this to be a lie: it was Freud himself who had started administering cocaine injections to Fleischl in January 1885. Given that Freud had publicly fended off his colleague Erlenmayer’s ‘serious reproaches’ by denying having used the needle, his ostensible ‘admission’ of guilt turns out to be a particularly unsavoury attempt at self-exculpation.

What Lesley Chamberlain, in a letter in the same issue, takes to be self-analytic frankness is in reality an age-old rhetorical trick: confess one’s own flaws and weaknesses the better to appear modest, candid and therefore trustworthy. This device, which is so characteristic of Freud’s literary style, is a central piece of his overall ‘scientific’ strategy: since he adduced evidence that was not available to anyone but himself, it was all the more necessary for him to establish himself as a reliable witness. Was he? Robert Wilcocks, in his book Maelzel’s Chess Player: Freud and the Rhetoric of Deceit, has presented strong evidence that some of the associations adduced by Freud in his analysis of the ‘Irma dream’ could only have taken place at least two years after the actual dream (1895), thus suggesting that the self-analytic tour de force which opens The Interpretation of Dreams is in part a fiction designed to achieve maximum theatrical effect. The same seems to be true of Freud’s famous analysis of his forgetting of the name ‘Signorelli’ in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (judging from the documentation marshalled by Peter Swales in a forthcoming article).

Should we try, as Chamberlain suggests, to snatch Freud from the jaws of scientific defeat by declaring him a brilliant artist? I would resist such a predictable move. Freud’s was a rhetoric of science, not the playful rhetoric of poets and writers. Artists generally affirm the artefactual character of their products, whereas Freud consistently denied that the unconscious, Oedipal fantasies, castration anxiety, resistance, transference, and all the rest, were mere artefacts of his theories and of the analytic situation. His lifelong rejection of the charge that he had suggested (created) his own data has no other meaning, and it is simply not true, as Chamberlain asserts, that ‘for Freud the psychoanalytical dialogue only ever set out to establish an artefact, not a set of facts.’ Freud knew full well that such an admission would mean the demise of psychoanalysis as a theory, and the end of its attempted monopoly of the psychotherapeutic market.

Stephen Mitchell, in another letter in the same issue, protests that present-day analysts have not waited for uninformed outsiders like me to ditch Freud and his positivist assumptions, and that the ‘co-construction of reality in the analytic situation’ has been their bread and butter for the last thirty years. I suppose that what Mitchell has in mind here is the (post-Lacanian, post-hermeneutic) ‘narrativist’ reconstruction of psychoanalysis. Analysts, we are told by narrativists, do not concern themselves with the ‘historical truth’ of the stories told in their office, only with their ‘narrative truth’ – that is, the capacity of these fables to lend meaning to the material presented by the patient. I applaud this recognition of the artefactual character of the psychoanalytic exchange, but I would like to ask why these stories have to be told ‘along psychoanalytic lines’, as Roy Shafer claims. If any good story does the trick, why not tell a Jungian, Christian, Marxist or astrological one? Why tell a story at all? Why not give a placebo? Why not use amulets and talismans, as the French ethnopsychiatrist Tobie Nathan does (neither credulously nor cynically) with his immigrant patients. As long as Mitchell and his colleagues are not ready to face up to the fact that what they do in their offices is not fundamentally different from what Nathan does in his ethnopsychiatric consultation in the suburbs of Paris, or from what any GP does when she prescribes a homeopathic remedy or an antidepressant, they will not have advanced one step towards the theory of generalised artefactuality that we need in order to understand therapeutic efficacy.

Dany Nobus (in the same issue) should check his facts before accusing scholars of sweeping under the rug documents that do not fit their theses. As he indicates in his biography of Freud, Peter Gay did indeed consult ‘a handful of unpublished letters’ from Freud to his fiancée at the Sigmund Freud Copyrights, thus alerting Israëls to the existence of this cache of documents. But Gay, as he told Israëls, somehow overlooked the 300 transcripts which it was Israëls’s good luck to find. There is therefore no reason to suspect Gay of having ‘employed’ in a ‘truncated way’ transcripts that he never read in the first place. Nor is Nobus in any position to assert that Israëls made tendentious selections from the documents that he discovered, unless he has had independent access to these transcripts and can provide us with specific examples supporting his claim.

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen
University of Washington, Seattle

Discredited

Myron Kaplan tries hard (Letters, 1 June). But I did not say, as he alleges, that ‘weaponry originally captured by Israel and turned over to the CIA was later recycled by the CIA to the Mujahidin.’ That misleading little word ‘later’ implies that the recycling was a purely American matter and nothing to do with Israel. The sources I cited give us no reason to suppose any such thing. The true allegation and its Cold War context are clearly set out in one of the sources I mentioned, The Israeli Connection (1987) by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi:

The CIA and the Mossad have been collaborating on a scheme to deliver Soviet weapons (of which Israel has considerable stocks, captured in the Middle East over three decades) to groups that are fighting forces equipped with Soviet weapons … Five groups enjoying Soviet weapons delivered by Israel, and paid for by the CIA, are the Mujahidin in Afghanistan, the Contras in Central America, the Unita forces in Angola, the Habre forces in Chad, and the MNR forces in Mozambique.

There is no hint, here or anywhere else, that Israel and the CIA were acting independently of one another. Or is Kaplan seriously suggesting that the CIA led Mossad by the nose? Now there’s a novel thought.

Roger Hardy
London N19

Smelly

The Corby wind situation may be more complicated than either Iain Sinclair or Andrew Cowan believe (Letters, 22 June). My stepfather, brought up in Corby, tells me that while the prevailing wind did indeed take the smell in the direction of Weldon and Oundle, anybody who hung their washing out was likely, when they came to take it in, to find it covered in a layer of orange dust.

Justin Horton
Letchworth

What Foucault Surely Knew

John Bossy (LRB, 1 June) wonders whether Foucault knew that Cardano invented the universal joint. It would be surprising if he didn’t, given that the French for this useful device is cardan. I once had to have one changed at a garage near Chartres, on which occasion I also had the pleasure of learning the French for ‘inspection lamp’ – it has the lovely name baladeuse.

Roger Jones
Andover, Hampshire

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