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Letters

Vol. 25 No. 6 · 20 March 2003

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How to Read Holbein

John Bossy rightly dismisses the ‘ley lines’ theory proposed by John North as an explanation for the details of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (LRB, 20 February), but doesn’t discuss the suggestion in the National Gallery catalogue that the Lutheran hymnbook, the lute with the broken string and the little arithmetic book, open at a page that begins with the word dividirt (‘divide’), all refer to the rift between the Roman and Lutheran Churches that the Bishop de Selve was anxious to see healed. The arithmetic book is Peter Apian’s Eyne Newe unnd Wolgegrundte Underweysung aller Kaufmanns Rechnung (1527). It may well be there simply because of its section on division, but it has other claims to significance. It was the first arithmetic textbook written in German, and its method of division introduces what can only be read as decimal fractions, nearly a century before Stevinus produced his treatise on them. Apian uses a rather clumsy notation, writing halves, quarters and eighths as 05, 025 and multiples of 0125. It was Apian who first drew the tails of comets pointing away from the sun and not streaming out behind them. He also showed how the position of the Moon among the fixed stars could give a global measure of time, more than two hundred years before accurate lunar tables and precision instruments made it a practical possibility. On its title page, the book prints a number pattern ‘discovered’ much later by Blaise Pascal and since known as Pascal’s Triangle.

John Glenn
Grantham

On War and Intervention

Perry Anderson’s picture of the mass movement against the war in Iraq as swayed only by anti-Bush feeling, media hype and fear (LRB, 6 March) fails to recognise the extent to which opposition is spurred by a concern not to add further to the civilian suffering already caused by sanctions. This misery has not, in fact, received the ‘spectacular’ media coverage that Anderson presents as a key factor in prompting popular protest, but it has nonetheless weighed heavily with those opposed to war. And many of these people, despite Anderson’s claims to the contrary, are in favour of lifting sanctions as a first step to a liberalisation that might lead to the ousting of Saddam Hussein by the Iraqi people themselves.

Anderson also underestimates how many in the peace movement appreciate the measure of truth in his denunciation of the ‘international community’ and the role of the UN as an instrument of US hegemony. But they can see, too, that the UN is not simply the tool of the Bush Administration – as the strength of the opposition to war (whatever its rationale) on the part of some members of the Security Council makes clear. In any case, telling us how much more sophisticated we should be in our talk about the impending war is not a strategy for political action. Nor is observing the logic, impeccable though it may be, that points out that there is no basis for denying nuclear weapons to Iraq or North Korea while condoning those of Israel or white South Africa. If one can read any political advice into Anderson’s analysis, it is that the peace movement should aim at ridding the world of the nuclear oligopoly of powers to which it (and the UN) is currently held in thrall. So how do we go about doing that?

Kate Soper
Rodmell, Sussex

Perry Anderson's alternative perspective on the Iraq situation is too sanguine about the weakness of al-Qaida. Military defeat, as in Afghanistan, is not decisive against a terrorist organisation whose operations work at a psychological level. The aims of their terror are at least threefold: to terrorise Western economies into deep depression by crushing consumer confidence; to terrorise Western Governments into rescinding civil liberties; to terrorise the US Administration into doing something unwise in the Middle East that will push up oil prices. Osama bin Laden, before taking up terrorism, appears to have been an economic nationalist who believed that the oil price needed to be quadrupled – or more – in order that the flow of capital between the West and the Middle East might be reversed. On all three counts it seems to me that al-Qaida is close to succeeding.

Dick Pountain
London NW1

Perry Anderson neatly reverses the roles of prosecution and defence in his analysis of the arguments about the impending war on Iraq. But demolishing a bad argument against a war is not the same as making a good argument for it, and the lack of good arguments for the war is the most common reason given for opposition to it. A second UN resolution would be thought by many to resolve this difficulty. The argument goes like this: ‘Nothing I have heard so far has made a convincing case for a war, but maybe I am not expert enough or the evidence needs to be kept confidential. So if the case convinces an independent panel of experts I shall accept it.’ In the absence of anything better, the Security Council is cast as the panel of experts.

Oliver Pretzel
London E8

Conor Gearty focuses on the internal motivations for Blair’s uncritical support of Bush (LRB, 20 February), but does not discuss the external factors that force the Prime Minister to make British foreign policy subservient to that of the United States. First among these is Britain’s use of the Trident II D5 nuclear weapons system, designed and built by the US. It is inconceivable that Britain could fire a Trident missile without the knowledge and permission of the United States. Indeed, were Britain to break with the US and side with its fellow ‘Old European’ nations in the current crisis, the United States could demand that Britain repatriate the Trident missiles. Blair may be a man of strong moral conviction with regard to Saddam Hussein (who isn’t?) but as long as Britain uses a US-made nuclear weapons system, the British Prime Minister will do whatever the President of the United States wills.

Neil Mackenzie
San Francisco

Only in a Cold Climate

Arif Azad (Letters, 20 February) repeats precisely the error I criticised in my essay: that of believing that the functioning of Pakistani democracy can somehow be separated from the nature of Pakistani society, and the power structures and attitudes to power within that society. Closely connected with this is the belief that somewhere there exists a progressively minded Pakistani people who, if liberated from the military, would act as the basis for stable democracy. The whole of Pakistani history serves to confute these beliefs.

Azad's portrayal of political processes in the North-West Frontier Province is a travesty. As he must know, the bitter differences between the Pakistan People's Party and the Awami National Party date back at least to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's PPP Government of the 1970s and its ousting of the ANP from power in the Frontier. Incidentally, to this end Bhutto himself fostered the radical Islamists who now form the core of the MMA alliance in the Frontier. Musharraf exploited these differences, he did not create them, any more than he created the fissiparous tendencies of Pashtun political culture.

Finally, in what he wrote about the MMA's success, Azad makes a common error in treating the masses as puppets for military manipulation, with no will, opinions or sentiments of their own. As I pointed out, given developments in Afghanistan since 2001, the Pashtuns have good reason to feel aggrieved; and the expression of this in the form of politicised religion is a Pashtun tradition which goes back more than a century and a half, and has appeared repeatedly in recent generations.

Anatol Lieven
Washington DC

Arif Azad is mistaken in asserting that Pakistanis were tolerant Sufis before the introduction of Afghan-style Islamic fanaticism by the military. First, Sufism is by no means necessarily moderate and peaceful, as any look at anti-colonial movements in Sindh or the NWFP will demonstrate. Second, in Pakistan Sufism existed only within the larger framework of an orthodox Sunni Islam which had a strong hold on the vast majority of the population long before the Afghan war. Pakistani clerics have been inspired by the conservative textualism of the Deobandi school since the mid-19th century, while the writings of the self-taught Pakistani cleric Mualana Maududi remain immensely influential, not only in Pakistan, but all over the world. In fact, his disciples teach in many of the madrasahs where the Taliban were trained, and in this sense fundamentalism travels from Pakistan to Afghanistan, not the other way round.

Charles Lindholm
Boston University

Just Deserts

The composer of the musical setting of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales with which Clara Butt entertained the Edwardians who flocked to hear her – a year or two later than E.S. Turner suggests (LRB, 20 February) – was Liza Lehmann. Perhaps best known for her song cycle In a Persian Garden, Lehmann deserves better than to be described as a writer of ‘tunes’. She was a quite prolific and successful composer of songs, a field in which women found it difficult to achieve recognition. A 1997 Hyperion recording of a number of Lehmann’s songs includes the Cautionary Tales.

John Theakstone
Blackburn

Ill-Fitting Skimmer

Your caption to the photograph of Henry Cabot Lodge arriving in Vietnam (LRB, 20 February) says that Lodge ‘wears one of those Gene Hackman/Popeye Doyle pork-pie hats and makes a curious glad-handing gesture with a wry twist of the mouth’. The civilian halfway down the stairs behind Lodge (who looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson) is wearing an identical straw hat, leading one to suspect that the hats were government-issue headgear handed out to protect Western pates from the tropical sun. It seems obvious from the photo that Lodge’s ill-fitting skimmer has been tipped (a proper Bostonian such as Lodge would never wear a hat at such a jaunty angle) and that he’s reaching up to straighten it while grimacing, the way a man might when he feels his hat going awry.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York

I think we should be told

Tim Summers-Scott (Letters, 6 March) admits to an ‘ignorance of life’ regarding erect penises. I am happy to inform him that many uncircumcised examples remain fully covered when erect.

David Pollack
Leicester

Superflux

Jeremy Noel-Tod’s meticulously close reading of a single stanza by Geoffrey Hill (LRB, 6 March) would have been an even better example of how these things should be done if he had spotted the provenance of the word ‘superflux’. In Hill’s Western Front context, it might very well be ‘a word which, horribly, blends the bleeding men with the rain and mud’. But it also contains Hill’s memory of King Lear. On the blasted heath, Lear admonishes himself:

Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Clive James
London SE1

Born in the USA

Colm Tóibín (LRB, 20 February) mentions the ‘French composer’ George Antheil, but Antheil was an American pianist and composer born in Trenton, New Jersey to a family of German origin.

Michel Carton
Franqueville St Pierre, France

For Want of an Optician

My eye slipped (LRB, 6 March). It was not Titian who advised Pontormo to ‘show much blood and nails’ when working for the Spaniards, but Michelangelo.

Peter Campbell
London SW19

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