Vol. 25 No. 7 · 3 April 2003

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Why can’t we have what we want?

Adam Phillips (LRB, 6 March) starts his essay on the impossibilities of human desire by quoting Christopher Tietjens, the stoic hero of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, Parade’s End. Somewhere along the way Phillips might also have invoked another of Ford’s characters, the narrator of The Good Soldier, John Dowell. At the end of an aria on the story’s tragically mismatched couples, Dowell observes:

It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.

Is there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and take their ease in shadows and coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people … broken, tumultuous, agonised and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by death, by agonies?

Dowell is a confessed ‘sentimentalist’. When Phillips argues that ‘the big secret about sex isn’t quite that most people don’t like it, it’s that most people don’t like it because they are with people they aren’t really excited by or with people they are too excited by,’ it might be seen as not so much an answer to Dowell’s effusions (analysts eschew answers) as a reaffirmation of them – in resolutely unsentimental, and not entirely bleak, terms.

Ian Britain

On War and Intervention

Perry Anderson attacks the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it restricts nuclear weapons to an elite club (LRB, 6 March). This makes about as much sense as the common American notion that because criminals carry guns, the rest of us should be allowed to have them too. In defence of his claim, Anderson cites Kenneth Waltz’s ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better’, claiming that it has ‘never been refuted’. In fact, the most recent version of Waltz’s essay appears in The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, where the Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan subjects it to a powerful critique. Sagan shows that during the Cold War we got lucky – at many points things could have gone disastrously wrong – and asks whether impoverished, unstable Third World states will handle nuclear safety even as well as the US and USSR. Things have come to a pretty pass when the Left starts to sing the praises of nuclear deterrence. Whether attacking Iraq is the way to hinder the spread of nuclear weapons is another matter.

Matthew Rendall
University of Nottingham

Perry Anderson outlines three parameters for understanding the new anti-war movement: fear of terrorism, the power of the spectacle and a cultural distaste for the Bush Administration. May I suggest some alternatives? First, the end of the Cold War has not been accompanied by sustained peace and global justice. Rather, the world seems to have become a more dangerous place. It is this, rather than al-Qaida’s exploits, that has created a widespread sense of foreboding. The aggressive militarist turn taken by the Bush Administration since 11 September 2001 has accentuated this mood. Second, the triumph of neo-liberalism appears to have closed off all hope of social progress and equality – nationally, regionally and globally. The anti-globalisation movement has sought to defy this trend, but by its very nature ‘neo-liberalism’ is diffuse, difficult to pin down. More than that. As Anderson remarked in an interview two years ago, ‘who does not want to speak about America should be silent about globalisation.’ Just so: millions of people around the world are connecting the dots. Third, unease at the direction of US policy has opened up a fissure within the ‘global elite’ that has found its way downwards. That divisions within ruling groups can politicise – and indeed radicalise – the wider populace should hardly surprise a historian like Anderson. Huge numbers of people around the world are on to Washington’s game. Such knowledge is not so easily unlearned.

Maurice Coakley
Terenure, Dublin

The worldwide protests on 15 February were informed by feelings hardly mentioned by Perry Anderson. First, a global concern about the sense of entitlement endemic to the culture of the United States. This is not the liberatory sense of democracy born in 1776 but a ruthless greed for the maintenance of a particular way of life. Second, a deep disenchantment with the creaking political bureaucracies of the West. The inability of these bureaucracies to respond to recent cultural change has led to what is seen as depoliticisation. The depth of opposition to the war suggests that notions of depoliticisation are misplaced: the nature of political debate has now extended beyond the traditional realm of the political.

Mary Evans
University of Kent, Canterbury

I was surprised to read in Short Cuts of the ‘arrests of the ricin manufacturers in Wood Green’ (LRB, 6 March). Whether anything approaching ricin was really being manufactured in North London I doubt, but in any case the matter is currently before the courts. What I do know is that the timing of the whole story, like the troops at Heathrow, was part of the propaganda campaign for war.

Keith Flett
London N17

In Your Dreams

My old friend Jerry Fodor’s review of my Freedom Evolves (LRB, 6 March) put me in mind of a passage in Lee Siegel’s book on Indian street magic, Net of Magic:

‘I’m writing a book on magic,’ I explain, and I’m asked: ‘Real magic?’ By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts and supernatural powers. ‘No,’ I answer: ‘Conjuring tricks, not real magic.’ Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

I doubt it was his purpose, but I want to thank Fodor for providing a fine illustration of a term I introduced a few years back and have been hard pressed to define: hysterical realism. He has no truck with half-measures, scare quotes, proto-choices or quasi-minds. His ontology accepts only real choices, real freedom (‘metaphysical’ freedom) and real minds: as florid a case of hysterical realism as I have encountered. ‘One wants to be what tradition has it that Eve was when she bit the apple. Perfectly free to do otherwise. So perfectly free, in fact, that even God couldn’t tell which way she’d jump.’ In other words, ‘one wants’ a miracle. Speak for yourself, Jerry. The rest of us will settle for nature’s stage magic, if it can provide the powers we crave, and it can.

I also want to thank him for providing more evidence in favour of my claim that the fundamental aim of his work is not so much to make progress in cognitive science as to protect the mysteries of mind from encroaching science. Some people have thought that my diagnosis was, while tempting, too harsh, and under-supported by textual evidence. Now he tells us that artificial intelligence, evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience ‘barely exist’. Hysterical irrealism. In your dreams, Jerry. He loves to tell the world that ‘everything is up for grabs and is likely to remain so for a very long time.’ The longer the better, apparently, but meanwhile, evolutionary biology and the sciences of the mind are making steady inroads, and his contrary assurances are getting, well, a little shrill. Readers of my book can learn about this progress, and see how an evolutionary perspective can account for most of the things they hold dear in ‘tradition’ at the cost of letting go of some dubious jetsam. That’s not real enough for Fodor, but then he’s holding out for real magic or nothing at all.

Daniel Dennett
Tufts University, Massachusetts

Anything sets me off

Reading Peter de Bolla's review of James Elkins's Pictures & Tears (LRB, 6 March), I wondered whether it isn't the cinema that evokes the most extreme emotional responses in people. I was in the Rothko room at Tate Modern recently and realised that the emotion I was beginning to feel had been triggered by the sensation of having entered a darkened cinema, and in the cinema anything sets me off. Perhaps this is why so many people want to cry in front of a Rothko – they're really waiting for the main feature to come on.

Mark Crees
Sennen Cove, Cornwall

Is there anybody out there?

James Hamilton-Paterson's literary approach to the search for extra-terrestrial life (LRB, 6 March) – typified by the use of a trivial quotation from Calvin and Hobbes in dealing with the complex Fermi Paradox (if they exist, why haven't they contacted us?) – provides little information on the actual progress now being made. The search for signs of life on Mars, on the Jupiter moon Europa, and on other planets orbiting nearby stars is well underway, in both Europe and America, and is coupled with a deepening understanding of the origin of life on Earth. In addition, thanks to the privately funded Allen Telescope Array and the prospective Square Kilometre Array, we are near to being able to detect radio emissions similar to our own from enough targets to have a chance of finding a civilisation passing through the (presumably short) phase of radio-emitting technology.

Alan Penny
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot, Oxfordshire

I think we should be told

Tim Summers-Scott (Letters, 6 March) wonders ‘how, in the erect state, can you tell’ whether ‘the member is circumcised or not’. I suppose it is not impossible, but Pushkin’s original doesn’t present such a dilemma anyway. What Binyon translates, too literally, as ‘to put into her hand’ should have been ‘to offer’ or ‘present’, and the following lines are not so graphic as to suggest ‘erect’. Also, Wood’s review mistakenly places the final romantic struggle between Onegin and Tatiana in Moscow, although Binyon correctly places it in Petersburg.

Valentin Lyubarsky
Brooklyn, New York

The Decline of Bullshit

The terms ‘premature anti-Fascist’ and ‘premature anti-Nazi’ appear to have been applied not only to veterans of the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (Letters, 6 March) but also to others who had opposed Hitler from the early 1930s. In his autobiography John Platts-Mills recalls being ‘excluded from any form of normal war service by the stupidities of Bevin’. ‘An anti-Nazi history,’ he goes on to say, ‘was of no help and to have been prematurely anti-Nazi was a positive hindrance … we were condemned throughout most of the 1930s on the grounds that only Communists were against the Nazis and this hostility carried over into the war years.’

As for veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Platts-Mills recalls that ‘many lefties who had served in Spain were called up or were accepted when they volunteered. Several more got in only after a tussle with the authorities.’

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

Some thirty-five years ago, when I was a newcomer to the United States, an American friend adjured me to respect the meaning of ‘bullshit’ as humbug and not to confuse it with the word for nonsense. That word was ‘horseshit’.

Paul Romney
Baltimore, Maryland

Barred frae the Pantheon

The fifth line of the International Brigade’s Spanish Civil War song quoted by Frank Dux (Letters, 6 February) should surely read: ‘Que sea cubierta de gloria’ (‘Let it be covered in glory’).

A.J. Wade
London SW6

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