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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 2 · 22 January 2004

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Home Truths

I have just returned with my family from Manchester, where my parents, Jews in their seventies and eighties, have lived all their lives. One evening at dinner we had an argument about Israel which echoed Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinians as described by Ilan Pappe (LRB, 8 January).

Over dinner, my parents spoke of their grandparents in Poland, Russia and Romania, who, a hundred years ago, had fled anti-semitism for the West ‘wearing only the clothes they stood up in’. The conversation turned to the current situation. My father said that both sides were at fault, but that a peace could be achieved only if the settlements (filled with ‘those dreadful extremist Jews, many from America’) were evacuated. I said that I thought that the core of the problem was Israel’s continual failure to acknowledge the major Palestinian grievance, that the state was founded on the violent expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinian residents. Until, I added, Israel accepted the truth of 1948, there would be no reconciliation. My partner and I had just read Ghada Karmi’s In Search of Fatima, and I asked whether they saw any connection between the flight of their own grandparents and that of the Palestinians from Haifa, Jaffa, Safed and hundreds of other towns and villages whose homes and lands were immediately settled by Jews who remain there today.

At this point my father put his hands over his ears and got up from the table saying: ‘I'm not listening to any more of this. You've no right to come and visit and upset us with such talk. it’s not true. The Jews were given Palestine by the United Nations. Do you want to make me ill?’ He left the table and put the television on loud.

The conversation continued with my mother. She asked how they could possibly live in their Jewish community if they were to express or think such things. We made it clear that we were not asking them to become activists or even to express such views to others. I reminded her of the Jewish National Fund collecting box which we had at home on a cupboard shelf when I was young in the 1950s and early 1960s. I said that I now realised that this had been the agency through which Palestinian land and homes had been seized and redistributed to Jews as part of the Zionist policy to cleanse the land of Arabs. My point was that the truth had now been laid bare for those who were willing to listen and there was no longer any excuse for believing the Israeli narrative on which they and I had been brought up. At that point the shutters came firmly down.

I returned to London to find Pappe’s article, and I wondered whether the conflict will ever be resolved until enough Jews in Israel and elsewhere can look the truth of what happened in 1948 in the face.

Stephen Green
London NW5

On the Edge

Nicholas Spice's reinvention of the justifications for psychoanalysis is delightful (LRB, 8 January), but he lets his poetry run away with him when he says that psychoanalysis is a conversation on the edge of the abyss. People in psychoanalysis almost never talk about any of the things Spice says we must forget in order to live: the size of the universe, the mass murder of innocents, the impersonality of statistical laws. Instead we do the opposite. We blow up the most trivial events of our lives until they are huge with meaning. This may be very useful for getting a hold of one's life when it's out of whack. But it's not the abyss.

Michael Pollak
New York

I appreciated Nicholas Spice’s thoughtful piece on the psychoanalytic relationship, and recognised much of it, but I thought some unreality crept in. Spice speaks of the ‘refusal of the analytic conversation to accommodate present realities’, explaining this in terms of the analyst’s insistence on interpreting all contingencies as transference communications, when in fact they are not. In fact it would be mad to approve of such interpretations: the aim of interpretation is truthfulness, not some mutual game. Of course it is often hard to be certain when what is at stake is unconscious. More generally, Spice’s picture of the patient’s predicament is one in which new convictions about his or her moves of the mind seem to be lacking. No wonder this hypothetical patient feels so much at sea, and the conversation so unanchored. Over time, trust deepens through the insights that come from careful listening and courageous interpretation, and the capacity to receive them. To give a short answer to one of Spice’s questions: it is shared insight that in the end contains the strangeness of the analytic relationship.

Second, Spice is keen to emphasise the peculiarity of the analytic relationship. It is worth mentioning that disengaging, listening and interpreting are not unknown in ordinary life. In fact, romantic love becomes real love just when such recognition of the other’s otherness becomes an acceptable, if difficult, part of the relationship. The major difference is that in everyday life we give no one the implicit licence and contract to be our regular interpreter.

Finally, I agree that the patient is often in the dark about the analyst’s feelings towards him, and that this is inevitably frustrating (as is the abstinence for the analyst). Again, however, I think Spice overstates the case. Though it may well be bad technique to reassure the patient, and though there is bound to be, as a result of projection and transference, suspicion in the patient as to the analyst’s motives, it is sometimes possible for the patient to sense that the analyst knows from the inside the kinds of thing he interprets (that he too has an arsehole); that the analyst is not superior or aloof. The patient can come to believe that the analyst is genuinely interested in him, and on the side of a fuller, truer living of his life. The work of the analyst (listening, reflecting, interpreting, avoiding pulls into projected enactments with the patient, patience, perseverance) is real, and can sometimes be recognised as such, with gratitude, by the patient.

Michael Brearley
London NW3

Like Alan Bennett . . .

Like Alan Bennett I first came across Andy Goldsworthy's sheepfolds by chance, on the moor road between Brough and Middleton-in-Teesdale (LRB, 8 January). I fear, however, that Bennett may have been misled by his market gardener: I obtained a leaflet, produced by Cumbria County Council, giving the locations of the folds, from the Tourist Information Centre in Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Rob Close
Drongan, Ayrshire

I, too, was captivated by the video of planes flying through an apartment that Alan Bennett reports seeing at Kettle's Yard; it was part of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition at the Barbican about a year ago. Unfortunately there were no catalogues available, and, like Bennett, I failed to make a note of the artist's name. Perhaps it was the hypnotic effect of the planes. Later, I discovered that he is called Hiraki Sawa.

Richard Thomas
London W2

The title of Alan Bennett’s copy of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer was changed to ‘Man Eating Primer’. At my school, we had to manage with the Shorter Latin Primer. The covers of this had been amended, more palatably, to ‘Shortbread Eating Primer’.

Ian Leslie
Ludlow, Shropshire

2003 was notable for many things, but in particular I see that Alan Bennett and myself were on two of the same demonstrations in Central London. All the more reason, surely, to get an LRB banner for concerned readers to march behind on such occasions.

Keith Flett
London N17

Alan Bennett's references to the Iraq debacle were admirably restrained. Even so they should remind the previously loyal Labour voters among us to consider more carefully than usual how we vote at the next general election.

Graham Brown
King’s Lynn, Norfolk

Unlike Alan Bennett . . .

‘Shameful’ is the word that comes to mind on reading the extracts from Alan Bennett’s diary for 2003 – but for the opposite reasons from the ones he gives. Shameful to hear two democratic leaders, George Bush and Tony Blair, slyly likened to Hitler through their common use of a phrase; shameful that one who publishes his comments on current events should so unthinkingly parrot the charge that the Prime Minister is ‘parroting the American line’; shameful, way above all else, that he should wish to see published a paragraph, the relevant part of which reads: ‘The news breaks of the arrest of Saddam Hussein. It ought to matter, and maybe does in Iraq, it certainly does in America. But here? Whatever is said it does not affect the issue. We should not have gone to war.’ It ought to matter that the larger part of the British intelligentsia – at least that which is published – thinks like Bennett, but the emptiness of the views expressed makes it matter less and less. That the arrest of one who murdered and tortured on the scale of Saddam; who attacked two neighbouring states with the consequence of hundreds of thousands of deaths; who gassed tens of thousands of his own country’s inhabitants (they were never allowed the status of citizens); who took personal, sadistic delight in the tortures he inflicted on his opponents; who sought to build up stocks of weapons of mass destruction so that he could cow the region; who starved his country to build palaces – that this should not matter to the British, who joined the war against his hideous regime, is a stupefying conclusion to come to at the end of a year’s diary writing. That this should be the response – world-weary, cynical, smugly and narrowly certain of the outcome and meaning of a series of events whose consequences for good and ill cannot be known but which has included, at the very least, the nailing of one monster of a man – is shameful. That some readers would find this response agreeable is shameful. That so many who opposed this war should be so immured in the righteousness of their contempt for Bush and Blair as to be incapable of recognising that the world as a whole, and Iraq in particular, is the better for the capture of Saddam Hussein, is shameful.

John Lloyd
London NW3

Alan Bennett's eminence as a dramatist is beyond question. It is a pity therefore that his diary displays the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl.

Colin Armstrong
Belfast

Caro Amico

Anyone who knows anything worth knowing about Conrad is aware, as John Sutherland (LRB, 4 December 2003) seems not to be, that Frederick R. Karl's 1979 biography is not the standard one. As soon as Zdzislaw Najder's masterly account appeared in 1983, Karl's ungainly, error-ridden tome, poorly received by Conrad scholars, was thrown in the scholarly dustbin. A glance – yes, just that – at Conrad scholarship over the past fifteen years would establish this. But, then, oh my! Judicious argument? Keeping up to date with scholarship? Ferreting out facts? There's no time for such sorry fustian in the world of the canny academic careerist.

And when he pronounces on that topic how convincing Sutherland is. Collected Letters! Humph. How not to do it, m'dear. Choose your horse and ride him. Listen to the whisperings of the vulgus mobile. Yes, right enough, they're little interested in serious things, but, ah, you know, they do control the purse strings. Lift up your eyes to bestsellerdom. No hard spadework needed. Attack rather than argue. Even whip poor benighted old Leavis again. Dead horses don't write letters.

In the pleasant world Sutherland conjures up for the scholar on the make, count on flitting pleasantly from library to library with money bulging in your pockets. Boston today, Sydney tomorrow. Rome for lunch, caro amico? That's the way to do it, mate. But oops, better not do that at all. Archival stuff? Pure bunkum. Email's the watchword. And what delights Sutherland promises here: a future filled with the collected – oh, no, never again that hoary thing! – the selected (on popular principles, to be sure) correspondence of the likes of immortals such as Kingsley Amis.

Better yet, in a world in which Tolkien is the favourite author of every semi-literate in the United Kingdom, someone who can write even worse can't be far from the top of the bestseller list. Jump on him after, of course, you've sniffed the shifting winds of popularity. You'll be the darling of the Senior Common Room. Rapid promotion awaits, maybe even a spot on the telly. And, best of all, well-paid literary journalism, that tried and trusted and oh-so-up-to-date way of showing how really empty your head can be. Little effort involved, of course, and since tempus fugit, if you're lucky, no one will even notice.

J.H. Stape
Co-Editor (forthcoming), The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, Paris

John Sutherland writes: I am not sure what J.H. Stape’s points are, nor do I recognise the me he describes. He describes himself as the ‘co-editor (forthcoming) of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad’. The founding and still serving editor of that series, Frederick R. Karl, is described by Stape as the author of a biography which discerning Conradians (excluding, presumably, Karl himself) consigned to the ‘scholarly dustbin’ (Karl, misguided man, consigned his working papers for the biography to the archives of the University of South Carolina). With a team exuding this kind of editorial harmony and good fellowship I begin to understand why the Conrad Letters have taken so long to complete.

Addictable

Art Pepper was indeed, as Terry Castle has it (LRB, 18 December 2003), ‘one of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time’, ‘a deliriously handsome lover boy’ and ‘a life-long dope addict of truly satanic grandeur’ – though his was hardly ‘the most ravishing tone ever heard on alto’ (Johnny Hodges, surely). But Pepper’s extraordinary autobiography Straight Life is not to be read straight. Addictable to everything and anything, self-deluding as well as self-destructive, Pepper tells it not as it is, but as he needs it to be. He is, by his own account, not just a brilliant and dramatic improviser (true) but also the handsomest cat alive, the greatest lover, the hardest con, the most monumental addict. Terry Castle is distressed that Ben Ratliff should have cast doubt on this legend, focusing on his scepticism about Pepper’s account of the recording of Art Pepper meets the Rhythm Section, which Ratliff rightly ranks among the 100 most important jazz recordings. As Pepper tells the tale, he hasn’t touched his horn in six months, the mouthpiece has rotted away, and he has to patch it together with sticky tape. So, of course, he goes into the bathroom and fixes a huge amount, then turns up at the session totally unprepared, not even knowing the names of the familiar tunes that the rhythm section runs down for him. And, of course, he creates a masterpiece. Thus the legend, but the discography reveals that in the previous six months Pepper had participated in no fewer than 20 recording sessions, 11 of which he led or co-led himself. It was probably the most prolific phase in his recording career. Straight Life is celebrated, above all, for its honesty. As Castle allows, somewhat awkwardly, ‘even when an autobiographer is prone to distorting or embellishing the facts, it is still possible to locate some core emotional truth in the writing.’ But this honesty is a purely aesthetic quality. It has something to do with not sparing yourself. It has nothing to do with telling the truth.

Don Locke
Leamington Spa

First Fuck

Geoffrey Ridley Barrow takes me to task for overlooking the Penguin Dictionary of English (Letters, 8 January). So I did, but so too did Robert Burchfield in his introduction to the A-G volume of the OED supplement; I ought to have used quotation-marks. Conversely, I now find that fired in the sense of ‘dismissed’, though given in quotation-marks, was in fact Simon Winchester’s own word, not Henry Sweet's.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Oxford

‘Die Lorelei’

Thomas Laqueur is not quite right when he quotes from the third verse of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Lorelei’: ‘ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten’ (LRB, 4 December 2003). What Heine wrote was ‘aus alten Zeiten’. Uralt (‘most ancient’) is in the song Silcher made out of the poem, one of the most popular German songs of the 19th century, worldwide. In the Nazi period, Heine’s name was not mentioned; the song was always credited to an ‘author unknown’.

Manfred Schulz
Herford, Germany

De Staël: Some Facts

Engaged as I am in translating Nicolas de Staël’s letters into English, I welcomed the depth and breadth of the late Richard Wollheim’s piece on the recent retrospective in Paris (LRB, 24 July 2003). However, I would like to revise his account of the De Staël family’s move to ‘comparative comfort’ in Belgium at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. The family fled St Petersburg for Poland in 1919. De Staël’s father died in 1921, his mother the following year. He was eight years old. The three orphaned children, left alone with their Russian nanny, were sent to a Jesuit college for the children of Russian émigrés in Belgium before being adopted by the Fricero family in Brussels. The poignancy of his enforced move from St Petersburg haunts De Staël’s painting, just as the loss of origins haunts his letters. De Staël spent the few months before his suicide in March 1955 alone in a studio overlooking the fortress at Antibes – the subject of a 1955 painting – which surely recalls the fortress in St Petersburg, the city in which he spent the first five years of his life.

Anne-Marie Smith
Paris

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