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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 7 · 1 April 2004

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After All He’d Been Through

In his weird apologia for Hutton, Blair e tutti quanti, Patrick Wormald (Letters, 18 March) assures us that he has it ‘on authority close to the (very) top that the first Downing Street reaction [to Gilligan’s dawn broadcast] was one almost of incredulity that the BBC should have said anything so silly, then sullenly refused to take it back’. So whose authority does he have it on? Given that it can’t be Blair himself, we can but assume that it’s the next one down in the hierarchy, John Prescott, a man eminently well qualified, on his past record, not to spot that had the BBC actually said something ‘silly’, as opposed to something seriously damaging, there could have been no reason to get excited by it at all. Let us grant Alastair Campbell and Co the wit to grasp, at the very outset, that Gilligan’s claim was the opposite of silly. As for Wormald’s friendly view of Campbell, he might be asking himself how it is that a former Downing Street PR man should, the moment he has got back into civvies, take to the boards, as described by Thomas Jones in the same issue, in a performance whose meretriciousness appears all of a piece with the ugly role he had earlier been playing in government.

Ivor Potts
Sherborne, Dorset

Memories of Baghdad Bob

Not being Daniel Dennett, I wouldn’t presume to comment on the ridiculousness or otherwise of Jerry Fodor’s denial of the possibility of a science of consciousness (Letters, 18 March). I would, however, like to take issue with Fodor’s claim that ‘you can’t argue with a novel.’ He uses the opening sentence of Moby-Dick as an example of the kind of statement it would be absurd to dispute. And, yes, ‘I won’t!’ would certainly be a silly way for a reader to respond to ‘Call me Ishmael’; but to ask ‘Why should I call you Ishmael?’ is a potentially fruitful question. Indeed, ‘arguing with novels’ isn’t a bad way to describe the business of literary criticism, or one aspect of it, and Fodor himself goes on to argue with Dan Lloyd’s novel – as a piece of philosophical exposition but also as a work of fiction – to devastating effect.

Mary Elkins
Stockport

Thatcher’s Legacy

I disagree with Ross McKibbin (LRB, 18 March): Thatcher was not on the side of history. She had no political philosophy worthy of the name. It was convenient for her to voice Keith Joseph's half-baked economic liberalism, itself taken from a boiled down version of Hayek. But a close study of Thatcher's speeches reveals that she never really understood it. Her driving force, after the miracle of the Argentinian victory, was the belief that if you cut public expenditure enough and distributed what you had saved to the electorate in the right way, you would be returned for ever. This worked, till New Labour promised to do likewise. By this time she had stumbled into the Poll Tax, and Tory sleaze was reaching a point where the electorate wanted a change of government.

The long-term tragedy is that by this time there was a need to spend far more on public services than New Labour could bear to contemplate. Then the government made its own disastrous gamble on war without regard for the cost. Thatcherite ignorance and opportunism may well have denied us the chance to save what is left of Old Labour's inheritance. In what sense can this be what history had in mind?

William McCarthy
House of Lords

Tales of Goffman

Jenny Diski’s portrait of Erving Goffman and her characterisation of the period from the late 1950s to the 1970s precisely captures the flavour of those fermentative days (LRB, 4 March). I came to know Goffman in the late 1950s when he and I were ‘shaking the foundations’ of, respectively, sociology and psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. We became competitive ‘friends’, if such were possible with this Cheshire-Cat-smiling porcupine.

Many of my experiences with Goffman revolved around Saturday night dinner parties. Always tinkering with the elements of personal interchange, Goffman frequently toyed with me regarding invitations to these parties. He would invite a young sociological student, Stewart Perry, with whom I shared an office, and his wife, a sociologist, to dinner proper. I would be invited, not to dinner, but as a post-prandial guest. Naturally, being as prickly as Goffman, but refusing to succumb to his baiting, I would politely decline. The slight must surely have delighted him.

Goffman was then ‘outsourcing’ himself at St Elizabeth’s Hospital, beginning the research that eventually led to Asylums. At the same time, I was directing a ward of chronic schizophrenics at NIMH, developing treatment based on a structured programme of habilitation and rehabilitation. My maverick efforts provoked great controversy in the face of the prevailing psychoanalytic and ‘permissive’ orientation of the NIMH. I felt that Goffman and I shared a sort of intellectual kinship. Both of us viewed human behaviour as the ludic, or play-acting, presentation of self.

My last encounter with Goffman must have been during the final year of his life. We bumped into each other at a professional meeting, where he greeted me with a typical smiling riposte: ‘I always thought I was going to hear much more of you! What happened?’ ‘How is your wife?’ I asked. ‘She killed herself,’ he replied matter-of-factly. ‘Finally escaped you,’ I rejoined. (She had made several suicide attempts while we were at NIMH.)

Jordan Scher
New York

Shouldn’t analysts keep mum?

Frank Kermode draws attention to the professional boundary violations that occurred during Donald Winnicott’s analysis of Masud Khan (LRB, 4 March). Winnicott’s apparent lack of success in engaging Khan’s rage and destructiveness may have been influenced by his denied disillusionment with his own father and his analysts, James Strachey and Joan Riviere. In his biography of Winnicott, Robert Rodman contrasts Winnicott’s ruthless independence as a psychoanalytic theorist with his view of the analyst as a ‘good enough mother’ who allows himself to be used subjectively in order to facilitate growth in the patient. Rodman also refers to Winnicott’s stinginess with money in his transactions with Strachey, but the letters that Strachey exchanged with his wife Alix in 1924-25, when she lived in Berlin, suggest routine breaches of confidentiality and sarcastic denigrations of Winnicott as a patient. Khan’s private disappointment with Winnicott as an analyst was not echoed by his public idealisation of Winnicott as a theorist and a non-intrusive maternal presence. If Winnicott successfully defended himself against disillusionment with his father as well as his analysts, it might have been difficult for him to confront Khan.

James McCarthy
New York

Frank Kermode notes that Robert Rodman may have overlooked the details of a romantic involvement that Clare, Donald Winnicott’s second wife, may have had in the years before they married. A far more important omission, however, is Rodman’s neglect of the professional collaboration between Clare and Donald. Clare Britton began her career in social work in 1941 with troubled evacuees in an Oxfordshire hostel. Donald was the consulting physician and Clare was assigned to help the untrained hostel staff make use of this brilliant, eccentric psychoanalyst.

Their collaboration produced two co-authored articles as well as the personal relationship which Rodman describes in considerable detail. Both went on to give testimony to the Curtis Committee, which in turn led to the formation of Children’s Services throughout the UK. Until Winnicott’s death in 1971, they continued to teach together at the London School of Economics and became the only people awarded honorary membership by the Association of Child Care Officers. Clare, incidentally, underwent a stormy analysis with Melanie Klein.

Undoubtedly, this collaboration had a major impact on Winnicott’s work and thinking. After the war, he largely abandoned the practice of child analysis, instead transforming his Oxfordshire experience into a model of therapeutic consultation. He was certainly aware of Clare’s creative use of transitional objects (which she simply referred to as ‘first treasured possessions’) with the evacuated children and he directly acknowledged his debt to her for the term ‘holding’ which, as Kermode notes, was one of the cornerstones of his theory.

Joel Kanter
Silver Spring, Maryland

Bravo l’artiste

Agnes Hodgson links the tax-averse character of the British electorate to the biased reporting of the Murdoch press (Letters, 4 March). Here in France there is no Murdoch press, but the present government swept to power promising tax reductions and is busy cutting unemployment benefit and health expenditure. Le Monde is, no doubt, more balanced in its reporting than the Sun. It does, however, publish the Eurostat statistics on comparative earnings across Europe. The disposable income of a typical family employed in manufacturing in low-tax Britain, corrected for purchasing power parity and expressed in standard monetary units, is 44,478; that of their French equivalent a mere 34,805.

Leaders of the French Socialist Party are privately impressed by Blair's record, and would like to imitate it, but in this election year they are constrained by the anti-British bias of the French electorate and the threat from the Trotskyist left.

John Roberts
Isle-en-Dodon, France

Infomercial

In her piece on Sappho (LRB, 8 January), Emily Wilson devotes only two sentences to Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap, in which she gives away the novel’s ending and misuses the term ‘zipless fuck’. I feel obliged, as the professor of classics who served as Jong’s consultant for Sappho’s Leap, to inform your readers of what I think Wilson should have called to their attention. I would, for example, have expected Wilson, a classicist, to have explained how Jong transforms Sappho into a female Odysseus on a voyage of self-discovery. Jong infuses her novel with echoes of Homer’s epic, as her Sappho travels to Delphi, Egypt, the Land of the Amazons, the Land of the Dead, the Island of the Philosophers and the Land of the Centaurs, and enriches the narrative with her own elegant adaptations of Sappho’s fragments from the original Greek and with her own creations written in the style of Sappho. Far more than a series of sexual adventures culminating in a zipless fuck, Sappho’s Leap exemplifies the classical tradition, in which Jong introduces us to archaic Greece through the eyes of a famous female poet.

Robert Ball
University of Hawaii

The Case for ID Cards

M.F. Burnyeat should not confuse a worst case with a general case (LRB, 19 February). It may be little short of lethal to lose – or to have stolen – a passport in Russia, but that doesn't necessarily mean that theft will flourish if Blunkett introduces ID cards in Britain. I lost my Luxembourg residence card while travelling in Paris, and a straightforward request to the appropriate ministry brought forth a replacement.

These photo ID cards are universally used in Western Europe. They afford the police a convenient way (as in Russia) to know who people are and where they live, which is seen as a reasonable provision, and are a handy and acceptable way to identify oneself, for example, in banks or to gain access to secure premises. No one here thinks of them as anything but an obvious and convenient precaution which enables us to demonstrate that we are who we say we are.

Colin Buckland
Luxembourg

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