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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 16 · 19 August 2004

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Where are Gracie and Rosie?

What makes David Wootton think that the ‘mysterious mathematics’ of conjoined twins raises questions which ‘have been ignored by philosophers’ (LRB, 22 July)? The moral dilemmas presented by such cases have been extensively debated in the field of applied ethics, usually as part of broader discussions about organ transplants, euthanasia, abortion and the treatment of severely disabled people. The implications of these cases for our understanding of personal identity have been at the heart of contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, usually in conjunction with a variety of real and imagined cases of brain-division, brain transplantation, bodily fusion and so on. Whether any of these discussions have advanced our moral or metaphysical understanding may, of course, be doubted; but that is a rather different charge.

As is often the case, ignorance of the relevant philosophical debates here nourishes fantasy. Take Wootton’s critique of the legal judgments made in the case of the conjoined twins Gracie and Rosie Attard. He rightly rejects the suggestion that Rosie ‘sucks the life-blood out of Gracie’, but then claims that a better image for their position in a shared body is that of passengers in an overcrowded lifeboat: ‘The lifeboat belongs equally to each one of them.’ The modern source of debates about the relation between human identity and embodiment is Descartes, who is often accused of advocating a simple (even simple-minded) dualism, characterising persons as mind conjoined with bodies. In his Meditations, he explicitly considers the suggestion that a person’s mind is lodged in her body as a pilot is in the ship whose course he is guiding, but rejects it on the grounds that it underestimates the intimacy of the union. Wootton’s image is more Cartesian than Descartes’s own. Even if it permits Rosie to be as much a ghost in this physiological machine as Gracie, both appear as lodged in their body, as if it is their (common) possession; so their body appears as possessed or haunted by their minds or psyches or souls – in any case, by them. Is this really the right way to acknowledge that humans are embodied, flesh and blood creatures?

Stephen Mulhall
Oxford

David Wootton’s statement that obstetricians face more difficult choices in cases of conjoined twins than they do in cases involving the priority as between a foetus and its mother may be simplistic. English law does favour the survival of a mother over an unborn foetus, but Shyam Kothan, in a recent piece in the British Medical Journal, records a case in which a fully competent and informed pregnant woman chose the life of her unborn child over her own: ‘Just as a runner passes on the baton to the next one in a relay race, so she gave birth to her daughter and died.’ Wootton suggests that had Rosie and Gracie been able to speak, if Gracie had protested, ‘Stop it [Rosie], you’re killing me,’ Rosie might well have responded: ‘It isn’t your life-blood, Gracie, it’s ours.’ However, Kothan’s example raises the possibility that either sister may have willingly sacrificed herself for the other.

Wootton’s claim that for ‘two centuries no one has felt the need to ask whether Byrne ought to be on display’ is incorrect: Hilary Mantel did just that in The Giant, O’Brien in 1998.

Debbie Lawlor
Bristol

Poles and Jews and the NKVD

Michael Costello is wrong to describe the Polish Home Army – the AK – as ‘lying low during the war’ (Letters, 22 July). Henri Michel concludes in La Guerre de l’ombre (1970) that the non-Communist Polish resistance ‘had cohesion and strength unparalleled in Europe’. In Poland between 1940 and 1944 ‘1300 German trains were derailed, 7000 locomotives, 20,000 railway wagons and 4000 vehicles were damaged … As early as April 1940 [Hans] Frank, the governor-general, was noting in his diary that many ammunition depots had been blown up – and he attributed this to the thousands of armed resisters.’ In the spring of 1943, the Home Army gave information to London about the V1 sites at Peenemunde on the Baltic, eventually capturing a rocket and conveying it to London in small pieces. General Franz Kutschera, the SS commander in Warsaw, was assassinated by members of the Home Army on 1 February 1944. The Home Army had the backing not only of the Polish government in exile in London, but of the four main non-Communist political parties which continued an active underground life in Poland itself.

Against this, the story of the ‘Communist’ Polish army under General Berling, formed by the Soviet army towards the end of the war, is a sad and sorry one. Its political raison d’être was to give the Soviet puppet ‘Lublin Committee’ a military presence in Poland as it was liberated, thus forestalling the return of the government in exile from London. In The Third Reich (2000), Michael Burleigh writes that ‘Home Army forces which co-operated with the Russians in liberating Lviv and Vilno were offered the choice of joining Berling’s army or being sent to the Gulag. Their officers were shot by the NKVD.’

Jeremy Mitchell
Edinburgh

A $459,279 Question

Karl Sabbagh shouldn't mistake scepticism for ostracism (LRB, 22 July). Readers wondering why mathematicians working on the Riemann Hypothesis haven't dropped everything to examine Louis de Branges's proof should take a look at mathworld.wolfram.com/RiemannHypothesis.html. They will learn, among other things, that the supposedly ostracised de Branges has received six National Science Foundation grants for his work on the hypothesis, to the tune of $459,279. Sabbagh can rest easy: de Branges's purported proof will be scrutinised. If it is valid, he will get the $1 million from the Clay Foundation, and mathematicians working in the field will get, they hope, new methods and ideas to exploit in the solution of similar problems.

Jerome Shipman
Potomac, Maryland

Do you do adda?

Dipesh Chakrabarty, quoted by Amit Chaudhuri in his review of Provincialising Europe, gets the pronunciation of the word adda wrong (LRB, 24 June). I have never heard a Bengali pronounce it other than as ‘aaddaa’: ‘uddah’ sounds like a Hindi pronunciation. Adda, which Chakrabarty defines as ‘the practice of friends getting together for long, informal and unrigorous conversations’, may be dead or dying in Calcutta, but it’s alive and well in Bangladesh. I once asked some female colleagues at the university I was visiting why they did not hold adda. They thought it would be nice but had no time for it. After the official working day was over they had to prepare the evening meal, feed the children and tutor them, then wait to eat, often till midnight, when their husbands came home for dinner after adda at the club.

J.A. Kirkpatrick
Portland, Oregon

Not Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun

Jerry Fodor worries too much about finding the ‘meaning’ of Wagner’s Ring (LRB, 5 August). It is about itself. The ‘Ring’ symbolises the Ring, circular in argument, constantly returning to its own narration, written backwards and scored forwards.

Fodor errs in claiming that in one of Wagner’s sources Gutrune ‘ends up married to, of all people, Genghis Khan’. The Nibelungenlied marries her off less exotically to Etzel, otherwise known as Attila the Hun.

David Cormack
London SE26

Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are often mentioned in the same breath, but the association may, in this case, be a little unfair to Attila. In the Nibelungenlied he is portrayed as a chivalrous and considerate husband, who encourages his wife to invite her family to stay, unaware that she is manipulating him in order to avenge herself on her brothers for the murder of Siegfried. In the massacre that follows, Attila’s son and dozens of knights meet their deaths, realising too late that they have been deceived.

Paula Woods
Plymouth

In the Edda and Volsunga sagas – Wagner's main sources – Gutrune, Hagen and Gunther all survive the deaths of Brünnhilde and Siegfried, only for Atli (Attila), Gutrune's second husband, to murder Hagen and Gunther for the Rhinegold. Gutrune then murders their sons, feeds them to Atli as a snack and kills him herself.

Carolyne Larrington
St John’s College, Oxford

Jerry Fodor writes that ‘the spring of the action’ in the Ring and the Oresteia is a ‘daughter’s relation to her father … Elektra’s to Agamemnon, Brünnhilde’s to Wotan’. Elektra appears solely in Libation Bearers, the Oresteia’s second play, by which time her father is dead. There is a stronger case for locating the ‘spring’ of the trilogy’s action in Agamemnon’s relation to his other daughter, Iphigenia. But she figures in the drama only through the grieving recollections of her mother and the chorus in Agamemnon (she has been sacrificed ten years earlier) and so does not seem fit as Brünnhilde’s counterpart either.

Sarah Howe
Christ’s College, Cambridge

‘Hampstead, 1945’

Fred Josephs writes to express his concern about the title of Bill Brandt’s 1945 nude, ‘The Policeman’s Daughter’ (Letters, 22 July). This was Brandt’s private name for the picture. When published it was captioned ‘Hampstead, 1945’. The house on Church Row where the picture was taken could have been the one where Count Karolyi and his wife were living at the time; they were close friends of Eva Brandt.

Paul Delany
Vancouver

What is ‘die Massen’?

Christopher Wintle suggests that ‘crowd’ is a better translation of Freud’s die Massen than ‘group’ or ‘the masses’ (Letters, 5 August). In Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse, Freud discusses the distinction between crowd and mass psychology with reference to McDougall’s The Group Mind (1920) and differentiates between Haufen (‘crowd’, as discussed by McDougall) and Masse, which he continually uses. It is precisely because of the ‘nebulous’ stance of Masse that Freud selects the word over Haufen.

Jeremy Whitehurst
Hounslow, Middlesex

Evolutionary psychology has all the answers

Stephen Mulhall castigates Martha Nussbaum for misunderstanding the bases of disgust and shame (LRB, 22 July). It seems to me that both Mulhall and Nussbaum are in fundamental agreement that these emotions are based on our hatred of our animality. Also, they are both informed by psychoanalysis: ‘Shame has its roots in infancy, in the clash between our primitive sense of omnipotence and our expression of powerlessness,’ as Mulhall tells us, referring to Nussbaum. I don’t know whether Nussbaum mentions evolutionary psychology, but Mulhall at least does not seem to be aware of this approach to the analysis of shame and disgust. In this view, shame and disgust are simply excellent adaptations for survival. A human being who learns instinctively to avoid possibly dangerous substances has a better chance of staying alive than one who happily ingests anything in sight (disgust is learned like language; a baby needs some incentive but then learns without prompting). If such evolutionary adaptations are a fundamental cause of our moral sentiments, then philosophers and psychoanalysts would do well to accept that many things associated with these sentiments can be studied and tested empirically, pace Kant and Freud.

J.P. Roos
University of Helsinki

The Unknown Prince

Wendy Doniger quotes Stephen Knight’s reference to Prince Philip as ‘a son of King Richard I unknown to history’ (LRB, 22 July). Richard I had a son called Philip, by an unknown mother.

Nicholas Gomez
Madrid

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