Frank Kermode’s discussion of John Carey’s quest for the utile in art (LRB, 23 June) reminded me of Hal Foster’s disdainful piece on the Christo Gates in Central Park (LRB, 3 March). No, art probably cannot make the individual morally ‘better’, certainly not in any empirically demonstrable way. But these writers seem to be thinking primarily of the private experience of an individual when confronted with a so-called ‘work of art’. All three underemphasise the importance of the communal experience of art. The Christo Gates were an excellent example of this. Perhaps, as Foster suggested, they were negligible as pieces of contemporary art. But the aura of celebration in Central Park on those chilly grey days at the turn of the year, in the middle of a city which since 11 September 2001 has repeatedly been told to be afraid, and where public gatherings have periodically been banned (not least those planned in Central Park during the Republican Convention last year), was far from negligible. It may not have made any of the individuals thronging beneath the orange banners ‘better’, but for the city as a whole – or rather, the civitas, that shifting community of individuals which adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts – its value was palpable.
Bryn Mawr College
In his piece on camouflage, Patrick Wright mentions that the British artist Solomon J. Solomon made ‘steel-cored observation posts that resembled slender willow trees’ for the Western Front in the First World War (LRB, 23 June). To disguise them he used bark from an old willow tree taken from Windsor Great Park. In the Second World War, the development of high-altitude aircraft and cameras meant that much more sophisticated designs were required. The dazzle painting of warships in 1914-18 was superseded by subtle colour schemes harmonising with the atmospheric conditions in which the ships were operating. Away from the battle area the camouflage of industrial targets required not only paint and netting but the transformation of natural features such as lakes and rivers so as to confuse enemy bombers.
Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion, reviewed by David Simpson, gives a hostile account of the Zionist project (LRB, 23 June). She adopts the position of a binationalist, advocating a common future for Jews and Arabs in a single state. Jews fought for older versions of this position in the decades between the Russian pogroms of 1881 and the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. The venture foundered for the want of any reciprocating Arab interest. There is no real prospect for binational coexistence in any part of the Middle East today and binationalism now serves mainly rhetorical purposes, including the defaming of the Jewish state in the name of an impossible alternative.
Rose writes about Zionism as if it were a person with a mental illness. The form taken by this illness is said to be Messianism, which can be diagnosed by reference to statements made by individual Zionists. When it suits her, she is ready to take these statements at face value, and to treat them as representative. She lumps together the secular and the religious, and elides the quests for spiritual redemption and territorial expansion. Her notion of Messianism swamps all the necessary distinctions. Israel is in danger of destroying itself, she writes. This is her own counter-Messianism. A misleading account of Zionism as Messianism becomes the means by which a falsely catastrophist account can be given of Israel’s prospects.
Any effective critique of Zionism has to address the following questions (I will suggest some answers of my own).
First, did the Arabs have the right to resist the settling of Jews in Palestine on any terms? While Palestine was not a land without a people, it was a land that could accommodate that fraction of the Jewish people who wanted to settle there. There was more than enough room for both Arabs and Jews.
Second, was the creation of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine necessarily a violation of Palestinian rights? Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War One. It was then administered by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. The right of the Jews to a national homeland was part of the mandate’s charter. It is true that many Arab Israelis do not consider that they have the same stake as their Jewish fellow citizens in the Jewish state. But an adjacent, viable Palestinian state, and full civil rights in Israel, is the best set of circumstances for the indigenous peoples of that part of the Middle East.
Third, do the Palestinians bear any responsibility for their own stateless suffering? They rejected statehood for themselves in 1937 and then again in 1947. In 1948, instead of declaring a state, they made war on the new Jewish state, along with many Arab armies. More than 6000 Israelis lost their lives, 1 per cent of the total Jewish population. During the war, many Palestinians left – some willingly, many not. At about the same time, and in the months that followed, a similar number of Jews were driven out of Arab lands. Jordan ruled the Palestinians of the West Bank; Egypt, the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians were kept in camps, while the Jews from the Arab lands were absorbed into the new Jewish state.
Fourth, to what extent does anti-semitism play a part in the Middle East dispute? The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not an obstacle to the disappearance of Muslim anti-semitism; Muslim anti-semitism is an obstacle to the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Sceptics may consult the Hamas charter, available on the web, to satisfy themselves that this is so. It holds the Jews responsible, among other things, for the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, and for the First and Second World Wars.
Fifth, how did the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank come about? It was as a result of the Six-Day War, which was precipitated by Egypt’s closure of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and the eviction of UN peacekeeping troops from Sinai. During the war, Israel captured what are known as the Occupied Territories. It then invited its Arab enemies to peace talks, an invitation rejected by them at the Khartoum Summit. Israel’s hope that it could use the newly conquered territories as bargaining chips for peace faded. At this point, and not before, Israel’s settler movement emerged. It is the latest version of Zionism, and not the normative one. Its principal political patron, Ariel Sharon, has himself now repudiated it.
John Nottingham gallantly comes to the aid of Caroline Elkins, the author of Britain’s Gulag, but to no avail (Letters, 7 July). The more he insists on the legitimacy of grouping together the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru (KEM) populations in 1950s Kenya, the harder it becomes to use census evidence to argue that 300,000 ‘Africans’ (his word) were ‘unaccounted for’ (her words) during the Mau Mau period, and so must be assumed murdered by British forces.
Contrary to Nottingham’s assertion, each of the KEM populations was counted in both the 1948 and the 1962 census, as were the Kamba, Luo and Lahya (KLL) used by Elkins for comparison. There is no more reason to doubt the separate components of the KEM or KLL totals in 1962 than in 1948. It is not disaggregating the KEM numbers that ‘misrepresents the nature of the war’, but aggregating them, when their respective growth rates between 1948 and 1962 were so dramatically different: an increase of 56 per cent for the Kikuyu and 35.1 per cent for the Meru; the Embu declined by 15.7 per cent. Indeed, Elkins herself makes clear that Meru province experienced only a small amount of the ‘villagisation’ which she believes led to much of the supposed death rate.
Of the ‘unaccounted for’ 300,000, more than 80 per cent were Embu and Meru according to the census, even though these groups represented only a third of all Kikuyu speakers. If the British were busy killing Africans by the hundred thousand, why would they seek out the Embu and Meru, rather than the ethnic Kikuyu who were the core of the rebellion? As the demographic material is the only evidence adduced by Elkins to substantiate her claim that hundreds of thousands were killed, we cannot conclude that such mass murder happened.
I can’t agree with Christopher Prendergast that ‘Maigret, in his appropriately quiet way, slipped more or less definitively from public view’ in the mid-1960s, after the end of the TV series in which he was played by Rupert Davies (LRB, 7 July). Michael Gambon played the part in a 1992 TV series, and Maigret is still going strong on French television: since 1991, more than fifty 90-minute episodes have been screened. The colour schemes are just as subdued as in the 1960s version and there are no chases and no shouting; there is simply a lot of watching Maigret think.
David Bell’s survey omits one fascinating aspect of Napoleoniana, namely the positive or, at the very least, ambivalent view of Napoleon in British and American popular music (LRB, 23 June). This can be seen in ballads such as ‘The Bonny Bunch of Roses’, in which the roses are a symbol for the nations of the British Isles (‘For England has a heart of oak,/And England, Ireland and Scotland,/Their unity has never been broke’), but which ends: ‘The deeds of brave Napoleon/Shall conquer the Bonnie Bunch of Roses-O.’
In ‘Napoleon’s Dream’, Bonaparte is a symbol of liberty, despite his diversion of the ideals of the French Revolution towards imperialism:
You remember the day so immortal he cried
When we crossed o’er the Alps famed in story
With the legions of France whose sons were my pride
As I marched them to honour and glory
On the fields of Marien lo I tyranny hurled
Where the banners of France were to me first unfurled
As a standard of liberty all over the world
And a signal of fame cried Napoleon.
Like a hero I’ve borne both the heat and the cold
I have marched to the trumpet and cymbal
But by dark deeds of treachery I now have been sold
Though monarchs before me have trembled
Ye princes and rulers whose station ye bemean
Like scorpions ye spit forth venom and spleen
But liberty all over the world shall be seen
As I woke from my dream cried Napoleon.
In ‘The Grand Conversation on Napoleon’, a resurrection of the Napoleonic ideal is envisaged:
It’s long enough they have been dead,
The blast of war around is spread;
And may our sapling sprout again,
To face our daring foes,
For if fortune smiles without delay,
The whole world soon will him obey.
Donald Gardner asks about surviving copies of his book For the Flames, published by Fulcrum Press (Letters, 23 June). According to the international bibliographic database OCLC, there are copies at the libraries of Stanford University and the State University of New York at Buffalo, and in the British Library.
Lamont Library, Harvard University
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