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Letters

Vol. 28 No. 21 · 2 November 2006

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Profumo and Co

It is interesting to note that John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler is cited by the Egyptian radical Muslim, Sayyid Qutb, in his enormously influential book Milestones, as an example of the way in which what he calls modern ‘jahili’ societies (those that do not ‘follow Islam’) are to be condemned for limiting morality to economic and sometimes political affairs while ignoring the sexual (LRB, 19 October). Given the huge circulation of the Arabic edition, it is likely that the names of Profumo and Keeler are much better known in the Muslim world than in the English-speaking one.

Roger Owen
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Ian Gilmour isn’t correct when he states that the journalists jailed as a result of the Vassal case had no sources. A former colleague of mine in Special Branch was their informant. He was not involved in the case personally, and his allegation that Vassal had a wardrobe full of women’s clothing was pure invention.

I recall that when Special Branch informed MI5 of Christine Keeler’s allegations, we were told that the sex lives of ministers were no business of proles like us. More culpably, the prime minister was also kept in the dark, and subsequently made to seem like a gullible fool.

James Francke
Littlestone, Kent

Bush’s Useful Idiots

Robert Boyers and Harold Jaffe (Letters, 19 October) take issue with my characterisation of the intellectual scene in the US today, pointing out that there are many dissenting voices and much opposition to the Bush administration. They are of course correct and I did not wish to suggest that a blanket of universal conformity had fallen across the land, silencing or muffling every expression of criticism. But Jaffe’s complaint, at least, is beside the point: I am well aware that Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and others on the American left continue to write what they have been writing for many years, berating ‘the corporatised media’ for excluding them while offering an interpretation of American politics whose credibility rests on that very exclusion. They were not my subject.

Boyers offers a more interesting objection. I failed to take into account, he notes, the many liberal intellectuals who publish in Harper’s, Daedalus, or the journal Boyers edits, Salmagundi, not to mention commentators like Frank Rich and Paul Krugman in the New York Times. But for these purposes Krugman and Rich, like Seymour Hersh, Michael Massing and Mark Danner, are journalists: investigative journalists. And it was part of my point to suggest that it is just such journalists who have taken up the role and the responsibilities abandoned by mainstream liberal intellectuals. So on this we agree. As to the contributors to Salmagundi and elsewhere: it is a cruel truth that any of the writers I named in my essay can reach more readers in one New York Times Magazine essay, or televised chat-show appearance, than a dozen contributions to Salmagundi (circulation c.5000) can hope to attract in a decade. This is not an evaluation of quality but of visibility. And when we are discussing the influence (such as it is) of the public intellectual, this is what counts.

Tony Judt
New York

Vote Uribe!

If Michael Taussig chooses to see Colombia in terms of plastic surgery and liposuction that is his choice, but I find his Diary supercilious (LRB, 5 October). Some of what he says is simply not true. ‘The Ministry of Health basically does not exist,’ Taussig writes. It is inadequate, as in all poor countries, but it does exist. My cleaning lady last year had heart surgery through the public health service. No doubt she was lucky, but the coverage is not so contemptible.

‘Virtually no legal opposition is possible in Colombia, only the armed opposition of the guerrilla,’ he writes. The last presidential election in May 2006 returned Álvaro Uribe with a majority of more than 60 per cent, but the left opposition candidate of the Polo Democrático Alternativo came second with 22 per cent, one of the left’s highest scores ever. The mayor of Bogotá, the second elected post in the country, and the governor of Valle, the department Taussig is mostly writing about, are from the opposition. The mayor of Medellín, whose popularity rating is even higher than Uribe’s, is an independent, elected on a civic ticket. Much of the press is critical of Uribe. The peace agreement with the paras is the subject of intense controversy.

Uribe has extradited to the US an unprecedented number of narcos, and some of these undoubtedly had paramilitary connections. Part of the deal for paras who accept the government’s terms is that they do not get extradited, which, for the time being, accounts for the non-extradition of paras. The outcome of this tortuous process will not be wholly satisfactory, just as is the case with the deal our own government has done in Northern Ireland, but I do not think it will result in the para-dominated country that Taussig pictures. (Of course, the simplest way of avoiding the appearance of naivety is to be consistently pessimistic.)

Taussig leaves out too much. The national murder rate has fallen to a degree that no one would have thought possible four years ago, and is now the lowest for twenty years. Kidnapping is down. The guerrillas, even less popular than the politicians, have lost numbers, territory and resources. The roads are safer, the growth rate and investment are up. These are banal observations, not perhaps the makings of an artful Diary, but they matter a lot to most Colombians.

And does Taussig have to compare Andrés Pastrana to a tailor’s dummy? What does he look like himself?

Malcolm Deas
Bogotá and Oxford

Apparently it’s emetic

Terry Eagleton charges Richard Dawkins with failing to read theology in formulating his objection to religious belief, and thereby misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views, it is a waste of one’s time to address what is built on those premises (LRB, 19 October). For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies. Religion is exactly the same thing: it is the pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our forefathers, which (mainly through the natural gullibility of proselytised children, and tragically for the world) survives into the age in which I can send this letter by electronic means.

Eagleton’s touching foray into theology shows, if proof were needed, that he is no philosopher: God does not have to exist, he informs us, to be the ‘condition of possibility’ for anything else to exist. There follow several paragraphs in the same fanciful and increasingly emetic vein, which indirectly explain why he once thought Derrida should have been awarded an honorary degree at Cambridge.

A.C. Grayling
Birkbeck, University of London

I’d like to congratulate Terry Eagleton on his critique of the fundamentalism of Richard Dawkins. The strength of Eagleton’s position is that he extends the possibilities of thought, unlike Dawkins, who seems to close them down with his rigid dichotomies between the rational and the irrational, or crazy religion and the clear light of reason. These oppositions only help to support policies, such as those of the present US administration, based on prejudice and illiberality. To take another example, ‘faith’ schools are supported by Tony Blair because they are thought to do such a good job of producing the ‘right’ kind of citizen for the capitalist market-place. This is ‘faith’ put to the service of a certain kind of rationality, but certainly not to serve reason.

Mary Evans
University of Kent

Terry Eagleton’s exposition of theology had an effect close to miraculous. For a moment I almost sympathised with Richard Dawkins.

Michael Steinberg
Rochester, New York

Late Style

It was strangely disconcerting to read two years ago what Edward Said had to say about Beethoven in his ‘Thoughts on Late Style’ (LRB, 5 August 2004), to which Frank Kermode now returns in his review of Said’s On Late Style (LRB, 5 October) Said’s commentary on the Beethoven of the last piano sonatas and quartets, the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony seems to me perversely to misread the evidence of these final works, their intensity and concentration, their control and command of the material.

Said takes his cue from Wendell Kretschmar’s view of Beethoven’s art in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: that it ‘had outgrown itself’ to become the voice of ‘an ego painfully isolated in the absolute’, ‘a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries’. But this doesn’t get anywhere close to describing the works themselves: the originality of their formal structures; the density and clarity and inventiveness of their texture; the astonishing articulation of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic lines; the energy and coherence of motivic development within the framework of each succeeding movement, as between one movement and another – from the brooding contemplation and drama of the slow movements to the speed and rhythmic propulsion of the scherzos that so often emerge from them.

Does this bear any resemblance to what Said paraphrases or quotes from Adorno: ‘a peculiar amalgam of subjectivity and convention, revealed precisely in the thought of death’? Is it possible to define such vitality in terms of death? What does it mean to talk of death appearing in Beethoven’s music ‘only in a refracted mode, as allegory’, or to say that this music ‘leaves only fragments behind’? And when Said/Adorno speaks of ‘the episodic character of Beethoven’s late work, its apparent carelessness about its own continuity’, as a ‘fractured landscape … devoid of sweetness, bitter’, ‘irresolute and fragmentary’, what can this be said to mean, set beside the rigour of the argument Beethoven pursues in his late work? I cannot make sense of his view of the Opus 110 Sonata as ‘somewhat distracted, often careless and repetitive’. True, this work is not driven, like the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, but that is because its lyricism – its intimate melodic appeal, culminating in the ‘Arioso Dolente’ and its return between the fugue and its inversion – is organised along different lines. Can this expansion of the essence of melody, so delicately balanced, be adequately described as ‘process, but not development’? Apparently it can. Or at any rate Adorno insists that in works like the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, the Diabelli Variations and the last quartets, Beethoven himself proclaims that ‘no synthesis is conceivable’ – though such an absurd conclusion is at every turn contradicted by the unfolding logic and momentum of the music, and nowhere more cogently than in the germinal motivic developments of the C sharp minor Quartet. The Said/Adorno view of late Beethoven seems to me not only unrecognisable, but to make no sense at all when measured against the evidence of what Beethoven achieves through his mastery of form and structure in these last works.

Christopher Hampton
Vienne, France

Short Slips

Corey Robin’s review of David Johnson’s The Lavender Scare (LRB, 19 October) shows how short a slip lay between the McCarthy purge of State Department employees and national homophobic hysteria. There’s more and worse, however. In Gay Power: An American Revolution (2006) David Eisenbach estimates that the Mafia made over $2 million – at a time when that figure represented more than it does now – out of blackmailing approximately 700 homosexuals. Moreover, local police departments, plus some shady figures merely disguised as policemen, routinely received bribes from suspected homosexuals in order to avoid exposure. This leads me, as it does Robin, to the least attractive aspect of the present national security hype: the money to be made from it. The American public has yet to receive any accounting for the millions of dollars squandered in Iraq, for all the stories that circulate about flat-beds full of cash disappearing. Certainly Diebold and Halliburton are not hurting for business right now.

James Carmichael
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Corey Robin tells us that the US government’s justification for firing gay employees – that they were vulnerable to Soviet blackmail – must have been spurious because ‘investigators never found a single instance of this kind of blackmail’ (LRB, 19 October). In the same issue, Ian Gilmour tells us that John Vassal, a homosexual who worked in the Admiralty, ‘had been blackmailed by the Russians into giving them information’.

Anna Smith
Poughkeepsie, New York

Woolf wasn’t right

Norma Clarke disagrees more with Paula Backscheider than with me (Letters, 5 October). I chose Woolf’s outdated, polemical and still (to Clarke’s dismay) powerful A Room of One’s Own as a ‘proleptic prequel’ to Backscheider’s book as a way to make sense of Backscheider’s attempt to imagine a separate women’s poetry in the 18th century. I contended that the nature of poetry-writing itself makes such an endeavour impossible, and pointed to conversations within genres – including retirement and friendship poetry – between men and women poets of the period. My aim was to show how Woolf’s desire for a fully realised women’s writing is both echoed and complicated by Backscheider’s project. I don’t share this desire, but as Backscheider’s book demonstrates, it can be good to think with and against.

Helen Deutsch
Los Angeles

A Poet’s ‘Life’

I suppose it was inevitable that 27-year-old John Stubbs would have condescension heaped on him for daring to explore the over-explored territory of John Donne (LRB, 5 October). Yes, Stubbs is fanciful and sometimes a bit too keen to make connections where they might not exist. So what? Literary biography was ever thus. He occasionally does the literalist thing of assuming that a poem might be about something that actually happened, but then he is scrupulous in pointing out to his readers that neither the lovers addressed nor any of the loving may ever have existed. Burrow’s conclusion that a poet’s ‘life’ (a nicely defensive bit of punctuation) could or should be constructed out of spotting how the arguments and alignments of the poems shift, doesn’t sound like an activity in any way superior to Stubbs’s enlightening schlep through the rooms, battlefields, courts and cells of late Tudor and early Stuart life. I was unfortunate enough to have had Helen Gardner bludgeon me over the head with John Donne in the days when he belonged to her. Nothing she ever said about him ever encouraged me to read or reread anything he wrote. The moment I finished Stubbs’s book, I went off and read the ‘Meditations’.

Michael Rosen
London E8

A Fugue a Day

David Matthews points out the use of canon in the Beatles’ ‘She Said, She Said’, though it’s a canon of a fairly rudimentary kind, given that the vocal and lead guitar parts don’t really overlap so much as alternate (LRB, 21 September). The music of New Order, however, is characterised by a pervasive, presumably untutored, use of counterpoint; in tracks such as ‘Your Silent Face’ and ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, they demonstrate how well suited electronic instruments are to this type of music.

Richard Morris
Salford, Lancashire

Multum in Parvo

Ford Madox Ford was not, despite what Patrick Wright says, strongly in favour of the war against Germany, at least not at first (Letters, 21 September). In September 1914 he called the war a ‘hideous and unrelieved pall of doom’, and in his poem ‘Antwerp’, written the following month, he grieves with the ‘women of Flanders’ for those they have lost. His opinion changed over the next months, perhaps in part because of German atrocities in Belgium, and he was certainly committed to the war effort to the extent that he agreed to write (somewhat idiosyncratic) propaganda for the War Propaganda Bureau in 1915.

Sara Haslam
Banbury, Oxfordshire

The Haj

There is an error in my review of Abdellah Hammoudi’s A Season in Mecca (LRB, 19 October). Trips by land to the Holy Places were forbidden in 1999 in Morocco but that prohibition is not necessarily true of all states in every pilgrimage season.

Michael Gilsenan
New York University

Who Indeed?

Roger Jones asks: ‘Who on earth is Sylvie Krin?’ (Letters, 19 October). Her deathless romances about royal loves have ornamented Private Eye for many years: ‘Her mind raced back to those blissful, stolen moments that had spelled out their furtive romance, their marriage in all but name. The moment their eyes met at her wedding reception. The quick kiss in the men’s changing room at the Ikea Polo Club …’ Her name (rumoured to be a pseudonym) suggests a hairdo almost as big as her heart.

Colin Burrow
All Souls College, Oxford

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