Rubén Gallo, in his article on the Mexican election debacle, states that the electoral court’s partial recount did not reveal any irregularities (LRB, 25 January). However, the post-election sample audit did uncover ‘errors’ which would have counted in López Obrador’s favour. The fact was that no one – not the Mexican establishment, the corporate media, the powerful military, organised crime, or the Western powers – wanted a recount because everyone was afraid López Obrador would actually win.
The fraud, corruption and use of force and terror that is decried in regimes considered ‘anti-Western’ has been largely ignored in the case of Mexico, even after Mexican security and military units killed more than a dozen protesters in Oaxaca last autumn. Not only did Gallo not mention Oaxaca, he also failed to discuss the sharp rise in human rights abuses under Vincente Fox, including the terrorising and subsequent ‘suicide’ of the human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa y Plácido.
López Obrador was indeed his own worst enemy, but not in the sense implied by Gallo. He spent months campaigning from the mushy centre-left while Zapatista Subcommandante Marcos launched the Other Campaign, encouraging people to opt out of the corrupt neoliberal electoral process and work for grass-roots change. Many poor Mexicans did not see López Obrador’s social democractic PRD as a real alternative to the establishment parties. Once he swung left, however, his popularity dramatically increased: were the election to be rerun today he would be able to count on the voters – between 5 and 10 per cent of the electorate – who supported the Other Campaign and who have now joined his campaign in a grand coalition.
Nicholas Penny writes of T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death that ‘if only he had been content with art criticism instead of art writing he could have given us a concise essay’ (LRB, 4 January). What follows is an ad hominem attack, highlighting an anecdote in which Clark attends a demonstration on the steps of the National Gallery that leads, in Penny’s mind, to an ‘after-dinner speech to old comrades’. (The recollection hardly takes up a page of the book.) He finishes by suggesting that the book is an elitist rumination for ‘the benefit of other professors on the [Getty] hilltop’. This seemed to me to be a travesty.
The subtitle of Clark’s book is ‘An Experiment in Art Writing’. He kept a diary of his prolonged exposure to, and examination of, two Poussin paintings – Landscape with a Calm and Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake – recording daily variations in light, both natural and artificial, and viewing the paintings from a full range of distances. Later, he revised the diary and added to it, but the feeling of its being written in front of these pictures is maintained. Clark’s confrontation with the authentic work of art – rather than all the surrogates that are now available – over a period of three months is the nub of this experiment. It is not just a formal or perceptual confrontation: Clark allows ethical, political and even (reluctantly) personal considerations, as well as the more usual historical and theoretical dimensions, to come into play. These non-formal dimensions are never allowed to be merely the starting point for a discourse on, say, ‘the politics of the image’ (Penny’s suggestion). Clark returns to the paintings and their material actuality again and again.
Penny does not seriously evaluate the experiment; and he doesn’t have much time for ‘art writing’. But this is art writing quite unlike Pater, or Stokes (for instance), trading in refined sensibility and effulgent phrase. Clark includes poems in his spectrum of responses but he is always anxious, wondering whether the phrase he has chosen fits the perception or idea that he is unravelling. There is a persistent intensity, that he might understand more, probe further. On the other hand he writes: ‘something in me flinches from the glamour of always probing deeper as a looker, piercing the veil, staking emotional ownership of the image.’ This self-awareness runs through the book. Clark has a restless, dialectical approach, and he does probe deeper.
I now see the secret connection between Perry Anderson and John le Carré (LRB, 25 January). Here is one (Anderson) castigating the inferior Russian of every leader from Stalin (thick Georgian accent) to Gorbachev (thick southern accent); and there is the other castigating the inferior English of the British ruling class (‘Belgravia cockney’, though Christopher Tayler should have underlined that it is Americanised Belgravian that le Carré particularly detests). The symmetry, surely, is not an accident. Did they not both read Modern Languages at Oxford? And are they not both fanatical devotees of the exquisite pleasures of classical Hochdeutsch? Of course. The pattern is obvious. Do they not both in fact belong to some secret Language Preservation Society in the Name of the Superior Virtues of 18th-Century German?
Perry Anderson calls Nikita Mikhalkov ‘a middlebrow figure’ (LRB, 25 January). Mikhalkov was a scion of one of the most visible and politically agile artistic dynasties of 20th-century Russia. His father, Sergei, has now rewritten the words of the Soviet/Russian national anthem three times (for Stalin, Brezhnev and Putin).
A couple of years back Sergei Prokoviev’s half-ruined dacha outside Moscow was offered for sale. It is in a prime site in Nikolina Gora, a weekend village as popular with the great and the good of the new Russia as it was with their Soviet predecessors. The advertisement mentioned nothing of the previous owner or of the many famous pieces of music he composed there. Instead, prospective purchasers were enticed with the irresistible: ‘From the backyard of this property a good view may be obtained of the dachas of Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky’. Konchalovsky, Mikhalkov’s brother, is perhaps best known in the West for his Hollywood movie Runaway Train, though dacha-buyers may remember him as the coauthor of the screenplay of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.
Oak Park, Illinois
Marina Warner describes the riddle posed by the Sphinx and solved by Oedipus as ‘an old chestnut’ (LRB, 8 February). She goes on to praise Eleanor Cook for ‘a brilliant and enjoyable decoding’ of a poem by James Merrill: ‘The body shapes in the word “body" are revealed in a poem set out with a head and shoulders and torso, the o “like a little kohl-rimmed moon" between the b of birth and the d of death, and the y standing for something Oedipus might have asked the Sphinx.’ This seemed familiar to me for some reason, and a brief web search turned up the following, from a piece by Laura Quinney in, of all places, the London Review of Books (LRB, 4 April 2002):
The poem looks closely at the letters in the word ‘body’, and sees in their configuration an emblem of that body’s trajectory from b(irth) to d(eath), or rather the trajectory of the little o, the embodied subject or soul, which ‘plots its course’ towards extinction just because it is embodied. It crosses the night sky like the moon; or else, like an actor, it crosses the stage, moving in an irrevocable pattern from origin to end. And yet it does not experience itself as mechanical. The o is the ‘I’, as its likening to ‘a little kohl-rimmed moon’ (a mascara-lined eye) punningly suggests, and the way in which the ‘I’ experiences its course is always novel. It must remain bewildered, as the puzzle of why – y – it exists goes unsolved. At the end, the poem turns directly to the evocation of this bewilderment, instructing ‘you’ (who is first Merrill himself, and then the reader) to mark the baffling anomaly of your own subjectivity, a paradoxical o or zero, a mark of annihilation, which stands for a nothing that is something, and a something that is nothing.
I then looked up the poem itself, which is constructed as a riddle, and ends by asking what the b and the d stand for. It’s not a hard question to answer, which would explain how Quinney and Cook came up with their (not so) uncannily similar interpretations. Cook’s decoding is hardly deserving of the epithet ‘brilliant’, then; though Quinney’s reading of the 0 as an eye, and therefore as an ‘I’, still is. Incidentally, I was full of admiration for Michael Wood’s declaring that when the dog in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day says, ‘Rr Rff-rff Rr-rr-rff-rrf-rrf,’ this is ‘easily scanned as The Princess Casamassima’ (LRB, 4 January). Full of admiration, that is, until I started reading the novel (since abandoned) and saw that Pynchon in fact scans the barking for us. I wonder, does it happen a lot, this critics’ claiming of credit for things that novelists and poets have already pointed out?
If I should ever be condemned to death, I wouldn’t object to having my lifeless body put to good scientific use: like Ian Hacking, ‘I can’t see the harm’ (LRB, 14 December 2006). Congressman Doug Teper proposed a bill (HB 1274) in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1996 ‘to provide for death by guillotine’. Section 1 reads: ‘The General Assembly finds that while prisoners condemned to death may wish to donate one or more of their organs for transplant, any such desire is thwarted by the fact that electrocution (or lethal injection) makes all such organs unsuitable for transplant.’ Section 2 proposes that punishment by guillotine shall be ‘at the election of the condemned’. The amendment was read twice in the House, but failed to pass. It was never made clear what the objections were.
Stephen Mulhall asserts that ‘an object’s colour cannot affect what happens in the world except as a consequence of its being seen’ (LRB, 25 January). That isn’t true. For example, when irradiated by the sun a dark-coloured object will get warmer than an identically shaped light-coloured object; indeed, such a dark object might melt and flow away while the light object retains its shape and form. Moreover, photosynthesis depends on the ability of plants to absorb particular wavelengths of the sun’s light – that is to say, it depends on the plant’s colour.
Many years ago, when they were fashionable as ornaments, I bought a glass bulb that contained, in its vacuum interior, a little cross-shaped vane mounted on a pivot. Each of the vane’s four arms ended in a square sheet of metal, and each sheet was painted white on the front and black on the back. When you put your ornament on the window, the arms twirled round merrily until a cloud passed before the sun or (as eventually happened) the vacuum leaked enough to allow some air resistance. It was the difference in colours that made it happen.
In my review of Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky biography the bald statement that Stravinsky and Schoenberg never met is an unfortunate accident (LRB, 8 February). I was well aware they met at a rehearsal of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire in 1912. The intention was to say that they never met during their sojourn in Hollywood.
Sheila Fitzpatrick’s father, about whom she wrote in the previous issue, was Brian Fitzpatrick, radical historian, civil libertarian and author of The British Empire in Australia: An Economic History, 1834-1939 and other books. We had intended to set that out in her contributor’s note and to say that her memoir of an Australian childhood will be published by Melbourne University Publishing, but we failed to do it.
Editor, ‘London Review’