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Letters

Vol. 29 No. 6 · 22 March 2007

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The Politics of Naming

Mahmood Mamdani smears anyone who has supported humanitarian intervention in Darfur by implying that they are supporters of US military interventionism and adventurism (LRB, 8 March). How else are we to understand the repeated references in his article to ‘an Iraq-style intervention’, as if this was what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN have had in mind in calling for a more forceful international response to the war crimes perpetrated in Darfur? Generally, they have called for a peacekeeping or peace-restoring force under a UN flag, which the regime in Khartoum has continued to resist, and which President al-Bashir has labelled part of a ‘Zionist plot’. Mamdani’s ‘Iraq-style intervention’ is a mirage: a unilateral US intervention in Sudan is extremely unlikely. But the idea of such an intervention plays into the hands of al-Bashir in his bid to remain in power. Mamdani fails to mention that one of the main reasons for the UN’s reluctance to use the term ‘genocide’ in relation to Darfur is that it would trigger an obligation to intervene, which a number of states on the Security Council (not least China, given its interests in Sudan) would be loath to do.

Article 2 of the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as ‘acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’ (my emphasis). One could be forgiven for thinking this definition applicable to the situation in Darfur. Mamdani seems to think the Khartoum-supported militias and the insurgents of Darfur equally guilty of war crimes. The difference between them has to do with the scale of the atrocities, the intentions of the respective parties, and the fact that the Janjawiid were often supported and bankrolled by the Sudanese Army.

Like many leftist post-colonial intellectuals Mamdani attributes most of what goes wrong in Africa and the Middle East to the pernicious influence of Western colonialism, leaving out of account the often destructive agency of post-colonial elites. He thinks that peace activists need to realise that ‘peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention’ in Darfur: humanitarian intervention, he informs us, is ‘the language of big powers’ and ‘their civilising mission’. But what precisely (and after much equivocation) stopped the Serb war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s? Certainly the leftist arm of ‘solidarity’ of the kind that Mamdani proposes didn’t deliver any tangible benefits to Bosnians or Kosovars, and given Khartoum’s continual stalling and its harassment of international humanitarian agencies, there is little reason to think that things would be different for the people of Darfur. And what about Timor Leste, Congo and Burundi? Would their populations prefer continued indiscriminate murder at the hands of war criminals to humanitarian intervention? Mamdani needs to get out of his office and into the real world.

Sindre Bangstad
Geneva

Mahmood Mamdani is right about the parallels between Iraq and Darfur. However ‘civil war/insurgency’ and ‘genocide’ should be complementary rather than alternative ways of naming these conflicts. In both cases insurgency and civil war have given rise to genocidal policies: in Darfur on the part of the regime and allied militias against the Fur, Massilit, Zeghawa and others; in Iraq on the part of the Sunni and Shia militias. The complexities of these relationships in Darfur are certainly not captured by some of the simpler anti-genocide campaigners, but the UN Commission’s refusal to name the conflict as a genocide following what Mamdani rightly calls its ‘painstaking’ analysis was a sordid political compromise. And while he is right to warn of the real dangers in ‘humanitarian’ intervention, the debacle that has followed the invasion of Iraq should not push the whole question of protecting threatened civilian populations off the agenda.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

About the Getty

T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death is proving something of a hot potato. Nicholas Penny didn’t really want to handle it in his review (LRB, 4 January); Thomas Crow (Letters, 8 February) didn’t mention it at all in his riposte to Penny’s attacks on the Getty Research Institute (a bit odd given that Crow was Clark’s star PhD student and that he takes a socio-historical approach to art in his books on late 18th/early 19th-century French painting); Michael Williams’s defence (Letters, 22 February) makes no attempt to relate the book to Clark’s work as a whole (which is surely necessary in trying to make sense not just of Clark’s descriptions of the Poussin paintings but of the political references, both tacit and direct, that so irked Penny); and Marcia Pointon – hesitating to ‘prolong the aftermath’ of the original review – merely seeks to indicate that Clark’s visual analyses have some precedent in the Alpers and Baxandall book on Tiepolo (Letters, 8 March).

A really worthwhile review of The Sight of Death should engage with its relationship to Clark’s earlier books and the trajectory these have followed away from a direct and teachable historical-materialist method. Not that Clark has stopped being a kind of Marxist, but The Sight of Death is difficult because it isn’t recognisable as disciplinary art history. That is its strength and its challenge. Its complex, interwoven subjective and historical elements, which don’t add up to any comfortable ‘method’ or ‘theory’ of looking or of art, remain intelligible as part of Clark’s long meditation on how to bring contemporary socio-political perspectives together with hard looking at artworks from the past.

Jonathan Harris
University of Liverpool

‘A Little Kohl-Rimmed Moon’

Martin Harris (Letters, 22 February) scolds me for praising Eleanor Cook’s commentary on James Merrill’s riddle-poem ‘b o d y’ without realising that Laura Quinney had discussed it in similar terms in an earlier issue (LRB, 8 February). It’s not unlikely that I read Quinney’s review of James Merrill’s Collected Poems: Merrill used an Ouija board – and the help of the spirit Ephraim – to write his long, autobiographical work, The Changing Light at Sandover, and I was then researching connections between psychic phenomena and poetic inspiration. (Yeats is well known to have been interested in these connections; but before him, Frederic Myers, a force in the Society for Psychical Research, won a prize at Cambridge for a poem some of whose lines were later found to have been written by others in earlier works: Myers wasn’t put out, simply saying that he had acted as a kind of oracle, filled with voices – a ‘channeler’, in the term used today.) However, I don’t remember reading Quinney’s review at the time. I may have responded with such pleasure to Eleanor Cook’s close reading of Merrill’s riddle poem because unwitting recognition worked its charm (heard melodies are sweet, but those twice-heard are sweeter?). Looking up Quinney’s piece, I now find there are overlaps between her exegesis and Eleanor Cook’s, but they arise from the manifest structure of the poem. So I stand by my calling Cook’s account ‘brilliant’: she attends perceptively to much else as well in this ‘riddle of reading’. Quinney’s illuminating gloss of the ‘little kohl-rimmed moon’ as ‘the eye/ What am I?’ of the traditional riddle form appears only in her review; and yes, Martin Harris is right, this shines, too.

Marina Warner
London NW5

Cooee!

I am sorry that my ex-graduate student Deborah Friedell, now on the staff of the LRB, was distracted from Fiona Shaw’s magnificent performance as Winnie in Happy Days at the National Theatre by a Whartonian social anxiety about whether to greet me or not from the row behind (LRB, 8 March). And I’m glad that I did spot her at the end of the play and that we exchanged a friendly wave. But I would like to set her mind at rest on one point. The standards we set in the Oxford English Faculty for admitting foreign students onto our graduate courses are every bit as high as those for ‘home’ students: we’re after their brains and talents, not just – as she suggests – their money. Deborah’s own successful literary career since she gained her Oxford master’s degree should be proof enough that we try to select only the very best.

Hermione Lee
New College, Oxford

Stresses

I was very honoured and gratified (as I am sure Simon Armitage was) by Frank Kermode’s review of the translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (LRB, 8 March). But one adverbial gremlin infected the quotation from my introduction about the rules of alliteration: I don’t say that the first half line ‘originally’ contained three main stresses, which would be entirely wrong, but that it ‘occasionally’ contained three, which is true of this poem.

Bernard O’Donoghue
Wadham College, Oxford

Igor and Arnold

In his review of Stephen Walsh’s biography of Stravinsky Paul Driver discusses at some length the role of Robert Craft as the composer’s protégé, interpreter and custodian of the archive (LRB, 8 February). Driver rightly challenges the increasingly manufactured nature of Craft’s series of books of ‘conversations’ with Stravinsky issued in the 1970s and 1980s; but it is surprising that he makes no mention of Craft’s earlier Chronicle of a Friendship 1948-71, which is a rich source of biographical material and, published in October 1971, only six months after the composer’s death, displays a spontaneity and authenticity that the books of conversations lack.

The Chronicle reveals Craft’s sensitivity to the allegations of Stravinsky’s sell-out to glib neoclassicism from Pulcinella (1920) onwards. Craft affords these criticisms considerable space and respect, in particular those of Pyotr Suvchinsky (1892-1985), an early patron and, intermittently, lifelong friend of the composer. Suvchinsky’s analysis was delivered in November 1956 over supper with Craft and Pierre Boulez:

[Suvchinsky] advances the theory that money is the root of all compromise in IS’s case. ‘Money was always too important to him. The lure of it led him away from composition and into conducting. And he hated to part with it, even to pay the smallest tradesman’s bill. And can you tell me what happened after Les Noces? The descent into Mavra, the Pergolesi rifacimenti, the Tchaikovsky anthology, the titivated echoes of opera composers in Jeu de cartes and the other gaietés parisiennes: surely such a bizarre métamorphose must have some other explanation besides money? Wasn’t the real trouble that he did not understand – in Taine’s sense – the general ideas of the time? The general ideas were Schoenberg’s ideas, and it was Stravinsky who turned the younger generation against Schoenberg. Poulenc, describing the extent to which he and his group were dominated by Stravinsky, told me not long ago that the mere suggestion by any of them that Schoenberg or Berg might be worth investigating would automatically have made them traitors in Stravinsky’s eyes. At the time Stravinsky was dismissing Wozzeck, which he had not heard, as une musique boche, and Mahler, of whom he knew nothing, as Malheur.’

Suvchinsky continues in this vein for four pages, describing his old friend’s personal neuroses, his avarice, his flirtations with Action Française and his flattery of Mussolini at the height of the Abyssinian aggression, all of which Craft records in faithful detail, along with his own eloquent, partial defences.

The same sort of criticism has been made of plenty of others, if less harshly and without the allegations of a specifically political cowardice. The difference with Stravinsky was that, after a long, central period of varying quality, in his seventies he absorbed the Vienna School’s serialism into his compositional technique, and thus produced a number of late works of remarkable individuality and intensity. The worst one can say about works such as Agon, Threni and Requiem Canticles is that they are new wine in a very old skin which somehow, miraculously, manages not to burst.

Paul Mountain
Worcester

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