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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 5 · 6 March 2008

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Such Consolation!

Eamon Duffy has written an eccentric and charmless piece, the point of which seems to be that Mary and her bishops didn’t just burn people to death for being unsound in their religious beliefs (LRB, 7 February). They also preached more spiffing sermons than we thought and won some conversions; no burning alive without a priest at hand preaching sound doctrine. Such consolation!

Against a background of incremental massacre, Duffy has a footling point to make. Putting ‘doctrinal truth’ above human decency, he does not so much study the 16th century as go native. His comments on acts of faith and combustion take the breath away: ‘Yet the case can be made that in 16th-century terms the burnings were inevitable, and that they were efficiently carried out and persuasively defended. The regime had to break the back of Protestant resistance, and pressed the device of painful public execution into service as a powerful tool.’

Those are words to run around the mouth and savour, words luxuriant in contemporary resonance. They recall the lady on an American talk show, coming out against Senator McCain: ‘He’s against torture. Hell, I’m pro-torture.’ The passage about the burnings being ‘efficiently carried out’ speaks a moral squint which no doctrine of any branch of any religion can mend. The recent parallels are too blazingly obvious to cite.

Duffy ends that part of his essay by linking the burnings with subsequent trials and executions of Catholics. The ‘powerful tool’ would be put into service ‘mutatis mutandis’ by Elizabeth against Catholics ‘from the 1570s onwards’. This slides over essential distinctions. One must not follow Duffy into defending what should never have been done. But ‘from the 1570s’ avoids a precise date. The St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Huguenots in Paris took place in 1572; there were massacres, too, in Rouen, Orléans, Lyon, Meux, Bordeaux and Toulouse. I follow the list given by Jasper Ridley in Elizabeth I (1987), who puts the number of the dead at eight thousand. Pope Gregory XIII responded with a Te Deum and declared a Jubilee. Elizabeth and her ministers went on to persecute Jesuit priests not for a doctrine the back of the resistance to which had to be broken, or for the force of their sermons, but as servants of a papacy that celebrated mass murder.

Edward Pearce
Thormanby, North Yorkshire

Eamon Duffy writes: Edward Pearce thinks that Mary Tudor’s burning of almost three hundred Protestants was loathsome beyond words, while Elizabeth’s strangling, castration and slow disembowelling of roughly the same number of Catholics was justifiable, because Catholics are bloodthirsty and cruel. I think both sets of executions were appalling, but asked the different question, was Mary’s regime inept as well as ruthless?, I suggested the answer might be no. My piece attempted to get a more objective historical hold on the religious battles of the 16th century. Mr Pearce appears to be still fighting them.

Drive, he sd

Stephen Burt’s account of Robert Creeley’s famous poem ‘I Know a Man’ reminded me that once, at a time when Creeley and I both lived in Bolinas, Creeley in conversation bridled at the popular appropriation of his line ‘drive, he sd’ (LRB, 21 February). As quoted, it misconstrued the poem, he said, explaining that the word ‘drive’, which occurs at the beginning of the final stanza, was meant to finish the narrator’s musing at the end of the previous stanza: ‘buy a goddamn big car// drive’. So that what followed shouldn’t be read, ‘drive, he sd, for/christ’s sake, look/out where yr going,’ but rather: ‘he sd, for/christ’s sake, look/out where yr going.’ It still puzzles me how so practised a grammarian as Creeley expected any but the former reading, in the absence of a semi-colon, dash or ellipsis after ‘drive’.

Aram Saroyan
Los Angeles

Who Is Dennis Rodman?

If anyone could make me feel ashamed of my ignorance of Dennis Rodman (tall basketball player) then it would be Karon Monaghan, whose cultural nous and strict prose show me up for the know-nothing that I’ve turned out to be (Letters, 21 February). Going out more wouldn’t help – I would be sure to go to the wrong places. As for staying in and watching TV, I can’t fit any more into my already small-screen-crowded existence. I could, if she wanted, actually recite the words of Dennis Waterman’s theme song to New Tricks (very few shows on TV that contain a detective – even when not American – get past me). And there aren’t many people I respect enough to reveal that to.

Even so, in any longish life there comes a point when one quite shamelessly says: this far and no further. Dennis Rodman the tall basketball player is that point. But I do thank her for trying to help me.

Jenny Diski
Cambridge

Friendly Fire

Bernard Porter, reviewing books on the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, says that ‘friend and foe were not always clearly demarcated’ (LRB, 21 February). The books he was reviewing seem to deal largely with events in the American North-East, but his remark is particularly apposite in the case of the lesser-known South Carolina campaign of 1780-81, which had the character of a civil war as much as a war of independence. The American victory at King’s Mountain in October 1780, for instance, which Thomas Jefferson called ‘the turn of the tide of success’, was fought almost entirely between loyalist and patriot Americans, the only Briton on the field being the loyalist commander Major Patrick Ferguson, who was killed in the battle. Ferguson, a Scot leading Americans, was confronted by a superior force of militia, prominent among whom were the ‘Overmountain men’ from the Appalachians of western North Carolina and Tennessee. Many of them were themselves of recent Scots-Irish descent. Although other notable battles in South Carolina, such as Cowpens, did feature British regiments, the campaign as a whole was marked by bitter and sometimes vicious encounters between loyalists and rebels (or patriots). The British strategy in South Carolina, indeed, was based on an attempt to exploit existing divisions between Americans.

Andrew Jotischky
Lancaster

On Rambla Wilson

Pankaj Mishra describes the attitude of Indian and other nationalists to Woodrow Wilson (LRB, 21 February). A tiny echo of their disenchantment was heard in Uruguay many decades later. A large chunk of Montevideo’s main coastal avenue was named for Wilson, possibly as early as 1918. As a young child in the 1960s I lived on this Rambla Wilson. Returning in 1994 I found that my section, between Punta Carretas and Pocitos, was now called Rambla Gandhi. However, the stretch in front of the US Embassy was still Rambla Wilson. Far from being a symbol of freedom and self-determination the embassy represented a government which from the late 1960s was teaching the police new torture techniques. The kidnapping of one such instructor was the subject of Costa-Gavras’s 1973 film State of Siege.

David Edgerton
London NW1

Having Fun with Auden

Hugh Wright protests that Auden enjoyed his time as a schoolmaster more than I’d suggested he did (Letters, 21 February). Teaching was one of the ways in which Auden made a living. He obviously preferred others. He enjoyed clowning for the boys at Larchfield but we are told by one of them that the class was nevertheless ‘overawed’ by him. John Fuller says that ‘Auden as a schoolmaster was an orator,’ and The Orators, in which a good deal of law is laid down, was written at Larchfield. The quasi-mystical experience at the Downs School could presumably have happened anywhere, among other not necessarily intimate friends. I could quote other scraps of evidence in mitigation; but Hugh Wright’s case is the stronger.

Frank Kermode
Cambridge

The Importance of Pots

Steven Mithen argues, rightly in my view, that artefacts uncovered in the excavation of early Neolithic sites in the Near East are evidence of ‘fundamental and irreversible changes’ amounting to a ‘Neolithic revolution’ (LRB, 24 January). However, the rapid population growth that came with the settling of society, coupled with the effects of increasing desiccation over some eight thousand years, mean that these changes would have been anything but irreversible had it not been for the invention of pottery, and especially the firing process. Boiling and stewing enabled fuller and more economic use of food, facilitated brewing and made air-tight storage easier. As the study of DNA and other techniques is refined, it will be interesting to see whether skeletal remains indicate physical changes that can be attributed to dietary alterations resulting from the introduction of pottery in the Neolithic.

Ian Blake
Aultgrishan, Wester Ross

What’s a Translator to Do?

Eric Dickens writes that he has ‘more or less been living off the money paid by the Estonian Cultural Endowment for the past few years’ (Letters, 21 February). Reading that, I wondered first of all whether he hadn’t meant to write, until self-respect kicked in, that he had ‘been living more or less’, when that’s how anyone who hopes to get by on a freelance diet of nothing but literary translating tends to live. How very worrying to rely as he has had to on whatever money the cultural people in Estonia are prepared to go on stumping up in order to promote their books to an Anglophone readership famously unwilling to look at anything not written in English right from the start. It’s certainly the case that, without a subsidy of this kind, nothing Estonian would ever see the light of day on a London publisher’s list, when, as Daniel Soar pointed out in the Short Cuts to which Dickens was responding, a long novel of 290,000 words would cost a publisher some £23,000 in the translator’s fee alone. The fact that the Arts Council has picked on a publisher like Daedalus, which has specialised in bringing out translations bigger publishers wouldn’t have touched, is par for the Arts Council course, since it has long since abandoned any pretence that it is there not to endorse market forces in the cultural world but to do whatever it can afford to do to alleviate them.

Jonathan Smith
London SW7

New Days of Weimar

Chris Sinha notes incorrectly that Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno found refuge at the New School for Social Research in New York during the 1930s (Letters, 21 February). In fact, Horkheimer, as the director of the Institute of Social Research, had arranged to lease a building from Columbia University and the Frankfurt Institute relocated to Morningside Heights for approximately ten years. Ideologically, the Institute diverged significantly from the New School – and it was better financed, which, as Martin Jay has written, ‘exacerbated’ the differences between the two institutions.

Joshua Rahtz
New York

Editorial Lapse

A crucial adverb was dropped from a sentence in my review of Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph (LRB, 21 February). ‘No Latin literary texts survive intact before Plautus,’ I remarked, but the word ‘regularly’ disappeared from the next part of the sentence: ‘so his comedies are regularly as far back in time as we can go in excavating Roman customs and attitudes.’ I would certainly not claim that we can know nothing of Roman customs and attitudes before 200 BCE.

Denis Feeney
Princeton

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