Vol. 30 No. 7 · 10 April 2008

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What Really Happened

Frank Kermode does not include in his discussion of the resurrection the gospel reference that gives the best clue about the death and resurrection of Jesus, namely John 19.34: ‘Forthwith came there out blood and water’ (LRB, 20 March). There can be only one possible explanation for this happening after the spear had been thrust into his side: Jesus had a large pleural effusion, which the spear released. This diagnosis explains a good deal that is otherwise puzzling in the gospel stories. Although he had previously walked everywhere, Jesus needed an ass for his final entry into Jerusalem. Also, he was unable to carry his cross, which other men of his age could carry easily. A pleural effusion this size would have been accumulating for some time. It would have been tuberculous, and so Jesus would have been getting steadily weaker. It isn’t surprising that he felt ‘he was not long for this world.’

The story in John implies that the soldiers were surprised to find Jesus dead so soon. With the effusion pressing on his heart and his body fixed upright he would probably have gone into severe heart failure, and would have appeared dead even though his heart itself was perfectly sound. The spear blow that was expected to finish him off might actually have saved his life by relieving the pressure on his heart. Being laid horizontally would have allowed the blood and fluids pooled in his legs to return into circulation, a process assisted by the coolness of the tomb. He might, in these circumstances, have regained consciousness and thus have seemed to be resurrected.

Dr Roger James

Having Fun with Auden

Frank Kermode repeats Auden’s revisionist claims about the spiritual revelation he experienced one night in June 1933 at the Downs School in Malvern (Letters, 6 March). The poem published in postwar collections as ‘A Summer Night’ is a severely truncated and revised version of the untitled poem beginning ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ from Look, Stranger! (1936). The postwar version drops four stanzas from the original, three of which make it clear that the revelation it celebrated was a secular, political one. It is completely consistent with the other ‘quasi-mystical’ but undoubtedly Communist poems in the same volume, in particular ‘Brothers, who when the sirens roar’ (dropped completely from Auden’s postwar oeuvre). Both versions of the poem record an experience of intense, almost ecstatic solidarity with his fellow teachers. But the omitted stanzas make a point of contrasting their privileged ‘freedom in this English house’, their ‘metaphysical distress’ and liberal ‘kindness to ten persons’, with the ‘wretchedness’ of ‘The gathering multitudes outside/Whose glances hunger worsens’ (not difficult to know who was meant by this in 1933). The mysterious ‘crumpling flood’ that will soon ‘force a rent’ through the ‘dykes of our content’, which survives in the final version, is not mysterious at all in the original. It is the coming revolution, in which Auden acknowledges that ‘we dread to lose/Our privacy.’ The idea that this poem offers a ‘vision of agape’, in which the young Auden experienced the first inklings of his wartime return to the Christian communion, is a cover story that he put forward with some insistence in his 1964 introduction to Anne Fremantle’s book The Protestant Mystics. Poets are entitled to tamper with their poetry, and even to rewrite their past, but we shouldn’t connive at their little white lies.

Stan Smith
Nottingham Trent University

Asian Anarchists

Pankaj Mishra writes that, at the time when Woodrow Wilson was igniting the Great American Century, ‘Marxism was … being studied and debated in many Asian cities and towns’ (LRB, 21 February). In fact, Asian radicals and nationalists were studying anarchist texts at least as energetically as they did The Communist Manifesto. The Indian independence fighter and socialist Bhagat Singh said that the Sanskrit phrase ‘vasudev kutumbakam’ (‘universal brotherhood’) had the same meaning as ‘anarchy’, and Har Dayal, the founder of the Ghadar movement, which campaigned for Indian independence, also founded the Bakunin Institute of California and tried to unite anarchism with Buddhism. (Gandhi also claimed to be an anarchist.)

In China, anarchism was the primary ideology of the left and the labour movement until well into the 1920s. Chinese students in Paris, Tokyo and America joined or formed anarchist societies and brought their new ideas back to China. Mao, who had been a member of the anarchist People’s Voice Society, himself admitted that it was not until 1920 that he became ‘in theory, and to some extent in action, a Marxist’. Sun Yat-sen, the Father of the Nation, thought it wise to declare that ‘the goal of the Three Principles of the People is to create socialism and anarchism.’ Ba Jin, one of the most influential Chinese novelists of the 20th century, described Emma Goldman as ‘my spiritual mother’ and formed his pen name from the first and last syllables of the names Bakunin and Kropotkin.

In the wake of the October Revolution, Marxist-Leninism gradually grew dominant in revolutionary independence movements in Asia and other parts of the colonised world. But this happened quite slowly: when, for example, the Cuban Communist Party was founded in 1925 with fewer than a hundred members, 128 anarchist unions and guilds also joined together to form the Confederación Nacional Obrera de Cuba, with two hundred thousand members. These groups had their roots in the Proudhonist mutual-aid societies and free labour associations established from the mid-19th century. Such matters surely belong among the topics that, as Mishra writes, ‘Communist study circles did not of course discuss’.

Felix Holmgren
Malmö, Sweden

Don’t Get above Yourself

In his review of Stefan Collini’s Absent Minds, David Simpson writes of George Orwell that ‘it’s a surprise to learn that the combined circulation of the three periodicals in which most of his essays appeared was only about half that of the publication you are now reading’ (LRB, 6 March). Simpson is repeating Collini’s mistake here. It’s true that Cyril Connolly’s Horizon and Humphrey Slater’s Polemic sold something in the region of 10,000 between them. But Tribune was on a roll when Orwell wrote his ‘As I Please’ columns for it between 1943 and 1947. It wasn’t certificated by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, but its print run was around 40,000 a week towards the end of this period. This is fewer copies than the LRB sells today, but a lot more than half its circulation, even if it’s peanuts compared with the readership A.J.P. Taylor reached by writing for the Sunday Express.

Paul Anderson

Balfour’s Bad Memory

Ferdinand Mount mentions Balfour’s forgetfulness about names (LRB, 20 March). That wasn’t the only indication of his poor memory. J.M.N. Jeffries, a Daily Mail journalist with very good sources in Whitehall, told the following story in Palestine: The Reality (1939):

Once during 1919, in Paris, after an important meeting of the Council of Ten, next morning [Balfour] was shown by a secretary (my informant) the minutes of the previous day’s meeting. He perused them distantly like a bill of fare, and then inquired: ‘Does this purport to be what I said yesterday?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ said the secretary, ‘it is an exact draft, taken down as you spoke.’ ‘Well,’ said Balfour upon some further inspection of the document, ‘I wish it to be understood clearly that these words I appear to have used do not represent the opinion of His Majesty’s Government.’ Then, after a pause, as he dropped the minutes indifferently beside him, he added: ‘Nor, indeed, do they represent my own.’

Karl Sabbagh
Newbold on Stour, Warwickshire

Arise, Sir Joh

Theo Tait makes a small but significant error in his review of Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self (LRB, 6 March). Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the premier, not the governor, of Queensland. He was elected (though by a minority of voters, thanks to the gerrymander); governors are appointed, on the advice of the government, by Australia’s head of state, the queen. As the premier, Sir Joh was at liberty to have himself knighted.

Gordon Kerry
Sandy Creek, Victoria

Language of Occupation

Yonatan Mendel translates the verb keter as ‘crowning’ (LRB, 6 March). Keter does mean ‘crown’, but the root verb ktr means ‘circle’, and the verb used in the military sense (lekhater) means ‘to encircle’, not ‘to crown’ (which would be lehakhtir).

Yael Lotan
Givatayim, Israel

Doomed Alliance

James Morone asserts that William Jennings Bryan’s speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention was the ‘high-water moment’ of American populism (LRB, 21 February). On the contrary, his speech signalled the movement’s death. Bryan was only very briefly a Populist and his one great triumph was to lead the Populists into the Democratic Party – the graveyard of American rebellions. Hardly a high point.

With a constituency of small farmers and labourers in the West, the People’s Party had been founded – as a third way – in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1892. Its candidate for president, James B. Weaver, received more than one million votes in that year’s election. The two great tests for Populism were to find common cause with labour in the growing cities and to win over the farmers and sharecroppers of the South. In the cities the alliance with labour failed to materialise, and in the South, as Morone shows, race was the stumbling block. He doesn’t mention the prelude to failure: the heroic battle to unite black and white farmers and sharecroppers against a land-owning white oligarchy. This doomed alliance was killed by the Democratic Party, the party of white supremacy in the South. When the Populist candidate for governor of Louisiana denounced lynching in 1896, 21 lynchings in Louisiana followed that year, a fifth of the total for the US. The defeat of Populism was a key step in the final victory of Jim Crow. Bryan himself steadfastly refused to distance himself from his segregationist supporters.

Cal Winslow
Mendocino, California


Christopher Campbell-Howes discusses Schumann’s musical puns (Letters, 20 March). Apart from the ‘sphinx’ letters in Carnaval, probably the best known is the late F-A-E Violin Sonata composed for Joachim, a collaboration between Schumann, the young Brahms and Schumann’s friend and colleague Albert Dietrich. Each movement of the sonata begins with the musical notes signifying Joachim’s ‘motto’: Frei aber einsam (‘free but lonely’). Brahms joked that his own motto was Frei aber froh – ‘free but happy’. Schumann’s two movements were among his last compositions. Two years earlier, in 1851, he had composed a violin sonata for his friend Ferdinand David which punned on the musical letters in ‘David’. Following hints in Schumann’s letters to Clara, Eric Sams proposed the existence of an astonishing number of musical ‘codes’ in the songs, most of them signifying Clara’s name in five notes weaving about C or A, in keys associated with her (C major, C minor, A minor), and in the falling fourth or fifth which ‘says’ or sings ‘Cla-ra’. Mendelssohn used this theme (D falling to A) to open the collection of Songs without Words that he dedicated to Clara in 1844, and Brahms echoed Schumann’s ‘Clara’ themes in the Andante and Intermezzo (Rückblick) of his F minor Piano Sonata, with an inscription describing two loving hearts musically in double stops.

Judith Chernaik
London NW3

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