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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 13 · 3 July 2008

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The Biggest Disappointment

Of all the many disappointments of 2008, James Davidson’s comment concerning Man from Atlantis has to be one of the greatest (LRB, 19 June). The disappointment stems from the fact that a man with such outstanding academic credentials has difficulty understanding the definitions and differences between the prepositions ‘from’ and ‘in’. So much, in fact, as to believe that the programme Man from Atlantis, of which I was the producer, would have anything to do with the lost underwater kingdom described in great detail by Plato in the Timaeus and Critias. Permit me to assist Davidson with the definitions, as given in the Oxford English Dictionary. In: ‘at a point within an area or a space’; so, a country in Africa; the kids were playing in the street; I read about it in the paper; or, in this instance, a man in Atlantis. From: ‘used to show what the origin of someone or something is’; so, I’m from Italy; documents from the 16th century; quotations from Shakespeare; heat from the sun; or, in this instance, a man from Atlantis. I hope this information will be helpful to Davidson.

Herbert F. Solow
University of Wales

Homobesottedness

‘Most moral bans,’ Peter Green writes in his review of James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love, ‘are imposed in order to reinforce what originated as a practical prohibition: just as the taboo on pork seems to have begun life as a reaction to trichinosis, so the virulent objection to all forms of sexual release that don’t have to do with the procreation of children was dictated, for millennia, by a frantic and often losing struggle … to keep population figures level’ (LRB, 8 May). He goes on to claim that ‘social acceptance’ of homosexuality ‘will always have depended … on the existence of a thriving community reproductive enough to carry some non-breeders’.

The claim that the taboo on pork was invented to protect the ancient Hebrews from trichinosis is common enough. I heard it from my father, whose father was a shochet, a ritual kosher butcher. But there is no reason to believe the authors of Leviticus understood a disease vector that was not discovered until 1846; unless you believe, as orthodox Jews do, that they were taking divine dictation. There is, in any case, much more to the laws of kashrut than the prohibition of pork. One of the most onerous kosher rules is the prohibition on eating dairy products within six hours of eating meat products, or even on allowing dairy products to touch plates, cookware or utensils used for meat and vice versa. To defend the proposition that this was in origin a ‘practical prohibition’, it would be necessary first to interpret, and then to find some practical basis for the passage in Exodus on which it is based, which says only, ‘thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.’ Indeed, it is precisely because the talmudic rabbis were unable to find a rationale for this passage that they elaborated the rules on meat and dairy, in accordance with their practice of making certain that no holy commandment might be accidentally violated through incomprehension of its intent. But it is most unlikely that nutritional hygiene had anything to do with the matter. Green, by the way, seems to think that refrigerating pork will protect him from trichinosis, but it is caused not by spoilage but by a parasitic worm, whose larvae would be minimally inconvenienced by refrigeration but are easily killed by cooking meat products (not just pork) at 74º C for 15 seconds.

As for Green’s analogous claim about the ‘practical’ hostility to non-procreative sex, the first question to be asked is whether homo sapiens has ever had any serious difficulty keeping its numbers up. I was under the impression that population pressure drove our hunter-gatherer ancestors to expand out of Africa into every corner of the globe. What is Green’s evidence? The next question is whether all sex not directed at procreation has always and everywhere been subject to ‘virulent objection’. I hadn’t thought it controversial to say that among the Romans it was considered shameful, perhaps illegal, for a free adult male to allow himself to be penetrated orally or anally, but not at all shameful, indeed quite in the normal course of things, to be the penetrator. Where does procreation enter into that distinction?

Green’s erroneous assumption is that there are two sorts of people in every society, heterosexuals who procreate and homosexuals – exhibiting what ‘may be a minority trait genetic in origin’ – who don’t. The existence of a subgroup of people who define themselves as exclusively homosexual is a phenomenon of modern times, not older than the 19th century, when the word ‘homosexual’ was coined. There have always been men who lusted for men (and men who lusted, however shamefully, to be ‘bottoms’), but the vast majority of these men, in most societies, certainly in Greece and possibly in our own, have been married and fathered children.

Mark Engel
Ben Lomond, California

My skin is on fire!

Maurice Keen writes that ‘on the night after Scrope’s execution, Henry … woke screaming that his skin was on fire’ (LRB, 5 June). This might well have been a manifestation of tabes dorsalis, a neurological complication of syphilitic infection. Indeed, the sudden sensation of ‘burning skin’ is a textbook symptom of neurological Treponema pallidum infection. Henry IV had been on crusade, and contemporary paleopathological opinion suggests that crusaders brought this venereal disease back from south-west Asia in the 11th and 12th centuries. Bones affected by syphilis have been exhumed at Blackfriars friary in Ipswich and Rivenhall in Essex and dated to between 1296 and 1445. If Henry did have syphilis, this would also account for the intermittent nature of his inexorably progressive illness.

Paul Lindsey
Seville, Australia

Monarchists v. Maoists

I wrote in the LRB of 8 May about the election of Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly and its plans to abolish the country’s 240-year-old monarchy. On 28 May, the Constituent Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of this, transforming this ragged old kingdom into the world’s youngest republic. Before the vote could take place, there had been a lot of bickering about whether the next head of state should be a president or a prime minister, and who should be vested with executive power. It is not the Nepali way to settle such things ahead of time; the country has always had a slapdash, last-minute, make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethos. But when the parties at last reached an agreement and got around to passing the vote, the streets erupted. Crowds of overexcited republicans pressed towards the royal palace, demanding that the king, Gyanendra Shah, leave at once. But he had been given 15 days: the police fired tear gas, the crowds dispersed.

Nepal was not colonised in the 19th century, so did not go through decolonisation, or any such struggle for self-definition, in the 20th. To the republican majority of this demographically very young and politically very left-wing country, scrapping the monarchy felt like the defining event in the nation’s history. To the monarchist minority, it felt like a terrible loss.

Nepal’s monarchists come in two varieties. There is the daft kind, who purport to believe that the king is – or was – an avatar of Vishnu, and not just the divine ruler of Nepal, but the emperor of all Hindus. They expressed their fury by setting off bombs ahead of the vote. The other variety of monarchist, the constitutional kind, is more reasonable. As the vote approached, they argued that since the Shah dynasty founded Nepal, Nepal should preserve the monarchy as a harmless relic. It didn’t help their cause that Gyanendra Shah had done little but cause harm. Still, they floated hopeful proposals. If not a constitutional monarchy, perhaps a ‘ceremonial’ monarchy? No? Then how about a ‘cultural’ monarchy? Why not a female line of succession? Or maybe we could bypass the king and his successor and install a ‘baby king’?

The desire to be ruled, even if only symbolically, is a surrender to nostalgia. Fortunately for republicans, Gyanendra Shah didn’t inspire sentimentality. Before he became king he had a reputation for misusing royal privileges and having links with the criminal underworld. When he became king in 2001 after the massacre of his older brother, he proceeded to dismantle the democratic constitution of 1990, and resumed absolute rule after the military coup 0f 2005. Gyanendra’s son, the crown prince, Paras Shah, is no more attractive: he has a history involving manslaughter, drug use and reckless endangerment involving fast cars, loaded guns or both.

While its neighbours India and China lurched towards superpower status, Nepal it seemed was stuck forever battling its own kings. The rise of republicanism was a sign of increasing confidence, and a recognition that the country must not remain a tin-pot monarchy. We will not be able to rejoice for long, however, because the party-political bickering that preceded the vote will only get worse. The main task ahead is the drafting of a new constitution, which will determine whether Nepal ends up a communist republic or a liberal republic. The Maoists, as the largest party, claim the right to lead the Constituent Assembly; but the other parties worry about the continuing existence of their military arm, the People’s Liberation Army. The army, too, might prove mutinous. ‘Parties Fail to Reach Consensus,’ was the headline just days after the republic was declared. More of this – much more – lies ahead.

Manjushree Thapa
Kathmandu

My Zukofsky

Is the ‘L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E’ to which August Kleinzahler refers in his piece on Louis Zukofsky (LRB, 22 May) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine Bruce Andrews and I edited from 1978 to 1981? Probably not, since his description of our work and relation to Zukofsky does not fit. And is it ‘A’, Zukofsky’s best-known work, that Kleinzahler has in mind when he refers to A? Probably not, since his review misses the delight it provides to ear, eye and intellect. In the 165 small-format pages allotted for the Library of America edition of Zukofsky’s Selected Poems, I endeavoured to present all aspects of the poet’s work. I wonder why Kleinzahler feels Zukofsky’s work would be better served by someone who, like himself, appreciates only a small part of it? Isn’t that the kind of appropriation for which he scolds me?

Charles Bernstein
New York

More Last Muggletonians

Patrick Collinson wonders whether Philip Noakes was the last Muggletonian (LRB, 5 June). Wade Muggleton, whom I taught about twenty years ago when he was in his early twenties, claimed membership of the sect, along with (as far as I remember) other members of his family. He was surprised I had heard of them, and seemed unaware of Christopher Hill’s and E.P. Thompson’s work.

Paul Brassley
Ilsington, Devon

Up from the Cellar

Prompted by Nicholas Spice, I went to Elfriede Jelinek’s homepage (LRB, 5 June). I don’t see an ‘ugly checked overcoat’. Love it or hate it, it must have come from an expensive Viennese shop. And her hair looks all right.

Paul Titchmarsh
University of Pannonia, Hungary

Quite so

I would very much like to read the poem Colin Burrow calls ‘The Acquisition of Love’ (LRB, 19 June). Marvell’s poem, however, is called ‘The Definition of Love’.

Alistair Watson
Manchester

Apology

In the LRB of 19 June we published two poems, ‘The Source’ and ‘In the Afternoon’, which we attributed to Jean Sprackland. She is indeed the author of ‘The Source’, but the author of ‘In the Afternoon’ is Charles Simic. We would like to apologise to both of them.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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