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Letters

Vol. 31 No. 14 · 23 July 2009

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Miss Simone

Jenny Diski, in her review of David Brun-Lambert’s biography of Nina Simone, quotes a stunningly racist passage from a 1963 New York Times article: ‘Miss Simone has a very developed sense of the dramatic and of contrast, as when she plays a popular song with a primitive, repetitive and sensual rhythm. She’s a highly talented animal on stage’ (LRB, 25 June). This so startled me that I went to the Times website to read the entire article. The quotation is a fabrication. The first of the two sentences (quoted without ellipses) is a botched rehash of a much longer sentence. The sentence as quoted contains language that is not in the original, and it omits language that is, resulting in an entirely different tone and meaning being conveyed. As for the second sentence in the quotation – ‘She’s a highly talented animal on stage’ – neither it nor anything like it appears anywhere in the article.

David Stannard
Honolulu

Jenny Diski took the Times quotation directly from Brun-Lambert’s biography. As she put it when we showed her David Stannard’s note, ‘I’m not sure it’s my job, or the LRB’s, to check the sources of quotes in a published book.’ Still, we did look into the matter a little further. The original passage in the New York Times reads:

Miss Simone has a highly developed sense of the dramatic, both the sneaky type that emerges from initial understatement and the direct type that comes from striking changes in costume and hair-do (or wig) or the contrast of singing a pop tune, ‘But Beautiful’, over a repetitious and sensuous primitive rhythm. She is a performer who is blessed with both talent and a strong sense of showmanship.

Brun-Lambert’s book was originally published by Flammarion in 2005. The passage from the Times will have been translated into French for that edition. We haven’t seen the French version, but it’s easy to imagine that when the biography was translated into English for the Aurum edition, the Times quotation was translated along with it, instead of being taken from the original source. We’re just guessing. But swapping in and out of French may have introduced the differences in tone and meaning that Mr Stannard has noticed – and something else besides.

Editor, ‘London Review’

A slip in Jenny Diski’s fine article on Nina Simone. It was Medgar Evers, not Evans, who was assassinated by racists in Mississippi in 1963. His name should live for ever.

John Danziger
Trieste

Pitié pour les génocidaires

Christopher Caldwell describes Pierre Péan’s view of the Rwandan genocide as ‘idiosyncratic’, but it’s better described as ‘revisionist’ (LRB, 9 July). The whole thrust of Péan’s argument in Noires fureurs, blancs menteurs is that the Tutsis bear primary responsibility for the Rwandan tragedy. The Tutsis – ‘one of the most deceitful races under the sun’ – are accused not only of starting the war but of fabricating claims of 800,000 dead: ‘only’ 280,000 were killed, he reassures us. Since tens of thousands of Hutus were killed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front after the genocide, surely the Tutsis have little to complain about, and Péan devotes just a few lines in his book to their murder. His theory of a ‘double genocide’ in Rwanda is a classic revisionist strategy, reminiscent of Ernst Nolte’s notorious argument that Hitler’s genocide was a reaction to the ‘class genocide’ of the Bolsheviks. Not surprisingly, SOS Racisme and Ibuka (Kinyarwanda for ‘remember’) filed a complaint against Péan for inciting racial hatred.

Victor Kande
Nairobi

Market Madness

I read Donald MacKenzie’s piece on the credit crisis from my viewpoint as a former director of the Housing Corporation (LRB, 25 June). It was apparent as early as the 1990s that the housing market was becoming fundamentally unstable as an increasing proportion of the population began to value their houses primarily as a profitable asset. In the South-West and the Lake District house prices were controlled not by the earning capacity of the locals, but by the financial power of the second-home and retirement markets. These warnings were not heeded.

If we exclude from home ownership those without external sources of finance, we are effectively removing the customers who maintain the market. While home ownership was delivering ever increasing profit at the top of the market, it was becoming effectively impossible by the year 2000 for anyone to enter at the bottom. Funding a business which has, in industrial terms, destroyed its market is mad, but because the money markets were strangely blind to the nature of housing, they continued to treat it in the financial terms so clearly described by MacKenzie. Then suddenly, the chickens came home to roost.

Richard Hilken
Exeter

How yellow do you like your butter?

‘A life history in which the stomach is wholly absent,’ Bee Wilson writes, ‘does not seem quite human’ (LRB, 25 June). She is understandably charmed by Rousseau’s spilling his guts in public, but says of John Stuart Mill: ‘you would never know whether [he] ever yearned for sweets or felt his tummy rumble.’ Mill’s Autobiography, despite its title, is not and does not purport to be a life history. Still, his stomach seems to have made noises – especially for butter, the availability and quality of which Mill assiduously reports in a string of letters to Harriet Mill from France, Italy and Greece. Some butter is ‘tolerable & intensely yellow’, whereas in Brittany he ‘never once met with any but very good butter even in the smallest places’. In Vendée ‘it is seldom good & I have never yet found it very good.’ He also had to put up with ‘commonplace’ honey which ‘had not the peculiar flavour of Syracusan’ (Syracusan butter too was apparently excellent).

Åsa Söderman
Eastbourne

The Case for Case

‘The Case for Case’, the words chosen to describe Leofranc Holford-Strevens’s review on the cover of the last issue, are the same as the title of a seminal article from 1967 by the Berkeley linguist Charles J. Fillmore, in which he advanced what he called Case Grammar – a development of, and major departure from, the ‘pure syntax’ version of generative linguistics advocated by Chomsky (LRB, 9 July). Holford-Strevens is right to note the long history of the notion of case in linguistics, extending back to Panini and the Sanskrit grammarians, but Fillmore’s article was a kind of opening shot in the ‘linguistics wars’ of the late 20th century. Generative linguistics has since embraced case as a fundamental component of grammar. Fillmore’s approach, however, led to the breakaway 1970s movement gathered under the banner of Generative Semantics, and to his own later Frame Semantics and Construction Grammar. Case Grammar was fundamental, then, to the articulation of the contemporary approach in linguistics called Cognitive Linguistics, which (like Panini) takes meaning to be central to the explanation of form and structure.

Chris Sinha
Havant, Hampshire

Leofranc Holford-Strevens, in mentioning the survival of case forms for English first and third-person pronouns, leaves out the only relic of which I’m aware of the dative case still current in English. In the word alive (from Old English on līfe, according to the Collins English Dictionary) the f of life is voiced to v because of the Old English dative -e ending, which is itself no longer pronounced.

Nick Wray
Derby

Where to find the druids

Tom Shippey rightly points out that there are ‘no druids in Shakespeare, not even in Cymbeline’, but they are out in force in John Fletcher’s play of 1611-14, Bonduca (LRB, 9 July). Act III Scene i is set in a temple of the ‘holy druids’, who sing the ‘noble deeds’ of ‘little Britain’.

Alistair Watson
Manchester

Lives of Leibniz

Jonathan Rée’s review of Maria Rosa Antognazza’s biography of Leibniz (LRB, 25 June) mentions that her book replaces Gottschalk Eduard Guhrauer’s biography of 1842, but another was written a hundred years earlier: Jacob Brucker’s Historia critica philosophiae (1742-44). This massive work in five volumes, written by a Lutheran, found its way not only into the libraries of the king of France and the pope, but served as a quarry for Diderot’s entries on philosophy in the Encyclopédie and for Hegel’s Lectures in the History of Philosophy. Leibniz scholars neglect Brucker’s text today, but if they were to read it, it is likely they would not like what they found.

Brucker did praise Leibniz’s prodigious ingenium, but he did not find Leibniz perfect. Brucker was the first to judge philosophers by their ability to build their philosophy into a system, and he found Leibniz’s construction of a system lacking. Hegel echoed this view. Brucker also complains that Leibniz’s theory of motion was too abstract and his concept of monads fuzzy.

The strength of Antognazza’s biography is that it shifts philosophy’s centre of gravity away from the traditions of Descartes and Locke towards central Germany and Prague, a tradition we know too little about. Whether Leibniz’s thought was quite as self-organised as the biography implies is something that only years of research will be able to settle.

Constance Blackwell
London N1

A Vessel for the Seed

Michael Wood observes that when Orestes is acquitted in The Eumenides, it is because Apollo pleads for him (LRB, 11 June). In fact, as counsel for the defence, Apollo is something of a dud (one of his key arguments is that the mother of a child is not a parent but merely a vessel for the seed). Wood also notes that it is curious that Athena makes her tie-breaking move – the exoneration of the matricide Orestes – before she knows there is a tie. Although, admittedly, a legally questionable procedure, this is not necessarily a surprising move on Athena’s part. The Eumenides may well mark the epochal advent of the rule of law; but this enlightened construct is to be underpinned by the enduring reality of male dominance. This is what Athena – sprung from an Olympian male brain – is publicly and everlastingly sanctioning.

Frederick Sweet
Toronto

Bollandiana

Caroline Walker Bynum refers to the Bollandists as the religious order which prepared a vast compendium of medieval saints’ lives between the 17th and the early 20th centuries (LRB, 9 July). She is mistaken on two counts. The Bollandists were not a religious order but a small group of Jesuit scholars. Although Rosweyde had first conceived the idea of a critical edition of hagiographical texts, he did not live to see any of them published and the group was named after the first editor of the Acta Sanctorum, John van Bolland (1596-1665). Publications by the Bollandists were suspended when the Society of Jesus was suppressed in Belgium in 1773, but the work resumed in 1837. The Analecta Bollandiana has been published since 1882 although the group is no longer exclusively Jesuit.

John Gale
London SW3

@

The ‘little dog’ and ‘snail’ verbalisations of @ in Russian and Belarusian are delightful (Letters, 9 July). In Dutch @ is an apenstaartje or ‘monkey’s tail’. Incidentally, the ‘orphan’ (as in the ‘widow and orphan’ of modern typesetting) is known in Dutch as a hoerenjongetje, or ‘boy prostitute’.

Richard Todd
Leiden

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