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Vol. 32 No. 15 · 5 August 2010

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Ask a Seal

In Lydia Davis’s story ‘Mrs D and Her Maids’, Mrs D writes her articles for ‘ladies’ magazines’ in multiple carbon copies on a typewriter. Her telephone number has four digits. She pays her maids $15-20 a week. One of them develops tuberculosis and is sent to a sanatorium. Two of them are described as ‘Negro’. Mrs D’s summer vacation plans are curtailed when ‘gas has been rationed because of the war.’ So why does Clancy Martin believe that Davis’s ‘power is in the microscope she applies to her own life … It’s hard not to think that Mrs D is Lydia Davis’ (LRB, 22 July)?

More bizarrely, Martin explains Davis’s one-sentence story ‘Information from the North Concerning the Ice’ (‘Each seal uses many blowholes, and every blowhole is used by many seals’) with an overwrought allegory of penises and vaginas. ‘What has this woman suffered that gives her this ugly view of sex and love? … Only a young woman could have narrated this parable of destroyed love.’ And so on. Davis was 54 when the story was published, and sometimes a blowhole is just a blowhole. Ask a seal.

Eliot Weinberger
New York

What Darwin Got Wrong

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini rehash an old argument, beloved of creationists, that Darwinism is empty because a property of organisms that the Darwinian says has a causal relation to reproductive success is also defined in terms of reproductive success (Letters, 22 July). Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini think that the Darwinian is committed to there being a causal relation between a trait’s causing reproductive success and its being selected for. But that is not part of the theory: it would be one cause too many. The situation, instead, is like this. Suppose a trait causes increased reproductive success. Why does the trait do so? It might be camouflage, attractiveness to mates, or something else. One part of evolutionary theory describes how features like this lead some organisms to reproduce more than others. A further part of the theory describes the consequences of these reproductive differences for the distribution of features in the population. The first part treats reproductive differences as effects; the second treats them as causes. The whole theory explains how, for example, the fact that a particular colour on an organism’s exterior makes it hard for predators to see it can (given assumptions about inheritance) lead to that colour’s becoming common in the population. There is no problem with the claim that to be selected for is to cause increased reproductive success. Talk of selection does not conceal a vicious circularity, but describes part of what Darwin recognised as a causal chain leading from the lives organisms lead in their environments, through differences in reproductive success, to the way biological populations around us change.

Peter Godfrey-Smith
Harvard University

The Shudder

If I read Frank Kermode right, he prefers Shakespeare to Dante (LRB, 10 June). I hope he does, anyway. Quite apart from the fact that Dante in English has flat feet, there is all that theological mumbo-jumbo to be navigated, not to mention the biographies of uninteresting personages. I only have restaurant Italian, but it’s obvious to me that Dante must be read in that language.

The ‘shudder’, or poetic frisson, can truly be felt only in the native tongue. Acquiring it is the beginning of power; things get named and are made to move; the child learns to utter: ‘I want’, ‘I love’, ‘I hate’. The language of poetry also has to be learned. (Best at Granny’s knee.) Poetry is the language within the language, and retains secret, childhood connectivities that many become oblivious to. Although the ‘shudder’ can be appreciated, aesthetically, in a language acquired later, a visionary effect relies on the sudden click of perception provided by a mother tongue internalised through emotion. Listeners and readers are likely to find their book-learned lingo withholds the immediacy of understanding required for surprise.

Kermode says Eliot ‘lost his love for Donne; it was consumed by his passion for Dante.’ Do we then have to hold Eliot indirectly responsible for all the leaden English versions of The Divine Comedy we have to put up with? Did that ‘passion for Dante’ produce Eliot’s eventual poetic bankruptcy? A poet made to feel inadequate by the unrolling of terza rima (which never knows when to stop) might very well, in his own language, speak of ‘raids on the inarticulate/with shabby equipment’ or ‘the intolerable wrestle/with words’. But if writing poetry is what you really want to do, what’s to wrestle? If there’s anything combative about the process shouldn’t it be of the kind where you gently steer your combatant’s own strength till he floors himself? You wouldn’t imagine, say, John Ashbery locked in an intolerable wrestle with words. Or would you?

Some day, perhaps, a translator will come along and give Dante wings in English, allowing me to admire him. Walter Benjamin asks why a translation exists: is it there merely to enable a reader to understand something he can’t read in the original? A wonderful question. If the answer is anything other than yes, it extends perfect licence to do what you want. How about a science-fiction Dante?

John Hartley Williams

No Ally

It’s true that the British public respected and was interested by Dost Muhammad Khan – I believe that Mohan Lal’s 1846 Life of the great Afghan leader was an occasional prize for English public schoolboys. But he can’t be described, as Linda Colley describes him, as ‘a British ally during and after the First Afghan War’ (LRB, 22 July). The invasion of Afghanistan was despatched with the explicit intention, announced in the ‘Simla Manifesto’ published in October 1838 by Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India, of unseating Dost Muhammad and replacing him with the wretched British puppet leader Shah Shujah. When, three years later, an Afghan insurgency forced a British retreat during which almost every member of the British army (and Shah Shujah) was killed, the leader was Akbar, Dost Muhammad’s son. The story is told by Peter Hopkirk in The Great Game and in any number of novels, including George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and my own The Mulberry Empire.

Philip Hensher
London SW8

A Sonnet a Minute

It’s good to find the sonnet respected, but I think its use for light verse is sadly seldom mentioned. Colin Burrow refers to Elizabeth Bishop’s demi-sonnet, fractured down the middle, but surely there are many other examples (LRB, 24 June). Leigh Hunt’s often awkward but fascinatingly complex trio, ‘The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit’, comes to mind, but to me the most attractive is an anonymous monometer variant Petrarchan titled ‘An Aeronaut to His Love’ (if someone knows the author, please out him):


Stuart Jay Silverman
Hot Springs, Arizona

March on the Savoy

Bernard Porter makes some erroneous comments about Duff Cooper (LRB, 8 July). First, Cooper was not the minister of information when the Second World War began, but became so when Churchill became prime minister in May 1940. Second, while Duff Cooper was many things, one would hesitate to call him, as Porter does, ‘middle class’. One does not ordinarily use that label for someone whose father was a knight, whose uncle was the Duke of Fife, and who was a direct descendant of William IV. Need one add that Duff Cooper is the great-great-uncle of the current prime minister?

Charles Coutinho
New York


George Melly would not have agreed with Peter Gillman that the East London Overground runs from, rather than to, West Croydon (Letters, 8 July). Melly borrowed Henry Mayhew’s description of a gentleman crossing Waterloo Bridge and entering a ‘transpontine brothel’, and used the word to sum up what was so different about his band’s drummer: ‘simply the fact that he came from, lived in and was loyal to South London’. When the drummer discovered what the word meant he pointed out: ‘All you cunts is transpontine.’ ‘He had logic on his side,’ Melly commented, ‘but he knew it didn’t work.’

Don Locke
Wellington, New Zealand


While there is, as Thomas Laqueur says, a ‘formal’ Japanese word for ‘trauma’ (gaishou) that consists of two Chinese characters, it refers explicitly to an external physical injury (LRB, 8 July). The word for psychological trauma in Japanese is torauma, and is written in the Japanese syllabic writing known as katakana which is commonly associated with gairaigo (words imported into Japanese from foreign languages). Words in katakana are often seen as somehow inherently less formal than words consisting of Chinese characters, but the system is essential to the import of new concepts into Japanese.

Dominic Al-Badri


There is no need to go to modern German to find the origin of ‘seamew’ as Roy Kift suggests (Letters, 22 July). The word is still used for gulls in the Devon and Cornish dialects, as the numerous ‘mewstones’ on Admiralty charts show. There are two, for instance, off the mouth of the Salcombe estuary.

Mike Connelly
Totnes, Devon

It may help support Roy Kift’s etymological argument that a seamew is a seagull to know that Swinburne made the same identification. He writes of the seamew as a seabird capable of uttering a ‘loud clarion-call of joy’ (which is one way of looking at it). ‘To a Seamew’ is from the third series of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, and seems to look wistfully back at the livelier times of the first series: ‘When I had wings, my brother,/Such wings were mine as thine.’

Steve Rowse
Godalming, Surrey

Isn’t It All Over?

R.W. Johnson was incorrect in saying that Bill Shankly never played with or managed Denis Law (LRB, 22 July). As manager of Huddersfield, Shankly signed Law from Aberdeen in 1957. The Big Book of Football Champions for that year (which I treasure) quotes Shankly as saying: ‘He is the finest prospect I have seen and he has a heart as big as himself.’

Adriaan Sonke
East Grinstead

One cannot argue, as R.W. Johnson does, that Suárez’s deliberate handball should have been punished with the award of a ‘penalty goal’ – there is no such thing.

Korintian Delaplaja
London E5

Shifting the Rubble

Rosemary Hill is mistaken in believing that Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum was dedicated to Dr Johnson (LRB, 24 June). Stukeley’s dedicatee was Maurice Johnson (1688-1755), a Lincolnshire barrister and secretary of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. Johnson was Stukeley’s benefactor and had contrived the latter’s appointment as secretary of the Society of Antiquaries, of which he was the honorary librarian.

Richard Hewlings
Swavesey, Cambridgeshire

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