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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 17 · 9 September 2010

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Turn It Down!

Jenny Diski’s piece about noise will have struck a chord with many (LRB, 19 August). I worked for Marley Foam in the 1970s in Kent at one of their car parts factories. What appalled me more than anything else was the noise. We took our positions on the assembly line at 6 a.m., and were blasted with Radio 1 through enormous loudspeakers for the next 12 hours. The dust from the foam got everywhere (and presumably into our lungs) and it was painful to stand in position all day using only one hand to work the tools, but it was the music that drove me out of the job.

I was young then and didn’t understand why the music had to be so loud and why it had to be such rubbish. Radio 1 played the same tunes day in, day out. How the other workers coped with the noise I do not know. But this form of control and deliberate disorientation was typical of the heartlessness of the car industry in the 1970s and puts the unrest of that era into perspective.

John Calderon
London E5

Fairly Awful

Terry Eagleton was funny and incisive about Cardinal Newman’s fairly awful politics, but I couldn’t help noticing that Newman’s fairly awful religious beliefs were spared similarly serious inquiry (LRB, 5 August). It seems that while one can have debatable political opinions, as soon as one has religious opinions they are, according to Eagleton, never ‘certain propositions about the world’ but wonderfully mysterious combinations of imagination, intellect, emotion and experience – a kind of ‘love’, a structure of feeling. But why wouldn’t politics function in the same way? That Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are on Eagleton’s side in this matter of the anti-intellectual embeddedness of ordinary religious faith and practice doesn’t make it any less evasive. Of course, religious believers find and lose their faiths every day, by adopting or refusing to subscribe to certain propositions about the world; I know I did, when I lost my faith in my teens. Cardinal Newman wrote, in some of the vilest words in the Apologia, that

the Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

Thus he subscribes to the multiple propositions that we have eternal souls; that our eternal souls are everything and our earthly lives nothing in comparison; that an afterlife will sort out punishment and reward for these souls; and that minor sins are not so minor after all, because we are all fallen through Adam. Where ‘love’ comes into this is anybody’s guess.

James Wood
Cambridge, Massachusetts

It isn’t true, as Terry Eagleton has it, that 19th-century Catholics were barred from Trinity College, Dublin. They could, without renouncing anything, take degrees (though could not gain scholarships or professorships); the poet Thomas Moore became one of the first Catholic graduates, before Newman was born. Women, on the other hand, were not admitted to the college until the 20th century. The university has finally made amends: its current chancellor is both female and Catholic.

Andrew Robinson
Dublin

Paint It White

Neal Ascherson writes that the new Ashmolean, as a museum fashioned to fit a display strategy, will be a time bomb for architects and curators when the strategy changes (LRB, 5 August). As the designer of the 35 new galleries, I can reassure him that this is not the case. The architect designed the new extension five years before the display strategy was devised. Some retrofitting took place to align the bridges and introduce the enfilade windows, in order to guide visitors on a journey through the Ashmolean’s collections. Change the journey and a window can be blocked up; change the curator and all the text panels in a gallery can change. The truth is that any building can be adapted.

Whether a shed wouldn’t be a better form of museum, as Ascherson speculates, is disproved both by Norman Foster’s Sainsbury Centre at Norwich and its football field-sized, multi-storey equivalent, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Centre Pompidou in Paris. Only very large artefacts can hold their own in hangar-like spaces; small objects struggle. The department store modernised with escalators (for example, Selfridges, opened in 1909) is the best template for the contemporary museum. Swap merchandise for artefacts, and it affords close-up and panoptic, static and moving, distant and intimate, mass and individual views of displays, while the interior architecture remains in the background.

However, the zeitgeist dictates that the new Ashmolean, a museum opened in 2009, has to be in the style of a house designed by Le Corbusier in 1924. Or, as with most new museums, it has to be painted white, like ‘Piranesi with the lights on’. Unfortunately, too much white drowns artefacts in high contrast and isn’t atmospheric. Hence the Ashmolean’s display cases have been designed to resemble colourful jewel boxes.

Most UK museums do not have the opportunity to start again from scratch. At the British Museum, Persia and Stonehenge are next to each other while Egypt is on two floors owing to the weight of the artefacts; at the V&A the Raphael Cartoons are not presented in the new Renaissance Galleries. Such abrupt conjunctions and layouts, without internal logic or a display strategy, are unhelpful to all but the already well-informed. Neil MacGregor is currently using the BBC Radio 4 series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ to reorder his museum in the minds of a wider audience. The Ashmolean’s new layout will enable the museum to reorder itself as and when it likes.

Stephen Greenberg
London NW1

Lawyers Play the Violin Too

Thomas Nagel, in his review of my book Natural Reflections, mistakenly infers that I do not ‘believe in’ a ‘reality that exists largely independent of our convictions’ (LRB, 19 August). The major ontological implication of my view of cognition, however, is not that there is no independent reality but, rather, that the specific features of what we interact with as what we come to name ‘reality’ (or, in other idioms, ‘Nature’, ‘the world’, or ‘the environment’) are not prior to and independent of those interactions but emerge and acquire their specificity through them. There is, then, no ‘problem of incoherence’, as Nagel thinks likely, in my reference to a creature’s effective interactions with its environment. For ‘environment’ in such a reference is not, as he argues (or wonders: his phrasing is circumspect), unavoidably understood ‘as something real in a sense more independent than constructivism allows’. It is understood as something real in just the complex sense that constructivism tries to elucidate.

Contrary to Nagel’s report, I do not claim that ‘scientists who think they are investigating objective reality are deluded.’ I speak in the book neither of delusions nor enlightenments, scientific or religious; I do not frame my own accounts in terms of what things are really like ‘at bottom’. Nagel argues that, because scientists ‘usually assume that … science investigates a reality that would exist even if there were no science’ and theologians ‘believe that religion too, or at least some religion, is … at least in part a way of understanding how things really are’, ‘it will not be easy to persuade them that there is no more need for reconciliation between science and religion than between playing the violin and practising law.’ He misses my point here and misstates the analogy I use to illustrate it. To be sure, insofar as science and religion are both seen as bodies of propositions about ‘how things really are’, efforts to reconcile them are inevitably severely strained. I make just that point in the book. But what I argue in the passage quoted is that neither science nor religion is reducible to a body of propositions or credos (sciences are also, among other things, investigations and technologies; religions are also, among other things, practices and identities) and, therefore, that though contradictory as logically assessed, they need not be in conflict in people’s lives and experiences. ‘For many people,’ I write, ‘accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict than would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practising law.’

Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Slavery and the Irish

Matthew Kelly misses a possible resonance of the subtitle of Ian McBride’s Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Isle of Slaves (LRB, 5 August). Irish expatriates in Nantes, Cadiz and Bordeaux didn’t trade only in claret. Philip Walsh and then his son Antoine became the second largest slave traders in France. In the triangular trade from Nantes to Africa to Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Domingue, they sent out 12,000 slaves in all. The Roches and the O’Riordans sent out about 3000 slaves each. Other Irish involved were the Frekes in Bristol and Felix Doran, Christopher Butler, Thomas Ryan, James McGauley and David Tuohy in Liverpool in the 1780s, not to mention many Irish ship captains looking to become traders.

Across the Atlantic second generation Irish were making fortunes buying and selling slaves; in Montserrat they were 69 per cent of the white population, and a quarter on Antigua and Nevis. In 1833, a Presbyterian in Ulster, James Blair, received more compensation, £83,530 for 1598 slaves, than any other slave owner in the British Empire.

Chris Walker
Bantry, Ireland

If Only

Nick Richardson’s piece about John Cage’s 4'33" appears just as a campaign has been set up on Facebook to make a recording of the piece the Christmas number one (LRB, 19 August). Last year, a similar campaign succeeded in getting Rage against the Machine to the top instead of one of Simon Cowell’s lot. You can sign up at facebook.com/cageagainstthemachine, where someone claims to be using 4'33" as his ringtone.

Chris Sansom
London E5

Lyrebird

Nicholas Spice is right to describe the Australian magpie’s call as one of the ‘strangest and most beautiful things in creation’ (LRB, 5 August). There is a family of them in my garden and the sound amazes me every day. But the magpie’s repertoire is all its own work, not mimicry; Spice is thinking, rather, of the lyrebird, an equally prodigious singer who does uncanny impressions of everything from other birds to dogs, musical instruments and chainsaws. The mimicry displayed by various Australian parrots is, as Spice senses, a far cry from not caring what the critics say. It reflects the sadly common national trait of being desperate to fit in.

Gordon Kerry
Sandy Creek, Victoria

Sorts of Success

Mark Etherton complains that although I referred to Graham Greene’s stint as literary editor of the short-lived magazine Night and Day, I failed to mention that he was the cause of the magazine’s failure (Letters, 19 August). The reason I didn’t is that it does not seem to be true. In Shades of Greene, Jeremy Lewis writes: ‘It is generally assumed that Night and Day was closed down after MGM had sued for libel after Graham had made some unkind remarks about Shirley Temple: in fact the magazine was in financial difficulties by the autumn of 1937 – sales never matched expectations – and it closed down three months before the case came to court the following March.’ Despite assigning the film to a rival studio, Lewis appears to be right about the chronology and, therefore, the causation.

Stefan Collini
Cambridge

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