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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 6 · 17 March 2011

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Weg von hier

The juxtaposition of Judith Butler’s article and Jim Holt’s review of The Shallows suggests one possible solution to the problem of Kafka’s legacy (LRB, 3 March). Assuming it were in his or her power, a presiding judge could make it a condition of ownership that the entire archive, every last scrap of it, be digitised and made freely available in suitable downloadable format over the internet. Anyone, anywhere could then construct a personalised version of the archive, organised in any way they saw fit. The physical location of the original material would become a matter of little importance, of interest only to paper fetishists and the odd forensic scientist, for goodness knows what arcane research project. More properly, the papers themselves would be destroyed once digitisation were complete, finally honouring Kafka’s wishes, and leaving the work itself truly weg von hier, for if anywhere meets the conditions of a destination that, as Judith Butler puts it, is not a place as we know a place to be, it is surely cyberspace, or whatever we choose to call it these days.

Martin Jenkins
London W1

A small but not uninteresting fact for non-German speakers: weg means ‘away’ but it also means ‘path’ – they are pronounced quite differently.

Tillman Schreibinger
Berlin

Judith Butler says: ‘I am not sure anyone has yet proposed that we simply weigh our work on the scales.’ That isn’t quite so. In Aristophanes’ play The Frogs of 405 BC, Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back Euripides and is roped into a poetry contest between Euripides and Aeschylus. A large pair of scales is produced. Dionysus protests that this is ‘weighing the art of poets like a cheesemonger’ but nevertheless orders each of the rivals to take hold of one pan on the scales and speak a few lines of their verse into it. Aeschylus wins – his verses refer to the ‘heavier’ objects – so Dionysus takes him back instead, leaving Euripides bitterly complaining at being left for dead.

Rex Winsbury
London WC1

The Life not the Work

I would quibble with Nick Laird’s claim in his review of the Letters of Louis MacNeice that the letters ‘remain mostly secondary texts’ in that they ‘help explain the life not the work’ (LRB, 3 March). Strictly speaking, an author’s letters are primary, not secondary texts, but even loosely speaking I can’t agree that the letters are of secondary importance because they illuminate only the private life of the author, as though a selection of letters ought to be a student-friendly commentary, or ‘reader’s companion’ to the greatest poems. The author’s private letters are surely very germane to his work even when they don’t directly address the poetry. This is related to Laird’s further claim, that the letters in the first ‘quarter or so of this book’ (can he mean to the end of 1927?) might have been omitted ‘without losing very much’. Yet he discusses several of these letters very interestingly and points out that through them ‘you can also track the changes in MacNeice’s feelings about Ireland and the alienation that resulted from being educated in a country not his own.’ As everyone knows, many of MacNeice’s poems are rooted in memories of childhood, and he devoted a large amount of prose to the subject. No fewer than 14 chapters of The Strings Are False are assigned to his first 17 years. There may be occasional dull moments in the selected schoolboy letters but it would have been a travesty to excise all the letters written during his formative years, especially given a poet whose imaginative roots are so deeply embedded in the landscapes of his childhood and youth.

Jonathan Allison
University of Kentucky

Executioner’s Top Ten

In his article about the death penalty, David Cole refers to the US as being ‘alone among Western countries’ to retain the death penalty (LRB, 3 March). By using this formulation he is able to avoid the tricky case of Japan, an advanced, industrialised democracy which shares many principles with Western European countries, including the need to promote freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, but which steadfastly refuses to bow to prevailing international trends and abolish the death penalty.

Although the current justice minister, Eda Satsuki, is a known abolitionist, it is only four years since the enthusiasm of the former minister Hatoyama Kunio for signing execution orders led one Japanese newspaper to nickname him the ‘Angel of Death’, and just three years since Japan dispatched enough death-row inmates in one year to propel itself into the world’s top ten of executing nations, alongside China, North Korea, Pakistan and, of course, the United States.

Dominic Al-Badri
Tokyo

Oh yeah?

In her review of Ferdinand Mount’s Full Circle, Mary Beard approvingly passes on a quote from Cormac Murphy O’Connor: ‘Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins does not believe in?’ (LRB, 17 February). Oh yeah? A widely publicised Pew poll found that more than 40 million Americans believe in the literal truth of the bible. This includes the account in Genesis of how the world came into being. This is exactly what Dawkins doesn’t believe in.

Lawrence Hansen
Albefeuille Lagarde, France

Apology to the Canaanites

Robert Alter is right to try to correct Thomas Mann’s – and other people’s – assumption that the first alphabet was Hebrew and that Moses introduced it as he held up the tablets on which God had inscribed his laws (LRB, 2 December 2010). But he overlooks recent scholarship concerning biblical narrative. The earliest attempts at an alphabet, he tells us, were made by ‘Canaanite mine-workers’ in Egypt in the 19th century BC, ‘not by Phoenicians’. The Phoenicians, however, were none other than coastal Canaanites: the name was given to them by the ancient Greeks – a reference perhaps to the purple cloth they traded in or to the palm trees in that region. Cadmus (in Canaanite something like q-d-m) came from there. He is said to have carried the alphabet to Greece and to have founded Thebes.

According to Alter, this first alphabet contained ‘a set of little more than 20 readily acquired characters’. However, the proto-Canaanite of that period had 28 signs. Alter’s 20 signs – actually 22 – were a later development, characteristic of the alphabets labelled ‘Phoenician’ and ‘Aramaic’ (and their derivative, ‘square Hebrew’). Full recognition of the Canaanites’ cultural contributions is silenced – they are condemned as pagans in the biblical accounts, unworthy idolaters, just as the Philistines are demonised as cultureless. In North America, African slaves were called ‘Canaanites’ by their masters and priests – and Native Americans were once upon a time called ‘Philistines’.

Basem Ra’ad
Al-Quds University, Jerusalem

Unfair to Marty

Your letters page of 3 March certainly raised some laughs. Diana Johnstone’s ‘monstrous five-year-long prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic that sent the defendant to his grave before he could complete his defence’ is a classic. But it was almost capped by Edward Pearce’s John Major, who ‘turned the Gulf War to good use by securing the Kurdish enclaves’. Could this be the same Major who petulantly proclaimed, ‘I don’t recall asking the Kurds to mount this particular insurrection,’ and had to be dragged by the media into joining George Bush Senior in a face-saving operation? It’s a long time since politicians were given such an easy time in your pages.

Martin Shaw
Brighton

They don’t exist

The quest described by Emma Dench, to find out about the everyday life of the common folk in the ancient world, is chimerical (LRB, 17 February). As the tragedians of fifth-century Athens convincingly demonstrated, they didn’t have lives worth documenting.

Frederick Sweet
Toronto

Where the Jihadis Are

In his review of my book, Talking to the Enemy, Jeremy Harding states that by informing the US authorities of my meeting with Ramadan Shallah, general secretary of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in Damascus in December 2009 , I became ‘a no-nonsense telltale’, but that ‘being a bit of an insider, [I] perhaps didn’t qualify for the reward money’ (LRB, 17 February). Harding further implies that my talks with jihadis were undertaken at the behest of the US government.

For the most part, my talks with political leaders were self-financed. In the case of Syria, the World Federation of Scientists was invited by the government of Syria to discuss scientific initiatives in the region, including political barriers to such initiatives. Meetings were arranged with several leading political personalities through the offices of the president and foreign minister of Syria. The meeting with Shallah came as a surprise to us. When I checked on the internet and found that he was on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, I and another American in the WFS delegation were obliged under US law to inform the US government of our meeting. Not to have done so could have meant prosecution, and an end to years of multidisciplinary, multinational research. The contents of the meeting were made public, with the approval of Shallah, who indicated that all of his remarks were on the record. At no time did we pass on any information concerning Shallah’s whereabouts or anything else that did not pertain to the content of our talks.

We were given US government funding exclusively for theoretical studies (surveys, interviews, experiments) concerning the limits of rational choice and the role of sacred or transcendent values in encouraging or discouraging political violence. The results of these studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Proceedings of the Royal Society – B.

The ‘support from the US air force, navy and army research offices’ that Harding cites involved only so-called ‘6.1 level funding’ (for peer-reviewed theoretical research). The Army Research Office and Office of Naval Research follow many of the same academic guidelines as the National Science Foundation (our main source of funding), including rigorous oversight by universities and host countries on protection of human subjects. This is done regardless of the researchers’ political persuasion or support for US defence policies. For example, ONR has long supported Noam Chomsky’s work in theoretical linguistics without regard to his concerted criticism of the US defence establishment.

Scott Atran
Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris

You’re right

I must come to the defence of Nick Clegg. The deputy prime minister is not, like John Lanchester, a white man in his forties with a humanities degree from Oxford (LRB, 17 February). He is, like me, a white man in his forties with a humanities degree from Cambridge.

Julian Bell
Twickenham

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