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Letters

Vol. 33 No. 20 · 20 October 2011

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Which one of you is Jesus?

Especially for someone who has herself experienced coerced psychiatric confinement, Jenny Diski displays an astonishing degree of misunderstanding of postwar psychiatry (LRB, 22 September). ‘By the 1960s and 1970s,’ she writes, ‘a coalition of right-wing libertarians, left-wing radicals and the kind-hearted … collaborated to shut down the fortresses and free the mad to roam.’ Who, other than me, were the right-wing libertarian brutes? What makes a person who opposes the psychiatric incarceration and coerced drugging of innocent persons a right-winger? What happened to the right to liberty, to be let alone by the state?

‘Before and after the time of the anti-psychiatrists,’ Diski continues, ‘the pro-psychiatrists did everything in their ever increasing “scientific" power to liberate the mad from the bin and bring them back to the world of normality with cold showers, electric shocks, insulin shock, brain cutting and anti-psychotic medication.’ Psychiatrists relied on police power – not ‘scientific’ power – to torture the inmates. Diski’s ‘liberating interventions’ were imposed on incarcerated individuals against their will. Diski writes as if she were describing natural events, not examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

She concludes: ‘The libertarians, for their part, simply announced that there was no such thing as madness and therefore the state was not required to oversee and pay for the care of those who were making themselves socially unwelcome (see Thomas Szasz).’ Diski here attributes views to me that are the opposite of those expressed in my writings and psychiatric practice. What Diski sees as overseeing and paying for the care of individuals stigmatised as mentally ill, I see as depriving such persons of liberty and dignity by incarcerating them as mad and dangerous to themselves and others. I see many options other than imprisoning or giving sick notes to socially unwanted persons. Diski sticks to her Manichean worldview composed of good left-wingers and evil right-wingers.

What has this got to do with Rokeach’s contemptible ‘study’, The Three Christs ofYpsilanti? Not much. As I noted in my review of the book in the New York Times in April 1964, the book is about impersonation, not mental illness – patients impersonating Christ, Rokeach impersonating a scientist studying nature. The inmates at Ypsilanti were not ‘Christs’, and everyone, including the inmates, knew it. In the second edition of the book Rokeach acknowledged that he too finally realised it.

Thomas Szasz
Manlius, New York

Too Kind to Hamilton

Almost everything Hal Foster says about Richard Hamilton demonstrates the now rather common critical method of reading into rather than out of any given art work (LRB, 6 October). Take his comments on the works which are supposedly about the Northern Irish Troubles. Hamilton does what any advertiser does: he removes all of the awkward, contradictory and difficult elements from the original images by prettifying and formalising his source material, and then informs the critics what he thought, or said he thought, he was doing. So he claimed of The Citizen that the image was ambiguous, though just what was ambiguous about a Christ-like image of a hunger striker, relentlessly used by the Provisional IRA as propaganda, is difficult to understand. The painting has two panels. The left-hand one is supposed to represent the prisoner’s shit-smeared cell but it is tastefully abstracted and painted, having none of the invasive potency of the actual photographs of faeces smeared on walls. In similarly reductive mode, the right-hand panel of The Subject reduces an Orangeman to a crudely painted cipher while the left-hand panel is an abstracted street scene based on a still of an armoured car driven through wreckage (though you would never know it). The equation, as with all of these diptychs, is crass: Orangemen equal rioting and the British presence. The State is even cruder. On the right is a British soldier, badly painted as ever, complete with a big gun; on the left is an image of a country road: big bad British soldiers with guns rule over Northern Ireland.

All of these works, acquired by the Tate, are perfect examples of state-supported salon art: deracinated images of the Troubles, stripped of disquieting elements, domesticated and made safe for mass consumption while the artists who actually did bear witness to the Troubles – and there are a lot of them – are resolutely ignored. As the art historian Fintan Cullen pointed out long ago, Irish art is often written out of art history, ‘thus encouraging the perpetuation of a metropolitan dominance’.

Brian McAvera
Downpatrick, Northern Ireland

Matchmaking

John Barrell captures the equivocal nature of William Godwin’s insistence on ‘the collision of mind with mind’ (LRB, 8 September). Mary Hays came from the same tradition of intellectual and political activism as Godwin. She introduced herself to him in a letter asking to borrow a copy of An Enquiry concerning Political Justice because it was too expensive for her to buy. The correspondence (the letters were mainly from Hays) and the face to face encounters (mostly Godwin’s visits to her) produced a unique ‘proto-psychoanalysis’ (Mary Jacobus’s term) in which Godwin tried, as Barrell suggests, to make Hays more rational – ‘like a man’ – and she struggled to make him accept her as the flawed woman they agreed she was. Neither succeeded.

Still, the interactions were productive for both. Hays was Mary Wollstonecraft’s sole champion among the small cluster of female radicals after the blasting of Wollstonecraft’s hopes for a life with Gilbert Imlay, father of her daughter Fanny Imlay. On 8 January 1796 Hays tried her hand at matchmaking when she reintroduced Godwin and her beloved friend at tea in her lodgings. Hays reported to Godwin afterwards that Wollstonecraft applauded Godwin’s sensitivity to Hays’s unhappiness over William Frend, which raised him in Wollstonecraft’s estimation.

Godwin remained Hays’s standard of male intellection. Resisting what she saw as his hyper-rationality proved to be the catalyst for her own development. When Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, Hays produced a feminist corrective, her little remembered ‘Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft’ in Richard Phillips’s short-lived Annual Necrology, where Wollstonecraft’s necrology was placed beside Edmund Burke’s.

The ‘Memoirs of Wollstonecraft’ was probably intended as a first attempt at ‘female biography’, Hays’s response to the biographies of Great Men, like the biography Godwin wrote of Chaucer for Phillips. Her major work, Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries, published in six volumes by Phillips in 1803, assembled 300 bustling, active, mostly rebellious women – including Manon Roland, Girondist martyr, and Catharine Macaulay, Whig historian, whose reputation was tarnished after her marriage to a younger man.

Gina Luria Walker
New York

Is it evil?

‘Google,’ Daniel Soar writes, ‘faced the unfamiliar problem of the negative feedback loop: the fewer people that used its product, the less information it would have and the worse the product would get’ (LRB, 6 October). This isn’t actually a negative feedback loop – it’s still a positive feedback loop. In fact, it’s because it is a positive feedback loop that it’s so dangerous to Google. Positive feedback loops never reach an equilibrium. Either they generate continuous growth (as Google sees now) or continuous shrinkage. So the mechanism that allows Google to get better at getting better could also lead to its rapid failure if it were to lose market share. There is probably a rather narrow tipping point between business growth and failure.

Negative feedback loops are those that tend to promote stability. An example in Google’s case would be that as it gets better at what it does, it could come in for closer government scrutiny, which could limit its ability to keep growing.

Schuyler Senft-Grupp
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Daniel Soar assumes that Google will continue to use the information it gathers for the benign purpose of selecting advertisements for users. However, when the management decides that it wants to increase profits beyond what advertising can provide, they will sell the data they have to other companies for whatever purpose those companies determine. Soar also ignores the availability of the data to the government, to use for whatever purpose it might have.

Will Smith
Plano, Texas

No, they didn’t

I was intrigued to read in Amanda Vickery’s review of Margaret Hunt’s Women in18th-Century Europe that elite women ‘engineered revolts’ in 18th-century Poland (LRB, 8 September). I was not aware that any of the Polish revolts in the 18th century were ‘engineered’ by women, so I went back to Hunt’s book. With regard to Polish elite women, Hunt notes that they ‘played leading roles in several revolts’. A huge difference. But Hunt’s comment isn’t in any case historically accurate. She mentions the decorated woman soldier Joanna Zubr (1786-1852), but Zubr was a working-class woman, not a noblewoman; furthermore, she fought in military campaigns only in the 19th century. ‘Elite women participated in high politics to a far greater degree in Eastern Europe than in most Western nations,’ Vickery writes, echoing Hunt. Maybe so, but in 18th-century Poland they neither ‘engineered revolts’, nor ‘played leading roles’ in them.

Vickery’s glowing account of the political activism of elite women in Poland is seductive, but lopsided. She passes over in silence the fact that Polish women’s access to education was extremely limited. Polish universities first admitted women only in 1898 – Maria Sklodowska, the future Marie Curie, had to seek higher education elsewhere. When education was available to Polish women in the 18th century and during much of the 19th, it had very little to do with intellectual development and everything to do with moral upbringing, including the inculcation of ‘proper’ gender roles.

Halina Filipowicz
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Cold War Nostalgia

There is an aspect of the various versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that Michael Wood doesn’t discuss (LRB, 6 October). The novel and the 1970s TV adaptation share a preoccupation with the unravelling of the governing elite’s opaque codes of conduct. It is hard to imagine how the new film could have accommodated the end credits of the TV series, with their image of ‘dreaming spires’ overlain with the voice of a choirboy, or the lengthier and mawkish account of Jim Prideaux’s sojourn at a shabby prep school: these worked as symbols of cultural disintegration, about which both novel and TV adaptation exhibited some ambivalence. In the film, nostalgia for a world untainted by the foulness and corruption of espionage is replaced, through a selective representation of the era’s popular music and design, with nostalgia for the 1970s, and even for the Cold War itself.

Chris Goldie
Sheffield Hallam University

From the Train

Peter Campbell quotes Steen Eiler Rasmussen, writing in the 1930s that the typical house seen ‘from railroads intersecting the suburbs of London’ has a bathroom (LRB, 22 September). But the most noticeable feature of houses seen from trains going into Liverpool Street in the 1940s and 1950s was a tin bath hanging by the back door. In other words, more modest bathroomless houses were built – often beside the railway – with exterior access to a lavatory and a bowl and ewer in every bedroom.

Ian Davidson
London NW11

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