Vol. 35 No. 20 · 24 October 2013

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Bomb Expert

Adam Mars-Jones is astonished that Nigel Balchin’s novel The Small Back Room was in print ‘before the first flying bomb landed on London’ (LRB, 12 September). Published on 6 December 1943, Balchin’s novel was indeed in print a full six months before the first V1 rocket detonated in the capital (in Mile End on 13 June 1944). However, Balchin’s prescience doesn’t seem quite so astonishing when one knows that he was employed by the army as assistant director of biological research when he was writing The Small Back Room. Three days after the book was published, his department was absorbed into another and he became scientific adviser to the Army Council, where he remained for the duration. SAAC dealt with weapons and means of waging war, activities that Balchin had also been involved in before his move.

The bombs described in The Small Back Room differ from the V1 and V2 rockets in one important particular. The explosives that have to be defused in the novel are designed specifically as anti-personnel devices. They are booby-trapped, and kill both the civilians who pick them up, having found them lying unexploded on the ground and inattentive bomb-disposal experts who fail to spot the device’s second (hidden) fuse.

Derek Collett
Charlbury, Oxfordshire

Through the Looking Glass

Galen Strawson can turn as many rhetorical backflips as he likes, but when he comes back to earth, there’s not a hair’s breadth of difference between ‘pure panpsychism’ and what the rest of us would call ‘supernaturalism’ (LRB, 26 September). Having excluded ethics from the realm of the ‘really real’, he can stipulate that experience is ‘wholly physical’, while folding ignorance and uncertainty about the nature and limits of the natural into that experience, precisely where the supernatural once was. This leaves him holding both ends of the definitional rope: it is not others who have ‘looking-glassed’ the terms, but his own verbal dexterity. He is welcome to say that physicalism and psychism come to the same thing, but since most of us use those terms to mark a distinction rather than an identity, it will be difficult to get others to play the game.

Rick Livingston
Ohio State University

‘If you think anything I’ve said is anti-communist in any way at all, then you’re not a real communist. You’re not a serious, realistic communist. You haven’t got to first base.’ If you swap ‘naturalist’ for ‘communist’ in this passage, you have the last three sentences of Galen Strawson’s essay ‘Real Naturalism’, which illustrates how naturalism functions now as an ideology. Strawson asserts his membership of the Naturalist Party and then seeks to determine the party line.

Strawson says, very properly, ‘You can’t classify anything as supernatural or non-natural until you have a substantive conception of the natural in relation to which something can be classified as non-natural,’ but then claims that he does have such a substantive conception: ‘I take it that concrete reality – anything that exists in space-time – is entirely physical.’ He denies, however, that what is physical can be defined by the science of physics. ‘Physics can’t convey the nature of everything that exists,’ he writes, leaving us no way of knowing what he means when he says that ‘everything is wholly physical.’

Clearly, what matters is the terminology: you’re a naturalist just so long as you say that ‘everything is wholly physical,’ even if you don’t know what ‘physical’ means. This is not an obviously ‘substantive conception of the natural’, so it remains unclear how we might distinguish between the natural and the supernatural or non-natural. Words like ‘natural’ and ‘physical’ function here not as descriptions of reality, but as symbols of group membership.

Christopher Eddy

To Be or Knot to Be

Adam Phillips glosses Nietzsche, and what he takes Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster to be claiming Nietzsche said about art and tragedy, along the lines that the basic function of art is to act as a ‘veil’: ‘We need veils of illusion to conceal the horrifying truth from ourselves; and art, according to Nietzsche, is the best veil’ (LRB, 10 October). In support of this view, Phillips goes on to quote Nietzsche’s famous proposition ‘We have art that we may not perish of the truth.’ Bernard Williams pointed out many years ago that Nietzsche ‘does not mean that we possess art in place of the truth; he means that we possess art so that we can possess the truth and not perish of it’. That is an altogether more profound thought.

Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge

Frog’s Knickers

Colin Burrow doesn’t mention that swearing can replace vocabulary when driven out by fear (LRB, 26 September). Growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, a young man I know used to help his father, who worked as a courier for a chain of betting shops, at weekends. One of his father’s tasks was to transport sacks of betting slips to the main shop. A clockwork timing device in each sealed sack prevented cheating. One Saturday evening he and his father were stopped at an army checkpoint by a young and clearly nervous soldier. He ordered them out of the car and asked them to open the boot. Seeing the sacks and hearing the ticking, he feared the worst. ‘Right, you fuckers!’ he screamed. ‘Get over to the fucking fucker and get your fucking fuckers above your fucking fuckers!’ As my friend put it, only the soldier’s frantic gestures with his rifle helped them to understand that he really meant: ‘Right, gentlemen. Could I ask you to walk over to the wall and put your hands above your heads?’

Martin Westlake

Honoured Society

Edward Luttwak’s review of my book Mafia Republic begins with two startling propositions: only Sicilians can understand the mafia; and only ‘ignorant continentali’ (non-Sicilians) ever use the word ‘mafia’ – Luttwak prefers the long-obsolete ‘honoured society’ (LRB, 10 October). It seems that he qualifies as an expert on the mafia because he learned all about it during his years at a Palermo elementary school, whereas Italy’s judicial system, which uses the word ‘mafia’ as a matter of routine, is entirely staffed by ignorant mainlanders.

Luttwak tells us that mafia bosses – at least those identified as such by the courts – are petty extortionists at worst; they are mere puppets in the hands of an invisible super-elite that pulls the strings of the honoured society in Sicily and perhaps nationally. How do we know this super-elite is really in charge? Because they never get arrested, and nobody has ever identified them.

The best argument Luttwak can muster is an appeal to plausibility: how is it possible that illiterate peasants like Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano could dictate terms to the business and political classes? The answer is simple: violence. Riina and Provenzano never handled a pitchfork in their lives. Even their defence lawyers would blush to hear them described as peasants. They are professional criminals. It was ultimately their ability to kill and kidnap with impunity that earned them the right to negotiate at the highest table.

If Luttwak had read my book more carefully, he would have found abundant evidence to support the only good point he makes: that the mafia contains doctors, lawyers, politicians and businessmen. The Sicilian mafia is a secret society modelled on the freemasons and, like the freemasons, it recruits from up and down the social hierarchy. However, that doesn’t mean that the mafia’s internal hierarchy exactly mirrors the hierarchy in the society outside its ranks. Moreover Sicily, and Italy more widely, have always had predatory cliques among their political and business classes. Some but by no means all are mafiosi. The idea that they are united in a criminal super-elite is infantile.

Luttwak’s article is littered with other mystifications: that in the old days the honoured society functioned as a kind of informal police force, making sure rapists got their just deserts; that the ultimate blame for the mafia rests with the wicked North, which has exploited Sicily since unification, and so on. This sort of nonsense has been wearily familiar since it first emerged into the Italian public domain in the mid-1870s, at precisely the moment when the Sicilian ruling class, heavily compromised by the mafia, first entered government. If the mafia had a political ideology and an official interpretation of Sicilian history, Luttwak’s article would represent an excellent summary of it.

John Dickie
University College London

It wouldn’t have helped (apparently)

Eamon Duffy writes that Eugenio Pacelli/Pius XII held Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, made clear his ‘distaste for the persons’ of German Jewish socialists, associated Jews with Bolshevism and excommunicated Communists en masse, but said of his failure to do the same for Nazis that ‘a protest from me would not have helped anyone’ (LRB, 26 September). Yet Pacelli ‘was not an anti-semite’: he merely shared in a ‘low-level anti-Judaism’. How does that work?

Jeremy Smithson

It’s fissionable but is it fissile?

Steven Shapin refers to the isotopes Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 as ‘fissionable’ (LRB, 26 September). This is true, but all the isotopes of uranium and plutonium are fissionable. If the nuclei are hit by a neutron above a certain energy threshold they will split. However, U-235 and Pu-239 are ‘fissile’. A neutron of any energy will split them. This is the crucial point since fission produces neutrons with a variety of energies and to produce a chain reaction all of them must have the potential to cause fission.

Bohr understood this distinction and by the spring of 1939 had come to the conclusion that nuclear weapons were impossible. It would take, he said, the resources of an entire nation to do the necessary separation of isotopes. In the event it took three years. My own view is that the idea that during the war the British could have built a nuclear weapon is nonsense. After the war it was possible because people like Klaus Fuchs knew how to do it.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

Thank God for the Leavisites

T.J. Clark describes F.R. Leavis as having ‘been driven half-mad’ by 1961 (Letters, 10 October). This must have happened very quickly. Between 1954 and 1957 I listened to dozens of his lectures and heard him talking in many seminars and in conversations at his house and in my flat. He was rarely other than lucid, cogent, vivid and spirited. In October 1954, the first time I heard him, he defined a reader’s task in a sentence I have never forgotten: ‘What we have to look for are the signs of something grasped and held, something presented in an ordering of words, not merely thought of or gestured towards.’

Of course there were things to dispute, as when he said ‘We (Scrutiny) were Cambridge.’ ‘Rutherford, at the Cavendish?’ I queried. ‘A necessary hyperbole!’ he at once riposted. And he should not have been so scornful about the lifestyle and mentality of 20th-century people. It remains true that nobody I’ve met has been so quick with vitality or has so inspired me to try to think and write with the whole of myself.

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

Philosopher for hire

I was awed and envious to see Jonathan Rée describe himself as a ‘freelance philosopher’ (LRB, 10 October). What does a freelance philosopher do? What’s the hourly rate? Can I be one?

Daniel Davies
London N17

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