Vol. 36 No. 15 · 31 July 2014

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The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson

Sex Workers’ Rights

New Zealand’s enlightened legislation is matched by equally enlightened enforcement (LRB, 3 July). The Herald on Sunday reported on 13 July how Auckland police resolved a dispute between a sex worker and a client who tried to do a runner. They drove him home to collect his wallet, then to a cash machine to withdraw $100 and escorted him back to settle his debt. A police spokesperson confirmed that such incidents weren’t uncommon: ‘Police would help any citizen having a disagreement whether they were a sex worker or working in a pizza shop.’

Tom Frewen
Manakau, New Zealand

Katrina Forrester might be interested to know that it is not only in New Zealand that sex workers are protected from unfair employment practices. Although sex work is criminalised in South Africa, the South African Labour Appeal Court decided in 2010 in the judgment of Kylie v. Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and Others that sex workers are entitled to have their employment rights protected and enforced by courts. The court rejected the judgment of a lower court that the criminality of the sex work, and hence the invalidity of the employment contract, rendered a sex worker’s claim to statutory right to fair dismissal unenforceable.

In the Kylie case the appellant challenged the termination of her employment as a sex worker in a massage parlour. The court found that although the underlying employment contract was illegal, the South African Constitution protected her rights. Where a sex worker ‘forms part of a vulnerable class by the nature of the work that she performs and the position that she holds and she is subject to potential exploitation, abuse and assaults on her dignity, there is … no principled reason by which she should not be entitled to some constitutional protection designed to protect her dignity.’

Pierre de Vos
University of Cape Town

Like Alan Bennett …

While there is much to agree with in John Dooley’s observations on our class-divided educational system, and loth as I am to leap to the defence of our lamentable and unlamented former prime minister, I must point out that Mr Dooley is incorrect when he writes of Tony Blair ‘doing away with apprenticeships and polytechnics in favour of trumped-up universities’ (Letters, 17 July). Blair was elected prime minister in 1997. The conversion of former polytechnics into universities was effected under the auspices of that former state-school pupil John Major, bringing to fruition the project of his notorious predecessor, that other product of state education, Margaret Thatcher. Credit where it’s due.

Stan Smith
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Bizarre that John Dooley’s letter blaming all England’s ills on private education should be written from France, whose political and economic elites are overwhelmingly state educated.

Robert Tombs


I’m not sure why Andrew Brown should think that ‘Shakespeare contrives … to mention’ Cleopatra’s children only once, towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra (Letters, 17 July). Earlier Octavius complains of the honours she and Antony bestow on ‘Caesarion, whom they call my father’s son’, and on ‘all the unlawful issue that their lust/Since then hath made between them’, and laments that Antony has given away kingdoms to their children Alexander (Helios) and Ptolemy (Philadelphus). Later on Cleopatra will swear her love to Antony by Caesarion’s life.

William Flesch
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts

Why do people remember so little about Antony and Cleopatra, and then write to the LRB to prove it? Cleopatra had children not only by Mark Antony: as every schoolboy knows, ‘She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed;/He ploughed her, and she cropped.’

Damian Grant
Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

Two and a Half Dimensions

With his study of Roy Jenkins, Stefan Collini gives us another of his beautifully judged portraits of Britain’s 20th-century intellectuals, politicians and scholars (LRB, 5 June). But for me the pleasure was marred on this occasion by the sideswipe in his final sentence at ‘the killjoy bureaucratism of the Webbs’. I tried to dispel this characterisation in a book I wrote more than thirty years ago, Fabianism and Culture, substantial sections of which were devoted to showing how the Webbs sought to resist any such ascetic and mechanistic excesses in their socialist thought – and in their own lives, for all the self-restraint they embodied. David Cannadine, who reviewed the book in the LRB, 15 July 1982, noted that I’d succeeded at least in making the Webbs ‘two-and-a-half dimensional’. It’s sad to see them reduced once more to casual caricature.

Ian Britain

In the Bank

Jeremy Bernstein refers to articles by John Updike and others being put ‘in’ a bank by the New Yorker editor William Shawn until a spot could be found for their publication (Letters, 3 July). In My Mistake, a memoir of his time at the New Yorker, Dan Menaker refers instead to such articles being ‘on’ the bank. At first he thinks it’s a riverine metaphor: articles waiting to be pushed into the stream that will take them to publication. He later realises that the ‘bank’ referred to a compositor’s cabinet with a sloping top on which galleys were rested.

Anthony O’Donnell
Northcote, Victoria, Australia

A Bung at Delphi

Peter Green writes that the oracle at Delphi was ‘remarkably free from accusations of fraudulence’, and quotes Pausanias to back up his assertion that there was only ‘one confirmed case’ of bribery in the Pythia’s history (LRB, 3 July). By ‘confirmed’ he means that someone was punished, but an absence of punishment is not the same as an absence of crime. Herodotus records the Athenian claim that the influential Alcmaenid clan bribed the Pythia to tell the Spartans to free Athens of the Peisistratid tyrant Hippias. The Alcmaenids had just splashed out to have the temple at Delphi rebuilt. They were in a good position to ask a favour, and since the Peisistratids lost the war that followed, no one was around to ask awkward questions about the oracle’s probity.

As for Pausanias, his statement that Kleomenes was the only man wicked enough to dare corrupt the Pythia looks like a neat way to round off an account of the Spartan king’s life designed to scandalise readers. To complicate matters, one has to wonder what constituted a bribe in this particular ancient context. It was customary for those visiting the oracle to lavish sumptuous gifts on the temple. These offerings were ostensibly the cost of hearing the voice of Apollo. But if Apollo could be persuaded to provide more information to those who brought him heaps of swag, wouldn’t it be natural to expect him to be stingier with petitioners whose generosity shrank by comparison? At what point did an offering become a bung?

Mark Martin
New York

Up and Down

I enjoyed David Trotter’s recent romp through the cultural history of the elevator but missed the icing on the cake, which would have been a reference to ‘High Rise’, J.G. Ballard’s dystopian tale of a tower block descending into class warfare (LRB, 3 July). To begin with, the proletariat of ‘film technicians, air hostesses and the like’ live below the boundary marked by the tenth-floor supermarket; the middle classes naturally inhabit the central zone of the building up to the swimming pool and restaurant on the 35th floor; and the top five floors are owned by the ‘discreet oligarchy’.

Perhaps Ballard had heard of the lifts at the Waldorf Astoria, which Trotter tells us went no higher than the 29th floor for the plebs, while the penthouse dwellers zoomed up and down on an exclusive service. In ‘High Rise’, ‘rather than use their five high-speed elevators which carried them from a separate entrance lobby directly to the top floors, the dog-owners habitually transferred to the lower-level elevators, encouraging their pets to use them as lavatories.’ As the story progresses, a new class, the lift-dwelling vagrant, emerges. By the end, the vagrants are gone: ‘Not one of the twenty elevators in the apartment building now functioned, and the shafts were piled deep with kitchen refuse and dead dogs.’

E.T.C. Dee

Four decades ago I arrived in New York from Seattle, where bus passengers still thank the driver on alighting. I found myself in an empty elevator and pushed the button for the floor I wanted. On the next floor the elevator filled to capacity. Being next to the controls I helped arriving passengers by pushing the buttons for their requested floors. That seemed simple decency to me but apparently not to all New Yorkers. On the next floor as a man entered the car I asked: ‘What floor?’ ‘None of your business,’ he replied.

Jeff Smith

David Trotter cites ‘elevator protocol’, which he says is impersonal, claustrophobic and automated at the press of a button. Once upon a time I ‘ran’ both passenger and freight elevators in Chicago department stores. It was the opposite of impersonal and soulless. I sat on a hinged stool moving the machine with a lever up or down, with oodles of enjoyable time to engage passengers in jokes, give directions, make dates. ‘Please face front … Ladies lingerie second floor … Sporting goods third floor … What are you doing tonight?’

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

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