Vol. 38 No. 6 · 17 March 2016

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I don’t understand why the editors published Natalie Smith’s letter saying that I ‘should be more careful in lumping together sugar, fat and salt as the cause of the decline in public health’ (Letters, 3 March). I invite readers to look at the piece I wrote, where it’s perfectly clear I did no such thing (LRB, 21 January). What I said, and what I think, is that the culprit for the current public health problems is ‘especially, sugar. If you look for changes in our diet in recent decades, this is the big one. Eighty per cent of all foods in British supermarkets contain added sugars.’ I go on to argue for a tax on sugar and end the piece as follows: ‘If obesity is the new smoking, sugar is the new tobacco. We’re going to have to treat it the same way.’ I at no point say that fat per se is a health risk and it is a wholesale mischaracterisation of what I wrote to suggest otherwise.

John Lanchester
London SW4

A Barrier Surpassed

Frances Stonor Saunders is right to note that images of borders structure and organise our lives (LRB, 3 March). When she sees ‘in the moment of conception … a barrier surpassed’, her perception of the (active, intrepid) sperm penetrating the (passive, docile) egg is shaped by a scientific imaginary that maps masculinity and femininity onto reproductive cells. But as feminist philosophers of science have pointed out, these dynamics have been projected onto the sperm and the egg. As Emily Martin wrote in her classic paper ‘The Egg and the Sperm’ (1991), the two ‘stick together because of adhesive molecules on the surfaces of each. The egg traps the sperm and adheres to it so tightly that the sperm’s head is forced to lie flat against the surface of the [egg’s] zona, a little bit like’ – she recalls an image used by researchers at Johns Hopkins University – ‘Br’er Rabbit getting more and more stuck to Tar Baby the more he wriggles.’ These images matter: they anchor our association of woman with passivity in a bowdlerised ‘natural’, which we imagine as untouched by culture even as we sculpt it to fit our mores.

Rachel Elizabeth Fraser
Linacre College, Oxford

King Lear in Pisa

John Simpson casts doubt on my assertion that Hemingway boxed with Pound in Paris (Letters, 3 March). In addition to the eyewitness account by Wyndham Lewis I referred to, here’s Hemingway writing from Paris to Sherwood Anderson on 9 March 1922:

I’ve been teaching Pound to box wit [sic] little success. He habitually leads wit his chin and has the general grace of the crayfish or crawfish. He’s willing but short winded. Going over there this afternoon for another session but there ain’t much job in it as I have to shadow box between rounds to get up a sweat. Pound sweats well, though, I’ll say that for him. Besides it’s pretty sporting for him to risk his dignity and his critical reputation at something he don’t know nothing about.

The same letter then goes on to praise Pound as ‘really a good guy’.

Tony Sharpe
Lancaster University

In or Out?

Tariq Ali, discussing the forthcoming referendum, remarks that ‘Brexit (which I favour for good socialist reasons) can’t restore sovereignty’ (LRB, 3 March). The conclusion is certainly true, but the opinion in brackets puzzled me. A vote to leave the EU would put the right wing of the Conservative Party in the ascendancy, not to mention being a huge boost to Ukip and the like, unleashing all manner of chauvinistic, jingoistic, racist, ‘Little Englander’ sentiment. In the process, the Labour Party would appear to suffer yet another demoralising ‘defeat’, which would undermine its broader appeal even further. The Scots would, quite understandably, part company with the UK after their next referendum and the rump of GB Ltd would probably be left with a long-term right-wing majority and government. The fact that Tariq Ali had joined Gove, Farage, Johnson and the like to vote ‘Out’, but in his case ‘for good socialist reasons’, would not cut a lot of ice in those circumstances. However you dress it up, such an outcome would not issue in any form of progressive politics, and certainly won’t aid the long march to socialism.

Carl Gardner
London EC1

Tariq Ali states that most opinion polls show a small majority in favour of Scottish independence. The fact is that of five polls conducted so far this year only one shows more support for independence than for the Union. The average of the polls, excluding Don’t Knows, is 52 per cent for the status quo and 48 per cent for independence, and the margin has been pretty consistent since the referendum. All the polls are available on John Curtice’s website, whatscotlandthinks.org.

Philip Richmond
London NW5

The Zika Virus

Hugh Pennington concludes his history of the Zika virus by stating that ‘transmission should stop when 95 per cent of the houses are free of breeding Aedes aegypti,’ the mosquito that transmits the virus (LRB, 18 February). The critical question is how we reach this target. The current method is massive use of insecticides, notably pyriproxyfen. An alternative would be to confront the problem of low-grade housing that provides multiple breeding grounds for the mosquito.

Earlier this month a report by Argentinian doctors treating populations in villages sprayed by the pesticide persuasively argued that the use of pyriproxyfen, including its addition to drinking water supplies, could be a major factor in the increased incidence of microcephaly. A publication on pyriproxyfen from the US Environment Protection Agency in June 2015 reports liver toxicity and ensuing endocrine changes. Disruption of endocrine action, notably thyroid hormone action, has major deleterious effects on brain development. In 2005, a draft assessment report on pyriproxyfen submitted to the European Commission made particular mention of the risk to bystanders during spraying, especially in enclosed spaces. No such concern seems to be in the mind of the Brazilian government as health department workers in protective clothing copiously fumigate and spray the streets of major towns with no regard for the safety of unprotected onlookers. As the Argentinian doctors conclude, ‘massive spreading using planes … is criminal, useless, and a political manoeuvre to simulate that actions are taken. The basis of the progress of the disease lies in inequality and poverty, and the best defence is community-based action.’

Barbara Demeneix
Natural History Museum, Paris

In Corsica

Didier Fassin reports the vandalising of an Islamic prayer hall in Ajaccio last Christmas Day as a typical instance of an unprovoked attack on the Muslim minority in France (LRB, 3 March). But he omits a key fact, reported in all the French press. The previous evening, the fire brigade had been called out on a false alarm to one of the Ajaccio banlieues. When the three-member crew arrived, it was attacked with rocks and two of the crew were seriously injured. In Corsica, which is regularly ravaged by scrub fires in summer, the pompiers perform a vital public service. It is hard to imagine anything more anti-social than targeting them for attack.

The Charlie Hebdo murders in January 2015 and the Paris killings in November have even called into question the loyalty of French nationals who are only nominally Muslim to secular, liberal, republican democracy. But hostility to Islam as such (not simply to ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamic extremism’) is now normal in, for example, readers’ comments in organs as sober as Le Monde, which is increasingly accused of political correctness in its search for neutral reporting. At the same time, there is much soul-searching and even some satire about the political justifications for the continued state of emergency. Fassin’s piece reflected little of this balance of opinion, despite the fact that in the recent regional elections, voters from left and right came together to frustrate the Front National and save the country from what would have resulted, in my view, in a Gaullist coup and civil war.

Peter Lomas
St Andrews

The Inequality Problem

Richard House is a little too generous to the Conservatives when he says that if they can keep around a quarter of the registered electorate sufficiently happy, then any suffering experienced by the rest won’t matter electorally (Letters, 18 February). At last May’s general election, 30.7 million votes were cast by a registered electorate of 46.4 million, 11.3 million of them for the Tories. The estimated eligible electorate is 52.4 million. According to these numbers, the government was supported by just 21.6 per cent of the potential electorate. Now that we are shifting from a system of household electoral registration to an individual one, the situation for the country is likely to get worse – though for the Conservatives much better.

David Packham
University of Bath

Celebrity Dissidents

Daniel Soar draws a comparison between the ‘celebrity dissidents’ Ai Weiwei and Julian Assange, and includes a reference to Ai Weiwei’s photograph of himself in the pose of Aylan Kurdi (LRB, 18 February). But the image is grotesque. Ai Weiwei’s art has until now seemed merely inconsequential, narcissistic: geegaws for the boudoirs of the international elite, luxury objects with a dusting of conceptualism and a way of saying nothing much in the most expensive way possible. He has for a long time been the darling of a certain sector of the commentariat in parts of the West, his celebrity intertwined with a specific set of neuroses: the paranoid Orientalist fetishism of the rising Dragon of the East which comes coupled to a tribal loathing of ‘communism’ and a need to seek out its antagonists. Ai Weiwei certainly appears to have done better than many of his fellow dissidents. This may be because beneath the surface of his work armies of anonymous fabricators are ironised out of existence in a manner exactly in keeping with the rank exploitation of the vast majority of the domestic Chinese labour force. Thus he partakes in the technical definition of communism as pursued by the PRC, itself not unlike the mechanism of industrial capitalism.

However, the photograph is a new low. Not only is it a repugnant appropriation of a real and wretched death in the service of his own celebrity, it displays a misapprehension both of the mass media and of his moral position within it. The image of the drowned child was, for better or worse, globalised overnight. It cannot be ‘reclaimed’ in the way Ai Weiwei seems to intend, only further exploited. Perhaps he should go all the way and have his team rustle him up a mountain of ceramic life jackets so that he can be lionised anew at the next Biennale.

There is a consuming emptiness here, and it is not dissimilar to the emptiness at the heart of Julian Assange’s bizarre story, which is what makes Daniel Soar’s comparison so interesting. What does anyone today recall about WikiLeaks except that frail, geekish and smug figure with the silver mane, those little eyes glittering in the light of a thousand flashbulbs? None of it came together to reframe our understanding of anything, nor did it have any emancipatory effect. In a curious way the WikiLeaks material seemed to shore up the very hierarchy that it purported to undermine, by reiterating its circuitous inner conflicts. Faceless bureaucrats and state operatives were suddenly humanised, revealed as being as bad-tempered and inefficient and bitchy as would have seemed likely to anyone who had previously felt the need to imagine what they were like. And yet just as Ai Weiwei floated his stock ever higher on the forgotten efforts of his craftspeople, Assange built a spurious messianism upon his revelations of nothing while Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was pinned to the wall for making Assange’s heroism possible.

Vaughan Pilikian
London E14

The river crabs served up by Ai Weiwei in ‘celebration’ of the demolition of his government-built studio and their subsequent ceramic reincarnation at a Royal Academy dinner commemorating the event are not, of course, your common or garden crustacean but loaded symbols of resistance to the heavy censorship imposed on the internet by Beijing. The authorities claim censorship is justified in order to maintain the much vaunted ‘harmonious society’, even to the extent of banning any mention of the word itself online. To get round this, Chinese netizens use the two Chinese characters for ‘river crab’ (he xie), which have almost the same pronunciation as the two different characters for ‘harmonious’, thus referring to whatever has been censored as having been ‘river-crabbed’.

Duncan Hunter
Hong Kong

You hear it or you don’t

Reading Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s review of it, I’m reminded again how difficult it is to write a fictional, or for that matter biographical, account of a composer as opposed to a painter or writer (LRB, 18 February). With a painter or writer there is always something to describe or quote, but with the composer we either hear music or we do not. In some ways poets have it easier, and there are any number of very successful poems about composers in the recent anthology Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers from Thomas Tallis to Arvo Pärt, edited by John Greening. Still, the fictional attempts to get through, somehow, to the imaginative centre of a composer have a distinguished history, from Eduard Mörike’s charming Mozart’s Journey to Prague to the terrifying Doctor Faustus of Thomas Mann to recent attempts to imitate the structure of a work in Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony and the experimental novel about Anton Webern, Michael Mejia’s Forgetfulness. As for Shostakovich, the novel that Fitzpatrick might have mentioned is William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, which places the author’s imagined composer in the social and political context of military invasion and Stalin’s terror.

John Matthias
University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Perhaps he did

Terry Eagleton calls C.S. Lewis an Oxfordian (LRB, 18 February). I wasn’t aware that Lewis was one of those who believe that the earl of Oxford wrote many of the works attributed to Shakespeare. But perhaps Eagleton meant ‘Oxonian’.

Judith Nelson
Charlottesville, Virginia

Where to Put David

Alexander Nagel’s piece about Michelangelo’s David put me in mind of the strange history of a clone of gigante that appeared in the city of Montreal (LRB, 4 February). The statue was given by Simpsons department store to the Fairview Shopping Centre to commemorate the centre’s opening in 1965. It had been made in Italy for a New York department store and was then purchased (along with three other statues) by Simpsons for $10,000. It was mounted at the centre of the mall and a heated debate began as to the propriety of having a (huge) nude, male statue displayed in a shopping centre frequented by families. The fact that it was a copy of one of the greatest and most famous statues in the world seemed almost forgotten. Equally lost was the fact that in Florence it had been on public display in the main piazza for hundreds of years, apparently without any ill effect. Nevertheless the copy of David was removed from the mall and in 1966 was donated to Loyola College Student Association and installed on a pedestal in the Vanier Library, where it no doubt delighted and distracted all who went there to study. It instantly became the target of pranks (painted green for St Patrick’s Day and festooned with fig leaves, banana peel and nappies on other occasions), until one spring day in 1987 it was found toppled over in many pieces with a fire hose wrapped around it.

Douglas Buchanan
Hudson, Quebec

Parental Imperialism

Andrew O’Hagan’s remarks about Jennifer Jones in his review of West of Eden – ‘she went to bed in full make-up and hair … just in case she was taken ill in the night and had to go to hospital’ – reminded me of going over to her East Side apartment a few times to play with her children – we went to the same Manhattan school (LRB, 3 March). In her full and colourful skirts and perfect hair, Jennifer always dressed as if she’d just walked out of an ad for Saks Fifth Avenue. In a celebrity’s household, the imperialism of the self doesn’t stop at the children. They are always seen as extensions of their famous parent(s). How could they be anything but props?

Bert Lahr – the Cowardly Lion – pretends to cook for his children

Bert Lahr – the Cowardly Lion – pretends to cook for his children.

John Lahr
London N10

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