‘Never again’, Amia Srinivasen promises, will she indulge in octopus carpaccio, or order any dish of octopus, after her fascinating investigation of these eight-armed ‘sophisticated problem-solvers’ whose complex behaviours have an eerie resemblance to our own, while they remain utterly unlike us (LRB, 7 September). ‘Octopuses,’ she says, ‘are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.’ Her description of the octopus extending an arm to a human, or leading it by the hand, has a touch of Spielberg’s ET. The octopus, like us, is keen on food, and when it reaches into submarine outcrops of rock to extricate a shrimp or a baby crab, it performs a gesture I see a lot at home, whenever my husband rummages with his fingers in a jar of pickles. The octopus, itself a soft-bodied mollusc, has a penchant for … molluscs. So I believe it’s okay – without wishing to egg her on – for Srinivasan to enjoy a plate of octopus now and then, on the grounds that like may as well eat like as unlike. Apparently there’s no stopping us.
Diogenes Laertius, in his life of Diogenes the Cynic (no relation), tells that the philosopher met his end in Corinth while distributing raw octopus to his dogs, one of whom bit him in the tendon. In Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and Food (2015), Michel Onfray gives another version, in which Diogenes fought over the octopus with the dog in question, won the day, ate the prize morsel and promptly died of indigestion. So perhaps we’re at physical as well as moral risk when we eat these complicated creatures.
The terrifying vastness of Erik Pontoppidan’s Kraken, of which Srinivasan writes, struck Kant very forcibly. In his writings on physical geography he calls the octopus ‘the world’s largest animal’. When it rises to the surface of the sea, ‘it is said to have great tines that protrude above it like trees’ and ‘innumerable fish are said to roll down off it.’ He adds judiciously: ‘Its shape is unknown’ – a remark designed to give us the impression that we know a lot more than he did.
Amia Srinivasan’s tentacular essay on octopuses was a treat. She mentions the 2010 EU directive on animal testing, which classified cephalopods with vertebrates, because of their ‘ability to experience pain’. That was 17 years after the UK recognised the sentience of these remarkable animals: in 1993, the then home secretary, Michael Howard, gave the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, the status of a ‘protected animal’.
‘It is hard not to conclude that the Raj ended in the worst failure of its whole existence,’ Ferdinand Mount wrote in the last issue, adding: ‘And we might as well admit it’ (LRB, 7 September). One person who did admit it was Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, appointed to oversee Partition. In his autobiography, Life, Love, Laughter, Liberty (2015), the veteran BBC foreign correspondent John Osman recorded a conversation he had with Mountbatten in 1965 in which Mountbatten was frank about how they had got things wrong: ‘I fucked it up,’ he said.
Reading Adam Shatz’s piece on Charlottesville I remembered my classmate Donald Trump as a charlatan in college (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) and years later in bankruptcy court when I was a Wall Street banker (LRB, 7 September). Racism, a convenient moniker, is only the tip of the iceberg of his pathology, which will never change. In his campaign for office he had ‘a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits’, as the journalist H.L. Mencken said of William Jennings Bryan, yet political apologists call them the disaffected electorate; and thanks to the imprudence of the Electoral College, he can now parade his wanton entitlement, much as Mussolini did, chin thrust forward in a mission to restore the Roman Empire. Il Duce wound up hanged from a lamppost. What is Trumpeter’s dream of empire? Certainly not e pluribus unum.
Competence for high office aside, I see the peril we face in government, particularly with Congressional lapdogs such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell at the helm, and remember Benjamin Franklin’s remark when leaving the Continental Congress in 1790: ‘We have a republic, if we can keep it.’
David Taylor Johannesen
‘Not since the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977 has there been such a brazenly anti-Semitic gathering in an American city,’ Adam Shatz writes. But the notorious Skokie march never actually took place. The neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America, which split off from George Lincoln Rockwell’s group after his death, fought the issue of its right to march on First Amendment grounds all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in its favour. However, once he’d won the right to march, gaining massive publicity along the way, the founder of the group, Frank Collin, called off the march. The group did hold rallies in Chicago after similar litigious wrangles, but not in Skokie.
Ridgewood, New Jersey
Jacob Ecclestone questions whether President Assad and his chums in the Kremlin were responsible for ‘the alleged poison gas attack’ on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April, echoing the opinions of Seymour Hersh and Theodore Postol that they weren’t (Letters, 27 July). He goes on to say that Postol, a boffin at MIT, was ‘ignored by the mainstream media’.
I reported from London on the poison gas attack for the BBC’s Newsnight on the day it happened. That meant watching hideous videos of men, women and children breathing their last, foam bubbling from their mouths and nostrils, muscles jerking in spasm; the scene that sticks in my mind is of six or seven children lying dead. I argued furiously in New Broadcasting House that we should show as much of this grim material as we could, Ofcom rules about taste and decency permitting. Newsnight goes out after the 9 p.m. watershed, but the piece we broadcast was so grim it couldn’t be shared on the internet lest children watch it. I’ve covered wars since 1988. You can’t fake that depth of evidence, period. For Ecclestone to characterise this crime as ‘alleged’ sticks in the throat. It happened.
So who committed it? The people who live in Khan Sheikhoun, who oppose both Assad and Islamic State, are clear that it was an attack by the regime from the air. That’s worth reporting. Do Syrians who question the regime’s use of force, including chemical weapons, suffer torture and death? Yes, say Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Does the Assad regime use poison gas? Yes, say multiple experts on chemical weapons. Has the Assad regime been caught importing NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suits from, say, North Korea? Yes, twice. In 2009, the Greek authorities seized 14,000 anti-chemical weapons suits from a North Korean ship heading for Syria; in 2013 a Libyan-registered vessel, the Al En Ti Sar, out of North Korea bound for Syria, was stopped by the Turkish authorities, who seized 1400 rifles and pistols, thirty thousand bullets and anti-chemical gas masks. The weight of evidence points to the Assad regime’s having used chemical weapons against the opposition at Khan Sheikhoun.
David Lehmann chooses to speculate on my state of mind when I wrote my letter criticising Greg Grandin’s account of Venezuela, rather than to consider my arguments (Letters, 7 September). I did not write it ‘in a fury’, and do not consider my criticisms intemperate. I wrote the letter because I don’t approve of what Lehmann calls Grandin’s ‘even-handedness’: to my mind the balance of judgment comes down heavily against the incompetent, corrupt and authoritarian – now dictatorial – Chavista regime, and rather than look its results in the face Grandin keeps his finger down on the positive side of the scales. That is bias, not even-handedness. Lehmann isn’t correct either in saying that anti-Americanism cannot be overestimated in Latin America. It certainly can be overestimated, and often is, by the North American and European left especially.
Marina Warner’s beautiful review of Thomas Laqueur’s Work of the Dead had me thinking about the insistent presence of the dead in my own childhood – and, I suppose, the childhoods of all those whom Doris Lessing called the Children of Violence (LRB, 17 August). It wasn’t just the absent presence of my mother’s father and brother, killed in the first and second wars (as they were then called, as if there had been no others) but never talked about because, as my mother once confided, ‘You might cry, and if you ever started crying, you’d never be able to stop’; or the fact that one of the odd Christian names I tried to hide from other boys I inherited from my father’s best friend, Acton Jefferies, killed in Italy – a name that hung around my neck like one of the murdered chickens my father used to bind to the necks of errant dogs.
Apart from these family ghosts, there were the ones who haunted my grim little morgue of a prep school, its hall adorned with rolls of the glorious dead. Aravon was a strange relic of Anglo-Ireland, sitting in the midst of Catholic Bray, where the days seemed to be routinely punctuated by chanting processions just outside the walls, all of them honouring the grieving Virgin. There in the Republic, a hundred miles south of the kingdom, we were required to watch the film of the coronation in the school gym, surrounded by the Gardaí, called in to protect us against the men who had recently blown up a cinema in Newry because it had insulted the memory of ‘our Irish dead’ by showing the same loyalist movie. It was many years before I was able to look back and see this dislocated enclave of a largely erased history for what it was, and to understand why an entire dormitory was panelled with the names of the imperial dead, each carved beneath the polished badge of his regiment.
University of Auckland
‘It is not known,’ Marina Warner writes, ‘who proposed the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey.’ In fact it is known. The idea of the ‘unknown warrior’ was conceived by the Rev. David Railton, MC (1884-1955) early in 1916, after seeing a grave in a garden in Armentières marked by a rough wooden cross bearing the inscription, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. According to the ODNB, in 1920 Railton enlisted the support of the dean of Westminster, Herbert Edward Ryle, who in turn persuaded Lloyd George to win over a reluctant King George V to the idea of interring an unidentified set of remains in Westminster Abbey, ‘to bring comfort to those who had only a bleak telegram to mark their loved one’s death’.
Saint Louis University, Missouri
Wes Enzinna, in his review of Ecology or Catastrophe by Janet Biehl, a book about my father, Murray Bookchin, wrote that Biehl was ‘denied permission by his estate to quote at length from Bookchin’s papers’ (LRB, 4 May). This is not true. When we requested that the statement be corrected, the online version was altered to read: ‘She didn’t have permission from his estate to quote at length from Bookchin’s papers.’
In fact, despite having full access to his papers, Biehl never requested – and certainly was never denied – permission to quote at length from them, much as she never requested to interview anyone in Bookchin’s immediate family.
Horizontal cropping of the image of Giacometti’s bronze, The Dog, illustrating Jeremy Harding’s review stunted its meaning (LRB, 17 August). Harding aptly quotes Giacometti’s description of the work as a symbolic self-portrait, but only when you see the dog’s swayback body profile can you recognise its echo, noted years ago by Michael Brenson, of the Alpine horizon of Giacometti’s Swiss childhood.
The truncated image was a consequence of a computer glitch, not of an act of barbarism on our part.
Rory Stewart, wondering why certain features of life in the Roman Empire were preserved in some places and not others, writes that ‘wealthy Londoners could, like the Romans, have imported olive oil, just as they imported wine … But they didn’t’ (LRB, 16 February). But they did. In the 17th century olive oil was used by some of the English elite to dress salad. It was sold in London by Italian warehousemen and advertised in the press. It apparently fell out of favour in the first half of the 20th century before being rediscovered by Elizabeth David.
Royal Holloway, University of London
John Barrell’s piece on ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ brought to mind my father’s first wife, a politically engaged Irish woman, whom he married in 1922 (LRB, 27 July). She told him how, at a local council meeting, a woman in dispute with a male councillor said: ‘I wouldn’t piss in the same field as you for fear the two streams should meet.’
It is disappointing that Gary Wilder treats my review of his book as a criticism of Césaire and Senghor, when it was meant as a qualified critique of Wilder’s own commentary on them (Letters, 7 September). He claims that I ‘dismiss’ them as ‘imperial apologists’. In fact, I described Césaire as ‘a magnificent anti-colonial rhetorician’, and did not indicate personal approval of any of the criticisms I reported of Senghor. Neither did I argue that their views were ‘characterised by naivety’, as Wilder claims, but precisely the opposite. I wrote that his ‘reading of Senghor and Césaire … challenges the idea that they were cynical – or naive’.
The central question I raised in my review was not whether dreams of ‘exploding the republic by creating a transcontinental association of self-governing communities’ were sufficiently radical or anti-imperialist in theory, but whether they would have worked in the context of what we know about that historical moment. Questions of political strategy are, as Wilder sees it, ‘reductive’. For those involved in the anti-colonial struggle, they couldn’t be dismissed so easily. ‘Given global capitalism and imperial politics,’ as Wilder puts it, most people across the colonised world understood that ‘de-linking from the West was impossible.’ But recognising that fact, and taking into account the indissoluble histories of coloniser and colonised, did not inevitably lead to the type of political project he outlined.
The question has always been how, exactly, to rectify what the Ghanaian nationalist J.W. de Graft-Johnson called ‘the disequilibrium of human destinies’ that is one of the enduring legacies of the colonial relationship. Other visions existed alongside those in Wilder’s book, including forms of anti-colonial federation and, yes, nationalism that also aimed to achieve ‘socialist, democratic and multiracial’ polities and create an ‘alternative global order’. Needless to say, these possible ways out of empire were all fraught with risks and difficulties. But wouldn’t it make sense to present an accurate view of the range of possibilities, instead of painting imperial federalism as the only visionary project going?
We shouldn’t accept the strange binary that Wilder creates – and repeats once again in his letter – between imperial federalism and what he calls ‘methodological nationalism’. In reality, forms of transnational federalism can end up looking distinctly nationalistic (historical dreams of linking the UK and its former Dominions in a ‘Greater Britain’ are a good example), while nationalisms can work in the service of transnational and global ambitions (think of Cuba). Many of the anti-imperialist projects Wilder dismisses as ‘nationalist’ were, like Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism, actually deeply transnational and federal in orientation.
Raymond Clayton writes about antique medical texts, and the continuing pertinence of The Practice of Physick from 1658 (Letters, 13 July). My first recourse isn’t to the internet, which can worry you nearly to death if you’re feeling off-colour, but to a battered 1976 paperback of Symptoms, edited by Sigmund Stephen Miller (582 pages, but a pocketbook nonetheless). It attempts to help people self-diagnose not by disease, but by symptoms, although the two factors are cross-indexed. Its science is sometimes outmoded but its commonsense approach is excellent. The slim chapter at the end, written by Miller himself, concludes: ‘Eventually we are all caught by that dark hunter, but those of us who are constantly active and constantly moving around are more difficult targets and less easily caught.’
Linlithgow, West Lothian