Vol. 39 No. 24 · 14 December 2017

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The Hunter-Gatherers Were Right

Steven Mithen writes that ‘the perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a “city" wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde’ (LRB, 30 November). In the Politics, a text that really was ingrained in the psyche of Western undergraduates from the late 13th century until very recently, Aristotle says that a city-state isn’t achieved merely by a group living in the same place, and ‘certainly not because it is enclosed by walls, since a single wall could be built around the Peloponnese’. A city-state, so far as Aristotle is concerned, is a moral community with a shared notion of justice, and it can go on the move. As one 16th-century commentator on the Politics put it: as long as it keeps the same form – that is, the same constitution, with the same order of offices and the same idea of justice – France would still be France ‘even if driven to India’. There is much that this vision of the city-state is responsible for, as the history of imperialism attests. Aristotle was certainly concerned to distinguish his polis from the so-called barbarian ethnos (the ‘nation’, in most modern translations), and was preoccupied with Greek moral superiority. But even he saw that while you can put a wall around a city, you don’t make a city with a wall.

Sophie Smith
University College, Oxford

The President and the Bomb

Adam Shatz is right to pose the question asked by Andrew Bacevich, after Harold Hering in 1973: ‘Why have we entrusted one imperfect individual [the president] with the power to blow up the planet?’ (LRB, 16 November). But it is more important to continue to ask what we can do to create a world in which the threat of nuclear annihilation does not exist.

There are currently 15,000 nuclear warheads in existence, 95 per cent of which are in the US and Russia. (The UK has about 215 warheads, though it relies heavily on the US to maintain them. Each of the four UK nuclear submarines carries 16 Trident missiles at any given time.) The use of as few as a hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs, small by contemporary standards, would loft at least five million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, causing climate disruption across the earth and reducing food production to such an extent that two billion people would be at risk of starvation. A large-scale nuclear war would kill hundreds of millions of people directly and cause unimaginable environmental damage. It would also cause temperatures across the planet to drop to levels not seen since the last ice age. Under these conditions the vast majority of humans would starve; it is possible our species would become extinct.

We are assured that these arsenals exist solely to guarantee that they are never used, but there have been many occasions when nuclear-armed states have made preparations to use them, and war has been averted at the last minute. ‘In the end, we lucked out,’ the former US defence secretary Robert McNamara said, speaking about the Cuban Missile Crisis. ‘It was luck that prevented nuclear war.’ Our current nuclear policy is essentially to hope that our good luck lasts, even as climate change puts increased stress on communities around the world, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Plans to spend more than $1 trillion to enhance the US nuclear arsenal, and £205 billion to renew the Trident missile and submarine systems in the UK, will exacerbate these dangers by fuelling a global arms race, and will divert resources that could be used to secure people’s well-being.

On 10 December the Nobel Committee will award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, for its work in drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its efforts to bring about a prohibition of such weapons. In July, 122 nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The US and the UK should do the same, and place nuclear disarmament at the centre of their national security policies.

Michael Orgel

Henry Kissinger reportedly issued no fewer than a dozen nuclear threats to North Vietnamese negotiators, Adam Shatz writes. The North Vietnamese then proceeded to win the war decisively. America and its allies went on to the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Admittedly, the disaster in Iraq might have been avoided had the first war there – when Kuwait was a legitimate casus belli – been pursued to its conclusion. Also America has successfully invaded places like Grenada, a country with defences at least as fearsome as those of the average English market town. America is the richest and most heavily armed state in history, but even its most loyal advocates would have trouble pointing to a string of great martial successes in the period in which it has had nuclear weapons. An aspect of those weapons that should, perhaps, be considered is the way they drain the strength of the conventional forces of the nations that possess them. If troops establish a beachhead and burn their boats, they are compelled to fight or to die. But nuclear weapons function psychologically as a fleet of landing craft moored safely out of range in the bay, which can be called on if the war goes badly. There they float, quietly consuming treasure.

Adrian Bowyer
Foxham, Wiltshire

The Rules of Augury

Michael Kulikowski writes that the ‘spaces necessary for augury lie behind the consistent Roman preference for the anticlockwise over the clockwise’, and that Rome’s foundation was thought to have begun from a point on the Arx (one of two peaks of the Capitoline Hill) and to have looked off south-southeast – the usual augural orientation (LRB, 16 November). Even when Augustus later divided the city into 14 numbered districts, the same orientation applied. But when in May 1928 the major consular roads radiating from Rome (whose milestones are still measured from the Arx) were classified and given strada statale (SS) numbers, someone neglected to follow the rules. Taking Rome’s GRA ring-road as a clock-face for reference, SS1 exits the city at 8 o’clock, SS2 at 11, SS3 at 12, SS4 (along which I live) at 1, SS5 at 3, SS6 at 4, SS7 at 5 and SS8 at 7 o’clock – clockwise and beginning from south-west. No doubt this reckless disregard for the rules of augury infuriated the gods and explains the downfall of the Fascist regime less than twenty years later.

Geoffrey Watson

More than Anyone Else

Madeleine Schwartz writes that on Christina Stead’s return to Australia, after an absence of forty years, ‘no one wanted a cranky, alcoholic old woman as a house guest’ (LRB, 2 November). In fact Stead’s younger brother Gilbert and his wife had a flat built onto their home for her. Stead stayed there but found it unsuitable. At a lunch given for her at the Washington Club in Sydney, she confided to a stranger, Heather Stewart, that she needed a place to stay. Stewart took her home and cared for her for months. Stead also stayed with her brother David and his wife, Doris, and also with her sister Weeta. Friends in the literary community arranged for Stead to stay for several months at University House in Canberra. Stead was staying with another stranger, Helena Berenson, when she was taken to Balmain Hospital, where she died on 31 March 1982. This is all in Hazel Rowley’s biography of Stead, published in 1993.

Incidentally, the title of the novel Letty Fox: Her Luck, Stead’s nephew told me, was her joke, which she translated as ‘Letty Fucks a Lot.’

Kate Llewellyn
Hove, South Australia

The Black Square

T.J. Clark, writing about Russian revolutionary art, mentions a photograph, reproduced with the article, of a group of military men under a banner with a black square on it (LRB, 16 November). As all of the figures in the foreground are wearing epaulettes, it can’t be the Red Army in 1920, as Clark conjectures, because epaulettes were outlawed in Soviet Russia in December 1917 and not reinstated until 1941. Searching online, I have found the image included in a selection from a regimental album for the 39th Tomsk Infantry Regiment, where it is labelled ‘Officers on a rally, 1917’. Nevertheless, as Clark says, the banner itself remains a mystery.

Petr Favorov

The Road to Reading Gaol

Colm Tóibín writes that when Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he ‘gave the manuscript [of De Profundis] to his friend Robert Ross, who had two copies made’ (LRB, 30 November). ‘He sent one to Lord Alfred Douglas; the other he later lodged in the British Museum. Sections from Ross’s copy were published in 1905 and in 1908. The complete version, based on the original manuscript, wasn’t published until 1949.’ The facts are that Wilde gave the manuscript to Ross with the instruction that two typed copies should be made. Ross sent one of these to Lord Alfred Douglas (who, incidentally, claimed that he never received it). Ross had the manuscript to hand, not just his typed copy, when he published excerpts in 1905 and 1908. In 1909 he presented the manuscript to the British Museum on condition that no one be allowed to see it for fifty years. He eventually bequeathed the second typed copy to Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland.

Holland published a ‘first complete and accurate version’ in 1949. However, having no access to the manuscript, he took the text from his typed copy. This contained a number of errors: misreadings of Wilde’s handwriting, misprints and omissions. The first truly complete edition, based on the manuscript, was published in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. On the occasion of the centenary of Wilde’s death in 2000 the British Library published a facsimile of the manuscript with an introduction by his grandson, Merlin Holland. Ross entitled his 1905 edition De Profundis. Wilde himself called it Epistola: In carcere et vinculis – ‘A letter from prison and in chains.’

Donald Mead
Oscar Wilde Society, London SW20

Tony Harrison

It is possible that the burning sense of outrage that fuelled much of Tony Harrison’s poetry, as written about by Blake Morrison, did not spill over into all parts of his life (LRB, 30 November). In 1984 I enthusiastically attended a reading he gave in Leeds from his Selected Poems. Afterwards I approached him, clutching a copy for his signature, and tentatively mentioned that things had changed at his old school. He wrote on the flyleaf, ‘To the headmaster of LGS, with no hard feelings.’

Anthony Verity
London SE23

Where Am I?

Thomas Jones refers to our innate capacity for forming ‘cognitive maps’, an aptitude that GPS technology may be eroding at the neurological level (LRB, 16 November). ‘Cognitive mapping’ was precisely the term first used by Fredric Jameson in the 1980s to describe the intellectual activity that would counter the social and spatial disorientation of postmodernity. Jameson saw our spatial confusion as we wandered around metropolises like Los Angeles as a symptom of our inability to grasp the workings of a globalised capitalism – leaving the prospects for concerted political action very bleak indeed.

Jake Soule
Duke University, North Carolina

At the end of a recent satnav car journey my five-year-old grandson, Laurie, asked: ‘Is this our destiny?’

Philip Stevens
Taunton, Somerset

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