I usually turn to the LRB for respite from the day job, but have been beguiled into correspondence by Anne Enright’s take on translation and subtext in Genesis (LRB, 8 March). Enright is correct that the thing Eve reports the serpent doing to her has nothing to do with sex. Hisiani literally means ‘tricked me’ (see 2 Chronicles 32:15). It’s actually a good onomatopoeic gag; the verse bears the translation ‘the snake hissed me.’ But she errs when it comes to the word erom – usually translated as ‘naked’. She suggests the word means ‘vulnerable’ and conveys no sense of shame. That’s wrong. Aside from this passage, the root form appears in Hosea 2:3 and Job 22:6, where it refers to adulterous sex. The key point about erom in Genesis 3 is that the chapter opens with the snake being identified as the most erom of all beasts. Whatever this state is, the snake seems responsible for its now being part of human sensitivities. This, I suspect, is the origin of those commentaries that suggest the serpent seduces Eve. We have learned our eromness from the reptile, transferred, perhaps, like some form of STD.
The most relevant gendered idea in the opening of the Hebrew Bible is difficult to convey in translation, but it should have been considered. Enright records Genesis 1:26 as stating: ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.’ (She’s citing the King James.) But that’s a terrible translation. In the Hebrew, God creates ‘Adam’ as a single creation possessing both male and female gender. The first human is bi-gendered, not a male – that’s why almost every English translation uses the non-gender-specific term ‘human’. It’s not until this bi-gendered creature is split that a distinct male ‘Adam’ and a female ‘Eve’ come into being. And the notion of the spare rib (or penile bone as Enright queries)? That’s also a mistranslation. In the Hebrew, God takes one of the ‘sela’s from the first bi-gendered creation. Sela means ‘side’ – as in the verse Exodus 26:20, ‘the side of the tabernacle’. It might be that this original Hebraic intent is not captured in the artistic representations that cast such a spell over our sense of what Genesis must mean, and the King James definitely assumes women to be an afterthought and a secondary creation, but in the Hebrew, male and female are equally primary creations in the image of a Divine who is beyond gender.
New London Synagogue, London NW8
If St Jerome were to be indicted for misogyny, he would undoubtedly have to plead guilty. But Anne Enright’s specific charges against him in her exposition of the Genesis story of the Fall aren’t quite in focus. Jerome does indeed translate the claim in the first letter to Timothy that Eve was deceived with the word seductus (the Greek is exapatetheisa). But seductus in fourth-century Latin did not carry the primarily sexual overtones which it has held in English since the 16th century. The overwhelming majority of classical usages cited in the standard lexicons imply deception or leading astray in the broadest sense, and none of Jerome’s few uses of the word in the Vulgate carries any overt sexual meaning: ‘flirting with animals’ just doesn’t come into it.
Nor did Jerome as a translator ‘tweak’ the text to turn Jesus’s ‘brothers’ into ‘cousins’. The Vulgate consistently translates Greek adelphoi as fratres, brothers. Jerome knew that Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew had no separate word to distinguish uterine siblings from other blood relatives, but in translating the Gospels he conscientiously retained the ambiguity implicit in fratres, even though, like most fourth-century churchmen, he believed in the lifelong virginity of the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s conviction that the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus were in fact cousins or step-siblings may or may not be persuasive. He didn’t invent it, however, nor is it to be found in his work as a translator, but in a polemical treatise against Helvidius, a Roman contemporary who maintained that Mary had had other children. Jerome was an unlovely individual, but too good a translator to allow his personal opinions to distort a text he considered sacred.
Magdalene College, Cambridge
Max Hastings cited a number of atrocities committed by the American military in various wars (LRB, 25 January). In modern times when American troops are sent into combat their first order contains rules of engagement. When American soldiers landed in North Africa in Operation Torch in 1942, their orders stated in part, ‘The sultan’s palace, houses of worship, mosques, cemeteries and private homes will not be disturbed or entered unless they are used as defensive works,’ and ‘Women, both European and native, will be treated with the utmost respect. Soldiers guilty of looting or assault on women will be shot.’ I don’t know if this punishment was ever carried out. General Order Number 1 issued to troops invading Iraq had no such provision. It simply said they should avoid offending Muslim sensitivities and not, for example, take pornography into the country. One wonders if an execution or two would have maintained discipline in the ranks.
Gavin Francis suggests a possible explanation for penguins’ long-distance movements, which appear nonsensical to humans: ‘Survival of the group may be enhanced by the habitual striking out for new territory of a (small) proportion’ (Letters, 8 February). This shares in a common misunderstanding of how evolution works at the level of the individual. Extensive research has demonstrated that individuals of nearly all species always act to maximise their own genetic contribution to the next generation. Perilous actions taken on behalf of the group, at the risk of one’s own reproductive chances, are an evolutionary dead-end. Humans, with their celibate monks and suicide bombers, are an exception, thanks to the power of tribal influence on learned behaviour. Such conduct is found in very few other species, among them social insects. Homing behaviour lies at the heart of long-distance movement, not only in penguins but in thousands of species of fish, birds, insects, bats and other organisms, many of which make point-to-point, semi-annual journeys far in excess of the two thousand miles mentioned for Adélies. It is indeed mysterious. Understanding is not advanced, however, by talk of group selection.
Jamestown, New York
David Runciman’s description of the game Go as ‘fearsomely demanding’ and as a ‘far more difficult game’ than chess, prompts questions about how we define difficulty and complexity (LRB, 25 January). My own struggles with the game would certainly support Runciman’s statements. Computers too find it hard to crack, because of its high branching factor, relative non-locality and the lack of a straightforward positional evaluation metric. But it should be added that one of the most striking aspects of Go is the simplicity of the rules. The international chess master Edward Lasker is reported to have said that the rules of Go are so simple and natural that if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, it too will play the game.
Susan McKay makes a few slips in her use of the Irish language (LRB, 8 March). In the noun ‘Uachtarán’, meaning ‘President’, the accent is on the third ‘a’, not the second, and the Provisional IRA’s slogan is ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ (‘Our day will come’), where McKay has ‘Tiochaidh’. The greater problem, though, is that she overlooks the cynicism in Sinn Féin’s attitude to Irish. It seems that none of the Sinn Féin leadership in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland can fashion a thought in the language, let alone legislate in it. At a recent press conference called to address the ‘crisis’, neither Michelle O’Neill nor Mary Lou McDonald could answer a question posed in Irish. Many native Irish speakers actually share some of the DUP’s exasperation: it’s hard to be lectured about a language that none of your interlocutors has bothered to learn.
Middle Temple, London EC4
It is impossible to disagree with Susan McKay’s account of the Democratic Unionist Party’s attempts to sabotage Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement by slamming the door on the Irish language. A further point may be made. Most people in the province (including Unionists) don’t seem to appreciate that they reside and work in Gaelic-named places, among them Belfast (‘Mouth of the Sandy Ford’), Coleraine (‘Fern Recess’), Clogher (‘Stony Place’), Carrickfergus (‘Rock of Fergus’), Derry (‘Oak Grove’), Newry (‘The Yew’), Muckamore (‘Plain of Confluence’), Enniskillen (‘Ceithle’s Island’), Drumbo (‘Cow Ridge’), Donaghmore (‘Big Church’), Trillick (‘Three Flagstones’), Tempo (‘The turn to the right’), Slieve Gullion (‘Holy Mountain’) and Saul (‘Barn’). There are hundreds more, including the names of streets and roads. To a large extent, the Irish language is already well established in Uladh (‘Ulster’).
Darren McGarvey’s ‘pleas for [personal] responsibility leave a bad taste in the mouth,’ Rory Scothorne writes (LRB, 22 February). He finds ‘nothing particularly new, interesting or persuasive’ in McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, aligning it with the neoliberal individualism that the book also clearly condemns. That condemnation may not be without contradiction (what is?); nor does McGarvey claim absolute novelty for his analysis. But Scothorne doesn’t engage with the experiments in memoir and psychosocial criticism in the book. Above all, he takes exception to McGarvey’s ‘introspection’, and his excavation of what personal responsibility can, or might, be in a life lived through structures of disinvestment and impoverishment. McGarvey’s answers may not suit all tastes: Scothorne’s sense that he has been exposed to something ‘bad’ is palpable. But part of the point of this book is to ask: ‘Where am I in all this?’ On the evidence of this review, that kind of self-reflection is still seen as the privilege of those supposed to be able to afford it.
Richard J. Evans is right to call for more discussion of the homosociality of Hitler’s Sturm-Abteilungen (LRB, 22 February). But his memory has played tricks on him. Nowhere, not even in the full-length version of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will, is there a scene in which ‘burly young brownshirts strip off and run naked through the woods.’ I have scanned the relevant documentaries about homosexuality and the Nazis, where such a scene is likely to have been included: Desire: Sexuality in Germany 1910-45 (1989); We Were Marked with a Big ‘A’ (1991); Paragraph 175 (2000); and The Hidden Führer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality (2004). None of these has vintage footage of naked stormtroopers either.
Riefenstahl’s film does show bare-chested Nazis in shorts going through their early-morning ablutions at the Nuremberg Rally’s campsites, helping each other wash and shave, aiming gushing hoses at each other and generally larking about. However, the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who had mendaciously stressed the homosexuality of the SA chief Ernst Röhm and his associates as the main reason for their murder, would never have permitted shots of nude stormtroopers in Riefenstahl’s film only a couple of months after the Night of the Long Knives. The documentary was meant to suggest a reconciliation with the now respectable SA.
A scene that corresponds exactly with Evans’s description does occur in Luchino Visconti’s film The Damned (1969). It is one of his milder homoerotic clips, and is immediately followed by the graphic bedroom orgies of stormtroopers and their toyboys, ending at daybreak with the mass slaughter of almost all of them by the SS. Visconti’s vignette of the Röhm purge was all fiction – there was no mass shooting that night, and probably no large amount of gay sex – but he admitted that he wanted to portray Nazis in the most sexually perverse light possible, without any regard for facts.
Many hundreds of still photos of naked German soldiers exist, taken by their comrades during the Second World War, and some are rather suggestive, but I cannot think of any similar ones from the camps of Nazi Party organisations. The cameras were probably kept shuttered, for fear that the circulation of images of nude men might foment an outbreak of homosexuality. None of that prevented the persistence of gay sex among the Hitler Youth, the SA and even the elite SS right up until 1945, to the dismay and puzzlement of Heinrich Himmler and other homophobic SS and police leaders. Although they were sent to prisons and concentration camps in droves, gay men couldn’t simply be wiped out.
University of Florida, Gainsville
Rupert Beale writes that Felix d’Herelle discovered bacteriophages in the course of distilling maple syrup in Quebec in 1917 (LRB, 22 February). In fact the work with maple syrup was carried out in 1898, and d’Herelle did produce a potable alcohol. He followed that up with another distillation project in 1902, of bananas in Guatemala, also a success. But I digress. In 1915, d’Herelle had been working on a severe outbreak of haemorrhagic dysentery at Maisons-Lafitte in 1915. He was with the Pasteur Institute. It took until 1917 for him to describe what he called an ‘invisible microbe, antagonistic to the dysentery bacillus’ (the quotation is from William Summers’s excellent book, published in 1999, Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology). D’Herelle began to study the typhoid bacterium, initially in mice. In 1919 he published his research on typhoid in chickens as well as humans in the journal Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences. He continued to prepare phages for use around the world, to combat plague, for instance, in Egypt and India, until the advent of antibiotics in the 1940s.
Philip Clark overstates the case for ‘historically informed practice’ – also called ‘historically informed performance’, HIP – in renderings of Mozart’s music (LRB, 8 February). Bernard Sherman, writing in Oxford’s Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (1998), notes that arguments about HIP focus on the possibility, the desirability and the motivation of ‘authentic’ performances. If it is possible to know (based on written sources and surviving period instruments) how Mozart’s music was played in his day, is it desirable to replicate those performances when we cannot know that the composer wouldn’t have preferred mid-20th-century playing styles (including string vibrato) had he been familiar with them? And was the motivation behind the emergence of HIP in recent decades solely the pursuit of accuracy and truth in music, or was the quest for an alternative career path also a factor? How ‘historically informed’ is it to play great music as if the Romantic revolution in music never occurred?
Clark’s implication that ‘orchestras with beefy brass and vast string sections perfect for Tchaikovsky and Mahler’ were often used in Mozart performances some decades ago is an exaggeration. The performances – by Böhm, Szell and Jochum – he calls ‘historical oddities’ used medium-sized orchestras, not large ones. They produced undeniably sonorous sounds, regardless of any stylistic reservations one might have had. Some ‘period’ performances have been marked by scratchy and abrasive sounds, not to mention metronomic tempos and emotional shallowness.
Maylands, Western Australia
Musicologists and composers have worked for two centuries to explain the mysteries behind Mozart’s String Quartet K. 465, and I’m not convinced that Jim Holt’s analysis has much to add (Letters, 8 March). With harmony released from its fundamentals, a C major chord might well ‘fit in perfectly’ wherever you place it. But in the introduction to his first movement, Mozart resists C major until the moment of maximum harmonic impact, and then allows the implications of those melodic non sequiturs I described to shape what comes next. That’s what I call genius.
Rhoda Koenig writes that in 2014 Dick Cavett ‘appeared in an off-Broadway play about the Lillian Hellman-Mary McCarthy lawsuit, which began with a remark by McCarthy about Cavett’s TV talk show’ (Letters, 8 March). Actually the remark was made on the show in which Cavett interviewed McCarthy. Hellman was not present but, like me, she watched it, or so it’s said.
I was pleased to see Tobias Gregory’s review of my translation of Philippe Desan’s Montaigne, but rather less pleased to find my name misspelled (LRB, 8 March). We translators get little enough press, and I would especially regret LRB readers not knowing I was involved.
Les Barthes, France
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.