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Letters

Vol. 41 No. 22 · 21 November 2019

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The Rule of the Judges

Martin Mears’s letter about my article supporting the Supreme Court’s decision in the prorogation case, Miller (No. 2), is so full of errors and inconsistencies it’s hard to know where to start (Letters, 7 November). Let me set aside his fanciful list of alternatives to judicial review (impeachment; ignoring the prorogation) and his adulatory reference to the composition of the High Court panel which had decided the other way (he has evidently forgotten that one of them, the master of the rolls, had been designated an enemy of the people by the Daily Mail for holding, in Gina Miller’s first case, that withdrawal from the EU was a matter for Parliament and not the executive). That a former president of the Law Society, which is what Mears is, can ask rhetorically whether anyone believes that the 11 Supreme Court justices were not personally in sympathy with the objective of reversing the result of the 2016 referendum gives some measure of the depth to which public discourse has sunk.

What does deserve some scrutiny is his parting shot: ‘A government with a decent majority will be able to confine the court to its proper sphere by a one-paragraph Act of Parliament.’ I may not have been the only reader who was still wondering what he had in mind when, a few pages later in that same issue of the LRB, I came across Christopher Clark’s mention of the Enabling Act which had ‘made it possible for the Hitler cabinet to override parliament’. Is Mears proposing such a measure for the UK? Or is he perhaps thinking of a restriction or abolition of judicial review of executive measures? If it’s the latter, Margaret Thatcher is believed to have proposed the same thing in the early 1980s but been warned by a cabinet committee that to attempt it would provoke a constitutional crisis. Perhaps it’s a partial answer that we already have one of those.

Stephen Sedley
Oxford

Good Little Communists

Craig Sams states that contemporary research into ‘transgenerational epigenetic inheritance’ shows that Lysenko ‘was correct in his observations and conclusions’ (Letters, 7 November). This is nonsense. Lysenko based his whole agronomy on the observation that exposure to cold of a crop such as winter wheat can enable or accelerate the process of flowering in warm conditions. He called this technique ‘jarovisation’ (from the Russian for ‘spring’: яровое), translated into English as ‘vernalisation’. Lysenko was correct in a limited sense: vernalisation does occur. The complex genetic mechanisms that regulate it are still being researched. For example, in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana the floral repressor gene FLC is transcriptionally silenced during cold conditions and remains so, thus allowing flowering. But, crucially, Lysenko claimed that vernalisation could be inherited and that the next generation would retain this rapid-flowering behaviour. This is not true: the epigenetic state is reset each generation before the completion of seed development. Examples of transgenerational epigenetics do exist in plants, but it doesn’t happen in vernalisation. His system therefore rested on a falsehood that could be simply refuted by experiment, as it was at the time.

What’s more, Lysenko rejected the whole concept of genes as the basis of heredity. Given that epigenetics rests on the chemical modification of the heritable material of genes, this makes any claim that ‘the science of epigenetics … continues to confirm’ Lysenko’s conclusions not just a Whig interpretation of history, but a bizarrely inconsistent one. Sams finishes by noting that although Stalin liked Lysenko’s theories for ideological reasons ‘that doesn’t mean he was wrong.’ It doesn’t – but he was.

Liam Shaw
Oxford

All That Gab

James Wolcott writes that, to his knowledge, Susan Sontag never had a pet (LRB, 24 October). In fact she did. Sontag lived for a long time in the penthouse of the apartment building where my husband and I have lived for more than fifty years. We and our neighbours were all familiar with one of the not-so-nice Sontag stories. Apparently her son, David, said he would like to have a dog. Sontag agreed to let him have one. When she was forced out of the penthouse by a new owner, the superintendent went up to check on its general condition, only to discover that the entire, very large, wrap-around terrace was ankle-deep in dried dog shit. He and the doormen said they hadn’t even realised there was a dog up there since nobody ever saw her son, or anyone else for that matter, walking a dog in the park or on the street.

Deirdre Wulf
New York

James Wolcott mentions that Susan Sontag was the co-author, with Philip Rieff, of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. This gives Rieff more credit than many other reviewers have done – they credit Sontag alone. In reality, though there is evidence that Sontag played an important role in editing and shaping the book, it is highly unlikely that she contributed much to its content. The reason is this: The Mind of the Moralist is a deep reading of Freud. Had Sontag engaged with Freud in that way, she would have returned to the subject in her later work. Yet she never did, even when, as on the matter of sexuality, his thought was especially germane. On the contrary, she was one of the architects of a post-Freudian way of thinking about the self. Rieff, by contrast, went on to write The Triumph of the Therapeutic, essentially a sequel to The Mind of the Moralist. The contribution of an editor does not warrant the title ‘co-author’. We credit The Waste Land to T.S. Eliot, not to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Eli Zaretsky
New School for Social Research, New York

On David Jones

Paul Keegan’s judicious essay on David Jones, which reviews and draws on my biography, contains a few errors and, I think, mistaken notions (LRB, 7 November).

Keegan writes that Jones’s mother intended to name her son Oscar. In fact it was Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest she admired, but she disliked the name Oscar (and, apparently, also Ernest), and wanted to name her son Dorian, after the protagonist of Wilde’s novel.

What Keegan calls ‘those years’ – Jones’s time in the war – covered by In Parenthesis were primarily seven months, which occupy seven of the 354 pages of my biography. About these he writes: ‘In Parenthesis is inescapably the primary source, and the primary complication. Dilworth treats the poem as a document and the experiences of its composite Private Ball as straight reporting. This speaks anxiously for its accuracy.’ It would if I did. But in those pages I refer to the poem only four times and only – though this may not always be evident – as it ‘re-presents’ (Jones’s hyphen) actual events revealed by sources listed in endnotes. My sources included official battalion diaries, Jones’s annotations to a divisional commander’s war memoir, a letter from a battalion friend of Jones’s, an essay Jones wrote in 1917, Llewelyn Wyn Griffith’s Up to Mametz, unpublished interviews in which Jones discussed his time as an infantryman, thirty letters in which he reminisced about the war (actually there were hundreds, but I do not cite sources that repeat and confirm information), and hours of reminiscences about the war during my visits with him. As for the fictional Private Ball, whenever I asked Jones whether he had experienced what Ball does in the poem, he said ‘Yes’. I know precisely how historically accurate In Parenthesis is, where and how it deviates from actual chronology, and much of the often anecdotally rich actuality it omits. It is never, by itself, an informational source.

Keegan writes that Jones’s second epic poem, The Anathemata, includes a voyage ‘from Troy to Rome’. It doesn’t.

Finally, Keegan thinks I suggest that ‘Jones converted to Catholicism … to re-establish community with the past.’ I didn’t mean to. He joined the Church solely because he considered it ‘real’ (his word) and the alternatives not. This jars with ecumenical sensibilities but correlates with Keegan’s highlighting the importance to Jones of specific realities.

Thomas Dilworth
Windsor, Ontario

Paul Keegan doesn’t register that the canon of David Jones’s work has significantly expanded over the last two years. A volume of unpublished prose, edited by Thomas Berenato, Anne Price-Owen and Kathleen Henderson Staudt, and published last year by Bloomsbury, includes Jones’s controversial essay on Hitler and a series of reflections on Gerard Manley Hopkins. ‘The Grail Mass’ and Other Works, also from Bloomsbury last year, edited by Thomas Goldpaugh and myself, introduces a third book-length poem into the Jones corpus. The Grail Mass, at one time entitled The Anathemata, Part II, was composed during Jones’s period of ‘masterly inactivity’, as Keegan puts it, following the completion of In Parenthesis and his accompanying nervous breakdown.

The Grail Mass, with its shift between the dramatic exchanges of Roman soldiers and a lyrical exploration of Celtic Wales, was inspired by a vision Jones experienced on a trip to Jerusalem in which the British soldiers of occupation ‘metamorphosed before his eyes’, as Keegan writes, into Roman legionaries of the first century. The material that makes up the poem was written largely between 1936 and 1945 but never brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Jones rifled these manuscripts for The Anathemata, then returned to them after the publication of that volume. He revisited them again on at least three occasions, though these later attempts were hindered, pages having been misplaced as a result of Jones’s drafting methods and his itinerancy (what Keegan describes as a life ‘endlessly on the move, never settled’). Indeed, the text of what my co-editor and I have called The Grail Mass was for many years thought lost in one of Jones’s moves.

Jamie Callison
Nord University

Take it in stages

Mary Beard says ‘juries cannot convict if there is the smallest doubt that the rapist might have believed that the victim consented’ (LRB, 24 October). Is that quite right? I was on a rape trial jury a few years ago. The judge told us to take things in stages, stopping when we could make a decision: 1. Was there penetration? If not, then it is not rape. 2. If there was penetration, did the accused believe that there was consent? If not, then it is rape. 3. If the accused did believe there was consent, was that belief reasonable? 4. If that belief was reasonable, it’s not rape. If that belief was not reasonable, it’s rape. Much hangs of course on what counts as reasonable, but while the accused might deny penetration took place or alternatively claim that it was consensual rough sex, juries can be swayed, quite rightly, by the testimony, often lengthy, of a traumatised victim.

Charles Turner
University of Warwick

Terrible Continuity

A terrible continuity is highlighted by the appearance in the same issue of Christopher Clark’s review of books on Hitler by Peter Longerich and Brendan Simms and Thomas Meaney’s review of Stephen Smith’s The Scramble for Europe (LRB, 7 November). In 1937 Hitler ‘enabled the forcible sterilisation of the “Rhineland bastards” (the children of French colonial troops and German women)’; currently ‘European politicians are convinced that the survival of the European project depends on limiting African movement and fecundity.’

Melanie Selfe
Ipswich, Suffolk

Staple Diet

Congratulations to the LRB on its 40th birthday. What chance of a third staple?

Nigel Fyfe
New Zealand Ambassador

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