Vol. 43 No. 12 · 17 June 2021

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Undoing Philip Roth

James Wolcott refers to Philip Roth’s ‘work on behalf of writers and dissidents subjected to repression, censorship and persecution under communist regimes during the Cold War’ (LRB, 20 May). After reading Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, Roth was also ready to whip out his chequebook on behalf of the novelist, who had been forced to leave Egypt in the mid-1950s in mysterious circumstances, perhaps because of his involvement with the Communist Party. Ghali wrote his tragi-comic novel, which skewers both British treachery at Suez and the failures of Nasser’s revolution, when he was down and out in West Germany, the only country that gave him refuge. His editor and friend Diana Athill must have sent Roth an advance copy of Beer in the Snooker Club, explaining Ghali’s situation. Roth tried to set him up with a residency at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. In a letter to Athill in August 1963, he offered to pay Ghali’s fare – ‘It would be a shame for him not to change his situation, on the strength of a few hundred dollars’ – and encouraged Ghali not be ‘modest or self-abasing about his work’. Ghali, a great self-sabotager, didn’t take up the offer.

Susie Thomas
Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex

In speculations about a possible ‘affinity’ between Philip Roth and his biographer Blake Bailey, James Wolcott cites Roth’s foreword to Frederica Wagman’s Playing House (1973), a novel about sibling incest. In a footnote Wolcott showcases a quotation which, taken out of context and accompanied by Wolcott’s response (‘In the immortal words of Ethel Merman, “Jesus Christ”’), implies that Roth endorses the horrific sexual acts depicted in Wagman’s work. I urge readers to consult Roth’s foreword, which is included in his collection of essays and reviews Reading Myself and Others (1975). The quotation Wolcott cites merely summarises the perspective of Wagman’s narrator. Roth then goes on to suggest that what is so extraordinary about the novel is that the point of view ‘is not Humbert Humbert’s but Lolita’s – only a Lolita with heart and nerves exposed, a little girl at once more ordinary and more loving, and, for that reason, more profoundly destroyed’. Roth ends the review with the statement: ‘The only irony Frederica Wagman’s heroine is able to know is the irony of her enslavement; she is beyond everyone’s reach, poor woman, except the one who touched her first.’

Julia Prewitt Brown
Northampton, Massachusetts

James Wolcott’s essay on Philip Roth brought to mind something Philip Larkin said. ‘A writer’s reputation is twofold,’ Larkin wrote in 1975, ‘what we think of his work, and what we think of him. What’s more, we expect the two halves to relate: if they don’t, then one or other of our opinions alters until they do.’ Any suggestions regarding which of my opinions on Roth should alter are welcome.

Francis Reavley
Newcastle upon Tyne

Not British, but English

What should embarrass classicists is Boris Johnson’s claim to know the beginning of the Iliad off by heart (Letters, 3 June). There’s a clip online of him attempting a demonstration at the Melbourne Writers Festival. He recites the first 42 lines in just two and a half minutes. He achieves this by omitting lines 8, 15-16, 18-19, 21-22, 32 and 39-41. He misquotes lines 14, 17, 20, 23, 24, 35, 36, 37 and 38. The remaining lines are present and correct. This says nothing about his intellectual prowess but a lot about his memory; he would have been an abysmal rhapsode.

Gregory Klyve
South Molton, Devon

Right and Wrong

Thomas Nagel considers the view that standards of right and wrong are to be explained in terms of good and bad consequences (LRB, 3 June). He says this ‘possibility was given the name “consequentialism” by Elizabeth Anscombe’ and defends instead a ‘deontological’ view in which right and wrong have independent force. Although ‘consequentialism’ has come to have the meaning Nagel gives, that is not the way Anscombe defined it. She applied the term to any view on which the foreseen consequences of an action must be weighed in determining right and wrong. That is why she counted the deontologist W.D. Ross, who is cited sympathetically by Nagel, as a consequentialist in her sense.

This is not just a matter of terminology. ‘If we take both consequences and deontology seriously as guides to conduct,’ Nagel writes, ‘they will naturally present us often with a sense of a dilemma,’ as when a better outcome might result from an unjust act. But to accept the dilemma at face value is already to be a consequentialist by Anscombe’s lights. About such consequentialists she wrote, with typical scorn: ‘If someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration – I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.’

Kieran Setiya
Brookline, Massachusetts

In the course of a beautifully clear and, to me, convincing case for the philosophical survival of a kind of anti-consequentialist moral intuition (e.g. that lying, betrayal, torture are wrong even if their practice can increase human thriving) Thomas Nagel says that appeals to these intuitions are not weakened by the fact that when individuals undergo them certain brain regions reliably light up: ‘They don’t automatically withdraw from the scene in response to an MRI reading.’ Exactly. But more broadly I would say – as a psychologist with some experience of philosophers’ reactions to scanning results – that philosophers, like the public at large, can be too keen to be excited by these brain-mind correlations. Excited enough, for example, to think their students should consider the philosophical implications of empathy circuits. No, the philosophical implications really would fall thick and fast if there turned out to be no regular correlations between brain states and mental states. At this point some would say, ‘They must be there, but we can’t find them,’ and others: ‘Hello full-blooded, gaudy dualism my old friend.’ Brain-state/mental state relationships are fascinating and important and often surprising in their own right. We should be calmly intrigued by them, not pressing them on problems in moral philosophy.

James Russell
Richmond, Surrey

Applying neuropsychological insights and principles to morality is a sticky thing. Thomas Nagel draws on cognitive psychology as evidence for the practical existence of deontological morality, and cites the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as a kind of deontological champion. But the neurosciences paint a more nuanced picture. As well as the vmPFC, brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens and the anterior insula play a significant role in moral conflict. In particular, neuroeconomics has identified correlations between insular activity and decision-making under uncertainty, which pertains to the sort of moral question faced by Stuart Hampshire in that French interrogation cell.

Benjamin Midler
Stanford University, California


Adam Shatz writes that, when asked whether ‘all Western criticism – even Marxist criticism – of the failings of societies in the Arab and Islamic world’ was ‘to be dismissed as Orientalist’, Edward Said didn’t answer, ‘which led some readers to assume that he thought all Western writing about the East was Orientalist and therefore unsalvageable. This wasn’t his view at all’ (LRB, 6 May). In 1988 I was a participant in Said’s summer seminar at Dartmouth College. The sessions lasted for six weeks. After the last class, several of us walked with Said and talked to him about imperialism, colonialism and other subjects, including whether or not any Western authors had successfully overcome their Orientalist perspective. Said’s answer was a plain ‘No’. ‘No one?’ someone asked. ‘No one,’ Said said. ‘What about Orwell?’ I believe I asked. ‘No,’ Said responded. Other names were mentioned – each time, Said simply said no.

I don’t know whether Said regarded Western writers as ‘unsalvageable’, but in 1988 at least, he did seem to suggest that all Western writers were Orientalist. That, of course, didn’t stop him from reading, discussing or writing about them. Indeed, his regular use of Western writers suggests that he believed they had some value, but not as providing a reliable or accurate representation, in so far as that is possible, of non-Western cultures.

Roger Berger
Everett, Washington

Ruthless and Truthless

Ferdinand Mount writes that ‘the PM is surrounded by toadies he appointed, and alternative sources of criticism are silenced or sidelined,’ giving as an example the ‘sceptical advice’ on weapons of mass destruction ‘proffered by Dr Brian Jones, head of the nuclear, biological, chemical, technical intelligence branch of the Defence Intelligence Staff’ before the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq’s WMD was published in September 2002 (LRB, 6 May).

In the LRB of 17 October 2002 I discussed the dossier along with Khidhir Hamza’s Saddam’s Bombmaker. I reached a stronger conclusion than Jones: ‘The nuclear threat from Iraq is … significantly less now than it was in 1991.’ But Hamza had worked in Iraq’s nuclear programme and, having been spirited out of Iraq by the CIA, was telling anyone who would listen that Iraq ‘will have the nuclear bomb in months’ unless Saddam was overthrown.

Sometimes the truth can be as deceptive as a lie. Hamza told a US Senate committee that ‘with more than ten tons of uranium and one ton of slightly enriched uranium … in its possession, Iraq has enough to generate the needed bomb-grade uranium for three nuclear weapons by 2005.’ True, but Iraq would need to have the capacity to enrich uranium before it could make those weapons. US senators and British MPs could not be expected to know that. The CIA and MI6 did know, yet presented the fact that ‘Iraq has 11 tons of low-enriched uranium’ as proof of its wish to build nuclear bombs, when what it really shows is that without a working enrichment plant, Iraq was incapable of building bombs at all.

Mount quotes Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, saying after discussions with the CIA in Washington that ‘the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.’ So they were. Any fact would do if it helped make the case for war. For example, Saddam did have a nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s, until it was terminated by the coalition forces under US command in the first Gulf War. The CIA found it easy enough to quote facts from that time as if they still applied in 2002. Iraq did, for example, buy uranium from Niger in the 1980s. It didn’t buy any in the 1990s, yet Iraq’s purchase of uranium from Niger was one of the principal reasons given in the dodgy dossier for going to war.

Norman Dombey
University of Sussex

Mushroom Brain

Francis Gooding writes about the psychoactive effects of certain fungi (LRB, 20 May). A French botanist colleague at the Paris Collège de ’Pataphysique (so it might have been an Ubuesque joke) once told me that ‘everyone knows’ a shepherdess such as Joan of Arc would pull up and chew on roots similar to mandrake to stave off pangs of hunger when out with the flock. And the effect of this would be to cause auditory hallucinations.

Brian Reffin Smith

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