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Letters


Battle over the Warburg

Charles Hope’s account of the battle over the Warburg Institute brings to mind the image on the Warburg’s website of a steamer carrying the books to England from Nazi Germany (LRB, 4 December 2014). While housed in England, despite its sometimes precarious foothold, the institute has helped to transform our study of cultural history. It has made many fields, from the classical tradition to the history of science, look stranger and richer than had been thought, it has integrated the visual and the verbal in wholly new ways, and it has set an internationally recognised benchmark for scholarly achievement. And yet it is clear that many people in England have rather wished the ship could have been turned back. The library’s shelf-plan, with books readily to hand according to a coherent system, has been integral to its model of intellectual history: the open shelves preserve a creative if slightly eccentric moment of European thought and keep it intellectually productive. But this clashes with what Chris Cobb, the pro vice-chancellor of the University of London, refers to in classic Hefce-speak as a policy of adopting ‘sector best practice to apportion costs more transparently’. What he calls the Warburg’s ‘space hungry’ practice is reinterpreted as malpractice thanks to a growing digital zealotry according to which giving any space at all to physical books is too expensive. Maybe it would have been best had the ship actually sunk and dumped its last-century lumber in the deep. ‘Don’t Mention the War … burg,’ Cobb’s allies in the cause of imposing ‘best practice’ on the Warburg like to joke, thus implicating an institution with a strong Jewish component in general anti-German sentiment. Such readiness to snigger at the weird practices of humanities scholars runs through today’s university system. Let us hope that this particular battle has indeed been won; but the implications go well beyond the Warburg.

David Norbrook
Pikesville, Maryland


I was a Greek neo-fascist

As Alexander Clapp makes clear, Golden Dawn is indeed a neo-fascist party, which seeks to reinforce its electoral charm by appeals to myths about ancient Sparta (LRB, 4 December 2014). It is worth reiterating that at least one key element of Golden Dawn’s claimed ancestral connection is indeed a myth: ancient Sparta, though militarily proficient to an exceptional degree, was not as brazenly militaristic as Golden Dawn imagines or would like it to have been. But then, as Clapp points out, the party’s guiding ideology is rooted not in some fantasised antiquity but in the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, which afflicted Sparta and its wider region, Laconia, with particular bitterness and brutality, following on from the horrors of Nazi occupation.

Paul Cartledge; Stephen Hodkinson
Clare College, Cambridge; University of Nottingham

Golden Dawners ‘ambush immigrants about once a week,’ Alexander Clapp writes. ‘They call these raids krypteia, “secret things”.’ That is what krypteia means, but it was also the name of an alleged ancient Spartan practice. Plutarch describes it in his life of Lycurgus, citing Aristotle as his source:

The magistrates from time to time sent out into the country at large the most discreet of the young warriors, equipped only with daggers and such supplies as were necessary. In the daytime they scattered into obscure and out of the way places, where they hid themselves and lay quiet; but in the night they came down into the highways and killed every Helot whom they caught.

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich


Or the Duck

It seems odd that Amia Srinivasan could review Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife, which proposes the wholly unpersuasive idea that we are more attached to the future of the human collective than to that of our own genes, without even mentioning the position – which many would share after lucidly examining the brief history of our species – that the planet would be far better off without us (LRB, 25 September 2014). I don’t believe we’d all react to human extinction with Scheffler’s ‘profound dismay’; indeed, I think that quite a few people would even welcome it, hoping that the next time around, with a little luck, evolution will take another course, perhaps pausing at the horse, or the duck.

Jim Adams
Saint Amant de Bonnieure, France


No Bottle

Rose George writes that my ancestor John Snow’s ‘great insight was to recognise that people who breathed the same air didn’t all die’ of cholera, a disease universally believed to be airborne until he demonstrated otherwise (LRB, 18 December 2014). Snow first encountered cholera in 1831 during that year’s outbreak, when he was 18 and apprenticed as a medical assistant in Newcastle. At the nearby Killingworth colliery he noted that ‘the men are occasionally attacked whilst at work … having seen them brought up from some of the coal-pits … after having had profuse discharges from the stomach and bowels, and when fast approaching to a state of collapse.’ What set him on his path of investigation years later in London was the observation that while many miners succumbed to cholera, others breathing the same air underground did not. Had cholera been airborne, a coalmine would have been the ideal place for it to spread.

Mat Snow
London SW12

According to Rose George, bottled water in the US is less regulated and probably less safe than tapwater, but ‘thankfully … 40 per cent of American bottled water comes from the municipal tapwater supply anyway.’ The thanks are owed to Californians. As Julia Lurie of Mother Jones reported this summer, the vast majority of the water marketed by four major brands (Aquafina, Arrowhead, Dasani, Crystal Geyser) comes from springs and taps in the Golden State, which is the only place in the West without groundwater regulation: find a spring and it’s all yours. This year California has been hit by a drought, and Nasa has estimated that it needs 11 trillion gallons of rain to recover. Pouring out the 10 billion gallons of bottled water sold to Americans every year for $12 billion wouldn’t do the trick.

Francine Villiers
Oakland


The Castaway

Jeremy Harding writes that Camus ‘didn’t share the [Communist] Party’s hostility to the first stirrings of nationalism in Algeria’ (LRB, 4 December 2014). There was more to it than that. Camus had been given the job of working with anti-colonialist Algerian militants, and felt they had been betrayed after a Moscow-inspired volte-face led the local party to side with the authorities when they started arresting nationalists. Sartre’s Le Mur, incidentally, is a collection of short stories not a novel.

Harding’s claim that Camus was ‘effectively “exiled”’ from Algeria after 1940 also needs qualification. Although Camus’s fiercely critical journalism for Alger républicain and Le Soir républicain led to his blacklisting in Algeria – and meant he was looking for work in France – he returned after the German invasion in 1940 to Oran, where he began work on La Peste. Sartre may well have liked Camus’s novel when he read a draft, but after its publication he criticised it for representing the all too human evil of Nazism as a natural disease. Algerians aren’t altogether absent from the work, as Conor Cruise O’Brien implied: before the plague breaks out in Oran, the journalist Raymond Rambert tells Dr Rieux that he wants to write a report on the living conditions of the ‘Arabs’ (as they were then described by the European population); Rieux admits they’re not good. A token gesture, perhaps, but Camus’s Oran is above all a symbolic city.

As for L’Homme révolté (The Rebel), Camus’s notion of rebellion is not ‘a state of mind achieved … by internalising real contradictions in the world … and emerging with a kind of ethical digest that guides our judgments and tells us how to act’. It is rather a spontaneous revolt against perceived injustice, the outraged sense of an ethical boundary having been overstepped. Harding is thinking of Camus’s concept of la mesure (measure), which revives the ancient Greek concept of sophrosyne or the golden mean, not in the sense of a bland moderation, but of maintaining a difficult balance between different forms of excess (démesure). Francis Jeanson misunderstood the book, ignoring not only Camus’s pointed reworking of Descartes’s cogito as ‘Je me révolte, donc nous sommes’ (‘I rebel, therefore we are’), but his praise for syndicalism in the final section. He mocked Camus for comparing the execution of Louis XVI to the passion of Christ, when Camus actually referred to ‘what has significantly been called the passion of Louis XVI’. ‘Significantly’, because the ideology of the divine right of kings gave Louis’s execution a theological dimension, while – as Camus goes on to point out – Louis deliberately embraced a Christ-like role once he realised that his fate was sealed.

Neil Foxlee
Lancaster

If Meursault’s weapon was indeed a revolver then, however many nostrils it possessed, the ‘highly polished belly’ would have been of its ‘butt’ or ‘grip’ rather than its ‘stock’, which would suggest a rifle whichever way round he was holding it.

Dick Pountain
London NW1

Jeremy Harding writes: I apologise for lumping La Nausée and Le Mur together as ‘novels’ rather than works of fiction; this was corrected online. Also for the confusion about weapons parts: like Sandra Smith – eager, I guess, to avoid the flurry of underbellies and butts in Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation of L’Etranger – I’ve clearly shot myself in the foot, or somewhere.

Since the issue went to press Kamel Daoud, decidedly a free thinker, has been harassed by Abdelfatah Hamadache Zeraoui, an obscure Algerian imam with strong views about the sale of Christmas logs in Algerian pastry shops. After Daoud appeared on a French TV show on 13 December, Hamadache took to his Facebook page to describe him as an ‘apostate’, a ‘miscreant’ and a ‘“Zionised” criminal’. The authorities, he said, should execute him in public: if sharia law were applied in Algeria, he went on, the punishment would be death. Daoud has filed a complaint with the police in Oran and there’s outrage against Hamadache on Algerian social media. A Change.org petition is doing the rounds calling on the Algerian Ministries of Justice and the Interior to pursue Hamadache for his ‘invitation to public murder’.


The state washes its hands

As Austin Mitchell points out, the chance was missed in the 1940s to set up a national network of law centres (Letters, 18 December 2014). However, from the 1970s onwards law centres employing salaried lawyers came into existence in many boroughs (Camden, Kensington, Carlisle, Haringey, among others), largely funded by local authorities and specialising in welfare rights, employment, housing and immigration law.

Law centres are locally controlled, often organised as collectives, and employ both fully qualified barristers and solicitors, lay representatives (welfare rights officers, for example) and volunteers. They advise in detail, prepare cases and represent in court or on tribunals. In general they do not charge their (largely poor) clients fees.

It would cost only a fraction of the remaining legal aid budget to expand the existing patchy network of law centres into a national system. This could be done by imposing a duty on borough and district councils to allow the establishment of law centres in their areas and to fund them.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

Perhaps Austin Mitchell forgets that there are inquisitorial judges in the English legal system; they are called coroners.

Robert Forrest
Boston, Lincolnshire