Heading for a Thucydides Trap
Tony Wood rightly picks out the EU as ‘the prime mover in Western policy towards Ukraine’, noting that ‘it was shockingly cavalier in its approach’ (LRB, 2 March). Indeed, much of the blame for the catastrophe in Ukraine can be directed to the EU’s grandiose (and inept) designs in foreign policy, as Richard Sakwa demonstrates in his book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (2015). Wood mentions Russian resentment at Nato’s encroachment on its sphere of influence, but it must also be pointed out that Nato’s search, after the end of the Cold War, for a raison d’être was given a significant boost by the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. Since 1989, Sakwa writes, ‘all new members of the EU have also become members of Nato. The Treaty of Lisbon (the “Reform Treaty”) of 13 December 2007, which came into effect in 2009, made this explicit. Accession countries are now required to align their defence and security policies with those of Nato.’ Sakwa refers to this as a ‘militarisation’ of the EU.
Russia was predictably aggrieved when Poland and two other Visegrad group countries (Hungary and the Czech Republic) joined Nato in 1999, and furious when Slovakia and the Baltic states became part of the club in 2004. Thus Nato and the EU have advanced hand in hand up to Russia’s borders, which they are pressing further by seeking to bring other accession states into the fold. As the heightened levels of military activity in the Baltic already indicate, the potential for conflict is enormous. The EU and Nato may be playing the role of Athens to Russia’s Sparta, leading the West into a Thucydides Trap.
Monkton Farleigh, Wiltshire
Identical twins always fascinate but Diane Arbus’s photograph Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967 prompts some rather specious speculation from Colm Tóibín (LRB, 2 March). ‘One girl is smiling more than the other,’ he writes, ‘and seems softer, sweeter but she is also slightly pitiful. The other is tougher, harder. She may be having ugly thoughts.’ Here’s a different hypothesis: they do not want to be photographed yet again; they prefer different clothes; they resent being treated as a unit; they may not want to be together at all. The girl who is smiling doesn’t look pitiful, but like a pleasant, ordinary girl. The other girl doesn’t bother hiding her feelings. I make these suggestions in the light of my own experiences in childhood.
One Tree to Another
Christopher Eddy thinks that communication isn’t possible for what he likes to call ‘dumb animals’, a circularity by which he means ‘non-human animals’ (Letters, 16 March). Had such animals an ‘inkling of what intentional communication involved’, he writes, they would communicate with us through music, by dancing or singing. This isn’t a good argument: it may be that music is peculiarly human, while other intentional communication is not. And the premise is false: social media are full of videos of animals dancing to or singing along with music. As for animals not communicating in other ways, there’s a glorious cacophony going on. Birdsong and display, most exuberant at this time of year; the waggle-dances by means of which honeybees tell each other the locations of flowers and other resources; dogs’ play-bows, and so on.
It takes some contortion to convince yourself that a dog, overjoyed at seeing its owner again after a long separation, is an automaton who isn’t communicating intentionally. Likewise that a dairy cow’s anguished bellows on being parted from her newborn aren’t saying anything. But allowing that the cow is suffering when this happens, and that she is saying so, does sit uneasily alongside a fondness for cheese.
To Know the King
John Watts describes Malcolm Vale’s attempt in Henry V: The Conscience of a King to ‘hear the king himself speaking’, to understand his ‘thoughts, beliefs and actions’, and, in Watts’s words, to ‘restore a sense of the importance of the individual in the course of history’ (LRB, 2 March). All this points to a desire to know Henry, less as a king than as an individual. The infatuation with the medieval king as an individual can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599). On the eve of the Agincourt battle, the disguised king converses with his men and argues his cause with a mixture of conviction and unease. Henry is not trying to be a man; he is pretending to be one, and he is the more appealing because of it.
But medieval kings were not supposed to be accessible to their people except in performing their kingly duties. People did not generally perceive the king as a man, much less consider his conscience – in the modern sense of the word – as a measure of his kingship. A king was either a bad king (like Richard II) or a good king (like Henry V), or in other cases a weak king (like Henry VI). It is the modern writer and modern readers who want to know the king as a man. As Watts rightly observes, Henry’s distinctive administrative practices, his personal interests (in the arts, for example) and his unique attitude to kingship tell us more about the period than they do about Henry himself.
Jane Wong Yeang Chui
Nanyang Technological University
Neither an MP nor a Peer
Stephen Sedley makes a curious choice for his example of a minister who was neither an MP nor a peer (LRB, 2 March). Frank Cousins was Harold Wilson’s gimmicky choice as minister of technology, a new department abolished by Edward Heath six years later. It was clear from the outset that Cousins would answer to the Commons as soon as a by-election in a safe Labour seat could be arranged. But two days before his appointment was announced, Patrick Gordon Walker had been installed in the far more important position of foreign secretary, despite having lost his Smethwick seat in the October 1964 general election. On 21 January 1965, Cousins duly became an MP in a by-election for the Nuneaton constituency, but the hapless Gordon Walker lost the safe seat of Leyton that had been vacated for his benefit, to a Tory swing of 8.7 per cent, and promptly resigned his office. Within 18 months, Cousins, too, had gone: he and Wilson had become disillusioned with each other. However, it was the Gordon Walker precedent that had the greater significance.
The Protective State
Are the mentally ill not to be brought under the umbrella of Theresa May’s ‘protective state’, as portrayed by William Davies (LRB, 3 November 2016)? Personal Independence Payment is a benefit offered to people who, because of serious physical disability and/or mental illness, have difficulty with such everyday activities as cooking, washing and social engagement, or with mobility (planning and carrying out a journey, for example). The benefit has a ‘daily living’ component and a ‘mobility’ component; a person’s eligibility is assessed by awarding them points according to whether or not their circumstances match the ‘descriptors’ for each component. If, for example, you need an aid such as a perching stool to cook a simple meal in your kitchen you get two points; if you need prompting to engage socially you get two points. To qualify for benefit under either component you need at least eight points.
At present, you get eight points if you ‘cannot plan the route of a journey’ because of a physical disability or because of mental illness – an anxiety disorder, for example. But from 16 March, the descriptor will be amended so that it reads: ‘For reasons other than psychological distress, cannot plan the route of a journey’. The effect of this, and of other, similar amendments, is to make it more difficult for people suffering mental illness to qualify for PIP under the new descriptors.
A Thing among Things
Hal Foster quotes Lawrence Alloway’s suggestion that Eduardo Paolozzi was working towards ‘an image of man tough enough and generalised enough to stand up in this environment’ (LRB, 16 February). In New York Paolozzi became known by way of one of the most heavily criticised exhibitions of its time, the 1959 Museum of Modern Art show organised by Peter Selz titled New Images of Man. There his sculptures were exhibited alongside many works of seemingly very similar inspiration, including some by the slightly older British sculptors Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler – though Paolozzi’s closest kinship was probably with the French sculptor César, who would subsequently go over to the nouveaux réalistes. Paul Tillich’s preface to the MoMA exhibition catalogue raised the alarming possibility that man was ‘losing his humanity and becoming a thing amongst the things he produces’ – very like the thought that Foster attributes to Paolozzi himself.
Brooklyn, New York
Take as much as you like
As Christopher Lord suggests, the name ‘heroin’ is well suited to a drug that banishes fear (Letters, 16 March). The name itself was originally trademarked by the Bayer pharmaceutical company, as they considered it heroisch that they had transformed addictive morphine into ‘non-addictive’ heroin by boiling it in water for a few hours. They marketed Heroin successfully for childhood bronchitis and for coughs between 1898 and 1913, before its effects were fully understood and even doctors were constrained from prescribing it.
When were you thinking of shooting yourself?
Sophie Pinkham writes that ‘the Bolsheviks had little interest in either the avant-garde or art free from state control … Proletkult’s position was the antithesis of the avant-garde stance that revolutionary form and content were inseparable’ (LRB, 16 February). This may be the way a simple-minded party ideologue saw things, but Trotsky’s pages on Mayakovsky in Art and Revolution suggest there was more to it. A committed, if not uncritical admirer of Mayakovsky, Trotsky objects that form and content are divorced from each other in the poet’s work after 1917: ‘How out of place, and particularly how frivolous do these primitive ballads and fairy-tales sound when hurriedly adapted to Chicago mechanics, and to the class struggle.’ As Trotsky sees it, Mayakovsky’s failure to revolutionise his form results in a grotesque and reductive severing of manner and matter. It is all but impossible, Trotsky concludes, ‘to separate form from content. And when this happens, Futurism will undergo such a profound qualitative change that it will cease to be Futurism.’ It is this formal transformation that the revolution demanded of art. Pinkham’s claim that the Futurist movement perished because it was ‘incomprehensible’ to ‘most people, Lenin included’, doesn’t countenance the possibility that it was the ‘avant-gardes’ who couldn’t keep up.
I take issue with Peter Smith’s citing of Nixon’s campaign against drugs as one of his achievements, and especially with his phrasing: ‘Nixon’s … fight against cancer and illegal drugs’ (Letters, 16 March). So much bigotry has been alleviated in the 45 years since Nixon started the ‘war on drugs’, yet we (drug-takers) are still a persecuted minority.