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A Life Well Spent

When I began, nearly fifty years ago, to study the sexual behaviour of British newts, I thought the only person to have trodden this esoteric path before me was Bertie Wooster’s friend Augustus Fink-Nottle, who studied newts in his bath. I soon found, however, that I had been beaten to it by W.N.P. Barbellion, who, as Blake Morrison mentions, published under his real name of B.F. Cummings three papers on newt behaviour between 1910 and 1912 (LRB, 21 June). By today’s standards these are discursive, lacking in quantitative detail and full of speculation, unlike the sharply focused papers he published later on parasitic insect pests found in the trenches. Notably, Cummings interpreted the fanning display, so conspicuous and characteristic of the courtship behaviour of the male palmate newt, and a means of wafting hedonic odours to the female, as ‘simply a method of eliminating a surplus of nervous energy’, ‘without any definite purpose’.

Tim Halliday

It’s the cold that’ll get you

Stephen Essrig is worried about a new ice age, but is wrong to suggest it presents a greater danger than global warming (Letters, 2 August). We have an internal temperature of 37°C that we control via perspiration (or air-conditioning). We cannot survive above a ‘wet bulb temperature’ of 35°C, meaning a temperature of 35°C at 100 per cent humidity, or at a higher temperature with lower humidity. As things stand, the planetary surface temperature will increase by 2°C over the course of this century owing to carbon dioxide and methane already emitted. These two gases are respectively at 1.45 and 2.5 times their 1750 pre-industrial levels, having been steady before that for the 11,700 years since the most recent ice age.

There isn’t the remotest chance that we will spontaneously enter another ice age. However, we do in any case now have the proven ability to raise the planetary temperature (by 0.8°C over the last hundred years). The most efficient and safe way to do this is to release methane, which has a 35 times greater warming effect per molecule than carbon dioxide and remains in the atmosphere for just eight years before being oxidised to carbon dioxide and water. So if there did happen to be a cataclysmic volcanic eruption or unexpected meteor fall leading to a drop in global temperatures, our response should be to release the appropriate amount of methane to keep us warm even in a world of temporarily darkened skies, with controlled recovery in a decade or two. In the world as we know it, however, we are going to be cooked alive unless we rapidly change to solar and wind power.

Malcolm McGeoch
Little Compton, Rhode Island

Stephen Essrig’s fear that a new ice age is imminent is unfounded, with or without deforestation and fossil-fuel burning. While large volcanic eruptions can cool the climate, their effects are shortlived because the erupted material settles out of the stratosphere and is rained out of the lower atmosphere in a matter of months. Geologists used to think that the next ice age was close at hand because the intervals between recent ice ages were comparable to the time since the end of the last one, 11,700 years. Predictable changes in Earth’s orbit, caused by the gravitational tugs of our planetary neighbours, pace the succession of ice ages by changing the distribution of solar heating across the seasons of the year. Glaciers grow when summers are persistently cool enough to allow some of the winter snowfall to survive the melting season. The Earth’s present orbit is different from those that characterised recent ice ages. The last time the orbit was similar to the present one was nearly half a million years ago. At that time, the intervals between ice ages were far longer than between recent ice ages, 25,000 to 30,000 years. By the time the next ice age is due to begin, much of the carbon dioxide gas released during our burst of fossil fuel burning will have been taken up by the ocean. It will no longer keep us warm but its legacy will still be felt in ocean acidification.

Paul F. Hoffman
Victoria, British Columbia

Stephen Essrig considers the arrival of the next ice age some millennia hence ‘a far greater threat to civilisation and health than the rise in global temperature’. Tell that to the Neanderthals and their Siberian cousins, the Denisovians. Civilisation emerged from aeons of Neolithic tedium as the last ice age receded, and the Little Ice Age failed to take the steam out of the Enlightenment or freeze the Renaissance in its tracks.

Russell Seitz
Harvard University

Powell v. Proust

Perry Anderson writes of Balzac’s Comédie humaine that ‘its 91 volumes form no single narrative: they are separate fictions, in which characters may reappear a few times, but the stories are essentially disconnected, at best unified ex post facto by the more or less arbitrary categories of the creator’s “system”’ (LRB, 19 July). This is false both to Balzac and to Proust’s relation to Balzac. When, well into his writing career, Balzac hit on the ‘recurring characters’ principle, it was not as some ‘arbitrary’ linking device. It was an après-coup illumination experienced as a moment of creative joy at the belated discovery of the deep unity of the Comédie. Proust was among the first to appreciate this. In La Prisonnière the narrator speaks of an aesthetic that Proust himself had discovered in reading and translating Ruskin, namely the revelation of an unconscious ‘design’ that comes late, the prime exemplars of which are Wagner, Hugo and Balzac. ‘This unity was an afterthought but not artificial,’ as the narrator puts it.

Anderson repeats the view that the true literary sources of inspiration for Proust were Chateaubriand and Nerval. These two were of course crucial in relation to the place of involuntary memory, and more generally the spaces of interiority, in the architecture of A la recherche du temps perdu. But Proust was a novelist, not a poet in disguise, and for Proust the novelist there are two fundamental sources of inspiration: Dostoevsky and Balzac. He did not, as Anderson (echoing Gérard Genette) suggests, ‘part company’ with the Bildungsroman. He absorbed it. And if there is a guide here, it is supremely the Balzac of Illusions perdues. Without the relation to Balzac, Proust’s project is both unintelligible and, to some extent, pointless.

Christopher Prendergast

Hitler’s Monsters

Richard Evans claims that there are ‘serious flaws’ in the argument of my book Hitler’s Monsters (LRB, 2 August). First, my aim was to provide a ‘supernatural history of the Third Reich’, but Evans seems at times to be reading the book as if it were a general history of the Third Reich, or even of Germany and the Germans in the interwar period. He takes me to task for ‘generalising about “the Germans”’ and ‘ignoring the mass of scholarly work done in the 1970s and 1980s on the cultural worlds of Weimar’s huge working class’. As he correctly points out, the Catholics, like the socialists, communists and urban working classes, weren’t particularly susceptible to Nazism or occultism. The ‘millions of Germans’ I refer to intermittently are primarily those (disproportionately Protestant) middle and lower-middle-class Germans most likely to support the NSDAP.

Second, Evans criticises me for citing putatively obscure secondary sources germane to my argument. Most of these citations are of widely recognised academic historians of science, religion, culture and politics in modern Germany. To take just one example, Evans takes issue with the claim that ‘many German scientists lamented the rise of modern physics and chemistry.’ There I am drawing on the work of the pre-eminent historian of science Anne Harrington, in her monograph Re-enchanted Science (1996); most of my sentence is a direct quote. The same goes for dozens of instances in which I cite Harrington, Corinna Treitel, Peter Longerich, Michael Kater, Peter Staudenmaier and other academic historians who are treated in Evans’s review as if they were obscure crypto-historians.

Third, as Evans acknowledges, the book is based on more copious primary and secondary research than any previous work in the field. So while I may cite Rauschning on the nature of Hitler’s ideology and the Nazi movement – as Evans does in his own book The Coming of the Third Reich – I rely far more frequently on statements from Himmler, Hitler, Hess, Goebbels, Rosenberg, Darré, Bormann and other well-known contemporaries.

Finally, in making a case that the Nazis were all but universally opposed to supernatural thinking, Evans cites specific examples of Nazi leaders expressing scepticism concerning mysticism or the occult. I cite the same examples, explaining them as well-known assertions that are contradicted by the primary evidence and by the fact, illustrated repeatedly in my book, that by the 1930s even many occultists, hoping to garner legitimacy, preferred to define their practices as ‘border science’. But Evans largely overlooks my examples of Nazi leaders, various state institutions and party offices, and numerous fellow travellers researching, discussing or attempting to exploit astrology, magic, pendulum dowsing, anthroposophy, cosmobiology, biodynamic agriculture, World Ice Theory, the Holy Grail, theories of Atlantis and the Thule, Luciferianism, Tibetan mysticism, Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, folklore on werewolves, revenants and vampires etc. It would be unfortunate if readers came away from Evans’s review thinking that Nazi leaders either rejected such ideas and doctrines outright or showed no interest in them at all.

Eric Kurlander
Stetson University, DeLand, Florida

Why not politicians too?

Lana Spawls writes about the case of Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, who was convicted of manslaughter by gross negligence over the death of Jack Adcock, a six-year-old boy who was under her care at Leicester Royal Infirmary in 2011 (LRB, 21 June). Bawa-Garba was struck off the medical register in January 2018, though the Court of Appeal very recently overturned that decision. Her case illustrates the way in which, when health systems fail, individual doctors tend to be blamed regardless of whether the blame is merited in full, merited in part, or entirely unjust. Many doctors feel that the legal and regulatory environment in the UK is now such that it is no longer safe for doctors to work there. At least 114 doctors died between 2005 and 2013 while involved in General Medical Council ‘fitness to practise’ proceedings, a significant number by suicide. Those who do survive the proceedings cannot expect the presumption of innocence to be respected on social media, so the trauma and effects will be lifelong even for those who are exonerated.

It does not have to be this way. Legal reform, revised regulatory practices and better fitness to practise procedures can give patients the robust protection they need while also respecting doctors’ presumption of innocence. Most of all, managers and politicians who distribute healthcare resources should be called to fitness to practise hearings so that it can be determined how their decisions were made. If, for example, there was only one vacant bed in a ten-bed critical care unit, why should the doctor be the only one facing interrogation for allocating it to one patient over another, when both patients needed it? Why not ask the manager why there weren’t 11 beds to begin with?

Brendan Kelly
Trinity College Dublin

Boycott or Not

As an American citizen who has lived in the UK now for nearly fifty years, I read with alarm Amjad Iraqi’s piece about attempts to pass an Israel Anti-Boycott Act in Congress (LRB, 19 July). I consulted a former colleague of mine in the Peace Corps, a retired lawyer who worked in the State Department. I read his reply with some relief: ‘Senate Bill Number 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, was introduced in the Senate on 23 March 2017 by Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, a state with a substantial Jewish population. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and has gone precisely nowhere since then. It has not passed the House; it has not passed the Senate; there is no indication that it has even been debated in the Senate. With Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho as chairman of the Banking Committee, and with time very quickly running out before the Senate adjourns for the 2018 elections, it is a virtual certainty that this bill will not be passed … I assume that some version of the Anti-Boycott Act may be introduced again in the next Congress which will convene in January 2019, but it is difficult to see the political advantage to any large number of members sufficient to get it passed.’

Joseph Winkelman

If not Cahun, who?

It is mystifying that Adam Mars-Jones refuses to countenance the possibility that Claude Cahun might belong under the broad umbrella of transgender identities (LRB, 2 August). It goes against Cahun’s every act of gender play and every refusal to perform 1930s French womanhood, which was the central theme of so much of Cahun’s art and life. True, there is no surviving manuscript in which Cahun states, ‘I am transgender and I hate pronouns,’ and of course, Cahun was shaped by a world that was rigidly demarcated into ‘male’ and ‘female’. But to take this as proof that Cahun was content with the gender binary represents a stubborn refusal to engage with more than twenty years of discussion of trans and queer histories by academics and activists. Transgender people today are fighting for awareness, acceptance and civil rights. An integral part of that struggle is finding a place in history. We need figures in the past whose lives and identities resonate with our own. If not Cahun, who?

Onni Gust
University of Nottingham

American Breakdown

I agree with much of what David Bromwich says about our depressing American scene, but the following sentence stopped me in my tracks: ‘Police, for the most part, haven’t yet shown a pro-Trump disposition, and Democrats should want to keep things that way’ (LRB online, 9 August). This is simply untrue: from Charlottesville one year ago to subsequent clashes in Berkeley and Portland, Oregon, police have allowed white supremacist protesters to goad, beat and (in Charlottesville) kill anti-fascist counter-protesters; co-operated outright with white supremacists; and attacked counter-protesters themselves. Of course there are anti-Trump cops out there; I know a couple of them myself. But the criminal justice system in America has long displayed a ‘pro-Trump disposition’: just look at the rates at which people from ethnic minorities are stopped, arrested, charged and imprisoned – not to mention killed – by the police. It’s worth remembering that Border Patrol and ICE agents are cops too.

Alex Abramovich
New York

After the Fall

Lawrence Paulson refers to ‘the shocking decline in life expectancy since 2010’ (Letters, 19 July). It would be more accurate to say ‘the disappointing decline in the rate of improvement of life expectancy since 2011’. Some colleagues and I on the International Actuarial Association Mortality Working Group recently looked at the latest published life expectancy figures for twenty countries: the UK, some other European countries, Australia, Japan and the US. We calculated the trend in improvements from 2001 to 2011, and from 2011 to 2016, the date of the most recently published figures. Life expectancy improved everywhere except the US. However, the rate of improvement in almost all of the countries had flagged. This is not to say that the recent increase in deaths in the UK may not indicate a further turning point in trends in life expectancies in the coming years, particularly if remedial action is not taken soon.

Brian Ridsdale
Chandlers Ford, Hampshire

That was the year that was

I got the date – and the occasion – wrong in trying to remember the botched challenge to the traditions of Wellington College by a group of seditious pupils in 1968 (LRB, 19 July). Their idea, I wrote, was to invite hundreds of hippies – via a small ad placed in International Times – to ‘field day’, a combined cadet force ritual scheduled for May. According to the historian David Kynaston, the ad announced the invitation to something called ‘speech day’, in June. That was a civilian affair, with hundreds of fee-paying parents milling about and weighing up the value they were getting for their investment. All the same, if the hippies, anarchists and diggers had shown up, speech day would have turned into a kind of field day, as parents shouldered their parasols and shooting-sticks and marched on the enemy.

Jeremy Harding
St Michel de Rivière, France


Sarah Perry writes that her doctors were concerned at the possibility of her ‘acquiring one of the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that plague hospital wards’ (LRB, 5 July). Two weeks later, her GP ‘recoiled at the unmistakeable smell of infection … but it was merely the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium … A course of antibiotics, frequent sluicings with saline, and all would be well.’ All clearly was well. But it seems worth pointing out that there are several strains of S. aureus, including some that are resistant to broad-spectrum antibiotics – MRSA stands for methicillinresistant Staphylococcus aureus – and have since the 1990s plagued hospital wards, as well as nursing homes, prisons, homeless shelters and military barracks.

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich, Suffolk