I want to take issue with Malise Ruthven’s suggestion in his review of Said Aburish’s A Brutal Friendship (LRB, 16 October) that the West has an appetite for cheap petroleum. I remember reading in a biography of Nubar Sarkis Gulbenkian that his father, Calouste Gulbenkian, or Mr Five Per Cent, predicted in the Twenties that sooner or later it would be in the West’s interests to reduce the flow of oil from the Middle East by cutting off supplies from either Iraq or Saudi Arabia. American policy is to ensure high prices for oil by limiting the sources of supply. The United States chose Saudi Arabia to be its deputy sheriff in the Middle East partly for historical reasons but partly because of the gullibility of its rulers, who seem not to have realised that they are being duped into wasting their petrodollars to pay for American-made arms, which are of no use or economic advantage to them. By the alchemy of an astute foreign policy Saudi petrodollars become US dollars. To this end it is essential for the United States to maintain a near war footing in the Middle East. That is why Israel is another deputy sheriff. At the time of the Gulf War there was some suggestion that a US envoy had hinted to Saddam Hussein that the United States would not take too serious a view of the overthrow of the Kuwaiti regime. It must equally be part of US policy to keep Saddam Hussein in power so as to justify the continued economic embargo of Iraq; just as the sheltering of terrorists justifies embargoes on Libya and on Somalia.
Coolum Beach, Queensland
If, as a military police clerk and C/I liaison in the US Marines some years back, I were going 80 mph (which is what 121 kph works out to, roughly) through a downtown area with a drunk at the wheel without my seatbelt fastened and hit something really hard and died, I should imagine the traffic cop would have shrugged and called it suicide. Having driven for class-warfare pimps such as American civilian intelligence officials, I can just see the stony stares that young security fellow from the Paras got for reminding Di and Dodi to buckle up, as he was paid to do. Thank God there wasn’t a busload of 15-year-old tourists in their path, coming back from the only night in their ‘little people’s’ lives at the Paris Opera. ‘Candle in the Wind’ is not the appropriate song: better ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ by Jan and Dean. Whatever gave us the idea there was such a thing as ‘little people’ in the first place, if not that era Diana signified and embodied – the Eighties, with its numbing fixation on the lives of the rich and famous and beautiful? Fat chance all this would have happened if she were five feet tall and weighed in at 300 lbs.
The Evil Prince so far has created what? thirty or forty thousand jobs with his Trust, saved London from more Albert Speer-inspired high-rise, turned his back in public on that butchering bastard Idi Amin, and is probably a pretty good CO when he is serving with his regiment. And Tom Nairn is quite wrong about the stiff upper lip being a figment of the imagination (LRB, 30 October). Whether it is a kindergarten teacher like Ms Potts extemporaneously making like Gordon of Khartoum to protect her little charges, or right-minded crowds being trampled by horses for protesting at having to pay to vote (the selfsame issue over which our King, Dr Martin Luther King, was shot: the poll tax), it is a little difficult to think of the English – of whatever ethnicity – as posers or shams when the chips are down. My impression is that the UK is the world’s largest street gang, and when you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet, as the song goes. It is not the Crown’s fault that quiet competence and perseverance have gone out of fashion. Be patient, they are coming back. These new kids are up to the challenge; they have had us as excellent counter-examples. Meanwhile, Nairn’s is the fifty zillionth article I have seen on England’s spiritual death. Either die or get up off the floor and get on with it.
Walt ‘Bugsy’ O’Brien
Ron Haggart of Toronto (Letters, 17 July) took issue with the statement in my article (LRB, 22 May) that the Canadian ‘persons’ case decided by the Privy Council in 1929 concerned the election of Canada’s first woman senator. It has taken me a little while to check the facts. Even then I would probably not be responding at this distance of time had Haggart not begun his letter with a cruel remark about the ‘charming vagueness about distant places’ of the LRB and its contributors.
I was mistaken in speaking of the election of Canada’s first woman senator. Canadian senators are, as Haggart says, appointed. He is also right to say that the first woman to become a senator was not herself involved in the case. But Haggart is not correct if he is suggesting that the 1929 case was unconnected with her appointment. The case, which had failed before the Canadian Supreme Court, succeeded on appeal to the Privy Council in establishing that ‘qualified persons’ for appointment to the Senate under the British North-America Act 1867 included women. There was not just the one appellant Haggart mentions: there were five. Emily Murphy (the one he mentions) had in 1915 become one of the first women anywhere to be appointed a police magistrate by the British Crown. Another, Louise McKinney, had become in 1917 one of the first two women to be elected to a Canadian provincial legislature. The third of the five, Irene Parlby, had become a Minister without Portfolio in Alberta in 1921. The fourth, Nellie McClung, was elected an MP in Alberta the same year. The fifth appellant, Henrietta Muir Edwards, the only one not to have held public office, was provincial vice-president of the National Council of Women. They brought the appeal not out of personal ambition (though Emily Murphy was regarded as a strong candidate for appointment to the Senate) but as representative citizens seeking to establish the legal eligibility of women. It was their victory before the Privy Council which cleared the way for the appointment not, in the event, of any of the five but of Cairine McKay Wilson. Her appointment by the Governor-General as a senator on 15 February 1930 was precisely what the appellants in the ‘persons’ case had set out to make possible.
‘The Second World War,’ Keith Thomas writes in his review of Peter Mandler’s The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home (LRB, 13 November), saw ‘the introduction of heavy taxation and the disappearance of domestic service.’ Disappearance? After weeks of obsessive interest in the trial of a British nanny in Boston, working for a double-income professional couple, who can be oblivious of the extent of domestic service? The employment of servants in steadily greater profusion is a defining feature of today’s rising super-class of top managers and professionals. Nannies, cleaners, cooks, gardeners, housekeepers – all are back, thanks partly to the sharp reversal of the formerly-heavy taxation of the rich. The Fall and Rise of Domestic Service is a fine book waiting to be written.
Observer, London EC1
Edward Said’s essay about Beethoven’s Fidelio (LRB, 30 October) provides a useful perspective on recent productions of the opera and the problems it evidently poses for those who feel less than comfortable with the idea that culture and politics can be spoken of in the same breath. John Eliot Gardiner’s ideologically motivated preference for the earlier Leonore, which derives from the distinction he makes between the rich and complex world of individual human lives that it represents and the arid world of politics represented by Fidelio, is a case in point. There is worse. The wholesale stripping out of politics and their replacement by an uncompromisingly religious reading, complete with giant cross, in an earlier ENO production, for example. But problems can arise elsewhere. The neat, social-realist closure represented by the off-stage shooting of Don Pizarro at the conclusion of WNO’s recent production runs counter to the opera’s radical openness and complex lack of definition and certainty. To get to first base with Fidelio requires, as Said so cogently argues, full recognition of and engagement with the challenges posed by its complex and contradictory intersection of musical forms and dramatic structure, with its radical discontinuities, strange emotional intensifications, frustrating silences and lack of convincing and reassuring resolution. Because of this we can be sure that Fidelio will outrun and exhaust the next and all subsequent attempts to encompass it – which is as much a measure of its greatness as of its difficulty.
Michael Dobson (Letters, 13 November) is incorrect in thinking that Mary Shelley died in Bournemouth, lulled by the sounds of the sea. She actually died at No 24 Chester Square, Pimlico, on 1 February 1851, to the sound of hansom cabs and horse-drawn carts in the street below. Her son Sir Percy Shelley was in the process of buying Boscombe Lodge, Bournemouth, but the purchase was not completed until 29 February.
A half-Spaniard of modest life and manners, I have read Jonathan Rée’s piece (LRB, 13 November) about ‘an upper-class Englishman of the kind who seem to float on a cloud of contentment, perpetually entertained by the oafish antics of the rest of us down below’ – an unpleasant man with cranky right-wing prejudices which I do not share and ‘fellow militants’ whom I feel sure I should dislike. This upper-class Englishman is linked with some identifiable (though unnamed) conservative intellectuals, from whose opinions I actively dissent. Disturbingly, he is also tainted by association with funds which ‘propagate the new conservative cause in American universities’. I, on the other hand, would never accept patronage from such sources, nor would I join any institution that did. This corrupt and complacent author, for whom your reviewer admits envy, has the same ‘exotic’ name as I have and two of his books have the same titles as mine. His Truth: A History is made reminiscent of mine by a few apparent quotations which redeploy some of my words. Yet it includes daft views on Kant which I have never held and never expressed. It repeats dreary falsehoods, which I emphatically disavow, about the Western origins of logic and empiricism (whereas readers of the real Truth: A History will find many pages about these techniques in non-literate and pre-classical societies). It attributes to Saussure opinions I ascribe to his interpreters and misdates the start of his First Course on General Linguistics (which in my book is correctly dated to 1907 – see the argument of Eisuke Komatsu in his edition of F. de Saussure, Premier cours de linguistique gènèrale  d’aprés les cahiers d’Albert Riedlinger). It calls Kierkegaard ‘lazy’, whereas I accuse him of affected laziness, and it claims that he ‘published little in his lifetime’ – words I use in the context only of his explicitly existentialist work. It is derided for a mixed metaphor unmixed by me. There are more examples like these. I am grateful for two just reproofs, apparently addressed to an ‘old Oxfordian buffer’, but equally applicable to me. I wrote ‘Paris’ for ‘Geneva’ at one point and a bad sentence which confusingly telescopes Nietzsche’s last years. If I am fairly misunderstood, I take the blame. To be misquoted a little – sometimes playfully, sometimes mischievously – can be part of the fun of getting reviewed. But if I were to fail to write to you now, your readers might be seriously misled: not just about the chronology of Saussure’s lectures or the content of my book but also, more damagingly for me, about the identity of that snobbish reactionary, surrounded in your piece by ‘conservative ideologues’ and political funds. I want it clearly understood that I have no views or associations in common with him.
Brown University, Rhode Island
There is a strange and weary anger in Helen Vendler’s review of Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats (LRB, 16 October).She has decided that his book is seriously limited by its acceptance of current academic literary criticism, most notably in its preoccupation with the unholy trinity of class, race and gender. The effect is to inhibit the kind of sympathy between author and subject necessary to good biography and to prevent Motion writing about Keats with the understanding that one poet might be expected to have for another.
This argument can only be sustained by something close to a wilful caricature of the book’s method, purpose and achievement It also involves Vendler in a distorting use of selective quotation. For example, she finds Motion’s reading of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ limited by a concern with gender politics. He is taken to task for his interpretation of the verses about Madeline and Porphyro’s love-making, where he is said to ‘hint’ that the poem veers into fantasies about rape or masturbation. But Motion is not hinting at all. He is asking a series of pertinent and thoughtful questions about this central scene in the poem. There is an eerie voyeuristic charm about the episode, a curious combination of perverse and tender impulses. On Motion’s judgment about the poem as a whole, Vendler does not comment He sees it as a distinctive triumph of Keats’s art, as ‘deeply concerned with the resources and responsibilities of the imagination as it is with the pleasures and perils of love’. This seems very far from suggesting that Keats is unconsciously writing out of a rape fantasy.
Vendler may be justified in her dislike of current academic literary criticism. She may be right about the limitations of materialist criticism in relation to poetry. But her impatience with contemporary criticism presses too hard on her judgment of Motion’s biography. The book provides new information on and a wealth of new insight into Keats’s childhood, his education and his medical training. It has the virtue of good historical criticism in the information it gives about what the language of Keats’s poems might have meant to his early readers. It provides a detailed and nuanced account of Keats’s intellectual and cultural milieu. Its argument, supported by abundant evidence, is that Keats had serious political commitments and that he wanted his poetry to engage with these in ways that were both direct and subtle. All these things and more are addressed by Motion’s biography, but theyare only grudgingly conceded, if at all, in Vendler’s review.
Brooklyn, New York
I found it hard at times to recognise my book Points of View in Jerry Fodor’s review (LRB, 30 October). The fact that three of the first six paragraphs were devoted largely to urging on me a distinction between the perspectival and the subjective which I am myself at pains to draw did not augur well. But I want to focus on Fodor’s claim that I have an account of representation from which it follows that my own philosophical views are nonsense. It appears that Fodor himself thinks this and that he thinks I think it. I do not. I had better not. For since my account of representation is itself an integral part of my philosophical views, I can only think it if I am prepared to accept that my philosophical views entail their own nonsensicality. But if they do, then they cannot be nonsense; for nonsense cannot entail anything. So they must be false. And I am certainly not prepared to accept that.
The problem is that Fodor thinks I endorse transcendental idealism (which I do regard as nonsense). So let me set the record straight. I do not endorse transcendental idealism. I talk a good deal about it, about its allure, and about why it is nonsense. I also talk a good deal about the ineffable, to which I think it is related. Attempts to talk about the ineffable are often castigated as attempts to have one’s cake and eat it. Hence Ramsey’s oft-quoted quip, which Fodor himself finds irresistible: ‘What can’t be said can’t be said and it can’t be whistled either.’ But if one were to trade quips for quips, one could ask why the opening bar of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is not a counter-example to Ramsey’s dictum. This question is not as flippant as it sounds. Anyone who wants to talk seriously about the ineffable, or to engage seriously with such talk, must be clear about what the domain of discourse is. I argue in the book that it is states of knowledge. There is nothing to preclude talk about ineffable states of knowledge. What is impossible is to put them into words. The connection I see with transcendental idealism is this: transcendental idealism is the nonsense that results when one attempts (unsuccessfully, of course) to put certain ineffable states of knowledge into words. At one point in the book, having made this connection, I add: ‘I cannot overemphasise that this does not constitute any kind of defence of transcendental idealism.’ One is always wary of saying that one cannot overemphasise something. Really not? Perhaps saying even as much as that is already to overemphasise the point. But after reading Fodor’s review, I am somewhat reassured on this score.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.