Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010

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If Only

Nick Richardson, in his appreciation of the revolution John Cage launched with 4'33", writes of Cage’s subversion of received ideas about sound and silence, chance and order (LRB, 19 August). But what we shouldn’t forget is the sheer challenge of sitting still for four minutes and 33 seconds of silence (has Richardson tried it?). That experience sorely tested the patience of the listeners at the first performance, who expected David Tudor – a brilliant musician who had premiered some of Cage’s marvellous compositions for prepared piano – to do something other than sit at the keyboard. It’s no wonder some began to fidget in their seats, and this may have been Cage’s intention, in part. Like his heros Satie and Duchamp, he was a great maker of mischief, and he believed there was something to be said for maddening his audience – even for boring them. As he put it in one of his Zen-like aphorisms, ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32 and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’

Emily Cole
New York

Trouble in Burma

In his article on Burma, Joshua Kurlantzick, like so many others, throws up his hands when faced with the country’s brutal regime (LRB, 19 August). He also makes several errors. Human development reports on the situation in the Irrawaddy Delta, including the recent, highly critical UN Development Programme report, do not substantiate his claim that many are starving there. He overstates the power of the few ethnic armies remaining: at most 60,000 troops dot the country, in contrast to the half-million in the SPDC’s army. He relays the old hope that the military will crack as a result of internal pressure, but then writes about the stabilising force of its patronage networks. Finally, Kurlantzick claims that the regime used ‘its détente with the West as leverage to gain concessions from China’. This détente never existed: Khin Nyunt was deposed because he believed that the West would end sanctions in exchange for Suu Kyi’s release; the West changed nothing, Khin Nyunt was removed.

Kurlantzick presents Burma’s political system as coming close to collapsing under its contradictions; he drills home the point by writing that ‘the junta would do well not to be too confident.’ Yet he simultaneously asserts that the regime is playing everyone for fools. Which is it? Perhaps neither. We can better understand Burmese politics by recognising that power in this society is bound up with its contradictions. The regime is both powerful and out of touch; it has established a sophisticated patronage scheme which is the only conduit for social mobility, but it has also been unwilling to deliver services to the people; it has crushed political opposition, but has been incapable of indoctrinating the population with its propaganda. There are significant cleavages between the despotic state and grassroots society, and those have allowed civil society groups to emerge and deliver social services. It is possible that activists might be able to use the upcoming election to politicise the pacified civil society, for instance by pinning the absence of services on failures of governance. Turning the prosaic struggle to survive in Burma into an active political matter could spur on its population to demand accountability for the health, education and welfare failures that the military has perpetuated. This might lead to a gradual amelioration, with the state responding to the people’s demands in order to maintain stability.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman
Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Joshua Kurlantzick writes: Elliott Prasse-Freeman seems to be out of touch with developments in Burma. Not only are some of the ethnic minority armies still powerful, but the junta has recently upped the stakes, issuing them with an ultimatum – not for the first time – to join its border guard. The most powerful ethnic army, the United Wa State Army, has refused – also not for the first time – and remains one of the most powerful non-state armed groups in South-East Asia. Groups like the UWSA are often better trained than the Burmese military, and are fighting for what they consider to be their land – a powerful motivator.

Prasse-Freeman doesn’t seem to understand my use of the term ‘détente’. I didn’t mean to suggest that Burma and the West had engaged in some kind of high-level 1970s style diplomacy, but to note that there had been a period of slightly decreased tension, for which Khin Nyunt was indeed punished. Numerous Chinese officials have expressed the fear that closer relations between the West and Burma would lessen China’s influence, and the Burmese regime clearly uses that leverage against Beijing. To suggest that Burma’s relations with the West do not concern China is absurd.

I don’t deny that it is possible for small-scale change to come out of the election. But it’s just as likely that the poll will lead to greater desperation and atomised violence, as has already been seen throughout 2010.

Peterhouse Blues

Neal Ascherson claims that in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s time as master of Peterhouse, the fellows of the college were not only right-wing but anti-semitic (LRB, 19 August). This was simply not the case in my time as a fellow, which overlapped Lord Dacre’s reign as master, when at least four fellows were Jewish and were treated with the respect that their academic distinction made appropriate; nor do I recollect discourtesy to any guest of whatever pigmentation or religion (though women were sometimes treated as intruders). The Peterhouse fellowship at that time included more geneticists of distinction than historians and could not therefore be described as reactionary all through or unconcerned with useful research.

John Davis

Don’t Look Too Closely

Peter Campbell’s article on the pleasures of low magnification comes very close to Ruskinian recommendations (LRB, 9 September). There are a number of instances in Ruskin’s writing where he is reluctant to allow the microscope to play a part in visual education. In The Laws of Fésole he speaks of ‘the proper limits of artistic investigation’ within the scope of the human eye, and in Letter 95 of Fors Clavigera dismisses ‘microscopic observation’ from a child’s education in botany, and even thinks that the plants being studied ‘should be left growing’. In The Art of England he states that ‘all delicacy which is rightly pleasing to the human mind is addressed to the unaided human sight, not to microscopic help or mediation.’ Ruskin had a point, but there is plenty to be said in opposition. He was in danger of excluding himself from the traditions of scientific inquiry.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford


Dominic Al-Badri is right that the Japanese have a word, torauma, for ‘trauma’ in the sense that it is used in the book I reviewed (Letters, 5 August). My point in opening my essay with a discussion of the formal term gaishou – made up of the Chinese characters for ‘outside or external’ and ‘wound’ – was to highlight the historical shift in meaning from this sense of the word to the sense we have today: a wound of the soul. We use the same Greek-derived term for both senses of ‘wound’; the Japanese borrowed it for the newer one. When exactly this happened is difficult to determine, and would be worth investigating if one wanted to make cross-cultural claims about the idea of psychic injury. The inquiry would have to move beyond words; in Japan, for example, discussion of trauma in our modern sense is bound up with the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But all the lexical evidence suggests that torauma is a poor stepchild of a neologism. My colleague Mary Elizabeth Berry tells me that it doesn’t appear in the authoritative 450,000-entry 1976 edition of the dictionary Nihon Kokugo Daijiten. It does find a place in the 500,000-entry 2001 edition, reflecting its greater usage from the 1980s on.

Thomas Laqueur
Berkeley, California

The Pope Wears Prada

Colm Tóibín reminded me of a favourite joke (LRB, 19 August). Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York convened his bishops and ordered that in accordance with new austerity measures all clergy at Mass would henceforth be required to limit their number of attending altar boys to one and also to wear simple black robes rather than the usual colourful garb. All agreed. Mass the following Sunday began with a parade of obedient clergy: one boy per bishop, all black. But when Terence Cardinal Cooke entered the church, he was preceded and followed by no fewer than eight handsome boys and was dressed, head to toe, in beautiful robes of purple, red and gold. After he took his seat, the bishop seated in the row behind him leaned forward and whispered in his ear: ‘Terence, you bitch.’

Scott Haas
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I had not seen or heard the phrase ‘take the eyes out of you’ for more than 50 years until I read Colm Tóibín’s reference to the pope’s red Prada shoes. I am from Kilkenny, where I heard the phrase as a child. Needless to say, it isn’t used in California.

Thomas Dowling
Santa Barbara, California

We’ll Know Next Time

Tom Shippey draws possible ‘hints of genocide and slave concubinage’ from the finding of greater homology between Icelandic female mitochondrial DNA and that of Welsh or British females than between the DNA of Icelandic males and females (LRB, 22 July). He bases this argument on the fact that mitochondrial DNA is passed on ‘only from mother to daughter’. In fact, it is passed by the mother to both male and female offspring equally.

Mohsen Shahmanesh
London W10

Beware of Small States

Patrick Cockburn mentions Bakunin’s dictum to ‘beware of small states’ to help explain why Israel and the US, and before them Britain and France, ought to have been wary about meddling in the affairs of their more diminutive victims – in this case, Lebanon (LRB, 5 August). The clearest example of the risks involved is not, however, to be found in a precipitate act of aggression, but rather in a system of alliances. The secret agreements activated by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 provided the spark that ignited all of Europe. The case of Russia and Serbia aside, one is hard pressed to find another historical precedent for a very powerful empire allowing its destiny to be tied (apparently without conditions) to such a small, unsteady and pugilistic friend.

Alexander Zevin
Los Angeles

Slavery and the Irish

Matthew Kelly failed to mention the Tithe War of 1831-36 or the Tithe Commutation Act of 1839, which turned landlords in Ireland into collection agents for the Anglican clergy, and he should not have placed Maynooth in County Dublin (LRB, 5 August). It was in County Kildare – and still is.

James Bowen
County Cork

All in the Name

Uri Avnery gives only half the story when he translates the name of Meir Kahane’s Kach party as ‘thus’; it also means ‘seize’ (LRB, 5 August).

Alan Lipschitz
North Wales, Pennsylvania

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