Vol. 42 No. 21 · 5 November 2020

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Occupy the Court

In his piece on the history of tennis, Jon Day quotes David Berry’s assertion that the real tennis court in Versailles was ‘occupied in the revolution of 1789 by the Third Estate as a symbolic protest at the elitist nature of this sport’ (LRB, 8 October). This is inaccurate. The members of the Third Estate did not ‘occupy’ the court in a ‘symbolic’ fashion in order to take their oath to diminish the power of the king: the space was chosen because it was nearby and large enough to accommodate their numbers.

Day also suggests that sphairistikè (the precursor to modern lawn tennis) was played until ‘the turn of the century’. In fact, it fell by the wayside before the All England Club held its first lawn tennis championships in 1877. Today, real tennis is hardly an ‘extreme minority pursuit’: it’s a growing international sport with ten thousand players and more than a hundred career professionals, and is one of the few games in which men and women compete against one another on an equal footing. There’s more to say, of course, but on Day’s advice we’re off to brush up on our frisbee and whatever cosplay is.

Theo Bollerman and Clare Bucknell
The Hague

Should I stay or should I go?

Tom King recounts the anecdote of a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg being asked by the dean of Harvard Law School, Erwin Griswold, why she was ‘taking the place of a man’ by studying there (Letters, 22 October). This was a long-standing concern of Griswold’s. In Pinstripes and Pearls (2001), Judith Richards Hope writes that in January 1949, when the possibility of admitting women was raised at a faculty meeting, Griswold ‘hazarded a guess’ that fewer than one woman in ten would remain active in the law for a ‘significant length of time’. The minutes note his opinion that ‘every woman admitted would keep out a man and thereby reduce the number of graduates who would follow careers as lawyers.’ The faculty appointed a committee to investigate. The report recommended the admission of women, but stressed Griswold’s objection as ‘the most serious justification’ for their exclusion.

Griswold must have seen it as proof of his objection when RBG left the class of 1956 before the beginning of her final year. In 1958 her husband got a job in New York, and the couple planned to leave Boston. RBG asked if the faculty would award her a Harvard degree if she satisfactorily completed a third year at Columbia. The response was a simple no. She duly received her degree from Columbia. As the Harvard Law Record noted in 1977, by which point RBG was a professor at Columbia and general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union: ‘Just think what else she might have accomplished had she enjoyed the benefits of a Harvard degree.’

Clarissa Wyatt
Ripon, North Yorkshire

Frederick Wilmot-Smith writes about prospects for the Supreme Court in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death (LRB, 8 October). The immediate worry is that the radical conservatives on the court will now decide that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional and overturn Roe v. Wade. But this is only the beginning. Republicans have been packing the federal judiciary for decades with judges who can be counted on to undermine the power of government in order to advance the agenda of the Republican Party.

Congress should enact laws overriding anti-democratic decisions made by the Supreme Court and codifying the rights of the people. It could, for example, pass a National Voting Rights Act giving every citizen over the age of 18 the right to vote, requiring uniform voting procedures for every state and every election, making each federal election day a national holiday, controlling partisan gerrymandering, extending the time available to complete the 2020 census, and putting in place procedures to protect the voting process. It could also pass a National Policing Code to establish uniform policing procedures and standards throughout the US, and to guarantee every person in the country fair treatment by the police; a National Gun Control Act that would implement reasonable regulations for gun ownership and usage, and ban automatic weapons; a National Marriage Act, guaranteeing the right of two people to marry in every state; and a National Reproductive Rights Act.

All of these could be ruled unconstitutional by activist conservative justices on the grounds that Congress does not have the power to enact such laws. Many incorrectly believe that it would be necessary to amend the constitution in order to change the balance of power between Congress and the Supreme Court. Congress, however, has at its disposal many methods, expressly authorised by the constitution, that would enable it to confront the court, including restructuring the federal judiciary and limiting the types of case that may be heard by the courts. Perhaps the most important tool is the assertion of its own power to interpret the constitution, particularly under the post-Civil War 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Each of these expressly grants Congress ‘the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article’.

If the Democrats win an emphatic victory in November and then Congress takes strong action to define and enforce the rights of the people, some fear that the Republican Party will just undo or counteract those actions when they return to power. To that I say, don’t be afraid. Once rights are granted to the people, whether by the judiciary or Congress, they do not willingly give them up. Living in a democracy requires every generation to fight for its rights.

Ray Kwasnick
Boston, Massachusetts

Godwin’s Big Idea

Tom Crewe’s piece on William Godwin’s novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams highlights William Hazlitt’s enthusiasm for it as a page-turner (LRB, 8 October). Hazlitt was also pleasantly surprised by the novel’s emotional appeal; he (rightly) accused Godwin of lacking, in his Political Justice of 1793, the ‘radical sympathy’ needed for an emancipatory politics (he said the same of Jeremy Bentham). But what made this novel so important for later detective fiction was that the crime was secret. In the long Enlightenment campaigns for penal reform, the question kept recurring: how could a secret crime be punished? The answer was that it carried its own punishment: an agonised conscience and the alienation of the criminal from his or her own nature by a betrayal of communal human feeling. The punishment for such betrayal was ‘remorse’: a key term, especially in literature and in political discourse, for the suffering undergone, internally, by the undetected criminal.

On this view, the criminal code was no more than a crude and barbaric form of social control. It could not deal with hidden or secret crimes. Conscience could. So could novels. The processes of concealment, detection, revelation and confession; the treatment of murder as one of the fine arts (De Quincey); the shadow of the gallows (or the guillotine), of revolution and war: the novel compacted all this into a moral crusade in the form of a story. Plots thickened. The political novel of the left and of the right, with new co-ordinates for good and evil, flourished for a dozen years after Caleb Williams, but none compared with it. Perhaps it was only with Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830) that a novel centrally involved with the capital punishment of the possessor of a criminal conscience surpassed Godwin’s almost accidentally brilliant first experiment in ‘plot’.

Seamus Deane

Dandy Highwaymen

I must add Tiffs in Chatham to Andrew O’Hagan’s list of hairdressers at the ‘coalface’ of the New Romantic early 1980s (LRB, 8 October). Coupled with the boutique Snob (no irony at the time) in the Pentagon Centre, which sold feathery headbands, billowing blouses and pedal pushers, the opportunity to fashion oneself and out-glamour the toffs was a vital antidote to poverty under Thatcher. For those of us who were living on council estates in South-East England’s unemployment blackspot, ‘left-wing’ did not mean Billy Bragg (yawn) or UB40 (plodding). New Romanticism, like its antecedent, prized imagination, melancholy and the common people: so the name did matter, I think, in an obliquely political way.

As if my mother wasn’t anxious enough when my father lost his job, my brother began using a pink hairclip to pin back his ‘Phil Oakey’ while he was revising for his A levels. Meanwhile, my friend Debbie and I were scraping O levels at the local grammar school while ‘getting around town’, dancing like Joanne and Susan at the alternative disco. It seemed to me even then that the cover of Human League’s Reproduction, which depicted babies underfoot on the dancefloor, was rejecting the idea that working-class girls were nothing more than baby-making machines. So it was feminist too.

Lindsey Stewart
Bromley, Kent

Strange Apprentice

T.J. Clark, in his eloquent analysis of Pissarro’s influence on the young Cézanne, refers to Lucien Pissarro’s description of Cézanne sitting watching his father paint (LRB, 8 October). I would like to add that, in my opinion, while Cézanne was soaking up the extraordinary tonal subtlety of Pissarro’s handling he may also have been reflecting on matters of ‘taste’. The schism between Cézanne’s early and later work is that although he had developed from the self-conscious and ham-fisted – see, for example, The Painter’s Father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne in the National Gallery – he retained an abject perversity (a challenge to Pissarro’s good taste). He would make a lump of impasto represent something ethereal, like a cloud, while on the same surface using turpentine-thinned paint to represent something as solid as a boulder. In doing so, he turned Pissarro’s steady modulation of ‘the humble and colossal’ into something very different for the viewer to contemplate.

Dexter Dalwood
London EC2

At the Detention Centre

I translated Carlos Dada’s account of Emmanuel Ngu, who drowned near the end of an epic journey towards the United States from Cameroon (LRB, 8 October). Even if Ngu had made it, it’s unlikely he would have found freedom and safety. An October newsletter from the excellent Refugee and Immigrant Centre for Education and Legal Services (Raices), based in San Antonio, Texas, reports:

Hundreds of Black Cameroonian and Congolese immigrants are in imminent danger of being deported after speaking out about abuses and mistreatment in ICE detention centres. All of them were in Mississippi and Louisiana and then transferred to Prairieland Detention Centre in Texas … Many of them could be killed by their own government upon return … Over the last year, dozens of Cameroonians in ICE custody have reported being subjected to retaliatory solitary confinement, as well as violent repression at the hands of ICE agents and guards through pepper spray, rubber bullets and force. This treatment appears to be in retaliation for ongoing hunger strikes to protest racism, sterilisation and medical neglect in detention.

Lorna Scott Fox
London E8

New Uses for Old Loos

Susannah Clapp mentions the former ladies’ public lavatory at Guilford Place, ‘now boarded up but not yet turned into a nightclub or beauty salon’ (LRB, 22 October). It has in fact been turned into a ‘wine and charcuterie’ bar, scheduled (perhaps optimistically) to open in November. I believe the Grade II listed interior, which was on Historic England’s At Risk register, has been preserved.

Glenn Wood

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