Vol. 45 No. 9 · 4 May 2023

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Iron Curtain

Peter Rowland cites a novel by H.G. Wells from 1904 as featuring the first known use of the phrase ‘iron curtain’ in English (Letters, 30 March). That isn’t so. What’s more, Wells used the phrase to refer to the iron-barred door of a prison cell (one of the earliest usages of the term in this sense appeared in a French book from 1823, Les Hermits en prison, as ‘rideau de fer’), but this is not the meaning that ignited the term’s use as an ideologically charged political metaphor in the 20th century.

The term ‘iron curtain’ was originally used in the context of safety in theatres, at a time when flaming oil lamps and later gaslights illuminated the stage. These large public buildings, typically containing a lot of timber, painted canvas and other combustible materials, were fire traps. It wasn’t uncommon for them to burn quickly to the ground, killing scores or even hundreds. In most theatre conflagrations, the fire broke out first on the stage. In the late 1700s, to prevent fire spreading to the rest of the building, a new mechanical device was developed: a massive drop screen made of one or more iron plates. Perhaps the first was installed in a theatre in Lyon in 1782, but much larger and more famous was the iron screen installed twelve years later at the newly rebuilt third Drury Lane theatre in London.

In October 1798, the new Federal Theatre in Boston, which replaced a playhouse that had burned down earlier that year, had a festive opening. Its design included a revolving sheet-iron screen positioned between the stage and the auditorium. A Maine newspaper explained: ‘The Iron Curtain, which is of sufficient thickness to prevent the communication of fire, from the stage to the audience, is in two pieces, which are supposed to weigh 4500 wt.’ As early as 1805, theatres and opera houses in Germany adopted the iron curtain, or ‘eiserner Vorhang’, and over the next few decades it spread to theatres in the Netherlands.

The French-born British author Violet Paget (aka Vernon Lee) may have been the first writer to convert ‘iron curtain’ into a metaphor. In her book The Ballet of the Nations: A Present-Day Morality (1915), she inveighed against the First World War’s ‘monstrous iron curtain’. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the term became associated with communism, beginning with Vasily Rozanov’s polemic The Apocalypse of Our Time (1918). A year later, the German liberal journalist Hans Vorst published Das bolschewistische Russland, declaring: ‘With that, for Western Europe, the iron curtain dropped again over Russian events.’

From this point on, the term was used as anti-communist propaganda in Western democracies, but also by the Nazis. In May 1943, the Nazi foreign propaganda magazine Signal described ‘the iron curtain that more than ever before separates the world from the Soviet Union’. And in February 1945, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, wrote in an editorial entitled ‘The Year 2000’ for the weekly Das Reich:

If the German people laid down their weapons, the Soviets would occupy all of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe plus most of the Reich … In front of this vast territory, including that of the Soviet Union, an iron curtain would immediately be lowered, behind which the mass slaughter of the peoples would begin, probably to the applause of the London and New York Jewish press.

Harald E.L. Prins
Bath, Maine

No Right

Anthony Grafton, writing about Charles Lamb, invokes the pleasures and possibilities afforded by the New York Public Library for generations of readers, including his father who, when depressed, ‘would visit the print room and look at a Dürer’ (LRB, 13 April). On 4 April, the office of the mayor, Eric Adams, who was elected on the promise of serving working-class New Yorkers, announced potential cuts to the library’s funding of as much as $52.7 million. This will mean, inevitably, that those who use the network of libraries for the free internet, language instruction, or simply for the pleasure of reading the books, will experience reduced access and services. Readers who share Grafton’s affection for the NYPL’s collections and its social benefits may wish to write to Mayor Adams urging him to reconsider these proposals.

Sophie Smith

I wonder what happened, in the great sale of Charles Lamb’s books, to the volume that Coleridge borrowed. In a letter to Coleridge thought to be from autumn 1820, Lamb writes:

I was obliged to search personally among my shelves, and a huge fissure suddenly disclosed to me the true nature of the damage I had sustained. That book, C., you should not have taken away, for it is not mine; it is the property of a friend, who does not know its value, nor indeed have I been very sedulous in explaining to him the estimate of it … So you see I had no right to lend you that book; I may lend my own books, because it is at my own hazard, but it is not honest to hazard a friend’s property; I always make that distinction.

Ruth Valentine
London N15

Sussex, 1968

Steven Shapin’s contextual account of Thomas Kuhn and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions reminds me of my time at Sussex University in 1968-69 (LRB, 30 March). A lecturer in the School of Science was running a well-attended course for science students whose purpose was to broaden their education and whose reading list featured, among other things, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (ubiquitous at the time), Eric Fromm’s The Sane Society and Kuhn’s book.

One of my most vivid memories from that year is attending a talk, held in a smallish tutorial room, by Imre Lakatos, visiting from the University of London, on an aspect of the philosophy of science, which had suddenly (in the wake of the popularity of Kuhn’s book) become a hot topic. The room was packed, with people standing round the walls, perching on the tops of cupboards, squashed in by the door. Lakatos had fled Hungary when the Soviets invaded in 1956 and still spoke with a strong accent. His paper was technical and fairly difficult, and he seemed more annoyed than flattered by the crammed room, probably thinking – probably rightly – that there were far too many people there who wouldn’t benefit much from his presentation. His view was close to that of Karl Popper, with whom he had worked at the LSE. When in questions afterwards Kuhn’s approach was raised by an arts postgraduate, something of a soixante-huitard, who remarked that Popper was ‘esoteric’ and Kuhn ‘more humane’, Lakatos was scornful and ostentatiously began to simplify his scientific examples, to make them less ‘esoteric’. As Steven Shapin intimates, Lakatos had once been active in a communist cell in Budapest; perhaps he still cleaved to a party discipline within science that would keep the irritations and distractions of the less well-informed out of the way.

Martin Hayden
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

When Hilma Met Rudolf

Jo Applin, reviewing Julia Voss’s new biography of Hilma af Klint, writes that a meeting with Rudolf Steiner in 1908 ‘did not go as well as she had hoped’ and that subsequently af Klint stopping painting for four years (LRB, 16 March). Voss herself is wary of the inference that the meeting with Steiner caused the hiatus, calling it ‘an anecdote’ that has ‘been passed along and elaborated on from publication to publication’, and which stems from a single source, Åke Fant’s 1992 exhibition catalogue.

Af Klint’s first encounter with Steiner was indeed in 1908, a spontaneous chat following a lecture he gave in Stockholm in spring that year. But as Voss writes, the first meeting at which Steiner might actually have seen af Klint’s paintings couldn’t have taken place before January 1910, so couldn’t have been the cause of af Klint’s long break, which started two years earlier. Af Klint’s mother going blind in 1908 is the most plausible reason for the break: they shared a flat, and af Klint gave up her studio to look after her mother during the day.


Henry Holland, Aaron French
Hamburg, University of Erfurt

Theirs and No One Else’s

Chris Sansom quotes Frank Zappa’s remarks on conducting (Letters, 30 March). Zappa would occasionally mount the rostrum himself, to direct his own music. A friend of mine played the double bass in a leading London orchestra that was once engaged to record Zappa’s music for the film 200 Motels (1971), conducted by the composer. In one piece the players were discomfited to see that their written parts tailed off in a long squiggly line. The orchestra leader politely asked Zappa what this unusual notation signified. ‘That’s where you all freak out,’ Zappa replied. After a general raising of eyebrows, professionals to the last, they freaked out until the composer was satisfied.

Inigo Kilborn
Collobrières, France

Two or Three Serious Ladies

Joe Dunthorne writes about Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies (LRB, 30 March). Millicent Dillon pointed out in her biography of Bowles, A Little Original Sin (1980), that the novel was originally to be called ‘Three Serious Ladies’. The third serious lady, dropped at Paul Bowles’s suggestion (to tighten the book’s structure), survives as a minor character, Señorita Córdoba, in ‘A Guatemalan Idyll’, which can be found in the collected works of Jane Bowles, My Sister’s Hand in Mine.

Killian O’Donnell
Cashel, Co. Galway

A ‘Hurrah’ Word

Stephen Sedley’s review of my book Against Constitutionalism focuses on a series of prominent political controversies – from a Trump-engineered US Supreme Court to Modi’s policies in India and Netanyahu’s in Israel – in order to raise a warning (LRB, 13 April). ‘Who can say with confidence that such things couldn’t happen here?’ he asks, impressing on us the vital importance of judicial vigilance. We have certainly heard plenty in this vein from prominent lawyers and judges.

But let’s set this in context. Over the last few decades, constitutionalism has been transformed from an anachronistic expression of an 18th-century vision of government into what is arguably the world’s most powerful political ideology. This calls for critical appraisal, an examination of how this has come about and with what implications. Yet this has not happened. Instead, constitutionalism has been employed as a ‘hurrah’ word, a vague term to be filled with whatever noble values are currently in fashion. My book argues that constitutionalism is a discrete ideology, not to be conflated with constitutional democracy or constitutional government in general.

Martin Loughlin
New Haven, Connecticut

Hearts Were Trumps

Malcolm Gaskill writes about the siege of Basing House (LRB, 30 March). I remember, playing whist as a child, my mother intoning something she had picked up in her own childhood: ‘Hearts were trumps when Basing House was took.’ I have no knowledge of the origins of this phrase (or its veracity). Does anyone else?

Edward Barlow
Rougham, Norfolk

The Best He Could Do

Matthew Bevis mentions W.H. Auden’s penchant for anagrams, adding that the best Auden could do for ‘T.S. Eliot’ was ‘litotes’ (LRB, 2 March). That surprises me, since ‘T.S. Eliot’ has perhaps the most famous author anagram: ‘toilets’.

John Boe
Berkeley, California

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