You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
Please note: Not all the letters below were originally published, possibly because they were submitted in ancient Greek. This choice of language may have given rise to some difficulty, particularly for their author, Rodriguez-Giovo, who has no mastery of it whatsoever.
“What we owe Cicero”
Letter to The New Yorker (January 2012)
Adam Kirsch (“The Empire Strikes Back”, January 9, 2012) is quick to pounce on Cicero’s callous disregard for the habitual raping of actresses as yet another example of ingrained Roman ruling-class ruthlessness. One should bear in mind the context, however: Cicero was defending in court Gnaeus Plancius, a loyal friend to whom he owed his safety during his perilous Macedonian exile. Plancius was being prosecuted for electoral bribery; the allegation of sexual misconduct was an old one, going back to his youth and circumstantially disinterred by his enemies. Moreover, Cicero does not justify the practice – he merely points out that it had been tolerated for ages, particularly in rural areas. Need one add that a lawyer’s arguments in the heat of a trial do not necessarily reflect personal convictions? Rather more significant is what Cicero states in his treatise De Legibus (as translated by Michael Grant): “True law is reason, right and natural, commanding people to fulfil their obligations and prohibiting and deterring them from doing wrong. Its validity is universal; it is unchangeable and eternal.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has its roots here. Cicero’s double standards, like those of the civilization he epitomizes, disturb us today, but the values we ostensibly espouse owe much to the valour, verve and insistence with which he publicly affirmed fundamental moral principles.
“Cleopatra and Christ”
Letter to The New Yorker (November 2010)
Judith Thurman (“The Cleopatriad”, November 15, 2010) is entitled to debunk Plutarch (although, as she herself acknowledges, he is our pre-eminent ancient source on Cleopatra), apparently because his account of the Egyptian queen is not in quite in tune with 21st Century feminist sensibilities. However, to do so by taking a cheap shot at the Gospels (“another ancient biography based on scant evidence and hearsay”) is ill-advised. In fact, they provide, despite their interestingly different angles and emphases, four notably coherent versions of an individual’s life, written between 30 and 100 years after his death. Early manuscripts abound: for instance, the Bodmer Papyrus XIV-XV, handwritten in Greek around 200 AD, contains about half of each of the Gospels of Luke and John. Moreover, the historicity of Christ is attested independently in Greek, Roman and Jewish sources, and recent research has tended to confirm rather than contradict what is archaeologically verifiable in the Gospels. By the standards of ancient history, this is solid stuff. What would satisfy Ms. Thurman: 3-D film footage, DNA samples?
If what bugs Ms. Thurman about the Gospels is their supernatural component, then this is a metaphysical, not a historical objection. She should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
“A recycling of ignorance”
Letter to the International Herald Tribune (July 2010)
Although Brent Staples’ analysis (“The cut-and-paste generation”, July 16, 2010) of the plagiarism pandemic could not be more apposite, it omits an aggravating factor: the woeful mediocrity and unreliability of the unacknowledged sources, often plagiarized in turn from other half-baked sources – all of which leads to an endless and vertiginous recycling of ignorance. There was a time when plagiarized passages, erudite and polished, stood out resplendently in student essays and research papers, and the toilsome hours faculty members spent in libraries, tracking down the distinguished and often surprisingly varied pedigree of the purloined prose, at least immersed us (even if for the wrong reasons) in a world of first-rate scholarship and linguistic accomplishment. Most of today’s plagiaristic reflexes boil down depressingly to the first Wikipedia entry Google regurgitates, and no amount or explaining, lecturing or admonishing will entirely convince students that – moral considerations aside – Wikipedia can never qualify as an academically valid source, since it accepts no editorial responsibility for the accuracy of its contents. Moreover, the hit-or-miss characteristics of many texts casually cut and pasted from the Internet makes them scarcely distinguishable from the authentic work of adolescents or young adults, adding another layer of opacity and confusion to the phenomenon.
One imagines that eventually this cat’s cradle of mock scholarship will short-circuit the entire pedagogical network, and spark off a long overdue reactionary revolution in education. In the meantime, we must resist the temptation of cynicism and pursue our seemingly futile, rearguard combat against automatic academic dishonesty and the cognitive sterility it sustains.
“Alice and Humpty Dumpty: ‘body-sieve and glorious body'”
Letter to The Times Literary Supplement (June 2010)
The prurient speculation about an adult man simply liking little girls (a fairly wholesome tendency, one would think, when there is not an iota of evidence to suggest impropriety), with which an interminable succession of critics and biographers have sought to season their dreary dissertations, is more of a reflection of our times than of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s inclinations. Most tiresome of all, however, is the ghastly humourlessness with which these academics murder Carroll’s whimsy in order to dissect it.
The only beneficial spin-off of such pseudo-scholarly pursuits is, paradoxically, the humour they incidentally generate. As Daniel Karlin has noticed, French self-styled philosophers in particular excel at camouflaging pretentious gibberish about the Alice books in earnest jargon that unwittingly rivals in its comic effect the original texts. A classic example is Antonin Artaud’s profound statement (as quoted by Gilles Deleuze): “Being, which is nonsense, has teeth”. I cannot resist submitting Deleuze’s essay (“Thirteenth Series of the Schizophrenic and the Little Girl”) – which also urges the reader to “recognize in the opposition between Alice and Humpty Dumpty the two ambivalent poles: ‘fragmented organs – body without organs,’ body-sieve and glorious body” – in all seriousness to my new Theory of Knowledge students each year. Reassuringly, the brightest ones never fail to blow the whistle on it within ten or fifteen minutes.
“Freud’s scientific ‘hardheadedness'”
Letter to The New Yorker (February 2010)
In her otherwise lucid article on bereavement (“Good Grief”, February 1, 2010), Meghan O’Rourke includes a certain Freud among “hardheaded clinicians”, thereby contrasting his approach with woolly metaphysical speculation. Could this be Sigmund Freud, the Viennese physician who made a point of ignoring the nervous system in his analysis of mental phenomena, and affirmed in 1929 that psychoanalysis, the pseudo-science he spawned, “must dissociate itself from every foreign [sic] preconception, whether anatomical, chemical or physiological”? If so, for Ms. O’Rourke “hardheadedness” must be synonymous with eye-wateringly successful chutzpah. The endless resurrection of psychoanalytical superstitions causes inconsolable grief among educators who try to inculcate rigorous scientific methodology as the surest source of empirically reliable knowledge.
“The Book of Genesis according to R. Crumb”
Letter to The New Yorker (June 2009)
R. Crumb dismisses the Book of Genesis (Comic Strip, “The Book of Genesis”, June 8 & 15, 2009) as “much too primitive”. From a European perspective – and more specifically from a Franco-Belgian one – that is precisely how one might define his comic-strip talent, and it’s therefore puzzling that The New Yorker should dedicate no fewer than 12 of its precious pages to his embarrassingly rustic skills. (Mr. Crumb’s 1999 “Grand prix de la ville d’Angoulême” was highly controversial, and should be interpreted as no more than a slightly patronizing acknowledgement that U.S. comics are not inevitably dedicated to psychopathic super-heroes.) A less ingratiating reader than I might reproach your quintessentially cosmopolitan publication with provincialism or nombrilisme, at least in the field of graphic novels. Yet even within the bounds of the Anglo-Saxon world, a few pages by an author of the calibre of Posy Simmonds (whose Tamara Drewe you reviewed politely but somewhat curtly last November) would have delighted your readers’ aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities rather more effectively than Mr. Crumb, who seems to have nothing to express about the Old Testament that is not clichéd and clumsy.
“Godot: required reading?”
Letter to The New Yorker (May 2009)
“In the half century that separates the two Broadway productions, ‘Waiting for Godot’ has gone from ridicule to required reading,” writes John Lahr in “Panic Attack” (The Theatre, May 18, 2009). Over my dead body, and the corpses of not a few other teachers of English, browbeaten though we may be by the pensée unique of today’s critical and academic ruling clique (which finds in absurd literature suitable scope for its “Emperor’s New Clothes” jargon). All in all, ridicule was and remains the sounder of these responses to Beckett’s grotesquely perverted genius and self-annihilating evisceration of the human condition. Disdain seems like another justified reaction to a play that through its title contemptibly mocked Simone Weil, the same year – 1949 – in which her Attente de dieu was published and only six after her tragically premature death at the age of 34. As for “required reading,” adolescents and young adults are better served by Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, in which the black hole of nihilism is exposed rather more powerfully, poetically and economically by a character who, not unlike Beckett, has wilfully disembowelled his moral identity, but can be regarded only with horror and pity. Thus fortified, students can always try for size Beckett’s prêt-à-porter anomie later, if they have time to kill.
“The prosecution of putative torturers”
Letter to the International Herald Tribune (April 2009)
Harvey Silverglate’s analysis of the dilemma facing the Obama administration, with respect to the possible prosecution of C.I.A. agents who implemented forms of torture condoned by the Department of Justice under George W. Bush, is lucid, and his apposite reference to a profound and memorable passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons cannot but earn him the readers’ respect (“Prosecute at your peril”, Friday, April 24, 2009). However, there is one glaring flaw in his argumentation: to prosecute someone is not synonymous with conviction. The presumption of innocence remains in force until a verdict is delivered. If the accused (or their lawyers) can successfully demonstrate in court that they were justified in respecting the chain of command and obeying orders that, though harsh and cruel, were not actually murderous, they will be acquitted. This line of defence was quite rightly rejected during the Nuremberg trials, but according to Mr. Silverglate it holds water in the present case. If he is correct, then he has nothing to fear from a fair trial; it is hard to see how it could “deal a body blow to civil liberties.”
It is worth noting that in Mr. Bolt’s play, Sir Thomas More will not consider having Richard Rich arrested because – “bad” though the latter evidently is – there is no objective evidence against him. More refuses to use arbitrarily the power he wields as Lord Chancellor. Following Mr. Obama’s decision to release the memos written by the Bush Justice Department, it would appear that there is no lack of evidence for prosecuting those who authorized torture and those who carried it out.
“Merit and inspiritation in Cavafy”
Letter to The New Yorker (March 2009)
Heaven forbid that one should underestimate Cavafy’s homoerotic poetry because of the proclivities it reveals. On the contrary, one must conclude that Dan Chiasson (“MAN WITH A PAST; Cavafy revisited”, March 23, 2009), among other critics, finds it memorable solely because of the residual frisson that the sexual orientation that inspires it apparently can still generate. If Cavafy’s drooling lust for fresh flesh – transparently camouflaged in world-weary languor and philosophical pretensions – had been expressed thus with young women in mind, it would have to be dismissed as embarrassingly predictable and striking only in its libidinous unimaginativeness. Cavafy’s historical poems are doubtless another matter altogether; but then again, those fortunate enough to possess a genuine understanding of modern Greek can make extraordinary claims for the entire oeuvre that the rest of us are not in a strong position to challenge. For my part, I have never before felt so inclined to sympathize with Casca’s infamously Philistine comment about Cicero’s speech in Julius Caesar.
“Enthusiasm for euthanasia”
Letter to El País (February 2009)
Dejando de lado la moralidad o inmoralidad de privar de agua y alimento a un paciente que desde hace años permanece en un estado aparentemente vegetativo y tal vez irreversible, sería interesante para el público de un periódico de la jerarquía de El País poder enterarse de los pormenores del caso por medio de un artículo fidedigno, objetivo y sobrio (“Berlusconi utiliza el ‘caso Eluana’ para subvertir la democracia” 6/02/2009). Su corresponsal en Roma, Miguel Mora, tiene por supuesto el derecho de enfurecerse en base a sus convicciones personales, pero debe primar su deber de reportero: reunir y transmitir datos e informaciones de la forma más completa y verídica que le sea posible, sin enredarlos inextricablemente en su histeria anticatólica. Los lectores de El País son capaces de llegar sus propias conclusiones, y si alguien necesita una ayudita, para eso están las páginas editoriales. No sé si Berlusconi “ha ignorado las reglas básicas de la separación de poderes y ha subvertido la esencia del Estado de Derecho”, pero lo que sí tengo claro es que el Sr. Mora ha ignorado las reglas básicas de la separación de los hechos y de las opiniones y ha subvertido la esencia del periodismo serio y responsable.
“What fool hath added water to the sea?”
Letter to the Tribune de Genève (January 2009)
Face à la publicité coûteuse et – vu les temps qui courent – tautologique des militants athées britanniques (« Dieu n’existe probablement pas. Arrêtez de vous angoisser et profitez de votre vie. » Tribune de Genève, 14 janvier 2009), c’est chez Shakespeare que – comme d’habitude – on trouvera le commentaire opportun : « What fool hath added water to the sea / Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy ? » (« Quel imbécile a ajouté de l’eau à la mer, / Ou a apporté un fagot à Troie en flammes ? » – Titus Andronicus, III, i, 69). Force est de constater que la société occidental actuelle, caractérisée par sa course effrénée vers l’hédonisme et le matérialisme, ainsi que par un relativisme érigé en dogme, surtout dans le domaine moral (que « tout est relatif » est la sagesse préfabriquée qu’on implante d’office dans les cerveaux des enfants, et qu’il est difficile de remettre en question plus tard), est déjà essentiellement athée – si non formellement, du moins dans sa réalité quotidienne. L’humanité ne se porte pas mieux pour autant – loin de là.
D’autre part, la supposition que si seulement chacun d’entre nous réalisait qu’il n’est qu’un amas fortuit et éphémère de molécules dans un univers indifférent et dénué de sens, il profiterait plus pleinement de la vie qu’en croyant en Dieu, est assez curieuse. D’ailleurs, comme a noté G. K. Chesterton, lorsqu’on cesse de croire en Dieu on finit généralement par croire non pas en rien du tout, mais en n’importe quoi.
Votre correspondant ne révèle pas l’identité de l’éminence grise derrière la campagne athée en Grande-Bretagne. Il s’agit de Richard Dawkins, qui est certes le pape de l’idéologie neo-darwinienne et un écrivain fort habile, mais qui se donne des airs de philosophe, alors que ses connaissances dans ce domaine sont plutôt modestes, et que l’auteur qu’il cite le plus fréquemment dans son brûlot strident The God Delusion n’est autre que… Richard Dawkins lui-même.
Letter to The New Yorker (September 2008)
James Wood is too ostensibly precious as a professional wordsmith to be allowed to get away with the curious term “self-abnegation”. What other kind of abnegation is there? Granted that this kind pleonastic nonsense was introduced into the English language as long ago as 1776, in the otherwise admirable U.S. Declaration of Independence, when Jefferson affirmed that certain truths are “self-evident” (in contrast with truths that are merely “evident”, i.e. obvious and readily apparent to all, perhaps?).
Every day some of us already have to wrestle with exquisitely subtle distinctions such as that between “active” and “pro-active”, eschew reactionary “teaching” in order to promote “facilitation” and “differentiation”, take due account of “symbolic interactionism” and never lose sight of “laddering in personal construct theory”, all of which are crucial to the inflated but sub-literate jargon that permeates the pseudo-scientific educational establishment. We therefore rather rely on The New Yorker to provide us with a haven from such inane babble.
I pray that your other readers will forgive me if I come across as an intolerably self-ignorant, self-dogmatic and self-conceited pedagogue.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
Letter to Le Temps (September 2008)
Mme Obrecht (3 septembre 2008) s’inquiète pour le sort des requérants d’asile tchétchènes en Suisse qui seraient renvoyés dans leur pays, mais oublie curieusement que ce dernier est la Fédération de Russie tout entière, et non pas seulement une de ses régions. Pourrions-nous imaginer, par exemple, que des Pâquisards de vielle souche, ayant fui la violence endémique de leur quartier, puissent rester indéfiniment en Nouvelle-Zélande sous prétexte qu’un retour chez eux les exposerait inévitablement aux périls de la rue de Berne ? La Russie est assez spacieuse et – qu’on le sache – elle n’impose plus à ses propres citoyens un domicile spécifique.
On ne peut pas mettre en cause, et on devrait tous partager, la sincérité de ceux qui voudraient que la Suisse soit généreuse, ou simplement humaine, en matière d’asile, sans trop chercher des poux dans la tête de ceux qui fuient la persécution ou la pauvreté. Mais où peut bien mener à plus long terme cette logique d’accueil sans restriction ? Un pays géographiquement étriqué qui assure son succès grâce a un équilibre politique, culturel et linguistique singulier, complexe et délicat mais aussi potentiellement fragile, ne se prête évidemment pas à être une terre d’immigration massive. En plus, la Confédération Helvétique n’a aucun passé d’exploitation coloniale à se reprocher (sauf si on adopte une analyse strictement marxiste de son fonctionnement économique – mais même sous cet angle-là, sa responsabilité pour la misère du tiers monde est relativement limitée).
Si ceux qui donnent des leçons de morale en prônant systématiquement une politique de portes grandes ouvertes sont véritablement disposés à partager leurs emplois, leurs foyers, leurs assurances sociales, leurs infrastructures et tous les autres avantages de ce pays avec un nombre illimité de réfugiés, et donc à sacrifier concrètement leur propre niveau de vie, ils sont dignes d’admiration – même si, comme projet national, cette forme particulière d’altruisme risque à la longue de dissoudre définitivement le modèle helvétique sans pour autant soulager de façon significative ni durable l’injustice à l’échelle planétaire.
Supprimer les frontières est certes un geste simple et spectaculaire, voire démagogique, mais une assistance nettement accrue, soutenue, ciblée et intelligente aux pays en voie de développement, aussi coûteuse soit-elle pour les contribuables suisses (en collaboration avec ceux des autres états riches, bien entendu), serait sans doute plus bénéfique pour tous, et procurerait une vie digne aux Tchétchènes chez eux – que ce soit à Grozny ou à Vladivostok.
“In the catalogue ye go for men”
Letter to The Independent (October 2004)
By upholding the appropriate use of “mankind” on its cover, The Independent displays a commendable respect for the English language and rightly eschews hysterical, ideologically-motivated linguistic fads. The fact remains that “man” has always been, and remains, the inescapable term for our species as a whole, and the only one that does not involve ugly, unidiomatic contortions (imagine, out of deference to bitches, having to refer to dogs as “canines”). It happens to coincide with the word for the male of the species, but only the wilfully obtuse would confuse the term employed in its generic sense with the latter.
The valid goals of the feminist cause are unlikely be achieved through linguistic manipulation or intimidation. Many a male chauvinist pig is only too happy to camouflage his sexism with politically correct formulae, whereas fair-minded, egalitarian men (or media such as The Independent) can be as sensitive to elegant and idiomatic English as they are to the rights of women. It is “res, non verba” that make the difference.
“V. S. Naipaul’s Good Brothel Guide”
Letter to The Sunday Times (May 1994)
It is interesting – although hardly surprising – to read that Joseph Conrad was a huge influence on the young V. S. Naipaul. The latter shares Conrad’s cavalier ignorance and bogus understanding of Latin America – so embarrassingly displayed in Nostromo – but, unlike his master, who was merely preposterously fanciful, Naipaul betrays a wilful and gratuitous malevolence towards that part of the world. Naipaul’s ongoing, unilateral vendetta with Argentina, for instance, reached a paroxysm of unaccountable loathing in The Return of Eva Perón, where he affirms that Buenos Aires is dominated by “a gigantic brothel industry” – an industry which he must have sought out with considerable perseverance and zeal, for, as any honest traveller will observe, prostitution is less conspicuous or widespread in Buenos Aires than in many other great cities – or, for that matter, some small ones, such as Geneva.
Naipaul’s notorious unreliability as a self-appointed sociologist would be more forgivable if he were as good a writer as he implies with his pretentious and pedantic posturing.