A history of death

In her review of my book This Mortal Coil: A history of death (April 15), Emily Wilson writes that I make the “repellent assumption” that “disability is necessarily a fate worse than death”. Her only justification for this assertion is that I included a discussion of Down Syndrome, since this “is not a fatal condition”. Wilson is wrong here, as trisomy of chromosome 21 is all too often fatal: people with Down Syndrome are affected by a host of medical conditions, including heart defects, an impaired immune system and dementia. Life expectancy is several decades lower than average, making it comparable to type 1 diabetes and worse than Huntington’s disease and multiple sclerosis. In addition, approximately 75 per cent of fertilized eggs with trisomy 21 will be lost as embryos or foetuses, and 25–30 per cent of patients with Down Syndrome die during the first year of life. The median age at death is in the mid-fifties, as unavoidable premature ageing cannot be stopped, making Down Syndrome a fatal condition. Since Down Syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality that usually causes miscarriage, it is entirely appropriate to include it in a chapter on chromosomal abnormalities and miscarriage. Writing that I assume that disability is worse than death is offensive nonsense.

Wilson finds it horrifying when I say that “soon we will have to address the ethical issues” associated with new research into DNA editing, as “soon” is much too late. The complete sentence, referring to advances in current medical research, is: “There seem to be no insurmountable obstacles to stop their use in humans, so soon we will have to address the ethical issues and choose whether or not to implement them.” In other words, as new medical advances will be available soon, we will shortly have to decide whether to use them, taking into account their associated ethical issues.

Wilson says that I think that smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction, deaths by violence and diet-related illness can only be analysed or cured from a purely medical perspective. But a major theme throughout the book is that “the ways we solved many of our greatest problems had little to do with healthcare. Instead, progress was frequently a result of better law, politics, engineering, statistics, economics”. I advocate numerous non-medical solutions to our problems, including controlling mosquito populations to reduce malaria infections; nylon water filters for guinea worm disease; government legislation to improve car safety; Quarantine, handwashing, sanitation, better housing, eliminating vermin and an improved diet for infectious disease; dealing with childhood trauma and stress for addiction; food and soil supplements, and a balanced diet to make up for micronutrient deficiencies. I wrote, “Science is the main reason why we now live in the healthiest and wealthiest period that we have ever had”, not (as Wilson misquotes me), “Science is why we live in the healthiest and wealthiest period that we have ever had had”. Perhaps she deleted “the main reason” to add weight to her agenda that I think that all our problems can be solved by science.

Wilson believes that many of my conclusions only apply to “relatively privileged inhabitants of rich industrialized countries”. Here, she ignores another main theme of the book – the tremendous progress and levelling up across the world in recent decades. In countries as diverse as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Iran, life expectancy is now over seventy, and their leading causes of death are non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and COPD, as in rich industrialized countries . Even in sub-Saharan Africa, life expectancy has increased from fifty in 2000 to sixty-two in 2020. Deaths from infectious disease are also in rapid decline in the lowest income countries.

Similarly, Wilson objects to my claim that we have largely overcome famine and war. But this is true. The Our World in Data website shows that the annual rate of dying from famine worldwide since 1980 is roughly twenty times lower than in the previous 120 years; in earlier periods it was even higher. Similarly, death rates from violence and wars are tiny fractions of those in the past. Seemingly, she is stuck in a mindset where the world is one where a rich few live next to a hungry majority who are dying young from infectious diseases. This is no longer the case.

Finally, pointing out the value of understanding the science of disease does not imply that poverty can be “banished by the wave of a pen”. Emily Wilson is entitled to have an opinion on my book, of course, but not to misrepresent it.

Andrew Doig
University of Manchester

Versions of King Lear

Laurie Maguire’s praise of the New Variorum edition of King Lear by Richard Knowles is merited (April 22). But she did not mention the vital fact about Learn, that it exists in two incomplete texts. The first quarto edition (1608), printed from Shakespeare’s messy draft, lacks 110 lines found in the 1623 Folio collected edition, which conversely lacks 280 lines found in the Quarto. Knowles establishes that both versions descend from a single original, probably the cleaned-up copy of the manuscript which became what we would call the official promptbook.

In 1983, a group of scholars published a book subtitled Shakespeare’s two versions of ‘King Lear’, claiming that the Folio cuts were made by Shakespeare to significantly alter the characters, and that they improved the play. Maguire reports that “Knowles expertly groups the arguments for and against revision”, as if he left it open, which is not true. In his main discussion, Knowles makes it very clear, both in his own voice and in quotations from over twenty scholars who have refuted the revisionist theory, that there is no textual evidence for it. Knowles also refers readers back to the thousand pages of commentary on the play in vol. 1 for his many “critical rejoinders” to the revisionists. He concludes, “There are in Folio Learn no new scenes, characters or episodes; no rearrangements of plots or scenes or speeches; no new speeches”; Most surprising, “no speech of any length has been either wholly reworked or replaced by a different one.” If Shakespeare had wanted to revise the play, he would surely have added new material.

Knowles concludes that far from being Shakespeare’s own revision, the Folio represents a shortened version (often crudely) by the theater company and altered by a scribe who, among other things, “corrected” Shakespeare’s grammar and “regularized” his verse about 130 times by subtracting or adding a word (of his own!) to produce a ten-syllable line. The Folio is not the authentic text that some scholars worship but one edited by unknown hands. Knowles argues that, since neither the Quarto nor the Folio is self-sufficient, “future editions may be once again a conflated text, not pretending to recover one or two lost ideal authorial versions, but providing an archive of possibilities … from which actors and Producers will, as they always have, make a selection.” That surprising conclusion deserves to be noted.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

Emilio Salgari

I am grateful to Gigliola Sulis for the many kind words in her review of Volumes III and IV of Emilio Salgari: Una mitologia moderna tra letteratura, politica, socialetà, my study of the reception of the Italian adventure novelist Emilio Salgari (1862–1911). Unfortunately, the heading of the review is incorrect (In Brief, February 18). The last volume had a working subtitle which was quoted in the earlier books, but it was published with the definitive subtitle: Bibliografia storica generale: Bibliografie ragionate delle opere, della critica e delle pubblicazioni contestuali, 1883–2012.

In 1928 under Fascism, it was not the régime but a small clique of prominent cultural gerarchi who mounted a campaign to anoint Salgari as the energizer of Italian youth par excellence. This perverted Salgari’s reputation for decades and sabotaged his distinguished Florentine (and Jewish) publisher, Enrico Bemporad. The effects linger on even now. So I jib a bit at the suggestion that the novels convey a “call for … violence”. This is no more true than it would be of Treasure Island or The Last of the Mohicans or Around the World in Eighty Days. All adventure stories follow the convention which allows episodes of horror without advocating it.

Salgari’s anti-colonialism is not a later anachronistic (invented) reading. It was my own discovery in the 1960s. His creations in the 1880s and 90s of indigenous, underdog heroes who fought white imperialism in India, Borneo, the Philippines, and so on, is remarkable. But Salgari was born in the Veneto, an Italian under the rule of the Austrian Empire: foreign soldiers were garrisoned nearby, rebels were imprisoned, the press was censored. Garibaldi had recently ousted Spanish rule from southern Italy and the imaginative parallel between him and Salgari’s Sandokan in colonized South East Asia has now long been accepted. From the start, the dispossessed sultan Sandokan and his Dayak pirates were unequivocally “the opponents of the British enemy” in Borneo. Salgari was emphatically anti-racist, anti-slavery and pro-feminist.

My text is generally favorable towards the writer since the purpose was in part to counter the long century of snobbish critical negativity towards him. In the English-speaking world we have a very long tradition of adventure literature, and the finest examples are esteemed, not routinely scorned. So I was after a bit of justice for the gifts and workmanship of the undervalued but highly distinctive Italian practitioner of the art.

Ann Lawson Lucas
Cherry Burton, Beverley, East Yorks

Poets of colour

As bombs rain down on innocent people in Ukraine, twenty-six academics, poets and other pillars of society have taken time away from their no doubt important work to collectively criticize a review they didn’t like in the TLS (Letters, April 29). At first, I thought the letter was a parody. Apparently, it is not.

They write: “Leonard begins with contextless snippets of imagery: a man reviewing a woman, Leonard extracts for approval a phrase containing ‘nudity’ and ‘thighs’ (the passage refers to horses, but you wouldn’t know this from his review) . Unfortunately, this comes dangerously close to suggesting that the poet, a woman of colour, is at her best when writing sensuously if not sensually, and at her worst when cerebral. We would have expected contextualization of Sy-Quia’s work, for the general literary reader.” (Note “the general literary reader”; unlike their own sophisticated selves.)

Here’s what he wrote: “Sy-Quia’s figurative language is rich and fluid (‘skinned soft with love’; ‘thighs moving like nudity’) and the book is brightened by a charming, breezy sense of humour.” The phrase “this comes dangerously close to suggesting that the poet, a woman of colour, is at her best when writing sensuously if not sensually” is pure fantasy and implicitly accuses the reviewer of racism.

Your correspondents “would have expected contextualization”. I expect the same from them.

Mark Gaige
New York

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