Russia and the West

I fully support Regina Rini’s Ukraine anxieties (Afterthoughts, March 25), but does David Hume’s preference for the passions over reason really suggest NATO – the West – should have been less speculative? First, it is Putin who has been guided by his passions. The West has rationally weighed its options. Second, it’s not true that resort to “realpolitik” “is hardly a moral argument”. Moral Utilitarians routinely weigh up the relative consequences in order to decide the best course of action. A good action would be in the interests of the greatest number of people or, let’s say, involve the least number of people in a potential world war. These moral calculations may seem susceptible to Humean scorn as “rational”. But is it really what this wise proponent of common sense would think, were he to come among us in 2022, that Western caution was so wrong?

Philosophers, however closely their arguments have been read, are often most vulnerable to misunderstanding through their choice of examples. The temptation is to abandon the context of the argument, where an example is there to make an abstract worry more tangible, and to take the example literally. I mean, was Hume really thinking about “the destruction of the whole world” while stating how hard it was to pin down the origins of our moral impulses?

There is of course a ruthless amorality in the post-Soviet Russian leadership which makes our passions flare. I would call it evil. But this isn’t a topic for moral philosophy. Where moral behavior is not treated as an issue within individuals it tends to be a social contract – and evil can never be part of that. We weep at the wickedness of this Russian behaviour. We say our prayers. But even those passions can’t guide us. They can only provide a kind of comfort, like the acts of heroism, and of compassion, that the situation has sparked.

Lesley Chamberlain
London N6

In the riveting and chilling extract from Mikhail Epstein’s essay “Satanodicy” (April 8) I was surprised to read that “in the eleventh century the Russian church, together with the Byzantine church, broke away from Western Christianity”. The process and reasons for that break were long and complex, but in the end the catalyst was the doctrine of the filioque (stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, rather than from the Father as agreed at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451). The filioque was a unilateral Western addition, first encountered in Toledo in AD 589, though not adopted in Rome until 1014. In other words, it was the Western church that effectively broke faith with the wider oikumen.

This may seem trivial in the context of Ukraine, Satanodicy et al. But it does no harm to remember how easy it is to assume our own standpoint is the norm from which all else is “other”. An important categorical repudiation of the current position of the Russian Orthodox church (the “Russian world” teaching) by other Orthodox churches is published at publicorthodoxy.org.

James Ramsay
Briston, Norfolk

Heaven (or indeed Satan) forfend if Putin was even slightly serious in his suggestion in 2018 that the mutually assured destruction of Russia and the West was not quite reciprocal, because the Russians would be martyrs in heaven but the wicked West wouldn’t even have time to repent. It mirrors what many Americans seem to believe – apocalyptophile voters to whom Trump must pander if and when he becomes the Leader for the Perpetual Interim (as he and his followers will surely see it next time). Worse, holders of such feelings seem extra enthusiastic about the idea of ​​someone else, scapegoats, collateral damage without the main event as it were, being selectively Armageddonized. That’d be Europe, then. No wonder the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has ordered the upgrading of old nuclear shelters and is spending €88 million on new sirens.

Brian Reffin Smith
Berlin, Germany

Concrete poetry

I am very grateful to Jeremy Noel-Tod for his thoughtful and detailed review of my Concrete Poetry: A 21st-century anthology (April 1). I might only wish he had applied greater nuance and less solemnity to his perspective on some of the poetry. In Gerhard Rühm’s “Wand/Bild”, for instance, the poem shifts from the repeated “Wand” (wall) and “Bild” (picture), “Hand” and “Wild”, to on the surprising “Wund” (to wound), a verb which sounds and appears out of context with the rest of the poem. An array of readings includes irritation, insult (the picture appears insulting) and playful injury caused by the hand hammering a picture on the wall. This suggestivity belies Noel-Tod’s reading of “Wund” as a reference to Auschwitz, an analysis too specific and too tragic. Playfulness and irony coexist for Rühm, rather than serving as an either/or. Similarly, Augusto de Campos’s “Lixo (garbage) / Luxo (luxury)” shows what happens to language when only one letter shifts, causing multiple meanings. Noel-Tod argues that we conclude from this poem that luxury and waste are the same thing, but in fact Augusto is pointing more light-heartedly to the duality of phonic similarity and semantic opposition. In poetry, it is not what the poem says but how it works that gives us special pleasure.

Nancy Perloff
Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles CA

Cost of reading

We all wish that minority-interest scholarly editions could be sold more cheaply than they are, but Jesse Norman’s and Brian Vickers’s complaints against Oxford University Press (Letters, April 8) are unjust. Academic book pricing is driven by the forces of free-market capitalism, about which publishers can do little. Demand for some writings is so small that it is a wonder we can have new scholarly editions of them at any price. Oxford University Press’s achievements in providing cheap scholarly editions of works with a broader appeal is admirable. For under £10 in most cases, its World’s Classics series offers more than 300 titles from the treasures of classical Greece and Rome and the Indian subcontinent, English medieval literature, the Renaissance, and modern anglophone novels and poetry.

Norman and Vickers are looking in the wrong direction for an academic publishing villain. Try Elsevier. Even the libraries of affluent universities such as Harvard and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology have found unaffordable Elsevier’s far-above-inflation annual journal price rises, threatening the libraries’ ability to serve their readers. Over 20,000 researchers have signed the “Cost-of-Knowledge” boycott of Elsevier because of its sharp business practices. We humanists are comparatively fortunate.

Gabriel Egan
Stratford-upon-Avon

On Dunwich beach

Bones that one could pick up on the beach at Dunwich soon after the Second World War were often human. Above the shingle, square holes at the top of a sand cliff showed their source – a churchyard eroded from the side where coffins had been. What Henry James saw (Letters, April 1) had also been visited by JMW Turner, who made a body color sketch of the ruins which led James to react as he did. They had once been at the back of the port, and Turner skewed the church to suggest imminent danger to its tower, the last building to fall. Now in Manchester, Turner’s sketch did not form part of his series Harbors of England, but, like other sea pictures by him, relates to his project of a poem on “The Fallacies of Hope”. He drew an unstable, grainy scene of receding cliffs, dark clouds and crashing waves. On a far horizon, there appears to be a vessel in distress. The only clear outlines in the sketch create a sharp tonal contrast in brown; a ragged group of men already in the surf, struggling to launch a small lifeboat; they create the shape of a bullet aimed at the shadowy wreck, but the group itself seems likely soon to disintegrate into matchwood and drowning men. Among other reactions to Dunwich is a novel for children, The House in the Waves (1970) by James Hamilton-Paterson. This imagines the life of the port in 1600 and the slow process of erosion during storms at times of high water. Providing a fictional name for the port, it also mentions the arrival in our own times of the skeletons on the beach and clarifies the matter of the new village inland.

Richard Smith
Oxford

Sports day

In Nat Segnit’s review of Shadowlands by Matthew Green (March 18), he mentions the new town of Winchelsea, built on a hilltop to make sure it wasn’t destroyed by the sea like the old town of Winchelsea had been. Not only was it quite a large new town, built from scratch; it was also built wholly on a grid plan, possibly the only one of its kind in England, and with a harbor on the river that ran below. It was subject to more woes, however, because two or three thousand French soldiers in the fourteenth century destroyed much of the town, and killed many people; then in the sixteenth century it was struck by the plague. Its harbor is gone and its once busy streets are now a quiet well-to-do residential enclave – except on Boxing Day when all hell is let loose and the ancient street game of “Kicking the Frenchman’s Head” is played. Thought to have originated around the time of the French incursions, and rumoured to have been originally played with an actual head of a Frenchman, the game hasn’t been played since 2019 because of the current “plague” and as a one-time attender I fear for its future.

FW Nunneley
Beckley, East Sussex

Understanding the Talmud

In his review of Adam Kirsch’s volume on the Talmud (April 8), Adam Sutcliffe is cynical about Kirsch’s explanations of some of its content and prefers to cite a number of statements that he describes as “silliness”, “hair-raising” and “ replete with hostility to Gentiles”, without attempting to place them in their historical, social and religious context. He also fails to point out that they were often matched by alternative opinions, and chooses not to distinguish fanciful folklore from prescriptive law. Any fair assessment of the Talmud would also have noted, among other characteristics, its remarkably sharp and intellectually demanding system of dialectic and its many examples of intense spiritual and ethical values. Perhaps offering barbs against any religious tradition of ancient times is an easy way for moderns to score secular points among their peers but it contributes nothing to better understanding of the other.

Stefan C. Reif
Cambridge

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