Research

A Very Strange Relationship

A Very Strange Relationship

Life writing, overwriting and the scandal of biography.

Reflecting on the Gordimer-Roberts affair: Biography, 41:1 (2018). Abstract.

Letter from Nadine Gordimer to an ‘importuning friend - or at least acquaintance’ (1973):

About our longstanding but tenuous relationship. You know, Ben, we have never been intimate friends. My intimates are very few indeed, and as time goes by and life gets shorter and art runs tantalisingly ahead and can't ever be firmly grasped, I see even my intimates more and more infrequently. And I don't make new ones. As for coming out to lunch with you, I can tell you again quite honestly that I never go out to lunch with anyone. It upsets my whole day. In the morning, I am conscious that at 12:30 I must go and change and paint my face; and in the afternoon, I'm drowsy from the luncheon wine or distracted by the talk. I've had to fight to keep myself to myself - after all, I've lived for more than twenty years in a family surrounded by husbands, children, and the need to consider and feed and listen to them. I've had, perforce, to create a self-discipline. And now I can't live any other way. That's how it is. You seem to have some sort of social inferiority complex (God knows why) that makes you believe that I snub you or don't like you. This is not the case at all, but I am embarrassed by your persistence in wanting to claim more from me than I am prepared to give. I don't want heart-to-heart talks, I don't want to be analysed and assessed, even though some might find that sort of close interest flattering. I don't want to enlarge the very small circle of friends for whom, once in a long while, I must take the trouble to cook dinner. So forgive me and accept our old, friendly acquaintance for what it is.

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Teaching / Writing

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Creative and otherwise.

Thirteen Ways in At the Foot of the Volcano: Reflections on Teaching at a South African University. ed. Susan Levine. HSRC Press, 2018.

... Showing examples of Cubism alongside such a poem is effective, of course, since students of the twenty-first century have visual literacy skills that are immensely advanced: the challenge is to get them to ‘translate’ such analytic techniques from the visual to the textual. Which is not always easy: ‘One can accept a Picasso woman with two noses,’ John Ashbery remarks in The Paris Review, ‘but an equivalent attempt in poetry baffles the same audience’.

Without mentioning structuralism or De Saussure or using the word ‘signifier’, I also tried to broach the idea that ‘blackbird’ could in one sense be seen as an entirely arbitrary choice, easily replaceable with another word in this verbal algorithm. An ex-colleague of mine (now at Wits University) had been compulsively working up variations of the poem on his Facebook wall, and I shared one of them:

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of J.M. Coetzee.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three J.M. Coetzees.

[…]

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That J.M. Coetzee is involved
In what I know.

N2

Reading, writing, walking the South African highway.

Social Dynamics 43:1 (2017).
Less academic version appears as 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at the N2' in Firepool.

N2. Curled up in that tiny alphanumeric are thousands of kilometres, hundreds of service stations, millions of tons of concrete. N2 can mean a London bus route; an intelligence officer in the US Navy; an anti-nuclear song by the Japanese indie group Asian Kung-Fu Generation. But for my purposes it is the longest highway in South Africa, which starts at an unfinished flyover near the docks in Cape Town, follows the eastern seaboard of the country (roughly) for over 2 000 kilometres, then bends north and west below Swaziland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga.

Major highways are not thought about much. They are pieces of infrastructure that (if working as intended) efface themselves, receding from view in the mirror. In his hidden history of the UK’s motorway system, Joe Moran suggests that this bland corporate terrain of tarmac, underpasses and thermoplastic road markings is ‘the most commonly viewed and least contemplated landscape’ in Britain: ‘The road is almost a separate country, one that remains under-explored not because it is remote and inaccessible but because it is so ubiquitous and familiar.’

Perhaps because of the late age at which I (after many failed attempts) got my driver’s licence, piloting vehicles along strips of tarmac has never quite lost its strangeness for me, and the psychology and social behaviours associated with driving are, I believe, complex and neglected domains. With the passing of the era of cheap oil, future humanity will look back on our cities with wonder, disbelief and disgust at how totally urban spaces were shaped around the velocities and demands of the private vehicle. So, an important strategy for environmental writing in the 21st century might be to estrange the practice of everyday life, to conduct an anthropology not of the distant and exotic, but rather of the near, the mundane, the everyday.

‘What speaks to us, seemingly,’ wrote Georges Perec in 1973, ‘is always the big event, the untoward, the extraordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motorcars is to drive into plane trees.’ But, he goes on, in our haste to measure ‘the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. “Social problems” aren’t “a matter of concern” when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.’

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Kingdom of Rain

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An interview with Rustum Kozain.

The following conversation took place on 31 July 2015 at Rustum Kozain’s flat in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town. Prior to my arrival, Rustum had prepared a chicken balti with cabbage according to a recipe from Birmingham, and also a cauliflower and potato curry. During our discussion (lasting one and a half hours, condensed and lightly edited here) he occasionally got up to check on the dishes — which we ate afterwards with freshly prepared sambals...

Wasafiri, 31:2 | 2016 | 76-80

RK [...] The idea of sonority — I have to agree with you. I do have a thing for the sound of words. So the sound of a word often plays a large part in its choice in a line or a poem. Why don’t I sound like Linton Kwesi Johnson? That’s one of my greatest frustrations in life [laughs] — that I can’t write like LKJ in any believable way. Part of that is because I don’t have a Caribbean background. A large part of Johnson’s charm has got to do with the language he is using, which is tied so closely to drum rhythms in the Caribbean. He has a gift but he also has that legacy or that inheritance that he can work with. I’ve tried writing parodic poems in [my reggae-sourced] Jamaican Creole, but it’s rubbish. I’ve tried writing hip hop as well, but there is a particular skill in composing for oral performance that I don’t have.
HT I was raising the question of slowness, but certainly not as a lack. Because, in a sense, what I find when reading poetry nowadays is the need to remind myself to slow down. I think we’re all programmed to read so fast now – online and on screens – to read instrumentally and for content. So I sense the kind of syntactical mechanisms you put in place to ensure a certain productive slowness...

Dagga (An Extract)African Cities Reader 1

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?
– Gilles Deleuze

Literatures of Betrayal

Literatures of Betrayal

Risk, collaboration and collapse in post-TRC narrative.

The Eleventh International Conference for Literary Journalism Studies
‘Literary Journalism: Telling the Untold Stories’. Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande so Sul. Porto Alegre, Brazil, 19-21 May 2016.

While the first decade of post-apartheid South African literary production saw a range of works which responded with journalistic and impressionistic immediacy to the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the second decade of democracy has been marked by a wave of what might be called post-TRC texts: more distant and recessed forms of accounting for the ‘unfinished business’ of the transition. This piece explores a series of texts that grapple with questions of betrayal and collaboration in the varied and complex senses of those words.

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The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

The True Confessions of a First Year Convenor

Curriculum change: problems and possibilities. 

Third Space Symposium: Decolonisation and the Creative Arts. 
ICA, University of Cape Town | 13-14 May 2016.

Italo Calvino, Why Read the Classics? | New York Review of Books | 9 October 1986:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions...The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”

If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school. And school should enable you to know, either well or badly, a certain number of classics among which—or in reference to which—you can then choose your classics. School is obliged to give you the instruments needed to make a choice, but the choices that count are those that occur outside and after school.

It is only by reading without bias that you might possibly come across the book that becomes your book.

What is this thing called ‘literature’, and how does it work? What does it mean to read the classics from where we are – Shakespeare and 19th-century novels transplanted to southern Africa like those street signs, DICKENS, COLERIDGE, KIPLING, set down incongruously in the suburbs of Woodstock, Observatory and Salt River? Are we dealing with ‘English literature’ or ‘literature in English’? What is the purpose of it all anyway, when others in the university are working on solar panels or vaccines for drug-resistant TB? What will be in the exam?

These are questions that all of us teaching in the big undergraduate courses must field and grapple with each year. We have to think hard about how to broach the core ideas of literary studies over thirteen weeks. How to do this in a way that is engaging and critically astute, but also so that it will not exclude any members of the student body? It is all very well to talk about how the literary work might ‘estrange’ what we think we know, and make the familiar unfamiliar. But how can theoretical ideas of productive artistic difficulty be explored in a way that does not estrange members of the student body – many of whom, at least in first year, do not have English as a first language.

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A Useless Life

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Literary biography and the limits of 'research'.

Visions of Tsafendas | Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies | Volume 16, Issue 4, 2015.

Research seminar, research cluster, research output. The word is almost a fetish within the contemporary academy—but what does “research” actually mean in a discipline like literature? And what happens when a research project overspills its bounds, or pushes up against disciplinary limits and protocols? In this piece, I explore such questions via the figure of Demetrios Tsafendas, the “mad Greek” who assassinated apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, supposedly acting on instructions from a tapeworm inside him. It is one of the strangest facts in South African history; it is also, of course, a kind of fiction, and one that has been refracted into a range of literary and artistic works. Reading across both official and “creative” archives, I address a range of methodological problems that I encountered in attempting an academic treatment of Tsafendas and his (as the presiding apartheid judge put it) “useless life”.

Download PDF.

About a Mountain

About a Mountain

Fragments from a walking residency across the Cape Peninsula.

Three images from our walking residency, 6-12 December 2015. The first is the official prompt for this exercise (me and Meghna at Smitswinkel Camp). The second is one I asked Barry to take for me (a brass dial, or is it a toposcope, at Cape Point). The third (me giving a talk on Dias, Da Gama and the Khoikhoi in the shade of a windskerm at Buffels Bay) is one he sent me because I wanted photographic evidence of scholarly pursuits.

So, five quick impressions…

1)   The minimalist, slightly spartan décor of the camps. Slats of wood and stone; no cushions. Rigorous, good for reading and writing, not for reclining. The limited colour scheme, shrubs deformed by wind, a landscape always on the verge of mourning. Meghna and I both seem withdrawn, inward, even a little sombre. Why? Perhaps because we have both stayed here before, and we know about the tent flaps that will keep us awake all night, flapping in the permanent wind. Or perhaps we have already spent a night here, and have, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, awoken from uneasy dreams…

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Visions of Tsafendas

Visions of Tsafendas

Unparliamentary behaviour, now and then.

This is just a glimpse of my Experiences in an Abnormal World. I intend writing a Book if I ever have the opportunity, but medical attention is what I need at present.

Demetrios Tsafendas, Letter from Pretoria Central.

Early version, 'Parliament of Fouls', in the Sunday Times, 18 January 2015.

I am sitting in the National Library, ordering up back issues of the Sunday Times, trying to find a particular paragraph which describes just how dysfunctional parliament became during the 20th year of South African democracy. There were many accounts of the chaotic sessions in the National Assembly just beyond the trees of Government Avenue; but I remembered this one in particular for the attention it paid to the physical gestures made by MPs as they baited each other in front of a public that was by turns amused and appalled.

Traced back to its root, the word ‘Parliament’ means speaking. The Old French source is preserved in the Afrikaans spelling on signs in Cape Town’s Company Gardens: Parlement. But in South Africa, 2014 was the year of ‘unparliamentary language’...It began with a brilliantly effective piece of political theatre: new political party the Economic Freedom Fighters being sworn in while wearing red labourers’ overalls (men) and red domestic worker aprons (women). Since then the EFF have set about jamming the language of the National Assembly in all registers, with little patience for verbal formulae and niceties inherited from abroad.

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Impossible Images

Impossible Images

Radio astronomy, the SKA and the art of seeing

In addressing the Square Kilometre Array, I have tried to recognize both the fascination of outer space and specificity of earthly place. Doing so has revealed to me a major difference of intellectual impetus between the sciences and the critical humanities, one that is perhaps suggestive of why they so often ‘miss’ each other in public conversation. The first seeks to isolate and decontextualize its object of knowledge: to filter out earthly noise; to minimize the signal of its own instruments; to avoid seeing its own structures in a distant, even unimaginable mathematical space. The second always feels the urgency of introducing contingency and context: to bring into frame the desperately poor environs of Carnarvon, to remember the imperial project that carries astronomy to the tip of Africa, and to look for the history that hides in its brilliant and unearthly images. 

If anything, I suggest that the SKA asks and needs something more than the modes of public relations, corporate governance, ‘outreach’ and nationalist boosterism that have so far enfolded it, something other than the model in which Big Science commissions an exhibition or subcontracts an artist to bolster its ethos. As it grows exponentially in resolving and computing power, the Array is surely a phenomenon that asks for something other than the obvious, the merely visual, literal or notational. It will challenge writers and artists to work with the conceptual; to linger in the difficult and blurry zones at the limits of representation; to find ways of registering the incommensurate scales and meanings compacted into a Karoo landscape that has often been figured as ‘empty’ but now seems unaccountably full of noise, signal, data and politics.

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Earth Ecology Humanities

A new interdisciplinary course at the University of Cape Town.

Environmental Humanities South

Imagining the Anthropocene

What do we mean when we speak of ‘the environment’? Whose environment, and who gets to speak? What propositions about ‘the natural’ and ‘the human’ undergird scientific advice on governance and management of the commons? ‘Sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘conservation’ – these are all terms that we hear daily, yet they are often used uncritically, or in specific, contested ways. What different ‘cultures of nature’ can we discern in a postcolonial setting like Cape Town, a place that opens onto highly contested terrains, both physical and intellectual?

‘Indigenous’ biodiversity set against botanical ‘invaders’ on the slopes of the Table Mountain National Park; constitutional rights to water and its complex social circuits through the ‘human settlements’ of greater Cape Town; predator ‘management’ in the farming districts of the Boland; debates over fracking in the Karoo thirstland; the state policing of Cape fisheries – these flashpoints call for new ways of imagining the relations between state, science, ecologies and publics. The environmental humanities is the term for a dynamic and growing field in universities across the world, one promoting interdisciplinary scholarship that explores how we understand the relations between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. Ranging from scientific modelling to government policy, from social justice movements to the creative arts, it examines questions of sustainability, human wellbeing and the environment in their broadest sense.  In a 21st-century context of increasing pressure on the biosphere, the environmental humanities provide a vital intellectual space that enables researchers, students, artists, writers, scientists, policy-makers and practitioners to reflect critically on the concepts that underlie contemporary environmentalism, as well as broader social imaginings of ‘the natural’.

Imagining the Anthropocene.

White Papers, Necessary Noises

White Papers, Necessary Noises

The Strange and Surprising Adventures of Jeremy Cronin.

Paper delivered at Craft Wars: Comparative Perspectives on Poetry '74 | University of Cape Town, 19 September 2014.

Jeremy Cronin, Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, MP and poet, describes reading his work to learners in 2007. From an interview with Andrew van der Vlies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 49 (2008):

Over several years now, at least one of my poems has been set in the national matriculation syllabus, and for some reason (perhaps because it is conveniently short), it often appears in the examination paper itself. So these school events involve a captive audience. I am not deluding myself that the majority of learners are present for the sheer love of poetry, or that, as I step into the venue, I have an extensive and passionate school readership; I try to respect these realities [. . .] Over the recent period there has been a certain predictability about these engagements. 

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A Literary Con

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A Literary Con: The ‘memoirs’ of Herman Charles Bosman and Dugmore Boetie. Conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), New York University, 20-23 March 2014.

After a while, I think, the wit begins to pall. Ironic inversions are worked compulsively just once too often. Irony, as Roland Barthes has noted, remains safe, it keeps its distance [...] There are too many knowing winks travelling between narrator and reader. Prison and its ways are held at a comfortable distance. We find ourselves laughing when sometimes we should, perhaps, be asking questions [...] This irony touches upon awkward questions – innocence (what is innocence?), justice (whose justice?), prison (is it really rehabilitative?) – but lets them all pass in laughter. (142)

Yes, Bosman, you old lag, with your wheedling voice, half conning us, half conning yourself, talking out of the side of your mouth, wink, wink, wink, popping your eyes and whispering down the decades out of that Cold Stone Jug. (143)

Jeremy Cronin, ‘Inside Out: Bosman’s Cold Stone Jug. In Stephen Gray (ed.), Herman Charles Bosman. Johannesburg: MacGraw-Hill, 1986.

Abstract

In How Fiction Works, James Wood distinguishes between reliably unreliable narrators in literature (fairly common and generally identifiable) and the rarer, more disquieting case of unreliably unreliable narrators. This paper relocates his insight to the ostensibly non-fictional works of two South African comic writers: the urban sketches of Herman Charles Bosman, collected in A Cask of Jerepigo (1957), and the prose cycle that makes up Dugmore Boetie’s ‘experimental autobiography’ Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost (1969). Often compared in South Africa, yet little known elsewhere, Bosman and Boetie trade in forms of comedy and irony that, I suggest, are uniquely unstable. With satiric targets and strategies liable to shift disconcertingly from paragraph to paragraph, a ‘politics’ that is wilfully opaque and illegible, and a deliberately cultivated sense of tastelessness and irresponsibility – their texts are perhaps best described as elaborately rigged confidence tricks, often at the expense of the earnest, bien pensant reader. Nonetheless (as glutton for punishment), I will attempt to trace the workings of a complicitous and guilty narrative pleasure: a strain of South African comic vernacular that is echoed in the work of later writers like John Matshikiza, Marlene van Niekerk and Ivan Vladislavic. I will also reflect on the difficulty of teaching (and then resolving never to teach) Bosman and Boetie in the multiracial context of a South African university – perhaps out of an anxiety that students might not ‘get the joke’; or perhaps because they have intuited that some jokes are not worth getting.

The Lives of Objects

10-throne-of-weapons_544Oxford Centre for Life Writing | 20 - 22 September 2013 | Archive and Public Culture gazette. ...Stories, like objects, have contours and patterns. And certain objects might allow us to tell stories that are shaped more irregularly and are more interestingly patterned than the vast, over-arching narratives we are often saddled with. As the objects circulated through the auditorium, he spoke evocatively of the ‘synapse’ of cultural energy that links an object with the place from which it has come...

See also: The Lives of Objects in the History of Cape TownMolo (Dec 2013).

“Jews are to history,” Philip Roth once wrote, “what Eskimos are to snow.” I have often thought that the remark could just as well apply to South Africans...

Histories of an African farm

Land and literary non-fiction from Sol Plaatje to Jonny Steinberg.

The ‘story of an African farm’ is one of the most overworked motifs in South African literary history. Within ‘white writing’ from the region, it seems that almost every novelist has (along the lines of Dinesen’s 1938 memoir) ‘had a farm in Africa’, whether actual or imagined. At the same time, from RRR Dhlomo’s An African Tragedy (1928) onward, much writing by black South Africans has been classed as fundamentally urban: underpinned by a move away from rural areas to the city, and taking as its subject the encounter with modernity that ensues. This paper hopes to unsettle these familiar trajectories, by tracking how South Africa’s arable land appears in long-form non-fiction... Ranging from Sol Plaatjes’s Native Life in South Africa (1916) to the work of Charles van Onselen and Jonny Steinberg, it considers major South African texts that return to the rural, and ways of writing about land that rely on testimony, oral history and reportage. As such it asks for an alternate genealogy of the African farm, one that includes the voices obscured or effaced by South African versions of the pastoral (or anti-pastoral). Yet at the same time, the complex projects of collaboration and cultural translation that produce texts like Van Onselen’s The Seed is Mine (1996) and Steinberg’s Midlands (2002) pose other, difficult questions about how access to land and access to narrative become implicated in each other.

A Land Divided | 24-27 March 2013 | University of Cape Town. Land and South African Society in 2013 | A Comparative Perspective.

‘What we talk about when we talk about writing’

Extracurricular workshops for students looking to develop their written skills. UCT Conference on Teaching and Learning | 2012.

Abstract

Many who teach in the field of literary studies at UCT feel the need for a forum which provides writing support to students within our discipline, especially since our work requires a particular attention to the handling of language. We have noticed that quite serious problems with essay writing persist into third-year undergraduate courses, and would like to redress these. At the same time, we hope to develop a writing programme that goes beyond just remedial sessions or the idea of a ‘writing clinic’. Indeed, redefining the matter of (student) writing as a practice, a discipline and a long-term intellectual project – rather than a problem – will be central to the approach.

In this conference I hope to explore the idea of academic writing in a wider, more dynamic and creative way. Who says, after all, that scholarship should be any less ‘creative’ than the MA programme for novelists, playwrights and poets? ‘What we talk about when we talk about writing’ (apologies to Raymond Carver) will be aimed at committed students who are looking to hone their written work, to have it read regularly by their peers, and to become fluent in a range of different scholarly registers: from careful archival research and peer-reviewed journal articles to more public modes like the essay and the review.

Unpacking whose library? Borrowing history in the postcolony

Paper presented at Silence in the Post-World: Literature, Culture and Reimagining of Geography - A One-Day Symposium| Freie Universität Berlin | Friday 15 June 2012. Abstract.

I am unpacking my library.  Yes, I am. Walter Benjamin.

…Today a memorial by Micha Ullman consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookcases, commemorates the book burning. Furthermore, a line of Heinrich Heine is engraved, stating ‘Das war ein vorspiel nur wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’ (‘Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people’). Students at Humboldt University hold a book sale in the square every year to mark the anniversary…

 Walter Benjamin's library card.

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The Chimurenga Library: An Introspective of Chimurenga Magazine  | Cape Town Central Library 21 May- 21 June 2009. http://www.chimurengalibrary.co.za/about.php

In Africa, when an old person dies, it is a library that burns.

Amadou Hampate Ba, UNESCO General Assembly, 1962.

[T]he boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns’, every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down’…

Alain Mabanckou, Broken Glass, Serpent’s Tail, 2009.

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...Which is what I love - the critical intelligence in the imaginative position... (i) Reality Hunger (ii) A Piece of Monologue.

Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity

Programme of events | Papers by Rob Nixon, Lesley Green, Julia Martin, Frank Matose, Andre Goodrich, Hedley Twidle.

What is the legacy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring? The Eco-Audit with Leo Hickmann. Valuable drawing together of online responses to the 50th anniversary at The Guardian website.

You smiled when I suggested that medicine could ever be scientific, but one of the things I appreciate in you, and one of the things I mean by ‘scientific’, is your awareness of what is not known and your unwillingness to rush in with procedures that may disrupt that unknown but all-important ecology of the body cells.  I appreciate, too, your having enough respect for my mentality and emotional stability to discuss this all frankly with me.

Rachel Carson to her doctor George Crile in 1960.