Monday, January 14, 2008

Amis's war on terror by other means

In The Second Plane, Martin Amis defends the authority of writers about Islamist terrorism, but offers plenty of ammunition for his detractors, says Tim Adams 2008 writing in The Observer yesterday.

The Second Plane by Martin Amis Jonathan Cape £12.99

Last month, speaking to Terry Eagleton about his 'feud' with Martin Amis over the proper response of the liberal left to Islamist terrorism, I asked the professor whether he considered Amis a worthy debating opponent. He replied: 'I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners.'
Among its many ambitions this book wants to put him right. As well as being a collection of the dozen or so pieces - essays, short stories, reportage - Amis has written in response to the events of 11 September and to the War on Terror, it is an argument for why a novelist's voice should be privileged on these subjects. In his introduction to the collection, Amis makes part of his case: 'If September 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime ... Geopolitics may not be my natural subject, but masculinity is. And have we ever seen the male idea in such outrageous garb as the robes, combat fatigues, suits and ties, jeans, tracksuits and medics' smocks of the Islamic radical?' Cometh the hour, cometh the Mart.

Amis has a need to lay claim to big subjects in this manner - in the past he has sought
to make the holocaust and the gulags part of his 'natural' territory of
warped masculinity too; in each case, in Time's Arrow and Koba the Dread, he
risked reimagining the extremes of historical horror with his full ironist's
swagger. Few writers have put comparable effort into offering neologisms for
torture techniques; Amis did so in the belief that language must be fully
alive for us to comprehend the banality of industrialised death.

In this sense suicidal al-Qaeda, alongside its other more visceral threats to our lives, presented
a literary challenge. In the second of the essays here, 'The Voice of the
Lonely Crowd', Amis argues that one of the first casualties of 'The Long
War' after 11 September was the western literary imagination in general, and
his own in particular. 'After a couple of hours at their desks, on September
12,' Amis wrote, 'all writers on earth were considering the course that
Lenin urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.' They had been
outflanked. As Don DeLillo pointed out, in another context, 'there is a deep
narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter
consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to'.

Amis's instinct was to attempt to reclaim some of that power. In his case the writer's block lasted a short week (several other novelists got over it even sooner). He then set
himself the task of finding a language that could describe the 'worldflash
of a coming future', the 'horrorism', the 'self-besplatterment' of Islamic
terrorism. In his view, this rhetorical ownership was not only a necessary
effort, but also a moral one.

One of the arguments that runs through this book is that barbarism is all but indistinguishable from religion and that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism, but
independence of mind. The highest expression of independent minds in western
enlightened culture is, to Amis, its literary fiction ('reason at play').
His personal struggle against the 'dependent mind' of Islam is thus fought
on the level of playful language.

For the rest of the review go here.

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