Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Second Plane: Martin Amis on our being the involuntary guests to the blood wedding of terror and religion

If the numerous figures wrangled together under the big top of global intelligentsia, certain novelists among them, desire to distinguish their two cents from the clamour of collective pocket change, it mightn’t hurt to allow themselves to change their minds now and then, or at least develop their positions through time and experience, however subjective or limited that experience may be. If his various opponents have any single bone to pick with Noam Chomsky, for example, it’s that he appears to have the same response to everything. For many of us not graced with similar certainty, there’s something persuasive about thinkers who make some attempt to regularly tend to their thoughts, to bring to their ideas a sort of narrative that we can track, a path we can follow and perhaps more easily identify with.

Turning the development of political convictions into narrative seems to be the underlying point of The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom (Knopf, $29.95), the new collection of previously published writing by Martin Amis addressing, through essay, fiction and book or film criticism, the new challenges of life after that fateful “day of de-Enlightenment.” Arranged in chronological order, the last entry written only last September, the pieces convey something of Amis’ wrestling with man’s capacity for darkness, violence, tedium and self-delusion, all themes that, were it not for 9/11, would otherwise signal just another day at the office for the author of London Fields, Time’s Arrow and Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Okay, “wrestling” may be too fraught a term –Amis, as always, never sweats all that much under the heatlamp of heavy consideration– but he does in fact think out loud and articulately, resulting in a highly valuable read.

In ‘The Second Plane,’ written only a week after 9/11, Amis writes how for “thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.” In ‘The Voice of the Lonely Crowd,’ written in June 2002, the future begins to form a network of links to the past that were perhaps not so easily discernable in 9/11’s immediate aftermath, and the links keep highlighting the role of religion. While Amis separates his stance from that of “humanist pit bulls” like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) –Amis is a humbly confessed agnostic, rather than a tough-talking atheist– he begins to examine what he sees as the fundamental dangers of religion. And Amis being Amis, he’s not preoccupied with niceties.

“The twentieth century… has been called the age of ideology. And the age of ideology, clearly, was a mere hiatus in the age of religion, which shows little sign of expiry. Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any single faith or creed, let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful… if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”

In ‘Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,’ written in September 2006, Amis makes some refined distinctions: between Muhammad, who “no serious person could fail to respect,” and Muhammad Atta; between Islam, “the donor of countless benefits to mankind,” and Islamism, “a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination.” To be sure, Amis seems less concerned with excusing religious moderates from his attack on extremists than with directing our attention to the ways in which religious rhetoric, along with the new boredom of life burdened with arbitrary security measures, injects all post-9/11 powers with tacit permission to stop thinking. To put it another way, whichever side you’re on, so long as God’s on it, you’re allowed to be a bloodthirsty idiot.

Amis has been taking a lot of flak for what some have deemed his hateful, anti-Islamic attitude, an accusation that, once you actually read his work, can be seen as just a form of media-based bullying, an attempt to mob Amis into a corner, one cohabited by a truckload of right-wingers that would no doubt make for some rather uncomfortable chit-chat. Amis is openly hostile to the Bush administration –another house of destructive religious piety– and only friendlier to Blair by comparison. He’s hardly on side with the invasion of Iraq –see ‘The Wrong War’– but he’s willing to put things in some perspective. He declares the invasion of Iraq was not “wholly dishonorable.

“This is a more complicated, and more familiar, kind of tragedy. The Iraq War represents a giant contract, not just for Halliburton, but also for the paving company called Good Intentions. A dramatic (and largely benign) expansion of American power seems to have been the general goal; a dramatic reduction of American power seems to be the general outcome. Iraq is a divagation of what is ominously being called The Long War. To our largely futile losses in blood, treasure, and moral prestige, we add the loss in time; and time, too, is blood.”

Amis may be going a little too far out of his way (benign?) to avoid being lumped with the camp of the ineffectual Left that welcomes all manner of conspiracy theorist pundits, but his perspective is far more nuanced than any voluble variation on “stuff happens.” Above all, Amis keeps his eye on a bottom line peopled with mass murderers, whose culpability can’t finally be diminished by arguments of how the US had it coming. Throughout The Second Plane, and perhaps most especially in the fiction pieces –one of which imagines the final days of Muhammad Atta, a story which functions nicely as a sort of companion piece to the alternating chapters in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man– Amis keeps coming back to the sheer banality of sexually repressed, fleetingly inspired evil, seeing nothing noble or righteous anywhere in its vicinity, only something sad, deadly and all too familiar.

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