Saturday, February 02, 2008

Amis III: the Aaronovitch Review

When Republicans used to defend Ronald Reagan against the obvious snipe of stupidity, they pointed out that he was a radio baseball commentator when baseball was big; and later he was a Hollywood actor when being a star meant something. If we're to take Martin Amis seriously, perhaps we should listen to his own words, especially those which Norman Geras seems to find meaningful: [D]on't contradict your times, just don't contradict your times, if you want a peaceful life.

I mention this because I have a sense, don't you have it, that Amis's supporters - mostly Nick Cohen - think that being a novelist, or a serious thinker, is the ultimate career for anyone with a degree. Comedians are somewhere lower down the social scale. I mean, you wouldn't invite a comedian to an Islington dinner party if you hadn't been let down by a novelist. Comedy has been taking over the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for years now. Comedy is where it is at. If you can write a bit and have ambitions, comedy is far more competitive, far better paid, and gets much more attention than novel writing. Whenever Chris Morris's name comes up in the context of Martin Amis, I always that the intention is to make me think, "Oh, he's just a comedian." Instead, I tend to think that Chris Morris has demonstrated a much better understanding of the Zeigeist than Martin Amis ever has.

But enough of that, our eponymous scribe, David Aaronovitch, wrote a review of The Second Plane a couple of weeks ago. I see regular AW commentator Matthew had a couple of blasts in the comments. It's a thin and unsatisfying review: David does disingenuous. Could the bad reviews in the London Review of Books have been because the reviewers didn't like the works? No, it's the slippery left-liberal thought police.

I have the image of Aaro writing this piece, like Mohammad Atta straining over the bowl in Amis's "Mohammad Atta's Shit, Shower, and Shave" - an exhaustive examination of costive suffering - perspiration shines on his forehead as he tries to force out a good review without much to go on. Because it's not, when you come down to it, a convincing review at all.

If Amis is open to any criticism over Iraq, it is that he explores Saddam Hussein's science-fiction bloodiness - as he does in the short story In the Palace of the End - without the slightest realistic notion of how it might be brought to a conclusion.


This is a rather odd thing to say - from the rest of that paragraph, the criticism that Amis is open to would be expected to come from "the more ideologically policed section of the liberal-left intelligentsia" but it reads like Aaro's own objections. But then compare this with our man dismissing other critics:

And the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra inevitably accused Amis of combining a "patchy knowledge of world history" (as opposed, presumably to Mishra's own complete understanding) with "a primordial anxiety about cultural otherness".


Yet these criticisms, Aaronovitch's and Mishra's share a common theme: Amis hasn't a clue. Here is the interesting bit, which I is why I've called this Amis III, commenters here have noticed that Amis isn't particularly engaged or well-versed in his subject. (Johann Hari noted, "He has not been to meet any Islamists to test his theories, even though you can find plenty in Finsbury Park, a few tube stops away.")

But Amis, unlike many other writers, couldn't leave it at that. He began to look at the people who had carried out the attack, and, crucially, at the ideology that motivated them - in other words, at what they said and wrote.

What he discovered was not a group of misguided liberators, but of young men in love with the idea of death and violence, given justification by an implacable and totalitarian ideology. Amis went back to the mid-20th-century writings of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, men such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb - as someone might have returned to Mein Kampf in the early 1930s - and examined what was being taught. It is doubtful whether Eagleton - unlike Amis and tens of thousands of Islamists - has read a single word of Qutb's writings.


Yes, Qutb keeps coming up, but is that all? Whatever Norman Geras may argue, root causes do matter; Nazism wasn't just Mein Kampf but the ashes of WWI and a defeated economy and desperate times - and ingrained anti-Semitism which Hitler stirred up but did not invent. Al Qaeda and its supporters go back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Kosovo. I've not read the book, and I don't intend to, but it seems that the War on Terror or whatever you want to call it is being reduced by Martin Amis to a thin sheaf of texts one can analyse. He's going to judge them by their prose works and their television performances.

Through Qutb and others Amis came to the realisation, chronicled in The Second Plane, that Islamism itself was a problem, since what it loathed about the West was, as Amis puts it, not our active seductiveness, but our passive attraction. "We should understand," he writes, "that Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract too; none of the usual things can be expected to appease it." Amis connects this existential envy to the political failure of Islam and attributes this in turn to the suppression of women in many Muslim countries.


But what 'others'? They are never named. Do they exist? If existential envy is the root of "the suppression of women in many Muslim countries" could someone explain why there is also misogyny among a small but active number of Israelis?

Lastly, Aaro cites Amis's phrase "dissonant evasion" with approval I think. Like so much of Amis's high-falutin' prose this seems to belong in a tone poem rather than a serious essay. Nice words, but they don't mean anything together.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Baldwin said...

The lit crit approach to terrorism comes from Paul Berman doesn't it? Tsk, that Baudelaire...

2/02/2008 10:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

"But Amis, unlike many other writers, couldn't leave it at that. He began to look at the people who had carried out the attack, and, crucially, at the ideology that motivated them - in other words, at what they said and wrote... Amis went back to the mid-20th-century writings of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, men such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb - as someone might have returned to Mein Kampf in the early 1930s - and examined what was being taught. It is doubtful whether Eagleton - unlike Amis and tens of thousands of Islamists - has read a single word of Qutb's writings."

Good to see that the Decent Left are still congratulating themselves for having heard of Sayyid Qutb. But this is quite misleading, isn't it? What Amis did (like all his fellow Decents) was read "Terror and Liberalism", note all the references to Qutb, and passed off Berman's research as their own in the expectation that no-one would notice. Perhaps Amis skimmed through a bit of Qutb himself, perhaps not, but none of the opinions he expresses about him are anything Berman hadn't said already.

Aaro also makes the assumption that reading Qutb can tell us much about contemporary Islamism, which obviously exists in a very different political context to the one that Qutb was living and writing under. I suppose this goes back to the "battle of ideas" theory of decency, by which material consideration are of no importance in considering motivations for terrorism.

2/02/2008 10:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris Baldwin said...

I'm rather surprised at how influential Terror and Liberalism has been among certain circles. I thought it was an attractively written book that displayed an admirable enthusiasm for ideas but was ultimately not that convincing. It's very readable, but it just didn't have that much impact on me (and when I read it I was more sympathetic to the Decent perspective than I am now).

2/02/2008 10:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

I'm not that surprised. It was published at a time when a lot of hacks who had previously shown little interest in political Islam and the politics of the Middle East were suddenly aware that they might need to seem authoritative on these topics. Berman was a well known name who wrote a readable book which had the pleasing consequence of confirming a lot of the uninformed hunches that various hacks already had (and, in the case of Nick, giving him his 'Eureka moment').

It's not all that bad a book in itself, but its influence has been pernicious, because we now have an army of Decent hacks who apparently consider themselves learned authorities on Islamism merely through having read it (cf Nick's expression of surprise that so few people on the 'liberal-left' had heard of the Muslim Brotherhood - the unspoken implication clearly being that Nick's knowledge was anything more than cursory and based on a single secondary source)

2/02/2008 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

He can't have read Qutb very closely, if he could write this:
""We should understand," he writes, "that Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract too;"

Qutb spent time in America and was fairly concrete about what he didn't like about the place. They may be reasons that Amis (and I) find ridiculous, but there is nothing abstract about them.

Not that the argument has much merit, given that modern Islamist's (if such a vague definition has an meaning) loathing of America is mostly due to American foreign policy in the region. Bin Laden has rational reasons for loathing America, which are again rooted in concrete actions undertaken by the US (or an interpretation of them anyway). Hamas's reasons are extremely logical (and to be honest, given the context within which they operate - pretty reasonable). Ditto Hezbollah and Iran. This stuff is rooted in historical events.

2/02/2008 11:32:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Simon, you made the point I wanted to make much better than I could.

Cian, one of the problems I have with MA these days is that I can't tell if hasn't read Qutb closely: he just writes for the words, in this case 'abstract' and 'irrationally'. That seems to be his ongoing criticism of Islam - and I say 'Islam' rather than 'Islamism' because he applies both to religion generally. The thing is, so do I, but I don't think that analysis is helpful in approaching the question of why Abu Hamza's irrational and abstract thought supports bombing while Rowan Williams's doesn't.

One thing I meant to say, because I agree completely with "This stuff is rooted in historical events" is that you wouldn't understand the rise of the Third Reich just by reading 'Mein Kampf'. (That example wasn't chosen to trivialise the Holocaust, by the way, but because the Nazi-Islamist comparison is the Decents' own.)

2/03/2008 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it seems that the War on Terror or whatever you want to call it is being reduced by Martin Amis to a thin sheaf of texts one can analyse. He's going to judge them by their prose works and their television performances.

Andrew anthony, in the now-famous ICA talk (to think i passed up a ticket to this life-changing event as it was too expensive), admits to not having read Qutb because he found it too badly written. that's pretty weak 'research' by anyone's standards and Amis has done little more. Qutb is not the defining text of islamism.

The problem for Amis is that what Qutb finds so abhorrent in America is summed up fairly well in another book published a while back about Western excess - one entitled Money by Martin Amis...

anyone else but me think that Aaro and co are rather exposed by the far better standard of writing employed by Mishra and the LRB review of Amis? the latter in particular was a spectacular piece of writing. It's the unwillingness of these writers to 'engage with' Mishra and Soar that's so bloody frustrating.

2/03/2008 02:39:00 PM  
Anonymous dsquared said...

He's going to judge them by their prose works and their television performances.

Except of course he didn't as noted here - the famous Mohammed Siddique Khan video suicide note didn't mention Qutb once and mentioned Iraq loads of times.

2/03/2008 04:54:00 PM  

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