Monday, September 11, 2006
Amis's Sinister Balls. posted by Richard SeymourI was tempted to call this post 'The Last Days of Martin Amis'. I had thought of imagining Amis's fag-end hours on the planet, his ruminations, self-consciousness and self-loathing, his sense of infestation by his own fear and abhorrence, his sense of being curtailed by his increasingly paltry mind. But Amis has already produced the most wicked, repellent character sketch of himself imaginable. There is, in Martin Amis's memoir Experience, a passage describing a "cerebral stampede" by the Late Christopher Hitchens against Saul Bellow on the topic of Israel. Bellow is, reportedly, infuriated. Amis finds Hitchens' intervention to be "sinister balls", and remarks twice that he thinks about Israel "with the blood." He adds that he will "never be entirely reasonable about her". Blood comes up quite a bit: he pines for a lost love, a Sephardic Jewess from Golders Green immortalised in the wank-novel The Rachel Papers, who has gone to "give blood" for Israel. This mammalian metaphor signifies a pre-rational attachment, a devotion to the particular that is averse to chill universalism. To openly declare that one will never be rational about a defining political issue of the day is, you might think, to advertise a sort of mad fanaticism and to offer this advertisement as a prophylactic since you can't blame someone for what they "think" in "the blood". The mysticism of blood and soil, the mythology of death and the grave, the giving of life's fluid back to the land itself, is thus converted into a liberal apologia for Zionism. He is still "thinking" with "the blood" when he encounters a gatekeeper at the Holy Mosque in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem and declares: "I saw in his eyes the assertion that he could do anything to me, to my wife, to my children, to my mother, and that this would only validate his rectitude".
Amis resumes this theme in The age of horrorism, a useage he explains ahead of himself in Yellow Dog: terror is the anticipation of one's dreadful fate, whereas horror is when it is already upon us. Islam is upon us. Whereas "the West had no views whatever about Islam per se before 11 September 2001", it now finds itself bristling with views, because "We are hearing from Islam". Islam is first established as a rabble, or a "shoving, jabbing, jeering brotherhood" in Peshawar. And these Muslims - oh, mark their hypocrisy - they sell t-shirts of Osama knowing full well that it is forbidden in Sunni Islam to depict the human form. Liberal resentment boils under the surface - they force their piety on us, but don't adhere to it themselves. (That illustration to the left, by the way, is from th 8th century palace of Qusayr Amra, Jordan, built during the reign of the Caliph Walid I. They've been at it a long time, those Muslim infidels). Naturally, Amis trembles at the very sight of them. The encounter inspires a thought on universality: "I would have liked to have said it then, and I would like to say it now: all men are my brothers. But all men are not my brothers. Why? Because all women are my sisters. And the brother who denies the rights of his sister: that brother is not my brother. At the very best, he is my half-brother - by definition. Osama is not my brother." All women are his sisters, that is, except those who are "Islamists". We, the editorial we, can respect Muhammad and Islam, Amis assures us, but Islamism is a "creedal wave that calls for our own elimination". Amis is once more thinking bloodily: the stuff must be bringing the ripest Blimpish glow to his cheeks. He knows even less about "Islamism" than he does about Islam, but understands that it is against "the West" in which writers like him are "acclimatised" to "limitless, gluttonous freedom".
For Amis, "Islamism" is something that happened when Sayyid Qutb (pictured) experienced the monumental shock of encountering a drunken, semi-naked woman. It isn't that Amis is unfamiliar with the colonial and geopolitical background to Qutb and the theoretical work that he elaborated, which is allowed to stand in for "Islamism". It is that he is entirely dismissive of it. What shaped "Islamism" "decisively" was that traumatic encounter with the "limitless, gluttonous freedom" of the American female. Qutb resents "love" itself, you know. Islamism is a "cult" of "death" and "hate". Paul Berman is invoked to explain Qutb, but he is too respectful. Hitchens is brought in instead: Islamism is a triumvirate of "self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred - the self-righteousness dating from the seventh century, the self-pity from the 13th (when the 'last' Caliph was kicked to death in Baghdad by the Mongol warlord Hulagu), and the self-hatred from the 20th." VS Naipaul, whom Edward Said recognised fairly early on as "a witness for the Western prosecution", is brought before the stand to comment on what Amis calls the "sexualisation" of "Islamist" governance. Naipaul is talking about Pakistan, which is certainly a Muslim country, but has not yet been governed by Islamists - but that, for Amis, is a distinction without a difference. Bernard Lewis, the malicious Orientalist quack hired by Barnes & Noble to explain Islam to Americans, is briefly solicitied by Amis explain Islamism as a paranoid reaction to the West's alleged seduction. Amis avers that the West was only being unwittingly "attractive". The West as an attractive female subject to paranoid, delusional rage - and finally rape - from the repressed males of Islam is an image that gratifies the liberal's intuition that to be on the side of "the West" is automatically to be a feminist. I hope Amis would have thought twice about that metaphor if he had realised what he was calling those dead New Yorkers.
And so it goes on with thrusting repetition. In-out, in-out, in-out: this is the only move Amis' pen has ever known.
Having ruminated on sexual repression, Amis contemplates the allure of "suicide-mass murder". The Palestinian Intifada was, the first time round, an affair of "stonings and stabbings". But the second Intifada was conducted with a wave of suicide attacks and - get this - global support for the Palestinians increased. This point, parsed from Berman, is that protests for Palestinians rose and fell "in tandem with the suicide bomb attacks, and not in tandem with the suffering of the Palestinian people". Amis has an explanation: the West has no idea how to deal with "suicide-mass murder" and so it has to treat it as rational, when it should be understood as an "entrenched and emulous ideology" and "a cult of death". One should not, Amis avers, wonder at Israeli oppression. Indeed, the West understands this mass murder: it is explicable. It is not a "cult of death". It is part of being "attractive" but not "seductive".
Sam Harris (pictured), the avatar of reason, is added to the roundtable on What's Wrong With Islam: instant gratification upon death is apparently what is wrong. They get to go to paradise straight away, while the Christian rots until a final trumpet call from the Almighty. Harris has an interesting thesis about the war on terror, which is that it is a war with Islam, because the latter gives unambiguous instruction to slay infidels. This is what he writes: " the basic thrust of the doctrine is undeniable: convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world". This is not only a pack of lies (no ulama in the world would endorse that interpretation of Islam), it is shameless bigotry, an invitation to non-Muslims to regard Muslims as a belligerent mass ready to - well, conquer, subjugate, kill and convert. The wonder is that there are any of us left - or any of them left. Co-existence is simply implausible in Harris' nightmarish phantasy. There are a billion Muslims, but there were nineteen hijackers on 9/11. The wonder is that only 0.0000019% of Muslims could be motivated to actually attack the United States, particularly as Jannah awaits all who try according to Sam Harris (except that it does not, what with the prohibition against suicide). His implication as well as Amis' is that hundreds of millions of sexually repressed Muslim men in the world were too gutless to project themselves directly to paradise. But at the same time, "the West" is too pragmatic - it doesn't recognise a "clash of civilisations" when it sees one. Harris even borrows that Yeats line about the "best" lacking all conviction and the "worst" being full of passionate intensity. Amis does not lack for passionate intensity. He "thinks" with "the blood", especially when he complains about being stopped by airline security, suggesting that they "stick to people who look like they're from the Middle East": a passionate call for racial profiling.
Suffice to say there is hardly a cliche in the hackneyed diapason that isn't refashioned by Amis as a literary coup de grace, or a belle-lettrist anecdote. In this way, he sees things asserted in people's eyes and finds himself terrified by the Muslim rabble. His own bigotry and racism becomes its own proof, as his dimwitted reactions testify that these people are a nasty piece of work. Some very familiar thoughts about the relationship between extremisms are related through a contrived reference to Nikolai Chernyshevsky, an influence upon Lenin and Emma Goldman, who allegedly "determined, not the content, but the emotional dynamic of the Soviet experiment." He is paralleled with Qutb, and the point is made with all its dull regularity. The frequent tangential literary citations utterly fail to enlighten, but they are presumably intended to flatter the reader into being tittilated by poisonous bigotry. Amis wants us to understand how Islam finds ready accord with 'totalitarianism', so he finds that the Arab world opened itself to European influence under colonialism: Germany and then the USSR. Nazis and commies, do you see? "Anti-semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled." Amis assures us that those who wish America to fail in Iraq secretly wish misery on future generations of Iraqis, for the "Islamists" will win, yet another conventional thought which he presents as a surprising conclusion. And the bankrupt thought that "violence" is all there is to Islamism is presented after some apparently strenuous exegesis (of Lewis, Harris, Naipaul et al).
It would be pedantic to "fisk" such an incoherent, tedious and lengthy ramble through Amis' pet prejudices. The essay would be no more attractive - or seductive - if returned to him covered in red ink: crosses and underscored commentary all over the place. No, Islamism is not what Amis thinks it is. No, Islam is not what Amis thinks it is. No, suicide attacks are not what Amis thinks they are. No, the Iraqi resistance is not what Amis thinks it is. No, the West is not what Amis thinks it is. This epic of incomprehension is best understood as a confessional rant, priceless for what it tells you about Amis, and The Observer's editors and especially for what they make of their core readers. The cod psychologising and essentialism about Islam and Islamism, the barely disavowed snickering contempt for Muslims offered contemptuously as 'respect', the Cold War anti-communism, the heroic idealisation of something called "the West", the unwillingness to see capitalist violence or - where it is perceived - to see much wrong with it, the total blindness to any claim on the part of those who have not descended from north-western Europeans - all of this is de rigeur for Observer liberals. Amis's irrational attachment to a racist state in the Levant is only a logical corrolary of the passionate intensity with which he embraces the capitalist Herrenvolk. Its crimes must be externalised: to the bloody Germans, and the bloody Russians and the bloody Islamists. Amis has never morphed into his father: but in his premature declension, he caricatures Kingsley's dull antisemitism and even duller reaction. His balls, once sinistral, are now deeply sinister.
His thoughts be bloody, and nothing worth.