The Second Plane
Jonathan Cape, 2008
‘This is a narrative of misery and pain, and also of desperate fascination.’
–Martin Amis, The Second Plane
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once pointed out that no one dies for mere values. The fact, however, that suicide bombers not only die but also kill for their values would suggest they are not ‘mere values’. For Martin Amis, novelist-turned-political essayist, it is hard for us to know how to respond to terrorism, and the events begun on 11 September 2001. It is difficult for us, Amis argues, to rationally confront suicide bombing—which, we should note, involves both killing others (unlike violent political communication such as self-immolation) and killing oneself (unlike car-bombs or other methods of mass murder). It evokes a pre-modern view of the meaning of life, in which values can provide a cause that adherents are willing to die and kill for. The lack of an accessible perspective for intellectually addressing suicide terrorism has, in Amis’s view, definitively conditioned our reaction to terrorism, and goes a long way to explaining the pervasive bafflement at 9/11 and its enduring aftermath. This is a complicated point. Perhaps the ‘death of God’, as announced by Nietzsche in 1882, has deprived our ‘Western’ tradition of its anchoring centre weight, handing us down only these ‘mere values’, and leaving us unable to know quite how to respond to events such as 9/11. We could hold, though, that despite the great difficulty of fully empathising, of imagining a cause for which we would ourselves consent to die, in understanding suicide terrorism with 9/11 as its centrepiece, we still have reason. How, Amis asks over the course of the twelve essays and two short fictional pieces, can we (as, importantly, the ‘rational West’) engage with the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, its ‘horrorism’, and the rise of radical, political Islam?
The guiding light of reason is so appealing to Amis on 12 September 2001 because he finds himself lost for words—unusual for him—and without recourse to his writing instincts. He likens himself to Josephine, the opera-singing mouse in the Kafka story: ‘Sing? She can’t even squeak.’ Of course, Amis has always keenly felt his moral responsibilities as a critic, as his previous collection, The War Against Cliché (2002), evidences. But, he argues, his journalism about September 11th came less from a sense of obligation (to comment, to provide opinion) than from the artistic inability to do otherwise: 9/11 dispossessed Amis (and many other novelists, he contends) of the freedom of imagination required to write fiction. For Amis this seems plausible, as in his work since the early 1980s he has assumed an increasingly autobiographical voice: he seems sometimes to have to write about what he experiences, or at least in his own persona (ascribing to all characters his distinctive voice). Imagination, he states, was ‘of course fully commandeered, and to no purpose’ by the advent of 9/11; there was no time for Amis to indulge in the novelists’ necessary ‘solipsistic daydreams’ or allow ‘reason at play’. The real world had obtrusively intervened into his consciousness. In other words, for Amis ‘politics—once defined as “what’s going on”—suddenly filled the sky’.
Amis the political essayist, from 12 September 2001, has not been universally well-received, particularly by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. Eagleton and Amis’s public spat (they are both at Manchester University) centres around an interview given by Amis, that is not included here, in which he thinks aloud:
There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs—well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.
Eagleton understandably sees this as a ‘squalid mixture of bile and hysteria’, citing a ‘genetic excuse’: ‘Amis’s father [the novelist] Kingsley, after all, was a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays, and liberals’ and concluding that ‘Amis fils has clearly learnt more from him than how to turn a shapely phrase’. And there certainly has been a development in Amis’ writings, as argued cogently by Daniel Soar in the London Review of Books, towards the ‘anatomising of hatred’, as gruesomely present in the effluvia swishing around throughout his most recent novella, House of Meetings (2006). (This is to be contrasted with the more dispersed, vaguer, and, at any rate, less bodily class-based hatred of some of his works, such as Success (1978), Money (1984), and London Fields (1989).) Unfortunately, there is hatred in The Second Plane, even if it avoids many of the criticisms previously levelled at Amis since it is written in the impersonal, third person. Now, it is others doing the hating; it is for us to respond.
One question that remains even at the end of the book is whether it could be subtitled more accurately as ‘reason in the age of terror’ or ‘terror in the age in reason’. Amis equivocates between seeing the world as primarily rational, with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism out of place, and conceding that substantial changes must be made in our way of life to adapt to the new epoch begun with the second plane of September 11th. The equivocation is nearly fatal for Amis both politically and, perhaps more importantly, as an author. His best work, as Soar argues, succeeds in not giving hatred the fuel it needs by refusing to take it seriously. Terrorism, on the other hand, Amis takes very seriously. However, to contend that we should adapt to terrorism either politically or artistically is to surrender the power of reason to dissect and overcome terror. It is also a short step to claims that al-Qaeda somehow threatens our way of life, and we must do ‘whatever necessary’ to maintain it. In his recent book Invitation to Terror, Frank Furedi argues that this tendency pervades our response to terror: irrational dread of terrorism is fuelled by a host of concerns, such as our preoccupation with risk, and our fear of the ‘worst-case scenario’, rather than what is actually happening. Furedi contends that societies attacked (even by far more destruction than that of al-Qaeda) do not fall apart; our response to terrorism should be to be ‘constantly questioning the belief that we live in an “age of terror.”’
Amis, however, does not question whether we live in an age of terror. Rather, terrorized himself, he draws the consequences that society has moved from reason to terror. And when he sees himself as a lone voice of reason, he feels, inevitably, more permitted to take liberties—with arguments, with positions, with the distinction between fiction as ‘reason at play’ and political essaying as reason applied to ‘what’s going on’. At worst this creates such fear-mongering phrases as the following: ‘to transcend reason is of course to transcend the confines of moral law; it is to enter the illimitable world of insanity and death.’ Fundamentally, Amis seems unsure of whether man is a creature of reason or whether we are, at base, homo religicus and ‘man is only fitfully committed to the rational—to thinking, seeing, learning, knowing. Believing is what he’s really proud of.’ And since he takes little care to analyse the socio-political conditions that generate terrorism, Amis is left with an oversimplified dichotomy between the rationality and irrationality of actions that is not context-specific. There have been attempts to make sense of suicide missions by comparing suicide bombing to other forms of political action such as the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monks. It would have been interesting to see how Amis would compare 9/11 to, for example, the Japanese kamikaze missions of the Second World War in which the pilot both died and killed, for no more compelling an ideology.
For Amis, the central point, which he puts succinctly, is that ‘terrorism undermines morality. Then, too, it undermines reason’. This is more than the failure of reason to confront and scrutinise terrorism; it amounts to the basis of Amis’s aforementioned rejection of reason as the appropriate tool for responding to terror. Reason has been undermined. In terms of explanation, ‘It is time,’ according to Amis, ‘to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.’ It is important for us as readers, who presumably see ourselves as rational humans, to object to this frightening anti-humanist perspective. For one, it obviously portrays the terrorist as non-human, with no capacity to communicate or to understand the political, psychological, and sociological mechanisms behind terrorist ideology. Second, as Amis does not seem to realise, it also lessens us. It invites an irrational response to terrorism. It sees our understanding and actions as constrained by terrorism and our current state of knowledge. We certainly should not be frightened by postmodernist critiques of the ‘ethnocentrism’ of reason into cultural relativism, and the abandonment of the Enlightenment project centred on the emancipatory power of reason. We should, however, understand the limits to our understanding and also appreciate they may be temporary and surmountable.
Revealingly, Amis approvingly cites one of his favourite authors, V. S. Naipaul’s description of the religious impulse as the inability ‘to contemplate man as man’. The greatest danger of Amis’s thought on the troubled relation between reason and terror is that he ends up being unable to comprehend terrorism, becoming stuck by the inescapable fact that it is man who does this (rather than God). Even with his ‘mere values’ of rational secular humanism, Amis ought to aspire more to understanding terrorism than to reverting into bafflement and desperate fascination.