Amis Describes “The Age of Horrorism”

Instapundit links to a lengthy essay by Martin Amis, “The Age of Horrorism” (in the Guardian). He pierces through to certain truths, but none of us, including him, can easily stand outside ourselves.

Amis follows the experiences of Sayyid Qutb, whose “epiphany” was reached in the dry Greeley, Colorado of 1949; he describes a church “dance hop” which was

‘inflamed by the notes of the gramophone,’ he wrote; ‘the dance-hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust.’

. . . ‘Lust’ is Bernard Lewis’s translation, but several other writers prefer the word ‘love’. And while lust has greater immediate impact, love may in the end be more resonant. Why should Qutb mind if the air is full of love? We are forced to wonder whether love can be said to exist, as we understand it, in the ferocious patriarchy of Islamism. If death and hate are the twin opposites of love, then it may not be merely whimsical and mawkish to suggest that the terrorist, the bringer of death and hate, the death-hate cultist, is in essence the enemy of love.

Some Chicagoboyz will find his essay interesting, in part because it sets out so clearly what those who value the small & even mundane joys of this world are likely to see as nihilism in the terrorists; he clearly understands the frustrations & thousand little deaths that come to those who deny the life force. And how that denial leads to fear, denigration, objectification, and, in the end, punishment of women. Obviously this destroys the pleasures of partnership let alone love. He notes: “We should understand that the 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. The hatred contains much historical emotion, but it is their history, and not ours that haunts them.”

Later, he notes what a brighter John Walker Lindh might have told Osama: “Now would be a good time to strike. . . the West is enfeebled, not just by sex and alcohol but also by 30 years of multicultural relativism. Their ideology will make them reluctant to see what it is they confront. And it will make them slow learners.” And we remember why and how Lindh became the “American Taliban” – what in his life had so upset him, so confused him that he sought the clear & narrow rules of theocracy.

Of course, Amis values our society’s openness, its traditions. Indeed, he argues: “Our moral advantage, still vast and obvious, is not a liability, and we should strengthen and expand it. Like our dependence on reason, it is a strategic strength, and it shores up our legitimacy.” The Islamic focus upon “submission” runs counter to creative though, for he argues it is “the surrender of independence of mind.”

And out of his sense of the good & understated leader, he criticizes Bush’s “fatal turn” which was his “all too palpable submission to the intoxicant of power. His walk, his voice, his idiom, right up to his mortifying appearance in the flight suit. . . – every dash and comma in his body language betrayed the unscrupulous confidence of the power surge.” Reading this, I think of Bush’s speech & the undoubted cockiness it embodied. And Amis is, I suspect, quite right that this did not endear us to Islamists nor was it done with much real thought to the consequences nor the battles ahead. In passing, though, I remember Amis standing before an audience, attacking Robert Bly, and the sudden realization that Bly was, indeed, in the audience. Bly can be silly but the juxtaposition made me realize how much Amis’ argument was defensive, how unaware he was that there were other definitions of maturity, of fatherhood, of masculinity. This is, to some extent, the difference between our cultures.

Amis may well turn out right: “the Middle East is clearly unable, for now, to sustain democratic rule – for the simple reason that its peoples will vote against it.” Of course, I retain a hope that this is not true – and it will take another decade or two before we are sure. Small solace (for Amis is often clearly right) is that he has his own way of looking at the world & it is not always broad. For instance, he is critical of Rumsfeld’s response (“Stuff happens”) to the “looting of the Mesopotamian heritage in Baghdad.” I’m sure he is right that this inflamed large swaths of Islam. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure that Rumsfeld “looked as though he had just worked his way through a snowball of cocaine” (though perhaps my disbelief comes from naiveté). More to the point, the real extent of that “looting,” the real culprits and the real attempt to reclaim those arts & artifacts is also a major story and one that puts Rumsfeld’s priorities in better light.

Amis projects a solution, one he argues is the thrust of Liz Cheney’s argument: raise the consciousness of Islamic women (and men through that female independence). Of course, this great power lies passive & oppressed within these nations. Certainly, their potential is great. He acknowledges the difficulty.

He concludes with what he sees as a spiritual solution for the west. His quite understandable affection for Philip Larkin leads him to “Aubade” and then to “Church Going.” Then he describes an outsider that came to so clearly define the inside of which he became a part. Joseph Conrad came to value British pragmatism and the joy of the mundane: “The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is.” The role of women in such a society is always, I believe, going to be more equal, more appreciated.

Conrad may indeed give succor; he offers us a way to see the world that we understand from both the pragmatists and the transcendentalists. Its celebration of the mundane & the generative counters “the age of horrorism.” However, Larkin, as beautiful and powerful as he can be, offers us negation rather than bestirring our heart & calming our minds. We’ve been rereading Winthrop this week & I can’t help but juxtapose his conclusion:

we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it.. . . Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.

Few of us find Winthrop’s theology comfortable, but the belief that only through love of the other can we love our God is a remarkably different & remarkably generative priority. The belief that we are tied together by the ligaments of love is powerful imagery that counters any argument for “horrorism.” It values the daily, the mundane, the other. Larkin’s approach, aesthetically pleasing and insightful as it is, offers little that leads us to enjoy each day. It is just such fears that appear to drive the characters – real & fictional – Amis gives us. And, it would seem, just such fears drove Larkin. Much that Amis values is in that long & fruitful world of British pragmatism. We Americans appreciate that – it has defined us. But we are more often speculative, more often restless. Therefore, I suspect we are less likely to find in Larkin an argument “beautifully arrived at”; one that “contains everything that can be decently and rationally said.” We are more likely to consider the validity of that old cliche: you can’t battle something with nothing.

11 thoughts on “Amis Describes “The Age of Horrorism””

  1. The writing of this piece is simply magnificent. That said, most of what gets said is or should be well known. Amis hedges when he asserts that somehoe Islam is no worse than Judaism or Christianity in the fundamentalist stage, but he carefully lets us know that Chrisiantiy was also wicked during the medieval period. We do not live in that period now. And he again implies that most of the troubles of that period stem from western occupation etc but ignores the truth that the Ottoman Empire wanted to do in the west what Amis implies we did in the Arab world.

    Amis never mentions oil. That has made some arab states powerful and enabled them to be what they currently are.

    What amis clearly does not want to do is be politically incorrect and note that Islam is basically a theocratically ordered way of life that in one or another way, sooner or later, will resist or brush aside secular rule.

    And demographics…that needs mentioning too.

  2. Amis takes cheap shots at Bush and Rumsfeld, draws a misleading parallel between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, shows parochial contempt for religion generally and rejects out of hand the achievements of our invasion of Iraq. Nonetheless his analysis of the Islamist psyche is well done and his essay is worth reading.

  3. Meanwhile, our President has just cut a deal to bring 15,000 Saudi graduate students over here. The theory I guess is they will like us. There is no reason to believe this, and no excuse for importint 15,000 potential Mohammad Attas. First, I imagine the Saudis will use this as an opportunity to export their trouble-makers. Second, they will probably be like Qutb, and hate what they see. The delusion that people will get along if only they get to know each other is something that the administration has apparently not outgrown. They don’t hate us because they don’t know us well enough. They hate us, not because they are mistaken about us, but because they are right about us. We really are the antithesis of what they are and what they want the world to be.

  4. We really are the antithesis of what they are and what they want the world to be.

    As they are for us.

    To be less flip about it, I suspect that a lot more of these Saudi students are going to want to stay here than to become Islamist terrorists. The bigger problem is the possibility that some of them are already terrorists; given the inefficiencies of our vetting process I think we should be much more cautious about admitting Saudi students. Maybe we should insist that at least half of the students be women. Another problem is that the Saudis will probably use these students and their tuition money to buy influence and favorable PR.

    Bush may also be responsible for having allowed Khatami to visit.

    Would President Gore have done better in his sixth year or President Kerry in his second year? I doubt it but who knows.

  5. Scholarly exchanges often lead to affection; however, my daughter & son-in-law met & fell in love in France but agree they won’t live there again.

    And, I remember the old days when students from Islamic countries seemed chosen less by ability & interest in further education than tribal ties. Attitudes toward women teachers, women lab partners, plagiarizing, etc. are likely to be greater if the main object is not mastering a subject. Suspicion of the teachers by the students and by the teachers of the students is not going to improve relations. I’m not sure how we can ensure that isn’t inevitable.

    I agree with Jonathan that requiring half to be women would work against those potential problems – but suspect Lex’s pessimism is probably well founded.

  6. Oh, why am I not surprised—another asexual, anti-sexual, mysoginistic little fanatic is so terrified by the existence of sexual desire that he would rather declare war than admit that he might want to have sex.

    In the final analysis, Islamism is a neurotic fear of the weakness of men in the presence of women. Thus the violence and repression, the hatred of cultures which do not fear and repress women, and the constant need to strut around congratulating themselves on their manliness and holiness and all the other little -nesses that fragile, fanatical twerps need to preen about to get through the day.

    Imagine how much nicer the world and its history could have been without the repeated lunacies inspired by the neurotic asceticism of men afraid of sex.

  7. Ginny, Thanks for calling our attention to that piece. We got our Kid Wonderful off to college in Texas, and she’s into her studies. Pictures she sent of Swing Club activities reflected the splash of energy, elbows and sensual delight that would horrify a Qutb. Dance is sexual, but happily human; what does Darcy say? “Any savage can dance.”

    This past weekend she attended a freshman religious retreat. Quite to her consternation she met up with Qutbian Catholics. Casual conversation revolved around a peculiar application of Jesus’ Golden Rule that delighted in the notion of a crusade to burn down an abortion clinic along with the hope they might find some queers along the way to add to the holocaust.

    As we talked about that I was inclined to write it off as a Catholic permutation of Spengler’s fundaresentalism. We talked about Catholicism being a very big circus tent with many more than three rings of emphasis running at any given time. Hopefully, she won’t be inclined to say, “I thought they were all Catholics. Or, I thought they were all Muslims.”

    We observed that sexual issues are important for fundamentalists of all stripes. Later, I recalled Jamake Highwater’s comments in Myth and Sexuality about the binary nature of our approach to sexuality:

    “[I]t is characteristic of Western viewpoint to think of sexuality in terms of binary opposites: male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, marital sex and pre- or extramarital sex. “And in every case, one of these pairs is privileged, is seen as the ‘normal.'” … In many other cultures the dichotomized value system does not advocate or even comprehend what we in the West mean by binary opposites. That fundamental difference in the ways in which we know and understand the world makes it almost impossible for us to see others in any terms except those that we use to define ourselves. Failing to see our own myths as myths, we consider all other myths false. Therefore, nothing challenges our factualized mythology as much as the values of other cultures which contradict those categories of privilege and normalcy which our cosmogony attributes to nature. To suggest any flaw in those things which are at the heart of binary opposites throws us entirely off balance. We cannot comprehend any congruity between what we have defined as “opposites” because our mythology has become the guiding principle not only of religion and moral conduct, but also of science and social behavior. Choices for us are strictly a matter of either/or: male or female, good or evil, light or dark, heterosexual or homosexual, natural or unnatural. We have even forfeited the purely statistical basis of terms like “normal” and “abnormal” in favor of a curious form of biological morality: normal-good and abnormal-evil.”

    Then I thought about Joost van Loon’s observations about how we try to control youthful mischief (and sexuality?) in the Anglo-sphere:

    “The risks associated with youth are usually risks of social disintegration and breakdown. They have induced two types of responses: (1) increased discipline and (2) increased marginalization. The first response maintains the Durkheimian hypothesis that only organic solidarity can support a sustainable moral order in modern society. It is the response favoured by most Western European governments who saw investments in education and training and youth work as fundamental forces in the battle against social alienation. The second response, however, takes an almost diametrically opposite direction. It integrates a much leaner ‘core’ of collective consciousness by eliminating from it elements that threaten it. Here the emphasis is not on disciplining subjects through their individuation’ in social institutions, but by creating an ideology of binary opposites: good-bad, moral-immoral, us-them, safe-dangerous etc. It creates a classification system in which the deviant are discursively positioned as ‘mindless thugs’, whose moral deficiencies are beyond repair and for which there is only one effective strategy: punishment and deterrence. As a way of simplifying, one could argue that whereas the first strategy was the one favoured by most Western European societies, the second one prevailed in the Anglo-Saxon dominated ones.”

    But this Anglo-Saxon approach also informs our political rhetoric, not only about sexual-social issues, but also about foreign policy. How easy is it to imagine Qutb saying, “You’re with us or against us.”

  8. OK. I read it on the train today. Not very impressed by Amis. The stuff about Qutb and the sexual problems of the Islamic fundamentalists is well known already. Ralph Peters has been writing about it for years, for example. The stuff about his novel and how he couldn’t write it is mere self-involved scrap verbiage. The stuff about how all religions are the same and are the enemy may be tasty fodder for Guardian readers, but is hogwash as a historical matter and as a practical matter. Maybe that is what it will take to get Guardian readers to agree to oppose Islamic terrorism.

    The only thing I liked was his use of the expression “suicide-mass murder” instead of “suicide bombing”. It better captures what is really going on.

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