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.