Thursday, May 1, 2008

"Medievals of Our Time": Leon Wieselter reviews Martin Amis' "The Second Plane"

Leon Wieselter reviews Martin Amis’ “The Second Plane: “I have never assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful.” He critiques Amis’ allegations. (Wieselter nods here to John Updike—I presume his novel “The Terrorist”. However, this “carnal” theory also enters Christopher Hitchens’ analysis in a poignant passage from “god Is Not Great.” One of the tragedies, Hitchens notes, is how 9/11’s highly educated recruits died as immature virgins.) Hitchens and Amis agree that such hijackers were incited by their inculcated “dread of women”-- fueled from Sayyid Qutb’s influential harangues inflamed by the horrors of postwar American debauchery that corroded that Egyptian’s student sojourn. At a time, I might add as I’m reading Nabokov now, when “Lolita” was penned by another, but much less inhibited and therefore permanent, immigrant.

Wieselter belittles this repressive reasoning in Amis’ awkward fulminations. Yet, from my own exposure at an early age to the soul-chastening, flesh-denying strains of stringent Catholicism, I can attest to the fact that thwarted libidos can be channeled into dangerously ascetic or morbidly destructive actions. I witnessed this happening to some friends whose lives turned out—- at least by eighteen or so-- not very well. I’m not equating their post-adolescent denials or decisions with terrorist atrocities, yet Wieselter appears too glibly in his roiling review to dismiss how the body can be warped by the mind when placed under severe spiritual pressure.

Wieselter jeers at Amis’ claims that “the dominion of the male is Koranic” and how “when challenged or affronted, the believer’s response is hormonal.” Wieselter snips: “We are to conclude, I suppose, that the unbeliever is the master of his hormones.” Now, as somewhat of a believer (although I tried reading his “Kaddish,” I found it wearied me long before I could finish it, so relentless was its author in displaying his own superior intellect), the “literary editor of ‘The New Republic’” has his own agenda. He does get defensive. Part of this may be that Wieselter lacks from his own mindset much first-hand knowledge of the battles within idealistic, intelligent, young people committed to an ancient, uncompromising dogma of renunciation of the body in the service of the soul. This can transform you into an eager Dalai Lama or a dogged Mother Teresa or tempt you into perversion as a pedophilic priest or pandering preacher, as we all read in magazines such as Wieselter's.

But, Wieselter appears too airily dismissive of what even I, as well as Amis, Updike, and Hitchens (all worthy of serious consideration) observe as a peculiarity of the bombers. An added complication-- Wieselter could respond to this cleverly I predict-- would be: what about those who are married, female and male, who strap on explosives in the name of the intifada? Leaving children and parents behind in the name of Allah and a hatred of Zion? How did the married Palestinian suicide bomber master his or her own hormones?

Intriguingly from my curious perspective, Judaism necessarily lacks the severe celibacy that demands such sacrifice; at least the yeshiva bochers gain enthusiastic support in marrying and mating as early as possible to scarved and draped, compliant spouses. Many as the crimes of the “Zionist entity” may be to the Presbyterian or Pacifica Radio left and the Islamist or conspiratorial right, the religious within Israel cannot be defined as denying their flesh. At least during permitted times each month; this segues into the taint of blood and the restrictions placed more on women than men, the male’s daily morning prayer’s thanks hollowly echoing. Jewish zealots, of course, are not without their own distortions of sexual expression and the role to which women and men both are relegated, but this wanders off into another digression!

Amis again is attacked for another false equation that leaves out the secular responsibility for an equal amount of mayhem in the name of a cause. Wieselter does not credit anyone else with this, but it’s an argument that Hitchens also made. Here’s the reviewer, first citing Amis: “When Islamists crash passenger planes into buildings, or hack off the heads of hostages, they shout ‘God is great!’ When secularists do that kind of thing, what do they shout?” Well, it depends on whether they spoke French or German or Russian or Chinese or Khmer or Serbian or Kinyarwanda. The historical innocence of secularism is a myth. And if the secular butchers worked in silence, what of it? The crime was the same. There is always too little reason on earth."

I had a problem, when reviewing on Amazon and this blog Hitchens’ own version of this same issue. Hitchens garbled his thoughts. He seemed to suggest in “god Is Not Great” that since Stalin's murders stemmed not from from religious fanaticism, as horrors driven by a purportedly atheist cause they became mitigated by their Cult of the Leader or their fulfillment of a materialist manifesto’s ineluctable manifestation. I remain aware this distorts Hitchens' intention, but he failed to clarify his point.

Similarly, Amis may be exaggerating the contrast of secular with fundamentalist worldviews. As Wieselter paraphrases in his typical vocabulary: “it is misology in the cause of thanatism.” This critic hates “the genital theory of history” and he grounds the “deformations” of Islam in political and cultural grievances. Yet, I keep insisting: if these protests emerge from a severe restraint over our basic desires, however mitigated or diminished most Muslims may put the strictures into daily practice (cf. Dubai), there’s still millions out there who pose a threat. Growing up with Israel and the U.S. and the West as enemies, being told that the body must be harnessed for the sake of martyrdom if necessary, will not such a mindset twist many ? Allied with means of mass destruction, the temptation to wipe out the infidels will not go away. The hatred of the flesh, the denial of excess, the refusal of tolerance, -- all countering our own Western indulgences-- will result in a backlash as millions live as disaffected residents seething amidst a luxurious society that they hate. The West becomes the enemy of the advance of Islam, and anyone standing in in the way of the Prophet by definition can be slaughtered. This is the reductionism, similar to what yesterday's review here and on Amazon of John Marks' "Reasons to Believe" finds as the end-result of an apocalyptic reading of the New Testament's End Times. Believers can wage war in the name of a Prince of Peace or a Prophet of Truth. The expansion of “dar al Islam” advances Islam against we pagan sinners in “dar al Harb.”

You can throw all the verses of the Koran back at me that promise protection for the non-believer, but as Richard Dawkins (or was it Hitchens? Sorry.) reminds us, the gentler proscriptions come earlier in Muhammed’s teachings. And the situation given the dhimmi (often touted by apologists who tout Moorish Spain over the rest of pre-Inquistorial Christendom) as a Jew or a Christian was a second-class status, with onerous taxes. Ask any of the students whom I have taught who are Copts from Cairo. The more Muhammed fought against those who opposed the insistence of Islam, among them the Jews, the less his ecumenism survived. The latter of the suras threaten much more than those from earlier years. Like the Bible, believers can cherry-pick at will among its textual verbiage to pluck whatever they want.

What do we do? Wieselter’s conclusion would be one that Amis, Updike, Hitchens, Dawkins, and even yours truly, trained in the study of Old & Middle English, could all agree with. Chaucer and Dante taken within their own limitations and hyperbole and contexts duly understood by we magnanimous post-moderns. After all, tales from Canterbury and the Inferno confidently and in splendidly articulated language pinpointed where they and their ultimately pious confreres would instantly and without hesitation-- given the teachings of their own Church-- restrain perpetually the heretics and infidels of their realpolitik. For us, the struggle, George Bush Jr. notwithstanding, deserves less than to be called a Crusade, for fewer Westerners care enough to die for gaining splinters of a Cross. Maybe a cross of gold rather than of wood, on the other hand, or a Holy Grail of oil. We also, tangled in our own good nature, have a media chorus of tenured multicult gushers and embedded rote soundbiters for nonjudgmental acceptance of the burka and the Shariah. I write on this worker's day now commemorated annually with traffic-clogging "immigrant rights" marches in my already crowded city by those demanding without irony and with our mayor's approval endlessly open borders.

So, within and beyond our own boundaries, the Cold War does appear to be succeeded by another battle, more vivid than even “Assassin’s Creed.” I tell my students that this century will see us follow the French and the British into financial insignificance. The Chinese may be tempted by lucre more than Mao as they plot domination; the Indians contrast as a less irksome set of future masters; the Islamists appear to be gaining in their enclaves within Europe, and this migration will surely increase in the U.S. as global warming worsens tropical or equatorial tensions. The maddened insurgents yank down the cavalry’s higher-tech knights in alleyways of the souk. Wieselter’s last line warns how “the great campaign against the medievals of our time will be dreary and long and homely.”

Full New York Times April 27,2008 review: The Catastrophist

Illustration: Botticelli's drawing for Canto 14, circle 6 of Hell
The City of Dis: Heretics

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