Friday, July 04, 2008

Martin Amis, Literature and Religion

Literature and Terrorism in December, and now in July our celebrity professor tackles Literature and Religion. On Tuesday of last week Martin Amis talked about this subject with critic James Wood in Manchester University's Whitworth Hall.

I was late - a bus and a little car had collided on Princess Parkway and the traffic was at a standstill. When I finally arrived outside the hall with my two companions, running, there was no one about, everyone else had gone in. Two stewards standing there said - with something of an excited air of occasion - 'Martin Amis?' and pointed to the door. Inside the building a huge guy like a bouncer said rather sternly, 'Martin Amis?' and pointed the way down the corridor. An Evening News photographer followed on our heels. Up the blue-carpeted stairs and then into the back of the huge hall which was unbelievably, out of term time, crowded, and where the speakers were being introduced.

Who were all these people who had given up a warm early evening to hear a debate on such a serious subject? From where we found seats near the back all I could see were strangers. Straight ahead of me was a woman in a straw Sunday hat.

Urbane as ever, even bored-seeming, Martin Amis spoke first. He was a confirmed secularist, he told us, but not an atheist. He told us that to be an atheist was an arrogant and illogical position since there is so much that we can't know, and yet I could swear that he used the word 'humiliating' rather than 'humbling' to describe this last fact. I thought he then said that religion may have solved the problem of death and evil (with the concept of heaven) but fails to solve the problem of panic - though Phillip Olterman, writing for The Guardian today (Saturday) has a different account of what Amis said on this precise point. Literature, Amis went on, has been a 'rearguard action' against this. He quoted smoothly from Milton' s great poem as the work of literature par excellence in this regard, and from some other classic English texts, I can't remember what.

James Wood sat semi-slumped over the table, leaning on his elbow and with his hand on his chin and almost over his mouth and said that his parents had become evangelical Christians, a background he had strongly rebelled against, which history had always informed his attitude to literature. He said that the rise of the novel in the nineteenth century had paralleled a decline in belief and the nineteenth-century novel was in this sense a slayer of belief - or well, maybe, he would need to think about it a lot more. There is something inherently secular about narrative, he said : a novel paradoxically requests belief (in itself, I think he meant - or maybe he meant in story) while being aware of its status as fiction. To make a narrative is to destabilize doctrine and the Bible begins with a totally unconvincing story, that of Adam and Eve and the serpent - well, I got a bit lost about his logic here. As far as Wood was concerned, it is not panic but evil which religion has failed to solve (well, this is what I heard anyway), and this has been the central theme of narrative.

And then Amis said that religion doesn't actually solve death with heaven anyway, and that heaven itself may be the real problem: the idea of it was 'repellent'. Where would the dramas and tensions be in such a bland world?

Both agreed that the debate surrounding Richard Dawkins' view of the universe was 'officially over', and theologian chair Graham Ward suggested with somewhat unctuous hopefulness that there was going to be a return to the 'sacred' in literature, whatever he meant by that.

Then there were questions from the floor. A woman stood up and spoke for a long time about her faith and how it had led her to write a novel which she hadn't yet had published and she wondered if Wood and Amis could imagine a heaven which we think of as heaven but which for the people inside it wasn't heaven at all - which seemed to be the subject of her novel; but it was hard to follow what she was saying and she realized it and finally said 'If you follow me,' and the people behind me started giggling, but Amis suavely said he followed her perfectly and gave an answer which in turn I couldn't follow since I couldn't fully work out how it related to her question before he had finished it and the next questioner was invited.

A man stood up and said he was a Pentecostal Christian and he wanted to write a religious novel, and would it be a good idea? Amis rudely told him to ask his 'heavenly father' for help, and Wood came in and in a conciliatory but tentative way suggested he write an allegory, like Tolkien or CS Lewis, who did actually write religious allegories, or well, sort of. And then a woman stood up and said Amis and Wood had been representing religious people wrongly, not all religious people just followed an institution and went to church on Sundays, but I had a funny feeling she was with the woman with the Sunday hat.

And then it was over, and we were told to sit in our seats till the panel had left because 'they had books to sell' and needed to be sitting with them at the bottom of the stairs before we filed down.

I'm sorry, but really I can't give you a good account of what was said. I was far too busy being gob-smacked and sitting there thinking how no one felt the need to couch their references to religion with the word Christian or to literature with the word Western, or mostly to the point, English and American. That in the age when religious fundamentalism should be of urgent interest to literature there was no acknowledgement of this or any sense of the need to address how literature might tackle this now. Indeed, there was only one reference to Islam: in his final condemnation of heaven Amis said he thought that the Muslim heaven was perhaps a good one, and some of the audience laughed. All I could think was that we were sitting there trapped in a Christiancentric universe, with a Christian theologian for a chairman, surrounded by Christian Neo-Gothic carving and soaring wooden arches, and overlooked by the massive organ which, on the occasion of the Literature and Terrorism debate, Tom Chatfield compared to the underside of a fighter plane, but which seemed to me on Tuesday like the towering bars of a gigantic prison.

I tell you, we couldn't get out of that place quick enough - once they let us - and we rushed down the stairs, my companion from UCL telling me in disgust that the open lectures at UCL never had such a low level of engagement or debate - and they didn't make you pay or try and make you buy their books, either.
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