Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Literature, Language and Speech in the Age of Terrorism

Halfway through the Q & A at Monday's Manchester University sell-out debate between Martin Amis, Ed Husain and Maureen Freely on Literature and Terrorism, a questioner asked: 'Do you think we can get back to Literature?'

I think this must have been Tom Chatfield who writes about the event on the Prospect Magazine blog. Can literature tackle the subject of terrorism, he asked, or must it buckle and be sidelined in the face of it - as, he was implying, was indeed happening in this debate?

Only Maureen Freely tackled with any urgency the subject of the responsibility of the writer, while Amis and Husain concentrated in their opening speeches on reiterating their distinctions between Islam and Islamism and on condemning jihadist terrorism, and like Tom Chatfield I found her contribution moving. Apart from that, and a few angry reiterations of familiar political positions from the floor, there was no real debate, as Maureen Freely says on the Guardian Books blog. Instead there was a disconcerting sense, in that vast hall packed with 500 people, of issues being skirted around.

'What do you expect a novelist to do, deny his feelings?' asked Martin Amis, when finally, towards the end, a questioner challenged him outright about what Maureen Freely calls The Controversy, reiterating the point he made in Saturday's Guardian.

Whoa, Martin, stop there. OK, yes, novelists, unlike politicians and Amis's 'post-historical automata', deal in feelings, and this is why I'm always saying that, contrary to current belief, fiction has potentially greater persuasive power than any political tract. But a novel is complex and subtle, it's not just a knee-jerk response, and we are not, after all, writing novels when we are speaking in public - briefly, and without the emotional investment a novel earns from an audience - on political issues. Indeed, Amis himself (in his own defence) makes a distinction between the status of the two forms of expression: What you say about something is never your last word on any subject. But what you write should aspire to be just that: your last word. The trouble is, though, what you say to a journalist, or even on telly, gets written down and can be, and mostly is, presented as your last word.

To me there is no doubting Amis's sincerity, but he does seem to have some confusions and he really needs to watch his language. I do agree with him that there's a mistaken and dangerous 'liberal' inability to condemn horrors perceived to be confined to other cultures, but perhaps the 60% of an audience who failed to put up their hands when he asked how many would call themselves 'morally superior' to suicide bombers were simply shocked by his diction? It's one thing to condemn an action, but it's another to bring the focus back onto oneself and bathe in moral righteousness. Much of Amis's diction is hierarchical in this way: we in the west are more 'evolved' than Islamic states, he says (it's no good Amis claiming as he has that by 'evolved' he simply means 'more civilized': the word has inescapable Darwinian connotations of progression and hierarchy); Muslims need (and want) 'to put their house in order', he says, calling on Biblical and western-political notions of division and patriarchal hierarchy (and in danger of conflating Islam and Islamism once again.)

It's a mindset that doesn't help. Maureen Freely, who grew up in Turkey, where East and West most graphically meet, put her finger on this at one point, calling on everyone to stop thinking, in this age of mass immigration and global communication, in divisive terms of East and West. She got a clap, I think.

But she's right: through no fault of her own, she failed really to challenge, and in spite of her best efforts, the subject of literature, its political responsibility and its power in the face of terrorism trickled away. Meanwhile, today a Turkish publisher goes on trial for publishing a book 'insulting Turkishness'...


Adrian said...

As usual, I missed it. I really must sort out my diary. But I don't know that I'm that interested anymore. More interested in the way that all comment is being codified now, either to offend, or not to offend. We self censor not knowing what the "use" our words will be put to, or what the context will be. And yet literature itself is keeping quiet, saying very little. Hear its barely audible whispers.

Anonymous said...

That was indeed my question at the debate: somewhat stumblingly put, but I quite agree that for all the robust talk of its adequacy, "literature" often seemed a very small word when set next to "terrorism" that night.

Striking poses helps no-one, and I feel badly let down by Amis. The words I need are the ones that speak loudly, clearly and startingly about what exactly it means to be living, now; not ones that speak of a blustering desire to appear adequate to politics and posterity.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thank you for asking that question, Tom: I was so glad you did even though, scandalously, it wasn't taken up for debate.

I do think this posturing is at the crux of the Problem with Amis: as I say, his language makes his statements ultimately self-regarding and represents 'the West' as self regarding, which is no help to anyone.