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April 22, 2008

Amis's The Second Plane is simply right: right in its stance towards its subject, right in its judgements, and right in its expression - says David Womersley: The Second Plane - Martin Amis

Posted by David Womersley

The Second Plane
by Martin Amis
Pp. 214. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008
Hardback, £12.99

Martin Amis's views on Islam (or, as he more accurately insists, Islamism) have become recently notorious as a result of a crude attack by Terry Eagleton, in which the allegation of racism was yoked to a gratuitous swipe at the prejudices and fondness for drink of Kingsley Amis. Those with longish memories in Oxford will have been surprised to hear that final accusation drop from those particular lips. Still, none so righteous as one who has repented, I suppose. But that context of hypocritical accusation adds a supplementary relish to what is in any event a rare pleasure, namely that of reviewing a book which I think is, simply, right: right in its stance towards its subject, right in its judgements, and right in its expression.

With Blair in Basra, Amis observed a moment when the former Prime Minister's glibness forsook him (p. 185):

It wasn't just that he seemed acutely underbriefed (on munitions, projects, tactics). He was quite unable to find weight of voice, to find decorum, the appropriate words for the appropriate mood.
Notwithstanding what you may have read about this book in the bien pensant liberal press, weight of voice and decorum are precisely what Amis achieves in The Second Plane.

The Second Plane is a collection of Amis's journalism written in the aftermath of 9/11, to which have been added two fictional pieces exploring the moral geography created by the attack on the Twin Towers: "In the Palace of the End" and "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta". After the Holocaust, the assumption got about in literary circles that atrocity somehow disables art or makes it irrelevant. In the grip of that assumption, the writers of the West were momentarily frozen on that first day of our cowardly new world (p. 11):

After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were considering the course that Lenin menacingly urged on Maxim Gorky: a change of occupation.
But, to judge from the quality of at least some of the writing which has followed 9/11, it seems more accurate to say that atrocity challenges and stretches the literary imagination, once the initial phase of numbness is over. The literature created in the wake of 9/11 reminds us, perhaps unexpectedly, of the cognitive force of art - that is to say, that art is a way of understanding, not merely of representing. In the words of Wallace Stevens, "the poem is the cry of its occasion".

"The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" sees Amis partially revisiting the territory of his earlier metaphysical novel Other People (1981), the title of which alludes to Sartre's dictum about the nature of hell, and in which a character, Mary Lamb, is condemned to re-experience infernal repetitions. Amis traces the roots and anatomises the pathology of this particular terrorist's hatred of life and the West - his immature, bubbling resentments and the vicious form he found to try to turn that immaturity and resentment into something of ethical weight.

In the first essay of The Second Plane, Amis noted how the imagination was horribly stimulated by 9/11 to contemplate terrible, unspeakable, things (p. 12):

the second plane, on impact, was travelling at nearly 600 mph, a speed that would bring it to the point of disintegration. What was it like to be a passenger on that plane? What was it like to see it coming towards you?
One person who had no need to imagine that, of course, was Muhammad Atta, and Amis attributes to him the following thoughts of belated wisdom at the moment of impact (p. 124):
Yes, how gravely he had underestimated it. How very gravely he had underestimated life. His own he had hated, and had wished away; but see how long it was taking to absent itself – and with what helpless grief was he watching it go, imperturbable in its beauty and its power. Even as his flesh fried and his blood boiled, there was life, kissing its fingertips. Then it echoed out, and ended.
Although the end of Atta's life, this is not the end of the story. There is a space on the page, and then the first sentence of the story is repeated. What an afterlife: an endless, infinite, repetition of his last day of folly and crime, rather than the carnal paradise he had been promised. Suddenly the dreadful significance of that apparently innocent plural - "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta" - makes itself felt.

"In the Palace of the End" is a bitterly funny imagining of the tedium, misery, pain and humiliation which is the life of a presidential double in an Islamic despotism. As the president is successively maimed and scarred by each narrow failure to assassinate him, the doubles must have the same disfigurements inflicted on them in order to preserve their likeness. But don't run away with the idea that the life of an Islamic double is just pain and misery: it also has the perks, the fringe-benefits as you might say, of tedium and humiliation.

Condemned to maintaining the president's reputation for unflagging virility with the hordes of women corralled into the presidential compound, the doubles joylessly tramp through hours of "unpunctuated cunnilingus" in quest of the orgasm (better still, the multiple or even perpetual orgasm) which the trembling fear of the victim has made unattainable. This is in part what 9/11 has done to the world. Pleasure has been degraded into dullness, spontaneity into cowed repetition. And this is of course the image of our predicament. Even our thoughts in the West are now trapped into the repetitious circularity of an intractable problem: how can we resist these people who wish us such harm without ourselves becoming their doubles?

Amis is very good on the values that the West is rightly trying to defend, and on the moral bankruptcy of the creed which is waging war against us. But he is also acutely aware of how the virtues of the West expose it to Islamist extremism, and understands that we must not fall into the pitfall of allowing the exercise of our natural right of self-defence to lead us into becoming a version of the kind of repressive society in which the Islamists feel at home.

Islamists are given to extolling their creed by pointing out that its followers are willing to sacrifice their lives for it. In The Second Plane Amis makes it clear that, on the contrary, that is precisely what is wrong with Islamism.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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My reaction to Señor Womersley’s last paragraph is this: in Ecclesiastes (3:11) it says:

He has also set eternity in the hearts of men

This feature can easily be abused and perverted, as ObL and friends are doing. But the West is not helped by so many of us being in denial over eternity, especially bloggers who refer to the soul as the “arsole”.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 21, 2008 08:12 PM
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