May 20, 2013
Troy Jollimore on Martin Amis’ ‘The Second Plane’
Posted on Apr 24, 2008
The second plane, as no one needs to be told, was the one that hit the World Trade Center’s second tower. And it was the one which, as Martin Amis found himself writing within a few days of the event, utterly annihilated the hope that what was happening that September morning might have been nothing more than a terrible, tragic accident: “That was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her. ... That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”
Amis, of course, is best known as the author of such novels as “The Information,” “Money” and “London Fields.” His most frequent fictional mode is a species of carefully observed, somewhat brutal and frequently hilarious social satire. But his new book, “The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom,” is a pure product of the “coming future” he speaks of here, a book fully shaped by the single event that many take to have defined our era. “The Second Plane” collects 14 of Amis’ recent short works: essays, reviews, a pair of short stories. Granted its unifying theme, the book is still something of a hodgepodge; it was clearly not conceived as a cohesive work. But the pieces’ very lack of unity feels somehow appropriate to the subject. Here are 14 attempts, each one almost self-confessedly a failure, to respond in an adequate way to what cannot adequately be responded to.
“The Second Plane” affords an interesting opportunity: to watch an intelligent person trying, over time, to think through the unthinkable turn his reality has taken. “I have cut nothing,” Amis remarks in his author’s note, “briefly tempting though it was, at times, to cover my tracks.” These tracks, and the evolution of the author’s desires to cover them, are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book. Amis’ views on some matters remain fairly constant: He is reliably critical both of the Bush presidency and of the Iraq war, for example. But his thoughts on the book’s deepest question—what are the obligations that violence, and in particular mass slaughter, thrusts upon us as inhabitants of the world in which it occurs?—undergo a quite noticeable transformation over the six years the book’s writings represent.
The opening piece, “The Second Plane,” was published a mere week after September 11. Here we find Amis shocked and bewildered, but interestingly open-minded and up to the challenge of thinking about the terrorist act in all its aspects and implications, up to and including a consideration of why the terrorists did it: “It will also be horribly difficult and painful for Americans to absorb the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly. How many of them know, for example, that their government has destroyed at least 5 percent of the Iraqi population? How many of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with fourteen million)? Various national characteristics—self-reliance, a fiercer patriotism than any in Western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity—have created a deficit of empathy for the sufferings of people far away. ... Unless Pakistan can actually deliver bin Laden, the American retaliation is almost sure to become elephantine. Then terror from above will replenish the source of all terror from below: unhealed wounds.”
Of all the possible cuts that must have tempted Amis, the one that was most difficult to resist was surely that word intelligibly. For the idea that America was intelligibly hated—the idea that any aspect of the terrorists’ sentiments and actions could be considered even minimally intelligible or rational or comprehensible—is precisely what he would come to want to deny. This is nowhere more evident than in the author’s note: “The first piece—published on September 18, 2001—has a slightly hallucinatory quality (it is fevered by shock and by rumor), and also indulges in what Paul Berman, the author of Terror and Liberalism, has called ‘rationalist naïveté’—a reflexive search for the morally intelligible, which always leads to the chimera of ‘moral equivalence.’ ”
By Sept. 18 many people, particularly in the United States, had decided that understanding the terrorists’ motives, not to mention the American foreign policy decisions that had helped form the background for the attacks, was precisely the last thing they wanted to do. (Amis, apparently, took somewhat longer to come around to this point of view, but eventually he did.) This refusal to reflect, to investigate, to learn, still seems regrettable, but the reaction is perhaps not impossible to understand. In the shadow of an atrocity of this magnitude, any attempt at explanation might be seen as amounting to the suggestion that the victims “had it coming.” One wants to retort that this worry is ungrounded: It is acknowledged by all reasonable parties that no one could possibly have had this coming, whatever damage American foreign policy might have done. Still, the worry persists, particularly in light of the knowledge that not all of the concerned parties are reasonable, that there are those who will take any proffered explanation of the terrorists’ actions as amounting to a justification.
The temptation, in the light of this, is to insist on regarding the attacks as an incomprehensible event, something so alien to our sense of morality that any attempt to penetrate its baffling surface is doomed to failure, and indeed risks pulling us into the moral void that lies at its core. The perpetrators are not to be regarded as rational agents, and certainly not as political actors, but as the exact opposite, members of a “death cult” that rejects reason altogether: “Thanatism derives its real energy, its fever and its magic, from something far more radical. And here we approach a pathology that may in the end be unassimilable to the non-believing mind. I mean the rejection of reason—the rejection of the sequitur, of cause and effect, of two plus two. ... To transcend reason is of course to transcend the confines of moral law; it is to enter the illimitable world of insanity and death.”
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