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Functioning insanity

Martin Amis: analyze this

Martin Amis analyzes the perpetrators of 9/11:

The spectacular attack, “the big one”, was a non-starter until the fortuitous arrival in Kandahar of the “Hamburg contingent” (Atta et al): these men were superficially Westernised, and superficially rational: possessed by just the right kind of functioning insanity.

A fascinating mini-psychodrama is packed into the phrase “functioning insanity”. With the first word, Amis glibly lays claim to clinical expertise, appealing to the sense of “functioning” used in psychiatric assessments. Yet in the very next word, manfully impatient with such bullshit, he invokes the brute, non-clinical idea of “insanity”. In lightning succession, he postures in pretension to medical authority, and then peacocks his courageous rejection of that same authority. Superficially rational, indeed.

  1. 1  DF  September 2, 2006, 4:10 pm 

    I can’t quite follow your objection to this phrase. My fault I’m sure. It can’t be the case that no person who isn’t a psychiatrist writing a psychiatric assessment can use the word “functioning” in this sense without being a glib and pretentious imposter. I’m sure you’re not saying that. Equally, it can’t be the case that as a hard and fast rule, writers must never yoke together terms from different, even antithetical realms of discourse. It is one way in which they achieve striking or thought-provoking effects (forgive me for stating the obvious).

    At one, perhaps banal level, what Amis says is true. These men were clearly “functioning” in the sense that they could function in society, when they wanted to. And there is a sense in which at least aspects of the world-view which is attributed to them – perhaps falsely, maybe this is where my misunderstanding lies – is one which secular rationalists would tend to characterise as “insane”, predicated as it is, inter alia, on mass-murder of Americans as a potential route to eternal salvation. Perhaps employing the word “insane” in this context is regrettable, but it’s a familiar enough usage.

    But I am sure you are onto something. Would you mind unpacking your thought a little?

  2. 2  SP  September 2, 2006, 4:29 pm 

    Hello DF: I’m happy to confirm that I am saying what you begin by saying you are sure I’m not saying.

    Regarding your request: I regret to confirm that what I wrote above is coextensive with the content of my thought: the thought is not, as it were, flat-packed in a cardboard box with instructions, screws and an Allen key, waiting to be assembled into its true, voluminous form. (Perhaps, if the medium is the message, the flat-pack carton itself is IKEA’s true product: what the customers do with it afterwards, whether trying to “unpack” it or valuing it as is, is ungovernable.)

  3. 3  DF  September 2, 2006, 4:32 pm 

    It goes without saying that if your reaction to what I have written at #1 is to think “Well, the point is perfectly clear, so he should just go and think harder about it, rather than obliging me to repeat myself at tedious length”, then I shall not be in the least offended if you do not respond to my request.

    (BTW, I am not sure I mentioned here or elsewhere how terrific your line on “sustainable ceasefire” was. I have been quoting it to everyone I know.)

  4. 4  SP  September 2, 2006, 4:38 pm 

    Well, you remember how T S Eliot, when asked what a line in his poem meant, offered to recite the whole thing again.

    Of course I do not claim for this post either the literary quality or compression of thought characteristic of a T S Eliot poem. But I am not sure what you want me to explain further, beyond my clarification at #2.

    Glad you liked the thing on sustainable ceasefire, thanks.

  5. 5  DF  September 2, 2006, 4:42 pm 

    Ah, I see, while I was writing #3 you have been responding to #1. Thank you. I seem to have anticipated your reaction to my request for further clarification, and I am, as I promised, unoffended.

    Does your absolute rule extend to all realms of technical expertise? Is it ever permissible to use terms which have a precise legal meaning, for example, in non-legal context? Or does it apply only to psychiatry?

  6. 6  SP  September 2, 2006, 4:46 pm 

    Your question mischaracterizes what Amis is doing. Of course, I might use the word “functioning” in a non-psychiatric context, perhaps to complain that my television wasn’t functioning. But Amis is not using the word “functioning” in a non-psychiatric context: he is using it precisely in the context of pretending to be able to evaluate the men’s mental health, which he goes on to evaluate as being at the level of “insanity”.

  7. 7  DF  September 2, 2006, 4:55 pm 

    No, I understood he was using the word its psychiatric sense. That’s what I tried to express by referring to “the word ‘functioning’ _in this sense_’ at #1. No doubt I could have expressed myself more perfectly.

    When I refer to his use of the word in a “non-psychiatric context”, I don’t mean he is not using the word with its clinical meaning. He is. I mean he is using the word with its clinical meaning, but in a non-clinical context, ie not in a piece of psychiatric literature written by a qualified psychiatrist.

    My thoughts, I fear, are invariably in need of further unpacking, assembly etc., but I hope that’s clear now.

  8. 8  SP  September 2, 2006, 5:04 pm 

    Ok, you say:

    he is using the word with its clinical meaning, but in a non-clinical context, ie not in a piece of psychiatric literature written by a qualified psychiatrist

    Yes, so far; note further that the clinical meaning is not quite like just any old piece of technical vocabulary: by itself it implies the arrival at a qualified assessment. The difference between us, I suppose, is that you nonetheless do not agree that, in doing so, he is, as I initally wrote, “glibly laying claim to clinical expertise”?

  9. 9  DF  September 2, 2006, 5:14 pm 

    I think that’s right.

    There is something glib about this piece, but I don’t really think he’s laying claim to clinical expertise.

  10. 10  SP  September 2, 2006, 6:13 pm 

    So if I, as someone who is not a lawyer, were to make a judgment on a legal matter that was couched in technical legal vocabulary, I would not ipso facto be laying claim to legal expertise? I see.

  11. 11  sw  September 2, 2006, 6:46 pm 

    Stuck here at work, I have been able to ponder this little excerpt from Amis between jobs. It is hard to take Amis seriously, after Clive (“I am a serious!”) Whatsisface hijacked his pomposity and Chris (“sleeking in like harsh metal ducklings”) Morris hijacked his prose and crashed them into the edifice of Amis.

    I think that Amis’ whole phrase is a précis of pop understandings of madness. The men are “possessed”, of course, by spirits, conceits, pagan gods, devils, thoughts beyond their control, something outside of them that has taken them over, inhabiting them; they are “possessed” by this “insanity”, the designated and identifiable amalgam of the irrational and the uncontrolled – or deceivingly controlled – emotion, such that their explosion of violence was always present and always hidden under their dissembling charade of sanity; this “insanity” that “possesses” them is “functioning”, whether this is the psychiatric assessment of social and personal strengths and deficits or the meaning-producing function of the hermeneutics of the mad; and, of course, there are “right kinds” and “wrong kinds” of madness, the kinds that are creative and romantic, and the kinds that are dark and dangerous and lurking for you around a corner with a butcher’s knife. It’s complete wank.

    So I just said that Amis, in using “functioning”, may be employing “the psychiatric assessment of social and personal strengths and deficits or the meaning-producing function of the hermeneutics of the mad”. I just noticed that he led his assessment of their insanity with claims about the men being “superficially Westernised” and “superficially rational”. We see in the former a strangemirror reflection of the psychiatric assessment of social and personal function: the assessment of how adequately and thoroughly “Westernised” (read, civilized) the men are. We see in the latter a strangemirror reflection of the psychiatric assessment of the meaning of their madness: the assessment of how deep their rationality goes, how a skin of rationality can disguise the writhing intestines of madness. It is hard not to see here the intricate weave of reality and deception that permeate many claims about insanity.

    It’s probably worth thinking more about those terms other themselves. Who is “superficially Westernised”? Your pharmacist with the odd accent, the lollipop lady from Ghana? Is there some Western core, some Deep Western, that someone can become or attain? What deeper Other is Amis alluding to, which is superficially covered up by this Westernisation, and how does he identify it? If indeed he ever does. Tosh, tosh, you say: I’m being too sensitive. He just means that they took on the trappings of “Westernisation”: so, why does he not say that their Westernisation was ersatz? Because then he would have to talk about a true and real Westernisation; too touchy a topic, so he only implies it, hints at it with the more palatable notion of layers. It gets Amis out of a lot of hard questions: did these men do what they did because they were so “Westernised”? Of course not, he says: they actually did it because they were so Muslim. And it evades entirely the question of what this Westernisation means, how it was determined and understood. Wasn’t it reported as if it was some crude approximation of Western life (like going to strip shows)? But are there really these layers of identity that can be peeled away from outside in? Are youth in China who wear jeans “superficially Westernised”? Are you “superficially Orientalised” because you like sushi and Wong Kar Wai?

    Why is so much made of their “superficial Westernisation”? Is it because in their superficial Western states they were so obviously Other? Is it to imply that they could never really, deep down, be like us? Does not the same apply to Amis and his “rationality” – that we are creatures of insight and reason, not subject to the turmoil and violence of madness that lies within those insane people. And is there not, in his “right kind” of insanity that cold sarcasm that implies that when these awful people do something “right”, when they actually are functioning, it’s that they’re doing something very, terribly wrong?

    Just a thought! Back to work.

  12. 12  DF  September 2, 2006, 6:54 pm 

    But in your writings on the Supreme Court, international law, ASBOs and other topics, you have made judgments on legal matters, and in doing so you did use technical legal terms, in their correct legal sense. You weren’t then, as you made quite explicit, “laying claim to legal expertise”.

    I don’t agree that Amis using one word in its technical psychiatric sense, a sense which is reasonably widely known albeit in what I suspect is a loose approximation of its exact medical meaning, amounts to laying claim to psychiatric expertise.

  13. 13  DF  September 2, 2006, 7:03 pm 

    SW – on the madness issue, he’s just using insanity as metaphor, isn’t he, he’s not making a clinical judgment? You are no doubt right when you suggest that it is a metaphor based on a hackneyed and inaccurate stew of misconceptions about “madness”.

    When you talk about the “superficial Westernisation” – you’re really cooking. This for me is where the glibness really emerges. He doesn’t even want us to stop and think about what a problematic concept “Westernisation” is.

  14. 14  DF  September 2, 2006, 7:33 pm 

    SP – on reflection, I do agree with you that there is at least a hint of pretentiousness in the phrase we have been discussing. But I think there are much worse things in the piece, as SW has suggested, and I would love to see you go to work on them.

    I meant to add to my last post that your judgments on legal matters are always a treat. And I say that as one who has good reason to hate the law.

  15. 15  sw  September 2, 2006, 7:45 pm 

    DF – I think that it is really difficult to say that he is just using madness as a metaphor and not as a clinical diagnosis. There are several reasons for this, and I’ll bet you want to hear them all.

    First, the questions Amis is raising about these men and their agency, intention, concepts of reality, etc., pertain to exactly those categories that are (popularly, if not necessarily accurately or elegantly) associated with madness. In other words, he is addressing their state of mind and their understanding of themselves in the world and associating it with a diseased state of mind and a diseased understading of their place in the world: the association is too exact to be brushed aside as metaphor. Imagine a situation in which leprosy is common, in which you know people with leprosy, in which lepers can be seen on street corners: If you see a man with really bad skin and call him “leprous”, is that metaphorical? Or is it a type of commentary on what you are seeing, suggesting that it might in fact be leprosy? It would be hard to claim under these circumstances that calling the bloke with bad skin “leprous” is not a clinical judgement, even if you are also saying, “His skin is so bad it looks like it could be leprosy.”

    Second, the association that Amis draws between “madness” and these men fits in better with popular, lay notions of madness than it does with any type of clinical judgement: it is impossible to tell, then, whether this is an ironic appropriation of these lay notions of madness from a position of clinical judgement or if he is simply confusing the one for the other. Amis’s confidence is not confidence-inspiring, and he is prone to – what other blogger on this site coined this term? – glibbery, and so one may feel fairly confident that Amis has not thought this through.

    Along these lines, I have tried, above, to unpack some of what he was saying about madness: I do not know if Amis thought this through either – I would put the burden onto his work to show that he has thought this through, and is not being glib. If it is clear that he is worrying about what it means that these men either were or were not “mad” or “insane”, if he is putting his own metaphor to work and not simply falling back on it as though it actually _explains_ anything, then perhaps we are being hasty in dismissing him thus.

  16. 16  sw  September 2, 2006, 7:49 pm 

    DF – What, now that I’ve bloodied “superficially Western”, SP can go and finish it off?

    (And who was it who parodied Amis’s Experience, starting with “I am a serious!” – it’s on the tip of my tongue . . . )

  17. 17  SP  September 2, 2006, 8:40 pm 

    I think “I am a serious” was a brilliant Craig Brown Diary piece in Private Eye, was it not?

    DF, you are quite right that I have offered judgments on legal matters with resort to legal vocabulary, etc. In my defence I would plead that such judgments were arrived at through some sort of effort at reasoned argument and citations of various actual authorities etc, and often hedged with explicit disclaimers of any authority on my part – as in the beautiful acronym IANAL. And so maybe they were not “glib”. Amis’s “functioning”, on the other hand, does, I continue to think, glibly lay claim to expertise. As SW says, the burden is on his work to show otherwise.

    I quite agree with SW on the insanity-as-metaphor issue, too. If you wish to defend Amis on the grounds that he is just using insanity as a “metaphor” – if you wish to get him off, as it were, on an insanity defence – you’ll have to show what it is supposed to be a metaphor of. Nothing very useful, I fear.

    SW has meanwhile brilliantly torn “superficially Westernised” to very small chunks, no longer quivering. I can add nothing further.

    Does Amis’s article harbour further glibbery that must be dragged out into the light of day and crushed? No doubt. Feel free to nominate some other passages.

  18. 18  sw  September 2, 2006, 8:44 pm 

    Craig Flippin’ Brown! On the tip of my tongue, it was. I have his collection. Frankly, after his Martin Amis parody, the rest of the book is something of a let-down. In fact, his attack on Martin Amis might qualify as ‘The spectacular attack, “the big one”’.

  19. 19  abb1  September 2, 2006, 9:25 pm 

    Just like us, but not afraid to die – is what he is dancing around with his ‘superficially westernized’ ‘superficially rational’ and ‘functioning insanity’, I think.

    Not being afraid to die to a Westerner is irrational, is insanity.

    You could be a student of urban planning in Hamburg for 6 years working as a car salesman to pay for tuition and get the degree – but as long as you are not afraid to die you obviously haven’t been sufficiently westernized.

    And I am not being sarcastic or anything.

  20. 20  SP  September 3, 2006, 9:27 am 

    abb1, although I prefer “being willing to die in the course of murdering others” to the possiby heroic-sounding “not being afraid to die”, and there are no doubt some non-Westerners who also prefer to avoid death, I think you have a point. It is the suicide component of suicide attacks that has historically often led observers to cry insanity, from the Zealots and Assassins (if not insane, then at least off their faces) to the present day.

  21. 21  SP  September 3, 2006, 10:09 am 

    Perhaps we can agree that the following passage from Amis is also glibbery:

    As for the other players, there are nuances, there are shades of black; but the consistent profile is marked by intellectual vacuity, by a fanaticism that simply thirsts for the longest possible penal code, and, most basically, by a chaotically adolescent — or even juvenile — indifference to reality. These men are fabulists crazed with blood and death; reality for them is just something you have to manoeuvre around in order to destroy it.

    Amis obviously enjoys a deep understanding of the differences between what he calls “adolescent” and “juvenile” psychology, even though he does not deign to explain them to us. Is it in fact the case that adolescents or juveniles are in general “indifferent to reality”? (Am I correct, by the way, in suspecting that “adolescent” is a psychiatric category, while “juvenile” is a legal one?) Is it, moreover, plausible that you could mount something like the “planes operation” if you were, in fact, indifferent to reality? Is there not another group of people somewhere in this story who have explicitly expressed an indifference to reality?

    What, meanwhile, are we to make of this insistence on “intellectual vacuity” as an adjunct to the insanity or, as it is expressed here, the being “crazed”? Can Amis seriously be saying that “these men did evil things, therefore they must have been stupid”? Has history not seen many highly intelligent mass murderers? Or is this more a form of self-reassurance on the writer’s part?

  22. 22  abb1  September 3, 2006, 10:20 am 

    I don’t think “the course of murdering others” is necessary or important here. I don’t see westernes willingly giving their lives in any circumstances.

    Sure, all non-westerners are afraid to die, but most (if not all) non-western cultures place concepts like ‘honor’, ‘faith’, ‘tribe’ or – oh, I don’t know – ‘class struggle’ or something, far above one’s “pursuit of happiness”.

    Unless you feel that your own life, your own wellbeing is the most sacred thing in the universe – you don’t belong, you’re insane.

    And I’m not judging anybody here, not saying one is better or worse than other; it’s just a fact of life.

  23. 23  SP  September 3, 2006, 10:29 am 

    I don’t quite think you can generalize from a phrase in the US Constitution to a deep psychological truth about all “Westerners”.

    Of course, the London bombers last year were all British.

  24. 24  belle le triste  September 3, 2006, 1:05 pm 

    i don’t have any problem with “pursuit of happiness” as a freedom — where the insanity comes is the reading of the line which says that my happiness can flourish independently of the happiness of everyone else (by which i mean that there are people who beleive this — and act on it — but that by doing so they prove themselves to be insane)

    class struggle is also a pursuit of happiness — but rooted in the belief that i can’t be (sanely) happy if an entire class of humanity is excluded (structurally; economically) from happiness (ditto race or tribe or gender or _______ in other forms of political struggle)

    abb1 you should read garry wills on frances hutcheson — he unpacks the root of the idea of the “pursuit of happiness”; in hutcheson’s common-sense (yet strangely radical) understanding, happiness is SOCIAL not INDIVIDUALIST

  25. 25  abb1  September 3, 2006, 1:35 pm 

    I have no problem with individualism, I’m an individualist myself. I’m just saying it’s an essential characteristic of contemporary western culture and these guys are missing it. English word “martyr” sounds to me foreign and archaic.

  26. 26  abb1  September 3, 2006, 1:59 pm 

    I mean, don’t get me wrong – I’m sure soical happiness is a beautiful thing, but I won’t die for it and neither will you. Even if you only ask me for, say, 25% of my after-tax income to increase soical happiness, I probably won’t rush sending the check. I will never do a hara-kiri under any circumstances and neither will you. I will never do any public suicidal act (terrorist or, say, self-burning) and neither will you. And we won’t fight overwhelmingly powerful enemy to glorious death – that’s just not who we are – we’ll calculate the odds and surrender.

    That is both our weakness and our strength.

  27. 27  sw  September 3, 2006, 3:16 pm 

    SP – I’m thrilled that you have held out another Amis paragraph for us to have some fun with. I really do not know what he is aiming for with “by a chaotically adolescent — or even juvenile — indifference to reality”: unless there is an Amis Scale of Development (Adolescent: 14-19 years old, Juvenile: 9-13, Puerile: 4-8, Childish: 3-4, Infantile: 1-2, Babyish:0-1, and, a word he reserves only for describing Mohammed Atta’s intellectual development, Foetal).

    Of course, if there is one developmental stage where there is specifically not an “indifference to reality”, it is adolescence (which I would call a developmental term, not a psychiatric term): prior to adolescence, reality is examined by the child with a curious, friendly distance, as something that may or may not be important, we’re not quite sure yet. After adolescence, there is hardly any time for “reality”: work, relationships, etc. mean that we think less and less about it. But in adolescence, reality is everything. Having lost the fantasies of childhood and not yet calloused and distracted with the tasks of living, the adolescent is faced with reality raw and intense.

  28. 28  SP  September 3, 2006, 3:24 pm 

    Ah yes, SW, “developmental”, thank you.

    Very interesting thought on adolescence being precisely the stage on which one engages most intensely with reality.

    I further fail to understand why Amis thinks anyone should want to “destroy” reality if they are indifferent to it. All very strange.

    A friend was explaining to me recently that there are two words in French for “reality”. The one that looks like ours, réalité, apparently means something like one’s phenomenological world, ie your reality, which may be different from mine. Actual objective reality has a different word, le réel.

    Welcome to the desert of the real.

  29. 29  sw  September 3, 2006, 3:26 pm 

    I really love the way that abb1 picks up only on the Martin Amis-type reduction and not on the critique of it.

    What sort of pop-anthropological nonsense is “most (if not all) non-western cultures place concepts like ‘honor’, ‘faith’, ‘tribe’ or – oh, I don’t know – ‘class struggle’ or something, far above one’s “pursuit of happiness”.” Yes, “class struggle” has really been a defining motif of non-Western countries, especially in India where they are constantly overthrowing notions of one group of people being different/better than another based on social structures. Yes, that vulgar, secular, individualistic Deep West, where they don’t understand the ‘honor’, ‘faith’, ‘tribe’ of The mysterious, perfumed, kohl-eyed Other. Come on, it’s just so much bullshit. At least we should give Amis some credit for presenting the same type of bullshit in perfectly hard little shit nuggets.

    And then, “’m just saying it’s an essential characteristic of contemporary western culture and these guys are missing it.” I may have misunderstood, but, abb1, you aren’t suggesting that “these guys are missing it” refers to the above discussion, are you? If so, please read the above again, and you’ll see, that that was really not the topic. As for “an essential characteristic of contemporary western culture”? Ah, thank God for “essential characteristics”! Without them, where would we be in our understanding of history and culture?

    I’m off to have an individualistic coffee now.

  30. 30  sw  September 3, 2006, 3:28 pm 

    Is there any sort of pun available between “le réel” and film reel? I only ask, because it would be charmingly – and, for some, quite essentially – French, if objective reality had the same word as a roll of cinematographic film.

  31. 31  SP  September 3, 2006, 3:32 pm 

    My dictionary tells me that a reel of film is, alas, une bande, but I’m sure your pun is still available translinguistically. It was, after all, Godard who said: “Cinema is truth, twenty-four times a second.”

    I think by “these guys” abb1 meant the insane terrorists, etc, though I could be wrong. And how the fact that many people still volunteer for the armed forces in the essentially individualistic west fits into his schema, I am not sure.

  32. 32  SP  September 3, 2006, 3:47 pm 

    Fans of Spanish Fly, of course, will remember their intensely realistic adolescent anthems such as “Jumpinoutthewindow”, “Don’t Throw”, or “Meet Me on Mercury”, before their later work became so abstract and ideological.

  33. 33  abb1  September 3, 2006, 5:55 pm 

    Yes, of course by “these guys” I meant Atta&Co.

    I agree that I was somewhat off-topic; sorry about that, but why is it necessarily bullshit, are you denying social customs and cultural differences altogether?

    What about blood feuds, for example. If someone immigrated and has lived in the west for 10-15-20 years and then got involved into a blood feud somewhere, can we agree that he’s been only superficially westernized?

  34. 34  sw  September 3, 2006, 7:04 pm 

    Sorry for misreading you on “these guys”.

    In terms of culture and cultural differences, I quite accept that these exist; how much such categories are worth in defining an individual’s (or a group’s) actions, and how well-examined the suppositions are behind those generalisations ought to come under scrutiny.

    An immediate problem with the validity of the generalisations is apparent: immersion in a culture renders you both expert in that culture and blind to parts of it, whereas what you see another culture is dependent on your areas of cultural expertise and your blindness (not in an uncomplicated way: what you are blind to in your own culture may become visible when filtered through the spectrum of another culture). This means that assumptions about what a culture is “doing” is always mediated by a knowledge about those cultures and awareness of divergence – both are themelves products of culture, customs, norms, etc. This is pretty basic “cultural relativism”: what you say and think and believe about cultures are inflected by your own culture(s). And so, any broad claims about cultures, social customs, cultural differences, deserve to be questioned.

    Along those lines, I really worry about statements that begin, “most (if not all) non-western cultures place . . . ” I’m not questioning _you_ per se, nor asking that you define all your various allegiances, the different cultures in which you are immersed, etc.: based upon my general suspicion about the role of culture and cultural identification (which I lump under “pop-anthropology”), I’m pointing out that your claim is factually incorrect, and, where it is not actually factually incorrect, that its accuracy is dependent on claims so broad that they simply generate a bland dichotomy between an “us” and “them” (however one identifies oneself) – a dichotomy sufficiently bland that it can be easily decorated with projections of facile explanation, mystery, the whiff of incense, whatever.

    As for “blood feuds”? Well, isn’t that an example of a specifically a priori cultural identification of an event? When one talks about the hostility between Ireland and England, one rarely talks about “ancient ethnic hatreds”, and yet that is exactly how the war in the former Yugoslavia was described: no, not “described”, _explained_. The way in which those conflicts are described gives cultural explanations for the conflicts, just as “blood feud” gives a cultural explanation for a conflict. The extent to which the cultural explanation adequately or inadequately explains the event itself remains to be seen. For example, the extent to which “blood feud” presupposes motive, family structure, and something primitive, suggests to me that I would like to know about motives, family structure and how “primitive” the people engaged in this “blood feud” are before ascribing that term to their conflict.

    As for “superficial Westernisation” itself, I refer you back to my previous discussion of that term.

  35. 35  SP  September 3, 2006, 7:14 pm 

    My recent anthropological research, consisting exclusively of watching The Sopranos, has uncovered disturbing evidence of blood feuds taking place regularly between Italian-Americans in New Jersey. I don’t know what to make of that at all.

  36. 36  sw  September 3, 2006, 7:18 pm 

    I was actually going to mention “blood feuds” in the context of both Italy (the cradle of Western civilisation, of course) and the famous “blood feuds” of the American West (one of the founding myths of modern America). Both Italy and the American West, however, come provisionally under the term “primitive”.

  37. 37  abb1  September 3, 2006, 7:37 pm 

    I’m pointing out that your claim is factually incorrect, and, where it is not actually factually incorrect, that its accuracy is dependent on claims so broad that they simply generate a bland dichotomy between an “us” and “them” (however one identifies oneself) – a dichotomy sufficiently bland that it can be easily decorated with projections of facile explanation, mystery, the whiff of incense, whatever.

    Well, I don’t pretend to be an expert or anything, nor do I worry how it can be decorated; I just think about Atta, westernization and so on, something pops into my head, I type it and click submit. This is a blog comment, for chrissake; don’t be too hard on me.

  38. 38  SP  September 3, 2006, 7:41 pm 

    Excitingly, the Observer today has a short story by Amis about none other than – yes! – Muhammad Atta. Having read it, I will say only that I look forward to seeing Bill Murray in the film adaptation.

  39. 39  sw  September 4, 2006, 3:11 am 

    Sorry, abb1 – I assure you that I was whipped into a fury more by Martin Amis than anything on this blog. SP brings up the short story in The Observer. Is it the same one that was in the New Yorker? The one where Atta is so violently constipated that his head is about to split open? I do think that Amis has written about something, in a very brave manner (or, as Amis might say, “a very brave – even courageous – manner”), something which very few writers have ever even dared try put down on paper, a topic few writers have the manballs to take on: and that is the sheer violence of constipation. Most people think of constipation as an occasional annoyance, even as quite painful; but few have realised that it can in fact be very, very violent. If The Observer piece is the same one as in the New Yorker – and I suspect it is – then there are two possible interpretative prongs: one, the metaphor of moral constipation, the impaction and solidification inside a person of that which should be metabolised and expelled (religious certainty, the urge to hate and kill); two, artistic constipation, the story an author desperately wants to void into the world but that has become stuck up his arse and is sitting there, painful, motionless, the artistic turd that cannot be extracted, expelled, produced. Which do you think is the better reading?

  40. 40  sw  September 4, 2006, 3:12 am 

    (BTW, yes, it is the same short story – he has managed to void this turd into two different rags)

  41. 41  SP  September 4, 2006, 7:14 am 

    Yes, this story is a violent eructation from Amis’s manballs.

  42. 42  dsquared  September 4, 2006, 8:09 am 

    It does astound me that Amis’ reputation as a Great Writer is more or less impervious to anything he actually writes.

  43. 43  SP  September 4, 2006, 8:32 am 

    Well, it’s true that Amis has written some brilliant books. (I’m among the fans of Night Train: we are probably counted in single figures.) But this story is simply bilge. I suppose the main underlying problem is the incontinence of the style indirect libre: while supposedly performing a feat of novelistic empathy by getting inside Atta’s head (and bowels etc), he cannot help but repeatedly step outside Atta’s head (and bowels etc) in order to display preeningly his own righteous contempt for the character.

  44. 44  bobw  September 4, 2006, 3:56 pm 

    I’m impressed! There arent many places I could go and find more than two people who’ve read and have an opinion about Martin Amis.

    I read Part One of the story in the Observer, but was too depressed to go on to Part Two, even though he seemed to be warming up to some exciting action. Martin Amis, and your comments about him, remind me of Norman Mailer — who could write brilliant bits, surrounded by, well, dreck.

    Mawybe he’s burned out, but that wont stop me from re-reading London Fields and The Information two or three more times in my life.

  45. 45  DanA  September 5, 2006, 11:57 am 

    I think this calls for a tl/dr!

  46. 46  DanA  September 5, 2006, 12:04 pm 

    I joke, I joke.

    Oh yeah, did anyone read the thing in Observer magazine this weekend by Amis about Mohammed Atta? I thought it was quite good, really interesting reading. He paints Atta as this really intellectual guy who kind of did it out of almost boredom with life in general. I don’t know if that was writer’s license or what.

  47. 47  DanA  September 5, 2006, 12:06 pm 

    Okay, you did..oops. Soz.

  48. 48  SP  September 5, 2006, 12:43 pm 

    That would be one of the pitfalls of calling tl/dr ;)

  49. 49  SW  September 5, 2006, 1:07 pm 

    What does “tl/dr” mean?

  50. 50  SP  September 5, 2006, 1:18 pm 

    Google is your friend, SW.

  51. 51  sw  September 5, 2006, 2:20 pm 

    Fortunately, without Google, I figured it out: “Too Long/Didn’t Read”? I find that acronyms tend to fall into the category ts/du.

    To refer somebody to Google is to advise somebody to make himself a hostage to fortune, one step up from saying “Wikipedia is your friend”; and, Google is not my friend, any more than McDonalds or PepsiCo can be described as my friend.

  52. 52  SP  September 5, 2006, 2:54 pm 

    Your argument is impeccable, SW. However, it is still possible that anyone who, in this exciting day and age, asks on a blog comments thread “What is x?” without at least spending the three seconds it takes to attempt to find a reliable-looking answer on google, may be suffering from what Martin Amis would no doubt diagnose as a foetal idleness.

  53. 53  sw  September 5, 2006, 6:24 pm 

    One can hardly follow this thread without eventually coming to its central Spoole (so to speak) in your most recent entry. That is, who can possibly explain all the iterations by which one might arrive at a site, and how can we be certain it is the right one? (After all, who knows what the Orwell-cereal searcher was seeking and whether or not he/she found it on The most tangled web yet weaved is the virtual one, and those “three seconds” may get me trapped God Knows Where – unenligthened, but stuck, prey to the Spider of Misinformation, the Arachnid of Ignorance. By the way, if I had searched, would it not have been possible for me to be directed to (where “tl/dr” is being discussed, but where its meaning was, until I plugged it in, uncertain, for at least one reader)?

  54. 54  Lopakhin  September 13, 2006, 4:08 pm 

    Came a bit late to this, but just wanted to say, I’m not sure what the fuss is about. Many times I’ve been told, including by Muslims, that those who carry out suicide attacks against civilians are ‘just a few nutters’, and nothing to do with Islam or Muslims more generally. (Here are a few examples from well-known blogs.) Now, translate that into Amis’ trademark linguistic ostentation, and you get ‘functioning insanity’. Plenty of others – especially when the phenomenon first came to widespread attention in the West, in the mid-1990s – have tried to say that suicide bombers must be clinically depressed. So I hope Mr Poole will pick up upon the others too.

  55. 55  SP  September 13, 2006, 4:15 pm 

    Plenty of others … have tried to say that suicide bombers must be clinically depressed.

    They’re wrong, according to the detailed case studies by Robert A Pape, Louise Richardson, and so on. Recruiters for suicide terrorism don’t want people who are depressed or with other mental problems. That doesn’t of course mean they are representative of most Muslims. (I hope it hardly needs pointing out further that depression is not the same as “insanity”.)

  56. 56  Lopakhin  September 13, 2006, 4:45 pm 

    (I hope it hardly needs pointing out further that depression is not the same as “insanity”.)

    Yes, of course I accept that.

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