Socialist Worker

Lefty who's really righty

by Mike Rosen
Issue No. 1803

MARTIN AMIS is a novelist. He's also someone who the broadsheets turn to for his views on the state of the world, the meaning of art, and the purpose of life. Last weekend the Guardian kicked off its new weekly books supplement with an article by Amis on the state of the world, the meaning of art, and the purpose of life.

I don't know why Amis is fitted for this job. There was some excitement when his novels first appeared, but that was something to do with the fact that his father was a novelist too. His father was also someone who supported the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam and hated Jews and blacks, so there was gossip in the fact that Martin seemed to be kinda left wing.

I think the papers turn to Amis because he's learnt how to sound lefty while being righty. The article was billed as pitting imagination against ideology. In fact it was Amis blathering about himself feeling insignificant and being an agnostic, whilst musing on the reputation of a long dead literary critic who no one reads, and the evils of 'political correctness' and Islam.

The cause of all this dissatisfaction was 11 September-an occasion that should be cursed for evermore, if only because it leads people like Martin Amis to fill pages with absurd generalisations.

Try this for size: 'Man is only fitfully committed to the rational-to thinking, seeing, learning, knowing. Believing is what he's really proud of.' This is nothing more than bar talk dressed up as Guardianspeak. The technique here, much beloved of old pissed blokes, is to set up false definitions and false oppositions in order to gun them down. You know the kind of thing: 'Y'see, human nature is dog eat dog, whereas the royal family are above all that.'

'Thinking, seeing, learning, knowing' are hardly definitions of the 'rational'. Rational thought involves reasoning and deduction. And of course thinking, seeing, learning and knowing can be as irrational as, say, the 'ideas' of the BNP.

What's more, who's to say that people aren't 'really proud' of being rational? Aren't doctors proud of working out what's wrong and applying remedies? Aren't we all proud when we figure out that the damp patch on the ceiling was caused by a leaking pipe and not a visitation from the devil?

Even more absurd was: 'An ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality.' More bar talk: 'Y'see, football's a game of two halves whereas yer basketball's got lots of halves.' 'Ideology' is more usefully linked to people's ideas rather than limiting it to their beliefs. And it's only 'inadequate' if you disagree with it.

Amis's definition of religion is silly. A materialist like Frederick Engels could see that what makes religion seem powerful is that the 'phantoms' it invents are expressions of what people feel in real life. In his confusion Amis, who claims to be opposed to 'ideology', praises James Joyce's novel Ulysses for opposing Roman Catholicism and anti-Semitism. But it gets worse. The final flourish is an attack on 'militant Islam' as the most irrational, religious danger of all.

Yet in all this muddled talk of ideology and belief Amis doesn't find room for the massacres carried out by the militantly religious Bush, Blair and Sharon. Leaving them out of the equation sounds to me like a 'belief system with no basis in reality'.

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Article information

Sat 8 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1803
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