Friday 12 October 2007

The aura of election

It feels like it’s been a while since there was a proper bun-fight in the miniscule world of theatre. Obviously there was the bit of unpleasantness in the comments section under Lyn Gardner’s recent blog piece on Masque of Red Death, but as that seems to have sorted itself out there is no need to dwell.

I think I spy the opportunity for one in Tim Carroll’s new piece, but that rather hinges on Chris Goode making good on his Edinburgh promise of a moratorium list - all the elements of devised and avant garde work that should be forbidden for a few years due to overuse. Puppets were right up there, along with accordions, if I recall correctly*.

Instead, this week we’ve had the exciting spectacle of a literary bun-fight. Terry Eagleton has said some disobliging things about Martin Amis. It all hinges on the introduction that Eagleton has written for his new book Ideology: An Introduction, in which he calls Kingsley Amis, “a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals” and attacks a fairly old essay by Amis, which barely caused a ripple on publication and was met mostly with polite indifference, on much the same grounds. In the essay Amis indulged some hair-raising rhetorical flights of fancy regarding the position of Muslims in Britain post-9/11 and 7/7. Eagleton likens the remarks in question to those of a “British National Party thug”

Following the furore blowing up, Eagleton took the opportunity to defend his corner in the Guardian. Odd behaviour, one might think, since it was after all Eagleton who started it - indeed Amis Jr. has yet to comment** - although his father’s widow and gay brother-in-law did both write letters to the Telegraph. But, given a majority of the British press’s pronounced antipathy toward left-wing academics, his defensiveness is quite understandable. Except that he then seems to spend a lot of the time arguing with John Sutherland’s perfectly reasonable Guardian Books Blog post.

Less credible is Eagleton’s bald assertion that “there is something rather stomach-churning at the sight of those such as Amis and his political allies, champions of a civilisation that for centuries has wreaked untold carnage throughout the world, shrieking for illegal measures when they find themselves for the first time on the sticky end of the same treatment.”

As opposed to the enormous, state-operated mechanisms of oppression that have been introduced by every Marxist/Marx-inspired government ever to seize power? Isn’t there an arguable short-sightedness in a "Marxist" criticising someone for racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and, most laughably, alcoholism, when one remembers the Marxist governments of Zimbabwe, Russia, Cuba, Burma and China?

Eagleton would no doubt plead that those were hardly powers with whom he would associate himself or condone. But surely tarnishing Amis with advocating “centuries of untold carnage” is precisely the same sort of tactic. Much the same, in fact, as implicating all British Muslims in the activities of a dangerously fanatical few. This sort of broad-brush, impressionistic, mud-slinging does nobody any favours. If people are to disagree then it would be helpful if the disagreer disagreed with what the disagree-e actually says, rather than simply bracketing them in with some things that the disagreer finds objectionable.

Interestingly, doing a quick search for Eagleton on the Guardian’s website turns up this interesting slew of letters from July. It seems that Mr Eagleton’s bonnet-style bee containment unit is full to overflowing. I miss the good old days of Harold Bloom and Naomi Wolf. At least that featured the mostly absurdly overwrought chat-up line ever delivered.

Still, onwards and upwards. If the West End Whingers (brilliantly funny) review of War Horse is anything to go by, the world needs that moratorium list and needs it soon...

* Which I may well not - see comments.

**Although his condemnation of Saudi Arabia for, uh, everything his father is accused of by Eagleton is faintly reassuring.


Bad Case said...

Haven't you read the creepy rebuttal in the Indy?

Eagleton is a halfwit of course, but Amis could have done to rein in the Frank-N-Furter vamping on this occasion, imho.

Tom Wateracre said...

Interestingly, I had a dream about someone called Martin Amis last night, who was in no way the actual Martin Amis.

Anonymous said...

The introduction is not to a new book of Eagleton's, but to a new edition of an old book.

And loath as I am to give any aid or comfort to Martin Amis, he does seem to have a point as regards the context of the remarks in question. It strikes me that to admit to on occasion having briefly felt one's knee jerk in a shitheaded way (anatomically mixed metaphor as well as unlovely phrase) before saner counsels prevailed is no more than to admit to being human. Unfortunately, such humanity does seem to be regarded as a crime in certain circles and/or on certain occasions.

At this point I can't resist the temptation to call Eagleton rather niggardly of fellow-feeling and wait for the groundless accusations of racism because I used a word that looks and sounds rather like but is entirely unrelated to a different word.

Alison Croggon said...

I like puppets. And anime. Adorno was right.

Tom Wateracre said...

Edward - I had a plan for it, that the technology would not allow me to do. I wanted to practice writing topical jokes by texting them daily to a blog, but I couldn't work out the fiddly bits. I think there is a way, but it's still on my to-do list.

One day, my son... one day it will not be completely shit.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, now, Andrew... I'm not sure you do remember correctly, old love. One of us doesn't, anyway. I don't think I would have volunteered puppets for the moratorium. I quite like puppets. (Usual codicils about time and place apply, of course -- they make bad steeplejacks and I don't want any at my funeral, unless I should happen to pre-decease Shari Lewis and Lambchop.) I can't remember much about the list, but the few things I do recall -- accordions, as you say; ukuleles; bowler hats; people climbing out of pieces of furniture -- are all of a fairly specific order. I think 'puppets' must at least have been qualified... but I can't think what I would have suggested.

As for the rest, well, I dunno, a plague on all participating houses seems the most productive response. (I am on the whole an Eagleton sympathiser but the kicking of Amis pere, at least, is futile, silly and inapt.)

I think you are too kind, though, to Sutherland, whose blog piece is surely feeble in the extreme. (If it's possible for something to be feeble in the extreme.) His Johnny the Harmless High-Table Cretin act is wearing a bit thin now for my tastes.

Oh: SHUTTLEWORTH YOU ARE A RACIST and I claim my five pounds.


Anonymous said...

In what way are the regimes in Zimbabwe and Buram marxist?

danbye said...

Those of you who haven't read the "creepy rebuttal" linked to by Lake, above, it really is horribly compelling: "how I longed, Yasmin, for your soothing hand on my brow!" is a choice selection. Euch.

Andrew Haydon said...

Alison, don't get me wrong - I quite like puppets too. But a ban would at least have the useful effect of making their use subversive and those using them properly and deeply committed instead of - as is sometimes (and I stress sometimes) the case - opportunists who have spotted a bandwagon.

Chris G., apologies for misremembering. I'll flag up your objections in the entry.

Chris W., aren't they? I thought they were. Not properly, but at least self-describingly so.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the Eagleton/Amis thing seem like yet another example of an essentially critical mind failing to understand that an essentially creative one doesn't work the same way?
It's the same failing which leads theatre critics to say things like "Churchill advocates..." when discussing a play.

Bad Case said...

I'm not sure how, for want of a better word, *deep* any supposed difference between creative and critical minds might be - for instance, I don't see any reason to think it touches their essences. But certain professional habits might incline one to hear, for example, an assertion rather than a speculation in some utterance which might just as well support the other interpretation.

Not that that's what happened between Eagleton and Amis, IMHO. Amis was being knowingly provocative. Sure, he preserved deniability, but his remarks still read as incitement to me. That "There's a definite urge – don't you have it?" may be a shade less exhortatory than "I have a dream", but the two phrases do the same job: they seem to endorse what comes after, while at the same time conferring a hypothetical, subjective character on it. And no-one doubts that King meant what followed. Absent Amis’s later remarks, it would have been perfectly in order to conclude that he really was recommending the measures he described. So the temptation to administer a slap is quite understandable. Trouble is, in his complacence or his haste, Eagleton fucked it up. Well, he’s a tit. Who knew?

What most puzzles me about all this is Amis’s belt-and-braces defence: both that he never meant it and that he’s changed his mind anyway. If at the time he had said: "Well, here’s what one might think, but it’s wrong for X, Y and Z reasons," the case would have been clear-cut. Similarly if he’d declared: "I think X," and then recanted. But instead he said: "Here’s what one might think", tailed off, then waited a year to announce that his urge had "worn off". What to make of that?

Anonymous said...

Ah, Amis lacks the courage of Hitchens major's convictions, as reported here. (scroll down for the meat).

Bad Case said...


Anonymous said...

I respectfully suggest that your response to my remark on the critical/creative dichotomy is perfectly illustrative of the point I was seeking to make.
Those that don't get it just don't get it.

Andrew Haydon said...

Anonymous, I'm not sure I'm convinced that Lake does illustrate your point. After all, I'm assuming you don't know each other in real life, and so you're just guessing which side of your putative creative/critical divide he falls on - quite possibly incorrectly.

Also, what is one to make of the fact that Amis has written at least two books and several uncollected reams more of criticism (he was the New Statesman's books editor for much of the seventies, wasn't he?)

I would also argue that criticism is in itself, at best, a creative activity. I'm really not convinced that there is such a clear-cut divide. After all, surely creative types think critically about their own work and that of others, irrespective of whether they happen to write it down or publish it.

It also feels as if you don't rate the activities of the critical side of your divide very highly. Which is your privilege, but again - I would say - a mistake.

Re: "Churchill advocates..." since I did say just such a thing only the other night, I would point to the fact that she is pretty unambiguous about what she thinks in several places other than her plays, and one cannot help but remember such things, especially when confronted with plays like Drunk Enough To Say I Love You which seemed like it was fairly explicitly saying some fairly specific things. To be fair, that was uncharacteristic for her later plays.

Bad Case said...

"respectfully": lolz.

No but anonymous, seriously... I agree with you. Critics can run into trouble when they treat a work of art as if it were asserting some proposition. But that doesn't mean that when novelists participate in public debates they can waive the ordinary standards of conduct - for instance, that one says what one means, and says it as straight as possible. Given that Amis is a prominent intellectual quite deliberately weighing into the most combustible public debate of the day, he should mind his Ps and Qs at least as carefully as the next pundit. Slippery, dog-whistling little fantasy scenarios make him look like a BNP thug at a time when, actually, there are a lot of BNP thugs about.

And by the way, there's nothing ineffably subtle or uniquely creative about his so-called "mood experiment": everybody does that sort of thing all the time. It's called working out what you think. Admittedly, most people try not to do it aloud into a journalist’s dictaphone. But these creative types: they’re a law unto themselves, aren’t they?

Here’s something it would be worth your while trying to get, if you can. The aesthetic standpoint isn’t always the best one from which to interpret a person’s actions – even if you do happen to be blessed with an essentially creative mind. Indeed, even if the actions are your own.

Bad Case said...

Oh God, I agree with Andrew too. Sometimes the aesthetic stance isn't the best one to take up even towards art itself. Occasionally an art-work attempts to say something about stuff. And regrettably, the creative mind being what it is, that something can be terribly silly.

danbye said...

There's more: