Terry Eagleton responds

In a blogpost at the Guardian, Terry Eagleton has now responded to John Sutherland’s portrayal of his criticism of Amis as a row, a common room punch-up, and seeks to make his criticism of the novelist stand. For the sake of perspective, the criticism of Amis occurs in a new introduction (and as a small part of that introduction, I imagine) to the second edition of an Eagleton book, Ideology – An Introduction, originally published in 1991. By focussing on that small part, Sutherland was being gossipy, and thus I introduced my first post as such.

Eagleton’s response is muddled by the fact that he references the wrong Amis essay – the evidence Eagleton quotes for his views on Amis come, in fact, from an interview – and by the fact that he quotes selectively, but only just so. Eagleton is concerned that Amis advocates “the hounding of Muslims” in Britain, and quotes Amis:

“The Muslim community,” [Amis] wrote, “will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children…”

Amis’s words, from an interview conducted by Ginny Dougary, are, more precisely:

What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.

Commentators on Eagleton’s Guardian blogpost have of course zoomed in on this selective quotation, arguing that Amis did not actually say what Eagleton claims; rather, Amis says that there’s an urge to say etc. It’s a pity that Eagleton does quote selectively and is thus unable also to unpick Amis’s sophistry, which is a thin veil between saying something without appearing to say it, between saying something and the urge to say it. To say that there is an urge to say X, licenses saying X while simultaneously providing cover from accusation. Put another way: I have the urge to say what I’m actually going to say.

One commentator suggested substituting “Jewish” for “Muslim” in Amis’s outpouring, and it does rent the veil:

There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Jewish community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re Jewish… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.

5 Responses to Terry Eagleton responds

  1. PooterGeek says:

    No it doesn’t. You can (in most countries in the West at least) choose whether or not to continue being a Muslim; it’s rather harder to stop being Jewish. It’s the difference between discriminating against Baptists and discriminating against blacks.

    I should point out, for anyone suffering from Eagleton’s inability to read plain English, that I am not here advocating discrimination against individuals on either religious or ethnic grounds, but I am highlighting the profound logical difference between the two examples you/the commenter in question imply are equivalent. They are no such thing.

    (I do, however, hope that any religious belief system demanding, say, female genital mutilation would be discriminated against aggressively in that respect in this country.)

    Further, it’s clear to me, if not to you, that Amis was describing the urge to discriminate against Muslims in a disapproving way. The idea that he is trying to “say something without saying it” is absurd to anyone familiar with the not-understated way M.A. expresses himself in print and in person. Indeed, M.A. has put his opposition to such discrimination on the record in the same newspaper. Of course, Eagleton has probably paid as little attention to the printed output of Amis Jnr as he has to that of Amis Snr.

  2. […] important sociological element of any rich literary tradition – on a Guardian blog. Eagleton then responded to this, also on a Guardian blog, and much time can be spent in hair-pulling despair reading […]

  3. Rustum says:

    Pootergeek, the point in substituting “jewish” for “muslim” is simply to make a rhetorical comparison, and not to suggest that religion and ethnicity is the same. In form, in other words, Amis’s sly advocation (more below) of collective persecution is little different from – dare I say it – nazi discourse on the same.

    “Jewishness” itself is often used in such conflation or religion and ethnicity, but that is beside the point. Furthermore, it is Amis himself who conflates religion and ethnicity: ‘people who LOOK like they’re from the Middle East’, etc. The problem is the irresponsible metonymy involved, the individual standing in for the group, and the group thus held responsible.

    As a mixed-race South African with its own complicated genealogy, I don’t know – and don’t care to find out – where my pre-South African genealogy lies. But I have often been mistaken for being Indian, for which one can also substitute Pakistani. I know a South African who grew up in exile in England and he has some funny stories to tell about Paki-bashing in the England of the 1970s and 1980s, him and his brothers being targets while innocently protesting that they weren’t ‘Pakis’. And that’s the point: what one looks like says nothing about the individual, but Amis would have it that it should.

    In your sarcastic aside to female genital mutilation, you make the same metonymic mistake. Because it happens in some communities and societies that call themselves Muslim, and is claimed by some madcap authority figure as traditional or a cultural rite and right under Islam, does not mean that it is sanctioned by Islam. In most cases, female genital mutilation is a regional, pre-Islamic hangover. People do that, they incorporate aspects of a tradition (here a reprehensible expression of male power over female sexuality) into other traditions, and claim – so as to bolster their authority – the one sanctioned by the other. That is the problem with religion, tradition, and culture in general – it is used and abused, appealed to, in order to sanction and perpetuate power. But my point is still that you cannot use female genital mutilation or whatever, to vilify, in one fell swoop, a large group of people because a subset of the putative group does one thing.

    Imagine I now hold all white, male British novelists – secularists, but that secularism having evolved out of Christianity and the Enlightenment – to be reprehensible bigots (whether my interpetation of Amis is right or wrong) just because one who fits that description expresses dubious opinions. It would be absurd.

    As to the finer nuances of Amis’s sophistry, yes, completely ‘not-understated’. That’s why I say it is thinly veiled.

  4. PooterGeek says:

    Pootergeek, the point in substituting “jewish” for “muslim” is simply to make a rhetorical comparison, and not to suggest that religion and ethnicity is the same.

    But that is exactly the effect of your substitution. If there is no equivalence between the substituted terms then the comparison is invalid. Rhetoric is not logic. You might as well replace the entire sentence with the words: “Amis is a racist” and say: “Well, I know it’s not equivalent, but it makes my point”. You can’t accuse someone of such a serious offence because it feels right. You have to have some actual evidence.

    Furthermore, it is Amis himself who conflates religion and ethnicity: ‘people who LOOK like they’re from the Middle East’, etc.

    Of course he does. Amis cites discrimination by appearance precisely because it is unfair. He disapproves of it—as you would discover if you followed the link I provide to his other essay. The whole point of his list of discriminatory practices is to render any urge we might have to pursue them beyond the pale.

    In your sarcastic aside to female genital mutilation, you make the same metonymic mistake.

    If you had read what I wrote you would know that I didn’t. In fact, I went back specifically to rephrase that paragraph before posting it in (the inevitably vain) hope that it wouldn’t be misinterpreted in the way that Eagleton and you misinterpreted the words of Amis. I wrote:

    would be discriminated against aggressively in that respect

    The phrase “in that respect” means that liberal society should discriminate solely against specific criminal practices and those responsible for them. (Similarly, I am against banning the BNP but I am in favour of criminalizing incitement to murder.)

    Your last paragraph makes no sense at all. All I can do is try to clarify still further the part of my comment to which I imagine it refers.

    Martin Amis is not understated in the way he expresses himself. That is, he writes and speaks bold, unsubtle English. He seldom resorts to delicate irony and never uses euphemism. Indeed his essays are characterized by his repeated renaming of words he feels have lost proportion with their referents. Amis never hesitates to shock or offend against prevailing mores. If he genuinely believed in collective punishment of Muslims—and I have to emphasize again that he has clearly stated elsewhere that he does not—then he would have said so. If he wanted to attach views like these to himself he would have done so. He did not.

    I’m not sure if that was clear enough to avoid another absurd inversion of meaning, but at least I tried.

    Anyway, you just wrote: “All white male British novelists are reprehensible bigots.” Why should I treat you with any respect?

    Can you see now how the Eagleton approach works?

  5. Rustum says:

    Pootergeek, no, rhetoric is not logic; rhetoric is traditionally considered the ‘art of persuasive speaking’. When used analytically, it refers to an analysis of someone’s manner or nature of expression. So, again: Amis’s RHETORIC in that remark – and it is disingenuous to try and point out that he was warning against that sentiment rather than simultaneously avowing and seemingly disavowing the sentiment – his RHETORIC is akin to fascist rhetoric. Evidence for his rehtoric being akin to fascist rhetoric? Replace “muslim” with any subject that has traditionally been a target of fascist propaganda.

    –“The whole point of his list of discriminatory practices is to render any urge we might have to pursue them beyond the pale.”

    That sounds like a very long shot.

    Genital mutilation: Why not then just say genital mutilation should be punished? Why draw it into the ambit or framework of critical remarks about a religion? (“I do, however, hope that any religious belief system demanding, say, female genital mutilation would be discriminated against aggressively in that respect in this country.”) Again: female genital mutilation, in your aside, stands in for a religion, by which you suggest something wider than female genital mutilation.

    In your rhetoric, ‘religious belief system’ is the passive subject of the predicate ‘would be discriminated against’. In plain words: If a religion demands genital mutilation, discriminate against it [the religion] aggressively in that respect. Very Amis-like, that last phrase ‘in that respect’. It does not simply mean, as you say, that “liberal society should discriminate solely against specific criminal practices and those responsible for them”. If it does, in the context of your original formulation, it then makes the phrase ‘reliogious belief system’ redundant, logically. Rhetorically, however, it licenses the metonymy: female genital mutilation = religious belief system.

    — “Anyway, you just wrote: “All white male British novelists are reprehensible bigots.” Why should I treat you with any respect?”

    Can you see now how Amis’s approach works?

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