Note: This was posted on TPM on April 27, 2008, the same day as Wieseltier’s review of Martin Amis’ The Second Plane. It takes awhile for this essay to shift from reviewing that review to considering the political and personal dimensions of Wieseltier’s work.
If Martin Amis is the self-styled bad boy of English letters, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, is the rabbinic scourge of “fine” writers who stray into public intellection. No surprise, then, that in the April 27, 2008 New York Times Book Review, Wieseltier condemns Amis’ The Second Plane, a collection of essays, reviews, and stories about September 11 written across six years and re-published in America now in a slim volume.
But Wieseltier’s review is itself so preening and melodramatic, an opera bouffe of a literary attack, proving little more than that it takes one to know one. Anyone who’s read Amis’ book as well as the review will know that Wieseltier isn’t as brave or honest as his often-stumbling target. The faults in Amis’ book are manifold, but Wieseltier’s puzzling envy and not-so puzzling bad faith are borne of a bad conscience about his own continuously bad judgment about how to respond to September 11. Amis has gotten under his skin, as bad boys will, because his very badness embarrasses Wieseltier, who actually shares many of his views but loathes and envies Amis’ brazenness in flaunting them.
Wieseltier shows (as I did in the Los Angeles Times) that Amis is too often grandiloquent and self-regarding, his virtuosity outrunning reason and even reporting. But Amis has to be credited with two kinds of courage. First, by making few revisions in these pieces, he lets us watch him learning about September 11, fitfully, over time — as we all did — through under-informed, over-determined generalizations and contradictory, fragmentary insights that sometimes became hobby horses. His courage to be messy would seem exhibitionist only to the compulsively tidy and self-regarding.
Second, Amis is brazen as well as brave in shoving our snouts into harsh realities which he thinks too many readers have sanitized or ideologized away, in excesses of political correctness, or have simply forgotten with the passage of time.
So determined is he to make us taste suicide bombing’s depravity, for example, that he sketches the perpetrators’ psycho-sexual perversities, their “self besplatterment,” the bloody “pink haze” forming above the bodies of World Trade Center victims plunged to their deaths. His review of “United 93” credits that film for making viewers feel the passengers’ “state of near-perfect distress — a distress that knows no blindspots. . . . the ancient flavor of death and defeat. You think: this is exactly what [the terrorists] meant us to feel.” Amis makes you ashamed of trying to feel anything else.
This affronts the dark prophet of unblinking confrontation with malevolence. “What is gained by preferring ‘horrorism’ to ‘terroism’, except perhaps a round of applause?” Wieseltier complains. “Amis is the sort of writer who will never say ‘city’ when he can say ‘conurbation.'”
But Read Amis’ book and Wieseltier’s review, and decide who strains more for virtuosity. If you’re looking for sober depth, tell me whether the following wisdom about dealing with Islamist terrorists was offered by Martin Amis or by Leon Wieseltier:
“We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.”
It is by Amis, actually. And Wieseltier nearly admits to feeling upstaged as much as affronted, but only after nearly 2000 words of insults:
“Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer.” “What we have here is a hormonal unbeliever.” “Amis will say almost anything, because being noticed is as important to him as being right.” “Amis seems to regard his little curses as military contributions to the struggle.” “I wish only to suggest that the simpleton’s view of the world that Amis is angrily promoting contributes not very much to the study of the passions that are scalding the planet.”
Only after all that does Wieseltier acknowledge “the complication” that “there is considerable justice on Amis’ side:
“[Amis] is correct in insisting upon the moral and historical primacy of the battle against theocracy and terror. He is correct that… that the defense of western conceptions of freedom and equality is not an exercise in ethnocentrism. He is correct that the skeptical discussion of religious ideas and practices must not be abrogated by the skinlessness of multiculturalism…. He is correct that opinions that seem not only spectacularly false, but also lethally false, do not have to be intellectually respected even if they have to be politically tolerated. He is correct that in Islamism the many doctrines of antimodernism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism are one doctrine.
“I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful,” Wieseltier concludes – or nearly does, leaving himself room for a dig at the egregious and, here, irrelevant Nicholson Baker, whose Checkpoint drove Wieseltier into paroxysms of rage against anti-war liberals four years ago in a ranting review for the same New York Times.
Wieseltier allows that even “Martin Amis would despise” Baker’s new book, Human Smoke, yet he finds the two writers “peculiarly alike” in that they treat “the most fundamental matters of politics and philosophy… as occasions for the display of artifice and the exhibition of temperament.” But it is not only Baker and Amis who fill that bill. There is a third writer, the one who is obsessed with them.
Although Wieseltier has just informed us that Amis has principles, he can’t stop insisting that Amis is “untouched by the atrocity” because “he is still busy with the glamorous pursuit of extraordinary sentences.” Knowing that he’s writing in bad faith, Wieseltier is even busier than Amis at comforting himself with alliterative cadences:
For Amis, he insists, “the ingenuity of the image is an interruption of attention, an ostentatious metaphorical digression from the enormity that it is preparing to reveal, an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.” Here Wieseltier invites us to behold his prose and not his point.
Seldom has a reviewer hoisted himself on his own petard so shamelessly with so many grasps at faux paradoxes, sustained by his telltale, compulsive alliteration:
“Nothing creates confidence like catastrophe.” “[Amis] has a hot, heroic view of himself.” “In Amis’ universe, you are either religious or you are rational.” “The results of Amis’ clumsily mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage can be eccentric, or worse” “For this reason, such writings will have more impact than influence.” “[Amis] appears to believe that an insult is an analysis.”
Yet it is Wieseltier, we’ve seen, who delivers more insult than analysis. He sounds like one who is rather too enthroned in the seat of judgment, but you can trace the rudiments of an analysis among the insults, in three parts.
First, as we’ve seen, Wieseltier rules that virtuosity has overcome virtue in Amis’ writing.
Second, he decides that Amis is monocausally obsessed with the terrorists’ frustrated libidos and warped masculinity, the polluted wellspring or mainspring of Islamism. Wieseltier tells us that Amis “believes that 2,992 more people would be alive today if 19 Middle Eastern men had only found some satisfaction of the flesh.”
Wieseltier doesn’t actually believe that Amis believes this. He has written the sentence for effect. That points us back to the first part of his “analysis,” in which the pot calls the kettle black.
Only a few paragraphs later, Wieseltier decides, thirdly, that Amis’ problem lies less in an obsession with sex than with religion — with the fact that Amis’ “antipathy to Islamism is based upon a more comprehensive antipathy to religion.
In Amis’ universe, Wieseltier decides, you are either religious or you are rational.” And perhaps, after all, then, not so sexual.
What’s in Wieseltier’s own clumsily mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage? There is, of course, that gift for prophetic scourging, nowhere more evident than in a column he wrote in The New Republic just after September 11:
“Is it a little laughter that we need now? Then behold the contrition of yesterday’s frivolous, the new fashion in gravity. The man who edits Vanity Fair has ruled that the age of cynicism is over. He would know. I always wondered what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind, and at last I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan. So now depth has buzz. The papers are filled with hip people seeing through hipness, composing elegiac farewells to the days of Gary Condit and Jennifer Lopez. The on dit has moved beyond the apple martini. It has discovered evil and the problem of its meaning. No doubt about it, seriousness is in. So it is worth remembering that there are large swathes of American society in which seriousness was never out. Not everybody has lived as if the media is all there is. Not everybody has been consecrated only to cash and cultural signifiers. Not everybody has been a pawn of irony.”
This is the rod of instruction, which Wieseltier’s forefathers and mine brought forth out of the land of Egypt and passed on to the prophets and jeremiadic Puritan divines and that arose often in the homiletics of my own childhood rabbi, Samuel H. Dresner. Wieseltier wields it well against a cohort of lost, preppie gatekeepers from Exeter and Yale and their sweaty sycophants at The Times, The New Yorker and hipper Manhattan and online publications, most of them staging and watching debates more for entertainment than to satisfy any craving to clarify our fog-bound horizons.
There is another ingredient in the cocktail: Wieseltier, a child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Brooklyn as it was changing racially in the 1950s and ’60s, pulls insights about identity and atrocity from out of his innards, as did the black writer Shelby Steele before he, too, grew comfortable in a seat of judgment funded by others. In The Closest of Strangers I was grateful to be able to quote an insight of Wieseltier’s that fit both the defensive Jews and the angry blacks I was writing about:
“The memory of oppression is a pillar and strut of the identity of every people oppressed…. [It] imparts an isolating sense of apartness… Don’t be fooled, it teaches, there is only repetition. …In the memory of oppression, oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound. That is the real tragedy: that injustice retains the power to distort long after it has ceased to be real. …. This is the unfairly difficult dilemma of the newly emancipated…: an honorable life is not possible if they remember too little and an honorable life is not possible if they remember too much.”
The prophetic truth is there, and it should be acknowledged and treasured. But there is also an almost-incapacitating pain in it that predisposes Wieseltier to monitor the suppressed or misdirected pain of others. That predisposition has its uses, too, and it has certainly been useful to upper-middling thinkers and editors who’ve found in Wieseltier’s prose a kind of deliverance — gravitas for hire.
At his best, Wieseltier keeps and sometimes rouses our consciences. For example, in the New Republic column on 9/11 linked above, he scourged some “fine” writers, such as Adam Gopnik and John Updike, who’d responded to “atrocity with sensibility.” Quoting Updike’s “Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface,” Wieseltier noted that “such writing defeats its representational purpose, because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick: it appears to bring the reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible.”
But so is Wieseltier’s own tidy prose, lovely as the Rose of Sharon even when justice is not on his side. For there is something more, or less, than prophecy and personal pain in Wieseltier’s curiously mixed cocktail of rhetoric and rage, something that you can sense as he rummages through his old grab bag of suffering to condemn Amis in what seems at best a retread of a past jeremiad: “After the mind breaks, it stiffens in the aftermath of grief, it lets in only certainty. In a time of war, complexity is suspected of a sapping effect, and so a mental curfew is imposed. From the maxim that we must know our enemy, we infer that our enemy may be easily known.”
Amis does not infer any such thing, and Wieseltier, as we’ve seen, will eventually admit that Amis is not simple but complex. His inability to stand by his own grudging admission suggests the deeper problem in his review of Amis’ book.
Here is that problem: Even as Ground Zero lay smoking, Wieseltier signed a letter to President Bush, dated September 20 and written by neoconservative Field Marshall Bill Kristol on the letterhead of his Project for the New American Century. The letter’s 42 well-known neoconservative and Vulcan signers informed Bush that ”even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”
It wasn’t by fluke that Wieseltier signed. He is as comfortable with Kristol’s crowd as he is in the seat of literary judgment. In 2007 he wrote one of 200 letters urging clemency for his friend I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who had been convicted on charges of lying, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame affair.
In his letter, the scourge of preeners preens, departing from his testimony for Libby to assure the judge that “I am in no sense a neoconservative, as many of my neoconservative adversaries will attest. I am, to the contrary, the kind of liberal who many neoconservatives like to despise, and that’s fine with me.”
It would have been fine with the court, too, surely, had Wieseltier forgone such stylized bleating on his own behalf, but he did have tracks to cover after serving with Richard Bruce (Dick) Cheney, Carl Christian Rove, and others as an unlikely member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a now-defunct cousin of Kristol’s PNAC and the American Enterprise Institute.
Wieseltier is an “adversary” of neoconservatives, then, only in the way that he is an adversary of Martin Amis: He wishes these bad boys would stop embarrassing him by saying so brazenly what he would say blamelessly.
Wieseltier is nowhere more dishonest about this than when he tells us that Amis “writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate.” Wieseltier knows well that the essay in which Amis quotes Lewis and Larkin — “Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,” written on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 — pivots on Amis admiration for the insights of Paul Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism he quotes more often that the work of Lewis or Larkin.
Yet, to acknowledge this, Wieseltier would have to credit Amis with the discernment that he himself thinks he showed in publishing Berman’s excoriations of liberals’ “naïve rationality” about terrorism in The New Republic. Wieseltier cannot condemn Amis honestly without condemning himself . So he condemns him dishonestly. And his writing assumes the flat, vacant intensity he imputes to Amis.
The only credible explanation for this dirge-like denunciation of a mere bad boy is that, since 9/11, it is Wieseltier who has stiffened. The Holocaust, the horrors in Israel and Palestine, and the horrors of his own misbegotten crusading after 9/11 have become scar upon scar, opening an ancient and terrible wound. Here is a man who will wander through life intoning his epitaph wordlessly as well as wordily:
I am so wise
That my wisdom makes me weary.
It’s all I can do
To share my wisdom with you.