Monday, April 25, 2005

Laughter and the Twenty Million

Martin Amis is my favourite prose writer of the moment, in part because I could not imitate his moral ferocity, something present even when – especially when – he is dismayingly cynical.

His recent book, Koba the Dread, is not cynical. For someone used to the novels, this change of pace is quite affecting. Amis has written a furious and scalding history of Stalin's moral and physical slaughter of the Soviet people. It reads like something bashed out in haste: parenthetical remarks begin, leading into full stops, and new thoughts, only to return with confused punctuation to the main line of argument, as if Amis has been stung by a second-hand memory he has to express now before he can go on. The language is often more routine, less fully alive, than his other non-fiction. And this seems just.

One of his themes is humour, and the fact, as he believes, that we can make jokes about Stalin, but not about Hitler: "It seems that the Twenty Million will never command the sepulchral decorum of the Holocaust." I do not know if this is true. The book contains some anecdotes to support its point, but they do not amount to much. I also do not know what to make of the humour of the book itself – contradictory or emblematic? The following passage about Stalin is exemplary:
Accounts of the childhoods of the great historical monsters are always bathetic. Instead of saying something like "X was raised by crocodiles in a septic tank in Kuala Lumpur," they tell you about a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a house, a home.
It did not help that while reading Koba I watched a film of exceptional talent, Funny Bones, about the violence of comedy. The combined effect has been unsettling.

It is also unsettling to be reminded, in this vivid way, one reason why moral philosophers do not write about the moral tragedies of the last century: the task of doing so seriously is too painful and too hard, and as Bernard Williams remarked, here "one is likely to reveal the limitations and inadequacies of one's own perceptions more directly than in, at least, other parts of philosophy." Amis very bravely tackles the moral comparison of Hitler and Stalin. Conducted in the language of most contemporary moral philosophy, the topic might seem profane. In Amis, it is not.

Though he hates Stalin with a passion that is present on every page, his qualified verdict goes the other way:
The truth is that both of these stories are full of terrible news about what it is to be human. They arouse shame as well as outrage. And the shame is deeper in the case of Germany.
Amis doesn't say why, and he refuses philosophy here, pleading instead for us to "Listen to the body." But there is a reason for his insight, which runs deeper than the sometimes-argued contrast between Stalin's means and Hitler's ends. It is not about them as individuals, but what they did to the souls of other people: whether they were filled with hatred, or more forgivably, with fear.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kieran --

I've not read Amis' book, but perhaps the difference between how we feel about Stalin and about Hitler is based on the different historical circumstances of the two dictators: Although fascism existed before Hitler came to power, there is a sense that Nazism was his personal creation -- it came into being with him, and died with him (we feel).

Communism, by contrast, existed in written form almost a century before Stalin came to power, and in actual Government before and after him. There is a sense that Stalin was not *personally* evil (although we know this to have been the case), but merely a tool of a larger historical force. Stalin didn't invent an ideology just to seize and hold power, as Hitler arguably did.

4:47 AM  
Anonymous Zena said...

Hi Kieran!

There was an essay by Zizek on the same topic (posted on Arts and Letters Daily) that I found pretty interesting:
I don't claim to understand the whole thing, or even part of it, but the idea seems to be that Stalinism appealed to universal reason, including the reason of its victims, whereas Nazism did not.

If this were strictly true, it would do something to explain a certain moral intuition stronger against Nazis than Stalinists, that e.g. the Jews are killed as mere means to benefit the rest, while the gulag prisoners are there for their own benefit (conceived somehow or other). How Zizek would explain the kinds of outright extermination Stalin describes, I don't know. Or why we shouldn't just view the Stalinist appeal to universal reason as a further perversion, rather than a mitigating factor.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Charles Stewart said...

Amis' book is much mocked, and pace your comments, I think deservedly. Felix Salmon's post on Koba the Dread puts the case well, which is that as a history of Stalin's brutality, it is incompetent, and as a history of the reception of Stalinism in the west, it is even worse.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Wow: comments. This is unexpected.

Hi Zena!

Great to hear from you. How are things at Auburn?

I did read the Zizek piece and was infuriated by it. (I am thinking of the remarks about liberalism and choice in the final paragraph.) I also did not understand the argument: you make it more clearly than he did, if only in brief. But the idea of Stalin as appealing to reason sounds perverse. What Amis documents most effectively is the Stalinist attack on truth. In hyperbolic terms, Stalin used reason the way Big Brother did in "1984". Is that too simple?


I didn't say or imply that Amis is accurate (I've seen some mean reviews), and I did remark that the book feels hasty and ill-considered. The pretence of omniscience is especially troubling – hence my remark about "second-hand memory".

But "Koba the Dread" is too personal to be read as history. It is a memoir of Martin Amis, composed as a response to his sister's early death, and ending with a letter to his father. We ought to be tipped off by its atmosphere of resentment rather than (detached) indignation. It makes no sense for Amis to feel about Stalin the way he does, and the writing is a function of this. The book raises a question of genre, to which the reviews are sometimes blind, or unsympathetic. People may doubt that there is value in this work: Amis himself is unclear about what he is doing; and it is certainly dangerous and wrong to mis-state facts. Perhaps it is also wrong to deal with Stalin and one's personal problems in the same place. But it has a certain effect, and unlike Hitchens, I didn't find it impious, or morally shallow.

Despite this, I wouldn't want to defend the book as a whole. I would put it in the same box as Volkov's "Testimony" (the apocryphal memoir of Shostakovich): a powerful work whose value transcends the fact that some or all of it is false.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Charles Stewart said...

But "Koba the Dread" is too personal to be read as history. It is a memoir of Martin Amis, composed as a response to his sister's early death, and ending with a letter to his father.

Christopher Hitchens alleges that Amis got even the personal recollection bit wrong. I don't remember the details, but there was a letters-to-the-editor-firefight between the two about this, with Amis coming out looking the worse.

I don't think Hitchens' review is online, but it is in Unacknowledged Leglislation: I could send you a photocopy if you don't have access to it & are interested.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Oh dear: failure for Amis on all fronts. I did read the Hitchens review, but found it hard not to be biased in my response. If I remember correctly, Hitchens disputes the personal recollections about him, which are hard to take seriously in any case. I'm persuaded that they were false. But I still don't think this makes the book all bad. I found it moving, rather than self-indulgent, for Amis to write about his sister's death in writing about the death of twenty million; and to equate his bitterness at the first injustice to his indignation for the second.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Among other things, Jonathan Derbyshire points out that I never really explain why the moral comparison of Hitler and Stalin might – not "would" – be profane in the language of contemporary philosophy, but is not in Martin Amis. I do no more than allude to his "moral ferocity". It's a serious question. Let me attempt a partial answer.

To begin with, the fear of profanity or impiety is not just a fear of revealing one's moral limitations. It is also that it would be obscene or inhuman to write about the Holocaust or the Great Terror without emotion, with the detachment characteristic of philosophy. That is one reason why I am sympathetic to the most controversial aspect of Koba the Dread: the fact that it is so deeply (and sometimes distortingly) personal.

This has another effect, which Amis deliberately exaggerates: it acknowledges the fact his character is on the line. In one of the more curious passages late in the book, Amis says that he, too "is obliged to confess – not to a lie but to a sin, and a chronic one." The sin is to have made a not-very-funny remark that compared the weeping of his infant daughter to the screams of prisoners in the gulag. Why does Amis insist on telling this story? Because he wants to confess that he is not up to dealing with the events he is struggling to describe. He is overmatched. Humility of this kind is possible in moral philosophy, and it is sometimes achieved. But it doesn't sit well with the familiar, no-nonsense style, the crispness of analytic argument, or the steadfast refusal to "listen to the body".

8:32 AM  

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