24/04/2008

monstres sacrés

Terry Eagleton – Holy Terror

Pointless, perhaps, any attempt to grasp the abysmal depths of hatred that prompts a young man – or even more incomprehensibly – woman to transform themselves into a bomb. What we blithely term the 'sympathetic imagination' balks at the vicious enormity of it. The left-liberal progressive view maintains that despair is at its root – dispossession and brutalisation at the hands of imperial overlords; the body as their only weapon. Other voices, less forgiving, hold that such people are the instruments of a quasi-fascistic ideology, dehumanised not by the repressive measures of an Israel but by the brainwashing of a mass cult. In any case, we are, when all is said and done, quite thoroughly at a loss...

Our writers – those who interpret the times, who might at least edge towards an answer - have been cagey on the subject, on the whole. John Updike, in his flawed novel Terrorist, lavishly outfits the inner life of a would-be suicide bomber, but it's a medley of false quantities. Too discursive, too knowing, too pat:

A certain simplicity does lay hold of Ahmad in the troughs between surges of terror and then of exaltation, collapsing back into an impatience to be done with it. To have it behind him, whatever 'him' will then be. He exists as a close neighbor to the unimaginable. The world in its sunstruck details, the minute scintillations of its interlocked workings, yawns all about him, a glistening bowl of busy emptiness, while within him a sodden black certainty weighs. He cannot forget the transformation awaiting him, behind, as it were, the snapped camera's shutter, even as his senses still receive their familiar bombardment of sights and sounds, scents and tastes. The luster of Paradise leaks backward into his daily life. Things will feel big there, on a cosmic scale; in his childhood, only a few years into this life, falling asleep, he would experience a sensation of hugeness, every cell a world, and this demonstrated to his childish mind religion's truth.

Too Updikean, in a word. (His protagonist evidently thinks in the same rhythms, enjoys the same sharp perceptions as his author: Ahmad is a kind of avatar of Updike's, imperfectly severed from his creator.) It might be that the novelist simply can't countenance an approach to what must lie at the heart of the matter – the willing abandonment to nothingness, the void's kernel in the bomber's very soul. Or a certain anxiety might constrain him, about giving offense or getting it wrong. Martin Amis essays a picture of the fastidious boredom and banal arrogance of the terrorist in his short story, 'The Last Days of Muhammed Atta'. Yet we're no closer to the truth, still.

Flotillas of books on the subject have been published since 9/11, laden with theses and prescriptions. The blogosphere has heaved with articles of political faith and recantations. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, in their study Occidentalism, note that the suicide bomber rejects 'the utilitarian calculus of human behaviour' – they argue that to cite, rather glibly, the perpetuation of aggressive colonialism is an irrelevance at best, at worst a grave error:

To blame the barbarism of non-Western dictators or the suicidal savagery of religious revolutions on American imperialism, global capitalism, or Israeli expansionism is not only to miss the point; it is precisely an Orientalist form of condescension, as though only Westerners are adult enough to be morally responsible for what they do.

“This book,” Terry Eagleton advises us in the preface to Holy Terror, “is not intended as an addition to the mounting pile of political studies of terrorism.” It has more a 'metaphysical or theological bent': the quality a great deal of Eagleton's recent work since Sweet Violence, his rehabilitation of Tragedy, has in plenty. Eagleton wants, indeed, to place before us the innermost psychic wounds that are inflamed under pressure from external political circumstance, quite reliably through history. He elaborates a mythoscopic account of terror and terrorism, one heavily inflected by psychoanalysis; and, to some extent, the terrorist becomes the analysand. “Politically speaking,” he writes in Sweet Violence, “a perverse joy in total wrecking is either the death cult of fascism, or the extreme brand of anarchism which marks Conrad's mad professor in The Secret Agent, who really wants to blow up time and matter themselves and start history again from scratch.” (The Professor has been invoked rather a lot in recent discussions of terrorism: he's like the standby chatshow guest perennially invited on to offer predictable pieties – he crops up in Holy Terror, too.) Much of the intellectual prima materia of Holy Terror Eagleton has worked through in earlier books. His willingness to accommodate the insights of Thomist theology (yoking them to a socialist politics); as well as his liberal borrowing from Lacan, Derrida, and cultural anthropology; render his recent thought a strange bristling synthesis – self-consistent, but perhaps too hobbyhorsical to be persuasive.



Case-hardened dialectician as he is, Eagleton finds an obscure affinity between terror and the sacred. The concept of the latter “..is ambiguous because the word sacer can mean either blessed or cursed, holy or reviled; and there are kinds of terror in ancient civilization which are both creative and destructive, life-giving and death-dealing.” Such doubling forms the central strut of Eagleton's argument. (The rapid flickering between the two is an attractive behaviour to him: its arresting either-or makes it an appealing corrective to the intellectual unwieldiness of fixed categories.) The 'monstrous ambivalence' of what has, variously, been called God, Freedom, the unconscious, the Sublime and the Real, is the galvanic principle at the heart of Holy Terror. Eagleton's argument flows from it. In some sense allomorphs of each other, God, Freedom, etc., are manifestations of the terrifying mise-en-abîme lurking within subjectivity itself...

Eagleton suggests that the mythical antecedent of the terrorist was the god Dionysus: the “patron saint of life-in-death, a connoisseur of the kind of energy we reap through reckless self-abandonment ... In his mysterious rites, self-affirmation and self-dissolution are interwoven.”

Dionysus's orgiastic hootenanny emblematises, for Eagleton, the ecstatic dismemberment that accompanies the final spasm of the relinquished self. It is a lurid rehearsal for death itself. As limbs entangle and bodily fluids are exchanged, the participants give themselves over to absolute negation. Whatever disclaimers he might make, Eagleton glories in this divine debauchee and the exploits of his followers (although he quotes extensively from Euripides's Bacchae, you do rather sense that the character of the god is one that he himself feels ought to have been his own invention – the locus of a key strand of Eagleton's current thinking, embodied and articulate). Dionysus wields awesome power, not simply as a figure of devouring chaos and delectable abandon, but because in order for the psyche to thrive and flourish and the polity finally to be safeguarded, he must be given his due, acknowledged and revered. The Judeo-Christian God performs, later, much the same function. The rapturous self-undoing promised by exposure to it precedes a necessary remaking. We must discard ourselves in order to discover ourselves again.

The sublime is any power which is perilous, shattering, ravishing, traumatic, excessive, exhilarating, dwarfing, astonishing, uncontainable, overwhelming, boundless, obscure, terrifying, enthralling, and uplifting. As such, like so many modern aesthetic concepts, it is among other things a secularized version of God.

And it bears within itself the 'shadowy presence of the death drive'. This is Eagleton's 'holy terror' – love and death in cold fusion. Both the terrorist and the saintly martyr commit themselves to the self's annihilation as an earnest of their soul-deep conviction that the material universe obstructs engagement with the purity of non-being. But, in the case of the former, it's from a sense of appalled disgust at its contamination that he wills himself and the rest out of existence.

As a bright counter to this debased figure, Eagleton instances the scapegoat or pharmakos. “Like all sacred things,” he asserts, “the scapegoat is both holy and cursed, since the more polluted it becomes by absorbing the city's impurities, the more redemption it brings to it. The redemptive victim is the one who takes a general hurt into its own body, and in doing so transforms it into something rich and rare.” It is precisely in the form of the scapegoat, feared and reviled in equal measure, that the collective are compelled to find reflected their own disfigurement. A stringent psychic purgative, the pharmakos is necessary to the commonweal of the State. (Obviously something of this ancient praxis is embedded in Christian myth.) When Dionysus confronts Pentheus in the Bacchae, it's with this gambit of traumatic self-recognition: the King refuses to acknowledge that he too is a compound of blood and anima, and disaster ensues.

If you want a book that might go some way to illuminating the peculiarly modern phenomenon of terrorism – and its most spectacularly baffling proponent, the suicide bomber – then, alas, you won't find it in Holy Terror. Challenging though many of Eagleton's insights might be, they are housed in a work that reeks too much of the lamp. Eagleton exultantly pursues the thread of an argument spun out of his reading, with too little interest in what documentary evidence we do have of what makes a terrorist tick. He shies from engaging with due scepticism from the utterances of Islamic teachers; indeed, Islam and Islamism themselves are scarcely mentioned. His thesis is a strange confection: an omnium gatherum of liberation theology, Lacanian psychoanalysis and structural anthropology; too facile, too breezily unconcerned with the political and cultural realities underlying modern terror. The prose does have an alluring slickness – a crackerjack energy and pliancy; but all too often recedes from evidence-based discussion into arabesques of fleet-footed rhetoric. Eagleton has said that he regards Holy Terror as an incitement to 'new styles of thought'. Adducing in the course of your argument some kind of moral equivalence between the ashen fruits of US foreign policy and Islamic jihad is hardly new, however. And it's sometimes difficult to see quite how far Eagleton would insist that his ideas, with their demons and scapegoats, intersects at any point with the current geopolitical situation. Does the doughty shahid really reflect on Kantian sublimity at any moment before he detonates his bomb-girdle? Does he feel it? Or is there something more banal, more abject at the root of his motives? Eagleton remains silent on the matter.

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