Thursday, April 27, 2006
Martin A. and Patrick M.
Initially they continued a conversation that had begun the night before, in the wake of the exhaustive (and, some say, exhausting) Faith and Reason marathon at Town Hall. The various testimonies onstage, Amis said, had convinced him that the quintessential "human quality was doubt rather than passionate commitment." Yet he was unwilling to pull the plug on the entire enterprise of belief. "I do not call myself an atheist," he added. "That would be a little crabbed and immature."
McGrath fired back: "Even if you're an agnostic, doesn't it make sense to do what Pascal said, or did?" Which is to say: hedge one's bets by praying. Amis was unmoved. He fired off an epigrammatic blast of his own: "If God had really cared about us--if he really loved us--he would never have given us religion." Now, however, things got more interesting, as the two non-believers relinquished their game of verbal pingpong and took up the matter of Muhammad Atta, who served as the subject of a recent story by Amis in The New Yorker. (Ironically, Amis suggests that Atta wasn't a believer, either, just a hideous nihilist with a competitive streak.)
From there they moved on to Iran. Amis, who wrote a great deal about the nightmare of nuclear weaponry during the 1980s, insisted that such devices be kept out of Iranian hands. "Sorry," he said. "They just can't have them!" McGrath quite reasonably asked how this was to be accomplished. "By swearing them off yourselves," Amis replied. Not likely, is it? Especially as the current administration announces plans to rebuild existing weapons facilities and commission new bomb designs. But we can always hope.
Meanwhile, after touching on Amis's novel Yellow Dog, head trauma, Abu Gharib, and extraordinary rendition, the conversation drifted back to suicide bombing (which Amis prefers to call "suicide mass murder.") The practice, he argued, is not simply war by other means, but a repellent Islamist specialty, degrading in every possible way. "It makes a human being regard another human being with a brand new level of disgust and revulsion," he insisted.
There followed a brief Q-and-A session. One member of the audience cited a comment made the previous night by the Brazilian novelist Milton Hatoum: "We are living in hopeless times." Was it so? "Look," Amis replied, "all times look hopeless. The Nineties, for example, were a kind of Golden Age. We had so much time on our hands that we could devote an entire year to Monica Lewinsky, an entire year to O.J. Simpson." And yet suddenly, as of 2001, we were plunged into battle with a terrible, supremely irrational enemy. "Hopeless times," echoed McGrath, without indicating whether he accepted the diagnosis or was simply taking the phrase for a spin. But now the clock had run out, and both authors retreated toward the back of the stage, surrounded by a praetorian guard of cameras and boom microphones. Amis gamely signed a few autographs, too, at which point I snapped the action photo above.