Wieseltier-amis: Post-game

An incendiary essay by New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier about Martin Amis’ recent essay collection on 9/11 and the evils of Islamism ran on the cover of the New York Times Book Review last weekend. The review was an evisceration, built on Mr. Wieseltier’s contention that Mr. Amis aestheticizes politics and tragedy for his own narcissistic purposes.

Sample snippet: “Amis is the sort of writer who will never say ‘city’ when he can say ‘conurbation.’ In his first article about Sept. 11 … he hoped that the American response ‘should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish,’ as if retaliation were an aesthetic statement. When … he describes the second plane on its way to the south tower as ‘sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,’ the ingenuity of the image is … an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.” Also: “Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer. What we have here is a hormonal unbeliever.”

We asked those of Mr. Wieseltier’s fellow semi-public intellectuals who care about liberalism, Islam, etc., to evaluate the piece. Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who has indirectly clashed with Mr. Wieseltier on key issues regarding Islam and democracy, said, “Enfin!” and added, “Someone finally did the piece that needed to be done.”

Tony Judt, who in a 2006 article in The London Review of Books listed Mr. Wieseltier as one of Bush’s primary “Useful Idiots,” said the Amis review was “one of Leon’s best essays in a long time—and aimed at a contemptible and deserving target.”

Ian Buruma, however, another critic of Mr. Wieseltier, was uncharmed by the piece.

“I read it, have no deep thoughts to contribute beyond the observation that this seems like an exercise in the pot accusing the kettle. Wieseltier is as preening and as obsessed with style as Amis,” he said.

O.K., but did he agree with Mr. Wieseltier’s “aestheticization” argument? “No, I don’t,” Mr. Buruma said. “I think the attack was ad hominem and not substantial.”

Mr. Wieseltier responded: “I am a little amused by Buruma’s sudden sympathy for Amis, since it flies in the face of his own views on Islamism and terrorism and multiculturalism and Western policy.

“But if Buruma believes that one should write stylishly about important things, then he should begin to do so.”

Wieseltier-amis: Post-game