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Martin Amis knew the horror of words Debased language is the tool of the dictator

Poor writing ends in destruction (Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis Getty)

Poor writing ends in destruction (Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis Getty)


May 22, 2023   5 mins

Years after I first read The Rachel Papers, I bought the copy of Hamlet that Martin Amis had owned as an Oxford student from a book dealer in Charing Cross. It had his undergraduate jottings in the margins and his own personal bookplate inside the front cover. He must have been a teenager when he stuck it in. Truly, Amis was precocious. He was also brilliant, but not just as a novelist.

Frank Kermode described Amis as “a literary critic of startling power” — and he was right. Amis later tried his hand at political writing, with a slightly absurd analysis of Stalinism in Koba the Dread and of 9/11 in The Second Plane. These were not successful.

Amis failed when he tried to write about politics, but when he wrote about literature, that “startling power” revealed much, especially concerning the nature of autocracy. This is because while style was the essence of good prose for Amis, it was also the essence of morality. In Experience he wrote: “I would argue that style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified.” ​​For Amis, clichés of the pen stemmed directly from those “clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart” because a cliché was, above all, “used thought” — which poisons literature, but also politics.

To understand Amis the writer, look to his idol Vladimir Nabokov, a man on intimate terms with the perversion of politics after his family was forced to flee Russia following the 1917 October Revolution. In his essay, “The Creative Writer”, Nabokov set out his process of artistic creation, which he divided into two stages, vostorg and vdokhnovenie: “rapture” and “recapture”. The process starts with the pure flame of vostorg, in which the writer breaks everything down to first principles in a kind of “rapture”. Once this is achieved, he settles down to the actual composing of his work, relying on the “serene and steady” kind of inspiration, vdokhnovenie, through which he recaptures and reconstructs the world.

In The Rachel Papers, Charles Highway walks down an ordinary street in which everything seems alien: “demonically mechanical cars; potent solid living trees; unreal distant-seeming buildings; blotchy extraterrestrial wayfarers”. The same is true of The Information’s Richard Tull, who is “an artist when he saw society: it never crossed his mind that society had to be like this, had any right, had any business being like this”. He is, in the end, a man “harassed to the point of insanity or stupefaction by first principles”.

For Amis, breaking down everything to first principles was a matter of perception: you have to recalibrate the way you see the world. Writing on Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, he provided the most succinct description of his literary credo: “Style, of course, is not something grappled on to regular prose; it is intrinsic to perception. We are fond of separating style and content (for the purposes of analysis, and so on), but they aren’t separable: they come from the same place. And style is morality.”

Amis always considered himself a satirist, which is to say a moralist, and his war against immorality revealed itself in another war: The War Against Cliché. Michael Crichton’s dinosaur epic The Lost World is for him a “strange terrain of one-page chapters, one-sentence paragraphs and one-word sentences” in which the reader encounters “herds of clichés, roaming free. You will listen in ‘stunned silence’ to an ‘unearthly cry’ or a ‘deafening roar’. Raptors are ‘rapacious’. Reptiles are ‘reptilian’. Pain is ‘searing’.”

Amis’s aversion to this kind of writing was almost pathological, and it is no coincidence that one of the hallmarks of his own style was his use of modifiers, which he unmoors from their usual contexts. So we get “gentle coma” and “grim approval” and “glare of congeniality.” He forced the reader to rethink first principles.

He does this because he understood that the dangers of bad prose are not merely aesthetic. “Cliché spreads inwards from the language of the book to its heart,” he wrote in an essay on Fay Weldon. “Cliché always does.” It is a mental rot that, like poison ivy, eventually smothers and poisons the body it is attached to. When you flick through The Lost World, you realise that you are not reading a novel in any real sense of the word (especially if you boil down the term “novel” to its first principles). What you are reading are strings of clichés held together by coordinating conjunctions and laughable dialogue.

In Politics and the English language, Orwell described the act of “throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you… and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” It is at this point, Orwell wrote, that “the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear”. For Orwell, “political chaos is connected with the decay of language”.

Amis never liked Orwell, throwing away 1984 after reading an unpardonable cliché — “ruggedly handsome” — on the first page. “The man can’t write worth a damn,” was his verdict. But I think the two men shared an understanding of what happens when, as Orwell wrote, language is reduced to thoughtless phrases bolted together “like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”. Clichéd language is the perfect vessel in which to transmit an ideology that resists scrutiny and relies on obfuscation to promulgate. For both Amis and Orwell, bad writing is a form of unthinking that can end in a callousness to human cruelty and the horror it wreaks.

The true artist, by contrast, is committed to both vostorg and vdokhnovenie. Indeed, they must be because it is not enough to resist cliché. To break everything down to first principles, you must rebuild it anew; if you don’t, madness follows. In The Information, Richard Tull instinctively sees the world as an artist. Unmoored from its everyday context, a baby crawling towards him becomes “the size of a pig”, billowing “like a circus fatlady”. But he cannot write: Tull is missing the second half of the creative process, and it drives him nuts. If you commit to vostorg without vdokhnovenie, even a baby, that ultimate signifier of human innocence and vulnerability, can become a monster. And there is only ever one solution for dealing with monsters.

Every dictator from Mao to Stalin to Putin has wanted to reduce everything to first principles; they embraced the mad rapture of vostorg, with its intense passion and heat. But that is only half of the process. As men, and they are always men, they were fed on bad literature, from the warped Marxist texts of Stalin and Mao to the nonsense history that Putin gorged himself on over lockdown before his invasion of Ukraine. They internalised this rapture, but they lacked the “serene and steady” inspiration of vdokhnovenie. They failed not just as politicians or artists but as humans. They cannot create; they can only destroy.

Rapture and serenity; destruction and reconstruction. Both are inherent to creativity. But both can become toxic when those who have the power to create do so through perversions of literature. Amis understood this perennial fact of politics, and this understanding informed both his literary criticism and his fiction: that debased words are just as potent as beautiful ones — and that they always end in horror.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

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Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
11 months ago

Amis never liked Orwell, throwing away 1984 after reading an unpardonable cliché — “ruggedly handsome” — on the first page. “The man can’t write worth a damn,” was his verdict.

Isn’t that a tiny bit clichéd itself?

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
11 months ago

Amis never liked Orwell, throwing away 1984 after reading an unpardonable cliché — “ruggedly handsome” — on the first page. “The man can’t write worth a damn,” was his verdict.

Isn’t that a tiny bit clichéd itself?

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Hmmm… i’ve never felt the slightest inclination to read Amis, and never met anyone who has. It’s telling, for instance, that the article in The Post section has remained uncommented upon after many hours (several hours prior to this article).

Amis always struck me as an example of that peculiar brand of snobbish Englishman, born into a coterie of insular ‘literary circle’ privilege and unable to escape it. I could easily be wrong, but that wouldn’t make him or his work any more compelling. Amis’ peremptory dismissal of 1984 also seems wrong, denying him the insights which have haunted us since it was written. Am i missing insights too?

What this article seems to suggest is the danger to our way of thinking of ChatGPT, where the majority of non-fiction becomes derivative rather than original, and then proliferates like a disease spreading throughout the body of our humanity as it feeds upon itself through the virus of cliché. For that, i’m grateful to the author, but not to Amis.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Robin BLAKE
RB
Robin BLAKE
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

What a c**k-eyed response. Steve Murray hasn’t read Martin Amis, or had the slightest desire to do so, & doesn’t even know anyone else who has. Yet Amis has somehow “struck” him. Where did that happen — outside a pub after closing time?
Anyone who has read Amis, I mean with any attention, knows that snobbery was not one of his failings.

Last edited 11 months ago by Robin BLAKE
Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Robin BLAKE

Your sarcasm is unwarranted, since what i’ve been “struck” with is a) listening to Amis when being interviewed or taking part in tv programmes, and b) reading thorough reviews of his work in sources such as TLS (Times Literary Supplement). He’s simply part of that London-centric crowd who have no idea what goes on outside quite a narrow milieu.
I’ll go further. If it weren’t for the accomplishments of his father, he’d never have found a publisher. There’s an immense volume of literature, and one has to be selective. On the basis of the article and your response, i’ll continue on my way happy to give Amis a miss as he fades into obscurity.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
J Dunne
JD
J Dunne
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

A TV interview with Amis during the time of Trump’s reign, and at the height of BLM hysteria, revealed him to be as utterly clueless about society and humanity as every other condescending, privileged, liberal literary type. His disdain for the American working class was about as snobby and ignorant as it gets.

Pat Rowles
PR
Pat Rowles
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

If it weren’t for the accomplishments of his father, he’d never have found a publisher.

Respectfully, Steve, I think that’s unfair and untrue (in much the same way that being Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew got Nic Cage his opportunity in Hollywood, but his own talent kept him there).
I also take your point regarding ‘so many books, so little time’, but I’d say (while obviously knowing nothing about your taste in books) that you’re missing out by ignoring the best of Martin Amis. A lot of his later work left me cold, but Money is truly great, and his debut The Rachel Papers is one of the few genuinely laugh-out-loud books I’ve ever read.

J Dunne
JD
J Dunne
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

A TV interview with Amis during the time of Trump’s reign, and at the height of BLM hysteria, revealed him to be as utterly clueless about society and humanity as every other condescending, privileged, liberal literary type. His disdain for the American working class was about as snobby and ignorant as it gets.

Pat Rowles
PR
Pat Rowles
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

If it weren’t for the accomplishments of his father, he’d never have found a publisher.

Respectfully, Steve, I think that’s unfair and untrue (in much the same way that being Francis Ford Coppola’s nephew got Nic Cage his opportunity in Hollywood, but his own talent kept him there).
I also take your point regarding ‘so many books, so little time’, but I’d say (while obviously knowing nothing about your taste in books) that you’re missing out by ignoring the best of Martin Amis. A lot of his later work left me cold, but Money is truly great, and his debut The Rachel Papers is one of the few genuinely laugh-out-loud books I’ve ever read.

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Robin BLAKE

I read Martin before I read Kingsley. In fact, I only read Kingsley because he was Martin’s father. Martin is by far the better writer, and more interesting. Reading “Time’s Arrow” on a flight to London was a surreal – and unforgettable – experience.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Robin BLAKE

Your sarcasm is unwarranted, since what i’ve been “struck” with is a) listening to Amis when being interviewed or taking part in tv programmes, and b) reading thorough reviews of his work in sources such as TLS (Times Literary Supplement). He’s simply part of that London-centric crowd who have no idea what goes on outside quite a narrow milieu.
I’ll go further. If it weren’t for the accomplishments of his father, he’d never have found a publisher. There’s an immense volume of literature, and one has to be selective. On the basis of the article and your response, i’ll continue on my way happy to give Amis a miss as he fades into obscurity.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Robin BLAKE

I read Martin before I read Kingsley. In fact, I only read Kingsley because he was Martin’s father. Martin is by far the better writer, and more interesting. Reading “Time’s Arrow” on a flight to London was a surreal – and unforgettable – experience.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I have read and loved Amis, but my post disappeared. I really enjoy people who aren’t relentlessly politically correct and further it is about the book and not the author.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
CF Hankinson
CH
CF Hankinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Amis described himself, along with Christopher Hitchens, as ‘bohemian lower middle class’. If you read ‘Experience’, his extraordinary life writing, you too would experience his insecurities, failures, and humour. A great book that stays with you. It is a great loss, I feel it keenly, unfathomably.

Last edited 11 months ago by CF Hankinson
Robin BLAKE
RB
Robin BLAKE
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

What a c**k-eyed response. Steve Murray hasn’t read Martin Amis, or had the slightest desire to do so, & doesn’t even know anyone else who has. Yet Amis has somehow “struck” him. Where did that happen — outside a pub after closing time?
Anyone who has read Amis, I mean with any attention, knows that snobbery was not one of his failings.

Last edited 11 months ago by Robin BLAKE
Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I have read and loved Amis, but my post disappeared. I really enjoy people who aren’t relentlessly politically correct and further it is about the book and not the author.

Last edited 11 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
CF Hankinson
CH
CF Hankinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Amis described himself, along with Christopher Hitchens, as ‘bohemian lower middle class’. If you read ‘Experience’, his extraordinary life writing, you too would experience his insecurities, failures, and humour. A great book that stays with you. It is a great loss, I feel it keenly, unfathomably.

Last edited 11 months ago by CF Hankinson
Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
11 months ago

Hmmm… i’ve never felt the slightest inclination to read Amis, and never met anyone who has. It’s telling, for instance, that the article in The Post section has remained uncommented upon after many hours (several hours prior to this article).

Amis always struck me as an example of that peculiar brand of snobbish Englishman, born into a coterie of insular ‘literary circle’ privilege and unable to escape it. I could easily be wrong, but that wouldn’t make him or his work any more compelling. Amis’ peremptory dismissal of 1984 also seems wrong, denying him the insights which have haunted us since it was written. Am i missing insights too?

What this article seems to suggest is the danger to our way of thinking of ChatGPT, where the majority of non-fiction becomes derivative rather than original, and then proliferates like a disease spreading throughout the body of our humanity as it feeds upon itself through the virus of cliché. For that, i’m grateful to the author, but not to Amis.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

What is absurd about “Koba the Dread”?

Nick Faulks
NF
Nick Faulks
11 months ago

That puzzled me.

Nick Faulks
NF
Nick Faulks
11 months ago

That puzzled me.

Allison Barrows
AB
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

What is absurd about “Koba the Dread”?

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
11 months ago

Amis would have laughed himself silly reading this ponderous nonsense.

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
11 months ago

Amis would have laughed himself silly reading this ponderous nonsense.

Josh Allan
JA
Josh Allan
10 months ago

The correlation between uninspired artistry and destructive autarky seems a little spurious, but I can’t deny it’s something I’ve noticed. Lionel Shriver has written about this too. It’s ubiquitous, and sinful.