Square one*

There are now so many books it’s as if there were no books. And so much of every medium it’s as if there were no media. If everything is told then we’re back to square one, with as much to make sense of as we started with and no distillation, no reduction, no summary, the “raised voice” of the poet inaudible in the racket, the vision of the painter indecipherable in the welter, and as for music, forget it.

But it’s a fallacy, because there’s a new world for every individual, every day, untold, undepicted, unlived, unknown, and other things starting with “un”. Yes, you got it, the old world is gone with the wind.

*On browsing www.granta.com

Language as understanding

You could argue that while we have no language to describe, we have no understanding. When people say they can’t understand the motivation of the suicide bombers in London, at the same time they are saying that they have no language to describe it. I thought when Police Commissioner Blair said they behaved like a cult, a death cult, that was it – he had classified them for us. It’s a way of understanding Al Qaeda, a religious cult with a typical charismatic leader, and a typical tropism to suicide of the members.

I’m only referring here to the indoctrination of the cult members, their organisation and behaviour. The politics underlying the formation of the cult are more complex and are well-known. A lot of people agree on some of the politics, and are angry about the injustices, but very few are minded as a result to kill themselves and massacre the general public.

Equally when people talked about a clash of cultures or clash of civilisations, we were at a loss to know how to answer. Was it something observed, which simply had to be accepted? We hadn’t the language to respond. That is why it seems helpful to me that the Spanish prime minister should call for an alliance of civilisations to combat terrorism. Even if it’s embraced by the most guilty, as a sort of cop-out, I think it’s a useful idea, a useful phrase, a worthwhile aim. It sounds very simple now, but until the language was adduced it was as if we were to some extent in a state of suspense and danger, a question was left hanging.

When the Spanish prime minister contemplated the problem, perhaps his thoughts constituted a search for the words, and his words are a gift to us, a gift of understanding conveyed in words. Not new words, but a classification of something unclassified, with a rightness, a sort of solution to a puzzle. The quest for understanding of something being a puzzle, and the words of explanation being the solution. It might be a solution instinctively known, and embodied in the behaviour of “right-thinking” people, but until the words were formulated there was a hunger, a need, an uncertainty. From uncertainty, fear and anger and then violence are born.

What is the sense of rightness, of solution that I feel on hearing these words? One person’s solution may ring true to some people, but false to others. For me I think it’s the extent to which the solutions, the new words, give hope and reassurance, and also propose a goal or direction to pursue that leads towards peace and security, away from war and the threat of destruction.