Mihály Dés (Lateral, Nº 83, noviembre de 2001)
No. This article is not about the homonymous work by Enrique Vila-Matas. Rather it reflects, in the wake of the kamikaze acts against the United States, on the suicidal impulse of part of the western intelligentsia. This is an evil that has manifested itself for more than two centuries and that now, in the postmodernity, has globalised and suffered some mutations.
“On the Twin Towers I prefer to express no opinion,” said the fifty-something executive with a coquettish little smile while parting her hands as if to say I’m sorry but this is all there is, “you know that I have always been pro-Palestine.” What the non-opinion of the opulent Catalan ex-communist implied was that —in the name of a cause that she considered just— she saw reason in the assassination of masses and the partial destruction of a city to which she used to make markedly consumerist pilgrimages.
The French poet, on the other hand, did not go so far as to establish a direct cause-effect relationship between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the terrorist attacks on the United States. Such parallels, even to the mastermind and funder of the bloody events, only occurred later. Until very recently, Bin Laden showed little interest in this standard-bearing cause of a movement with a certain proclivity for crushing its Islamic rivals with blood, fire and guile.
But my French friend, the poet, cannot be impressed by such ephemeral and politicised arguments. He found satisfaction in the attacks for much more poetic reasons, adding, of course, that it was a terrible thing… It is just that he was fascinated by the forcefulness and simplicity of the attack against the supreme power. One only has to compare, he told me, the aggressive nervousness of President Bush with the beautifully calm gestures of Bin Laden taking tea to see the difference between the two civilisations…
The psychoanalyst and the philologist
There was also better-mannered public rejoicing and more prosaic reproaches. According to a Jewish Argentinean psychoanalyst, and excuse the redundancy, the mother of all Moslem battles is no longer some Israeli policy or other on the Palestinians or the supposed pro-Jewish complicity of the USA, but precisely “the anomaly that is the State of Israel”. Today not even Arafat would dare affirm such a thing, at least not publicly. Instead of calling on the resources of his profession (‘Current considerations on life and death’ by Freud or ‘Cain, violator of law’ by Szondi, for example), my psychoanalyst friend resorts to the familiar rhetoric of the good western consciences and sees the convulsions of the Islamic world (including the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq) as understandable and, up to a certain point, legitimate manifestations of a great truth; in any case, a truth greater than that represented by the egotistical and soulless West.
More audacious was the public declaration of the brilliant German Philologist for whom Bin Laden’s kamikazes are martyrs with a cause, as against the Americans who would be incapable of giving their lives for anything… Beyond the detail that there were some New York fire fighters or police officers who sacrificed their lives, the assertion of the well-known philologist places any assassin with political, religious or racial causes (including the ETA thug) in a position morally superior to that of their victims.
I have spent weeks listening to these justifications and eccentricities, which began when the ruins of the Twin Towers were still billowing smoke and the rescue of the almost three thousand dead had barely begun. In fact, years and decades have been spent listening to these things in relation to the latest Cause: the USSR, the Vietnam War, the guerrilla warfare theory of Che Guevara —lay precursor of Saint Laden—, the Cuban Revolution, the Iraq-Kuwait war, the Intifada, the intervention (or not) of the West in the Balkans, in Africa, or wherever… In fact, there is little difference between the discourses of the present and the past. The thing is that in the causes of years gone by it was possible to believe, although through error, lack of information or ethical necessity. Not even the Talibans, who because of him will now lose power, believe in Bin Laden and his mission to personally administer divine retribution. So what is going on? Why do so many western intellectuals implicitly defend him?
All my protagonists (and the hundreds of thousands who share their ideas) belong, actively or residually, to the ambit of the Left. This is not to say that from the Right barbarities are not heard. There are those who demand the devastation of Moslems, Arabs or whatever is necessary. Others —such as Oriana Fallacci, until recently the heroine of all the beautiful European souls— offers master classes in the cultural superiority of the West, showing with unbeatable arguments that, against the intellectual-artistic wilderness of the Islamic masses, the western peasantry has at its service Dante, Stockhausen and the Presocratics. But these are not the voices that dominate the media in a moment when even the politicians are talking of a political and economic repositioning on a world scale.
In any case, it is not these stale voices demanding a western crusade that hold intellectual interest. As far as I know, it is not the perennial Right that needed to reinvent and relocate itself after the demise of the Soviet Empire: a matter still pending. So it is possible that the left-winger who justifies Islamic terrorism and —at the same time, with an enviable dialectic— blames it on those who are its victims coincides in his postures only with the extreme Right.
Moreover, the manifest levity of the aforementioned opinions on such serious matters attracts attention. The postmodern causes of the West do not ask from their acolytes for sacrifice or dedication. The ideological wars, just like the real ones, have become professional. Anti-globalisation commandos traverse the planet in representation of the bad consciences of the First World, and only ask one thing in exchange for their moral and verbal support: that nothing more is asked of them.
This delegation of individual responsibility favours distant and complicated causes to the point of incomprehension. In my circles, for example, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is considerably more worrying than the terrorism of ETA, which is clearer and has the (dis)advantage that something can be done to ease it, even if it means as little as not voting for parties which indirectly sustain it, not frequenting establishments which expound its propaganda or not consenting —in private chats— to its justification or apology.
There is another characteristic shared by my protagonists: all are potential victims of the Islamic fundamentalism that in some way they support, the majority of them, even, for accumulated charges: the executive for being a smoker, a drinker, an independent woman or for having (or, rather, having had) lovers; the poet for being a free thinker and anarchist; the psychoanalyst for being Jewish and, perhaps, a psychoanalyst; the Phylologist for being homosexual, and all of them for being impious, atheists and leftists.
This thing of defending your future hangman, demanding liberties and rights for him, while furiously repudiating the powers and institutions that for good or ill (rather more ill) represent you, is exclusive to the Judeo-Christian world. It is a noble tradition but somewhat costly in terms of human lives. There is one thing still more vigorous than the suicidal instinct of our intelligentsia: their anti-western rancour. Let’s be clear: I am not proposing the renunciation of criticism of the system, or even the censorship of the ambition to replace it. I am only suggesting that we do not do it in the name of something that we know is much worse. And that this something is not supported. But this is what is happening. To Cavafy’s proverbial question about what we will do without the barbarians, we already have the answer: there is no cause for concern; not only have we reinvented them but we are now ready to offer ourselves to them in sacrifice.