Martin Amis is angry. And concerned. And disappointed. You can tell because his latest essay, published in The Times today, begins with a quite fantastical excursion into etymological territory: a 700-word meditation on the written formulation “9/11” which he concludes with the pronouncement that
…my principal objection to the numbers [“9/11”] is that they are numbers. The solecism, that is to say, is not grammatical but moral-aesthetic—an offence against decorum; and decorum means “seemliness”, which comes from soemr, “fitting”, and soema, “to honour”. 9/11, 7/7: who or what decided that particular acts of slaughter, particular whirlwinds of plasma and body parts, in which a random sample of the innocent is killed, maimed or otherwise crippled in body and mind, deserve a numerical shorthand? Whom does this “honour”? What makes this “fitting”? So far as I am aware, no one has offered the only imaginable rationale: that these numerals, after all, are Arabic.
Amis is a fine novelist and literary critic, but somewhere along the line he seems to have got confused about language and reality. Analysing the finest details of literature is illuminating and important work, and few are better at it than Amis. But analysing the “style” of political discourse like this seems a bizarre and contorted form of wishfulness—and a desperate attempt to suggest that its author’s linguistic acuity is itself a “moral-aesthetic” force to be reckoned with.
The assumptions wrapped up in that terse “moral-aesthetic” are particularly problematic. Amis has always argued, after Nabokov, that “style is morality”—but this is an assumption that can itself only be taken so far before it begins to look indecorous. Does he mean that bad people always, on some level, betray themselves by their lapses of style: or that good critics, like himself, are necessarily good people and thus able to sniff out the evil others’ verbs cannot quite conceal? For a writer so vehemently opposed to fundamentalism and, specifically, to Islamic fundamentalism, such fastidiousness dangerously mirrors the Islamist attitude that even the slightest deviation from divinely-sanctioned linguistic decorum is blasphemy; and rather misses the point that excellent styles can be begged, borrowed or stolen by even the worst of men. Whatever Amis might want to believe, good writers are not always good people.
More simply, has Amis not noticed that his preferred formula—”September 11″—is still 50% numerical; or that the word “decorum” comes from the Latin decor, which means “proper” but which itself survives into modern English with a meaning that hardly connotes “honour;” or that saying the numerals “after all, are Arabic” has about as much meaning as saying these letters are, after all, Roman or that the paper The Times is printed on is, after all, Chinese; or that, even in Old Norse, sœma means “to conform to,” from sœmr, “fitting,” and has little to do with honour? And since when has using shorthand denoted moral inadequacy? In an example Amis himself cites approvingly, the Russian revolution is often referred to simply as “October.” And if numerals are a slight against the slaughtered, what on earth should we do when we need to talk about the time at which something appalling happened?
There are plenty of good and powerful points in the rest of the essay. But it’s unnerving to see Martin Amis, champion of democracy and freedom, telling the world that he objects to the most popular way of transcribing a particular date because of two words in Old Norse and the Arabic origins of modern numerals. What, I wonder, would OBL make of all this?