Surrealpolitik: Plotting Terror

Author: Margaret Scanlan

Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia (2001)

Quick Summary

One of the earlier studies of the interplay between terrorism and fiction, quite influential on subsequent work. This book is notable, among other reasons, because it was released in 2001 before 9/11, so quickly became either more relevant or less relevant depending upon how much you think 9/11 changed anything. She pays close attention to the ways in which terrorism is constructed culturally, 'fictionalized' as it were, while remaining attentive to the fact of real violence against real people. She also ventures closer than most to the idea of terror that is fictionalized in the sense of being orchestrated by interests other than the purported terrorists, but this remains on the level of vague suggestion and is explored only as allegory and not in much depth, even in the section about The Assignment which has a hoax terror event. She breaks the treatment of terrorism in novels into the following categories: The Terrorist Rival (DeLillo's Mao II and the Rushdie Affair; Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man): writer competing with terrorist for influence); Displaced Causes (Mary McCarthy's Cannibals and Missionaries; Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist): In which she interprets these works as displaced versions of the authors' own political histories of activism, a pessimistic slant in which "writer as activist blows up with the bombs that destroy the terrorists" and "radical action sooner or later leads the most idealistic rebels to ally themselves with a repressive power." Novelist as Terrorist/Terrorism as Fiction (J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg; Friedrich Durrenmatd's The Assignment): "Writing as aggression -- as plagiarism, appropriation, and perversion." In The Assignment, the central terrorist incident is a hoax, and terrorism in this novel "belongs as much to the illusory order as to its half-imagined opposition". Explores the novel's role in presenting "what is otherwise 'unrepresentable, incommensurate' in our experience of public violence." Is Terrorism Dead? (Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and Robert Stone's Damascus Gate [their 'Jerusalem Novels']; Volodine's Lisbonne derniere marge): Novelists and terrorists equally powerless as drivers of events. Here's where it's perhaps particularly unfortunate for Scanlan that 9/11 happened immediately upon the release of this book. Or perhaps not -- if nothing else, the disproportionate response shows that ideology-minded politicians remain the drivers of political events more than even the most spectacular terrorists.


There are 41 quotes currently associated with this book.

[Following fascism and Communism] Now it is terrorists who lurk in every shadow, images of terrorist attacks that fill our television screens, and fears of new varieties -- nuclear, biological, cyber-terrorism -- that drive calls for increased surveillance and larger defense budgets. If such Orwellian transformations in the identity of the enemy do not make us skeptical, an element of construction in political and journalistic rhetoric about terrorism, even in terrorist acts themselves, seems inescapable. Bombings and hijackings begin with a few people plotting violence for maximum exposure, come to us on television, where distinctions between news and entertainment are ever more tortuous, and quickly pass into the popular imagination, into blockbuster movies and paperback thrillers. (page 1)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Fascism, Postmodernism, Culture, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Conspiracy, Media]
I see both writers and terrorists in these novels as remnants of a romantic belief in the power of marginalized persons to transform history...such fictions elucidate the process that allows militants, journalists, and politicians to construct terrorism as a political reality. (page 2)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]
The theoretical conception of my topic -- that terrorism is both actual killing and a fictional construct, that fiction embodies an acute critique of the power of discourse as opposed to the power of the individual's self-assertion -- owes a great deal to deconstruction and neo-Marxism and will be familiar to readers with a grounding in the New Historicism and cultural studies. (page 2)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
Foucault's work...allows us to formulate, and ultimately challenge, one deeply held tenet of literary romanticism, the alliance between the writer and the revolutionary. Traces of this alliance, which writers such as Byron, Hugo, Thoreau, and Lamartine exemplified for the nineteenth century, are still visible today. We find them in the very phrase "creative writing," in our tolerance, even encouragement, of eccentric or self-destructive behavior in writers; every story of a poet locked up or executed in Nigeria or Iraq confirms our sense that writers are enemies of tyranny. Yet the idea of the writer as revolutionary implies an extraordinary faith in that writer's power to act in the social world. The unacknowledged legislator of mankind must articulate a vision of a better world and set it down in unambiguous language, must persuade many readers to accept that vision as authoritative, and, moreover, must motivate them to act in ways that ensure change. (page 4)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism]
What goes into the newspaper is what most people will accept as the chronicle of their public life; the mass newspaper normalizes certain behaviors and stigmatizes others; even its silences...signify. While some nineteenth-century novelists served an apprenticeship in popular journalism, most saw it as a competitor, a threat to their own sales, cheapening language and shortening the reader's attention span. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, gradually learned how to use the mass media to disseminate their message. (page 4-5)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Media]
It is this link to the mass media that leads most scholars to conclude that the insurgent terrorism that evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century was something new and not merely a repetition of the violent conspiracies that marked political history long before Brutus stabbed Caesar. Scorned by Lenin and Trotsky alike as representative action undertaken by the intelligentsia on behalf of a distrustful proletariat, terrorism is more a violent means of communication than a direct strike at militarily significant targets. (page 5)
Tags: [Terror, Media]
Terrorists succeed when they seize headlines. Yet this very success means that they and their causes are understood in terms set by popular journalism. If television "coproduced" the Palestinian hijacker of the 1970s, it also ensured that for a global audience a few images and sound bites would constitute Palestinian history. (page 5)
Tags: [Terror, Media]
As heirs to the revolutionaries of 1776 and 1789 and 1848, terrorists retain their traditional affinity to writers. However, as a special case of the old alliance between romantic writer and revolutionary, the relation of writers with terrorists does not "go without saying"; it is no longer assumed, but contested. Since terrorist has negative connotations, to figure the writer as terrorist is quite different from figuring him or her as revolutionary. Far from being a ritual acknowledgment of originality and power, it is an imputation of violence or underhandedness. Thus within contemporary fiction, we find terrorists both as rivals and as doubles of the novelist. (page 6)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]
Dostoevsky, James, and Conrad pressure the commonsense distinction between writers and terrorists, between stories and violence, without entirely accepting some view, deconstructive avant la lettre, that they are indistinguishable. Their novels anticipate many of the questions about representing violence that late-twentieth-century theorists have pressed -- the alliance between storytelling and power, the tendency of art to convert violence into an enthralling spectacle, and even, in the case of Conrad's Peter Mikulin, the distortions of the victim's narrative-become-bestseller. They issue an invitation to see in insurgent terrorism an occasion for exploring the romantic idea of the writer as rebel and for questioning romanticism's optimism about literature's social power. (page 10)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]
As terrorists grew more savvy about television, they threatened to take control away from broadcasters. A German television journalist noted that during the Baader-Meinhoff organization's kidnapping of Peter Lorenz in 1975, "We lost control of the medium. We shifted shows to meet their timetable..." Terrorist acts, argues N.C. Livingstone, are custom-made for the medium; they are relatively concise, dramatic, and "not so complex as to be unintelligible to those who tune in only briefly...terrorism is so ideally suited to television that the medium would have invented the phenomenon if it had not already existed". (page 12-13)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Conspiracy, Media]
To those familiar with postmodern art, [The Satanic Verse's] subsequent juxtapositions of Othello allusions with advertising jingles, or of fantasies about medieval Arabia with quasi-journalistic exposés of police brutality in contemporary England, scarcely seem surprising. Blurring history and fiction to make the historical appear fantastic is the stock in trade of such books. The 1983 Hawkes Bay incident, for example, in which a Pakistani woman, Naseem Fatima, led thirty-eight Shiah pilgrims to their deaths in the sea out of the mistaken belief that it would part to allow them to pass safely to the holy city of Kerbala, needs little fictional transformation to fit into the phantasmagoric world of Gibreel Farishta's unwelcome dreams. (page 20)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Postmodernism]
Rushdie's political aim is familiar: through modestly experimental devices -- multiple narrators, time shifts, the violation of realistic decorum by improbable coincidences, magical events -- to liberate the reader from the tyranny of an inerrant text. As in DeLillo's Libra, Robert Coover's Public Burning, or J.G. Farrell's Empire trilogy, storytelling in The Satanic Verses is meant to act on a world already saturated by narratives, urging the reader to consider an alternative perspective, hoping to free up some space in the real world for another interpretation of the patriotic myth, the official version, the sacred text....The Rushdie affair has become the exemplary instance of the postmodernist political novel encountering actual politics, actual violence. (page 21)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Activism, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Postmodernism]
For really two distinct, yet oddly complementary, features of contemporary life worked against The Satanic Verses: the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the explosion of the electronic media. On the one hand, we note the extreme literalism of Rushdie's opponents, their unwillingness to accept "the fictionality of fiction" (Rushdie, IH 393). The "death of the author," in the West a philosophical proposition, became in Iranian hands a large cash incentive, and a promise of paradise, for the assassination of a Booker Prize winner. Yet in a sense the literalism of the British Muslims who burned the book in the streets of Bradford was a tribute to the printed page that is rare indeed in the West; they did not regard the novel as an inconsequential imaginative exercise but as a powerful expression of ideas deeply engaged with reality.

On the other hand, the familiar enemy of the printed text, the electronic media, arouses Baudrillardian anxieties. As Daniel Pipes points out, the 14 February fatwa has all the marks of a media event; had the ayatollah simply wanted Rushdie dead he could have dispatched a hit squad months earlier, when British Muslims began their protests. "Broadcasting his intentions allowed Rushdie to take cover, so Khomeini's real goal must...have been...something quite different". An apocalyptic vision of all solid ground disappearing, to be replaced by a vertiginous mass of images, attaches itself to the phenomenon of the writer who disappears into the spy fiction world of safe houses and Secret Service protection. Surely the text of The Satanic Verses also seems to disappear, in spite of phenomenal sales, into televised images created by angry men who pride themselves on not having read it. Surely, too, the claims of political fiction to act on the world seem overwhelmed by the world's evident ability, especially when kept instantly up-to-date by satellite, to act on novel and novelist. (page 24)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism]
Between Plato's distrust of the artist as a liar and magician, a man who can paint the bed he could not build, and Baudrillard's distrust of the hyperreal, "the generation by models of a real without origin or reality," there is a clear line of descent. Seen through Brita Nilsson's eyes, a Warholish Russian painting called Gorby II illustrates the political implications of simulacra. It is a "maximum statement about the dissolubility of the artist and the exaltation of the public figure, about how it is possible to fuse images, Mikhail Gorbachev's and Marilyn Monroe's, and to steal auras, Gold Marilyn's and Dead-White Andy's". What is the connection between the artist who painted Gorby IIand a political world driven by such images? Between that artist and Karen, who conflates Korean messiahs with Khomeini and Mao, or between the artist and a magazine editor in Chile who published caricatures of General Pinochet and then is sent to jail for "assassinating the image of the general"? (page 29)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Simulacra/Illusion]
The Rushdie affair put a whole complex of Western assumptions about the politics of postmodern art, about the nature of reading and of satire, up against traditional Muslim assumptions about, among other matters, the nature of representation and the obligation to revealed truth, and found them, if not wanting, at least not universal. (page 36)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Postmodernism, Culture, Universality]
[With reference to Eoin McNamee's Resurrection Man] In 1971, William McGrath -- the figure on whom Billy McClure is loosely modeled -- was hired as a social worker at Kincora, where he molested "perhaps dozens of school-aged boys"; in spite of numerous complaints filed by the residents of the home, he was not arrested until 2 April 1980...

What has caused endless speculation about this all-too-familiar story of abuse, however, is that McGrath was also the founder of a right-wing Protestant organization called Tara, whose members saw themselves as a shadow government preparing to take over in the event of a "doomsday" scenario...More spectacular allegations followed: Chris Moore, author of a book on McGrath and Kincora, interviewed several intelligence agents and civil servants who claimed that McGrath had actively worked for MI5, the British Security Service, and that Tara had been conceived by British intelligence as a means of gathering information about, and then manipulating, Protestant extremists...Evidence that British intelligence, or at least what the Irish Times story characterizes as its "rogue right-wing agents," worked hand in hand with a Protestant extremist organization certainly confirms the worst fears of Northern Ireland's Catholics, who have often suspected the British Army and Unionist politicians of abetting Protestant violence. (page 40-41)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Conspiracy]
[With reference to McNamee's Resurrection Man] Coppinger and Ryan feel "obsolete, abandoned on the perimeter of a sprawling technology of ruin"; print journalists in an electronic age, they must cope with a "new species of information" coming out of paramilitary organizations operating under cover names, or from politicians who condemn violence ambiguously, or from courts where unidentified witnesses give their evidence from behind screens...Television news already incorporates this understanding about the marginality of fact. Even Victor recognizes the "narrative devices" it uses...we easily assume that when their reports diverge from fact, they serve some obscure political interest..."Atrocity reports" eschew detail and "achieve the pure level of a chant. It was no longer about conveying information. It was about focusing the mind inwards, attending to the durable rhythms of violence".

When journalism is no longer about conveying information, journalists like Ryan and Coppinger disintegrate, and even the terrorists whose actions form the ostensible subject of media stories feel disoriented, experience a loss of self. (page 48-49)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Propaganda, Postmodernism, Terror, Media]
Terrorism [in Mary McCarthy's Cannibals and Missionaries] is a pretext for the exploration of the relationship of artists and intellectuals to violence...[with] grave reservations about the competence of writers and intellectuals to understand and act in public history. (page 60)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Terror]
In a sense, the greatest masterpiece, Helen's beloved Vermeer Girl, corrupts this terrorist and sways him from the purity of his design. He falls in love with it, as the Palestinian Ahmed says, "like a bride," spending hours staring at it obsessively. And when Henk produces his reasonable argument for negotiating with the government, Jeroen chooses to blow himself up with the painting in a classic murder-suicide that Ahmed calls "le geste sublime d'un grand révolutionnaire" (358); although he does not mean to, he also kills ten other people. (page 73)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
The Good Terrorist [by Doris Lessing], in short, is an object lesson in the problematic relationship between realistic novels and terrorism, a relationship grounded in the author's anxiety about the efficacy, the power and clarity, of language. Terrorists, she implies, can teach us a great deal about the failures of novelists. (page 75)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Terror]
The terrorist despairs of "mere words" in an age of mass journalism, arguing that speech can only be heard when it is supplemented with dynamite. More literary figures rejected ordinary language, the socially agreed-upon links between words and things, in large part because it had become the language of journalism. Stéphone Mallarmé, claims Jean-Paul Sartre, practices a "terrorism of politeness": "Since man cannot create, but does have the power to destroy...the poem will be a work of destruction"...[T]o a realistic novelist these experiments are, precisely, a work of destruction, exploding assumptions about the power of language to appeal to a large audience, to speak with anything like directness about a shared public life. One can argue that the fascination of so many serious realists with terrorism lies precisely in their too vivid understanding of -- and need to defend themselves against -- the absolute disillusion with language that terrorists embody. (page 77-78)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]
The bomb-maker [in Lessing's The Good Terrorist], Jocelyn, imitates the IRA gunrunners' Irish accents so perfectly that Alice judges that she may actually be Irish: "Does it matter? Here is another of us with a false voice!" (416) (page 79)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion]
But if the language of public discourse is debased, Lessing seems to find no consolation in the language of literature and political theory. True, Alice is the image of a person in part created by the mass media who will read nothing but newspapers because she cannot face the "risky equivocal" contents of books, fearing to be "lost without maps" (73). But Pat, who reads Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark and then joins the KGB, and Faye, who is "particularly well up on Althusser" and then dies because she mistimes a car bomb, are worse, not better, models (318). Perhaps the point is not that Althusser and Nabokov somehow breed terrorism, but that the small personal voice of printed books is drowned out by the loud impersonal voices of the mass media, with their affiliations to power and consumers' interest in violence. (page 80)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Media]
If mere words, the language of public discourse, are debased, the writer may well wish to turn to more intuitive models of communication, the discourse of private symbolism and even madness. (page 81)
Tags: [Surrealism, Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Madness]
The Good Terrorist is an exemplary novel about terrorism. Factually inaccurate or at least radically selective about its facts, despairing about public action, reactionary in its implied politics of quietism and complicity with power, the novel faithfully follows its more prestigious models -- Demons, The Secret Agent, The Princess Casamassima...Yet the novel's meaning does not really depend on its accuracy about the IRA or contemporary terrorism, about which it in fact seems to care very little. What attracts the novelist to her subject is a fascination with the inaudibility of personal voices, with the fragility of printed books in a world where the electronic media accent our speech and feed our violence. (page 90-91)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Impact, Terror, Media]
But the quality of a writer's political engagements, [J.M. Coetzee, author of The Master of Petersburg] told an interviewer, should not be measured in the simple way Gordimer suggests [i.e., how direct it is]; a naive realism only reproduces the injustice it describes, licking wounds rather than offering a critical alternative to the mind-set that produced injustice in the first place. In place of such realism, Coetzee offers a more sophisticated, ironic narrative, one capable of "demythologizing history" (Attwell 15). Such narratives, he says, are not "supplementary" to history; that is, they cannot be checked against it, as a teacher might check a child's homework against the answer book; rather, they are a rival, sometimes even an enemy, discourse. Thus the point of an ironic narrative is not so much that it substitutes a more accurate version of history and politics for the received one as that it lays bare the unacknowledged assumptions that shape both stories. (page 96)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real]
Throughout the twentieth century, most terrorist fiction, even that critical of popular beliefs about terrorism, continued to follow the conventions of nineteenth-century realism. For their part, government officials and the press still construct terrorism much as popular fiction does, and terrorists continue to stage their spectacles with an eye to what is now a global stage. Recognizing how often revolutionaries, politicians, and journalists draw on the familiar terrorist story inevitably leads to wondering how it might be disrupted, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment offers an extended response to that question. In this 1986 novella, Dürrenmatt links the inadequacy of familiar representations to the limitations of realism itself, blending an absurdist critique of contemporary politics with a postmodern conception of terrorism. (page 108)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, Rationality]
Dürrenmatt shares...a wish to expose the myths and explore the realities of terrorism. An experimental fiction, The Assignment points to the complex reality that lies behind the too-familiar story and suggests as well the actual experience of human beings caught up in terrorist activities. Fragmentation of identity in the novel's unstable world leads to a longing for order that asserts itself in totalitarian politics, fundamentalist religion, and documentary realism, all disciplines, in Foucault's sense, that depend on observation. Suggesting the difficulty of distinguishing between the victims and practitioners of terror, Dürrenmatt undermines the usual story of sinister Islamic terrorists...His manipulations of the myth present terror both as an understandable private response to the conditions of late-twentieth-century life and as a public practice that intensifies and conditions panic. (page 110)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, Myth]
At its simplest level, [The Assignment] complicates the terrorist myth by making the identities of the victims as problematic as those of the killers. Nothing is what it seems...Surely few readers can have the moral certainty to decide whether a brain-damaged Vietnam veteran-turned-rapist is a victim or a terrorizer. (page 111)
Tags: [Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Terror, Myth]
The Assignment repeatedly demonstrates a concern with the problematics, and especially with the political implications, of literary realism...[T]he critique of realism offered by neo-Marxist critics suggests its repressive potential as a "fantasy of surveillance" corresponding to nineteenth-century developments in psychiatry and urban sociology, a form of policing, enforcing social norms and denying aberrations. Yet in spite of the frequency with which recent critics cite Bakhtin's argument that the realistic novel's dialogism brings about "a destruction of any absolute bonding of ideological meaning to language, which is the defining factor of mythological and magical thought," the critique of realism as allied with official views of reality remains a key point in the postmodernist program (Bakhtin 369). (page 114-115)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism & Politics, Postmodernism, Rationality, Myth]
Lyotard's theory goes some way toward explaining the significance of the paired themes of terrorism and literary realism in The Assignment. The holes in Dürrenmatt's plot, the unanswered questions about unnamed characters, the fragmentary glimpses of landscapes, interiors, motives, and political contexts are as so many refusals of "the transparent and communicable." The effect is perhaps not so anti-mimetic as it might seem; refusing transcendent illusions, the novelist suggests an elusive dimension of personality or experience that withers under the harsh floodlights of documentary realism. (page 115)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real]
Because its representations are closest to a commonsense, consensus notion of reality, Dürrenmatt sees a realistic art as potentially dangerous...The dangerous illusions of realism have more specifically political implications. F.'s "total portrait...of our planet" would indeed be that kind of totalizing, totalitarian art that Lyotard deplores. In The Assignment, the political terrors of realism are seen at their simplest in North Africa when the police chief steals F.'s film of the execution of the Scandinavian prisoner and replaces it with an official "documentary," complete with shots of cheerful cadets at a police training academy, which might be equally convincing to a European audiences. Such documentaries seem to carry out the logical implications of nineteenth-century realism...Indeed film, while clearly an art form for F., often associates itself directly with the police and with surveillance in The Assignment. (page 116-117)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Postmodernism]
[In Dürrenmatt's The Assignment] Horribly brain damaged in the war, Achilles is locked in a VA hospital, from which he occasionally escapes to rape and murder women, and since it is the only pleasure he is able to feel, Polypheme feels obliged to procure it for him after he liberates his friend and installs him at the observation center. In his case, "terror as usual" takes the form suggested by Robin Morgan, who argues for a direct link between the old classical heroes and modern terrorism, the "sexuality of violence," the capture and rape of women that is, in fact, taken for granted in the Iliad. By suggesting that terrorism has affinity with beautiful and durable monuments of Western, not Islamic, culture, Dürrenmatt reminds us of Walter Benjamin's famous observation that there is "no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism". (page 119)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, The Other]
Better than any political analyst, Dürrenmatt draws us close to understanding the emotional and intellectual costs of living in the late twentieth century, when even terrorism cannot be counted on to correspond to our conceptions of it. Otto von Lambert's insight that "Auschwitz...was not the work of terrorists but of state employees" is well supported in this novel. Terrorists serve the need to believe that there are centers of resistance against a well-established order, yet as the novel amply demonstrates, the very notion of a center is illusory. The new physical terror of computerized bombing and the old one of rape correspond to a condition in which contemporary human beings live and move, their identity fragmented by new philosophical conceptions of memory and the self but also by new technologies that violate their privacy or reduce their importance in traditional roles, such as that of the warrior. Surveillance and observation, intended to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war or successful terrorist attacks, are oppressive but desired. (page 119)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Surrealism's Promise, Surrealism & Politics, Postmodernism, Terror]
Although Stone [in Damascus Gate] analyzes the psychology of the true believer, he seems much less interested in those traditional subjects of the realistic novel, middle-class people who live in families and go to work. As a result, the novel's politics are also skewed toward extremism...Stone's Israel itself seems more of an idea, or a system, than a country where real people live.

This derealization of so much of Israel makes it rather too easy for the novel to espouse a conspiratorial view of Israeli politics. In The Mandelbaum Gate, the discovery of a spy is still a major plot development; our inability, in Operation Shylock, to be sure of having penetrated the spy's last disguise, is still a source of mystery. But Damascus Gate starts out with the assumption that Mossad routinely encourages Palestinian terrorist factions; even Hamas is an Israeli operation that got out of control. It is an easy assumption that "Palestinians" beating up informers are really Israeli soldiers beating up their more effective opponents, or that the government encourages gunrunning and drug running in the Occupied Territories. On the political plane, distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate force are not just obscured -- they have ceased to exist. The novel suggests that believing in an apocalyptic cult or a revolutionary underground is quite understandable but hardly imagines anyone delusional enough to take electoral politics seriously.

Having lived with Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and Monica Lewinsky, a contemporary American can hardly find this cynicism strange... (page 135)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Conspiracy]
[With reference to Stone's Damascus Gate] For a long time, in politics and literature, it was plausible to believe in the rebel, the creative genius, the powerful individual imposing a personal vision on the collective. But when the terrorist plot is conceived in the government office, when the prophet is as useful to the bureaucrat as the soldier, we cannot be surprised that the writer's heroics lead only to the end of a maze where a bogus bomb goes up in chemical smoke. (page 138)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, Conspiracy]
Throughout this study, we have noted variations on the terrorist as the writer's rival, double, and secret sharer, tracing their origins from the romantic conviction of the writer's originality and power through a century of political, social, and technological developments that undermine that belief. But it seems safe to say that Antoine Volodine's Lisbonne dernière marge takes this theme to its logical extreme. In this 1990 novel, the terrorist is a novelist. Volodine reconstructs the whole romantic literary scene as a scene of subversion against a violent state and then deconstructs it, suggesting that not only the novel, but more fundamentally the revolutionary impulse, might be dead. (page 139)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]
This idea, that a postmodern fiction offers an effective form of political resistance because it undermines categories through which we experience official views of reality as reality itself, is but the most recent expression of the old romantic idea of writer as rebel. It is one obviously close to Volodine, who in his 1991 novel Alto Solo describes a writer suspiciously like himself, a man whose anguish over the real world leads him to write about alternative societies, even though he longs to denounce the dominant ideology directly...Certainly Lisbonne dernière marge takes the political claims of postmodernism seriously, yet in the end they too prove dubious...The powerful, Volodine suggests, are likely to remain the fabricators of reality, and a difficult experimental form quickly degenerates into aesthetic game-playing. (page 147-148)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Postmodernism]
If anything, the text [in Volodine] increasingly persuades the reader of the futility of resistance, of its identity with that which it opposes: the revolutionary's identification with the state, the writer's with the police. The text finally fails not because it is too readable or because it is unreadable or subject to misreading, but because it cannot occupy an uncontaminated pure space from which to offer a critique of power. Writer and critic, terrorist and police officer, are not only at the last margins of Europe but also at the last margins of the printed text, in a novel that suggests that a revolutionary impulse that has driven Western art and politics for two centuries has, at last, perished. (page 153-154)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Postmodernism, Terror]
The vision of the writer as revolutionary, Byron in Greece or Lamartine on the barricades in 1848, is too compelling to be abandoned easily, even or especially when it is accompanied by the expectation that the writer in old age will be a hoary sage, a Victor Hugo living in the comfort a grateful nation bestows on its benefactors. Such grand and hopeful views of the writer's authority are the lighted backdrop that accentuates the dark outlines of terrorist fiction, that most pessimistic of genres, and supplies it with its deeper ironies. From James to Coetzee, novelists who imagine a bond between terrorist and writer assume that both are isolated and marginal, incapable of gaining a hearing in the ordinary language of civic life. (page 155)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Activism, Postmodernism, Terror]
But if all these points instinctively feel right to a professor of English [e.g. that Conrad's work is ironic and not a blueprint for terror], they may simply show how far we have accepted as fact what for James and Conrad was a nightmarish possibility, that the serious novel has no power in the social world. It is true that media stories about Timothy McVeigh and Theodore Kaczynski and their reading suggest that the romantic view of literature as dangerous remains alive in some attenuated form: the popular press is willing to pay that much tribute to art. The strange case of Conrad and the Unabomber, however, in giving us a rare opportunity to see network television reading a serious terrorist novel, points to their radical incompatibility...It is cold comfort, indeed, for those who care about serious fiction to realize that it can be said to have social influence only when it is seriously misunderstood. (page 161)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror]