In the Critics this Week

Philip Pullman on the Anglican tradition, misunderstanding what it means to be secular and commentar

The "Critic at large" in this week's New Statesman, Philip Pullman, explains what it means to be a "Church of England atheist". Asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the magazine's guest editor this week, to define his relationship to religion, Pullman redefines himself according to what David Eagleman calls a "possibilian", writing that "just because I haven't seen or heard from him, it doesn't mean that God doesn't exist." But despite his lack of belief in a higher authority, Pullman writes that it is his cultural experience of being brought up in the Church of England tradition that helps to define his sense of self. "I am English and I was brought up to go to church every Sunday, to say my prayers, to behave in certain ways in church... We can't abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong."

Film Critic Ryan Gilbey praises director François Ozon's sense of comedy and subtle thoughtfulness in his latest film, Potiche, where an unglamorous Catherine Deneuve shines as an overlooked housewife. "With its 1970s factory-floor settind and battle-of-the-sexes themse, the picture may resemble for UK viewers a visually sumptuous version of Carry On at Your Convenience". "Ozon has made an authentic romp with an underlying prickliness," he writes, "[this film] is candyfloss laced with barbed wire."

The Books Interview this week is with Cees Nooteboom. The Dutch author talks to Duncan Robinson about the cathartic nature of writing and discusses how his work has evolved since he wrote his first novel at the age of 22. Terry Eagleton offers his thoughts on what it means to be secular as he reviews a new collection of essays, The Joy of Secularism, edited by George Levine and published by Princeton University Press. "Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchens" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment," he writes, "This present collection of essays, by contrast is a much less fiercely contested affair...Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributors could benefit form a judicious dose of Hitchens-like waspishness."

Elsewhere, the NS's television critic, Rachel Cooke, is captivated by Case Histories, a new detective drama set in Edinburgh and based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels. Will Self comments on the mass irrationality that is perpetuating the senseless conflict in Afghanistan, and radio critic Antonia Quirke sharpens her claws to take a dig at Radio 1Xtra's Tim Westwood. "I suppose we're talking about a natural process here, this movement from "Oh God, that man's such a twat" to "proud to be a twat" to "loveable twat" to "national treasure"...It's a very British idea", she writes "But Westwood? Somebody stop the wheel."

Further reviews and comment: the New Statesman's culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Graham Swift's latest novel, Wish You Were Here, Helen Lewis-Hasteley talks to Alan Moore about his epic novel, Jerusalem, and Maurice Glasman explain why politicians shouldn't take David Brooks so seriously as he review his newest book, The Social Animal: a Story of How Success Happens, which offers a "readable presentation of research findings from the fields of behavioural and cognitive psychology, as well as neuroscience, and also guide to how to become a better person."

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era