Notes From the Margins…

Writing and Terror: Peter Herman’s Unspeakable

  • August 08, 2019
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From the so-called ‘anarchist terror’ of the late 19th century to al Qaeda and Islamic State, the history of terrorism is filled with episodes in which governments have overreacted to  terrorist violence.  Emergency antiterrorist legislation, military tribunals, wars and quasi-militarisation, extra-legal procedures, torture, administrative detention, national security hysteria – all these responses have been repeated throughout the relatively short period in which terrorism was first identified as a unique category of violence in the second half of the nineteenth century.

This uniqueness – and the tendency towards overreaction that has accompanied it – has often been shaped as much by what is said and written about terrorism as it has by the actual acts of violence that have given rise to terrorist emergencies. Throughout the last 140-odd years, governments, politicians and the media have routinely depicted terrorism as an activity beyond comprehension,  whose protagonists are moral aliens rather than human beings or rational actors.

Such representations are partly due to political convenience: it suits governments embroiled in violent political conflicts to deny that such conflicts exist and present their adversaries as perpetrators of ‘senseless’ violence worthy only of ‘counterterrorist’ eradication.  Governments seeking to generate popular support for antiterrorist emergencies and states of exception often seek  to portray terrorism a violent tautology, practiced by terrorist perpetrators with no discernible aims or motives except to terrorise.

While it may be tempting at times to agree with such conclusions, faced with the merciless and often savage acts of brutality carried out by terrorists, it’s a temptation that should be resisted.  Not only is it politically foolish to accept official depictions of terrorism at face value, even when it is glaringly obvious that its perpetrators have motives, objectives and a context that can be understood, it’s also intellectually incoherent to deny the possibility of such understanding.

After all, we accept the right of historians and social scientists to write about the motives, context and rationale for Nazi mass murderers, without assuming that such depictions translate into sympathy for their actions.    Yet too often, we prefer to represent terrorism as a form of insanity and a mysterious manifestation of evil that is so contagious than any public discussion of its protagonists and their motives and context is akin to some form of moral collusion.

To say that this is not helpful doesn’t even begin to describe it.   It’s refreshing and even thrilling therefore, to read a book like Peter Herman’s forthcoming Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11, which challenges such representations.  A professor of English literature at San Diego State University with a distinguished track record of literary scholarship, Herman has turned his attention to the depictions of terrorism in fiction, and the different ways in which  novelists, filmmakers and playwrights ‘create works predicated on dramatic conflict, which very easily maps onto providing multiple perspectives on terrorism.’

Taking his cue from the British literary scholar Christopher Ricks’s observations about Bob Dylan that ‘ One of the ways in which art is invaluable is by giving us sympathetic access to systems of belief that are not our own,’ Herman traces the treatment of terrorism in the cultural imagination from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11 and white nationalist terrorism, and explores the different ways in which writers of fiction have provided such ‘sympathetic access’ to terrorists and terrorism in different epochs.

There are innumerable films, tv shows and novels about terrorists and terrorism, most of which are entirely forgettable, but Herman has performed an invaluable service in revisiting books, films and plays in which terrorism has been represented with real artistic complexity and nuance.

Whether discussing the impact of the Gunpowder Plot on MacBeth, the anarchist novels of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, nineteenth century Irish novels on the Fenians, Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, Spielberg’s Munich,  or Don Delillo’s ‘9/11 novel’ Falling Man, Herman casts a new light on the fictions he explores, and also on the historical representations of terrorism itself.

These fictions are counterpoised with historical quotations on the ‘unspeakability’ of terrorism in different epochs, in which Herman traces the striking continuities in the way that terrorism has been officially written about and described.  In citing the 1605 Gunpowder Plot as an example of terrorism avant la lettre, Herman quotes from King James’s Sergeant at Law Sir Edward Phillips, who described the plot as

Treason; but of such horror, and monstrous nature, that before now, The Tongue of man never delivered.  The Ear of man never heard. The Heart of man never conceited.  Nor the malice of hellish or earthly devil ever practiced.

Herman shows how this essential template of unspeakability and ‘inexpressibility’ has been repeated again and again, whether in nineteenth century depictions of the Fenians (‘ a course of scoundrelism for which barbarism has no parallel, and the English tongue no words strong enough to describe.’) or the destruction of the World Trade Centre to 9/11, which the New York Times described an example of ‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the unthinkable’.

For Herman writers of fiction ‘have always offered us the tools for a better understanding of terrorism.  We just need to pay attention.’  This scholarly, insightful, and illuminating book gives these writers their due attention, and it also shows how the one-dimensional representations it critiques have too often obscured our historical understanding of terrorism, and too often left us dangerously blind in one eye.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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