Howard Jacobson: Lost and alone amid the rubble

God for the God-needing is less about explaining how we got into this world and more about how to get through it now we’re here
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The Independent Online

Disconcerted to hear myself described as an "atheist" on a television programme about God last week. Atheist, me? I can think of a few atheists who'd have words to say about that. But I'd have felt equally disconcerted had they called me a believer. Believer, me? I can think of a few believers, etc, etc.

The great mystery to me is how one knows which one is. Doesn't it depend on the side of the bed one gets out of in the morning? It's not about changing one's convictions as one changes one's clothes; it's that understanding ebbs and flows, perception lightens and darkens, and the world goes on presenting a different face. I'd drag out that sadly neglected word "agnostic" were it not that agnostic sounds a very precise term for a very imprecise state of mind. Atheists and believers alike (and they can be very alike) call this sitting on the fence; I prefer to think of it as one's legs bestriding the ocean. The ocean in question being Uncertainty. And the legs arthritic.

We need guidance whichever position we take up, of that at least, in Frank Sinatra's words, "I'm certain". Hence the importance to generations of waverers of a work like the Book of Psalms. "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death," as Frank Sinatra didn't say, though I don't doubt that he, too, on occasions, felt life to be a lonely journey through impenetrable dark. "I will fear no evil," the believer asserts with half-conviction, but only because "thou art with me". Meaning that the minute thou art not with me I'm in trouble. In the end, God for the god-needing is less about explaining how we got into this world and more about how to get through it now we're here. "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me" – comfort being the best that's on offer.

So where do we turn for comfort if we aren't religious? Reason? Philosophy? Science? Joe? (You know Joe. The barman Sinatra harangues about his troubles in "One for My Baby".) Whatever works, I say. Lean on whatever will support your weight.

Whatever Works is the title of Woody Allen's latest film – his humane solution being that we get through, sexually at least, by accepting everything. Three cheers for that. But what do we do when the help we need is not about gender or sexual orientation, when life is so frightening that we simply don't know which way to turn?

There was a harrowing moment in last week's Channel 4 documentary 102 Minutes that Changed America, when a man emerged from the wreckage of the twin towers, a thing of dust and debris, white as though what he'd experienced had aged him for ever, though with no idea of what had happened, where he'd been, where to go. A man entirely lost, caught on someone's camera. "Do you know where everybody's going?" he asked – a question seemingly put to no one in particular and expecting no reply. What is more there was no "everybody" going anywhere. He appeared to be entirely alone, the last man left standing in a collapsed and lightless world. And when he stumbled off into the white smoke it was as though he was heading into pure nothingness.

"Do you know where everybody's going?" It could have been a line from Waiting for Godot. And it was a summation of everything we'd seen and heard. A compilation of video and audiotape, of phone recordings and personal witness, the documentary showed us 9/11 as it was experienced, in real time outside the towers, by passers-by, commuters, tourists, firemen and policemen, the frightened occupants of nearby buildings. The amateurishness of most of the footage added, obviously, to the film's authenticity, but more than that it caught the way the extraordinary impinged on the ordinary, rendering everyone an amateur, even the most highly trained to deal with emergency, because beyond a certain level of catastrophe amateurs are all we are. Literally, no one knew which way to turn. Which way was danger, which was safety? How can you answer that when you don't know who has done what or why they've done it?

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me ... Except that He wasn't. Certainly not with the thousands who burnt to death or threw themselves in unimaginable anguish from flaming windows, observed and recorded by people who didn't know what they were recording.

We saw people gathered in Times Square watching the towers burn on giant screens, and here, at a distance from the smoke and the fear, we heard the first crude formulations of anger and calls for revenge. They do this to us, let's do that to them. Who are "they"? Who cares? You could argue that George Bush never got past those first crude formulations himself. We saw him briefly, his face not complicated enough to register the necessary emotions (though what were the necessary emotions?), indubitably the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. "Do you know where everybody's going?" he appeared to want to ask. But who would have been the right man in the right job at the right time?

We had our own wrong man for the job, many still believe, in Tony Blair. Outside the Dublin bookshop where he was signing copies of his memoirs the other day, protesters carried banners accusing him of killing millions. Millions? Others charged him with genocide. There are many things to charge Blair with but how you figure genocide beats me. But there you are: in our rage and frustration we allow words to lose their meaning and direction. We don't know which way to turn so our language doesn't know which way to turn either. Amid the din of the recriminations, still loud today, there was and there remains little in the way of an alternative solution to problems we are still trying to nail. The Taliban are not al-Qa'ida, we say, as though that magically paves the way to our getting it right in Afghanistan at least, forgetting that the Taliban were on an orgy of destruction of the Buddhist way of life before Bush decided to implicate them in the destruction of the American. So where should we have gone and where should we be going?

Sinatra's Mr Myway thought he knew. What is a man, what has he got? Himself, stupid. Through it all, when there was doubt, he ate it up and spat it out. Bad rhyme. Bad solution. But then face it, reader – all is doubt, and there is no solution.