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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The plan could lead to up to 15,000 people being operated on annually  

The obesity crisis affects the whole of Europe... apart from France

Rosie Millard
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'