For a few days now, I’ve been tossing links into a pile for a 9/11 anniversary post, probably with an opening paragraph about how much I hate anniversary journalism, but they’re getting so numerous I’m wondering if it isn’t time to jump the gun a bit.
We all have our 9/11 memories, ideas and conclusions, and I’m sure people will share them in comments. But when I look back, and look forward a bit, the overarching theme that stays with me is this: Crazy Talk.
When I was culling my old columns for wayback week, I winced at my post-9/11 thoughts, and winced further, thinking of some of the things others I knew or read said at the time. It was such a jarring event, so unsettling to virtually everyone, that I’ve come to grant blanket amnesty for whatever came out of your mouth or keyboard from September 11 through, say, December 31, 2001. Nearly four months should be time enough to come to our senses, from freaked-out Maureen Dowd (who nearly collapsed in a puddle of anxiety, and shared every word with her suffering readers) to the far worse “warbloggers,” people like James Lileks and his “give me the gun, show me the cave” snarling about going mano-a-mano with Osama bin Laden. Ego te absolvo. Go and sin no more.
Of course, most people didn’t get the second part, and 9/11 became the precipitating event for the culture war to really ramp up, to go from a series of skirmishes to a full-out take-no-prisoners scorched-earth campaign, or, as the now-retired blogger the Poor Man called it, the War on Straw.
One of the battles was over what was the correct response to the events, and I have to admit this: When the cable networks all stopped showing the video of the planes hitting the towers, on some mutually agreed-upon idea that to do so was too painful for those who’d lost loved ones in the event, I was disappointed. I couldn’t watch that enough. I still can’t. The images were so astounding they achieved a terrible beauty. But you couldn’t say so, then. Someone was always policing the conversations for wrongthink, and would scold you. On their stupid warblog.
I worked my way through New York magazine’s special issue, “The Encyclopedia of 9/11,” over several hours the other day when I was down at Wayne. Its bite-size bits were convenient for reading between students, and conveyed the same slide-show effect memory has.
But it wasn’t until I read this piece, by Stanford English professor Terry Castle, about remarks made in the aftermath by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, that I said, yep.
You probably don’t remember this minor detail — I didn’t — but here’s what Stockhausen said at a music festival in Germany a few days after 9/11:
The events of 9/11, he’d enthused, were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” Things had gone from bad to worse to incendiary when, like Batman’s Joker, he warmed to his theme: “Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying; just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing.”
A crazy thing to say, no doubt. I’m not even entirely sure what he meant by it. Castle goes a little deeper, and comes up with a very Stanford-English-seminar sort of explanation:
At Stanford, I often teach a course on Gothic fiction. …In eighteenth-century aesthetics, the Sublime was anything that by its size, strength, or the danger it posed to human life produced instinctive terror and awe. Certain natural objects, philosophers like Kant maintained, were necessarily sublime: erupting volcanoes, tempests, huge waterfalls, ferocious beasts, racing floods, swiftly enveloping darkness, and so on. But man-made phenomena could also be sublime: ancient ruins, grim fortresses, the interiors of great cathedrals, colossal towers, pitch-black dungeons, and the like.
The theory held that when sublime objects were contemplated from a position of safety—when, say, one saw a volcanic eruption from a great distance, or even just read a description of one—the results could be thrilling and pleasurable. Unmediated sublimity terrorized, yes, but representations of sublimity produced excitement, a monster-rush of euphoria. The point was not lost on eighteenth-century Gothic novelists; like disaster filmmakers today, they realized that, skillfully packaged, things otherwise dread-inspiring could be a source of perverse yet intoxicating delight.
Castle goes on to say that when she teaches this course, she sometimes shows slides of paintings in this tradition, interspersed with photos from the World Trade Center, similarities that couldn’t be more obvious.
Lots of people said crazy things after 9/11, but lots of people said things that were simply difficult to hear. Barbara Kingsolver, for one, who spoke of jingoism and censorship, and no longer being able to regard an American flag with “unambiguous pride.” And then there was the writer Elizabeth Wurtzel, who refused to get out of bed to look at what was visible from her apartment window that day, at least not until the second tower collapsed, infamously said later, “I just felt, like, everyone was overreacting. People were going on about it. That part really annoyed me.” Not crazy, but self-consciously provocative in such an oozily gross way it still grates.
Who remembers the widely circulated email — or maybe it was an article somewhere — about the best way to stop another in-progress hijacking? Carry a can of Spam or other tinned pork, and throw it at the jihadis, who would quail before it like Kryptonite. And speaking of email forwards, how about the endless, witless urban legends people were always passing along? Ten (or five, or six, or 22) NYC firefighters were found safe in the rubble, because they’d been driving a sturdy American-made, gas-guzzling SUV. Some other guy surfed the rubble down from the 100th floor and lived to tell about it. (That one is actually in the New York compilation. Very thinly based on fact, that one.) How many times did you get sent a picture of the towers rebuilt in the shape of a thrusting middle finger, or the slide show of photos set to Enya music? It got to where my email was as much a curse as boon. I stood in line behind a woman in the checkout line at Target — doing my duty, shopping for the economy — who wanted to discuss in maddening detail with the clerks the fact 911 is also the emergency number, and isn’t that just fascinating? I actually stopped reading U.S. news sources for a week or two, preferring to stick to comparatively sober Europeans, an early advantage of the internet.
Did anyone save any of this electronic ephemera? Someone must have. I don’t know if I’d like to revisit it, not yet, but it might be interesting to view the scar.
What about you? I could scarcely take my eyes off the TV for days. Our digital cable was installed that afternoon, which necessitated the cable guy disconnecting me for about 45 minutes, and I nearly went nuts. When he hooked up the new box and the news reappeared on the screen, I said, “Thank God.” The guy looked a little quizzical, then glanced back at the screen. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Crazy, huh?” It wasn’t much longer before Ashleigh Banfield freaked out while questioning a city official: “Are there bombs in the sewers?!? We’re getting reports there may be bombs in the sewers!”
I guess the cable guy was right.
As it turned out, there were no bombs in the sewers, nor truck bombs on Illinois interstates, nor poison in municipal water supplies. Al Qaeda never attacked Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Disney World. All those warbloggers never got to swing their hammers. Osama bin Laden turned out to be Brer Rabbit, and we dove into the briar patch after him.
Ultimately, when I think of that day I think of the last words so many of its victims were able to say, the people on United 93, the people calling home from the floors above the fire, leaving messages that would be received after they’d died. One of the rare, perhaps the only, Peggy Noonan column I ever liked made the simple observation that when people know they’re doomed, they don’t waste their final moments calling their exes or horrible bosses or estranged family members to tell them how much the caller always despised them. Rather, they call their friends and families to say the same words they’d said only hours before, in many cases: I love you.
The other day I was driving somewhere, and heard Scott Simon read parts of this obituary for Jack Layton, a Canadian politician known for his contrariness. He died of cancer in August, and this was the last thing he told his countrymen, in a final letter released after his death:
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Not so crazy in the end, I guess.
A few final links:
The memorial at Ground Zero, now nearing completion.
Finally, if you have WSJ access, what if the disaster had happened a decade later? You’d never get off Facebook.
Have a good week, all.