By Isaac Butler
As it is 9/11, I thought I'd point you to this essay I published last year about Laurie Anderson's "O Superman," and September 11th. I touch on a point briefly in there that still bugs me which is, essentially, the failure of art to directly essay the event. There are works of art, even quite good ones, where 9/11 is a presense (And Then We Came To The End for example) but I'm having trouble thinking of a single work of art other than John Adams On The Transmigration of Souls that actually suceeds even on a craft level.
Is it that art about 9.11 is impossible? And if so, why?
Laura Miller at Salon took a stab at this question last year, and says that the deeper problem is that 9/11 is essentially meaningless:
I realize that sounds inflammatory, but hear me out. The terrorist assault on New York and Washington, D.C., was historically momentous. Two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six human beings died, most of them leaving behind devastated loved ones. Those deaths became the pretext for two wars, a major curtailment of civil liberties in Americaand human rights abroad, an orgy of patriotic chest-thumping and genuine soul-searching, the expansion of a largely unaccountable intelligence and security apparatus, the demonization of billions of peaceable Muslims by opportunistic demagogues, and so on and so on. Don’t even get me started on the economy. But all of these things constitute our response to those 3,000 murders and the hideously spectacular way in which they were achieved. They don’t change the nature of the deaths themselves, which were abrupt and unanticipated, as is the case with most disasters.
I think she's on to something.
I find it almost impossible to write about 9/11. The Laurie Anderson piece linked to above is one attempt. My other was here on this blog two years ago, where I talk about walking down Broadway towards the World Trade Center site the day after they reopened the zone to the public.
The relentless desire to turn 9/11 and the deaths that occured that day, the horrorshow that gripped my city for what felt like months, into a symbol is distasteful. It isn't a symbol. It's a thing that happened. Real people died. Real lives were destroyed. Real people rushed in to help and still can't get compensated for their lasting health problems. And in the face of how we behaved as a nation in the wake of 9/11, the way that 9/11 hysteria still grips us (see: Mosque, Ground Zero), the smugness and self-satisfied tributes to our own nobility in the face of the disaster gall me. I am sorry, I truly am, for those who lost loved ones on that day. Despite being in New York City then, I cannot begin to fathom what that was like and I hope the last eleven years have brought them some modicum of piece and healing.
So let me instead leave you with this. It was an odd happenstance that Slate was hosting a week-long dialogue between John Lahr and August Wilson when 9/11 happened. It was by far the largest platform theater people had to address what was happening in our culture. I try to reread it every other year. You can find it here. Here's August Wilson, sounding a moment of hope amidst the despair:
America has always responded with great courage in the face of adversity. Whether we acquire a new sense of morality to guide our technology, whether we shoulder the grave responsibility to the annals of truth and the rigorous vigilance it demands, whether we achieve the cultural or spiritual maturity necessary to turn this evil and despicable act into a force for good, I don't know. I know that fate has decreed this defining moment to be in our hands and what we make of it will emerge in a baptismal spray that names and defines the kind of world my four-year-old daughter, given her three-score-and-ten, will live in for the next 66 years. Freedom from political tyranny and religious oppression are among the great gifts this country gives to all its citizens. If we add to that our pioneering, trailblazing spirit, that aspect of the American character that forges the new, if we don't squander our inheritance, that faith in man's ability to render out of his experience an indelible purpose blazoned with the high ideals of human conduct, then I think we can conquer any thing, person, or idea that would deny us the highest possibility of human life.
I hope this day is peaceful for you.