I just heard my friend and teaching colleague Jocelyn Lieu (author of the story collection Potential Weapons) give a wonderful reading from a work in progress, a memoir of September 11th. The theme of the reading was “motherhood,” and she selected passages about being at home in Lower Manhattan as the World Trade Center burned and toppled, caring for her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Gracie who uttered her first English sentence—“I see men”—in response to the sight of watchers gathered on neighboring rooftops. Jocelyn relates amazing details such as going with her husband and daughter to a local store (a K-Mart, I think) on the evening of that day, needing to get the restless child out of the confines of their apartment, finding the place open but nearly deserted, with masses of shoes strewn all over the floor—a remnant of the pedestrian crowd that had poured through the East Village in flight from the disaster scene, stopping to exchange inappropriate footgear for more hike-worthy items.
This was the second literary event in the past month that has felt to me like an authentic imaginative response to September 11th, an event I was technically present for—I was at home in Brooklyn on that day—but which I’ve personally exiled to the realm of things I don’t think about much and don’t feel inclined to write about. The first event was a performance of a multimedia work in progress by poet Sekou Sundiata, “The 51st (Dream) State.” Sekou also addresses September 11th from an indigenous New Yorker’s perspective, historicizing the trauma by placing it in the context of, among other things, America’s dismal racial terrain. (The performance, which interwove Sekou’s monologues with music, also included an excerpt from a recording of a Richard Pryor routine, a laugh-to-keep-from-crying riff on strategies for survival, psychological and otherwise, under Jim Crow.)
Why do I avoid September 11th? I’m sure the response is overdetermined; in part, I avoid it out of guilt for having been spared personal loss, in part out of not wanting to think constantly about the vulnerability of my city in an age where such events may prove not to be singular. (“Whatever can come to a city can come to this city,” wrote Muriel Rukeyser. “This is not some other city’s trial,” wrote Audre Lorde; “hate chips at your doorsills like flint”—both long before the 21st century. Wasn’t it also Rukeyser who wrote, “Women and poets see the truth arrive. Then it is acted out. The lives are lost, and all the newsboys shout.”? Sorry, I don’t have time to look up the citations and line breaks.) More than anything, though, I avoid September 11th out of impotent rage. I am furious, not at the attackers—although I had my time of horror at the thought that anyone would want to set in motion what, by way of shorthand, I will call the terrible karma of those events and images, I have never, I think, really felt angry at the hijackers, and if this casts a bad light on my character, so be it—but rather I am furious at the appropriators of September 11th, the people who stepped in on the second or third day, when all the flag waving and the smarmy praying started. I refuse to compete with those people. They have done their job too well. I don’t know if I would feel differently had I been in lower Manhattan on that day, watching from a rooftop, instead of at home in Brooklyn, listening to the radio and then watching the plume of smoke come over, the scraps of singed paper drift down.
Hearing Jocelyn’s reading, though, with its evocation not of the disaster site itself but of the region bordering it, a mile and a half away, experiencing the world’s skipped heartbeat—the deserted stores, the halted transportation, the playground jammed because schools were closed—reminded me sharply of another, far less fraught event that I did experience in Manhattan: the electrical power outage of August, 2003. I spent two nights on the 13th floor of a 23rd Street high rise, helping a ninety-something-year-old friend make do without running water, lights, or an elevator. What I saw then fascinated me because it was an echo, a farcical echo of the recent tragedy that nevertheless carried the same basic message: it can end. It can all just end. The safety net can rupture. Towers are not fit places for human habitation. Whether because of a focused malicious action or the coincidental bumbling of multiple actors who may not even know each other, technology can let us down in the most dramatic, terrifying ways. What’s ultimately at stake is not even the survival of this or that building, neighborhood, city, or country. What’s ultimately at stake is possibly—that is to say, on the level of the imagination—the survival of our world (what some people call “civilization,” a term with unfortunate connotations, not least of which is the disparity between its overtones of high moral attainment and the actual incivility of the hegemonic entity with which it is commonly identified).
This, I believe, is why the World Trade Center site was termed Ground Zero: because the attack—which was above all an imaginative attack, an attack on a “civilization’s” notion of its own mastery and invulnerability—was rightly perceived as symbolic annihilation, the expression of a wish equal to that which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if the technical means happened to be inferior.
I have been thinking about why the attempt to address this theme of annihilation—the lurking recognition that ever more complex technology coupled with proliferating, structurally entrenched injustice possesses the literal capability to end the world—elicits so much opposition, not simply from those who can’t bear to think about it (that’s certainly understandable) but from those disposed to ridicule. People who worried about nuclear war in the 1950’s used to be called “nervous nellies”; the term “doomsday” still effectively conjures the same idea (and in fact was just used in a May 17 piece by pea-brained right-wing New York Times Op-Ed columnist John Tierney, who mocks anti-nuclear protesters with the smart-ass claim that, following the accident at Three Mile Island, he found the sight of demonstrators dressed as up as mushrooms, chanting “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to radiate,” potentially scarier than the specter of nuclear contamination). It’s as if the fact that worse disasters haven’t happened (yet) proves that a complacent attitude was the correct one; as if those who continue to worry are somehow getting off on the dramatics of their anxieties—and/or potentially interfering with the proper operation of “civilization” by injecting their neuroses into the practical conversation being had by the common-sense types who are properly at the helm.
If you heard that your teenager had been drag racing the family car on icy roads while high on alcohol, would you be comforted to learn that this had occurred a number of times and no one had yet been seriously injured?
I am convinced there’s a huge gender dimension to this set of issues—by which I certainly do not mean that I think (a) “women” all share my concerns for the fate of the planet or (b) “women” are somehow naturally peaceful or morally separate from the ferociously warring, hideously self-destructive world we inhabit. What I do mean is that in our culture, acknowledging fear is tabooed for would-be masculine men (and the women who would emulate them); at the same time, technology—especially destructive technology—is implicitly, and more often than not literally as well, a masculine “achievement.” Take the toys away from the boys, a chant popular at feminist peace demonstrations in the early 1980’s, was one I disliked at the time for what I considered its convenient oversimplification of the dynamics of war-making. But isn’t there a grain of truth in the notion that some men strongly resist any effort to focus on the possible catastrophic consequences of their technological order precisely because the logic of such a focus could require them to surrender their “toys” and the accompanying sense of mastery?
I also wonder (and this is pure conjecture) if there isn’t a generational jadedness on the part of people now in their twenties and thirties. I keep thinking of a bright undergraduate student I taught last fall, who responded impatiently to my enthusiasm over Leslie Marmon Silko’s grieving vision of land and animals destroyed by white “civilization” in the novel Ceremony. My student said, in effect, that she’d been hearing since childhood that nature was being decimated and she was sick and tired of hearing it. She did not dispute the fact of the destruction; rather, she seemed to be saying that she declined to feel, or perhaps simply could not feel, anything significant about it. (Was she saying she felt unequal to the emotional challenge that an older generation seemed to be imposing on her? Or perhaps that, by claiming the earth as “our” issue, we had left her no room to locate her own feelings? Or maybe that, while she understood the issue on an intellectual level, nature is not imaginatively “real” to her?)
I don’t get it: this sense that there can be generational fashions in care for the world. But I suppose it’s inevitable that, in a country that prides itself on the refusal of history, the mere fact that a previous generation has cared about something can become grounds for treating the topic as outmoded. Annihilation? Isn’t that just a fifties (or eighties) cliché?
At one point in her reading, Jocelyn Lieu recalled running into a Vietnamese-American colleague in the weeks following September 11th and asking about the woman’s students’ reactions. The colleague, who had grown up in Southeast Asia during the war, felt there was nothing to talk about, remarking that what happened to the twin towers was nothing “compared to Vietnam.” I’m not sure what Jocelyn heard in that response. I myself hear anger—the burning anger of those who have always known themselves expendable as they contemplate the narcissistic American “innocence” that took this long to figure out how cruel and dangerous the world is—but also the terrible calculus that we all continually engage in. How bad must an atrocity be to be really atrocious? Can I shield myself from the terror of the similarity between the bad thing that just happened and the even worse thing it reminds me of by telling myself the comparison only proves I am not trapped in a nightmare, history is not repeating itself?
Why do we accept that bargaining for not-so-bad atrocities is the best we can do? Why do we sometimes insist that the horrors and miseries of the past justify those of the present? Why is it so difficult to acknowledge that human beings’ technological ability to wipe out untold numbers of species, our own included, puts us in a startling new psychic position—one that marks a watershed in our existence as conscious beings, of huge significance for our future regardless of whether we ultimately exercise our nifty option to off ourselves? (To respond glancingly to a comment about a previous post: one big difference between our situation and that of forebears with eschatological predilections is that we, not God, are the protagonists of this potential apocalypse. We will make it happen, or not. We are responsible.)
When is openly admitted fear more adaptive than the bravery that either denies risk or embraces it with a stiff upper lip?
April, 2005: With some of the lowest counts for returning spring Chinook salmon ever recorded in the Columbia River, state officials in Washington and Oregon closed 300 miles of the river to fishing. Last year, fisheries experts predicted a healthy spring season; instead, numbers of returning fish are lower than in any year since Bonneville Dam was built. Conjectures abound as to the reason for the discrepancy. The situation is particularly devastating to tribal fisherfolk who rely on the catch for both ceremonial and commercial purposes. (Information from Spring 2005 issues of Sin-Wit-Ki, a publication of the Yakama Nation Fisheries Management Program)
May 17, 2005: Ninety-seven-year-old physicist Joseph Rotblat, who resigned from the Manhattan Project because of his moral objections to the bomb, publishes a New York Times Op-Ed recalling the “Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” in which Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and a number of other signatories called attention to the dangers of the nuclear age. Rotblat quotes from the document: “We have to learn to think in a new way….Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” (A21)