A Hunger To Be More Serious
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If “World Trade Center,” the new movie by Oliver Stone, were a better film, it would not be so moving. Mr. Stone, normally the most overbearing of directors, seems to have anticipated that what audiences want from a film on this subject is not impressive acting or striking compositions, but a direct, straightforward reminder of a story they already know; not a work of art, in short, but a memorial service. When I saw the film, and listened to people weeping in the dark, it seemed to me that we were less an audience than a congregation, seeking the kind of communal purgation usually sought in churches and synagogues.
Mr. Stone makes this point explicitly in “World Trade Center,” when he juxtaposes a scene in a nearly empty church with a suburban street where every house is lit up with the blue glow of a TV screen. Ever since the morning of September 11, 2001, Americans have looked to secular culture — to television and newspapers, architecture and theater, films and books — to give the events of that day a meaning.
Yet in the five years since the attacks, we have also learned an important truth about the contingency and multiplicity of what pundits too easily call “the culture.” The culture, it turns out, is nothing more than the sum of all our individual, unsponsored, unofficial responses to events. Not until one particular interpretation of those events commands widespread assent can they pass from memory, which is individual and fallible, into history, which is collective and durable.
When it comes to our culture’s response to September 11, the most striking thing is that, even today, it has not yet undergone this passage. From the caution, the tentativeness, the fear of causing pain or giving offense, that characterize most treatments of September 11, it is clear that no one story has prevailed, no one voice has won the right to interpret the meaning of the attacks. This uncertainty could be seen in the odd headlines that greeted “World Trade Center” and “United 93,” the other September 11 film to come out this year. “9/11-themed films: Too soon?” USA Today asked last month.
Too soon, after five years? Are Americans today really so doubtful of ourselves, or so fearful of reality, that we cannot discuss in public an event that we are all thinking about, on some level, all the time? Even the convention of referring to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the partial destruction of the Pentagon by a date, or just the numbers “9/11,” seems evasive. “September 11” has become a euphemism that allows us to gloss over what we are really talking about: death by fire, by falling from tall buildings, by crushing and mangling, by suffocation.
But there is something more to our hesitation than emotional frailty, and the comparison to Pearl Harbor helps to shed light on it. In the first hours and days after the World Trade Center was destroyed, September 11, 2001, was spoken about in terms that recalled December 7, 1941. The television networks used the banner “America Under Attack”; the headline in the New York Times was “U.S. Attacked.” This language left no doubt that the mass murder perpetrated by Al Qaeda was a political act, which had to be responded to in political — which is to say, ethical and collective — terms.
But the most important fact about September 11, at least in terms of the way American culture has responded to it, is that it has not managed to take root in our political imagination. “This changes everything” was what we told ourselves just after the event, and it was not just a fear or a prophecy, but a wish. To become adequate to the horror and humiliation of what we experienced, we wanted ourselves and our world to change. In the cultural realm, this meant above all a desire for a seriousness of purpose commensurate to the evil we experienced. When Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, predicted “an end to the age of irony,” he was awkwardly expressing what the poet Philip Larkin had more accurately described, decades earlier, as “a hunger in himself to be more serious.”
One whole category of post-September 11 literature takes rise from this intuition, which is both elegiac and self-castigating. These are the novels and plays that treat the destruction of the World Trade Center as a bonfire of the vanities, in whose livid shadow our private lives appear horrible or ridiculous. Neil LaBute provided one of the first examples in “The Mercy Seat,” which made its premiere just over a year after the attacks. The main character, Ben Harcourt, is one of Mr. LaBute’s typically monstrous males, but he looks even more monstrous in the morning light of September 12, 2001, when the play is set. Ben, we learn, was being pleasured by his mistress at the moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center — a prurient and puritanical metaphor for the selfishness of his, and our, pre-September 11 world. In a less bludgeoning spirit, Spike Lee’s movie “25th Hour,” also released in 2002, turned a convict’s last day of freedom into a parable for a carefree era that was about to give way to something much grimmer.
Yet the hunger for seriousness to which those early responses testified has gone largely unfed. This is not, of course, because September 11 failed to produce terrifyingly serious consequences. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terror, Guantanamo Bay, fears about civil liberties — all these show that our politics have changed dramatically, perhaps permanently. But the most important thing about September 11, in terms of how it affected the American imagination, is that it has not, so far, had a sequel. In the last five years, there have been bombings in London and Madrid, rocket attacks in Haifa, armed raids in Kashmir; but there has been no second attack on American soil.
As a result, the war that was supposed to have begun on September 11, 2001, remains, to some degree, imaginatively hypothetical. That is why it has been so tempting to detach the September 11 attacks from their historical and political context and reimagine them in other, more limited and limiting ways. A new metaphor has been able to usurp the event: Instead of a political act, the destruction of the World Trade Center is often, if never quite explicitly, thought of as a kind of natural disaster. The “Portraits of Grief” series in the New York Times, which appeared through the end of 2001, set the precedent for this approach. By giving each of the World Trade Center victims a miniature obituary, “Portraits of Grief” suggested that it was not “America Attacked,” but a collection of individuals.An act of war strikes at a country through its citizens; a natural disaster claims the lives of those unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That impulse towards depoliticization may also account for the intense speculation, in the weeks and months after September 11, about the technical reasons why the towers collapsed. “American Ground,” a book by William Langewiesche (it began as a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly), captured this fixation in its subtitle, “Unbuilding the World Trade Center.” By turning destruction into unbuilding, by focusing on melting points and slurry walls, we could reassert a feeling of mastery over September 11, a day defined, above all, by our feelings of helplessness. The “World Trade Center” movie takes a similarly ahistorical approach. By focusing on the rescue of two men from the wreckage, Mr. Stone effectively turns September 11 into a story of man against the elements — “The Perfect Storm” in Lower Manhattan. As we root for Nicolas Cage to make it out of the rubble alive, it stops mattering why he is in the rubble to begin with.
Eliding the political dimensions of September 11 is one way of convincing ourselves that the danger of a repetition is not real. Another way is to displace our anxieties from their true source — Islamic terrorists, actual enemies who tried to kill us and will try again — onto a less threatening surrogate. This psychological maneuver has been especially popular on the left, where the intensity of the hatred directed at President Bush often seems directly proportional to the intensity of the fear being repressed.
This is not, of course, to say that the president and the government should not be criticized or held to account — they should. I am thinking, rather, of the kind of people — one a history professor, another a publicist — who told me in 2002 that the U.S. had become a fascist country. Or the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel “In the Shadow of No Towers” moves swiftly and compulsively from remembering the terror of September 11, to denouncing, not its perpetrators, but Mr. Bush. “When the planes hit those towers I got knocked into an alternate reality where George W. Bush was president,” Mr. Spiegelman writes, in a textbook example of denial.
The most intelligent and artistically successful example of this kind of displacement, however, is Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America,” in which the anxieties of a Jewish writer in an age of Islamic terror fueled a fable about a fascist America that never was. It is less trying to have nightmares about Charles Lindbergh in 1941 than about Osama bin Laden in 2001. Yet the emotional power of Mr. Roth’s novel shows that, even in its misdirections, it is a genuine product of the post-September 11 world. It creates an objective correlative for our feeling that history has taken a wrong turn, that the unthinkable can become real. That is why “The Plot Against America” is a much better post-September 11 novel than John Updike’s dutiful “Terrorist,” which tries to imagine a plausible, present-day plot against America — an act of terrorism by an Islamic teenager from New Jersey. Mr. Updike may have the setting right, but it is Mr. Roth who captures the spirit of the age.
If our major imaginative responses to September 11 have been elegy, depoliticization, and displacement, this is not necessarily because American culture is incapable of addressing tragedy directly. (Though it is chastening to remember that the most sophisticated novel about the moral quandaries of the post-September 11 world, Ian McEwan’s “Saturday,” was written by an Englishman.) Rather, it is a sign that the events of September 11 are, in some way, still in progress. They inaugurated a historical period that has not yet concluded, and so cannot yet be completely fathomed.
It is useful to remember that the best books about World War I, “Goodbye to All That” and “All Quiet on the Western Front,” appeared not in 1917 but 1929. The desire to create art that responds to public tragedy is a noble one, but if it is pursued too dutifully and programmatically, the result can only be superficial. The best example of this well-meaning triviality may be the Freedom Tower proposed by Daniel Libeskind for the World Trade Center site — a tower which (if it is ever built) is supposed to be exactly 1,776 feet tall, in a completely vacuous gesture of numerological patriotism. Genuine imagination, an individual’s or a culture’s, does not work so neatly, especially when responding to events that are so traumatic and have such wide ramifications as the September 11 attacks. It may well be that, decades from now, we will find the spirit of our age in places we never thought to look — in works that do not mention September 11 at all, but are saturated with its grief, its pity, and its fear.