Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Memorium

By Michael

On February 26, 1993, I was living with my wife in an apartment on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village when a truck packed with 1,500 pounds of urea nitrate exploded under the North Tower of the World Trade Center. That night, we stood on the street and looked south into the darkness where the bright lights of the twin towers normally shined. The absence of light seemed like a magic trick gone wrong: the lady had vanished and we wondered whether she would ever return. She did return, but only for a while. Less than eight years later, the World Trade Center was gone and the darkness became permanent.

We left New York in 1995, moving first to Chicago and, three years later, to Jacksonville, Florida. On September 11, 2001, our second and third children – twins who had been born premature – were two and a half months old, and my wife and I had been alternating nights awake in their bedroom, watching their heart and lung monitors for signals of bradycardia and apnea. Often we read mysteries to tease ourselves into wakefulness. Spending forty out of every forty-eight hours awake took a toll, and much of the time we felt that we were moving in a space more on the side of dream than consciousness.

Then, the planes flew into the World Trade Center, and our waking dreams became nightmares. We moved a TV into the kids’ bedroom and watched the coverage of destruction and fear nonstop through the middle of the night while jets from the local naval base circled overhead. As so many other people did, we felt wounded – psychically and physically – and the pain of those early days and weeks mixed with our fears for our children whose hold on life seemed as thin as the monitor wires that strung from the sensors pasted on their chests.

I stopped reading entirely. The blood and killing in the books that I’d enjoyed – and that made the sleepless nights tolerable – were suddenly too much, the pleasure of fictional slaughter obliterated by real events. I thought then of Theodore Adorno’s comment at the end of World War II that “After Auschwitz, writing poetry is barbaric.” Telling stories in which the ugly looked beautiful – writing death and destruction into pleasure – all this seemed wrong because it displaced a terrible reality that needed to be handled in real life, not in fiction. In the days after September 11, as my stack of books sat unread, I wondered whether anyone could write or read fiction in good faith.

I still don’t know the answer. But eventually I picked up my books and started reading again, and I returned to the keyboard and started typing. I can justify reading and writing fiction a hundred different ways. I can say, against Adorno, that fiction enables us to understand real violence before it happens and to deal with it after it happens. I can say that if we give up the pleasures of fiction, then terror has won another victory. I can say a lot of things, but I still wonder what would happen if we all put down our books and spent our time fighting real problems instead of reading and writing about pretend heroes fighting pretend problems in pretend worlds.

I won’t put down my books, though. I’ll keep reading and writing just as I’ll keep eating meat though I know that a vegetarian diet would be better for the world.

I’ll do this and I’ll make no excuses for myself. I’ll do it because, when I’m honest with myself, I recognize that I have a taste for blood – that I like to eat animals and I like to read and write about violence – even as I abhor bloodshed.

Maybe someday in the distant future, I’ll turn off my computer, shut my books, and fight the good fight, stopping only to eat a dinner of soy beans and wheatgrass. I’ll ride my bike instead of driving my car. I’ll avoid plastics. I’ll adopt stray dogs. I know that this would be the right thing to do. But I’m not there yet. I wish I were.

15 comments:

Rebecca Cantrell said...

A very touching post, Michael.

My son was five months old on September 11 and as I read him his Mother Goose book I took solace knowing that parents in London must have read this to their children during the Blitz, that somehow the stories and the poems go on and silly rhymes can give great comfort.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Rebecca. I very much like the idea of comforting ourselves (and especially our children) with fiction at times like this. But comfort also seems dishonest. That contradiction interests and trouble me.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I don't think the comfort is dishonest. The Blitz did end. World War II did end. There hasn't been another attack of the scope of the World Trade Center here. Certainly, bad things have always happened and perhaps always will, but fiction (and history!) can give them a context.

Or at least I hope so.

Lois Winston said...

I live in a town that lost many citizens that day. I have a neighbor two doors down from me who lost his sister in one tower and his nephew (her son) in the other. I watched the second plane hit the second tower and watched both towers fall. A month later the air still burned my eyes and throat when I ventured downtown.

Maybe if more people wrote about and read books about murder and mayhem, they wouldn't commit such atrocities.

Michael Wiley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Wiley said...

I agree about the potential power of writing and reading about murder and mayhem, Lois. Interestingly, Adorno eventually revised his conclusion: poetry (and fiction) were fine, after all, even it straight (if politically informed) reportage was better. As far as I'm concerned, fiction can do a lot that reportage never will be able to do.

I'm sorry for your neighbor and your town.

Michael Wiley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Wiley said...

Thanks again, Rebecca.

Freud talks about the difference between mourning (healthy) and melancholy (unhealthy): with mourning you get over it; with melancholy you don't. The distinction, though useful, breaks down at a certain point, I think. I'm pretty sure that one can be both mournful and melancholic: one can get over it . . . but not really. That's where I am with 9-11.

Yes, the Blitz did end but the people who died never came back. The World Trade Center came down (with all the people inside it), and it won't go back up.

Does that mean we stop living? No. Do we stop enjoying ourselves? No. But still, it kind of sucks.

Michael Wiley said...

(nb. The deletions are my own typos.)

Michael Wiley said...

(nb. The deletions are my own typos.)

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Michael, it does suck. No arguments there. But fiction (and history) can teach that it has always sometimes sucked and sometimes not sucked. (Boy, isn't THAT a sophisticated analysis?).

Thanks again for the great post.

Michael Wiley said...

I'm with you, Rebecca -- and I appreciate your sophisticated analysis. My point remains the same: direct action is sometimes necessary and useful in ways that fiction may not be. But, yes, fiction too. Shelley says that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and while that may be going a bit far, I do think that we can influence what legislation passes and what legislation fails.

Michael Wiley said...

I'm with you, Rebecca -- and I appreciate your sophisticated analysis. My point remains the same: direct action is sometimes necessary and useful in ways that fiction may not be. But, yes, fiction too. Shelley says that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and while that may be going a bit far, I do think that we can influence what legislation passes and what legislation fails.

Michael Wiley said...

(And, darn it, my posts keep appearing in double.)

Kelli Stanley said...

Beautiful, thoughtful post, Michael. I remember feeling that same sense of frustration, of not being able to do something, of thinking how useless so much of what we took for granted was in fighting against the night.

I was at the university, and I remember becoming enraged at academics who were already dissecting people's emotional responses on 9/12, as if a human tragedy were nothing more than a lab experiment. And I remember thinking, dimly, that if we don't go back to some semblance of normal--the mundane, even the inane--then people died for nothing.

'Cause that's life.

And the stuff that we do--read, write, blog, chatter--is important. It connects people to people, culture to culture ... which, to me, is the only way we can save this poor benighted planet from ... ourselves.