Retrospective Fatigue

Is it still too early to say something smart about Sept. 11?

DeLillo, in a beautiful solemn elegy in Harper's (Dec 2001), broke from his usual silence, exile and cunning to write, "It is America that drew [the terrorists'] fury. It is the high gloss of our modernity. It is the thrust of our technology. It is our perceived godlessness. It is the blunt force of our foreign policy. It is the power of American culture to penetrate every wall, home, life and mind." And because "the World Trade towers were not only an emblem of advanced technology but a justification, in a sense, of technology's irresistible will to realize in solid form whatever becomes theoretically allowable," that's what the terrorists targeted. "Maybe this is the grim subtext of their enterprise. They see something innately destructive in the nature of technology. It brings death to their customs and beliefs. [Therefore they] use it as what it is, a thing that kills."

Why do they hate us? Read DeLillo's essay, but for an even more radical view on this question, see philosopher Jean Baudrillard's essay, first printed in Le Monde in November 2001 and reprinted in Harper's (February 2002), where he reveals the "fact" ("unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West") that "the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream the destruction of so powerful a hegemon" as the U.S.

The antidote for all this—for DeLillo's elegant gloom, Baudrillard's French condescension and Chomsky's inability to leaven his dread analysis of American realpolitik with even a rhetorical dollop of hope—comes from Bruce Springsteen's The Rising album, on which nine of the 15 songs address Sept. 11. The record has its obviousnesses, but "Nothing Man," about a Sept. 11 hero who feels survivor's guilt as he looks at the post-Sept. 11 skyline and sees, in Zen-like wonder, the "same unbelievable blue," isn't one of them. Neither is "The Fuse," about using the fire of sex to calm the trauma of watching the fire-y towers. Or "The Rising," which uses the image of a firefighter climbing the flame-engulfed towers to his death as a metaphor for a sacrifice that rises to the religious. "At the core of democracy," Whitman once wrote mysteriously, "finally is the religious element," and Springsteen caught a moment that illuminates that mystery: the moment when fellow-feeling, even for a stranger, trumps the self, when one's own sacrifice for the human other, whoever he or she is, makes simple sense because . . . because . . . because . . . in a democracy, one another are all we have: which is the final meaning of "all men are created equal" as digested by Whitman's "simple separate self . . . [uttering] the word en-masse."

Chomsky, Baudrillard, DeLillo, Springsteen: some brave attempts to rise above the blah-blah, go beyond the "poo-tee-weet." More will follow, attempts to defeat DeLillo's Mao II warning, and ensure that words don't give way to terror, that they recoup the inner life of the culture.

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