Retrospective Fatigue

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

One of the wisest things I've read about Sept. 11 was written 10 years before Sept. 11—Don DeLillo's novel Mao II. In it, an American novelist, despondent at the cultural irrelevance of his occupation, comes out with this: "There's a curious knot between novelists and terrorists. . . . Years ago, I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunman have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. . . . We're giving way to terror."

So, there you have it: before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, before Oklahoma City and Columbine, America's profoundest novelist suggested that terror is poised to assume "the inner life of the culture" and dominate the public's imagination like no force could. And he was right, given the mighty spectacle engineered by terror artists media-savvy enough to know, for example, that it's best to wait a good 18 minutes before the second airliner penetrates the South tower because the cameras of five networks will, by then, be trained on lower Manhattan, ready to catch the whole glorious surprise and beam it live and worldwide. Or that striking the buildings between the 65th and 85th floors would generate maximum structural meltdown and the best chance of a collapse that—from the terro-aesthetic point of view—could be rivaled only in retinal indelibility by the flash and bloom of a mushroom cloud.

Bill Maher's Politically Correct got canceled because he called the terrorists courageous; will anybody come forward to call Osama and Co. media geniuses, men who gave the world images that'll mark the new century for good and that, come 2099, will be dug up by the future's news media to tell us who we were when the millennium turned?

Who are we? So far, we're mostly clueless. A few things we have learned about the culture, though: contrary to predictions, the Age of Irony didn't end when the towers burned. Postmodernism, that cagey customer, survived without a scratch. The country did not become more sensitive about "weapons of mass destruction," but less so; The Sum of All Fears, a thriller featuring a spectacular nuclear annihilation of Baltimore, made more than $100 million, and nobody said much more than, "Rad FX!" And as long as Britney keeps putting it (songs, smiles, scandal, silicone) in our faces, frivolity thrives.

Not that I'm complaining: the media is largely incapable of "sincerity" without slip-sliding into sentimentality or sweaty nationalism. But now that the networks, papers, cable outfits and advertisers have begun rolling out their specials and tributes, Sept. 11-retrospective fatigue will spread o'er the land as steadily as the Bush administration's drumbeat toward war with Iraq.

The fatigue, I'm guessing, will come not just from the tsunami of commentary (which makes everything seem like talking head blah-blah), but also from the sheer irreducibility of the events: it's tough to say anything that can break the spell of the pictures we saw that day. Could Kurt Vonnegut have been right in Slaughterhouse-5 when he said that the only intelligent thing to say about a massacre (like the one he witnessed in World War II's firebombing of Dresden) was to imitate the birds he heard singing the morning after the bombing, to say, in absurd benediction, "Poo-tee-weet"?

Well, as it turns out, no. Vonnegut was in his own way a sentimentalist, and his cosmicomic vision didn't make him any less sloppy. There are things to be said about a disaster—it just helps if you have somebody besides Hannity and Colmes doing the talking. Every time something world-historical happens, I wait to hear from what my friends call the Major Dudes, the zeitgeist sifters who help tell us up from down. For me, that means DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky, maybe David Foster Wallace, and, if we're really lucky, Thomas Pynchon. But except for a brief statement from Sontag (who gave Maher the idea that got him fired), DeLillo and Chomsky, the Major Dudes have been quiet, maybe because—like Didion, who was on a book tour in Sept. 11's aftermath and demurred when faced with questions about it—they know it's too soon to say anything intelligible because maybe they're just like you and me, still besotted with horror and unable to say much beyond, "Terrible, it was like a movie."

Chomsky, of course, was all over the airwaves eight days after the planes did their deadly work, deconstructing George W.'s quickly declared War Against Terrorism. Seven Stories Press put out a 96-page book, called simply 9-11, comprised of the interviews Chomsky gave in the month following the attacks, almost all of them with foreign journalists. (Major American media blackballed Chomsky years ago.) Chomsky followed these interviews with a number of essays that you can access on Z Net (www.zmag.org), all of which make the same essential point: that "the U.S. is a leading terrorist state, as are its clients" (evidence: U.S. operations, covert and not, in Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, East Timor, Turkey, the Sudan, etc.), and though this fact in no way justifies al-Qaida's terrorist actions, the myth of American innocence that makes George Jr. talk about "evildoers" who must be hunted down "dead or alive" is an obscenity that will only make the round of violence between a hypocritical U.S. and radical Islam perpetual.

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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