Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Specter of September 11th in Literature

Part 2: Can Images Silence Us?

These questions might be addressed again through two contemporary examples. I restrict myself to literature, because I haven’t yet seen the cadre of films produced (United 93; 9’11’01; World Trade Center—the list is quite long): Don Delillo’s Falling Man (2007) and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006).

I hope those who’ve read Delillo’s work will agree with me that he is eminently qualified for this task. As Andrew O’Hagan recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, Delillo’s books have dealt repeatedly with the interpenetration of impersonal geopolitical catastrophes and intimate, individual experience. He does this particularly well, without judgment and drama. Although narrative may be poorly suited for it, as it is the linguistic analogue of the function of attention in perception, his writing disrupts that function and manages to gloss over the surface of things. One wonders how Delillo achieves this state in which events reveal themselves without investment, in which all lives and activities and personal meanings are potentially comical and therefore denuded of all dramatic urgency. I will never forget the poignant choral effect of the television in White Noise, that softens the faces of interfamilial tension and returns life to the quotidian.

O’Hagan claims that Delillo has been silenced by September 11th, the event being the subject portended by his work theretofore. This claim is very powerful. For myself, I admit that I read Underworld during the summer of 2002, picking it up because the image from the cover—the World Trade Center towers marked by the outline of a bird flying across them—had a new significance and I wanted the book to speak to that, somehow, without speaking to it. And this is precisely what the novel did, through narratives of: the so-called “shot heard around the world” inaugurating the Cold War and nuclear arms escalation; the collection of trash in Russia for atomic incineration; an artist taking on the task of painting a graveyard of military aircraft; the construction of the World Trade Center towers; and a famous baseball game. That work was powerful because the events always eclipsed the individuals.

In Falling Man, Delillo is obsessed by images and these images are what have silenced him. The title draws forth the image of a performance artist, who after the event, mysteriously appears at different sites in the city and jumps from an overhang to a position in which he lies treacherously hung over the earth. Technically, the book should have been written about him. But that is a book Delillo is not equipped to write. What he does is wield and work with ideas and words, not images. Although his books produce images, they cannot themselves reproduce images.

Delillo knows this, I think. In the novel one of the character's is a famous art historian. Her daughter and lover repeatedly come together around a painting, which the daughter believes bears the outlines of the towers. There are moments when we join the daughter in meditation on the image. But the narrative fails to bring this painting forth. It cannot reproduce this image. Merely the outlines which we must imagine peopling it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Spectre of September 11th in Literature

Part 1: “Let’s not talk about it ever again.”

That was my sentiment after it happened, after I heard too many conversations, jarring the ears and . Obviously a hyperbolism—a demand impossible and not really desired. But of a piece, I think, with the commonplace among literary circles that it is a subject not yet ripe for literary … representation. And what really does this mean?

Glibly, we might say that the social or cultural imagination or unconscious must work through, process if you will, the images and ideas attached to this event. But again I wonder what this means. Does it mean, for example, that a specific image needs to be drawn forth capable of encapsulating the event? In other words, cultural reckoning means the reduction of the plenitude of images and words and ideas to a specific few capable of symbolizing the rest? Marita Sturken, in a book entitled Tangled Memories, describes the way that certain images are frequently substituted as cultural memories. Can we extend this thesis to a larger, cultural scope?

But this is not the matter at all. When we value texts which deal with historical events, this is never because they have necessarily reached the touchstone of our own experience, but because they manage to synthesize information in such a way as to bring the complexity of the event forth once more. Rather, it really has to do with an emotional immediacy, an open wound, not yet healed. We cannot write, or should not write, about the event because it still has a profound affective force. But admittedly this also is ultimately disappointing in its implications: literary representations are ways to bring forth what emotionally no longer submits us to the passions of grief and shock, disappointment and silence. Moreover, how would this affective force interact with the reading and writing concerning the event? Is the concern for the audience, or is it a concern directed to the capacity of the writer?