It’s all Sean’s fault.
I wasn’t going to write this essay. I wasn’t going to post any personal reflections on 11 September. I was content to quote three particular items from works that are special to me: Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! my Captain!”, as a token of the enduring American culture; the picture and quote from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, as a reminder of the rank absurdity of the concerns that so often move humans to killing and war; and an epitaph from Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, the words of which would not, it seems to me, be out of place on the gravemarkers of any of the people who perished that day. On a day when every medium – television, radio, the Net – was saturated with personal remembrances, the offerings of one more blogger seemed redundant, even irrelevant. But, Sean asked an interesting question today:
“How should we remember?”
Everyone remembers in different ways. This is only natural, and necessary. A person who escaped the still-burning towers and lived will remember the day in a far different manner than someone who sent a loved one off to work, perhaps with a kiss or perhaps not, at the WTC or the Pentagon only to later find that their loved one had not gone off to work but off to die. A person who called in sick to work at the WTC that day will remember it differently from a person in rural Iowa who has never been east of the Mississippi or a person in Portland, Oregon who has never been east of the Rockies. How different are my memories of 11 September from everyone else’s, and how different are everyone else’s from mine? Sean’s question thus becomes not how we should remember, but how I should remember.
I had no personal connection to the events of that day. No one I know died or was injured; no one I know lost a family member; no one I know, so far as I am aware, even saw the attacks take place. There was not even a sense of fraternity in living in the same state as the WTC. Buffalo is a Great Lakes city, with more in common with Detroit than New York City. In fact, Buffalo is far enough away from NYC that one could drive from Buffalo to Cleveland and back in less time than it takes to drive from Buffalo to NYC, one way. I expect this is true of any large state; how much kinship does a person in El Paso feel with a person living in Texarkana? Thus, the horror that day was more for fellow Americans than for fellow New Yorkers. Not that this, in any way, lessened the horror. I suspect that day was precisely as horrifying for people who watched the attacks on TV in Honolulu as it was for the ones who watched them on TV in Buffalo or Pittsburgh or Des Moines. However, even as the day unfolded I could not help but think of the “six degrees of separation” that are said to exist between ourselves and anyone else in our world. It turned out that my closest personal connection to the attacks was through my father, a college professor of mathematics one of whose former students worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald.
After 11 September, I did not write for three days, nor did I listen to a single note of music. I think I read, but I don’t recall. Art was the farthest thing from my mind, until the events receded enough that my stories returned. (One of those stories, directly inspired by that awful day, can be read here.) Part of the problem was the fact that a good deal of what I write is horror, for what possible literary horror could ever approach the reality of 11 September? Of course, I soon remembered that fiction does not approach reality so much as enhance it; and besides, storytelling has been at the heart of all attempts to find something of value in the wake of horrible events. That is the ultimate basis of storytelling, horror and otherwise, going all the way back to the most primal myths. In any event, I struggled to find my own personal connection to the attacks, to close the sense of disconnect and find my reason to remember – – and my way of paying tribute, when eventually that time would come as today it finally did.
Like many, I wondered why these attacks. It surely was not a mere desire to wreak as much death as humanly possible; if body count had been their sole concern, surely the terrorists would have struck two days before, crashing their planes into sold-out NFL stadiums. No, these were attacks on our very culture. These people don’t just hate us. They hate our culture – – every culture, in truth, as was shown when the Taliban destroyed the great stone Buddhas.
And there it was. They wanted to destroy our culture, a culture which has produced Mark Twain and Steven Spielberg and Leonard Bernstein and Jackson Pollack and Charles Burchfield and Charlie Parker. They wanted to destroy a culture whose relics include Gravity’s Rainbow, Kind of Blue, Star Wars, Casablanca, East of Eden, Star Trek, Foundation, and Cosmos. They wanted to silence a culture that has spoken through such voices as Superman, Gully Foyle, Butch and Sundance, Professor Childermass, Tom Sawyer, Andy Dufresne, and the Joad family.
And with that realization came another: that while I had always loved America in an abstract sense, the way one always loves one’s hometown because it’s the first thing they knew, I had also loved America for its culture. America is my home. America is my country. And America is my culture. This country has produced so many, many works of art that have shaped me as a person and (I hope) as an artist. That is the personal connection I sought to 11 September: the attempt of a joyless, beautyless culture whose only notable feature is empty, ugly piety to destroy a culture that, while young, has contributed greatly to the march of human expression. So that is how I remember 11 September, and how I mark the day: by partaking of my culture.
I read some American poetry today. It was not a day for Tennyson, as much as I love his verse. I listened to American music today; it was not a day for Hector Berlioz. For dinner I made a pot of American chili, and for dessert, an ice cream cone. I didn’t discover America on 11 September; but because of 11 September, I rediscovered it.
And that is how I will remember the wicked day: not only for the fires and the deaths, but for everything that came before and everything that is certain to come after.