(Note; this was written on 09/19/01 and first appeared in The Boulder Arts Paper).
Out of all the images I saw on TV – jets impacting, buildings burning, collapsing, smoke roaring out in a choking shroud – one returns unbidden, over and over: a man in a suit falling head downwards along the length of one of the towers, tiny arms and legs flailing, starting to go into a slow spin. It seemed endless, his falling, then mercifully the footage stopped. And at that point I thought, “I'm on the edge of breaking down completely…”
If anything at all is clear to us from The Event (and very little is) it is that the old responses are no longer available to us. I've felt like Samuel Beckett these past few days: consumed by a desire to say something, having no means to say it, along with the overwhelming obligation to say it anyway.
A friend of mine remarked to me that the first casualty of war is not truth, but language. Bush’s naive appeal to the ultimate villain – “evil” – is not just a gross simplification of a vastly complex historical moment; it’s an invitation to resume our sleepwalking through history. I feel that what we’re really being called to by this calamity is of another order altogether: not revenge, certainly; it goes beyond even justice. It presents itself instead as the call to completely recalibrate the role America plays at large. Such considerations will not provide an “answer” to the Bin Ladens of the world. The only answer to hate is love, as MLK once said, but though we’ve arrived at the point in our history where it seems more necessary than ever, it’s doubtful that compassion will be adopted as the philosophical underpinning for all future foreign policy. Nevertheless, regardless of any impact on the rest of the world it might have, an examination of the enormous blindspot in our perilously conceived self-image and how it funds our actions might form the smallest of beginnings to an urgently needed metanoia.
After the First World War, the French poet Paul Valery observed grimly that “the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. Elam, Nineveh and Babylon were beautiful names. France, England and Russia are beautiful names. Lusitania is a beautiful name.” So is New York City. So is Osama bin Laden.
The morning of the attack I gave a presentation on tropes to my graduate pro-seminar. We sat around the large table stunned and shell-shocked. It seemed absurd. What could be more trivial, more irrelevant, I asked the class, than discussing poetic language? But now more than ever, it’s important that we study poetry. Because in the coming days and weeks ordinary language will undergo hideous deformations as it contorts itself into all kinds of rhetorical postures. Because poetry – and the figural language of poetry – helps us to cope with crisis. It gives a shape to our mourning.
Because the poem will always be equal to the occasion of any human event. Because more than anything else, the poem is that exquisite instrument that enables us to recover and transform loss. It makes the absent present once again. It provides us with a profound form of consolation simply through the performance of its utterance.
Adorno was not wrong when he said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What the disaster invites us into, what it forces us to consider, is how all forms of culture are underwritten by barbarity, that even the most refined expressions of our culture are built out of it. Not to write poetry would, of course, be another kind of disaster. Because if we don’t, then we’re done for.
To go on after The Event will be unimaginably difficult. What can sustain us? If poetry fails to lift us, if language breaks down and proves inadequate to the task of recovery, where do we turn? How do we carry on?
One way is suggested in a recent commentary on the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa by Jacques Derrida, who advances an astonishing idea about forgiveness:
"Yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the one thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin,’ then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible."
This is what we are being called to in this moment: to respond to the unimaginable by performing the impossible, the total and radical act of forgiving the starkly unforgivable. Can we do it? The real question is: can we afford not to do it? We must contemplate again the bleak, two-line parable that came out of the devastation of the death camps, which runs simply, “At Auschwitz, where was God?” And its reply: “Where was man?” Forgiveness here does not imply the forgoing of justice or the inevitable punic demands of the state. As Kristeva notes, forgiveness breaks the chain of cause and effect. It's caesura of temporal logic frees us from the downward spiral of bitterness, vindictiveness, and hate.
However we choose to answer to this harrowing moment, wherever it leads us, and whatever else may come, either by retaliation or by continuing terror attacks, one thing is certain: the task of holding on to the human will occur inside the demands that an impossible compassion lays upon us.