This morning, on the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the world Trade Center Towers, I stood at my open bedroom window, looking out at the stunning blue sky toward the west and feeling autumn in the air. It was exactly the same kind of day nine years ago when, having just finished my morning run—along the Hudson down to the World Trade Center and back—I heard a huge roar followed by a sickening thud. It was a sound and a feel no one could mistake for anything other than a catastrophic event, and it shook my old loft building to its foundations. That was the moment when the first plane hit the first Tower 10 blocks south of me.
Later that morning, before phone communications went down and our neighborhood became enshrouded in ash and dust, Jean Tamarin, my editor at The Chronicle Review called me. I’d gotten to know Jean from writing essays for the Review, and she was calling to make sure I was all right. By that time, my husband and I had learned that Muslim terrorists had attacked America, and that the attacks seemed to have ended. But that was about it. In the next few days, we would join thousands of volunteers, from all over the country, trying in our own modest ways to help the firemen and first responders by bringing food, blankets, clothing—anything, anything, just to do our best.
Jean also wanted to know if I would consider being one of several other contributors who were writing about what had happened for the Review—not writing it that day, of course, but later on, when things had settled more and I had had time to reflect on what had gone on. I told her maybe, but I didn’t know how much time I’d need. It seemed important to say something only if it went beyond my “feelings.” It also was important that I give any money I earned from writing an essay about the attacks to a charity that was helping the victims. I ended up writing the essay a few days later, and gave my fee to the American Red Cross.
The following essay was originally published in The Chronicle Review on 28 September 2001. I offer it again here, in honor of those killed in the attacks.
History Overcomes Stories
I live about 10 blocks north of what used to be the World Trade Center towers, in an area of New York City called Tribeca. Three mornings ago was September 11, 2001.
My neighborhood is populated with artists like myself and my husband. Artists first started living in lofts in this former manufacturing district sometime in the late 1960s. Later, they started families, and the neighborhood filled up with children and stores and flowers in the windows. When my own daughter was ready for kindergarten, we walked her to P.S. 234, then a brand- new school built a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. To us, it was practically Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood.
Ours was a good life. My husband and I have never even had to own a car. Within the past few years, rich newcomers began developing large luxury lofts in buildings all over the neighborhood. Recently, they’ve been adding spectacular penthouses. We artists grumbled, but most of us conceded that cities must change even along these lines in order to stay vibrant.
An account of my life in lower Manhattan, what I’ve been through in this calamity, and the sights I’ve seen don’t really count for much. There are thousands of other stories, many very terrible and dramatic, that are unfortunately more representative of the horror that New York, and the country, has suffered. And there is the question of when necessary, informative storytelling disintegrates into a kind of entertainment. No amount of my artist’s experience in thinking about images adds relevance. In short, my story contributes nothing to history.
Experiences and stories were once, however, the heart of history. That was how Thucydides told history. Now stories are polluted and demeaned by having been reduced to fodder for television, movie, and slick magazine entertainment. At this point, hardly anybody’s story can guide us in how to act. All we know, dimly, is that we have passed the end of an era, and face a probably very grim new one. The past 25 years, which so many saw as an eternal history-less present, turn out to have been a fleeting grace, a blip of peace in an inexorable continuum of war. The only redemption for the sin of having thought this eternally present tense could be true is to see if we can now act the way we ought to have been acting all along.
Until Tuesday, I was part of a ridiculously lucky generation. For me, war was what I knew about from movies, reading, and the distant (before my birth) loss to my mother of her brother in World War II. Now, like all Americans, I know something directly about war. I know it as a civilian, having been attacked here, in my own country, my own city, my own neighborhood. All my strivings as an artist and a teacher seem to have been deprived of meaning. I’ve experienced a very small slice of Theodor Adorno’s conclusion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I, like many others, must try to figure out all over again what truly matters. After Tuesday, I can no longer speak as a woman, or an artist, or a New Yorker. Speaking in those ways—”speaking personally”—will no longer do. I have to learn how to speak as a citizen.
We have been seduced by television and computers into believing it is images and stories, not ideas, that count. We have bought the party line that ours is the age of the computer and simulacra, not nature and physical reality; we’ve traded slow, sure ideas for “instant communication.” We have deluded ourselves that the older, more complicated concepts of good, evil, beauty, and, above all, nature, are old-fashioned. Thinking we could, as Horace put it, drive nature out with a pitchfork, we moved into such quagmires as genetic manipulation. Not that microbiology in the service of medicine is automatically wrong. But Horace was right about the power of things that are the givens in life. In this case, Nature in its simple, oldest form — some people hating others — has come running back in.
In the din of postmodernism, we dismissed all voices celebrating Western culture as reactionary and logocentric. Many of those voices revealed a profound bigotry, hatred, and fear of other cultures and ways of life. But the self-castigation that has been going on since the Vietnam War has gotten to the point where we have been throwing out almost everything that is Western except its material goods. What now ought to be clear as a bell is that it is precisely in our freedom to criticize ourselves that we locate the values of Western culture. Self-criticism is our freedom, but it, too, must be modified by restraint.
The universal values of freedom and democracy, originating with the ancient Greeks, modified by Christianity and Judaism, and maturing with the ideas of humanism and liberalism, are now nourished by the streaming energy and beauty coming from non- Western cultures. That complex structure is the 21st-century foundation for any viable, modern civilization. At its bottom layer still sits our need for the Western values of individual liberty, coupled with obligations to virtue, democracy coupled with responsibility, the requirement of courage, an acknowledgment—always tempered by reason—of duty, and an assertion of basic, not jingoistic, patriotism.
Art and images need to be postponed. (I certainly can’t think of painting right now.) We need, I think, to achieve intellectual control of our feelings, and direct our actions according to what is right and just, instead of to what pleases us as “personal expression” or intrigues us as convoluted theory. Our unfamiliarity with how to use history correctly, and our forgetfulness when it comes to our own values, have resulted in this unspeakable historical moment being at risk of degenerating into hundreds of persona
l “survival” or “coping” stories, the sort that turn into television movies on the Lifetime network. Worse, the images of our current disaster will be aestheticized into “unforgettable” or “iconic” images. As I write, television news is already adding music to montages of horror.
A perhaps impenetrable boundary exists—or should exist—between the thousands of real lives that were brutally destroyed on Tuesday, and art. And that slovenly province of art known as entertainment should not dare to touch what has happened. Mine is not a postmodernist response, of course, and it is, admittedly, written under the stress of being an immediate neighbor to calamity. But I do not see myself ever shrinking from the renewed convictions put forth in this essay—one for which, I wish with all my heart, there had never been an occasion to write.