The writer was drinking himself to death. In his first flush of freedom—he had come to Iowa from a land ruled by a military dictatorship—he drowned himself in vodka, and when for the third day running he was rushed to the emergency room with a blood alcohol level that would have killed another man, he was committed for observation. The date was September 10, 2001. That evening, more than eight hours after his last drink, the writer was still dead drunk. The judge who signed his commitment order called the next day, incredulous.
“You won’t believe it,” she said. “They have the TV on in the psych ward, and your poor writer is trying to sober up among lunatics who think they masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”
In the International Writing Program, concern for our colleague mixed with a variety of reactions to the tragedy: shock, grief—and no little satisfaction from some. Most, though, tried to make sense of what they saw on television, taking notes and filing dispatches to newspapers in their homelands. In the meantime the alcoholic writer began a regimen of detoxification; upon his discharge from the hospital a week later, I escorted him to my car, unable to imagine what he might have felt about traveling to America only to trade one form of prison for another.
“At least you have something to write about,” I said finally.
He smiled. And perhaps he will turn his unique perspective on September 11 into literature. I say perhaps because thus far it is the poverty of literary insight that distinguishes the discourse about the strange new world created by the terrorists. “Who has words at the right moment?” asked Charlotte Bronte—a question that plagues writers in the aftermath of 9/11. But as Samuel Beckett reminds us, “Words are all we have.”
This is especially true in light of the failure of our political class to frame the tragedy in its largest historical context. We look to our leaders to articulate the meaning of a national crisis (think of John F. Kennedy’s fiery address at the Berlin Wall, of Ronald Reagan’s speech after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger), to provide a narrative in which to imagine a future, to rally us to our best selves. Nothing of the sort happened after September 11. Quite the opposite. President George W. Bush’s repeated assertions that American goodness, backed up by military might, would rid the world of evildoers appealed to those who see things in black-and-white terms. “I don’t see many shades of gray in this world,” he declared in February 2002. “Either you are with us or against us.” But life is infinitely more complicated. And the president’s suggestion that we buy our way out of the recession was hardly the stuff of greatness. His abdication of the responsibility to speak to the heart of the matter will long haunt this nation.
In like manner, the ceremony marking the first anniversary of September 11 at Ground Zero in New York City included no original speeches, only recitations of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech. Their words, it is true, shaped our history, offering new visions of America, visions that cleave to the foundational notion of this country as a shining city upon a hill. But they were not adequate to our situation, which demanded new insights and understanding: a vision for the future. Rooted in particular historical circumstances, the speeches of Lincoln and FDR transcended their times by appealing to what is best in our character. What we needed was a similar summoning to a nobler idea of ourselves.
Nor is this failure of spirit confined to our political leadership. September 11 has created a small industry of books, few of which rise to the level of literature. We say that everything has changed. If so, then we must ask why these changes do not register in our literature. No poet rose to the occasion with the vigor and originality that, for example, Thomas Hardy showed in “The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the Loss of the ‘Titanic’)” or W. H. Auden in “September 1, 1939.” Yet in the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it was the charged language of poetry to which many turned for solace and instruction. “September 1, 1939” was often quoted, because the opening stanza, set in New York City, uncannily described our own anguish:
- I sit in one of the dives
- On Fifty-Second Street
- Uncertain and afraid
- As the clever hopes expire
- Of a low dishonest decade:
- Waves of anger and fear
- Circulate over the bright
- And darkened lands of the earth,
- Obsessing our private lives;
- The unmentionable odour of death
- Offends the September night.
Enduring works of literature transcend their historical moment. And if it takes a novelist years to distill meaning from an event, poets and literary journalists can capture its essence on the fly, as Ryszard Kapuscinski demonstrates in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Likewise, in Hiroshima John Hersey tells the stories of seven survivors of the atomic blast to give a sense of the suffering undergone by hundreds of thousands of nameless men, women, and children. Stalin said that three people killed in a traffic accident constitute a tragedy, whereas a million victims of a pogrom are statistics. It is up to writers to redeem the individual from the collective tragedy, to discover the mythic underpinnings of what may seem unimaginable, to bear witness to loss with such empathy and precision that we glimpse how to navigate our way into the future. “Grief unites us,” William Matthews wrote in his poem “Why We Are Truly a Nation,” which dates from the 1960s, “like the locked antlers of moose / who die on their knees in pairs.” Well-chosen words may help us rise to our feet.
What we were left with, though, was the fog of television, with overwrought anchors and commentators filling the void left by our political and literary elites. Suffice it to say their words vanished without a trace on our consciousness, leaving only the hope that eventually it will be possible to speak of September 11 as a dividing line in American literature. Many writers are concerned with the meaning of the word in the wake of the tragedy. A kind of innocence has disappeared from our national discourse, as it has at other grave moments in our history, notably during the Civil War, when three solitary figures forged new ways to understand the American experience. Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman—they did not flinch before the dark facts of their time. We are the richer for their witness.
Dickinson’s poems, almost half of which date from the Civil War, provide a map to the broken heart of a solitary woman—and of a nation. All was torn asunder by the Confederate secession, a public betrayal that perhaps echoed events in Dickinson’s affective life. Yet she found at almost every turn “a formal feeling” for her grief, which transcends its private origin. And it was in 1862, the pivotal year of the war, that she vividly described the pain we felt after 9/11. That September, at the battle of Antietam, more Americans were killed on our soil in one day than at any time in our history before September 11, 2001. While neither side could claim victory, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon his Maryland campaign; his retreat prompted Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves—perhaps the noblest executive decision in the history of this country.
The year 1862 marked another emancipation: Dickinson completed, on average, a poem a day. Hers was a “Soul at the White Heat,” as she wrote, which traced, among other things, the hour of lead that fell again over this land. Our hearts were stiffened by the terrorist attacks, and we must hope our writers will discover ways to transfigure this grief. Nor is there any way of gauging how we will respond to such a wound. Dickinson understood better than most how loss causes people to freeze to death, literally or figuratively, as she reveals in her famous meditation:
- After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
- The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
- The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
- This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
I wish to examine the prosodic means by which Dickinson reinforces her insights into the nature of grief. The first three lines of the opening quatrain, the only one composed entirely in iambic pentameter, contain the same variation—a spondee in the sensitive second foot. These pairs of stressed syllables—”great pain,” “sit ceremonious,” “stiff heart”—nearly stop each line, as indeed the nerves and heart clench in the face of great pain. (We may also note in passing the sinister aspect introduced by the run of the sibilants, as if to suggest evil is abroad.) Dickinson sets the tradition of English poetry, two-thirds of which is written in blank verse, against the unassimilable fact of loss, spondee after spondee. In the counterpoint between the rising iambic rhythms and the stressed syllables Dickinson enacts the physical sensation of grief being translated into form. The heart stops, and then it begins to beat in a mechanical fashion.
But notice what the poet does in the next stanza, when the ostensible subject is the body’s metronomic response to pain: she drops the pentameter, the quatrain, and the rhyme scheme, even as the iambic beat becomes relentlessly regular. The juxtaposition between mechanical rhythm and stanzaic chaos thus articulates the tension between formality and freedom in an original manner. This is a life-or-death struggle for the wounded soul of a woman—and of a nation. And the rhymed couplet with which the stanza closes offers only the illusion of formal beauty: who can say whether the forces of life or death will win this battle?
Now it is a standoff: “the Hour of Lead.” The final stanza regains the quatrain, balancing two rhymed trimeters with a heroic couplet: the folk tradition of ballads versus the neoclassical revival of the previous century. Dickinson returns to the iambic pentameter norm—”As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow”—only to stun the reader in the last line (and I do not say this lightly), juxtaposing two spondees—”First—Chill—then Stupor”—with a trimeter, as if to stop the heart before offering the sweet release of death: “then the letting go.” Why some survive such an ordeal is anyone’s guess. But it is certain that the right words spoken at the right time may help.
If we have yet to waken from our post-9/11 stupor, this may be because our politicians and writers failed to underscore the mythic dimension of the tragedy: to paint a recognizable future, in the way that Lincoln used his Gettys-burg Address to point Americans toward a different sense of themselves. His speech, all 272 words of it, delivered on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, where some 50,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded, stood in sharp contrast to the two-hour-long oration of Edward Everett. Think of Everett as the nineteenth-century version of a talking head recounting for a television audience what happened on the battlefield. He strained for effect in his attempt to draw meaning from the carnage: a forgettable exercise. What Lincoln accomplished in the wink of an eye was nothing less than the complete reorganization of these United States—as Garry Wills notes in his study Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America—into the United States, a singular nation that would become the most powerful on earth.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” Lincoln said of the fallen. “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” But the world would long remember Lincoln’s speech, which called the American people to a new beginning. His assassination in 1865, which cut short his role in that rebirth, inspired Whitman’s magnificent elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a hymn to the leader whose work would remain unfinished. We know the poet was visiting his mother when he heard the news from Washington. The scholar Ed Folsom reports that “he got up from the breakfast table, walked out into the dooryard, where lilacs were blooming that April day, and, gripped by grief, he inhaled deeply, and the scent of lilacs forever fused in his synesthetic memory with the news of Lincoln’s death, so that from that moment on, spring, the season of new beginnings, brought a sensory memory of death and grief, now bound permanently with birth and spring.” Just as Lincoln uses the carnage at Gettysburg to announce a new birth for this nation, and Dickinson creates a new figure for resurrection to suggest how the heart may be revived, so Whitman mingles birth and death to suggest how they are intertwined:
- When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
- And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
- I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
- Ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
- Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
- And thought of him I love.
I will confine my remarks about this poem to some reflections on the song of the hermit thrush, which makes its first appearance in the fourth section. The secretive bird is a figure for the poet, and by the fourteenth section bird and bard merge in a death song. It is, if you will, a call to our best selves from that which is generally hidden from daily life: poetry. From the swamps, the recesses, comes “the tallying chant” mingled with the perfume of the lilac bushes. The poet counts his losses: the fallen president, “the debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,” his health (a legacy of his volunteer work in the military hospitals), perhaps a comrade’s love. The poet of democracy had learned a bitter lesson. “In this country, we have our House of Representatives, and in our literature we have our House of Representations,” Ed Folsom writes. “For Whitman, this confluence of political and artistic representation seemed natural—seemed, in fact, the very essence of democratic politics. He believed that America’s imaginative literature had to take up where its politics left off: when theories of representation began to fail politically, as they certainly did during the years leading up to the Civil War, then theories of imaginative representation were the only hope to save democracy.”
Writers must discover new theories of imaginative representation for the new world order created by the terrorists. We might begin by asking, What if? What if George W. Bush had encouraged us to conserve gasoline, for example, reducing our dependence on the oil supplies of Saudi Arabia, which supplied most of the hijackers of the doomed airplanes? Or if he had sought to establish new relations with the Third World, where poverty contributes to ubiquitous anti-Americanism? Or attempted to engage disputes ranging from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula? Some have noted that his metaphor of a war on terror is inadequate for the circumstances in which we now live. It is in fact the precision of language we most miss. Such is the state of America today, when the dangers of relying on an inarticulate president have become all too clear. And it is in the language that our destiny is first mapped out. Lincoln, Dickinson, and Whitman charted a country on the verge of becoming the world power we inherited. If only Bush had used 9/11 to point us toward a more open future. Octavio Paz writes in his essay “Whitman, Poet of America”:
- With complete confidence and innocence, Whitman can sing of democracy on the march because the American utopia is confused with and is indistinguishable from the American reality. Whitman’s poetry is a great prophetic dream, but it is a dream within another dream, a prophesy within another prophesy that is even vaster and that nourishes it. And it dreams itself as concrete, almost physical reality, with its men, its rivers, its cities, and its mountains. That whole enormous mass of reality moves swiftly, as if it had no weight; and, indeed, it lacks historical weight: it is the future that is being incarnated. The reality Whitman sings is utopian. And by this I do not mean that it is unreal or that it exists only as idea, but that its essence, that which moves it, justifies it, and gives direction to its march, gravity to its movements, is the future. Dream within a dream, Whitman’s poetry is realistic for this reason alone: its dream is the dream of reality itself, which has no substance other than that of inventing itself, dreaming itself. “When we dream that we dream,” Novalis says, “we are about to waken.” Whitman never had consciousness that he was dreaming and always considered himself a poet of reality. And he was, but only insofar as the reality he sang was not something given, but a substance shot through with the future. America dreams itself in Whitman because America itself was dream, pure creation. Before and after Whitman we have had other poetic dreams. All of them—be the dreamer named Poe or Darío, Melville or Dickinson—are really attempts to escape the American nightmare.
In the end the theme of every American writer is the future, a version of which may be glimpsed in the words of Dickinson, Lincoln, and Whitman. Consider how Dickinson balances it precariously above the abyss—”Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow.” And the unfinished work to which Lincoln summoned us from a cemetery in Gettysburg. And the way in which “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of [Whitman’s] soul, / There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” Here was the promise of America, easily forgotten after September 11. Hence the nightmare we have foisted on the whole world.
What choice did we have? said the businessman. Tell me.
We were in the living room of a spacious house, in a gated community in Connecticut, arguing about the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. A group of well-heeled men and women with an interest in foreign affairs had assembled earlier in the evening to hear a presentation by writers from Ireland and Poland, and after most of the guests went home I fell into a bitter dispute with a soft-spoken man whose support for the invasion of Iraq was unequivocal. November 2003: the bloodiest month to date in the war. The escalating violence, which would soon reveal to even the president’s admirers the shortcomings of his policy, was impossible to ignore. Another helicopter had just been shot down. Improvised explosive devices were killing and maiming U.S. troops every day. The outline of a sophisticated insurgency was taking shape. The word quagmire had returned to the lexicon of foreign policy experts in this country and abroad.
Choice? I said. We had so many choices, so many issues to address—global warming, the spread of AIDS, the decline of our educational system, the budget deficit. We could have rebuilt Afghanistan instead of turning it over to warlords. We could have used our Special Forces to find Osama bin Laden instead of sending them to Iraq. We could have engaged in a real war of ideas with the Islamic fundamentalists instead of providing them with more ammunition, and so on.
My words fell on deaf ears. And I remain haunted by his belief that we had no choice but to wage a preventative war, which has not only cost us blood and treasure but opened up a new front in the war on terror and severely damaged the image of America as a beacon of hope. For choice is a condition of freedom, and since 9/11 our individual freedoms—our choices—have been curtailed. “Freedom is not a philosophy,” Paz reminds us, “nor is it even an idea. It is a movement of consciousness that leads us, at certain moments, to utter one of two monosyllables: Yes or No. In their brevity, lasting but an instant, like a flash of lightning, the contradictory character of human nature stands revealed.” It is this movement of consciousness that poetry enacts—a flash of insight streaking across the page, revealing the divisions in our soul.
The contradictions in the American character have been laid bare by 9/11. If Bush’s real political agenda in invading Iraq was to reorder the Middle East to guarantee a continuous flow of crude oil, then the businessman was right: we had no choice, since we have not developed alternative energy supplies. Yet choice is the essence of freedom, which is what the Founding Fathers were keenest to preserve; hence our system of checks and balances, which went awry after 9/11. Power, Gramsci noted, means being able to set the agenda. And Bush used the crisis to chart a course at odds with what the majority of Americans imagined they had voted for in the 2000 election. Nor did the media challenge the administration’s claims. Democrats failed to uphold their obligation to mount an effective opposition. And with the economy in a nosedive, many Americans were too scared to imagine that their leaders did not have their interests at heart. It turns out that the Y2K fear was misplaced: the computers survived the changing calendar; our civil liberties and standing in the world did not. What astonishes is the scale of Bush’s hubris, his disdain of international treaties and opinion, his failure to maintain a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” in Jefferson’s memorable phrase. It is too soon to measure all of the consequences of such hubris, although the evidence presented thus far in the court of world opinion is damning. And if the foundational texts of Western thought—The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Bible—are any guide, then we are in more trouble than we know.
None of which would have surprised Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet who discovered in the dynamics of historical change a powerful literary motif. There is no better chronicler of the nexus between personal, political, and literary experience. And if it is true that 9/11 catapulted us into a new realm of experience, which must be described in a language adequate to our circumstances, then we might read Cavafy for insight into the uncertainty that we now recognize as a permanent feature of our lives.
He was born in Alexandria in 1863, the ninth and last child of prosperous emigrants from Constantinople. But with his father’s death in 1870 the family’s fortunes declined, so his mother took him and his brothers to London, where the mercantile firm of Cavafy and Sons thrived. The boy thus entered literature through English poets—Robert Browning’s monologues made a deep impression—and indeed his first poems were written in English. His formal education, such as it was, did not begin until his return to Alexandria at the age of sixteen. He enrolled briefly in a commercial school, where he was more interested in classics than accounting, but when an outbreak of anti-Christian violence sparked British bombardment of the city, he and his mother fled to Constantinople, where he gained a sense of the lost grandeur of Byzantium—the last place on earth, according to Yeats, in which “religious, aesthetic and practical life were one.”
Cavafy’s mother came from the Phanariot community, which wielded considerable clerical power in the Ottoman era, and he took pride in their efforts to keep alive the Great Idea of the Greeks—a New Rome, a restored Byzantium. In his grandfather’s library he read widely not only in literature, becoming fluent in ancient Greek, Arabic, French, Italian, and Latin, but in Byzantine and Hellenic history; after the dislocations of his childhood he discovered a homeland in history and in his love for things Greek, a feeling accentuated by his discourse with the ghosts of Alexandria, the former capital of the Hellenic world, where in 1885 he settled for good.
His was an uneventful life. He worked for thirty years as a clerk in the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works and speculated on the Egyptian stock exchange. He lived with his mother, then his brother, and finally alone in a second-floor apartment, in a run-down section of an Arab city that had long since lost its luster. Nor did he rue his circumstances. “Where could I live better?” he asked. “Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.” He wrote about seventy poems a year, keeping only a handful, which he published privately in a series of offprints and broadsides for distribution to a select audience. Determined to preserve his intellectual independence, he did not seek out the literary limelight. “When the writer knows pretty well that only very few volumes of his edition will be bought,” he noted, “he obtains a great freedom in his creative work. The writer who has in view the certainty, or at least the possibility of selling all his edition, and perhaps subsequent editions, is sometimes influenced by their future sale… . [A]lmost without meaning to, almost without realizing—there will be moments when, knowing how the public thinks and what it likes and what it will buy, he will make some little sacrifices—he will phrase this bit differently, and leave that out. And there is nothing more destructive for Art (I tremble at the mere thought of it) than that this bit should be differently phrased or that bit omitted.” Like Dickinson, he used his privacy, his artistic freedom, to create poetry of universal significance, which did not begin to find its worldwide audience until after he had died, of throat cancer, on his seventieth birthday.
He described himself as a poet-historian; his sources were Greek, Roman, and Byzantine histories; his muse was Eros. His frank treatment of homosexual themes informed every poem—diadactic or sensual, narrative or lyric—for no realm of human experience—political, cultural, spiritual—is immune to the caprices of desire, the fickleness of attention, the certainty of betrayal. Guided by an image of a mythical Alexandria, in which pagans and Christians contended for the hearts of the citizenry, he searched for the patterns underlying historical events. In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” dating from 1898, the poem in which he discovered his distinctive voice and style—his mask—he explored a situation which bears an uncanny resemblance to our own circumstances. Here it is in the translation of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:
- What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
- The barbarians are due here today.
- Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
- Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
- Because the barbarians are coming today.
- What laws can the senators make now?
- Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
- Why did our emperor get up so early,
- and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
- on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
- Because the barbarians are coming today
- and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
- He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
- replete with titles, with imposing names.
- Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
- wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
- Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
- and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
- Why are they carrying elegant canes
- beautifully worked in silver and gold?
- Because the barbarians are coming today
- and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
- Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
- to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
- Because the barbarians are coming today
- and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
- Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
- (How serious people’s faces have become.)
- Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
- everyone going home so lost in thought?
- Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
- And some who have just returned from the border say
- there are no barbarians any longer.
- And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
- They were, those people, a kind of solution.
The title suggests the lassitude into which the citizens of this imaginary city have fallen. Cavafy said “the emperor, the senators and the orators are not necessarily Roman.” The vagueness of the setting contributes to the timeless nature of the dialogue between someone in the know and his questioner: think pundit and journalist. Nor did Cavafy publish any other dialogues, although each of his poems is in some sense in dialogue with a historical figure, an absent lover, or himself. Unlike other early poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is unrhymed, nevertheless obeying a strict syllabic count, the questions written in fifteen-syllable lines, the answers in twelve, the concluding couplet in thirteen.
Replace barbarian with terrorist, and you will see the analogy to our current predicament. Barbarian means stutterer, one who cannot speak Greek. But the barbarians of our world not only speak English, the lingua franca, they are also adept at fitting into our societies, whereas we are unable to understand their languages and the doctrinaire form of Islam they preach, to say nothing of the hatred that inspired Osama bin Laden to issue a fatwa against American citizens—and then follow it up with such carnage.
But did we not once view the Soviet Bloc as barbarian? After World War II the threat posed by the communists offered a kind of solution to the problem of maintaining a social and political order. The costs were high, even if the communists never arrived. Twelve years after the Berlin Wall came down, we found a solution to the uncertainty of the 1990s, when it was common in foreign policy circles to note, somewhat wistfully, that the Cold War had enforced a kind of discipline on the Great Powers: the threat of nuclear annihilation caused the Soviet Union and the United States to fight a series of proxy wars, in Vietnam and Afghanistan, in Africa and Central America; with the end of the Cold War, ethnic and tribal conflicts spread across the globe. But another discipline is upon us. When our president asserts that countries are either with us or against us, we recognize a pattern familiar to Cavafy. We have our new barbarians.
Terror is the chief impediment to empathy. Consider the body’s responses to fear: to flee, to lash out, to become paralyzed. Americans experienced the full range of emotions associated with terror on September 11, when a new paradigm began to take shape: a political, social, and cultural framework whose parameters are only now becoming clear. But this much we can say: fear afflicts our body politic. And however much we may abhor Bush’s cynical use of this fear to advance his political agenda, it is important to remember the depth of its origins. After all, a majority of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, because in the face of terror we tend to think the worst of the other—German Americans in World War I, Japanese Americans in World War II, left-leaning intellectuals and artists during the Cold War, Arab Americans now.
A friend, for example, was about to leave his brownstone in the West Village to sign the papers for his severance package (he had just lost his job) when the first plane hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists sliced into the World Trade Center. My friend’s reaction was swift: he made plans to escape with his family to Long Island, resolving never to return. But as the days of his self-imposed exile turned into weeks, despite the pleas of his wife and children and the cajoling of his friends, his marriage began to fall apart. One night his wife called to ask me to talk to him. I told my friend he could not allow the threat of another terrorist attack to govern his life, invoking the courage of the Sarajevans I had met during the siege of their city—the courage that among other things enabled them to keep their city in the negotiations leading to the Dayton Peace Accords. My friend insisted that my analogy was imperfect. But analogy is integral to empathy, I argued, and terror blunts the mind’s ability to find analogies.
Indeed we have adapted to the new dispensation of the war on terror: the long waits at airport security; the color-coded threat levels raised, it seems, whenever the administration has bad news to report; the knowledge that crimes are being committed in our name—in torture chambers in the Middle East, in our occupation of Iraq, in the prisons at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. No doubt about it: we are frightened. And so we are less likely to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. If truth is the first casualty of war, empathy is next. But a healthy culture depends upon truth telling and empathy.
How to deepen our powers of empathy? A literary education is a good place to start. Reading widely in our own and other literary traditions allows us to inhabit vastly different imaginative spaces: when a reader becomes the book, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, he becomes the other. And if this communion of spirits may be fostered by education, it can as well be destroyed, as I learned in graduate school. I was assisting in the teaching of a yearlong course in the history of Western literature, the readings of which began with Gilgamesh and concluded with Kafka. My mentor was a charismatic woman who was contemplating becoming a lesbian for what she called political reasons. I had assumed that such a decision owed more to biology than to politics, but I had learned not to argue with her—her convictions were far sturdier than mine—and so we got along until the day I found I could no longer hold my tongue.
Our friendship ended over a paper turned in by our favorite student, an older woman whose wisdom was well known. She had fled a polygamous marriage, saving herself and her children from the renegade Mormon doctrine of blood atonement—that is, the taking of another life before he or she has a chance to fall from grace—in an ingenious fashion: she went to a singles bar every night for three weeks straight, bringing home a different man each time, until it became clear to her husband and the community that there was no hope for her. She brought to class, then, not only cunning, wit, and a hunger for ideas, but also a literary flair, which made her papers a delight to read, until, inexplicably, she handed in a flowery essay that, in my eyes, was incomprehensible. My mentor disagreed. If you had ever undergone an abortion, she said, you would understand. I replied that I had never been a king, but because I had read King Lear I knew what a blind sovereign cut to the quick by his daughters must feel. She gave the paper an A. I told the student she could do better, and she agreed. My mentor and I drifted apart.
You might say our friendship dissolved over the question of empathy, which is a function of what Keats called “Negative Capabilities—that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Keats thought Shakespeare was the greatest bearer of this quality, but each of us possesses the possibility of living it to some degree or another, though it must be nourished. And indeed we might describe our national policy in the wake of 9/11 as an irritable reaching—though, alas, not always after fact or reason. But one of the virtues of great literature is that it can instruct us in uncertainty.
For example, Eudora Welty’s short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” the genesis of which she describes in the preface to her Collected Stories:
- The hot August night when Medgar Evers, the local civil rights leader, was shot from behind in Jackson, I thought, with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote this story—my fiction—in the first person: about that character’s point of view, I felt, through my shock and revolt, I could make no mistake.
Welty wrote this story in a single sitting, on the night of the shooting. Long preparation, steady practice, and close observations of her own and of her neighbors made her a perfect instrument for recording the interior dimensions of this tragedy. It makes for uncomfortable reading—the assassin is anything but likable, but he is at the same time all too human, all too familiar; the insight that Welty offers into the workings of his mind and milieu tells us something about who we are as a people:
- On TV and in the paper, they don’t know but half of it. They know who Roland Summers was without knowing who I am. His face was in front of the public before I got rid of him, and after I got rid of him there it is again—the same picture. And none of me. I ain’t ever had one made. Not ever! The best that newspaper could do for me was offer a five-hundred-dollar reward for finding out who I am.
Here is a barbed warning about the limits of what the media can uncover. The true story of any historical event will be told, if at all, by an imaginative writer courageous enough to dive into the language and the depths of his or her soul to discover points of correspondence with the Other. Finding out who he is, no matter how base he might be: this is the writer’s task. “I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters,” Welty wrote. “What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.” What we need now are writers who can imagine their way into the Other. In fact, at a seminar not long after September 11, a member of the intelligence community called for more training in the synthetic imagination—the writer’s imagination, that is.
A hooded man on a pedestal, with electrodes attached to his arms and legs: this is the image by which the success or failure of the American experiment will now be gauged. The war crimes committed by our political leaders (they hold command responsibility for the actions of the troops) are a direct result of their cynical exploitation of 9/11. There is a connection between the failure of our political elites to summon us to our noblest selves and our collective guilt on display in the photographs from Abu Ghraib, the legal reasoning at the Justice Department and Pentagon justifying torture, the willful blindness in the face of reports on prison abuses. In addition to the administration’s moral and legal failings there was the failure of our adversarial processes embodied by the political opposition, the media, the courts, and the intellectual community. It is true that protests against the war were organized, that a handful of diplomats resigned in protest, that a few brave voices were raised in Congress and the media. But in retrospect we see that this was too little and too late. Indeed it is clear that Bush and his neoconservative advisors seized 9/11 to pursue their own designs while the rest of us—the media, the courts, the Democratic Party, writers and thinkers—slept.
Courage was what we needed—the kind of courage necessary to confront the fear- and warmongering politicians who are always quick to seize on a national emergency. Americans have some experience with this: in 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican from Michigan, told Harry Truman he could get a $400 million military and economic aid program to Greece and Turkey if he used the threat of Soviet expansionism to “scare hell out of the country.” The president thus created the Truman Doctrine, which described an endless global battle between freedom and tyranny—barbarism. The Cold War was on, with its loyalty oaths, proxy wars, and extraordinary expenditures of blood and treasure. Not to mitigate the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but to remember the costs to our freedom and ideals. The Bush administration employed the same tactic in declaring an endless war on terror: a formula for keeping the reins of power.
Not long ago, I took part in a panel discussion in Portland, Maine, on the PATRIOT Act and the strictures issuing from the Office of Homeland Security. I spoke of the inability of writers and artists to secure visas with which to enter this country. A historian lamented the declining numbers of applications from foreign students. A lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union warned of even greater threats to our freedom in pending legislation. There was a palpable feeling of despair, which prompted a congressman to say, “We will have to be brave for the next twenty years.” This is where literature can help. Surely the pleasure we take in an elaborate conceit reinforced by prosodic means, in the development of a character far removed from our experience, in the machinations of a plot, is conditioned by the truth of its telling. Literature can fortify the soul, encouraging us to be brave in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity—the grey areas that define so much of human experience and which, like freedom, are our birthright.