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Friday, June 01, 2007

9/11 as Symbol

I was just reading Frank Rich's review of Don DeLillo's new novel, Falling Man, and it is only the most recent of several reviews I have read of this book. Having not yet read it, I am not going to review it. In fact, I'm not sure that, as a creative writer, that I have any business judging anyone else's work publicly in any way, shape, or form. Anything that I might write would be too freighted with the weight of my own hopes and dreams and disappointments to be useful as a guide for others. Therefore, I am going to try to refrain from writing about the work of other writers from here on out.

But I digress.

In reading these reviews of Falling Man, I've noticed a common assumption underpinning them. (I'm going to have to tread lightly here. All I have to say to the reader about my following points is to ask him or her to cut me some slack. I'm working through this right in front of you, and this does not represent some polished argument that I've been burnishing in a back room. I'm thinking through this out loud, not passing any laws.)

But I digress again.

The assumption, of course, is that the attacks on September 11, 2001, changed both history and our society forever and that art has a responsibility to make sense of it and to provide a context in which these nearly random, extremely idiotic acts can be understood. And it occurred to me while reading Frank Rich (and I'm not knocking Frank Rich--I am, in fact, a big fan) that this fundamental assumption is wrong.

The 9/11 attacks were not profound events in the way that the critics and, frankly, society at large wants them to be. We, culturally, were not changed forever on that day. We were changed temporarily and nothing more.

Now, let me make plain that I am not speaking on behalf of the bereaved and the survivors. Their experience of that day was--and had to be--different than the experience of the nation as a whole. The effect of those terrible events had to be far more profound and meaningful and significant for those folks than anyone else. To say otherwise is to cheapen their grief and dilute their sorrow.

For the rest of the nation, though, however stunned and saddened we were on the day and in the days ensuing, life returned, bit-by-bit and step-by-step, to the way it had been before. As I've said before, the government did nothing to encourage us to do otherwise, asked nothing of us, and saw us as no more useful than a dissenting opinion or a fresh idea. In his speech concerning the attacks, the President asked us only to go shopping, and we have, for the most part, complied.

And this is the reason why artists have had so little to say about 9/11 and its aftermath. There's not really anything to say. It was a horrible and terrible day, however it changed us less than has the popularity of the iPod. The desire of critics and of the population at large to want 9/11 to be more significant--to mean something--is understandable, but wrongheaded. We cannot sort through something that has not occurred.