Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Favorite Written Text for Remembering 9/11

The Fall
Washington Diarist

Leon Wieseltier
The New Republic, September 9, 2002

I have been reading collections of writings about September 11, and they are wearying: so many bruises so feebly expressed, so many people searching for a poem to protect them. Dickinson #341, perhaps? Literariness is a kind of sedative, I suppose, and in this way it differs from literature. There are circumstances, of course, in which unoriginality of feeling or form is not a shortcoming, in which the really advanced statement is the modest expression of a common sentiment, in which banality is a guarantee of decency. In a huge volume called September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, I encounter a letter by Richard Wilbur written a few months after the catastrophe to the book's editor, declining the invitation to art:

Dear Bill,

The only thing I can say right now is this. There is no excuse for the cold inhumanity of 11 September, and there is no excuse for those Americans, whether of the left or the religious right, who say that we had it coming to us.


The poet's disinclination to make a poem is affecting. It is the truest thing in the book. But elsewhere in this book, and in the other books, there is only banality in the bad sense, and remaindered habits of dissent, and the occasional hilarity, as in the observation by Avital Ronell that when George W. Bush remarked that we were tested on September 11, he "reverted to a citation of pretechnological syntagms that capture the auratic pull of the test." Surely the syntagms were his staff's. But now it is the anniversary, and it is Elul, and I must be forgiving. I am prepared even to agree with Stanley Fish that postmodernism did not destroy the World Trade Center.

But as I leaf through A Nation Challenged, the "visual history" of the catastrophe that has been produced by The New York Times, I gasp at the sight of the picture that frightened me almost out of my mind when I saw it in the paper a year ago. Here it is again, the size of a page, and in color. It is the photograph, taken by Richard Drew of the Associated Press, of the man falling to his death from the north tower. His head faces the earth, his feet face the sky, but there is no earth in the picture and no sky, there is only the striped geometry of the "exoskeleton" of the building in the background, still intact in its spurious attitude of invincibility. The lines of the faade look like ladders without rungs. The tower is half in shadow, half in light, and the man is dropping between the shadow and the light. There is no sign of his velocity. His physical integrity is extraordinary. He is standing in the world but the world is upside-down. He does not appear to be wounded. He seems composed, a stoic in the air, except for the tails of his white shirt, which hang from his trousers like snapped wings. His hands are smartly at his side, his legs look as if they are marching. It is almost possible to make out his face. It is an African American face, a full, tender face. I do not see panic on the man's countenance. I see thought. I shudder that he may have been thinking. I do not impute philosophy to his face, only mindfulness. I suspect that his eyes are open. His direction is clear.

In our souls, we are vertical; or so we have been taught to think since the beginnings of spiritual speculation in the West. "The way of life is upward to the wise," Proverbs advises. Heaven is above, hell is below. We seek the top, we fear the bottom. When we are worthy, we ascend; when we are unworthy, we descend. The good will rise, the evil will fall. We look up to our betters and our rulers, they look down on us. The "ladder of ascension" is a central myth of salvation in Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam. (God is "stably and permanently at the top of the ladder," Maimonides instructed.) And in the later inversions of the traditional teachings, in the almost irresistible doctrines of redemption through sin, according to which the depths are as spiritually attractive as the heights, the dream is still a vertical one. I have often worried that the grip of this directionality upon our souls is owed simply to the fact of our physical bearing. We aspire to paradise in the manner of upright beings. Levinas thought otherwise. "Height introduces a sense into being," he wrote. "It is already lived across the experience of the human body. It leads human societies to raise up altars. It is not because men, through their bodies, have an experience of the vertical that the human is placed under the sign of height; because being is ordained for height the human body is placed in a space in which the high and the low are distinguished and the sky is discovered." And we not only dream high, we also build high. The vertical conception of human greatness is nowhere more apparent than in architecture. Was there ever a structure so "ordained for height" as the World Trade Center? These buildings were extravagantly consecrated to the proposition that glory is celestial. Visitors to Windows on the World used to marvel about its God-like view of the city. A philosopher who visited the World Trade Center in the 1980s remarked upon "this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more." To escape one's finitude, one had only to take the elevator to the 110th floor.

These associations I use to defend myself against this picture of this man who did not escape his finitude. I look at what an AP photographer brought back from the inferno—the actual one, not the one peddled by clerics—and I see an emblem of what used to be called soteriology. Too many books, I guess; but this is a way of insisting upon the scope of the horror in New York a year ago. It is also a way of turning back some of these spatial superstitions. For there is something inhumane about this metaphor of the summit. The heights can be fatal, and the exhilaration can be cruel, and this man falling from the tower is falling for no reason except the evil in the hearts of other men, and wisdom is not in the clouds, and God is not in the sky. Surely our minds can develop a view of the world that is not merely a corollary of our bodies. I would rather be ordained for truth than ordained for height.

The remarkable thing about the falling man is that he is not looking down. He is looking straight ahead. And as I say, he is in the stance of a man who is marching. There is, in other words, a strangely horizontal quality to him, which may account for his terrifying dignity. He seems to be fighting his vertical doom with his horizontal dignity. What matters to his gaze is not what is above, but what is ahead. Turn this picture of the upside-down world upside- down, and he appears even to have a sensation of purpose. He is not on a ladder, he is on a track. Regarded in this way, he looks like nothing so much as a soldier. Regarded in this way, his testament is plain.


Why is the my favorite written text, out of the millions of words that have been written, from immediately in the wake of until a full decade afterward, about the attacks of September 11th? This essay was much attacked, as I recall, for taking such a horrible photograph--capturing a mere millisecond out of some doomed soul's journey towards death, a death that he didn't ask for, a death that perhaps he chose to hasten by jumping from the tower, rather than remaining to be burned alive or blown to bits--and turning it into a work of art, of philosophy, and yes, of propaganda. I confess, those are exactly the reasons why it has likely stayed with me for so long. (I didn't save a copy of the essay, and had to search to track it down for this post; but some of the Wieseltier's lines--especially "His direction is clear"--have never left my mind.) For better and/or for worse, in the days and weeks and months and years after this tragedy, we made from it something, as we always make something of all our experiences and memories, both good and bad. By the time this essay was written, the making which a majority of Americans had voluntarily contributed their memories to was mostly one of propaganda: those who died on 9/11 weren't unfortunate victims, but the first casualties in a war--they were, in essence, all soldiers, and their heroic deaths were a witness to the rest of us soldiers to get on with our duty. There was something, for me at least (though certainly not just for me; millions of others agreed with me), appealing about that kind of ideological conscription--something Rousseauian, something republican, something honorable and communitarian and good. It was abused, to say the least. But in re-reading this piece, I can still feel the pull--I can still hear a voice that tells me "Make sure the Falling Man did not jump in vain!" Wieseltier's voice is a dangerous one, even if there is really nothing necessarily dangerous in his intentions or his language (though perhaps there is). But regardless, it is perhaps that frisson of danger--of having witnessed something much larger and deeper and more meaningful and more deadly than our own lives, and in having witnessed it, having been conscripted by it as well--that makes his beautiful, thoughtful words hauntingly, dangerously attractive at the same time.

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