Our Nation's Magnum Opus

A professor of mine told me once that it takes seven years for a tragic event to settle into peoples’ minds, the collective consciousness, before any art can come of it. So I started looking this past September 11th, the seventh anniversary of the attacks. I didn’t have to wait long. The American requiem for the attacks – penned by several hundred million authors – even took more than just those seven years to build tension, crescendo, and then collapse with bated-breath intensity of the towers. Our masterpiece came in the world financial markets, instead of in a libretto, or on a canvas, or a novel.

Briefly, we lived in a time after the end of history. During this time Jonathan Franzen wrote “The Corrections” – which a friend of mine considers the first post-9/11 novel. A prescient novel, as it was published about a year before 9/11. The final chapter of Franzen’s novel begins with this passage:

“The correction, when it finally came, was not an overnight bursting of a bubble but a much more gentle letdown, a year-long leakage of value from key financial markets, a contraction too gradual to generate headlines and too predictable to seriously hurt anybody but fools and the working poor.

It seemed to Enid that current events in general were more muted or insipid nowadays than they’d been in her youth. She had memories of the 1930’s, she’d seen firsthand what could happen to a country when the world economy took its gloves off; she’d helped her mother pass out leftovers to homeless men in the alley behind their roominghouse. But disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place, like the squares of rubber that every modern playground was paved with, to soften impacts.”

From the shadow of 9/11, this sentiment seems quaint. But we grasp for it at this moment as our legislators in Washington huddle together and try to figure out how to wedge those squares of rubber beneath the financial asteroid that has already struck the planet. Herein lies the beauty of our work of art: It is at once absurd, hilarious to watch these buffoonish Faustus’ try to renege on their pact with Mephistopheles, tragic for the lives they’ll put on the line to do it, and sobering to admit that we all knew it would come to this and avoided every Delphic warning along the way. The complicity for this disaster runs far and deep and the vicious circle of blame, from the proverbial “fat cats on Wall Street” to the “minorities and risky people who can’t pay their mortgages,” is ouroborotic; the snake eating its own tail.

Franzen also said, in an essay in Harper’s Magazine several years before the publication of “The Corrections”: “Tragic realism preserves the recognition that improvement always comes at a cost; that nothing lasts forever; that if the good in the world outweighs the bad, it’s by the slimmest of margins. I suspect that art has always had a particularly tenuous purchase on the American imagination because ours is a country to which hardly anything really terrible has ever happened."

Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that we would commemorate our first great national tragedy since slavery and the Civil War in the language this country has always spoken most fluently; commerce.

In his book “Studies in Classic American Literature” D.H. Lawrence famously wrote, “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” After 9/11 that stoicism melted. Whatever we had left of a British stiff upper lip, fully curled into an American snarl. Vengeance would be our balm. They’d caught us off guard this time, but the next one we would take care of ourselves. We would will calamity upon ourselves to prove our mettle (by 2001 we were already well on our way to this present disaster).

Friedrich Nietzsche asked, in his introduction to “The Birth of Tragedy”:

“Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual inclination for what in existence is hard, dreadful, evil, problematic, emerging from what is healthy, from overflowing well being, from living existence to the full? Is there perhaps a way of suffering from the very fullness of life? A tempting courage of the keenest sight which demands what is terrible as the enemy, the worthy enemy, against which it can test its power, from which it wants to learn what ‘to fear’ means?"

Perhaps you’ll say it was 9/11 and Al-Qaeda which we invited to test our power. But I disagree. We have never considered the ragtag rebels and the “holes they live in” in Afghanistan as worthy adversaries. We sent fewer troops to demolish their safe-haven of a nation than there are police on the streets of New York City. Our emperor said of their Visigoth leader, “I don’t really think much about him anymore.” We had a hand in bringing on 9/11, of course, but to really see what we were made of, we needed a far more worthy adversary. We needed ourselves as our enemy.

We turned our homes against us. Every night men returned not to their castles, but to a hand grenade in which they slept. We put much of the world’s money on the backs of our homes to up the stakes and then faced down the plunging red arrows to see who would blink first. Our president – like our potential soon-to-be vice-president – if you didn’t know, does not blink. Ever. Well, this time, he blinked. Everyone blinked. It turned out that stoicism we’d traded for vengeance; we missed having it.

About a year before he killed himself, David Foster Wallace asked this question in The Atlantic as part of the magazine’s 75th anniversary “Year in Ideas” feature: “What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifices on the altar of freedom’? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”

We’ve failed the trial with which we were confronted, and the one with which we confronted ourselves. The red arrows plunged too quickly, too far and we wondered where our guts had gone. Now we’re trying to make use of those squares of rubber retroactively.

Is it too late to try Foster Wallace’s thought experiment? Can we remove the “Power of Pride” bumper stickers from the backs of our Chevy’s and admit that our hubris, as it was for many a Greek, is not our great strength but our far-too-predictable Achilles’ heel? Can we make a hundred million “Power of Stoicism” bumper stickers instead? And if we do, will anyone be able to recall that strength for themselves? The alternative is probably close and it will not be the dramatic denouement to this work we want to leave in the historical record.

“To be so enormous. Then to die.”

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