PRINT November 2001

READING 9-11-01

Reading 9-11-01

IN THE DAYS immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, titles that promised answers in the face of the disaster threatened to keep retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch's straight-talking memoir out of the top slot on best-seller lists. Studies of the Taliban movement, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, and the ill-fated twin towers themselves predictably climbed the charts, but according to the New York Times, king of the hill was Nostradamus: At the online bookshop, three editions of the prophesies of the sixteenth-century mystic, into whose cryptic ramblings many grave crises have been read, held the top spots. In search of a saner syllabus, we asked our contributors what volumes they reached for to find insight, or just plain solace.


On September 11 and in the days after, I happened to be reading Czeslaw Milosz's New and Collected Poems 1931–2001 and a newly published selection of his essays. It's one thing, I was reminded, to read about smoking ruins and daily horrors in occupied Europe fifty years ago, and another to see them before one's eyes. As an immigrant who grew up in that world, I could never comprehend the thrill of movie audiences in this country at the sight of wholesale killing and bombs exploding in some action movie. They were having one hell of a good time and were clearly hoping for more carnage. Despite many serious warnings about terrorism in recent years, we based so much of our intellectual and political life on the premise that history would take place elsewhere while we continued to sit in front of our TVs listening to canned laughter. Consequently, much of what one reads today in the oped pages of our newspapers is clueless. Far better to read a veteran of historical tragedies like Milosz. In one of his essays, he writes about totalitarian terror, but it applies as well to our situation now. Terror, he says, is not monumental; it is abject. It has a furtive glance. It destroys the fabric of human society and its relationships. How true, one thinks, and how too that clarity of mind gives one hope.

Charles Simic is professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. His most recent collection of poems, Night Picnic, was published by Harcourt this fall.


It may seem odd to reach for Gertrude Stein's Wars I Have Seen, the autobiography published in 1945 about living with Alice B. Toklas in southeastern France during World War II under Nazi control. Stein could be stupid, but she was also a shrewd student of wars whose home truths cannot be rubbished.

Wars I Have Seen is account of wartime in a region that is removed from the actual battlefields but is under duress. Individuals feel strained, anxious, helpless: “you take a train, you disappear. . . your house is gone, your children too. . . . there is nothing to say.” People have lost something so precious that Stein calls its presence a “miracle”—the ability to live freely in their own neighborhood. Even in these circumstances, individuals are moral agents. Some collaborate with the Germans, but many do not.

Perhaps apologetically, Stein ends her book with a previously published “Appendix” supporting the Vichy government that arose after the German invasion of France. It shows Stein at her stupidest. Since September 11, I have been inundated by commentary about our catastrophe—in the media, on the Internet, by e-mail. Stein's “Appendix” is a warning to us all about the dangers of a premature and self-satisfied punditry that threatens to outweigh the voices of witnesses, mourners, and the investigative detectives of our sorrow.

Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.


My first bookish instinct was to remind myself of what the neighborhood around the towers was before they went up, and so I turned to the WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, which describes the area as the Lower West Side, an appellation that has disappeared entirely. The Guide reports that the character of the neighborhood was “derived from produce sheds, crates, smells of fruit and fish of Washington Market and the amazing variety of retail shops selling radios, pets, garden seeds, fire works, sporting goods, shoes, textiles, and church supplies.” World trade was more than evident. In fact the market overflowed with international produce: “caviar from Siberia, Gorgonzola cheese from Italy, hams from Flanders, sardines from Norway, English partridge, native quail, squabs, wild ducks, and pheasants.” The residential center was called the Syrian Quarter and was composed of “Turks, Armenians, Arabs, and Greeks.” The Guide's authors had an eye for the exotic, and so they note that “although the fez has given way to the snap-brim, and the narghile has been abandoned for cigarettes, the coffee houses and the tobacco and confectionery shops of the Levantines still remain.” Shish kebabs, knafie, baklava, and other Middle Eastern specialties were widely available, and stores sold “graceful earthen water jars,” “tables inlaid with mother of pearl,” and “Syrian silk: of rainbow hues.” It is sobering to recall that all these commercial goods and practices, dating back to the storied Levantine trade of the Ancient World, were cleared away to make room for a physical structure that, for thirty years, was called the World Trade Center. Now all that may be left is an elaborate memorial to the accidental victims of an economic system that tried to impose new rules of global trade, at its own peril.

Andrew Ross, director of the American Studies Program at New York University, is the author most recently of The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town (Ballantine, 1999).


Living in our ecumenical age, it is assumed as common wisdom that the three monotheistic religions can coexist in harmony and that a “trialogue” can resolve their differences and unify humanity. Of course, I share in this belief, because it is the only hope humanity has. However, one can see the deep roots in every religion that point to fundamentally irreconcilable and mutually exclusive claims that suggest there is no room for Others. In the immediate aftermath of the horrible events of September 11, I turned to reread a number of passages in the Koran. Even in translated versions, the distance between reality and prophetic utterance, due to the temporal paradox of experience and the Eternal, is evident. The expedient use of claims on behalf of prophets and religions—Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—distorts the truly evolutionary realization: that for all the variety of texts and deities, there is but one God.

Daniel Libeskind is the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened to the public on September 9 after two years' vacancy.


Jorge Luis Borges's 1936 essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” an improbable tale of language, difference, and violence, offers an equally improbable antidote in the face of the us-versus-them rhetoric one hears from too many corridors. The tragic and vicious heroes are all translators—Galland, Lane, Burton. Each member of this “hostile dynasty” renders the text anew to kill the previous translator. Borges's parable gives us little immediate hope or solace, but it does rid us once and for all of the idea of an easy, clean division between internally harmonious communities. Nobody hates an Arabist more than another Arabist.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of the Städelschule art academy and the Portikus gallery in Frankfurt and a contributing editor of Artforum.


Fallen towers, falling idols. What has befallen the ideals of global progress now that the New York horizon is bereft of that towering ladder without rungs? Such days as September 11 confront our sense of progress with the challenge of the Unbuilt. The Unbuilt is not a place that you can reach with a ladder, as Wittgenstein might say. It cannot be seen in the endless media visibility given to the imploding towers and ground zero. The Unbuilt resists the eye's craving for a restored image. In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein describes the construction of progress thus:

Our civilization is characterized by the word ‘progress.’ ‘Progress’ is its form rather than making progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. . . .I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings.

What we need is a perspicuous vision that reveals a space, a way in the world, that is often obscured by the onward and upward thrust of progress. Neither destruction nor deconstruction, the Unbuilt is the creation of a form whose virtual absence raises the question of what it would mean to start again, in the same place, as if it were elsewhere, adjacent to the site of a historic disaster or a personal trauma. Gardens of solace and towers of regeneration may heal the wound. But the Unbuilt that haunts the space is the spirit of those, firefighters and rescue workers, who climbed an endless ladder, descending into the circle of death, to do their duty to those who had to escape. In that moment there is a sense of “making progress,” step by step, without the transcendent form of progress. And in that action there lies the un-utopian ethic of the Unbuilt. There are no available images of this act of ascent; progress here is a lateral or adjacent move toward the stranger as toward the neighbor. Of such a concern for the foundations of “possible” dwellers and dwellings we can have no visual assurance, only a perspicacity of what remains unbuilt. Pace Wittgenstein, we have to be interested in constructing a building; at the same time, we have no choice but to place, in full view of our buildings. the vision of the Unbuilt. Perhaps then we will not forget to measure progress as it creeps along the ground even when we find ourselves standing, or so we think, at the top of the tower.

Homi K. Bhabha joined Harvard University's departments of English and African American Studies this fall. He is currently completing A Measure of Dwelling, a study of vernacular cosmopolitanism.


My internal transmitters were knocked out and I've been reduced to about two programs. Inner channel one shows a neutral gleam, the blind, knotted eye of stupor—all we see is my stupefaction and motionless anxiety. I am not reading anything in particular, but I am receiving intrusive images: Some letters from the field, unpinnable memory traces, perhaps from Goethe or Flaubert. Inner channel two has an altogether different team of producers. I read voraciously, addictively turned to locutions that calm, stimulate, reroute the anguish and promote life. (I am still, if anything, a Nietzschean in this regard.) I am looking at my night table right now: Rilke's letters; Derrida on forgiveness; the Koran; Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist; Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas (on the unstoppable rage of man's need for revenge); letters from Goethe's mother; and my essential survival kit of poetry ranging from Shelley, Byron, Hölderlin to contemporary poems including those of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, Pierre Alferi's works, Yusef Komunyakaa's Talking Dirty to the Gods, and Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares. (I realize that I am tempted to include a list of what I do not read in times of extreme distress.)

Avital Ronell is professor and chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature at New York University. Her book Stupidity will appear next month from the University of Illinois Press.


“War itself,” Kant wrote, “if it is carried on with order and with a sacred respect for the rights of citizens, has something sublime in it.” This was written at the end of the eighteenth century, but it implies a concept of war as governed by codes of honor that reach back to the era of chivalry, and even earlier. And it inflects the way we continue to think of warfare, as is evident in politicians' speaking of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “cowardly,” even if those who executed them were fearless: They did not give fair warning and disregarded the rights of entirely innocent people. The degree to which armed conflict is understood as covered by rules of conduct makes it impossible to find historical precedents for the events that have overwhelmed us. In order to cope with the present, we must abandon the concept of warfare and begin to think outside the framework that has made it one aspect of civilization, however horrible actual wars have been.

Here is an episode of violence that falls outside that framework. It occurs in Book I of the Aeneid, in which a terrible disaster overcomes the forces of Troy as they set forth to establish themselves in a new land. It is a sudden and unexpected storm at sea. “Every sign / Portended a quick death for mariners. / . . . [A] howling gust from due north took the sail aback and lifted / Wavetops to heaven; oars were snapped in two / . . . [O]ver her flank and deck / A mountain of grey water crashed in tons.” The aggressor in the Aeneid was the goddess Juno, who cries: “The race I hate is crossing the Tuscan sea, / . . . Put new fury / Into your winds, and make the long ships founder!” She even promises her fairest nymph to King Aeolus, just as the fundamentalist martyrs are assured the caresses of seventy virgins when they pass into paradise.

Why Juno so hated the Trojans is a matter of long history, about which nothing could any longer be done. Neither can we do much about the history of unintended consequences that have made us objects of blind hatred. The gods were terrorists, accepting neither rules nor rights. The ancients had to find ways outside the scope of warfare to deflect their aggressions, and so must we, but the history of war furnishes no guidance for the path before us. I fear our leaders will have found it impossible to think outside the framework of war, and so will mount attacks on other states as an indirect means of dealing with terrorism. This is not really rising to the challenge of finding solutions that do not instead contribute to proliferation.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. His most recent book, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux last year.


I was thinking about contradiction when September 11 came. Awake all night, struggling with contradiction, because I had to do a lecture on it the next day and lecturing is not easy for me. A lecture is not a conversation, you don't get to ask the other people in the room what they think until the end, you have to expose yourself first. I was sifting possible openings. Begin with Heraklitos, who likened reality to a “backsprung bow,” that is, a system of oppositions bristling against itself unchangeably. Or start from Hegel and the doctrine of essences. For Hegel everything that has an essence is in a condition of “self-negation”—that's how it's possible for us to distinguish between a thing and itself. Only God, said Hegel, has no essence. God is absolutely God all the way through. Or maybe talk about the gnostics with their crazed mythologies of cosmic contradiction working itself out through good and evil and cold perfect sex. “I am the Mother and I am the Father and I copulate with myself,” says the gnostic deity Protennoia in a treatise of that name. Other gnostic theories replace this copulation with a single hot masculine error: “The world came about through a mistake, for he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal: he fell short.”

I was contemplating that sentence when I turned on the radio and heard the sound of the first World Trade tower falling. I put my lecture away. Contradiction is not only a mode of reasoning. Sometimes it comes in and fills the room. Bringing deathliness and death and the filth of death. There is nothing you can do with the filth of death but contradict it. Here is the text I used in the end:

Lily Events
(1) A man and woman looking for lilies.
(2) All the people going down to look for lilies.
(3) Mud taken up looking for lilies.
(4) Washing the lilies in the water to remove the mud.
(5) Washing themselves off after the mud has got on them.
(6) Lilies in a basket.
(7) Walking from the lily place “to go look for a dry place to sit down.”

(“Lily Events,” anonymous poem from Arnhem Land, Australia, in Poems for the Millennium, eds. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris [University of California Press, 1995])

Anne Carson is a classicist and poet. Her most recent book is The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).


I have been through the process of mourning before, but what struck me was that this was a collective state of bereavement and that a whole people could feel as one: the shadow of the lost object falling on desire. Compulsively devouring Le Monde, the New York Times, and La Nación, pathetically hoping to find some kind of light between the lines, some hidden truth, I remembered Eliot: “The only wisdom we ever hope to acquire is the lesson of humility, because humility is endless.” But rather than citations of Eliot's work, what emerges are distorted bits and pieces of memory and desire—as Paul Celan had wanted. More than ever I distrust the idea of a book, of the Book, whatever its interpretations. . . . Instead, I've become inhabited by fragments, which is both sweet and sour, because fragments, as we know, finally do not make sense.

Carlos Basualdo, chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus. Ohio, recently organized the exhibition “Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-cinemas.”


As the cold war gave way to the Gulf War and the New World Order, America found itself refashioning its imaginary other. A growing fear of the political unknown yielded aliens and infowar. Once we were “skyjacked” in planes; now we are spacenapped in UFOs or cyberjacked on the Net. Comet Hale-Bopp beams thirty-nine members of San Diego's technosect over the stars. All wore Nike shoes saying: Just Do It! Larry King Live goes live with alien abductees invading the American bedroom. In Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, Jodi Dean cites a poll stating that UFO believers in the US outnumber the voters who put Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton in office. If anything, on that fateful morning of September 11, America's political unconscious came haunting back through Hollywood's imagination, and symptom (flying saucers beaming out of nowhere to demolish the trade towers) met reality (the dark underside of repressed world politics struck back at the first world). But in Independence Day Real-Time, there's no happy ending.

Johan Grimonprez is an artist based in Ghent, Belgium. His most recent New York exhibition, “INFLIGHT! From Skyjacked to Spacenapped: Words to Read in the Sky,” appeared last fall at Deitch Projects.


During the last few weeks, I found myself turning to the two seventeenth-century poets who were the icons of my youth: John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Certainly not because their work provides any source of comfort or solace—far from it. For both, the personal is always entwined with the catastrophic.

For Donne, the New Science swept the familiar universe out of the sky, leaving behind a desolate and unmanageable void where order and meaning had once reigned. Here he is on the scary effects of the scientific discoveries of his age, in “An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary”:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to looke for it.
And freely men confesse that this world's spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seeke so many new; then see that this
Is crumbled out againe to his Atomies.
'Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation.

Nor, for Donne, was there any consolation to seek in the realm of the personal. On the contrary, since the microcosm and the macrocosm mirrored each other, disaster in the one realm was reiterated in the impossibility of achieving fulfillment in the other:

My Love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for object strange and high:
It was begotten by despair
Upon Impossibility.

This is Andrew Marvell resorting to the new astronomy and geography to define the absolute hopelessness of his situation. He and his beloved will never be united:

Unless the giddy Heaven fall,
And Earth some new Convulsion tear;
And, us to joyn, the World should all
Be cramped into a Planisphere.

Both Marvell and Donne, in their dark, complicated clarity and unsparing pessimism, seem particularly apposite now. They help drown out the chorus of sentimental clichés and spiritual pats on the back that threaten to overwhelm us at this awful time.

Linda Nochlin is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Her most recent book, Representing Women, was published by Thames and Hudson in 1999.


I have already had the benefit of the book that helps me understand such acts of malice, so I do not need to turn to it but only ask my memory to bring back its chilling but truthful pages—many of which I have by heart. The book is by Thomas Hobbes and he called it Leviathan. It was the product of bloody times, too—the English Civil War—though a more bloody time than ours would be hard to find. Superstitious zealots—both racial and religious—were ready to cut their own throats to sharpen the knife for another. In the midst of it all, and at much risk to himself (a timorous sort), Hobbes set down his verdict concerning the nature of man in such sentences as glorify at least the utterance of the condemnation. He would insist, I think, that an ideology—not mere men but poisoned men—blew up those buildings.

No English-language philosopher (excepting, perhaps, David Hume) saw more clearly the madness of religious superstition for what it was. The opening sections on religion are devastating, yet none more so than the note on which the entire work ends—a comparison of Ecclesiastes with fairies, for instance: “The Ecclesiastiques take the Cream of the Land, by Donations of ignorant men, that stand in aw of them, and by Tythes: So also it is in the Fable of Fairies, that they enter into the Dairies, and Feast upon the Cream, which they skim from the Milk.” The fairies, Hobbes knows, are one kind of fiction, the ecclesiastics are beholden to another.

Finally, “Again, in all Deliberations, and in all Pleadings, the faculty of solid Reasoning is necessary: for without it, the Resolutions of men are rash, and their Sentences unjust: and yet if there be not powerfull Eloquence, which procureth attention and Consent, the effect of Reason will be little.” Thomas Hobbes's reasoning is solid if not certain, his sentences are just, and his eloquence unequaled.

William Gass is David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His most recent book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999.


My recommended reading after the events of September 11 is Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God, a prescient portrayal of how militant piety has colonized the dominant religious narratives and of how these fundamentalisms have worked to demonize and destroy secularism, doubt, and democracy. It joins Armstrong's earlier A History of God and Elaine Scarry's brilliant The Body in Pain: a trio of compellingly ambitious accountings of how we got to where we are today.

Barbara Kruger is an anist based in New York and Los Angeles. A retrospective exhibition of her installations, sculptures, billboards, and posters was organized by LA MoCA in 1999.


The Lady works in mysterious ways, and the morning after the tragedy in New York, I unexpectedly found on the bedside table my ancient, dog-eared copy of Heinrich Zimmer's The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil. I accepted this odd gift of chance and let the book fall open, which, with uncanny prescience, it did to page two of the tale called “Abu Kasem's Slippers.”

Briefly, Abu Kasem is a miser who attempts to rid himself of a tattered pair of old slippers. But miraculously, the more times he throws them away, the more they return to wreak havoc in his life. A dog finds the slippers in the garbage and carries them, dripping and stinking, back into the house. Fishermen find the slippers entangled in their nets, the slippers' exposed nails ripping the cords, and angrily throw them through Abu Kasem's window. A neighbor catches sight of Abu Kasem bmying the slippers and, assuming there must be something valuable in the hole, denounces him to the Khalif for evading taxes. And so on.

Zimmer makes a gentle case for his interpretation-for him, “Abu Kasem's mortification is the natural consequence of being forced to drag around ... something that he refused to relinquish at the proper time, a mask, an idea about himself, that should have been shed.”

On that particular morning of horror my own interpretation focused instead on the huge energy channeled into maintaining the separation between the mirror identities of the night and the day—energy that, so long as the twin aspects of the forces of life and death are not brought into productive dialogue, continues to fester and poison the mind and body within which it circulates. And just as the individual, prevented from affirming and reconciling the complexities and incompatibilities of its own tangled identity, cannot achieve the self-recognition that must precede true healing, so our collective will is sapped by our national organism's need to refuse to publicly acknowledge its own immensely destructive alter ego.

Unless and until that happens—unless and until the invertebrates who claim to speak for Right and Good evolve into beings that can publicly acknowledge that when we teach, encourage, and support killing then killing, inevitably returns to us—our national organism's dim and distorted self-knowledge will remain in its present crippled condition. No matter how vehemently we toss them, the slippers fly back.

Allucquère Rosanne Stone is associate professor and founding director of the ACTLab and the Convergent Media program at the University of Texas at Austin.


Several weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center, a friend gave me a copy of Seneca's essay “On the Shortness of Life.” In the days since, sentences from it have mingled with the memory of standing on a fire escape in Brooklyn and watching the towers burn like monstrous candles. “It is not that we have a short space of time,” Seneca writes, “but that we waste much of it.” Enumerating the occasions of such waste, Seneca describes the desperate pursuit of social status, of wealth that few can hope to obtain, of routine pleasures one has ceased to enjoy, of power for the sole reason of its own display, and a litany of other sinkholes of time and vitality. I am not by nature a pessimist and certainly not an ascetic, but these words hit home in ways that were unimaginable just a short while ago, as the shades of people I did not know and of one artist I knew slightly added themselves to those of friends who have died of AIDS and others who have been forced to deal urgently with time's preciousness and their control over its expenditure.

Seneca's call for economy also reminded me of the carelessness with which words are put into circulation during moments of crisis. Any text one turns to that makes language precise and valuable is a corrective to the profligate banality in the media. And any book that sharpens one's understanding of how people in other places may be appalled by what happened to us, but are less surprised than most Americans are about why it did, is a starting point for taking beneficial advantage of the interval between this cruel awakening and the next.

Robert Storr is senior curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He is organizing “Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting” the first full-scale survey of the anist's career in New York, which will open at MoMA in February.


For several years, I have been reading semipopular books of cosmology. Most recently, I have been rereading Martin Rees's Just Six Numbers, as I have trouble trying to comprehend the scales and magnitudes cosmology deals with, its vastness yet its measurable exactness. Escapist reading? As an artist I have attempted to somehow get into the mix of things, to effect a kind of reportage. It is of huge consolation to read and to conceive of the incommensurable abstraction and indifference of cosmic time to human affairs.

Leon Golub, an artist based in New York, was the subject of a traveling survey exhibition spanning fifty years of his work that was on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art this summer.

image 2#