September 11, In The Literary Details

While I was up in New Haven this week, I swung by “Remembering 9/11,” an exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery. The show’s a bit too crabbed for its name — this is hardly a comprehensive look at the way we recall an event that’s traumatic not just in and of itself but for what it inspired to do to ourselves and others afterward. But I appreciated a hall that had both photographs and text from Leo Rubinfien’s Wounded Cities, a multi-media exploration of what the attacks meant from the perspective of someone who moved into an apartment next door to the World Trade center a week before the attacks.

The photographs are big and solemn and gorgeous, portraits not of the devastation of terrorist attacks around the world but of people who live in cities that have been the site of attacks, and moved on. An observant Jewish boy in Israel holds an half-eaten ice cream bar — it stuck out at me that it was the kind with nuts in the chocolate. The breeze blows strands of hair across the face of a woman in Seoul. Experiencing terrorist attacks gave New Yorkers and Washingtonians in particular something in common with these ordinary people. It was our military response after the fact that reasserted our exceptionalism, at terrible cost.

But it was actually the text displayed alongside Rubinfien’s photographs that struck me most strongly, a literary and detailed explication of our reactions to tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, a conversation between Rubinfien and a friend illustrates how big the emotions were: “A friend much worried about us asked me from Rio if I thought the attacks would mean the end of cities — if living in huge concentrations would be too dangerous now, and people would leave their Londons and Parises to wither.” Thank goodness we were resilient enough to resist that sort of apocalyptic scenario, which would have signaled a societal upheaval — and an al Qaeda-affirming rejection of modernity — even greater than two wars of choice. Rubinfien’s son Julian reacts on a smaller, more personal scale, asking his father, “But didn’t they know I’m good?” He’s convinced that Osama bin Laden wanted to kill him personally. There was logic and calculation in our response to September 11, but Rubinfien is trying to parse our emotional reactions. I’m not sure I agree with this: “Before Iraq, Henry Kissinger had said that the Americans would invade because Afghanistan hadn’t brought the relief they needed — their emotions were too big.” I don’t think our emotions propelled us into war on a national level, but I do think our emotions made us less inclined to resist the emotional and calculated drive towards the invasion by the Bush administration.

And I appreciate Rubinfien finding the beauty in the tragedy. “In the crevices on our roof,” he writes, “I found some history of the Kuomintang, several sections of Property Law, sheets and sheets of balances in yen. It was a lot of money; I couldn’t tell whose.” There’s something miraculous about the arrival of those things on his roof, the juxtaposition of them, even if there’s no question that the terrible thing that created that miracle is undeniably worse, undeniably not worth it. People freaked out in the immediate aftermath of the attacks when Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote that her aesthetic reaction overwhelmed her emotional or moral one to the sight of the Towers falling, saying: “I had not the slightest emotional reaction. I thought, ‘This is a really strange art project.’ It was the most amazing sight in terms of sheer elegance. It fell like water.” But I thought it was a useful illustration of the bigness of the September 11 that they crossed the wires in our heads, rendered us temporarily unable to react to scale. And it’s an important reminder that our aesthetic reactions don’t always reveal the truth.