Gound Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After

This is the final post in a series of four.

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In the dimension of what has been termed “effective signs,” the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was the collapse of the entire global market system.  The system itself just doesn’t know that yet.  However, that ignorance of its own condition is finally irrelevant.  Since that September morning a bit more than eleven years ago now, when the Towers collapsed, the whole system that collapsed with it but still hasn’t realized the fact has been a sort of zombie.  It has had the status of the “animated undead,” to borrow an apt phrase from Eric L. Santner:  the status of a corpse that’s still walking around, not knowing that it’s dead yet.  The gravediggers are ready to begin throwing the dirt over it, once it finally gets the message and lies down in its already open and waiting grave, so that they can get on with their job.

Who knows how long the corpse of the global market system will wander around like that in the meantime, before it finally just lets itself be decently buried, and stops stinking up the place with its already advanced corruption?  (The topic of its corruption is one to which I will probably address a future post.)  It may take a century or two, for all we know.  Nietzsche said it would take a couple of thousand years for the news of what he called “the death of God” to get around.  That may well  even include getting back to the Old Boy, “God” Himself.  The story of the death of the “New World Order,” as it got called for a while going back to the first Bush Presidency—and which belongs, in fact, to the “larger” story Nietzsche tries to tell, of “God’s” dying—won’t take that long, but may still take quite a while.

However, the wisdom of Bill Murray in Meatballs works yet again in this case:  “It just doesn’t matter!”  However long it may take for the stench to get to the nose of the still highly animated corpse of the global market system itself, convincing it to take its proper place in its own grave, its dead flesh has been reeking of corruption for better than eleven years already, at the least.  It is stone cold dead, whether it knows it yet itself or not—or perhaps even ever comes to know it.  (Indeed, maybe it will never really get the message.  Maybe it will just eventually just vanish, like smoke on the wind, or like the phantoms of one’s dreams when one wakes.)

At any rate, however long the word takes fully to get out, what is euphemistically called the “global market system,” “New World Order,” or whatever, died on the morning of September 11, 2001.  It collapsed with and in the Twin Towers.  Jean Baudrillard, for one, told us that.

At the beginning of today’s post, I wrote that it was as an “effective sign” that the collapse of the Twin Towers was as such already the collapse of the very global system the Towers themselves globally represented.  It was the failure to stand of the whole global system those Towers, when they stood themselves, so effectively symbolized for all the globe defined by that same system.  It was by standing globally for that global system that the standing Towers drew the attention to themselves of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the first place, and drew from them the intention to attack those towers themselves.  And it was by failing any longer to hold their stand at all once struck by the two planes, and falling down into massive piles of rubble that they brought down with them the whole global shebang of which they had all along been the standing emblem.

I have borrowed the phrase and notion of an “effective sign” from Christian tradition, where it is used, in such “liturgical” Christian denominations as Catholicism and Anglicanism to define what such Christianity calls a “sacrament.”  The prime example of a Christian “sacrament” is the ceremony of baptism with water and oil.  Other examples are the Christian ceremonies of marriage, or the ceremony of anointing the sick.  A sacrament is said to be “an outward and spiritual sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” to employ a classic formula.  However, the way in which that sign signifies, in effect, is itself said to be “effective” with regard to the very thing it signifies.  That is, it is a sign the very making or bestowing or signing of which accomplishes, brings about, or effects the very thing, the very condition or state of affairs, that the sign is used to point to or signify.

For example, immersing someone in water, or at least pouring a small amount of it over someone’s head, in the context of a properly performed baptism ceremony, or marking the same person with oil in the form of a cross on the forehead, does not just point to or “represent” becoming a Christian, it is the very ceremony of baptism that makes one a Christian.  Similarly, to use an example that applies not only to Christianity or is even confined to the “religious” tradition in general, assume that a person duly empowered to do so, performs a wedding ceremony.  Let that person be a rabbi, a priest, a minister, an imam, or other recognized figure in some faith tradition, or let her be a justice of the peace, or even just an average nobody, as permitted in the “common-law-marriage” state of Colorado where I live, and where I once a few years ago even performed a wedding ceremony myself, at the odd request of a good friend.  At the climactic point of the wedding ceremony, the person so empowered to perform that ceremony “pronounces” the couple not to be married.  That “pronouncment”–, that “speech act,” as it came to be called in 20th century philosophy and beyond–doesn’t just make the claim that the couple are now married; its “pronouncing” is what actually marries them.

In short, what in Christianity are thus called “effective signs” are what, in the different tradition of contemporary philosophy, following the 20th century British philosopher J. L. Austin, are also called “performative utterances” or “performative speech-acts,” or just “performatives.”  That is, they are “utterances” or “speech acts”–in a sense of the term “speech” that includes such things as burning the American flag in protest against American policies, or flipping someone off–that perform the very thing they say (or “mean”).

In just that sense, by uttering some such formula as “with this ring I thee wed” at the right time in a wedding ceremony, the person doing the uttering is not making any claim about her own status, or about the status of the other person to whom she utters those words, or even about their common status vis-à-vis one another.  Rather, by saying such a thing in such a setting the speaker actually marries the other person to she addresses those words, marries that other by and in uttering those very words in that very setting.

Considered in terms of what the collapse of the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001, “meant” or “signified,” their collapsing was the performing or effecting of the collapse of that which they themselves “meant” or “signified.”  In that sense—the sense of the very “sense” of their own collapse—what they demonstrated in ceasing to stand was the ceasing to stand of the entire global power system they “represented.”  To everyone’s total surprise that morning—even and especially the utter surprise of the “terrorists” who planned and carried out the attacks of that morning, as Baudrillard rightly emphasizes—the Towers did just that, collapse, when they were struck.  Their collapsing made visible what theretofore had been hidden from all view:  Their own lack of enduring “structural integrity,” their own incapacity to continue to stand in all weather, despite all their apparent power to do just that.  By collapsing, the Towers proved that their standing, in the full sense, really never was any more than just that:  apparent.  It was nothing real.

Standing there in Manhattan, towering over the skyline as they did for all the years they stood, the Towers symbolized the invincibility of the global market power establishment itself.  But then suddenly, on September 11, 2001, the impossible happened.  Something not only unforeseen but unforeseeable, altogether un-imaginable, un-believable, happened anyway.  It was unimaginable and unbelievable even for those who intellectually may have perfectly well known all along that it was thinkable (indeed, one could even create special effects to have them collapse in a disaster-movie).  Those who had such knowledge nevertheless never really imagined or believed what they knew, just as the outbreak of World War I was unimaginable and unbelievable to Henri Bergson, even though he knew perfectly well all along before it finally did break out, that such a war was not only possible, but probable (as I have written about before in this blog).

For all similarly self-confidently knowing knowers before September 11, 2001–as well as for everyone else, of course–the collapse of the Twin Towers proved that the impossible was nevertheless actual.   Contrary to all expectations everywhere, definitely and crucially including the “terrorists” themselves, as Baudrillard rightly insists, the Towers proved themselves unable to with-stand the very attacks they themselves–in all they stood for, and to symbolize which they were constructed in the first place–called forth.  They, and therewith the entire system they symbolized, proved finlly to be powerless to make good on the very claim to power that they, in their very standing there so erect in the first place, expressed, uttered, or pronounced—the claim whereby global power laid claim to the globe itself.

It all came tumbling down with the Towers themselves.  It all fell, and in falling shattered into slivers that all the falling, fallen power’s forces and all that power’s men could never put back together again.

Once we realize that, which means realize what really happened that day, once we finally let what happened take its own proper place, as I put it in an earlier series of posts, on the works of Jacques André, then we ourselves can finally get down to our own real business–which has never been business, to purloin for irony’s sake a phrase from an apt source.  We can crawl out of our caves to see that, yes, the worst is over now, to steal non-ironically from a very different sort of source.  When we do, we will see that a new Day has indeed dawned, a Day After that day in 1945 that nullified even it own massive nullification of the Day itself, reducing all Days to come to no more than a string of meaningless zeros.  On September 11, 2001, The Day After that Day to end all Days, after which no new Day was even imaginable any longer, altogether unbelievably another Day dawned anyway.  And the morning sun of that Day does indeed shine, not like a bright, rubber ball but with the blinding brightness of a nuclear explosion–but, un-like that nuclear sun, blinding only temporarily.

We don’t even especially need to seize that Day.  All we have to do is begin living in it, now that the endless night has surprised us by ending.  In fact, luxurious new growth in that new Day has already begun sprouting up everywhere.  We just need to grow accustomed enough to the new light to be able to see it.

We’ll no doubt just have to keep on blinking till then, in that regard still looking indistinguishable from Nietzsche’s “Last Man,” that old pest that is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle, but has nevertheless been eradicated, even if he’s still running around, like a chicken with it’s head already cut off.  Despite appearances, however, we will belong to a different human race.

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I’m certainly still blinking myself.  But as my vision continues to clear, I’ll no doubt try in some future posts to point out some places where I can see some of the luxuriant new growth.  Meantime, while you continue blinking yourself, you might want to give your eyes a little rest by re/reading Baudrillard on “the spirit of terrorism.” 

Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After–continued yet again

Day Zero, the Day that dawned when the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was not just another Day.  Rather, it was the Day that ended all Days, the point at which the Day as such vanished without trace, as I tried to articulate in my pervious post.  As Günther Anders saw so clearly, what was truly unique about Day Zero—what made it the Day to end all Days–was not the devastation of an entire city and the killing of two-hundred-thousand of its inhabitants in a single flash, as shockingly horrendous as such sudden devastation and death may be.  Unfortunately, even such awful destruction has all too many precedents, and the speed of destruction remains a difference of degree, not kind.  No, what was truly unique about Day Zero, what made it the very null point of the Day as such, was that it marked the onset of the devastation of the very devastation, the masking of the devastation under a façade that almost immediately began to take the form of rapid reconstruction.  What was truly horrible was, so to speak, not the demolition of the city, but the demolition of its ruins.

Worth noting is that another important author who, like Anders, survived the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Europe—though he survived it differently, going through Auschwitz itself, whereas Anders survived by going into exile in France and eventually the United States—is concerned to make the same point.  I mean Jean Améry.  In Lefeu oder Der Abbruch (Lefeu or The Demolition), his final novel, Améry’s title character (whose name, “Lefeu,” is French for fire) resists all orders to leave the run-down, condemned, decaying apartment building in which he lives in Paris, so that the old, no longer functional dump can be demolished to permit brand new construction.  Through Lefeu Améry stages his own protest, a protest against the destruction of ruins as such.  Lefeu asserts our need to live among the ruins of our life, as opposed to our desire to bury those ruins beneath the frenetic busy-ness of everyday contemporary activity.  Lefeu himself, in Améry’s hands, becomes a call to remember the ruins, rather than to try to move “beyond them,” to build something “new” over them, burying them beneath our re-constructions.

To return to Anders, the third, final, and by far shortest (only about 30 pages total) of his three works that make up Anders’s 1982 publication, Hiroshima Is Everywhere, is The Dead:  Speech on the Three World Wars, first delivered in 1964 and first published the following year.  In it, Anders himself discusses what is required of those of us who are survivors, those who have been left behind by the dead.  Specifically, he means those who, like himself, were left behind by the millions of those who died fighting on the German side during the first two World Wars.  His concern, that is, is with the survivors of those whom Germany enlisted into its forces and sent into battle to die on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and North Africa from 1914-1945.  Anders strongly insists that what makes the deaths of all those millions so hard to bear for their families and compatriots left behind is that they all died (page 364) “for nothing,” that they died, as he poignantly puts it, “not for their country, but to its shame.”  He goes on to insist just as vehemently that it is only when the survivors, such as himself, left behind in such cases “hold fast to that knowledge”—the knowledge that their dead died for nothing–that they can “truly honor the dead.”  Only then, in turn, can their survivors make it true that those who died did not die in vain! “Whether they died in vain or not,” he writes, “depends on us, who have been left behind.  On our incorruptibility”—on such survivors not being open to any sort of bribery to cover over the fact that their dead did indeed die for nothing.   “Only so do we pay them their due.”*

The specific millions of dead at issue in Andres’s remarks—namely, the millions of Germans and their allies who were sent to die in battle during the first two World Wars—have the distinctive status of what Anders calls “die schuldlos Schuldigen,” which literally translates as “the guiltlessly guilty,” but which we might more usefully render as “innocent perpetrators.”  At least many if not most such innocent perpetrators were also what Anders calls “victim-perpetrators” (Opfer-Täter), those whose acts inflicted suffering on others, but who themselves also suffered from their own acts as well (albeit they may well have suffered differently:  for example, from feelings of guilt, quite possibly even overwhelming ones, for what they did).

At any rate, whether “only” innocent perpetrators, or “also” victim-perpetrators, in all such cases what is at issue are those who, perhaps with what ordinarily count as the best of motives, such as love of their country, carry out acts that help accomplish or at least enable such deeds of horror as the extermination of the Jews of Europe—or, to use another example, the one for which Anders first employs the term at issue, the bombing of Hiroshima.  Anders’s uses the expression “schuldlos Schuldigen” to describe the American pilot Claude Eatherly, who piloted one of the planes flying reconnaissance and providing accompaniment to the Enola Gay as it went to drop the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, and who subsequently suffered guilt for what he had helped perpetrate against the people of Hiroshima, and the world.  The second and longest part of Anders’s book on the ubiquity of Hiroshima consists of a long exchange of letters between him and Eatherly.

The six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II may not themselves have shared any guilt for those murders–though the extermination-camp system of inmate capos and “special commands” (Sondercommandos) constitutes a moral “gray zone,” as Primo Levi famously called it.  That is, they may not have been “innocent perpetrators” in the sense that Anders applies to Eatherly, or to the German war dead from the first two World Wars.  The distinctions involved in these various cases are well worth careful reflection, and I may return to them in some later posts.  However, what I am concerned with here is one important thing these different cases all have in common, which is that in every case, from the most purely innocent victims to the most guiltily compromised ones, those who died from their victimization all died for nothing, to use Anders way of putting it.  If they were “innocent perpetrators” who died in the process of committing their deeds of perpetration, then they may have died not only for nothing, but also “to the shame of” that in whose name they went to their deaths (e.g., their country).  In contrast, of course, the millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis died to no shame of Judaism.  However, be that as it may, they still died for nothing—died for no good reason whatever, died without any justification for their dying.  That is what I want to address.  Specifically, I want to address the same question Anders addressed in his remarks about all the dead innocent perpetrators of German aggression during the first half of the twentieth century.  That is the question of how we can properly honor such dead, who died for nothing.

Anders not only raises that question for us, but also gives us the best answer to it, an answer I’ve already cited:  We honor such dead only by holding fast to this, that their death was “for nothing,” that they were wasted, their lives and the lives of their loved ones shattered, reduced to ruin, for nogood reason whatever.   Thus, we pay the dead who died for nothing their due only by refusing to bury the fact that their lives were squandered for nothing.  That is what it means, genuinely to honor them.  In means, in effect, to preserve the ruins of all their lives—to preserve them as ruins, and not as convenient means for marshalling resources for new accomplishments, or just as museum pieces to provide opportunities for education and entertainment for the living.

Never to forget, always to remember, all those millions upon millions who died for nothing—died for nothing in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, or even at the fronts as German soldiers in battle–is to reject all endeavors to demolish the ruins, and replace them with glittering new fabrications.  It is to refuse to call out “peace, peace” where there is no peace, but instead to keep exposed the face of war that everywhere reigns, consigning all things to obliteration, even and especially the evidence of the very obliteration itself.  It is to remember the ruins and to preserve them as such, defying the demolition of the ruins, protesting alongside Lefeu, Améry, and Anders.

Viewed from the sort of perspective Günther Anders adopts in the final part of his three-part book on Hiroshima, what he identifies as “the three World Wars”—the first two “hot,” the third one “cold”—show themselves to be but the revelation of three faces of a single nihilistic Anti-Trinity, the Counter-Divinity of Demolition that imploded so gaudily over Hiroshima in August 1945.  Dying in 1992, Anders lived long enough to see the end of the Third World War, the “cold” one, and therewith the end of the whole process:  the finalization of the disappearance of the devastation cast up everywhere by triumphant, ceaseless war, the burial of all the ruins beneath the mask of the global market.  Anders, with his philosophical background, might have recognized that the world thereby entered into the end stage of despair, by Kierkegaard’s lights—the despair which does not even know it is in despair, but thinks it is, or at least ought to be, just pleased as punch.  From such a black hole of despair, no light of hope can any longer escape:  All genuine hope has vanished along with all the ruins.

Fundamentally, August 6, 1945, was Day Zero not because on that day such horrendous ruins appeared, the ruins of an entire city, reduced to rubble in less than the blink of an eye.  Rather, that day was Day Zero–the nullification of the Day itself, the multiplication of zero days to infinity—because on that day the ruins themselves began to be dis-appeared, like Argentines under the Junta.  It was Day Zero because that day  “the Demolition”—the Abbruch to protest against which Lefeu/Améry give their very lives–began.  Day Zero was Demolition Day, the Day the ruins went away.

But then, beyond all possible expectation, suddenly, on September 11, 2001, the impossible happened.  On that day, the ruins returned.  In the vast void of endless accumulation of zero days, all the countless string of days during which the global wasteland just stretched on and on, history itself having come to its end, or rather the end of its end—suddenly the whole façade began to shimmer, and then to break apart, and to collapse, revealing beneath its gaudy, fun-house veil the nullity it had till then concealed.  The ruins reappeared.  A Day again dawned, even “after” Day Zero, the day all days were reduced to zeros, another Day “after” the Day the Day itself died.

September 11, 2001:  The Day After.

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There is more to explain about that.  So I will need to continue this series on “Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After” for yet one more post.

* In The Open Wound:  Trauma, Identity, and Community, which I have just published (available through amazon.com), I try to make the same point in a different way, without using the same verbal distinction Anders does between dying “for nothing” and dying “in vain.”  I am in full agreement with what I understand him to be saying through such locutions, however.  The difference is solely one of formulation.

Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After–continued

Toward the end of The Man on the Bridge, his journal of his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958, Günther Anders recounts a lengthy conversation he had with a fellow passenger during one leg of his return journey to Europe–a conversation  about Hiroshima, nuclear arms, the Cold War, and related matters.  Anders’ seat-mate has bought the official party line of the powers that be. He proudly spouts the dictated slogans about the unprecedented threat of “totalitarianism” and the supposedly regrettable but necessary reliance on the strategy of “nuclear deterrence” and “mutually assured destruction” until that threat can be eliminated.  In short, he marches with the compliant masses who back in those days contentedly and complacently reduced everything to the thought-imploding chant of  “Better dead than Red!”

In the course of the conversation Anders attempts to explain to this self-satisfied conformist a theme with which the readers of Anders’s journal are already well familiar by that point.  That theme is embodied in his observation to his fellow passenger that the most disturbing thing about the Hiroshima he visited in 1958 was precisely how, thanks to the massive, sustained efforts to rebuild the city after its nuclear devastation in 1945, virtually all signs of that very devastation had been erased, buried beneath the gleaming new skyscrapers, shops, office buildings, and homes that had been erected over the ruins.  The only visible evidence of the devastation that remained was confined to a carefully, officially selected section of the city.  There, the ruins were not replaced and erased by new construction.  Instead, they were deliberately preserved and protected.  So maintained, those ruins were put on exhibition for all who live in Hiroshima and all who visit the city to go and see.  They stand there as an officially sanctioned “memorial” to what happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and a sobering “warning” to all future generations, lest they be tempted to any relaxation of the perpetual vigilance that must be kept alert if the world is to avoid the same sort of devastation, only this time going global, in effect.  So, at least, went—and still goes–the official party line.

To his seat-mate Anders tries to make the point that what is really most sobering is noticing that the unprecedented annihilation, not just of property but above all of two-hundred-thousand human lives, that took place in Hiroshima on that August day in 1945 is itself annihilated by the furious reconstruction that rebuilt the city after the disaster.  That annihilation of the annihilation, the erasure of the erasure of human life and habitation that took place there, is in no way countered by the special preservation of evidence of the devastation in one confined area of the city.  By being reduced to the status of a sort of museum, which one can visit as tourists have long visited the excavated ruins of the ancient Pompey, to gawk at what the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius did in the days of ancient Rome, only distances the devastation further.  Far from fostering any genuine recollection, it institutionalized forgetting, and buries what happened even more deeply beneath the façade of pious pretenses.

Anders tells his companion (page 161 of Hiroshima Ist Überall, the first of the three parts of which is his Hiroshima-Nagasaki journal, once again in my own somewhat free translation) that “the reconstruction is a betrayal of the dead.  They themselves don’t complain about it, of course.  I mean the dead.  They never complain.  And they who in that way make no appeal, they never even put in an appearance.  As missing, I mean.  It’s not that the dead are invisible that’s the scandal.  Rather, it’s that their being missing is missed.  That their being missing is not visible.”

If there is any duty to remember those who died on August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, and honor them in the memory, then it is not by making fetishes of their names or of pictures or trinkets kept as tokens of them that we fulfill that duty.  It is, rather, by keeping the wound of their absence open, in remembering that they have been forgotten.  It is by keeping their absence, their still being missing, ever before our minds–which doesn’t even require that we know their names, and may even be hindered by such knowledge—that we remember, and honor, those whose deaths are not to be forgotten, and who are to be honored in their absence.  What is at issue with regard to remembering Hiroshima is the same sort of thing that is at issue, to give a different example, by the still ongoing admonitions, on black flags, bumper-stickers, and elsewhere across America, to remember all those American troops who went—and are often still–Missing in Action (MIA) and/or were Prisoners of War (POW) during the American debacle in Vietnam.

Anders saw and said that is not the gaping void opened by the horrible, sudden snuffing out of so many human lives—the two-hundred thousand disappeared, as it were–by the nuclear bombing of August 6, 1945, that is so scandalous.  Rather, it’s that that void itself is given no void—no room—wherein it might manifest itself with any force, to make itself felt.  What’s truly scandalous is that the ghosts of all those killed that day are not even granted any site where they might haunt the living, but are made instead to pass on beyond recall.  Every nook and cranny, every dark corner or place aside where they might make their ghostly presence—which is always just the sort of presence of an absence, a void, a going missing, that Anders is talking about—known to us whom they have left behind.  Thus robbed even of haunting places, those who have died can no longer be honored by genuine mourning among us from whom they have been taken.  And we, in our turn, are denied any presence of the dead—they themselves, as dead, as absent, as leaving a hole never to be filled again.  We are bereft of our very bereavement.

Days before his trip home, when he was still in Hiroshima itself, Anders had a similar conversation with a dissimilar companion, this time a Hiroshima resident who, as a member of the Japanese army, was doing duty elsewhere when the bombing occurred.  He tells Anders (page 62) that now, upon his returning to the city, he has a strange feeling of “not being there, where he is,” namely back in Hiroshima.  Standing on the bridge into the newly rebuilt city, and recalling when he first came home there at the end of the war, he cries out, “Yes!  When I [first] saw the city again, when it still lay in ruins, then it still was itself.  But now!”  Now, he has the strange feeling already described, of not being where he is.  (As an aside my regular readers may appreciate, let me add that he’s right, he’s not in Hiroshima, where he is, because it really is Hiroshima no longer.  It’s become Las Vegas.  Hiroshima is everywhere/Las Vegas is everywhere:  those are jus two sides of the same coin.  Or, to say that a bit differently, those are just two different ways of pointing at the same thing.)

Anders writes that he easily identified with that feeling, of not being where one is.  Back at his own home in Europe, the same phenomenon of massive, amazingly rapid reconstruction had occurred, after so much of greater Germany had been reduced to ruins by the Allied forces.  Anders writes that he and the other inhabitants of rebuilt central Europe have even grown used to such erasure of the erasure, so that by the time he is writing (1958) it had “almost ceased being  shocking.”   It had become “the new normal.”  No one really even noticed it any longer–and, not noticing, also didn’t even notice that they had failed to notice, so that not only did the former devastation vanish altogether from view, but so did it’s very vanishing.   Everything appeared to be there after all, with nothing absent. “For,” Anders writes (with his own emphasis), “the reconstruction is even the destruction of the destruction, and thereby the culmination of destruction.”  He goes on to write that he himself can no longer see anything of what happened there, in Europe or in Japan.

Everything visible—the new houses—they hush up what took place exactly as do the newspapers or everyday chatter [which bury what has happened under the din of “the news”].  Everything looks to be “time-neutral,” that is, everything looks as if it has been that way since who knows when; what’s now present masks itself with the sense that “it’s always been this way”; and mere appearance of its having always been this way masks what really happened.  History is falsified backwards, and even (for the reconstruction is also history) by history itself.  History—the history of its own falsification.

It strikes me that what is at issue here is akin to when those who are abused are denied even the linguistic means necessary to complain about the abuse, since the language made available to them has already been laundered to mask and perpetuate that very abuse.  If one’s very language, the language into which one is born, the only language one has available, is such that it already institutionalizes sexism, for example, then not only are some members of society targeted for victimization by sexism, but are also in the process denied access to the means whereby they could even become conscious of their plight, let alone protest against it.  In just the same way, Anders is saying that the reconstruction which erases evidence of the earlier destruction is really a double erasure, which also and above all erases any evidence that anything was destroyed in the first place—just as Himmler and the other Nazi murderers sought to exterminate all signs that they had exterminated the Jews of Europe.  As Anders rightly observes, no destruction could conceivably be more complete than that which destroys all access to the very fact of destruction, no dishonoring of the dead greater than that which buries their very burial.

There are absences, and then there are absences.  There are voids, and then there are voids.  The fertile womb is a void, as is the Nothing from which all things come.  Then there is another sort of void.  For instance, the void, the absence, the not-being, of that second sort is what is at issue in what Kierkegaard—in The Sickness Unto Death, written nearly a full century before the bombing of Hiroshima, which means nearly one-and-two-thirds centuries before September 11, 2001–identified as the very worst form of despair, the most devastating form of hopelessness, with really no chance at all of ever recovering.  That worst, most ineradicable form of despair is the despair that doesn’t even know it is in despair, and is therefore barred from any possibility of changing its condition.  It is the despair that thinks itself to be happiness.  In a kind of anticipation of those remarks on despair, a few years earlier in Works of Love Kierkegaard had written these lines (in the translation by Howard and Enda Hong) about such deception:  “People speak of [life’s] falsity and immediately take it to mean that it deceives one in respect to earthly goods, disappoints one’s great expectations, makes sport of one’s darling plans.  But that it can be most dangerously deceiving when in these respects it honourably maintains everything, almost more than it has promised—that this is the most dangerous falsity [we] seldom think about.”  A misery so deceptive that it makes the miserable think they are happy, or at least ought to be, is the deepest imaginable misery, a despair altogether beyond hope.

The void that opened over Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945, was that sort of void, the kind that results from voiding the void itself—from cancelling it out, effectively erasing it, burying it beyond possibility of recall.  As Jean-François Lyotard would say a few decades after Anders wrote his remarks about Hiroshima, with reference not to Hiroshima but rather to Auschwitz, it is the void, the erasure, that comes from forgetting that we have forgotten.  What really happened during World War II in Auschwitz and then, at the War’s end, across the globe in Hiroshima, was above all just that:  the forgetting that we had forgotten.  It was the opening of a Day that consumed all days, that gobbled them all up at once, wolfed them all down whole, and then digested them completely, transforming them all into itself–which means, as Anders has told us, into one endless nullity, one endless, endlessly unnoticed absence, of any actually new Day at all.  From that Day Zero on, every day was nothing more than that same zero Day, over and over and over again.

That was the Day Zero, the null Day.  It was  the Day that marked the vanishing point of every Day, the Day “after” which there is no more “after that Day”:  as already noted, zero multiplied by any number up to and including infinity is still just that–zero, zilch, nada, null.

Day Zero:  that was the Day the Day died, and died so completely that even its death died away unnoticed, not even forgotten but just erased, never to be recalled.  And thus Day Zero was the Day without end, that repeats itself endlessly, day after day after day after dead and deadening day—a limitlessly wasted expanse of ever expanding wasteland, with no outer boundaries.

And yet, despite all that, despite the dying of the Day beyond any renewal,  another Day did dawn one day.  At least it did if Baudrillard and his like are onto something.  To everyone’s surprise, what was in principle beyond any prediction, because it was beyond any realm of possibility that remained after Day Zero, happened anyway, as impossible, as inconceivable as it may have been.  A new Day did dawn one day—on one of those endless zero days after Day Zero.

It dawned on September 11, 2001.  What happened that day was the dawning of the Day After, that is, the Day After that Day Zero, after that Day after which there were no more Days to dawn.

September 11, 2001:  An impossible day–The Day After!

More on that next time.

Ground Zero, Day Zero, and The Day After

As my regular readers will recall, I recently revisited Hiroshima, via German philosopher and anti-nuclear activist Günther Anders’s journal of his own visit there in 1958.  My trip was very rewarding—with the added bonus of being inexpensive, since all it took was the price of a cheap paperbound book.  In a recent post I shared some of those rewards, and in this post and the next few I will share some more—this time in connection not only with the traumatic detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but also with the traumatic destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, 11 years ago today.  Indeed, revisiting Hiroshima via Anders has helped me to deepen my insight into the traumatic connection between those two traumas themselves, and that is my overall topic now.

Almost immediately after the Twin Towers fell, American media and officialdom began referring to the site where the Towers had stood as “Ground Zero.”  That usage stuck, and today when someone—at least some American–speaks of “Ground Zero” it is safe in almost all everyday contexts to assume that the speaker has that site in Manhattan in mind.  However, the use of that term to designate a single, specific location of special historical significance, did not originate with the events of September 11, 2001.  That was not what the capitalized version, “Ground Zero,” was originally used to signify.  Rather, it was used to refer to Hiroshima, insofar as Hiroshima was the site where a nuclear device was first used as a weapon.  Thus, it was used as the name for the place where what came often to be called simply “the Bomb” was first dropped—so far, the first of  only two times it has ever been dropped, the second and to date last time coming just three days later, when America, having so recently dropped its first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, dropped its second one over Nagasaki

Way back when “Ground Zero” still meant Hiroshima—that is, way back before the September 11 of 11 years ago—in the journal of his visit to the original Ground Zero thirteen years after it became the first Ground Zero, Günther Anders connected that spatial notion with a corresponding temporal one, by writing about the day the Bomb first dropped and calling it “Day Zero” (in the German in which Anders wrote his journal, der Tag Null).  Here is the most relevant entry, which Anders wrote while in Hiroshima on August 6, 1958, the anniversary of that same Day Zero, when Hiroshima became the first Ground Zero (what follows is from page 66 of Hiroshima Ist Überall–“Hiroshima Is Everywhere”–in my own free translation):

Time-reckoning:  The 6th of August 1945 was Day Zero.  This day—the day that proved world-history might have no more days left; in any case, that we now have the capacity to cut through the threads that hold world-history together–inaugurated a new age of world-history.  A new age, the very essence of which is that there may be no more ages.  We are living [in 1958, the year Anders wrote this passage] in Year 13 of this age of disaster.  I was born in Year 43 before it.  Father, whom I buried in 1938, died in the Year 7 before it.  Before it–in another age.

Anders’s name for August 6, 1945, the day the Bomb was first dropped, is most apt.  “Zero” is not itself a quantity, either positive or negative.  Rather, it marks the point at which all quantity vanishes, the null point of quantity.  Just so, Day Zero—as such, that is as “zero”–is not itself one day among all the others.  Rather, Day Zero is the zero point of all days.  It marks, not one day among all the others that belong together within the unity of any given “Day”–in the sense of an Age, a Time (for instance “the Modern Day,” or “the Day of the Internet”)–consisting of a multitude of different days of that same broad Day.  Day Zero is, instead, the null point of all Days, the point at which the Day itself vanishes.

Every day after that, is a day that belongs, paradoxically, to no Day.  Every day “after” Day Zero, “after” the point where the Day itself vanishes, is a day destitute of any Day, any belonging together with others days to make up an Age, a Time.  Every day after Day Zero is thus a timeless day.  After all, zero multiplied by whatever, all the way to and including infinity, is still zero—zilch, nada, nil, naught, nothing, not anything at all.  After Day Zero, every day was just a zero day, day after day after day after day.  A “vast wasteland” (pace Newton Minnow, who one of those days tried to lay claim to that title, not without reason, on behalf of network TV).

Anders lived well into those days after Day Zero, that endlessly vast wasteland of zero days, living through many years of it, as I’ve already noted.  As for me personally, I was born early in the morning of the first day of Year 1, ADZ (After Day Zero), Mountain Standard Time.  Furthermore, today, this day that begins the 12th year after September 11, 2001, CE, we are all living in Year 67, ADZ—assuming, at any rate, that we still live in the same Age Anders, unlike his father, lived to live in, Anders dying as he did in December 1992, CE, which means in Year 47, ADZ.

But do we?  Do we still live today just another of the endless round of zero days that follow after Day Zero? Do we continue to live in the same Age, the very Age of vanishing Ages, the Age that appeared when Hiroshima dis-appeared under the plume of the nuclear mushroom cloud on August 6, 1945, CE?

Or do we live in a different Age—a new one, calling for a new time-reckoning?  Has another Day dawned, one that would truly be a New Day, at last? A truly New Day dawning “after” Day Zero, that Non-Day, when for the first time the possibility of the impossibility of any New Day announced itself?


Perhaps September 11, 2001, CE, was no longer just another zero day After Day Zero.  Perhaps that date is the date of the dawning of a New Day.  The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who has since died, thought so, in effect.  To combine him with Anders, we could say Baudrillard thought that September 11, 2001, CE, was the day that Day Zero, the day of the cancellation of all further Days, was itself cancelled.  For him, on September 11, 2001, CE, with the collapse of the Twin Towers, history itself was reborn.

If we express what Anders’s points to in speaking of “Day Zero” with regard to the idea of history, we can say that Day Zero was the day history itself was cancelled.  As the Day the Day itself vanished, Day Zero was the Day history as such disappeared, vanishing into the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, to be replaced by the façade of history taken to be just “one damned thing after another,” to borrow a famous or infamous definition I’ve used in this blog before.   For Baudrillard, on September 11, 2001, history—genuine history, in which something new can still happen under the sun—returned.  History returned on that day with a vengeance, as it were.

If Baudrillard is right, then September 1, 2001, was the Day that ended the end of Days that came in on Day Zero.  A New Day dawned.

How fitting that would be!  Then the new “Ground Zero,” the site in Manhattan for which that expression was taken away from Hiroshima, the original “Ground Zero,” would prove, ironically, to be the place where a New Day first dawned, a Day that would at last cancel out Day Zero, from which nothing but an endless string of zero days could follow.  And then, ironically, the Day that first dawned when the new Ground Zero became Ground Zero would no longer be Day Zero any more.  It would be, instead, The Day After.

What remembering September 11, 2001, would then put at issue would be the decision about what Day we live in today.  Do we still live in Zero Day?  Or do we live today in The Day After?

Today, on the 11th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we cannot properly honor the memory of all those who died on September 11, 2001—we cannot render them their due for all we owe them—without giving thought to that decision, continuing to give it thought until that decision itself can be made.  So at least does it seem to me, and I would like to honor their memory, render all those dead their due for what I owe them.

It is toward that end that I offer this post, at any rate—this post, and my promise to continue thinking about these same things in my next post, at least.

The Latency of September 11

It is now ten years since September 11, 2001.  Despite that, however, the trauma we have come to call “September 11, 2001” has still not happened yet.  We may still have a long way to go before it does.  All the hype surrounding the so-called public “commemoration” of that day, along with all the commercialization of that whole process (I just saw a television commercial for State Farm Insurance that tries to cash in on it, for example), almost makes me despair of the very possibility.  Yet today I also found some grounds for hope, in the very midst of all the posturing and exploitation surrounding its supposed commemoration, that “9/11” may finally come before too much longer yet.

All trauma is characterized by what Freud labeled “latency” (Nachträgichkeit).  That is, to put it paradoxically, traumas don’t happen when they happen, but only happen sometime later, belatedly, after a period during which things seem to have returned to normal, leaving everything intact.  In effect, it takes time for trauma to sink in—for the wounding cut to go deep enough to be felt, the traumatic shock to be registered.  Freud’s classic example is of someone who appears to go through a railroad accident unscathed, but who later, some time after the accident, begins to show signs of its impact, signs in the form of symptoms, such as nervous tics, nightmares, or the like.

It is in the form of such symptoms that what Freud called “the return of the repressed” first manifests itself.  Even after such initial, symptomatic manifestation, however, it takes yet more time before the symptoms become severe enough—if they ever do—to bring the trauma survivor finally to address the trauma directly, as must occur to make recovery, in any significant sense, possible.

This two-stage latency period has no set duration.  It lasts for different stretches of time from one trauma–or trauma sufferer, if the trauma strikes more than one person–to another.  Sometimes, it may last for years.   Indeed–and however counter-intuitive it may sound to say so–the greater the trauma, the longer the latency period may become.

Today, ten years after the calendar date of September 11, 2001, we are still in the latency period for the trauma that bears that date as its name.   Insofar as trauma can be said truly to have “happened” only once the latency period has passed, it is still the case today, even ten years after 9/11/01, that “9/11/01” has not happened yet.  Furthermore, since recovery from “9/11,” in any meaningful sense, can only begin once it has happened, we can only pray, to borrow a line from former President George W. Bush, “Bring it on!”

It seems to me that there is some ground for hope that our prayer to that effect is finally beginning to be answered.  That is, there is some evidence, in my judgment, that we are beginning to pass from the stage where the repressed returns only indirectly, in the form of symptoms, to the second stage, in which it returns directly, to face us–and we it.  At least I have begun to have some hope with regard to that possibility.

A sense of such hope came to me this morning, the very morning of the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, while reading the two daily newspapers I routinely read on Sundays—the New York Times and the Denver Post .  I will begin with the former, as I always do in my Sunday morning reading.

In the leading column of the opinion section of the New York Times for today, under the title “And Hate Begat Hate,” Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes that it is now Pakistanis and Afghans, especially, who are asking the question that, according to him, “Americans frequently asked” (I think he’s being overly optimistic about the frequency, by the way) right after 9/11/01, the question, “Why do they hate us so much?”  Just who“they” were for the Americans who asked that question ten years ago, Rashid writes, was never exactly clear (“Muslims, Arabs, or simply anyone who was not American”?).  However, who “they” are when the same question asked by Pakistanis and Afghans today, ten years later, is all too clear, at least to the Pakistanis and Afghans doing the asking.  For Pakistanis and Afghans today, the “they” is “Americans.”  After ten years of disastrous war waged by America in their two countries, ten years of failure to build “democracy”–or, for that matter, any other even merely apparently viable institutional political structure—it is hardly surprising that such a reversal of roles between those who ask that question and those about whom the askers ask it should have occurred.  If Americans did not hate Pakistanis and Afghans, then how could one explain what “they,” Americans, have done to both during the last ten years, and are still continuing to do today?

What gives me hope from Rashid’s analysis is not so much that analysis itself, though I find it persuasive overall.  Rather, it is more the fact that such an analysis is being fore-grounded in such a place as the New York Times.  That fact gives me hope because—and only because—it suggests that even Americans are now at last beginning to realize how utterly futile and specifically counter-productive the American reaction to the events of 9/11/01 has so far been.  It suggests that even Americans are now in significant numbers beginning to realize how the whole American reaction so far has tried to avoid facing what happened, or laid claim on happening, on that date—to avoid it, and not to face it.

What laid claim to happen on 9/11/01–as Jean Baudrillard was perhaps the first to see and say with full clarity, not long after that date–is what is also behind yet another thing I read this morning in my Sunday newspapers, another thing that, coupled with Rashid’s analysis, gives me some grounds for hope that the latency period of “September 11, 2001” may be entering its final phase, the phase that alone could presage a genuine recovery from the trauma of that name.  This second piece was in my other Sunday paper, the Denver Post.  It was a line in the lead editorial for the editorial section of today’s Post, just as Rashid’s piece was the lead for the same section of today’s Times.  Relatively early in a long column under the lead of “What Remains from a Lost Decade,” Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin wrote:  “If there’s a legacy from 9/11, it’s the lack of faith in American institutions.”  If Littwin is right, and that is indeed the legacy that it is at last becoming apparent to us Americans we have been bequeathed by “9/11,” then that is good grounds for my hope.

To try to bring out just why that line might give me hope that the latency period of “9/11” may be entering its end-phase, I will couple it with yet another piece I read this morning in the Post –or, actually, in the two-page “Wall Street Journal Sunday” insertion that the Post always includes in its own Sunday business section.  That was a piece by Al Lewis, a columnist for Dow Jones Newswires in Denver.  In his “Al’s Emporium” column for today, Lewis begins by advising President Obama, presumably, “Take this jobs plan and shove it.”   The reason Lewis gives the President such advice is because, as he makes clear in the closing lines of his column, “yet another Washington spending spree,” such as Lewis apparently thinks the jobs plan President Obama delivered in his speech to Congress last Thursday evening to be, is altogether incapable of addressing the truth that Lewis articulates in his next to last sentence.  In that sentence Lewis writes that the contemporary global economic reality is that “[t]he world has devolved into an oligarchy of corporate fiefdoms that decide where the money goes.”

To put the point of my hope for “9/11” as clearly and concisely as I can:  If there is growing awareness today that the global reality today is what Lewis says it is, and that the legacy of “9/11” is what Littwin says it is, then there is good ground for hope that, at last, Americans are becoming aware that what passes for “politics” today, especially in the United States, but also globally, is altogether irrelevant.  In turn, if that is beginning to become common knowledge—so common that it even appears in the daily newspapers—then “9/11” is finally beginning to emerge from its latency and to complete its happening, since that is the meaning of “9/11,” the message the delivery of which is what really happened–or at least began to happen–that day, ten years ago, on September 11, 2001.  If so, then perhaps we can even at last begin to learn to live after “9/11/01,” rather than once more trying to crawl back into the womb from which we were all expelled on that day.

Published in: on September 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Confession of an American Patriot (Osama bin Laden in memoriam)

Below is the last of a series of three posts occasioned by the death of Osama bin Laden.

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Confession of an American Patriot

(Osama bin Laden in Memoriam)


The death of Osama bin Laden reawakened in me, to my own great surprise, a long dormant American patriotism.  That patriotism, however, takes no pride in the success of America in finally killing him–at long last, after nearly a decade’s sustained effort, and at incredible financial, moral, and human expense.  Far from it, as I hope to explain.

After the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, spontaneous public celebrations broke out in the streets of Washington, D. C., and some other cities in the United States.  Many more Americans who did not literally dance in the streets were nevertheless gladdened by the news to varying degrees.  On the other hand, there were at least some Americans, myself included, whose emotional response to the news of bin Laden’s death was altogether different.  It carried no air of celebration but instead came closer, in fact, to despondency—a despondency, in effect, that with his death the door of an important opportunity had somehow been closed.

I want to add immediately, that my despondency had nothing to do with sharing bin Laden’s goals or methods, or in any other way identifying with him positively.  That was not at all the issue.

Nor did my sense of despondency in the face of bin Laden’s death have anything to do with his death closing the door on the possibility of any sort of eventual “reconciliation” between him, or at least those around the world for whom he may have stood, to one degree or another, as an expression of their own deep discontent with all they had come to associate with “America,” including any claim to American global hegemony after the end of the Cold War.  I entertain no such idealistic illusions, and that was not the option over the loss of which I felt despondent when I learned bin Laden had been killed.

Finally, coupled with that illusory idea of some such general “reconciliation” being possible, my despondency also had nothing to do with any notion of some sort of American “forgiveness” being eventually extended to bin Laden or what his name had come to represent.  With regard to all such notions of forgiveness, as well as those of reconciliation, I emphatically agree with Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry that there are some crimes and violations that are never to be forgiven, and some loses to which one is never to be reconciled is possible.  In the face of such crimes and such loses, in fact, the very ideas of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” even become morally offensive.*

At any rate, I do not regard any such forgiveness or reconciliation as a genuine option in the case of al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and September 11.  Rather than being a matter either of some sort of rehabilitation or of some sort of forgiveness, the option I experienced as unfortunately closed off by the killing of bin Laden was a matter precisely of not substituting either of those pseudo-options for genuine healing, but instead insisting on keeping the wound open.  In effect, what I experienced as regrettable was that exactly by killing bin Laden a sham “closure” was put forward as the only possible way to try to “heal” the wounds he, or all that his name had been made to stand for, had inflicted on so many.  What somehow offended me his killing and the celebrations of his death, or at least offended whatever it was in me that, to my own surprise, responded affectively to the news of that death and those celebrations, was the very idea that by the American success in killing him the whole horrible story of “September 11” had somehow been brought closer to some sort of eventual closur.

So far as I was or am able to see, the very idea that such stories ever do end—that such wounds can ever be closed—is what is truly offensive.  Killing bin Laden, given the entire social-historical context in which it took place, perpetrated the lie that the story of what he had done was now at last “over,” or at least nearer to being over than it could ever be if he had not been killed.  In truth, in the most important sense that story will never be over, most certainly and most especially for anyone who genuinely cared for or about those who died on September 11, 2001.  The very idea that there should be some eventual “closure” around the deep wounds opened on that day is a dishonoring of those dead loved ones themselves, in my own conviction.

For me, then, celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden as though that death somehow brings “closure” to the wounds inflicted upon Americans by the attacks he launched against the United States on September 11, 2001, dishonors the very victims of those attacks, and most especially the memory of those who died in them.  Insofar as the success of the American mission to kill bin Laden fosters just such an illusion that we have attained any such “closure” around September 11, 2001, that success effectively shuts and bars the door of opportunity for any genuine healing around the wounds inflicted on so many that day to occur.

Any genuine healing could only come from facing squarely–at long last, nearly a decade later—what September 11, 2001, gave us to face, rather than just continuing to avoid it in one way or another.  However, just such avoidance is exactly what all the official American governmental responses since that day have practiced.  That process, in turn, has not only brought in its train a still ongoing, progressive erosion of all Americans’ civil rights, but has also squandered the international good will towards America that the attacks themselves initially engendered.  Most destructively of all, it has strengthened–as it still continues to this day to do–the very American exclusionary, unilateral particularism that, in the eyes of many around the world who experience themselves as being thereby excluded and “marginalized,” lends an air of legitimacy precisely to such acts as al-Qaeda and bin Laden perpetrated against America on that day, nearly a decade ago now.   It thereby betrays America itself, in its own name.  Objectively considered, it gives aid and comfort to the enemy–and so does celebrating its success.

Some commentators have maintained that the celebrations that broke out in Washington, D. C., and other American cities when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced should be read not so much as ghoulish celebrations of that death itself, but rather as affirmations of American solidarity across all the divisions that all too often and too easily separate us Americans from one another.  In that interpretation, those celebrations of bin Laden’s death are actually the same in intent and meaning as the various spontaneous affirmations of American solidarity after the September 11 attacks—and, for that matter, all the affirmations of solidarity with America on the part of others, such as all the French citizens who enthusiastically agreed with the cover headline “We are all Americans now” that appeared in Le Monde the morning after the attacks.

Surely, such commentators argued, any “objective” assessment of American celebrations at hearing the news of bin Laden’s death must acknowledge that such affirmation of American solidarity was what was really being celebrated, and not anyone’s death as such, not even the well-deserved death of such a terrorist killer as Osama bin Laden.  Surely we should not lose sight of that positive core of such celebrations, in our professed moral abhorrence of dancing on anyone’s grave, no matter how legitimate such abhorrence may be on its own terms.

In fact, I have myself argued along similar lines, especially in my post before this one, the second post in this series of three that I am now completing.  It is important, I there argued, not to confuse rejection of the excesses and other distortions that can so easily emerge in the wake of such events as the French Revolution of 1789 or the recent popular overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, on the one hand, with rejection of the spontaneous impulse to celebrate the genuinely positive and liberatory aspects at the core of those very same events, on the other.  Such moments of the liberation and positive self-affirmation of peoples truly and loudly do call out for celebration.  We should celebrate them, even and especially when we are careful to reject the negative excesses and distortions that all too often follow such acts of positive liberation.  So I argued, and so I still strongly maintain.

Thus, to use the example at the heart of my preceding post, the legitimacy of the public celebration in the streets of Cairo when the popular Egyptian uprising succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak is not diminished by the fact that television journalist Laura Logan was brutally sexually assaulted by some of the celebrants in the crowds that evening.  Similarly, as Kant observed, the spontaneous upsurge of joy that he and others of like mind experienced when hearing of the French Revolution in 1789 was not invalidated by his horror at the subsequent bloodshed that momentous event occasioned, including that of the Terror.   In sum, to repeat, such moments of liberation as the French Revolution or the popular uprising against Mubarak should be celebrated, and it is important never to lose sight of that fact, even and especially when the event of liberation unleashes subsequent violence that deserves and even demands condemnation.

Accordingly, someone might object to my despondency in the face of the spontaneous celebratory demonstrations with which many Americans greeted the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, isn’t it legitimate and important to celebrate American solidarity and pride in America, even if that celebration is occasioned by news of some death?  Shouldn’t Americans take pride in their country, and be glad to affirm their solidarity with one another as Americans, by celebrating America’s successes after long national efforts?  And isn’t it important always to keep that in mind, even and especially in those cases where Americans themselves find much to criticize in specific American policies and actions?  Wasn’t it just such pride and solidarity that were really being affirmed in the celebrations of bin Laden’s death, as more than one commentator explicitly argued at the time, as already observed?

The analogy, however, does not hold.  The appearance that it does arises from overlooking a crucial difference between the two cases of celebration of the popular uprising against Mubarak and the French Revolution, on the one hand, and that of the celebration of the death of bin Laden, on the other.  The common ground for celebration in the first two cases was joy at the assertion of human freedom through resistance against oppression.  It was the spontaneous upsurge of affirmative feeling toward that assertion that united all the celebrants with one another.  The experience of sharing a strong, important bond with one another, regardless of how close or distant each individually may have been to the scene of the events being celebrated, regardless of how directly or indirectly each was affected by those events, and, finally, regardless of the intensity of the impact of the events on each individual’s personal life, was the very heart and meaning of those two celebrations.  Thus, for example, the feeling of joy and affirmation Kant felt in distant Königsberg, East Prussia, when he heard the news of the French Revolution united him not only with those who had actively revolted in Paris and elsewhere in France, but also with all those other individuals anywhere, known or unknown to Kant, who registered like him the event of the French Revolution in the same sort of spontaneously affirmative affect he experienced himself in the face of that event.  The quick dance of Kant’s heart at the news of the Revolution revealed concretely his membership in the universal human community, the community of all persons anywhere who still have hearts to be affected with joy at the news of any event of human liberation, regardless of where it may be or whom it may directly benefit materially.  In effect, the leaping for joy of Kant’s old heart at the news of the French Revolution was Kant’s declaration that, on the day of the Revolution, that old Prussian Kant was a Frenchman too.

It was that same genuinely universal human community—a community that excludes no one, but is open to all individual human beings without exception—that affirmed itself whenever and wherever someone’s heart leapt for joy, even if only for the briefest instant and with the lowest intensity, at the news of the success of the popular Egyptian uprising against Mubarak.   Such leaps of the heart were affective declarations, at the end of that fine day in which the people of Egypt overthrew Mubarak, of solidarity with those Egyptian people.  It was the declaration by all those so affected that they were all Egyptians now too.

In effect, the French people who celebrated their successful revolt in 1789 invited everyone of good will everywhere to be French too on that now distant day.  The Egyptian people who celebrated their successful revolt in 2011 invited everyone of good will everywhere to be Egyptian too that much more recent day.

In sharp contrast, the Americans who came together with one another to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden issued a very different invitation.  First of all, the invitation they issues was not one addressed to everyone of good will everywhere, but only to those who, regardless of how good or ill their will might be overall, “identified” with “America,” and who, so identifying, supported the American “war on terror” and the attendant driven, compulsive mission to kill bin Laden that had at last been accomplished, thereby killing the number one American public terrorist of them all, Osama bin Laden himself.

It is, of course, understandable and perfectly reasonable that many Americans may have experienced a sense of relief at the news of bin Laden’s death.   After all, ever since September 11, 2001, American governmental and the mainstream mass media had indeed consistently and dunningly repeated the characterization of   bin Laden as the very personification of evil, fanatic anti-American “terrorism,” and as the very embodiment of everything that threatened American “security.”  To the extent one accepted that depiction, the killing of bin Laden would naturally have brought the sense of relief that invariably comes when one experiences the sudden, unexpected removal of what has long been perceived as a horrible threat.  Nor is it in the least unreasonable or unusual that anyone experiencing such joyous relief would want to join with others who have lived under the same threat to celebrate their common deliverance.

Precisely such spontaneous joy and gratitude for having survived a serious, long term threat is the undeniably legitimate aspect of the celebrations with which many Americans greeted the news of bin Laden’s death.  To that degree, in fact, those celebrations belong to the same general category as do spontaneous celebrations at surviving some natural catastrophe such as a hurricane or a tsunami.   They do not, however, belong to the same category as do such celebrations of newly gained liberty and assertion of common human dignity as took place in Cairo at the overthrow of Mubarak.

Even more importantly, joy at surviving a shared threat or catastrophe, and affirmation of solidarity with all other survivors, near or far, does not as such exclude anyone.  Rather, it invites even those who were not directly threatened to celebrate with and for those survivors who were directly affected, and to experience solidarity with them.  To that degree, such celebrations at sheer survival are indeed like those in which it is liberty and resistance to oppression that are celebrated, insofar as celebrations of both kinds foster the same sense of genuinely universal human community.  To just that same degree, however, celebrations at surviving threat or catastrophe as such have nothing to do with forging exclusionary nationalistic bonds, or exclusionary bonds of any sort, for that matter.  Insofar as they come to be used for such purposes, they get co-opted and badly distorted by external forces.

That is exactly what happened in the case of the perfectly reasonable relief—perfectly reasonable within the context of nearly a decade’s worth of dunning propaganda whipping up feelings of threat and danger in connection with his very name–that many Americans and friends or allies of America around the world experienced at hearing of the death of bin Laden.    Thanks in large part to that very same propaganda, that spontaneous sense of relief was distorted away from its own inherent tendency to breach borders and boundaries, and diverted into serving further to rigidify an exclusive sense of American entitlement.

It is at this point that I can at last come back to where I began this long post.  That is, I am now in position to explain why it was the very news that bin Laden had been killed that reawakened me, to my own surprise, to patriotism and pride in America.   Years of anger and shame at official American governmental actions and policies had managed to bury that patriotism and pride so deeply that I did not really think I still had any of it, until my visceral reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death made me realize it was indeed still there.

It lay, in fact, at the heart of the unexpected mix of despondency for an option squandered, on the one hand, and anger in the face of so many Americans celebrating gleefully, on the other, that spontaneously arose in me when I opened the daily paper on the morning after the announcement that bin Laden had been killed, and saw the headline proclaiming him dead coupled with a picture of the gleeful celebrants who had gathered outside the Whitehouse after that announcement.

Though I was not able to articulate it clearly to myself at that same moment, later reflection showed me that what was surfacing in the mix of despondency and anger I felt then was precisely my long buried American patriotism.  My anger, especially, was directed, not at those Americans who had spontaneously celebrated bin Laden’s death, but rather at how deeply the official American governmental response to September 11, 2001, a response encapsulated in the killing of bin Laden, and the gleeful celebrations the announced success of the long (and long frustrated) American mission to kill him, actually defiled America, in America’s very name, and then compounded the offense by duping Americans into celebrating that very defilement.

My despondency, in turn, was over the lost opportunity for America to live up to its own promise—despondency, in effect, at America’s betrayal of its own best self.  In turn, how deeply and viscerally that defilement and that betrayal, to my own great surprise, still moved me bore testimony to the continued strength, despite everything, of my underlying self-identification as an American.

Put just a bit differently, what hit me that morning was exactly how contrary the fanatical mission against bin Laden and the whole fanatical “war on terror” really was to everything I had been taught from my very birth to expect of my own country.  It ran flatly and egregiously contrary most especially to my own country, America, precisely because that very country had been founded in the first place in the very name of universal human dignity and freedom.  So, at least, I had been taught.  I was struck viscerally that morning–and only later, upon reflection, intellectually–by how truly unpatriotic the whole compulsive mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and all the celebration when that mission finally succeeded, at such unimaginably great financial, moral, and human cost, really was.

No country would be dignified by such destructive, self-centered, obsessive behavior.  Such things should be beneath the dignity of every country, and shameful to each and every one.  However, to perpetrate such behavior in the name of America, which is my country, makes it most especially offensive, given the very idea and image of America that I and virtually all other Americans of my generation were brought up to believe.  It flies directly in the face of everything we were ever taught America stands for, and that every American has the right not only to expect but also even to demand of his or her country.  If America does not struggle to remain “the last best hope of mankind” as Lincoln claimed it to be—“mankind” as such, humanity universally, not just this or that supposedly exceptional, privileged subset of men–then America betrays not only Lincoln but also all other Americans, including me:  It betrays itself.

Anyone proud to be an American, any patriotic American, owes it to America not to let that happen, at least without strong, principled, enduring protest.  “American exceptionalism,” “American exclusivism,” and “American nationalism” are all oxymoronic.  All such offensive, divisive, discriminatory things as exceptionalism, exclusivism, and nationalism are, in truth, radically un-American by their very nature.  Any patriot who takes pride in being an American must condemn them, especially whenever and wherever they are put forth in the very name of America itself.  Our patriotic duty as Americans requires nothing less of us.

I have been surprised to discover how deeply I am still proud to be an American, and that discovery in turn has reawakened my patriotism, which I thought had been altogether extinguished long ago.  As a result, I am no longer willing to let bogus patriots, whose sham patriotism defiles my country, lay claim to that title, robbing genuine Americans such as myself of it.  I claim it back from them.

Thus, it was the death of Osama bin Laden that finally, after many years, has now allowed me to reclaim my own patriotism and pride in being American, reclaim both at long last from those who for so long have worked to rob me of them.  For that, I honor his memory.  

* By mentioning Améry in that context, I am not in the least trying to suggest that the deeds done in al-Qaeda’s or bin Laden’s name, including especially the attacks of September 11, 2001, are somehow equivalent to the Nazi genocide against the Jews.  They are not at all equivalent; and it would be no less offensive, in my judgment, to suggest that they are, than it was offensive, in the judgment of many, when Ward Churchill referred to those who died in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, as a bunch of “little Eichmanns.”

Published in: on June 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mourning and Celebration: Embracing Our Dear Departed

This is the second in a series of three posts occasioned by the death of Osama Bin Laden.  I dedicated the first post to the students in the undergraduate Existentialism class I am currently teaching.  Toward the same end of  rendering credit (or blame, as the case may be) where it is due, I dedicate today’s post, the second of the three, to the students in my current seminar, in the later writings of Heidegger.

*  *  *  *  *

Mourning and Celebration:  Embracing Our Dear Departed

Which dead are mine, among all the dead?  Must I not first identify my dead, before I can properly mourn them?  And, once identified, do not my dead, in the proper mourning they require of me, not also require that even in my very mourning itself I never forget to celebrate the lives they lived, and sacrificed for me, that I might live in turn?  Do I not owe my dead such celebration in my mourning, owe it even to those among my dead who died too young, before having lived much at all—such as my cousin, youngest of my mother’s nephews and nieces, who died of leukemia when she was only 11, and I was near the same age?  Don’t even those of my dead who died before they’d been properly born at all–such as my father’s first son, who died in being born of his mother, my father’s first wife, who also died at the same time, at that same child’s childbirth—ordain such celebratory mourning and mournful celebration?

Which dead are truly mine?  And how am I to mourn them?

*  *  *

Those were the sorts of questions that were already on my mind on the recent morning of Monday, May 2, 2011, even before I opened that morning’s newspaper and found out that Osama Bin Laden was dead.  They were on my mind because of my having just the day before reread Jean-Paul Sartre’s play The Flies—written and first performed in Paris under the German occupation during World War II, and a ringing call for resistance against oppression.  I had been rereading that play–in preparation for teaching my first class of the coming week (as I explained in my preceding post), for which The Flies was the reading assignment.  One of the questions Sartre raises in the play is precisely that of whom we should mourn and how, and I was already planning to discuss those aspects of the play with my class.

In addition to the rereading of Sartre’s play having thus already reawakened my concern with the question of proper mourning, so that it was already on my mind the morning I learned of Bin Laden’s death, the day before I had also done something else that had an effect on how news of his death affected me when I opened the paper that morning.  In the evening of that same day before, my wife and I had watched a DVR recording of the 60 Minutes broadcast from a bit earlier that same evening.  In fact, it was precisely because we were watching that recorded program rather than live TV, which we might otherwise have been watching, that we did not come to know about Bin Laden’s death until the next day.  When news of that death was first being released by the White House and then quickly finding its way to circulation through the mass media, my wife and I were watching that recording of 60 Minutes, and then we went to bed for the night, not to learn that Bin Laden was dead till the next morning.

My wife and I had both been especially affected by one particular segment of 60 Minutes, which consisted of a lengthy interview with television journalist Laura Logan about her horrendous ordeal, on an earlier evening this same spring, when she was subjected to vicious and brutal sexual violence and violation at the hands–literally—of some in the crowd that filled the streets of downtown Cairo in wild celebration of the success of the popular uprising that had that very day succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak.  Laura Logan was with her camera crew in the midst of that wildly celebrating crowd when she was suddenly and repeatedly sexually assaulted and brutally raped by multiple perpetrators.  She had been able to survive the ordeal only thanks to the eventual intervention of some Arab women, who were almost completely veiled, in accordance with the Arab tradition to which they belonged.  Risking themselves regardless of any tradition, however, these women actively and directly intervened on Laura Logan’s behalf.  They literally reached out and took her into their own hands, taking her out of and away from the hands of her captors, rapists, and would-be murderers.   

Though undergoing the interview was obviously very difficult for her, given the trauma she had experienced still so very recently, Laura Logan courageously revealed her deep personal woundedness, as she told, in clear, linear, narrative fashion, and in all its deeply disturbing details, the story of what had happened to her.  In the process she explained why she had decided to do the interview itself, despite how difficult it was for her to do so.  She had agreed to do the interview, she clearly and emphatically claimed, explained, and insisted, for the sake of all female journalists everywhere, who are constantly put at risk of suffering the same sort of abuse she suffered, for the simple reason that they are women, and who, compounding the abuse, are almost never granted a forum for articulating and protesting their situation.  Precisely because she had herself actually and publicly endured the devastating, degrading abuse she had endured, however, Laura Logan had been placed in a unique position.  That position allowed her—and her own responsibility demanded of her—to give her voice at last to all those otherwise still voiceless women.  All those women spoke with one voice in her deeply wounded, often breaking, singular voice—a voice that carried the unquestionable power and authority given it by all the bitterness, profundity, pain, and horror of the agony she was made to undergo at the hands of her assailants among the crowd at Cairo that night of the celebration of the toppling of Mubarak.

With regard to that last, Logan also went out of her way in the interview to insist that the Egyptians who crowded into the streets of Cairo to celebrate the newfound freedom they had won in their triumph over Mubarak and all his vestiges of coercive power were by all means right to celebrate.  What they had done for and by themselves deserved to be celebrated, she insisted, and nothing in or about her own horrendous ordeal said anything to the contrary.  Indeed, as she also indicated herself, all around the world men and women of any decency celebrated with and for Egypt and the Egyptian people that night.  She did so herself, and still felt the same way, as she strongly affirmed in the interview.

Immanuel Kant said much the same thing about the French Revolution.  Kant remarked that, despite all its excesses, which he and other decent persons should reject and bemoan, nevertheless what lay at the very heart of the French Revolution deserved universal approbation.  That was the unqualified or unreserved assertion and affirmation of universal human freedom, universal human equality, and universal human solidarity.  All human hearts still capable of beating at all had to beat a bit more quickly when the French Revolution happened to them—that is, when news of it reached their ears.  Every human heart had to beat a bit more quickly at that news –as Kant says his own heart did—in joyful celebration.

Both Immanuel Kant and Laura Logan are indisputably right in what they say.  There is a corollary, however, that neither Kant nor Logan expressly states.   That may be simply because it is so obvious to them both that neither ever thought to state it explicitly.  At any rate, the corollary is that the same human heart that beats a little faster in celebration when it first hears about the French Revolution is also necessarily a heart that also beats a little faster once more again, each time it hears yet again of that same Revolution, however many times it may have heard of it before:  No matter how many times it may have heard of that Revolution before, each time the still-human heart hears of it again, that heart leaps again in celebration.  That is true, at least, so long as the heart does not grow jaded, so that it can no longer hear what it is being told, when it is told yet again of the French Revolution.  Indeed, that leap of joy is rekindled yet again, however faintly, but still truly, even—perhaps especially (there are certain reasons for thinking so, at any rate)—when it is the heart itself that reminds itself of that Revolution, calling it back to mind, remembering it.

In that sense, which I would say is the single most important sense, whenever anyone anywhere recalls the French Revolution–reminds herself or himself of it, remembers it–then the French Revolution happens again, in and as the very leap of the heart in celebration at the merest memory of that glorious event.  Then once again, yet literally re-newed, made new again—so that no matter how many times it happens, every time it happens again it happens again for the very first time—the French Revolution happens.  In that same sense, “1789” is not a year that, though it may once have been, is no longer, and with each “new” year retreats by yet one more year more distantly into the distant past.

Not only may, but also in a certain crucial sense must, the future be “now.”  So must the past.  And in the past that is still now–that past that, as William Faulkner famously said, isn’t over yet, it’s not even past—“1789” is not a year that was.  Rather, this year—the very “calendar year” 2011– is still “1789.”  The time of such events, the real events of a real history–all that finally counts once all the counting and recounting is finally over–does not fly by with the ticks of the clock, like the dead time when nothing ever really happens and there is never anything new under the sun.  Rather, in the real time of real history, all years are simultaneous, and every year is every other.  That is the time “it is” eternally– eternal time, when, regardless of what year the chronically still-born clock of the calendar may say it is, it is always really still “1789,” but also no less “1776,” and “1812,” and “1848,” and “1914,” and “December the 7th, 1941” (that “day that will live in infamy”), and “May 1968” (in Paris, in the spring), and, for that matter, “September 11, 2001.”

To “mourn” means to keep the dead alive in memory.  That does not in the least mean to keep little pictures of our “dear departed” in lockets on chains worn around our necks, or in family photo albums, or in supposed memory-images in our supposed minds or our demonstrably convoluted brains.  Not that there is anything wrong with such things, with lockets, and albums, and images, and engrams, or the like.  But to cling to such images, as though to lose them would be to lose our memory of the dead themselves, is one sure way to bury our dead beyond recall, substituting an idol for the holy, an illusion for reality.  If we so treasure our images of the dead that we lapse into such a substitution, then what we are doing is not mourning at all, we are avoiding mourning, like the father in the story such as Freud often liked to tell about his patients, the father who shows no signs of grief when his wife dies, but who later breaks down sobbing helplessly when the pet hamster to which he has devoted himself to avoid having to face his real loss gives up the ghost.

The verb mourn derives, according to my dictionary, from the Middle English mournen, which itself derives from the Old English murnan.  That latter, my dictionary further informs me, is akin to the Gothic moúrnan, which means to be anxious, and itself derives from the hypothetical Indo-European base (s)mer-, meaning to remember, think of, whence comes, for example, the Sanskrit smárati, (he) remembers, or the Latin memor, mindful of.  That etymology just reinforces the reality of what the verb mourn still says today, if we just let ourselves have the ears we’ve been given to hear it:  To mourn is no more and no less than—because it is the same as—to stay mindful of whatever and/or whomever we have lost, that is, to stay mindful of our dead.

Properly to mourn our dead, then, is ever to remember them, to be ever mindful of them, never to forget them.  That is the mourning we owe the dead, and that they demand of us:  That we never forget them.  Thus are we told never to forget those who died in “Auschwitz”—that is, the Jewish victims of the Nazi “final solution.”  So we are told, too, each September, when bumper stickers and window-decals remind us we should “never forget” those who died on “September 11, 2001.  Thus does even the psalmist sing in Psalm 137 (136), verses 6-7 (Grail translation), adding notes and tones that underscore both the seriousness of our responsibility to remember, and what we will deserve if we don’t:

O how could we sing

the song of the Lord

on alien soil?

If I forget you, Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue

Cleave to my mouth

If I remember you not,

if I prize not Jerusalem

above all my joys!

To mourn truly—that is, fully and deeply and with full propriety, as only accords with the heavy debt of mourning we owe to our dead—is to keep ourselves ever mindful of them.  That, however, means that we owe it to our dead to keep the wound of our pain at the loss of them to death open, keeping ourselves vulnerable to that pain and that wounding.  That is the mourning the dead require of us, and not the cherishing of any images or other idols we are tempted to make of them.

To mourn our dead is to hold to our ongoing pain at our loss of them to death, to hold to that pain as what itself holds us to them, by a bond unbreakable even by death itself.  To mourn our dead is to refuse to be “reconciled” to their absence, to “get over it,” as we are told we inevitably will by all the well-intentioned folk who keep telling us so.  They tell us that we will, with time, be “consoled,” and will then find ourselves again able to get on with our lives “despite” our presently shattering pain at our loss and our present bereavements.   “Time,” we are reminded, “heals all wounds.”

Our mourning itself knows better.  What it dreads and eschews as the worst thing that could possibly happen is to be deprived of the sharpness of our pain at the death of those to whom we are bound, so tightly that even the grave cannot unbind us.  Like love, of which it is really a modality, our mourning is stronger than death, and reaches beyond the grave.  It recognizes that even to want to “get over” our pain at our loss is already to betray the dead, not to honor them.  It is to let them fall our of memory and be forgotten, rather than cherishing the memory of them and  never forgetting them, not even if we forget their names—and even our own.  Mourning refuses such betrayal of the dead, and insists upon remaining un-consoled and un-consolable.  Mourning recognizes time, that time that would tempt us into “healing” of our wounds, rather than holding to them, as the dead indebt us to do—that dead, chronic time of the clock, of Chronos, who devours its own children—as its greatest enemy; and it rejects scornfully any suggestion of eventual “reconciliation.”

In such defiance of all messages of consolation, and revolt against any movement toward reconciliation, mourning knows with clear, unshakeable certainty that it is our very pain itself that is our memory of our dead, our holdoing on to those to whom we owe it never to forget them, as we have vowed never to do.  Mourning insists upon keeping the wound of the death of our dead open, the pain intense, because anything less or other than that would be blasphemy against the dead, the uttering of which would enact our own final, irrevocable self-condemnation.

Our bereft pain and its irrevocable rejection of all reconciliation with the brutality of the death of our dead is itself what keeps our connection to our dead, binding us forever to them, keeping the memory of them always alive in our hearts.  It is our very pain, our always still-open wound, that unites us with all our dead.  For that very reason, mourning as such—and not just sometimes or in some cases–is itself, without ever ceasing to be anything but pure mourning, is celebratory:  All mourning is, as mourning, already celebration.

My dictionary also tells me about that word, too.  It tells me that celebrate comes from Middle English celebraten, from the Latin celebratus, the past participle of the verb celebrare, which means to frequent, go in great numbers, honor, and is itself derived from celeber, meaning frequented, or populous.  Keeping that derivation in mind, we may say that “celebrating” is joining with others in honoring what’s honorable—what deserves to be honored.  In short, celebrating is joining the crowd at the celebration.  Furthermore, the greater the honor due what is honorable, the larger grows the community of those who should render it honor—the greater, that is, grows the crowd.

All mourning, whatever form it may take, from dancing a jig at a drunken Irish wake, to gnashing one’s teeth and tearing one’s hair in the agony of one’s loss, is celebration.  That is because in mourning—all mourning—we join the crowd.  We join, in fact, the crowd of crowds, that crowd than which no greater crowd can be, nor even be conceived, because it is a crowd literally without end, a crowd the number of which is beyond all counting.  In mourning we join, by our pain itself, that pain which is our very bond, our very ligature or junction to those for whom we mourn, the throng that travels ceaselessly along the most frequented, most densely populated road of all—the only road along which absolutely all human beings without exception must travel together, even and especially because each must travel altogether alone.  That is the road of death, of our mortality.

In mourning, all mourning of whatever kind, we join the largest crowd of all, and therefore join into the celebration of all celebrations:  the crowd of all the living, and the dead—living and dead both named and unnamed, known and unknown, but always all alike in the final, inexorable, holy anonymity of the grave itself.  In mourning, the soul swoons in celebration, in adoration.

At the end of “The Dead,” the long story with which he, in turn, ends Dubliners, James Joyce describes the experience of his character Gabriel Conroy, the narrative center of the story, as Gabriel sits looking out the window of the Dublin hotel room where his wife is already asleep in the bed beside his chair.  It is Christmas Eve, the end of a day and a night during which Gabriel has had his own solitude and mortality unexpectedly revealed to him in what would pass by all regular accounts as some thoroughly commonplace, trivial events of that day, but the accumulation of which finally shatters Gabriel and his complacency completely.   As he sits in the darkness and the silence beside his sleeping wife, Gabriel gazes out the window of their hotel room at the snow gently falling outside.  Joyce brings “The Dead,” and with it the entirety of Dubliners, the collection of stories wherein he tells “the moral history of his community,” to an end by writing:  “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

In mourning our own dead properly, we, too, let our own souls swoon, as we join that same community—the one and only universal human community of “all the living and the dead.”

As for just what all this has to do with the death of Osama Bin Laden, I will try to answer that question at the start of my next and final post in this series of three occasioned by his death.

“The King Is Dead! Long Live the King!”

My post today is dedicated to the students in my “Existentialism” class that meets at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays this current spring quarter, in appreciation for what they have given me.

“The King is Dead! Long Live the King!”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I was driving the forty miles from my home to the campus of the university where I teach, then preparing for my first class of that day, which began early, at 8:00 a.m. that quarter, what we have grown accustomed to calling just “September 11” or “9/11,” was taking place two time-zones to the east, in Manhattan.  Though “September 11” was already happening as I was going about my normal routine that morning, “September 11” did not happen for me until some time later, after it had already happened back in Manhattan, and anywhere else where someone was watching television or listening to the radio or in some other way keeping up with the happenings around the world that morning as they happened.  For me, though, “9/11” did not happen when it happened to such others.  For me it didn’t happen till after it had already happened elsewhere, to others.  It only happened for me when I went off to teach my early morning class, which happened to be one of my own devising that I have often regularly taught over many years now, a course called “The Addictive Self.”

When I went into class that morning at 8:00 a.m. local time, I could tell immediately that something had happened to my students.  There was a low buzz of voices as I entered the classroom, which slowly quieted as I walked down to the front of the class (the class that term was in an auditorium-style room, where the students sat in rows at various elevations in front of the teacher, who stood down there at the bottom of the pit to teach—to me, teaching in such rooms always makes me feel like a Christian thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum).  Here and there, a few students were crying.  Others looked to be on the verge of tears.  Some may not have had tears, already or pending, but had blanched faces.  So I knew immediately that something was wrong.  However, since I had no idea what that might be, I asked the class.  Then one young man who always sat in the last, highest, row of the student chairs, at the furthest possible remove from me down in front of the class as the teacher, told me.  He said that two planes had flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, and that both towers were “down.”  I did not comprehend what he meant at first, by saying the Towers were both “down,” so I asked him what he meant, they were “down.”  He then explained it to me.

That is when “September 11” happened to me—well after it was already over, as it were.

As is common enough—there is nothing at all in the least special or unusual about it—I was momentarily non-plussed.  For a few seconds at least I did not know what to say or do, in the face of such news.  But then my sense of responsibility kicked in, and I felt that, as the teacher of the class those students were in that morning, it was my job to say and do something.  At the moment, when I was still recovering from my own initial shock at “9/11” having just the moment before happened to me, the only thing I knew to do was just to go on with my lesson plan for that day’s class, and teach the rest of that day’s class session as planned.

So that, of course, is what I did.  And then, almost immediately after class that day, I started to feel guilty about it, that is, about what I had done—or, better, failed to do—that morning of September 11, 2001, when “September 11” happened.

As I soon learned, other teachers, even many at the same university where I teach, had managed that very same day, September 11, 2001, not to be caught as flat-footed by the events of that day as I had proven myself to be.  They had all had the simple common sense and simple common human decency to realize what a trauma the whole thing—that is, “September 11”–was for their own students in their own classes.  Accordingly, they had made it a point to deviate from their lesson plans for that day, to allow the students the opportunity during class-time just to talk about it with one another and with the teacher, freely and openly just saying whatever they felt they wanted or needed to say.  I, however, was such a selfish and self-centered person that all I could think to do was . . . well, nothing—and that in a class, one I’d designed myself, called “The Addictive Self,” of all things, where I should have been modeling how to escape compulsive behavior patterns, rather than modeling how to escape into them, which was what I told myself I had done!

“Bummer!” as those of my generation of Americans were once wont to say.

*  *  *

Last Monday morning, May 2, 2011, I woke up early, as I usually do, even on days when I am not teaching, as I was not that day.  As not infrequently happens, I had my breakfast and my morning coffee ready and waiting for me, before the daily newspaper had been delivered.  My wife and I, being of the generation to which we belong, still like to have the old-style paper version of the daily news, to digest with our breakfast, if it’s been delivered by the time that breakfast is ready.  When the paper is not there by that time, as it was not that morning when I sat down for my breakfast (alone, since my wife was still asleep), creature of habit that I am, I invariably pick up something else to read as I drink my coffee and eat whatever I’ve prepared for myself.

What I picked up last Monday morning was something I had started to read—or, to be accurate, to reread for the umpteenth time since I first read it back when I was still in high school—the day before.  No matter how many times I may have already read it myself, it is a matter of pride for me to reread all the readings I assign students in my classes, to reread those assigned readings yet again just before they come due in the class.  That way, I have them fresh in mind—or as fresh, at least, as my aging mind still permits—for class.

Accordingly, that Monday morning I picked up Sartre’s play The Flies, which is his retelling of the old Greek myth of the House of Atreus, as that myth itself was already retold in the great days of ancient Greek tragic drama, in Aeschylus’s great   Orestia trilogy.  Sartre’s play was written and first performed in Paris under the German Nazi occupation during World War II.  It is his retelling not of the whole story of the Orestia, but only of the third and final play of Aeschylus’ great trilogy, The Eumenides.

In Aeschylus’ retelling of the story in the form of a tragic drama, as in the earlier tellings and re-tellings of the same story as myth, Orestes’ slaying of his own mother and step-father is itself just another episode of the carrying out of an ancient curse of the entire House of Atreus that has already spelled doom for Orestes line through a number of generations.  That original curse itself, whereby the divine turned away from and against the House of Atreus, came in the first place as divine retribution for the disobedience whereby a patriarch of the Atreides first turned away from and against the divine.  The Furies are the figures from Greek mythology through and in whom the divine curse passes on through and to Orestes in his crime of slaying Clytemnestra, his own mother, and Aegisthus, her husband and Orestes’ step-father.  Orestes carries out his violent act itself in retaliation for an earlier crime committed by his two victims.  In their own, earlier crime, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus conspire together to kill Agamemnon, Orestes’s father and his mother Clytemnestra’s first husband, when he finally returns from long years of war at Troy.  That earlier crime, in turn, was itself Clytemnestra’s exacting of vengeance against Agamemnon for his act of sacrificing his and Clytemnestra’s first-born daughter, Iphegenia, a sacrifice demanded of him by the god Poseidon before the latter will allow the Greek forces under Agamemnon’s leadership to pass over the sea to besiege Troy.

This seemingly endless cycle of vengeance and retribution initiated by the original patriarchal act whereby the House of Atreus turns away from the divine is finally broken, the proper balance between the House of Atreus and the divine is finally restored, and the peace of order is at last reestablished when, at the end of the story, Orestes redresses the balance by re-turning to the divine, as represented by his seeking asylum in the temple of the god Apollo.  Thus, by the end of the whole story, the wrathful Furies who have theretofore vengefully pursued Orestes turn into the benevolent Eumenides or Kindly Ones who will keep him safe thereafter.*

Sartre retells that same old story to suit his own purposes as an “existentialist”–a term he would later eschew, well after virtually everyone else (including Heidegger and Camus) whom others wanted to call by that name had already done so.  First, the Kindly Ones of Aeschylus’s renditions become the Flies in Sartre.  They swarm everywhere around Argos, the seat of the House of Atreus, an embodiment of the sense of irremediable guilt and perpetual regret that Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have imposed upon the entire town over which they rule.  Annually, in a ceremony led by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the people of Argos, gather around a large cave of a tomb on a hillside, to mourn the dead.  The boulder which is on all other days firmly in place to close the mouth of the cave is rolled aside once a year, and the dead are let loose for the day to roam among the living, wrecking vengeance on any who may have harmed them when they were still alive.

Most of the action of Sartre’s play takes place on that day of the dead in the very year that Orestes, who as an infant had been carried away to safety by benign hands to be kept safe from his mother and her lover, the two regicides, returns to his home town.  Orestes meets his sister Electra as soon as he returns to Argos, to find her filled with hostility and rage toward Clytemnestra and Aegisthus for having murdered her father, and waiting impatiently for her brother, whom she fervently insists is still alive and will someday return to wreck due vengeance on the murderers of their father.  Orestes, however, does not reveal his true identity to her right away.  He waits till  later, at the official ceremony in front of the cave of the dead the next day.

At that ceremony, Aegisthus, Clytemnestra, and all the other townsfolk are attired in the drab and somber clothing so widely and customarily taken to be the proper mode of dress to don when one is in mourning for the dead.  Electra, however, who has been ordered to attend, shows up in her best white dress of celebration.  Aegisthus, of course, upbraids her for her dress and her demeanor, and admonishes her to show due respect and mourning.  Electra replies that she believes her display of gaiety and happiness may well be more pleasing to her dead father Agamemnon—after all, what truly loving father does wish to see his beloved daughter gay and happy?—than all the sackcloth and ashes with which Aegisthus and the others ostentatiously call attention to themselves in their supposed mourning.

As I came to that part of Sartre’s play in my rereading of it on Sunday, May 1, a week or so ago, in preparation for discussing it with my class in two days’ time, I made a note to myself in the margin of my copy.  In upshot, my note was a reminder that I wanted the class to look at that passage together, then discuss with me and with one another the question of just what is the right way to remember and mourn one’s dead.  In that context, I went on in my note to myself, I wanted to help the discussion along by asking them another, related question, which was whether Electra’s own mocking account of her behavior to Aegisthus and the crowd was the truth of the matter or not.  That is, I wanted the students to ask themselves whether Electra’s gay dress really reflected her own gaiety, or whether she was instead just using the conventional garb of gaiety to enact, not her own buoyancy, happiness, and ebullience, but, rather, her deep-seated, simmering—indeed, boiling—rage and wrathfulness.

By raising that question I wanted to get the students to see how Electra’s behavior may well have been no less disrespectful of the dead and mocking of whatever we really do owe the dead by way of genuine mourning of them, than was –as Electra herself sees clearly, and gives us to see clearly, too—the behavior of Aegisthus.  I wanted them to see that neither Aegisthus  and the approach to mourning he represents, nor Electra and what she represents, are really mourning properly or genuinely at all, at least if mourning is taken to be a matter of rendering the dead what we, the living, may owe them.  Rather, both end up, despite and beneath all the obvious, surface differences between them, doing the same thing:  using the show and pretense of mourning—the putting on of the uniform or costume of mourning, in effect—to serve their own interests, and not the interest of rendering justice to the dead.

Both Aegisthus and Electra, each in his or her own way, play upon and manipulate the good and expansive impulses at work in genuine mourning, the impulses toward rendering the dead their due, or, alternately worded, toward doing justice toward the dead.  Aegisthus manipulates the impulse toward feeling and expressing sorrow in grieving for those one has lost to serve his own selfish purpose of preserving his position of political power and sovereignty.   Electra manipulates the positive, appreciative impulse toward joyful gratitude for, and celebration of, the gifts that the dead have given us to serve her own selfish interest by enacting her rage against those she experiences as having wronged her, and inciting acts of retaliation against them.

It was just such matters that I was concerned to raise with my students.  In my judgment, it is also Sartre’s own concern to raise the same such matters with audiences seeing performances of The Flies or readers reading it.  They were therefore still fresh in my memory on the Monday morning of May 2 this year, the morning after I had reread and marked the passages at issue in Sartre’s play.  On that morning of May 2, then, the question of just what it is, to show proper mourning to the dead was very much on my mind, at least as background.

In that sense, I was already predisposed and open toward what happened to me that Monday morning when my morning newspaper eventually arrived and I went outside to get it, then sat back down to finish my coffee while I read it.

As soon as I opened the paper and looked down, the death of Osama Bin Laden happened to me.

The name “September 11,” the name by which we soon came to know the event that happened in Manhattan on the day of September 11, 2001, has ever since that day been inseparably connected with that other name, “Osama Bin Laden,” who died on Sunday, May 1, 2011.  Appropriately, just as “September 11” did not happen to me until after it had already happened in New York, and to the millions of people worldwide who had already heard the news of that event before I did, so did the death of Osama Bin Laden only happen to me some time after it already happened in Pakistan, and to millions of people worldwide who knew about it before I did.  What is more, just as my first class after “September 11” first happened (in New York) was at 8:00 on a Tuesday morning, so also was my first class after the death of Osama Bin Laden (in Pakistan) on a Tuesday morning at 8:00.

Unlike when “September 11” finally happened to me, however, which was while I was actually in my 8:00 class that term, giving me no time to prepare before my first class after that traumatic event first happened in New York, when the traumatic event of the death of Bin Laden finally happened to me I was graciously granted a bit over one full day to prepare.  I took advantage of that opportunity to prepare myself in the best way I knew how.  Accordingly, when it went to my first class after Osama Bin Laden died for me, I did what I had not had the chance to prepare to do when “September 11” happened to me:  I made the traumatic event of the death of Bin Laden the topic for class that day—in fact, I made it the topic for the day in both my classes, the first being my lower division undergraduate “existentialism” class at 8:00 a.m., the second my seminar in the later Heidegger at noon.

What I have already said about the reading assigned for that day in my 8:00 existentialism class is enough to show what a seamless fit there was in that class between what we were scheduled to talk about—namely, Sartre’s The Flies—and talking about the death of Bin Laden.  In fact, I could not have asked for a more perfect fit, because what the death of Osama Bin Laden faced us with was exactly the same thing Sartre’s play faced my class with in the crucial passage I had marked two days before, about Aeschylus and Electra and the question of the proper way to mourn our dead.   To talk about what Sartre puts before us to talk about in the scene outside the tomb between Aeschylus and Electra, and to talk about what the death of Osama Bin Laden put before me and my class and, in fact, everyone anywhere to whom the death of Osama Bin Laden has happened, is happening now, or will happen in the future, is to talk about the same thing twice.  To talk about those “two” things is really to talk about one and the same thing, just in two different ways.

Whom are we to mourn, and how?

That is the question that the death of Osama Bin Laden puts to anyone to whom that event happens.  In exactly the same way, that is the question Sartre’s The Flies puts to anyone who reads it, or who sees the play he wrote performed.  Of course, whether we will be able on any given occasion to see or hear what either the death or the play, or both, give us to see or hear, is an altogether different matter.  Whether we are given the ears to hear what Sartre’s play says, or the eyes to see what Bin Laden’s death gives us to see, depends on many, many things, only a relatively small number of which are to any significant degree subject to our own control.

Sartre’s play has continued to circulate and reverberate in my experience through all the readings I have given it to date, and will no doubt continue to circulate and reverberate in any subsequent readings I may give to it.  All I can do is try to sum up what that play has had to say to me so far–or, alternately worded, try to sum up what I have been given the ears to hear so far in my encounter with it.  And that, it turns out, is one and the same thing as that which the death of Osama Bin Laden has had to show me so far, or, to word it alternately too, what the death of Osama has given me eyes to see so far in my encounter with it.  Thus, the ears with which Sartre’s play has to date equipped me function in perfect harmony with the eyes with which the death of Osama Bin Laden has to date equipped me.

What both the ears and the eyes that the conjunction of Sartre’s play and Osama Bin Laden’s death have given me to hear and see, and challenged me to try to come to understand, is the question I have already asked above:

Whom are we to mourn, and how?

Alternatively worded:

Just which dead are our dead, given to us to mourn?  And, given that it is just those dead who are truly given to us as our own to mourn, just how are we to mourn them rightly?

That is, indeed, the question, so far as I can see, with whatever eyes I’ve been given so far, that I have myself been given to ask—and then, even more importantly to listen as best I can to the answer I am given when I do ask it.  In my next post, I will try to articulate what I hear when I so listen.

* It is interesting, and relevant, to note that The Kindly Ones is the title given the English translation of the original French title American expatriate author Jonathan Liddell gave to his own recent, controversial, prize-winning retelling, in French, of the same story.  In Lidell’s retelling, he gives the part of Orestes to an utterly and shockingly unrepentant, once-and-still Nazi who is the novel’s fictional narrator.  In an acutely accurate, joking reference made by one reviewer, that Nazi narrator is a sort of Forrest Gump character, since he manages to be an eyewitness to all the significant Nazi crimes of the whole Second World War, Holocaust and all. However, just as the Furies at the end of Aeschylus’ play transform themselves into the Eumenides who smile kindly upon Orestes, who emerges unscathed, just so, as the utterly unrepentant Nazi narrator Orestes of Lidell’s long, long novel emerges at the end of the novel, and thus, within the novel, at the end of World War II, in the midst of the horrible ruins and devastation he has himself done so much to help bring about in the first place, all the Nazi carnage in which he has been such a willing and eager participant, not only is he not punished at all, as his crimes so clearly seem to require, but he is even blessed by good fortune in his subsequent life.  That is precisely the twist that made Lidell’s retelling of the old myth yet again so offensive to many, reviewers and/or readers (actual or potential) alike.

The Terror, Terror, and Terrorism #2 of 2


This is the second of two consecutive posts pertaining to French historian Sophie Wahnich’s La liberté ou la mort:  essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme (Liberty or Death:  Essay on the Terror and Terrorism).  I originally wrote the entry below in my philosophical journal on the date indicated.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wahnich does an excellent job not only of contrasting The Terror [of the French Revolution] with “terrorism,” but also of [contrasting] The Terror as response to dread (the anger and demand for justice that, under and as The Terror, is what became of the ressentiment of the oppressed against their oppressors), to the Bush response (the anger and demand for justice that Bush issued after 9/11) to 9/11 itself.  In the latter case (p. 98), “the image [the “fascinating” image of horror and “cruelty”] precedes the account.”  And she contrasts that with the joy with which the news and images of “9/11” were greeted in Nigerian, Palestine, even parts of France and elsewhere, where, despite all, the attacks at last gave a voice to the oppressed who theretofore had been denied all voice.

Bush (pp. 99-103, the book’s end) in effect shanghaied the “sacred body” of America, which he identified not with any sovereign power of the people at last finding its place and its voice, but with the “victims” of 9/11 and the  “heroes” made of the rescue workers.  Thus, it was an altogether de-politicized sacred public body.  Pp. 101-102:  “These bodies [of the dead of 9/11], divested of their responsibility in terms of common political existence, are the effective incarnation of the American political project.  Such a project assumes that  the true mode of liberty consists of  knowing nothing any longer of such responsibility.”

P. 103:  “The political project of the Year II [the year of The Terror during the French Revolution] envisioned a universal justice which still remains a hope:  that of equality between human beings as reciprocity of liberty, that of equality between peoples as reciprocity of sovereignty.”  Then, two paragraphs later, she ends her book this way:  “The violence exercised on September 11, 2001, did not envision either equality or liberty.  No more does the preventive war announced by the President of the United States.”

The Terror, Terror, and Terrorism #1 of 2


This is the first of two posts pertaining to French historian Sophie Wahnich’s La liberté ou la mort:  essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme (Liberty or Death:  Essay on The Terror and Terrorism–Paris:  La Fabrique editions, 2003).  By “The Terror” she means, of course, what bears that name in the history of the French Revolution.  The date below is when I originally wrote the entry–which basically consists of three selections from Wahnich’s book–in my philosophical journal.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wahnich, pp. 88-89:  The Thermidorean reaction against the French Revolution

rests on the aestheticization of the dead body and on the fear that results without the death evoked being able to assume a political sense. . . . In the caricatures of Thermidor, the sans-culotte who demands his victim drink dry a glass of blood is a figure denuded of political character, a simple barbarian who has raged without one being able to find a satisfactory explication of the origin of his power. . . . Where the death of the other had politically constituted the exercise of legitimate right, where the death of one of one’s own had constituted a source of heroes to be glorified, there now remains nothing but victims to bewail.  Thermidor inaugurates for our time the reign of the emotion of victimization. . . .

Thermidor thus effects a first displacement toward an incomprehensible and disastrous revolution, by denying the sense of sovereignty in making-die [as in Foucault on pre-modern sovereignty lying in the power to take life, to kill or make die] and in making of death during the Revolutionary period a death denuded of sense.

Then, picking that theme up again a few pages later (p. 94):  “In inventing the neologism ‘terrorist,’ the Thermidoreans have not only anthropologized a violence also qualified as popular, but have actively occluded what had laid claim to its legitimacy in the situation: a juridico-political process of collective responsibility.”

P. 97:

Revolutionary terror is not terrorism.  Making the Year II [of the French Revolution–the year of the Terror] morally equivalent with 2001, is historical and political nonsense. . . .

The events of September 11, 2001, have not yet found a name.  One speaks of them as of a fascinating shock, with the ambivalence fascination implies:  the irresistible attraction of looking, and the defensive reaction of repulsion [just as the Thermidoreans were fascinated with the September massacres of the French Revolution].