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Mao II and the War on Terrorism
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 103.1 (2004) 21-43

Oh! the only part of life that matters is contemplation. When everybody understands that as clearly as I do, they will all start writing. Life will become literature. Half of human kind will devote itself to reading and studying what the other half has written. And contemplation will be the main business of the day, preserving it from the wretchedness of actual living. And if one part of human kind rebels and refuses to read the other half's effusions, so much the better. Everyone will read himself instead; and people's lives will have a chance to repeat, to correct, to crystallize themselves, whether or no they become clearer in the process. . . . I mean to take up writing again.
—Italo Svevo, "An Old Man's Confessions" (1928)

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and the crash of hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, I received a call from a reporter at the New York Times. Emily Eakin was working on a story about modern literature's response to earlier forms of terror, in particular the fictional representations of Russian revolutionaries in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1871–72) and European anarchists in Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886) and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907). Eakin reasonably assumed that great literature offers us means of coping with crises like September 11 and that this specific event was not historically unique. We talked by phone and e-mail about the national agendas of early modern revolutionary movements and the global terrorist aims of the Islamic fundamentalist Al-Qaeda, including the aesthetic means required to represent these different political cultures and historical periods. Call Don DeLillo, I urged Eakin, and read Mao II, his literary analysis of postmodern terrorism. Then call Jody McAuliffe and Frank Lentricchia at Duke, who are producing a dramatization of the novel in the spring of 2002. Eakin phoned none of the above and certainly did not read Mao II for her story. Reporters have deadlines; her story appeared eleven days after September 11.

As a scholar, I have the luxury and responsibility to linger over such issues. When McAuliffe and Lentricchia invited me to attend their dramatic production of Mao II in April 2002, I welcomed the chance to work out my own reflections on contemporary representations of terrorism by way of DeLillo's novel and its dramatization. Dostoevsky, James, and Conrad were brilliant practitioners of psychological realism, which located meaning and value in the choices and actions of individuals, even when such individuals act as representatives of political or social groups. James's Hyacinth Robinson "chooses" not to assassinate the duke, thereby repudiating his relationship with the anarchists, but it is a choice that requires him to take responsibility for his actions by committing suicide (Rowe 147–88). Dostoevsky's The Possessed culminates in the murder of Stavrogin's wife, Marya Timofeyevna Lebyadkin, and her brother by the revolutionaries and the inevitable suicides by Stavrogin and his disciple Kirilov for their responsibility in this bloody conclusion. In Conrad's The Secret Agent, Winnie Verloc kills her husband when she discovers that in using her brother, Stevie, in the anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, Verloc is responsible for Stevie's unwittingly blowing himself up. Just as Winnie judges that Verloc must take full responsibility for the anarchists' crime against her brother, so Winnie commits suicide both out of desperation and in apparent compensation for her own violent act. Repeating the newspaper story's baffled conclusion about Winnie's leap from the Channel steamer, Conrad suggests that the "impenetrable mystery . . . destined to hang for ever over this act of madness or despair" can be understood only by way of literary insight into the complex motives of the individual (Conrad 249).

What would these literary realists have understood in the acts of the Al-Qaeda terrorists who lived in the U.S. suburbs, attended private flight schools, drank and smoked in local bars (while leaving snippets from the Koran for edification of the patrons), worked out at 24-Hour Fitness, and just...

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