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  • September 11 and Postmodern Memory
  • David Wyatt (bio)

It is difficult to imagine someone writing a book about the literary response to September 11 called The Unwritten War. Looking back over a century after the event, Daniel Aaron's 1973 book of that name argued that American writers had fallen short of a full imagining of the causes and meaning of the Civil War. Yet only nine years after the terrorist attacks, even a casual backward glance reveals, by contrast, a surprisingly rich and early body of work about the trauma and its aftermath.

A number of our most venerable writers have been drawn in; we have September 11 novels by John Updike, Philip Roth, Ward Just, Reynolds Price, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. From across the Atlantic, Ian McEwan weighed in with Saturday. There were movies by Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg. In popular music, Bruce Springsteen led off with The Rising, David Bowie followed with Reality, and Leonard Cohen and Neil Young gave us "On that Day" and "Let's Roll." Robert Haas offered a burned-out pastoral in the 2005 "Bush's War," while Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, C. K. Williams, Tom Sleigh, and Josh Weiner also turned to poetic form as the necessary and appropriate record of a war.

"Form is the record of a war," Norman Mailer wrote in 1966. By the logic of the claim, the experience of each war engenders unique and answerable forms. In the most comprehensive working-out of Mailer's claim, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) argues that the dominating form of modern understanding is "essentially ironic," and that it originates in the application of mind and memory to the events of World War I. On September 11, any reign of irony ended. [End Page 139] The events of that day and the imaginings arising out of them mark a turn toward "seriousness," a turn away from modern irony and the lightness of the postmodern turn.

No doubt many of the approaches developed by twentieth-century literature do and will survive; the imagination is promiscuous, and reaches out toward the accumulated strategies developed by the writers of the past in spite of any spirit of the age. But the day and all it called forth are marked by a return to feeling, an upwelling of unironized emotion that writing has attempted to honor, represent, and contain. The endless challenge is to find a form in which hurts can not only be felt, but also shared. This was the first move to be made. The second was to move from elegy to critique, to remind ourselves that as a nation of people in history we are also implicated in events that may appear merely to befall us. Two formal devices recur with enough frequency to identify an emerging pattern: "likeness scenes," in which strangers or antagonists are aligned in an unlooked-for congruence; and strategic deferral, where something a character or a reader wants to know is withheld from the narrative until such time as it can serve his emotional education.

Just what is it that one remembers? Above all, perhaps, where one was when one got the news. (As once before in life, in tenth-grade geometry, at around eleven in the morning, if one lived in California and was fifteen in 1963.) Snatches of things heard, said, and above all seen:

Black Smoke.One million pieces of paper.When the second plane hit.Are you watching the news?I dropped the phone.Bodies falling.It's beautiful weather.I love you.

These sentences and sentence fragments can be found In Jonathan Saffran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), in a chapter [End Page 140] entitled "My Feelings." Foer recognizes in these utterances an uncanny power to call up the memory of what was felt precisely because they are so generic. In reading them, we are allowed to perform the return to feeling that so marked the experience of that day.

Feeling is just what bothers nine-year-old Oskar Schell. As he tells Dr. Fein, "I feel too much. That's what's going on." And why? "Because my dad...


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pp. 139-161
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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