Has Art Helped You Make Sense of 9/11?

Harold Bloom, Hanif Kureishi, Jane Smiley, and others respond.

To mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Slate asked novelists, artists, journalists, and other thoughtful people a question: What work of art or literature has helped you make sense of the attacks and the world after them? Their answers are below.

Reza Aslan, author, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
Landscapes of the Jihad, by Faisal Devji, a professor at the New School. The book is an erudite analysis of the rise of jihadism as almost a new kind of “sect” within Islam—one that combines mystical and traditional elements of Islam with a sophisticated globalization effort based on an ethical, rather than political, worldview.  

Christopher Benfey, Slate art critic
I was spooked to find in Gravity’s Rainbow so many anticipations of 9/11, from its familiar opening words (“A screaming comes across the sky”) to stray details (“But then last September the rockets came”), and, on the last page, a reference to “the Light that brought the Towers low.” Back in 1973, Pynchon gave us our great paranoid dream of a world ruled by “The Firm,” where “there is a Pearl Harbor every morning, smashing invisibly from the sky.” But he also offers some refuge in the quiet precincts of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, invoked more than once, and in the sheer imaginative arc of his onrushing book. 

Paul Berman, author, Power and the Idealists
I’ve spent the last few months immersed in a sea of books by someone named Francois de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), who wrote a couple of hallucinogenic novels about American Indians, another novel about Spain and the Arabs, a gigantic tract in praise of Christianity, a supremely imaginative book of political theory in 1797, a travelogue about Jerusalem and North Africa, and a vast autobiography. These ancient and obscure books have evidently had the better of me. I can barely walk across the living room floor without tripping over little piles of them. I am in a daze. It dawns on me that Chateaubriand’s great talent, his genius, was to write in a voice filled with tender and angry grief. It is the voice of a man whose older brother and many other relatives were guillotined by crazed fanatics in the French Revolution—the voice of someone who can hardly believe that, amid so many pointless deaths, he has survived. I admit that my mania for Chateaubriand has been a little strange. I hope that I recover soon. Still, for several months now I seem to have needed to hear a voice like his, I don’t know why.

Harold Bloom, author, American Religious Poems: An Anthology
I’ve seen absolutely nothing adequate to the event. It may be another sign that our culture has grown numb.

Steve Coll, author, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 The theme song from Team America; the long hold on a blank screen at the end of Paradise Now; and the burning cargo plane on the horizon in the opening scene of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, where father and son wait for the top of the hour in hope that TV news will have caught up with the facts. Something about the interaction between certainty and uncertainty.

Mia Fineman, Slate art critic
During the eerily quiet days following the World Trade Center attack, nearly every street-level surface in New York City was plastered with photographic images. Homemade fliers, onto which families and friends scanned color snapshots of missing loved ones, suddenly appeared on lamp posts, storefront windows, kiosks, bus shelters, subway platforms, firehouse doors. Most of the photographs captured the missing people during their happiest hours—at weddings, graduations, birthday dinners; lounging on sunny beaches; cuddling babies—and the pictures were often accompanied by loving descriptions of identifying details: clothing, scars, birthmarks, tattoos.

As the days went by, the images multiplied. But after about a week or so, there was a subtle, unspoken change. The fliers that had at first seemed to be active expressions of hope began to look more like declarations of sorrow. The candle-bearing crowds that gathered to gaze at walls densely plastered with images of smiling faces now recognized them for what they had become: public memorials that put a human face on a generalized sense of loss. New York’s temporary, collective installation of “missing” fliers, produced over the course of a few weeks by hundreds of sad and hopeful people, is, to my mind, the most meaningful and authentic work of art on the subject of 9/11.

Jeffrey Goldberg, author, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide
There is a scene in Hany Abu-Assad’s film Paradise Now that stays with me; it is a scene that exposes the threadbare morals of those in the West who rationalize the act of murder-suicide. Paradise Now is a sympathetic evocation of the lives of two Palestinian suicide bombers. It was received with high acclaim, and an Oscar nomination, when it was released last year. The film is not straight apologia; the handlers of the two luckless bombers are sometimes portrayed unheroically, even cynically.

But there is no irony, only elegy, in a linchpin scene. It is the night before the two men are to be dispatched to Israel to murder soldiers. (And here, the film flinches from an important fact: that most suicide bombers seek out civilians, rather than soldiers, to kill.) The bombers and their handlers have gathered for a final meal, and Abu-Assad arrays them around a table in a too-obvious imitation of the Last Supper. Even though I am not a Christian, I was struck by the obscenity of this staging. Jesus, in the Christian conception, was, at his final meal, preparing himself to go meekly to his death so that humankind might live.

These suicide bombers, on the other hand, were preparing to kill others in order to ease their own pain. Inadvertently, I think, Abu-Assad has exposed the narcissism, and the nihilism, of the Muslim theologians who argue that salvation can be brought about by murder. 

Gish Jen, author, The Love Wife
I found myself unexpectedly put in mind of 9/11 by the Brancusi exhibit at the Guggenheim two years ago. It was impossible not to admire the ineffability of certain pieces, and their ambition to capture a human essence beyond history and culture, without feeling how diminished we are today—in our hopes for peace, of course, but also in our hopes for fundamental understanding.

Hanif Kureishi, author, Gabriel’s Gift
The best source of information about 9/11 is the film My Son the Fanatic, which I wrote and which was directed by Udayan Prasad. There’s insight there, into the individual and into the community.

Jim Lewis, author, The King Is Dead
I’m not sure I have made sense of 9/11; I don’t think it’s the sort of thing one makes sense of, any more than one makes sense of Hiroshima, or the Middle Passage, or Dachau, or Sabra and Shatila, or King Leopold’s Congo, or Oklahoma City, or a dozen other atrocities I could name without having to pause to take a breath. They’re all the same, of course, and they’re all different; there’s a lot of art that could show me how they were the same, but in the year or two immediately afterward I needed to gather specific information, about this place and that—news that doesn’t stay news—and I needed to travel, so that’s what I did.

For words to express what I learned, that day and in the days since, I turn to W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” with its famous opening lines:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …

For comfort and perspective, I’ve turned above all to Ecclesiastes, which remains both the wisest and most worldly poetry I know.

Pankaj Mishra, author, Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond So much of our intellectual energy since 9/11 has been spent on understanding the so-called Muslim world. However, no literary genre has seemed more capable of illuminating its complex emotional reality than fiction. I found Nadeem Aslam’s novel Maps for Lost Lovers to be particularly insightful. Describing with exceptional fidelity the inner lives of a devout Muslim woman, her secular husband, and their rebellious children in a British town, Aslam lays bare the often painful ways in which people negotiate their way out of the security of tradition, and then struggle to realize the promise of personal fulfillment held out by modernity.  

Robert Pinsky, author, The Life of David
The political exploitation of 9/11, the volume of slogans and spinning, has been almost deafening. The cultural opportunism, too, has been loud. Like many people, I find it hard to think about fundamental questions. How much does life go on as always, and how much is life changed forever? Here are two responses, one on each side of that question.

First, a poem. Sometimes the work of art about an event precedes the event in time. Here is Mark Strand’s translation of a poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, written decades before Sept. 11, 2001:

Clara strolled in the garden with the children.
The sky was green over the grass,
the water was golden under the bridges,
other elements were blue and rose and orange,
a policeman smiled, bicycles passed,
a girl stepped onto the lawn to catch a bird,
the whole world—Germany, China—
All was quiet around Clara.The children looked at the sky: it was not forbidden.
Mouth, nose, eyes were open. There was no danger.
What Clara feared were the flu, the heat, the insects.
Clara feared missing the eleven o’clock trolley,
waiting for letters slow to arrive,
not always being able to wear a new dress. But
she strolled in the garden, in the morning!
They had gardens, they had mornings in those days!

My other instance is a memory. On that day, when air travel ceased, I was stranded in Los Angeles. On Sept. 12, I was invited to a “table read” of a new script for The Simpsons: The actors, some writers and guests seated around a conference table, for a first run-through and edit. The mood was somber as we gathered, but there were no speeches or explanations, no apologies for the decision to get on with the job. Someone convened the rehearsal, and those brilliant vocal performers read through the script, while we all laughed very hard. Then we parted, with no bromides or prayers or any concession at all to the cataclysm. I can’t recall anything about the script, but I remember the occasion for that classy, understated determination to keep working.

“Souvenir of the Ancient World” sharpens my sense of a terrible transformation. Recalling that rehearsal of The Simpsons recalls the way we pick up our tools or instruments with stubborn persistence. In both, I value the element of quiet.

Francine Prose, author, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want To Write Them
I reread War and Peace fairly soon after 9/11, and I was amazed by the fact that the whole cast of contemporary characters—from Rudy Giuliani to Donald Rumsfeld to John Walker Lindh—all have direct counterparts in a novel that also spells out, in no uncertain terms, why an occupying army can never win a guerilla war. If only Tolstoy had been required reading at the Pentagon! More recently, the marvelous Michael Haneke film, Caché, seemed to me to offer an astonishingly thoughtful and rare (and very subtle) take on the legacy of European colonialism in the Arab world and on the importance of accepting responsibility for the poverty, the suffering, and the lack of education that have fostered the political and social climate in which terrorism has thrived.

Tom Ricks, author, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq I think the best 9/11 movie is probably Snakes on a Plane, with its fantasy that we could just have Samuel L. Jackson snarl the terrorists into submission. My favorite book on the post-9/11 era is actually the 9/11 Commission Report—for my money one of the best government studies ever done.

Ron Rosenbaum, author, Shakespeare Wars
Back in 2002 I watched hours and hours of raw footage of 9/11 victims’ families talking about whether their faith in God and/or religion had been shaken by the way fate (God?) had singled out their spouses or children for murder that day—murder in the name of religion. The eternal problem of theodicy, the ever-unresolved, unsatisfying (to some) attempt to reconcile a belief in God and the persistence of evil.

I was working as co-writer on a documentary for PBS/Frontline produced and directed by Helen Whitney. It was called Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. I won’t attempt to summarize the conflicting perspectives that emerged from it. (If you’re interested, PBS is rebroadcasting it this year on the night of Sept. 11.) But what watching those people struggle with doubt crystallized for me was the courage it took to doubt, the centrality of doubt to our civilization and the threat that doubt and skepticism pose to some. Indeed, at the last minute, some nervous soul wanted to change the title from Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero to Faith at Ground Zero. I threatened to take my name off it. I don’t know if that made the difference, but they reversed course and the “Doubt” is still there. Long live doubt.      

George Saunders, author, In Persuasion Nation
I can’t say that anything has helped me make sense of the attacks. I suspect they were just what they felt like they were—namely, a reminder that chaos and hatred sometimes rear their heads and, temporarily, are ascendant. But one work of art that has helped me in a more general way is John Adams’ symphonic work “On the Transmigration of Souls”; it has “helped” me in the sense that I’ve been able to use it, periodically and sacramentally, to move myself to tears remembering that day just as it was. Every time I listen to it, it re-attunes me to the real sadness of that day, the sense of ordinary lives suddenly and horribly interrupted. That, I’d say, is the real purpose of art: to sweep away the mold that conceptual and habitual thought allows to grow over even the most raw experience. And Adams does it—it’s a great and courageous piece of music.

Jane Smiley, author, Good Faith
It happens that I wrote a whole book about this very topic—Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. My initial response to 9/11 was to try to get as far away from it as possible, so I read the Seidensticker translation of The Tale of Genji, written in 1004, generally considered to be the first “novel.” However, since The Tale of Genji was written at a time when the Japanese were much influenced by Buddhist thought, the great theme of the novel is the ephemerality of life, so the characters are always reflecting on the fleeting nature of all things that seem real and permanent, which of course was quite pertinent to 9/11. I found the paradox of reading a 1,000-year-old novel that repeatedly explores these ideas and images quite comforting and salutary, and then went on to read other old books from different parts of the world (Iceland, Italy, France) that looked at mortality from sometimes wildly different perspectives. Somehow, reading about ancient feuds, the Black Death, and the cruelties of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation turned out to be life-affirming after all.

Zoe Strauss, photographer
I am still confused, angry, wary, and deeply saddened. I don’t know if I will ever be able to get my mind around the attacks. There are two things that have helped me make sense of some of what’s happened following the attacks. One of them is Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, by Gore Vidal. I know that’s a very literal answer, but it’s what first came to mind. The other is this sign that I saw near Asbury Park, N.J., shortly after 9/11. Although I believe “close” is meant to be defined as to draw near, to come together, I believe that it can also be read as “close,” i.e., to block against entry or passage. Grammar aside, of course.

When I looked up the definition of “close,” the Merriam-Webster entry included this: ” ‘close’ usually implies that something has been in some way open as well as unfinished.” That’s how I feel about 9/11 five years later—that it’s unfinished and open to interpretation, with some people looking to come together and some people looking to shut others out and all of us not 100 percent sure of the meaning.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor, New York Times Book Review
Two exceptional novels come to mind. First, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which illuminates the world of political Islam in much the way Dostoevsky and Conrad illuminated the revolutionary-terrorist politics of their eras. Second, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which captures, in all its comfortable fatuity, the New York City that, in retrospect, seemed poised for disaster.