What art has helped you make sense of 9/11?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 7 2006 7:24 PM

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.

Landscapes of the Jihad, by Faisal Devji.

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.  

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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.

Team America.

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.

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