Ten years later the hallucinogenic events of September 11, 2001, remain enigmatic and nightmare-like. There is no shared, uniform view because our experiences of that day are so disparate. There weren’t four planes, there were 300 million of them, and they slammed into our minds, not just our collective psyche (if there is such a thing), but into each of us.

Whatever else 9/11 is, it is an extraordinarily personal trauma. It comes to consciousness within its own hall of mirrors, images and thoughts appearing un-summoned and then disappearing before they are neatly understood.

It is the day we fell to earth, and with that thought my mind leaps and I’m in a limo on a New Mexico highway with David Bowie’s alien in Nicolas Roeg’s film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. I glance out the window at a white horse that seems winged as it glides beside our car. Like Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, I ride the horse into memory fields as the song from The Fantasticks, “Try to Remember,” whispers like the ghost of irony on the soundtrack.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember the time of September
When love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow, follow.

The Fantasticks? It’s a musical about two fathers who pretend to hate each other to trick their son and daughter into pursuing forbidden love, a conspiracy among modern Capulets and Montagues to marry Juliet and Romeo. Like I said, the thoughts come unbidden. Maybe I’m thinking about the destructive power of manipulation, about the arrogant and terrible fools who toy with the hearts of others out of their own ambitions.

Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Bruegel

And then there’s another image in the mirrors, Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, an image that also appears in Roeg’s movie. In the painting, life goes on as a tiny Icarus splashes unnoticed into the sea below. But if I try to draw a parallel between Bruegel’s Icarus and America, the thought falters. Surely we would notice if we fell?

Poet William Carlos Williams wrote about that painting. But it’s another Williams poem, “The Descent,” that offers hope of a way out of the hall of mirrors (pardon auto-formatted line-breaks):

The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned.
Memory is a kind
of accomplishment,
a sort of renewal

Whether we know them as “collateral damage” or “civilian casualties,” slaughtered innocents deserve perpetual mourning from those of us who survive. If we are to find renewal, it will be the accomplishment of such memories, as Williams hints.

We like to think this was something new on our shores, but it was not. If we are to mourn the innocent dead, we have to include the indigenous Americans, don’t we? And many others: slaves, mineworkers, murdered protestors, the wrongfully condemned and on and on. Still, there are the ugly memories of brutal civilian carnage during the 20th Century’s great wars, and 9/11 taught us just how artificial our calendar is. The New Millennium was wishful thinking.

Panic and madness followed 9/11. The towers fell over and over again on our screens. Those in power puffed their chests and promised vengeance. We felt unsafe and uncertain, and power used those frightening images to scare us into giving them permission to war and to diminish fundamental democratic rights in the name of security.

In horrorshow ways, we responded to the falling buildings by jackhammering the foundations of our own social order.

It need not end there, though. Renewal is always possible. Didn’t William Carlos Williams tell us that? The universe is open, after all, and when the Dude abides, that’s what he’s agreed to.

How many millions of words about 9/11 have been uttered? How many experts, commentators, psychologists, and politicians have tried to tell us what that day means? Many today are critical of our repeated return to the events of 9/11. There is concern that it’s driven by commercialized sentimentality and the pursuit of ratings that repeatedly reward the attackers with renewed attention. There’s something to that criticism. And I’m uneasy with the task of explaining its meaning because I do not yet know what it is.

I get help excusing my tentativeness from Cathy Caruth, author of Trauma: Explorations in Memory:

The trauma is the confrontation with an event that, in its unexpectedness or horror, cannot be placed within the schemas of prior knowledge – that cannot, as George Bataille says, become a matter of ‘intelligence’ – and thus continually returns…

It was Ben Saunders’ cool essay on Spider-Man, American pop culture’s longest-lived meditator on the existential anguish caused by our ultimate powerlessness, super-powered or not, that pointed me to Caruth. Spider-Man is forever failing his own sense of justice and fretting over such traumas as the possibility he played an innocent role in the death of the woman he loved (Spider-Man No. 121).

I feel better about my wild and willful, post-9/11 stream of thought. I mean, if Spider-Man can hang with it, I oughta try. He asked, “What good is my fantastic power if I cannot use it?” (Spider-Man No. 1). I suppose the fathers of The Fantasticks asked themselves the same thing.

Another shattered community, the Beatles, came together again in 1995, virtually and long after John Lennon’s murder, to make a song from a tape Lennon had left behind. In “Free As a Bird” the Beatles sing:

Whatever happened to
The life that we once knew
Can we really live without each other
Where did we lose the touch
That seemed to mean so much
It always made me feel so free

Speaking for Icarus, for Spider-Man, for Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton, for the Beatles, and for post-9/11 America, an earthbound Lennon asks, “What’s the next best thing to be/free as a bird.”

The next best thing. That seems like an appropriate earthly prayer on this September 11, 2011.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith