Is There Music After 091101?

This was originally published in the November 2001 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

In a recent seminar in New York, post 091101, French philosopher Jacques Derrida noted a link between music and forgiveness. He described an exchange between philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who has written passionately of the impossibility of forgiving the Germans for the Holocaust, and a young German, who wrote an eloquent, unevasive response to Jankelevitch, describing his own feelings of guilt regarding an event that occurred before he was even born, and inviting him to visit him in Germany. Jankélévitch, who is a music lover, turned down the invitation to visit, even though the young German assured him that he would not play no German music, but only the French Debussy. Moved by the young man’s letter however, Jankelevitch, invited him to visit him in Paris, where they would “sit down together at the piano.”
No doubt, it’s premature to talk of forgiveness right now. 091101 was an unspeakable event – as I write, the bodies of those trapped in those planes and the WTC towers remain unburied, just a few miles away from me. Silence is not a word that comes to mind when one speaks of New York City – but at least for the first few days after the event, the city was almost silent. Nothing however draws pundits and speech as much as the very impossibility of speaking. And music also steps into this void of the unspeakable. But not unambiguously, as the above example in which Jankélévitch assumes that he has the power to forgive or not, suggests. One might also think of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s playing of a Mendelsohn violin piece, to show his “respect” for the Jewish people he has “insulted”. Or the kitsch of Paul McCartney’s “Ebony and Ivory”, Michael Jackson’s “Black and White.” Can music act as the true expression of a forgiveness that must go beyond words – or is it a substitution for it, a convenient sleight of hand?
One of my teachers, Avital Ronell, began her first post 091101 class by ringing a bell. Another began by invoking the memory of a street musician heard on the way to school that day, belting out a tune on an old organ. At the strange shrines that sprang up spontaneously all over lower Manhattan in the days after 091101, there were the predictable post-Lennon folk singers, but also samba groups, Tibetan chants, jazz.
For myself, most of my records and CDs sit in the exact same place they were on the night of 091001. One symptom of trauma is a visceral distaste for everything that one was doing at the moment of shock. I’m sensitive to sounds, although, since I watched 091101 from my roof in Williamsburg, far enough away to see events unfold without hearing the sound, perhaps my ears are in better shape than my eyes. When I see an aircraft, I have doubts as to what it is that I am seeing: a vehicle or a bomb.
For the first weeks after 091101, the only music I was able to listen to was Indian ragas, which, with their sustained focus on a particular emotional mood, slowly penetrate consciousness until everything else falls away. And I thought about raga master Pandit Pran Nath, born a Hindu in what is now Pakistan, member of a Muslim gharana in India – precisely the kind of liminal figure we need right now, able to move between and reconcile worlds that are tragically polarized, through devotion to perfect sound.
To my surprise though, in the last week or so, I’ve found myself listening repeatedly to the queasy cold-war music of my youth: Bowie’s Low, early Pere Ubu, This Heat – avant-rock from the late-1970s that was both parasitic on, and sought to transform the prevailing culture of political polarization. Music that worked with fear, that looked for lines of flight. Does it sound gripping right now because of this, or is it that I’m going through a protective movement of regression, to “simpler” times?

09:16:01 NYC

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

hgusquareTook a long walk downtown with a friend after an amazing dinner at Tomoe Sushi, my favorite sushi joint, which is at Thompson and Houston, quite close to Ground Zero. Kept flickering back and forth between sensual pleasures of eating the fish there, and feelings of guilt at how obscene it was to be enjoying anything in that charnel ground atmosphere.

We walked down to Canal Street, through the stores selling their $300 shoes. At Canal and Sixth, there were little candle lit rituals going on in the square there, as there had been, on a much vaster scale, in Union Square earlier that evening. I was moved by the intensity of the mourning … also struck by its vagueness. In Union Square, nationalist symbols and religious ones, American flags, statues, even the architecture of the park were being used in a frantic search for meaning. There was paper and cloth on the floor and people were writing things on it – statements of mourning, peace, anger, hiphop proclamations of war like “Yo Bush! Regulate!” The green spaces of the park were candlelit too.I liked the Canal Street area of mourning best — there were people from everywhere — Chinese, African-American, Caucasian, Asian … everyone had cameras and was snapping away, but everyone was also serious, making sure the candles stayed on fire. After spending much of the year in India, New York suddenly felt very similar to an Indian city. Heiner Muller once said that the only hope for the West was the explosion of the third world within it’s cities. Well, it literally just happened. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

I too was taking photos. The sheer amount of documentation of this event was extraordinary. It made me think that there was certainly a relationship between photography and the sacred, and that it was too easy to dismiss the tourist desire to photograph sacred places. It’s easy to say that photographing something turns it into something kitsch, picturesque. But what if taking a photograph actually was a ritual act? Like everything else we saw that night, there was a sense that people were looking for something, trying to make something, through all the candles, through the camera’s eye. But do they find what they’re looking for this way?

We walked west on Canal Street until we hit the river. The highway was cordoned off so that rescue vehicles and trucks full of debris could pass through on their way to the Frozen zone. Incidentally, at one place, maybe Hudson, you could look down the city, and in the far distance, you could see these curvey volcanic mountains of trash, vaguely illuminated like snow covered mountaintops, by the electric light. A Hispanic couple stood in front of us and took turns to pose for photographs in front of the eery sight.

A food donation center had sprung up on the corner of Canal and the West Side Highway. Posses of male steelworkers, who suddenly didn’t look like the slobs leering at women from lunchtime building sites around the world, stopped by, and strange, lone tanned women in hard hats too. The response was overwhelmingly one of men, at least on the streets, with women mostly on the sidelines, serving food and other services, so it was good to see these tough looking women on the scene. Every time a car went by, or a group of workers, looking exhausted but mostly calm walked by, a cheer went up. A group of children chanted “USA! USA!” Flags were everywhere. I find it hard to deal with displays of national pride, since they tend to involve someone somewhere being stomped on. That may be the case here too, but the mood tonight wasn’t jingoistic. It was about finding symbols of support.

A big guy with an Alsatian sniffer dog, who sniffs for bodies, was standing in front of the gas station, being interviewed by an even taller guy with a note pad. He said the dog had once sniffed a body out in six feet of water. They’d come up from the South, driven 22 hours to the Pentagon, stayed overnight and then come to New York. He works for a private firm, but now the government pro dogs are moving in and he’s going home.
We walked north up the highway, past the porno video stores, the joyful queer chaos of Christopher Street and the piers beyond, which were totally deserted on this Saturday night. On Gansevoort Street even the transvestite hookers were dressed up like secretaries in a Doris Day movie, as though out of respect. There was a general feeling of uncertainty in the air — although once upon a time in the 1970s, it was deserted places like Gansevoort Street where you felt the most vulnerable, the most scared. Now, with talk everywhere of chemical and biological warfare, it is the most populated places, like Grand Central Station, where you look nervously around you, unsure about what is going to happen next.

09:12:01 NYC

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

hgwtc1This piece was written the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. In whatever the mental state I was in at that moment, I overstated my remarks about the glee of the newscasters, and the pervasive state of denial that I perceived in the final paragraph, and I apologize for that. At the same time, the mechanisms of denial, which are undoubtedly at work, in myself and other people at this time, should be explored. So, rather than simply erasing and rewriting the piece as though it had never existed, I think it’s best to post and read it as a trauma-document, with all the blind-spots that implies, but also the potential for illumination and altered perception that shock brings with it. As I write, the plume of dust and smoke from the site of what used to be the World Trade Center towers is passing directly over my loft in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. If you scrape your finger over the bonnet of the cars outside, you barely draw a line. It’s milder now than earlier this afternoon when I wandered through downtown Manhattan, unable to see more than three or four blocks ahead because of the musty fog of dust. It’s milder than yesterday afternoon too, when I was hanging out on a stoop in Boerum Hill with some friends. Having safely brought the kids home from school, we drank beer and watched them play, while charred pieces of plastic fell from the sky onto us, and high up above, a steady stream of paper flowed through the sky, driven by the wind. The atmosphere here in New York is not just surreal. It’s unreal. As I walked around Greenwich Village earlier on, college students back for the new semester wandered around, chatting on cell phones (though many cell phone lines are still down), listening to Walkmans, drinking sodas. At sidewalk cafes on Sixth Avenue, tanned customers tuck into plates of tuna carpaccio as ambulances rush by. Mayor Giuliani has suggested that today would be a good day to do some shopping but most of the shops south of 14th Street are shut, so people just wander, as though they can’t think of anything else to do (the multiplex UA cinema at Union Square is having free movies all day – even at midday, there were plenty of takers). Yesterday, when my friend Michele and I picked up her daughter Tallulah from her school on the other side of Brooklyn, roadblocks forced us to park the car miles away from the school and walk. Tallulah’s feet started to blister, and the heat and dust made everyone cranky. We went into a Korean deli on Smith Street and bought Arizona ginseng and honey flavored iced teas and Japanese rice crackers, while above us, the smoke billowed. Maybe this is how it is in wartime: life goes on, however it can, even in the consumer paradise of New York City. But as I write this, about three miles down the road from my Williamsburg [Brooklyn] loft, there are thousands of dead bodies still laying there, under piles of steel and concrete. Of course, there are the EMS volunteers, the doctors, the firemen, the blood donors. The churches too. When my room-mate walked back to Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday afternoon after work, he was greeted by a group of Hasidim at the Brooklyn end, offering pink lemonade to everyone to refresh their thirst. But Governor Pataki has said on TV that the city doesn’t need any more volunteers. And most people aren’t volunteering. They’re standing in the street, chatting, or at home, in front of the TV. I watched both of the towers go down from the roof here. I first found out yesterday morning around 9 a.m., through Yahoo!, which had a small item about a plane hitting the trade center on the home page. I went to the New York Times web-site, as I usually do in the morning, and there was nothing there. So I shrugged it off: probably some small private plane made a major mistake. Maybe a few deaths. Somehow, not enough for my jaded news-saturated brain to pursue the matter further. Then, about five minutes later I got a call from my sister in London, asking me if I was alright. While I was getting briefed by her on the situation, a call on my other line from a friend in Australia saying “what’s happening there???” I had no idea. So I climbed up onto the roof of the tenement building I live in. My upstairs neighbor Michele was already there. The Puerto Rican pigeon fanciers, with their roof-top coop across the road were there. There was almost nobody else around – all either at work or still asleep. And across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, beyond the Williamsburg Bridge, over there in Manhattan where none of us artists can afford to live these days, the twin towers were on fire. I went down to get my camera. Michelle got her radio, which didn’t work. You could see the glow of the fire inside the towers. It was awful but it was a building on fire. I’ve been in burning buildings before. This was something that could be comprehended, and so somehow we sat on the roof, watching and taking photos. Then the first tower seemed to sway and then it fell, in a vast cloud of white smoke. We looked at each other in confusion. Still somehow it didn’t sink in. We knew that it was likely the second tower was going to go too. We talked about the terror that those left in the remaining building must be feeling. Still, we just sat and watched, and when the second building went down, our cameras were ready. As the thick cloud of smoke expanded and drifted slowly over towards downtown Brooklyn, those on neighboring rooftops began to descend back into their buildings, as you do at the end of a firework display. From this distance, upwind from the smoke, there was simply nothing to see any more, and so, no reason to be up there any more. I’ve had calls and email from all around the world to make sure I’m alright. Besides my nearest and dearest, hardly a single person from within the United States has contacted me. I don’t think it’s because I’m unpopular round these parts. This place shows all the classic symptoms of trauma. Perhaps it’s every man for himself here while in Europe and Australia, people have the luxury of thinking about others. I find that disturbing. If, as the anchors on Channel 7 so gleefully announce, the nation is rooted to their TVs, it’s because they are desperately trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, to push the still unfolding horrors back into the TV set and turn this situation back into a spectacle, an orchestrated Hollywood rerun in which certain images like those of people jumping from the burning buildings (“Too horrible to watch, so we decided not to show it,” explained the news anchor this morning) are edited out, while others, like the second aircraft striking the tower, are endlessly replayed. Everyone is trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, which is still unfolding as I write. Maybe for those in other parts of the country that’s a possibility. Here, I don’t think it’s going to work.