A Memorial Designed Eventually to Fall

farm 911 memorial

I haven’t spent much time cataloguing 9-11 memorials, but by far my favorite sits on the edge of an old farm in Connecticut. Its relative seclusion and rough materials suggest that the memorial was not conceived for broad and endless consumption so much as to express the needs of a maker while the shock of the attacks was still new and amorphous but massive. The violence has penetrated even this bucolic pasture.

The towers themselves appear to be blocks of granite, maybe curbstone never needed before. Organic in origin yet reshaped coarsely by man, the stones portend the very solidity of existence will be struck. A black rag suggests both the smoke in New York and the mourning of the memorialist. The plane swooping in from the tree branch can be both the commercial airliners used as the weapons as well as the military jets sent aloft in defense. The metal rod on the right tower clearly mimics the antennae atop the World Trade Center, but it is also so disproportionately long it seems a message being sent into heaven or the news of the destruction being broadcast into every home.

Indeed, the whole structure on its surface appears as basic mimesis, but like a Brechtian actor or an ancient Egyptian painting, we are not supposed to forget it is representation rather than duplication. The memorial points; it does not recreate.

Finally, although the memorial sits relatively securely, it does not seem designed to last the ages. We can imagine the wire suspending the plane will snap or the branch will break under too much snow. Lichens and rust already overtake the materials. With a solid shove, the whole edifice could topple along with the wall on which it rests. The memorial had to last long enough to express its moment, which is not forever. When the structure falls, it is not that we will forget, but that the past will have taken a more stable shape in our lives and the personal memorial of expression will have done its work.

History as the Imagists’ Dream (or Cuisine of Spam)

Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, reduces the experience of the war largely to petty slights and vendettas played out among individual men, as well as the goals and fears they cling to, sometimes irrationally, often for the sake of keeping some organizing force in their lives. The main drama of the second half underscores this experience of the personally minute amid the massively incomprehensible: a patrol undertakes a mission to prove the cleverness of a general, which also gives a sergeant a chance to prove his tenacity. The patrol needlessly loses several of its members as it scouts a way to surprise the enemy while the main Japanese line simply collapses from starvation.

In Sebald’s Austerlitz, a hideous library is built in Paris atop what was once the depot for goods expropriated from the city’s Jewish population in World War II. The library is ugly, but worse, it impedes people’s access to the books, as well as to the knowledge of what lay in them or below. The eponymous Austerlitz has to fight continually against losing his memory and identity.

I doubt, however, either of these visions of the war will persist, or if they do, they will need to be recuperated by a later era. After all, World War II has become the Last Good War, when Good and Evil were clearly demarcated, when Victory was obvious and American. We consume what reinforces that image more than what challenges it—these days, for most Americans that probably means The Diary of Anne Frank, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan. Catch-22 and a Randall Jarrell poem may make the list to add another dimension: bombing missions were harrowing (though not much is heard from those on the other end of the bombs.) World War I, meanwhile, has basically settled into a few Wilfred Owens poems in most anthologies and maybe mention of Im Westen Nichts Neues and rarely, and usually in disdainful contrast, In Stahlgewittern. Why these? Because we “all know” World War I was brutal, terrifying, and senseless, a case of alliances and hubris gone awry. History persists most often as metaphor, not fact, or in what Nietzsche called its monumental form.

Meanwhile, the decision to intervene or not in Syria invokes one of two precedents: the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 1999 bombings of the disintegrated Yugoslavia. Both incidents lose all complexity to become metaphorical shorthand: either a bad intelligence failure/boldfaced lie that should restrain us now or a successful humanitarian intervention that should have happened in 1938 already and should encourage us now.

Yes, history supposedly proceeds from tragedy to farce, but as often, it proceeds from reality to pre-packaged analogy, a sort of intellectual Spam, ready to crack open when needed, the contents already known and not particularly complex, except, perhaps, in the effort to manufacture them.

Is there simply too much to know, so we have to draw a lesson and compress reality, or can we proceed another way?