Sunday, September 10, 2006

For 9/11

Here is the conclusion of Medieval Identity Machines, an attempt at affirmation from a time when I was not feeling especially hopeful. I suppose it is as predictably navel-gazing as anything written in the aftermath of those catastrophes. Reading it again tonight brings me back to a place where I wish had never arrived.


Postscript: Possible Futures

The chapters of this book assumed their final forms by the summer of 2001. Living and working in Washington DC, it is difficult not to feel that the world has suddenly changed since that time. My office is only a few blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I was on campus when the events of Sept. 11 occurred. Upon entering the administrative building where I had an early meeting, I saw the footage on a TV turned to CNN of a plane embedded in the World Trade Center, and thought it a horrible accident. Not long afterwards we were evacuated under a warning that the Pentagon had been hit and that a fourth hijacked plane was en route to the obliteration of the White House, not knowing that heroic measures had already caused its crash in Pennsylvania. When the Air Force fighter jets roared over the city a few minutes later, those of us making our nervous way toward the subway ducked and believed for a moment we might die without seeing loved ones again. David Charlebois, who had once been my neighbor and dog-walking companion, was the co-pilot of the plane forced to explode into the Pentagon, and attending his funeral will always haunt me. For a week we lost our mail to anthrax contamination. Not long ago my car was stopped and guns pointed at all nearby motorists so that the Vice President could be escorted into his mansion. It used to be that it was impossible to walk from the Metro to the Folger Library without a tourist asking for directions to the Capitol; now I mostly see armed guards and warnings of restricted areas. Knowing that I was leaving early one recent morning to catch a flight, my son stayed awake from the time he went to bed at eight in the evening until 4 am so that he could kiss me good-bye a final time as I left, so fearful was he that the plane I was about to board would not arrive at its destination. Alexander is only four years old, but carries with him the anxieties of someone who has seen too much of the world. It breaks my heart.

Rereading for a final time the chapters which compose Medieval Identity Machines makes me think, however, that the world has perhaps not been so deeply reconfigured as the trauma of September 11 sometimes makes us feel. Certainly, the magnitude and violence of the attacks cannot be downplayed, nor can the sense of violation which they engendered be dismissed or even explained away. Sadly, however, the hatred which motivates events like the cataclysmic destruction in New York, Washington, Afghanistan has long precedent. A subtext of this book about the Middle Ages has been that human beings have seldom learned mutual respect not only for the differences which distinguish cultures but also for the internal differences within nations and other collectives. Chivalry might have mandated the perfect union of horse and man, but it was also predicated upon causing the violent demise of people who did not share the same faith, the same language, the same class values, or sometimes people who simply owned coveted land. The twelfth century valorization of marriage dictated mutual consent as the antecedent to coupledom, but was tied to a clerical denigration of women and the dissemination of misogynistic stereotypes which still haunt. Saintly Guthlac apparently killed men simply because they did not speak his Mercian tongue and they dared to be offended when his natio expanded into their land. Margery Kempe struggled against the constraints placed upon her gender for her entire life; she died without knowing that she would one day achieve the iconic status which she so long had sought. Christians have monsterized and murdered dissenters, Jews, Muslims, other non-Christians for centuries while arguing that their compassionate God desires this flow of blood. Too many inheritances of the crusades endure.

These are, in fact, pieces of the stories which I told in this book. Yet in reviewing these chapters in the wake of catastrophe I am struck by one thing: how affirmative they are. This bent is in a way required, I think, by their deleuzian inspiration, for as a philosopher he was insistent upon not abandoning joy, upon not giving in to despair, a value to which he held even as he took his own life. This, then, is the Middle Ages I would like to continue to see: not a time and place imbued with naïve optimism or filled with edenic purity, but an expanse much like this present in which horror and life co-exist, and in which we can with a sober mind still choose joy.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

And probably the best recent book of poetry to also capture what JJC calls "this present in which horror and life co-exist, and in which we can with a sober mind still choose joy" would be Jack Gilbert's "Refusing Heaven." In an interview on NPR last spring he eloquently explained how one can not only experience joy in a world where many are suffering, but also, that there is a kind of moral imperative to do so.