Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 and the literary fallacy

In the spring of 1943, as the tide was beginning to turn against the Axis in the Second World War, Bernard DeVoto delivered a series of lectures at Indiana University on American literature in the ’twenties. A fierce conservationist and even more fiery liberal who later tangled with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, DeVoto was “rather tory than whig,” to use his own distinction, in his literary criticism. Defending his examination of two-decades-old writing before “young men and women who will presently be taking an active part in the war,” he explained that the country’s literature had repudiated American life during the ’twenties, “shut[ting] it away from the realities of that life, the evils as well as the good.”

And the distortions had had an effect. Not only upon DeVoto’s listeners (“Literature has given you some ideas which are erroneous and built into your thinking misrepresentations and fallacies which impair the instruments you must use”). But also upon America’s enemies. “Clearly the master race accepted in good faith the description of America which American writers had provided, and made their plans,” DeVoto said, “in accordance with it.”[1]

At bottom was what he called, when he published the lectures in book form one year later, The Literary Fallacy. This is the mistake of believing that experience can be absorbed, both understood and expressed, wholly in literature; and in literature, moreover, which is reduced to belles-lettres (prose fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism). It is the undertaking “to judge our society by means of literature and nothing else” (p. 31). It entails an aggrandizement of literature’s importance in human affairs accompanied by its underside—playing down the significance of empirical facts. To the literary way of thinking, DeVoto said,

the criterion of an idea is its rightness as idea, not the knowledge which it represents or its correspondence to reality. The method of literary thinking proceeds from idea to idea by way of idea, with no check or control outside idea. It deduces ideas from assumptions, general principles, and universal abstract truths. It requires facts to conform to logic and it ascertains facts by determining what logic implies. (p. 50)There is perhaps no better example of the literary fallacy than the literature of 9/11.

The novels of 9/11 and its aftermath, which I have listed elsewhere, are almost without exception victims’ or bystanders’ novels. They reduce an attack upon “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom,” as President Bush called it in a televised address that evening, to private emotions and limited perceptions.

What may have been the first allusion to the attacks in American fiction pointed a way that, despite its promise, few other writers took. In Roland Merullo’s In Revere, in Those Days—a novel in the form of a memoir about growing up in the early ’sixties—the narrator remembers a time when his parents left for a trip to New York. He drove with them to Logan Airport:We climbed up to the open-air observation deck on the roof of the terminal—people did not bomb airplanes in those days, or fly them into buildings—and watched the jet back slowly out of its berth and roll off to the edge of the runway, only a few inches, it seemed, from the sea. We stood and stared as it gathered speed there, lifted up in a neat silver line, climbed, banked, folded its wheels in, and blinked off toward the exotic territory called New York.[2]His novel was published less than a year after the attacks—so soon after them that Merullo may only have had time to revise his galleys. And so soon after them any reference to planes taking off from Logan for New York was bound to summon up thoughts of 9/11. He was obliged to quash those thoughts, but he did so in a brief parenthetical insertion that, more perhaps than any other image in his novel, located his boyhood in a distant and more innocent time. Without belaboring the point, Merullo suggested that the world had irrevocably changed. The very modesty of his allusion contributed to its power.

Those who followed, however, were not given to modest aims. Few committed the error of Hugh Nissenson, who pretended to enter the mind of a man who jumps from the North Tower:     My last look at the Empire State Building, the East River, the Hudson. He pushed off with his right hand under his thigh on the [window] sill. He feel feet first, his arms and legs spread. He shut his eyes. He felt the cool air against his face. Funny! I don’t feel I’m falling. I feel like I’m floating in one place. He heard a roaring wind. Don’t look! Keep your eyes closed!
     His earliest memory returned to him. . . .[3]
Jonathan Safran Foer came close, though, when he ended Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) with a flip book of a series of photographs taken by Lyle Owerko, which carries the body of a man who had jumped back up from the ground into the Tower.

Don DeLillo evoked the same or a similar image in the title of his Falling Man (2007). In the novel, the Falling Man is a “performance artist” who shows upunannounced, in various parts of the city, suspended from one or antoher structure, always upside down, wearing a suit, a tie and dress shows. He brought it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump. He’d been seen dangling from a balcony in a hotel atrium and police had escorted him out of a concert hall and two or three apartment buildings with terraces or accessible rooftops.[4]His champions, among whom I am not to be numbered, argue that DeLillo means to demonstrate literature’s inadequacy ever to “bring it back.” The novel tells no story, but wanders among images of life after the attacks, trying to make sense of it all. If that were the case, Falling Man might even be praised as an act of atonement on the part of a novelist who had written ten years earlier, as I have noted noted elsewhere, “There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists.” His 9/11 novel might have been written to cut the curious knot.

But none of this is the case. DeLillo’s novel separates 9/11 from the misrepresentations and fallacies about American life that had assisted the terrorists in making their plans—including the romantic impression of terrorists published abroad by such writers as Don DeLillo—and it isolates the events of that day from any other aspect of the American character than shock and disorientation. That is how the novel ends:     He went past a line of fire trucks and they stood empty now, headlights flashing. He could not find himself in the things he saw and heard. Two men ran by with a stretcher, someone face-down, smoke seeping out of his hair and clothes. He watched them move into the stunned distance. That’s where everything was, all around him, falling away, street signs, people, things he could not name.
     Then he saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life. (p. 246)
I was teaching on September 11, 2001. I too “could not name” what I had seen and heard, which was “like nothing in this life.” But then I went to class, intending to mumble a few words, perhaps a prayer, and then to dismiss my students to find the persons they loved. But my students did not want to go quickly. They wanted to talk. And they were angry. One of them, a young Cadet, said with level-voiced determination, “This is our Pearl Harbor.” If he was right he was describing his own future, because as a Cadet he was likely to become an army officer on the front lines of the war that, to his mind, had just been started. Throughout the lecture hall, heads nodded in solemn agreement. My students had little trouble finding themselves in the things they saw and heard. But then they were not literary men. They did not believe that 9/11 could be judged by means of literature and nothing else.

[1] Bernard DeVoto, The Literary Fallacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1944), pp. 19–20. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[2] Roland Merullo, In Revere, in Those Days (New York: Shaye Areheart, 2002), p. 32.

[3] Hugh Nissenson, The Days of Awe (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005), p. 151.

[4] Don DeLillo, Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007), p. 33. Subsequent reference in parentheses.


R. T. said...

Consider this: the 9/11 novel that ought to be written should be from the point of view of the "other side." Certainly there must be someone out there who is daring enough to attempt a work in which the terrorists become the "protagonists." Of course, that invites questions: would such a novel be published? Read? Embraced?

While there is some literary precedent for a novel in which the villain(s) are the main focus, perhaps our cultural, political, and literary climate in the politically correct West has changed too much to permit such a novel now.

D. G. Myers said...

Updike tried this, not altogether successfully, in Terrorist (2006). Far better is Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 from the same year.

R. T. said...

Thanks for the tips.
I read Updike's novel but did not care for it though I now cannot remember all of the reasons. (My memory has become so terrible that I ought to restrict myself to reading only one book; I could read it again each week and remain convinced that I was reading something new and different each time. That is only barely an exaggeration.)
I will have to give the Wright a try. (Perhaps it could be the one book for repeated, "new" readings, though I should probably commit to something else when my memory really matches up to my hyperbole. Any suggestions? I'm thinking either the Bible or Proust.)

D. G. Myers said...

The Talmud.

R. T. said...

Ah, yes, of course. However, this humble gentile (without any knowledge of Hebrew) would, of course, be at a tremendous disadvantage. Perhaps I'll nave to content myself with the JPS English-edition of the Tanakh.

Have a good weekend.

__M__ said...

Your post is very interesting. I've just read "The falling man", and really liked it. I think that the true subject of the novel is not 9/11, but the fallacy of identity and thinking indeed.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that the Alzheimer's narrative line is the inner meaning of the novel, not the one about 9/11. And maybe it is not so casual that the only (obviously failing) treatment for it is writing (the writing group of Lianne). The theme of the dissolution of identity is present throughout the book (the Alzheimer, the suicide of Lianne's father, the death of her mother, the sinking of Keith, ...); and maybe it is a biographical one, given the age and the "job" of the autor...

I really don't know what the champions of DeLillo say, but from what I've read of his novels (also "Mao II" and "White noise" for now), he seems to me the novelist maybe not of the fallacy of the world, but for sure of our interpretation of it.

Richard Kuntz said...

Merullo's A Little Love Story (2005) was also a 9/11 novel, in that the protagonist's girlfriend was killed on the plane which went down in PA.