Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: Paul Auster's Jaundiced View from Brooklyn

My greatest concern about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is that there will be an oversaturation of media coverage that could easily turn the memory of a significant tragedy into yet another monstrous propaganda exercise by a national consciousness industry that may not be an institution unto itself but, on the basis of its impact, might as well be.  I say this knowing full well that I now act as a media contributor.  Tonight I shall be covering the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, Christopher Theofanidis’ opera with a libretto by Donna Di Novelli based on the book of the same name by James B. Stewart about Rick Rescorla, Head of Security for Morgan Stanley at Two World Trade Center.  However, the preview piece I wrote on my site focused almost entirely on Theofanidis’ work as a composer, since his music has received so little exposure here in San Francisco.  I could then leave it to my colleague, SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner, to preview the 9/11 side of the story.

I have also assigned myself the task of doing a piece on my national site covering the performance of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony in C minor (“Resurrection”), which will be broadcast at 9 PM tomorrow night on KQED.  This will be a Great Performances program featuring the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Alan Gilbert.  Ironically, the last time I heard this music in concert was this past May at Davies Symphony Hall, when Michael Tilson Thomas had prepared a series of three concerts in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Mahler’s birth and the 100th anniversary of his death.  The irony was that this was the second concert in the cycle, which concluded with the sixth symphony in A minor.  Many had already hung the epithet “Tragic” on this symphony;  but, for all of us in the Bay Area, it has its own association to 9/11.  As I explained in my review:

It was scheduled to open the season in September of 2001.  The date of the concert was September 12, 2001.  In the wake of what had happened on September 11, there was considerable discussion over whether a concert should be given at all.  The concert took place, appreciated by many for its cathartic value.

The bottom line is that I do not plan to spend much of my time as a “media consumer” dwelling on 9/11 coverage.  I have enough on my plate already, thank you very much.  Nevertheless, I found myself very absorbed by this morning’s BBC World Service broadcast of an interview with Paul Auster for today’s broadcast of The World Today Weekend, originally aired at 0500 GMT.  It did not take me long to find that this program had been assigned a BBC iPlayer Web page, and those who wish to follow that hyperlink will find that the interview begins shortly after the 37’ time stamp.

I chose the above title very carefully.  Auster really did see the Towers fall from the window of his daughter’s bedroom on the top floor of his house in Brooklyn.  He also experienced the ash that fell in his neighborhood, as well as any number of toxic smells.  He also dwelled on the experience of crossing the Manhattan Bridge after the catastrophe and the change in a view he had long relished, which took in the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the skyline of lower Manhattan.

At the same time that opening adjective is also justified.  He began the interview with the following retrospective assessment:

It’s been a dismal ten years.

He made his case through references to “mismanaged government and economy” leading to the conclusion that “we’ve reached a moment of great irrationality.”  He then proposes that the irrationality is a product of our own “ingrown” thinking.  As he put it:

I don’t think we give a damn about anyone but ourselves these days.

He furthers his case by addressing the nature of our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, asserting that we are there because:

It’s our problem, not theirs.

In other words we are there for the sake of those who want us there, and they want us there for their own personal gain.

Auster’s jaundiced assessment of what we have become in the ten years since 9/11 reminded me of a piece I had written on April 19, 2007 on a topic that related to 9/11 only by association.  The title of the piece was “A Brotherhood of Mourning?  Since it is my own “intellectual property,” I think that, on the threshold of tomorrow’s anniversary, it deserves to be reproduced in its entirety:

Yesterday I accused the President of using his visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for political purposes and reflected on whether this could be considered chutzpah, since we have to assume that politicians do everything "for political purposes." Today, to invoke the terminology of Kenneth Burke, the act is the same but the agent and scene have changed. This time the agent is Rudy Giuliani, and the scene is the gathering in Oklahoma City on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. I was struck by one particular sentence quoted by Associated Press Writer Tim Talley:

We mourn and hurt and will never forget, but we don't live under fear.

Because it is hard for me to view Giuliani as anything but a politician (and one trying to become the Republican candidate for the next presidential election at that), his use of the first person plural just stuck in my craw. It was as if he wanted to gather the Oklahoma City bombing under the same tent as 9/11 in the formation of a "brotherhood" of mourning and personal pain, then alluding to Virginia Tech for adding new members to this brotherhood. I am really chilled by this kind of political maneuver, possibly because I fear that it may actually work. Sartre had conceived of such a "brotherhood of mourning" in The Flies. This was his version of Aeschylus' Oresteia; and the brotherhood concept was invented by Aegisthus in memory of Agamemnon, who had been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra with the assistance of, you guessed it, Aegisthus. Sartre saw this as manipulation of the worst kind; and, for better or worse, my own world-view was informed by seeing a performance of this play back in my student days. The San Francisco Chronicle recently observed that, in time of war, it is very easy to find theatre companies mounting productions of Lysistrata. Perhaps some of those companies should also think about reviving The Flies to remind us of how the political mind can actually work.

There is nothing wrong with any of us mourning what happened on 9/11, regardless of whether or not he had a personal connection to that catastrophe;  but we should all be smart enough to recognize when our sincerest personal feelings of grief are being manipulated by others who care about nothing other than personal gain.

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