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Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 10-11, 2011: Rising to the Occasion

There are the obvious high-pressure professions, the surgeons and pilots, the cops and firefighters, the bomb defusers and Formula One drivers, the work worlds where the slightest split-second error is entirely unacceptable and quite possibly fatal. Then there are the less obvious but to my mind just as high-pressure gigs, a list at the top of which I’d have to put school bus drivers—seriously, would you want to drive a bunch of non-seat-belted and likely chaotic and distracting kids around in a giant unwieldy monstrosity, knowing that an error might well result in the worst possible thing that could happen for dozens of families? And at the very opposite end of the pressure spectrum, by all appearances and certainly in many genuine ways, are those of us who work with words, whose greatest error might be to settle for (to reference Twain’s famous distinction) the lightning bug rather than the lightning.
Writers don’t face split-second or life-altering pressure, and I’d be a jackass—any time, but doubly so in a September 11th memorial post—to suggest otherwise. But there are other kinds of pressure, of course, and one that intersects with the idea of tragic events is the pressure to rise to such an occasion, to produce words that somehow do justice to, adequately capture and remember and mourn and celebrate, all of what the event is and means. It’s for this precise reason, to go back to something that my colleague Irene referenced in her very insightful comment on Tuesday’s Civil War post, that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has lasted as fully and centrally as it has in our collective national memory: tasked with responding not only to the Civil War’s most pivotal and in many ways most extended and destructive battle, but also to the horrors and yet the necessity of the war itself, all while not eliding in the slightest the roughly fifty thousand Americans who had lost their lives in the battle, Lincoln delivered, and then some. That he did so with the utmost brevity, while not a requirement for rising to an occasion, certainly demonstrates just how fully Lincoln found each and every perfect word, and not one more than he needed.
Lincoln wasn’t President on September 11th, 2001—which might be the most significant understatement I’ll ever write, but this isn’t the post for politics so I’ll leave it at that—so it has been left up to others, among them writers and artists across many genres and media, to try to rise to that tragic and terrible day’s occasion. It will likely come as a surprise to precisely no one—at least no one already familiar with this blog or me—that to my mind Bruce Springsteen has come the closest to rising to the challenge. His 2002 album The Rising comprises nothing short of fifteen separate yet interwoven, distinct yet cumulative, contradictory yet complementary, and all necessary and so damn right responses to the attacks, and more exactly to their personal and familial, emotional and psychological, individual and communal resonances and effects. It’s entirely possible to listen to and get a lot out of any of the songs by themselves—and I’ve linked my personal favorite below—but it was with the album as a whole that I believe Bruce most explicitly rose to the occasion. I know there are plenty of other possible nominees— has featured a series of articles on works of art responding to or inspired by the attacks—and there’s likely much to be said for a diverse and complex 21st century America’s need for many such risings. But Bruce is a great place to start.
I thought for a good while about what I might include in this post; certainly there would be darker and just as vital potential themes, including those I highlighted in this post. You could even say I felt some serious pressure, although neither my purpose nor of course my role here comes anywhere close to Lincoln’s or Bruce’s. But ultimately, this blog is about not one American occasion but all of them, and my goal not to meet one challenge but to pose a continual series of them, to my own understandings and narratives and histories, and to all of ours. After all, it’s precisely through such challenges that we just might, as a nation, rise to our most ideal identity and future. More next week,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Info on the great Library of Congress exhibition on Lincoln’s Address:

2)      Probably my favorite Rising song, “Mary’s Place”:

3)      OPEN: Any texts or words that have you’d say have risen to the occasion (any occasion)?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ben,

    Couldn't agree with you more. Back in graduate school--well before 9/11--we played a game after every major life event: what Bruce song is your current life theme song and what Bruce song should be played at your funeral? The Rising is so . . . appropriate to 9/11 and I loved your post. But I must admit, my current answers are "Badlands" for life theme song and "Thunder Road" for my funeral. And while I haven't delved too deeply into the art/lit of 9/11, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is haunting and smart.