I’ve seen several pieces lately on the question of art about 9/11. One theory is that it takes time to process things, and the great work about 9/11 is yet to come. The counter to that is Guernica was made months after the bombing of Guernica.
But the issue seems to me even larger than simply having a work about 9/11. The problem pertains to a lack of understanding, an inability to conceive suffering deeply.
The greatness of American music in the twentieth century was its rootedness in the blues. The complex balancing act of the blues can tilt toward agony or ecstasy, sympathy or accusation, carnality or spirituality, comedy or tragedy, victimizing or suffering, but it always maintains the essential truths of both sides of the fundamental dualities. The blues registers injustice and yet extends real sympathy, not necessarily understanding all and thus forgiving all, but in the charitable way that regards everybody as in it together, however bad we sometimes are to each other. The blues can be medicinal, celebratory, and illuminating. At its worst it puffs up our self-pity and reinforces our pathologies. At its best the blues is humanity-expanding, a means of asserting under dehumanizing circumstances our basic nature, screwed-up but rich in meaning, and a way of tending to us under better conditions.
When we consider the highest examples of tragedy, whether the Ajax of Sophocles or “I Left My Baby,” then we find something much deeper than self-pity, discontentment, macho aggression, or mockery (all common symptoms of lower forms of the blues, including most rock music); we find a uniquely dignified way of relating to suffering, one that confronts our own pathology and pain and extends sympathy towards others, towards even the enemy.
Simone Weil, in discussing tragedy, writes, “Perhaps [the peoples of Europe] will yet rediscover the epic genius, when they learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” In this spirit we might draw up a Pentalogue of the True Blues:
There is no refuge from fate.
Thou shalt not admire force.
Thou shalt not hate thy enemy.
Thou shalt not scorn the unfortunate.
Thou shalt face suffering with style.
I at least can’t think of a better description of the high blues spirit of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Sidney Bechet.
The common story narrated in most art, popular and otherwise, involves emphasizing one’s own suffering and portraying those who inflict suffering as evil through and through. This master story ends when the evil is overcome and a happy order is restored. In the telling and retelling of this story, a community constructs and consolidates itself as a people. We’ve seen examples of this in our post 9/11 world in work like the TV show 24.
The better examples of art that deals with the suffering surrounding 9/11 have simply focused on the innocent victims who died that day. I can think of a couple ok movies. In music, there’s some affecting stuff by Bruce Springsteen.
But we seem unable to imagine the larger world of suffering surrounding us. What makes tragic art like the blues profound is its ability to extend the pity of suffering outward, to show how those purged from a community are far from thoroughly evil, as well as to show that one who’s involved in our suffering. The main thing about the blues at its best is that it allows us to stand in the darkness together, to be there amid suffering. If we can learn to tell and retell our stories with blues-understanding, then we’ll enlarge our humanity and be able to deal more frankly with our problems when the time for that comes.
After 9/11, we saw our poverty of imagination expressed politically in both the left and right. The left immediately after the horrors started saying things like, “The US has done some awful things, too; we need to understand why the terrorists were so desperate, etc.” The right called the forces behind 9/11 evil, which is obviously true, and it’s shameful when leftists balked at the use of that word. If murdering thousands of people just going to work or taking a plane isn’t evil, what is?! I believe it was Robert Frost who once described a liberal as someone who wouldn’t take his own side in an argument.
But the right used 9/11 to reassert American power thoughtlessly. It’s funny that the right, too, in its way dealt with the “structural problems” behind terrorism – by trying to transform the Middle East. That was the noblest part of the Iraq War. The worst part, obviously, was the desire just to get back at “them.” Since we were victims, “they” were to be victims.
What we didn’t get was an art capable of maintaining the dualities, of deeply registering the evil and of understanding its larger place – and if you can’t do one, you can’t do the other. What we needed was an art capable of recognizing suffering and evil and upholding the integrity of the Pentalogue. Crass forms of “entertainment” sometimes admire force, hate the enemy, and scorn the unfortunate. Arty stuff doesn’t admire force but doesn’t even process the enemy. We haven’t really faced our suffering with style. We tend to be sentimental and maudlin when we do confront our suffering.
The one movie that occurs to me that is somewhat in the spirit of what I’m talking about is Children of Men, which diagnosed our problem as childlessness, an inability to conceive. Everything simply floats around without being connected, like the Western art masterpieces that one rich man in the movie has collected in his apartment. The movie itself doesn’t exactly connect the dots, but it at least says, “We’re not connecting the dots.”
Blues lyrics are traditionally about love (“Ain’t but one kind of blues and that consists of a male and female that’s in love” – Son House). They connect the dots of love and suffering. Our movies about love tend to be about wanting sex without commitment. At best our songs are distant echoes of soul music, which itself was an echo of the great blues tradition. After the Athenians defeated the Persians at Salamis, Aeschylus wrote The Persians, a deeply sympathetic analysis of the “enemy,” which drew lessons for the Athenians about who they were and who they might become. Where are our powerful conceptions of the Iraqis or the Afghanis? We conceive them either as helpless victims of outside forces or wicked terrorists or tribalists incapable of civilized life or – maybe most telling of all – simply consumers who want to get back to buying and selling. Borat is an ingenius comedy, but one that will probably strike the future as minstrel shows strike us now.
I could go on about this, and I recognize that there’s a bit of the irritating o-tempora-o-mores tone in what I’m saying. But I’m actually hopeful, hopeful that our shallowness with grade into some depths. After all, about 100 years ago, most of the pop music and entertainment was at the level of blackface and silly tunes; and out that the great jazz-blues musicians found a deeper humanity to express musically.