(Written May 23, 2002, in New York City just before I left New York forever)
Just before dawn in Brooklyn Heights, a dream woke me. Far short of a nightmare, it was one of those troubled dreams where emblems of your past, present, and perhaps future lives proliferate and chitter in an obscure but oddly familiar landscape. Unsettled but gratified, I dutifully scribbled notes for discussion later in the week with my therapist. I made the notes for fear of forgetting and for fear that I would again find myself at the therapist’s with nothing to talk about that seemed worthy of discussion.
In the cities, in the professions, therapy is what we do. In a way, therapy is a token of having made it; having become so affluent that you can blow a lot of money examining the proposition “If you’re so rich, why aren’t you happy.” My dawn fear was one of the many scrawny fears of “higher” civilization. Millions of Americans know, have known, or will know this petty little fear; the fear of having nothing to say, having nothing to think about. You’ve paid for the hour, the hour is “all about you,” and yet this all this ‘stuff,’ your ‘stuff’, seems to you only shameful and small and not really worth discussing at all. Not with yourself and certainly not with a paid stranger.
Millions also know the off-the-shelf response to their complaint from the therapist. “It is your therapy and it is supposed to be all about you. It is in these petty and small details that you discover the larger truths that will, it is hoped, lead you into some future where, when all is understood, all is mollified, soothed, and finally forgiven.” It is a palliative procedure that leads but to a palliated end — forgiveness of the self by the self. Sometime soon.
In our therapies, our confessions, or even our “sessions of sweet, silent thought,” we seek this damp and thin forgiveness with a constant compulsion. We seek this forgiveness for the damp and thin things made of cardboard we have become in ever-increasing numbers. We seek it because the culture we have created has expunged our myths, given us nothing larger than ourselves in place of them and, even though we might yearn for things larger than ourselves, there seems to be nothing but ourselves before us wherever we turn. It is a culture of fun-house mirrors. And so we work, in these reflections, with our stuff; our small lump of clay that we know will never be the stone of Mt. Rushmore. Lacking real stature, done with gods and heroes, we seek to purchase forgiveness for our smallness.
We seek it from the therapist, even though he will tell us it is ourselves that will forgive us. (Or, as he puts it, “understanding.”) At times of trial, we seek it from our idea of God, even though our priests cannot be trusted and will tell us to “Go and sin no more.” (Difficult advice to follow these days when you consider some of the sources and their increasingly demented and God-shunning theologies.) We even, it seems, we seek forgiveness from our dreams.
But we wake up from dreams and the world awaits us, the world moving “on its metalled ways of time past and time future.” And the work of the world is there to be done, whatever our roles in that work may be — most of which are if we were frank, absurd. For the world is no longer about ourselves at all, but pressingly, inevitably, and enduringly about all the others with whom we share the world, its sordid and strange past, its perplexing present, and its unknowable future.
In our immediate orbit of work and family, it is, in a sense, “our world” and is what we make it day by day. But our day is of course involved in a much larger world of ever-expanding and overlapping circles where greater issues and duties than our small needs, fears, and hopes hold sway, and ring the changes of our times, and open wide –just when we think we have nailed them shut — the doors of history. It is at these times the larger circles of events and moments impinge on our small and pleasant worlds to draw our attention and allegiance to the large and looming issues that shape and shift the larger landscapes.
In these last eight months, I’ve been reading an inordinate number of books and articles on war and on history and on what the immediate future might bring. Like millions of other Americans, the 11th of September drew my attention in an immediate and violent manner. I’ve become, I think, both more thoughtful about the present state of the world as well as angry about America’s unprepared condition when it was forced to return to history. Living here in Brooklyn directly across from the fire that was the World Trade Center, I’ve also become very sensitive to the sound of airplanes overhead. (A single-engine plane is heading west to east at this moment, the sound fading to silence instead of an explosion so I assume that it is safe and being safely handled and tracked.) Indeed, it is usually airplanes overhead that wake me in the morning rather than dreams.
Smiling experts sitting knee to knee gazing into the nation’s morning teleprompters inform us that many New Yorkers have trouble sleeping these last months because we have “unresolved issues and anxieties.” Hogwash as usual. Any anxieties we might have had strike me now as fully resolved. I like to think we simply know first hand that evil and enemies exist and how quickly these enemies can destroy your city, and that other Americans have yet to learn this lesson up close and personal. A lesson that I hope they will never learn, but one that I am resigned to seeing taught again in the near future since many in my country seem not to have learned it yet, even those who stood in the ashes of all those who died in the Towers. In America, in 2002 it still seems to me that we have an inordinate fondness for sleep, dreams, and forgetting. After all, one of the primary things we habitually do with our dreams is to forget them upon waking.
All of which is a periphrastic way to say that, after waking and scribbling down the notes about the dream before they escaped me, my first thoughts went to a passage in a book I’ve been reading, “Culture and Carnage: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power” by Victor Davis Hanson. This is a book in which historic and deadly encounters between nations and powers are detailed from the battle of Salamis in 480 BC to the Tet offensive in Vietnam.
Two days ago I read Hanson’s chapter on the American torpedo bombers that attacked the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway. The chapter makes it clear that these bombers and their American crews were, because of the obsolescence of the machines coupled with the heroic commitment of their crews, doomed to destruction from the outset, and that the crews knew this. Still, their selfless courage in pressing their attack forward made the victory of Midway, and the turning of the tide in the Pacific during the opening year of America’s Second World War, possible. It’s a vivid account of sacrifice for the sake of a greater good and a larger victory.
But what came to my mind on waking today were not the details of the battle but of what Hanson writes as a kind of epitaph to the men of the torpedo bombers who sacrificed themselves:
“To the modern American at the millennium, these carrier pilots of more than a half century ago — Massey, Waldron, and Lindsey last seen fighting to free themselves in a sea of flames as their planes were blasted apart by Zeros — now appear as superhuman exemplars of what constituted heroism in the bleak months after the beginning of World War II. Even their names seem almost caricatures of an earlier stalwart American manhood — Max Leslie, Lem Massey, Wade McClusky, Jack Waldron — doomed fighters who were not all young eighteen-year-old conscripts, but often married and with children, enthusiastic rather than merely willing to fly their decrepit planes into a fiery end above the Japanese fleet, in a few seconds to orphan their families if need be to defend all that they held dear. One wonders if an America of suburban, video-playing Nicoles, Ashleys and Jasons shall ever see their like again.”
“One wonders … if we shall ever see their like again.”
A light rain is falling on this street in Brooklyn Heights in this spring of 2002. Somewhere across the East River a fire still smolders deep underground. I would like to think that the kind of men described in that passage above can still be called up out of this nation in the numbers necessary to our tasks ahead. We’ve seen their like on horseback lately in Afghanistan, but these are our ‘Special Forces,’ limited in number. I’d also like to think that we have at last been woken from our long sleep of comfort, therapy, money, and ever-expanding special pleadings that have splintered us with the promise of bringing us together. Still, I know our national temptation is always to roll over, hit the snooze bar, and try to grab a few more years of rest even as the enemies of our world patiently plan to assault us again and again, convinced of the weakness of our Nicoles, Ashleys, and Jasons, and the culture which has created and coddles them.
Our enemies have, as they have shown, great patience both in the Muslim world and here at home in the 5th columnists that infest our media and politics. They have more patience than we have shown and a far deeper commitment to attaining their dark goals. They are the Believers while we are still the Dreamers, waking only briefly to write down a few notes for discussion later in the week, during the hour when all that is threatening to us in this darkening world is really only the shadows of ourselves.