Is the Tragedy of Sept. 11 Intelligible to Us Yet?

Looking to ancient drama to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Sept. 11
An argument for why trauma needs to evolve into tragedy.

Soon we’ll commemorate the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on NYC and Washington, DC. Families and friends of the victims will gather at the 9/11 Memorial. The names of the 2,983 people killed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will be read over several hours. Silence will be kept during the ceremony to mark the moments when the planes hit the buildings and the Twin Towers fell. The ritual now is familiar.

But what, exactly, is being remembered? What function does this annual ceremony play?

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Traditionally, in ancient theatre, commemoration through the act of witness and lament was one of the primary purposes of tragic drama. Heroines like Antigone asked the chorus to remember them as they walked to their deaths. Short-lived Homeric heroes like Achilles were aware that their stories would be told and retold centuries into the future. Grieving characters like Electra or Agave asked for the scattered remains of their loved ones to be brought onto the stage so they could mourn them properly. The act of remembrance turned the insignificant life of an ordinary mortal into one of importance and purpose. “If the gods had not turned the world upside down, we would vanish into obscurity. We would never have given men to come the inspiration to sing of us in their song,” Hecuba claims in Euripides’ The Trojan Women. While this statement could prompt the cynical interpretation that the Trojan War was worth it because it gave rise to good material for future tragic dramas, it’s more likely that Hecuba intended it in good faith: though our lives are cut short by disaster, we are consoled by the thought that they will be made permanent in the memory, transfigured by art.

In the months subsequent to the Sept. 11 attacks, the response was driven by similar needs. Faced by almost unfathomable statistics — nearly 3,000 lives lost in the space of two hours — the public wanted to lament each individual and to remember what made each unique in order to give their lives significance. So the New York Times published Portraits of Grief each day, 300-word obituaries with a picture for each victim. It was a tradition that could be traced back to Homer’s Iliad, when the names of otherwise forgotten, fallen warriors were recalled in poetry and illuminated with an epic simile. Portraits in Grief also served a similarly ritualistic function. Reading the brief biographies in the newspaper each day was an “act of Kaddish.” The walls crammed with “missing” posters around NYC played an important role as they morphed from sites of urgent appeal for information to loving, ad hoc memorials for the dead.

But the second purpose of tragic drama, besides lament and commemoration, was to try to make disaster intelligible. Indeed, Aristotle commended tragedy for its careful logic and rigorous patterning of cause and consequence, noting that every tragedy should have a “beginning, a middle and an end” and that “tragic plots should not begin or end at random.” Aristotle’s favourite example was Oedipus, with its relentless necessity and cruel ironies, in which the most intelligent man in Thebes was ignorant of his own basic identity. Even a play about a recent historical event — Aeschylus’s The Persians — set the disastrous (for the Persians) sea-battle of Salamis in the familiar contextual narrative of hubris and transgression.

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Some traditional tragedies, of course, fail to live up to this Aristotelian goal of explaining — and so moving on from — tragedy. King Lear keeps postponing and exceeding the “promised end,” its pattern stretched out beyond the expected and acceptable notion of poetic justice. And explanation is simultaneously denied. “No cause, no cause” is Cordelia’s response to her father’s bewilderment over why things turned out the way they have. And in antiquity, too, some plays did not stick to Aristotle’s somewhat comforting rules. The Trojan Women, staged in the desolate aftermath of conflict, proffers one consolatory hope for the future after another, only for those reasons for optimism to be negated by further cruelty. At least these plays are conscious of the need for a cathartic ending, even if they can’t achieve it.

The response to the Sept. 11 attacks remains stuck at the stage of witness and lament. Theatre and dance pieces, like Pig Iron Theatre’s Love Unpunished, staged dreamlike, compulsive repetitions of the event, with figures descending the stairs again and again and apparently falling down without explanation. Art works, from Gerhard Richter’s September 11th and Jasper Johns’ Farley Breaks Down to Indrė Šerpytytė’s 150 MPH, are haunted by the Twin Towers, their uncanny doubleness visually echoing the endless repetitions of excessive mourning and the impossibility of comprehending the event.

But most of all, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which combines the triple function of memorial, archive and graveyard, serves as a huge and permanent gesture of mourning in concrete architectural form. The museum’s tour circles the visitor around the display, first past “survivors’ stairs” and around the towers’ foundations, then into rotated projections of each victim which draws on and extends Portraits of Grief. Then the tour spirals round and round recovered artifacts, archived audio recordings, video footage and other information. The story of that day is told and retold, and each narrative thread coils into the next, like the strophe or antistrophe of an ancient chorus of lament. There are some shortcut exits, some emergency doors, but to stay the ambulatory course is to find oneself disorientated and immersed in a circulating and claustrophobic experience of storytelling and retelling.

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According to Freud, trauma manifests itself in the compulsion to repeat. “Not fully grasped as they occur,” traumatic events resist the healing process of cognitive apprehension, reflection and memory, instead causing the subject to return to the original shattering scene in “repeated flashbacks and nightmares.” Those flashbacks become the locus for further confusion and pain, necessitating additional spirals of non-recognition and understanding, and only further circulating narratives that fail to address the initial wound. Tragedy, by contrast, has traditionally offered the opportunity to resolve the trauma by means of narrative “working through.” It transforms the clotted impasse of trauma into linear narrative, seeking to make what cannot be assimilated nevertheless intelligible to rational or at least emotional cognition.

The chorus of Aeschylus’ Oresteia alludes to this process. “Pathei mathos,” they sing, usually translated as “We learn by suffering.” The tragic trilogy is interested in precisely this question — how we progress from the initial wounding; how we find a telos (an end and a purpose) to it all. In the opening play, Clytemnestra is trapped in a cycle of vengeful mourning, so verbally clotted it is almost impossible to translate:

Here she waits the
Terror raging back and back in the future
The stealth, the law of the hearth, the mother —
Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury!

There is all pathos and no mathos. But gradually the repetitions of grief and revenge, past and future, become modified by the detachment of characters from their grief and the subtle re-framing of the issues by the gods. The relationship between suffering and learning is still not clear by the end, but at least “something has taken its course,” as Clov says to Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame.

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As we remember and lament the dead of Sept. 11 once again, it seems we are trapped in a state of pathos, content to repeat the annual mourning, sorrow and vengeful anger. It will take an active, collective will, politically and culturally, to modify that state into some form of mathos. The learning might take the form of Freudian detachment and working through, or it might take the more Aristotelian form of teasing out the narrative logic by examining the choices and decisions prior to the event and the consequences. But whichever it is, only by going through the often slow process of moving from pathos to mathos can we hope to transform trauma into tragedy, give the lament a sense of purpose, and end the current state of endless repetition.

Tragedy Since 9/11: Reading a World Out of Joint, by Jennifer Wallaceis available from Methuen Drama.