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On Weather

The astringently clear light of September 11.

The weather during mid-summer in Manhattan is frequently unpleasant, particularly the viscosity of the air--the feeling that one is breathing and moving through water at least as much as air. Perhaps that is why today, as I was walking to the subway and feeling oppressed by the dull, cloudy light and the general muddiness of the atmosphere, I began to think, as a kind of consolation, of the glorious weather in September, when summer is ending and autumn has not yet taken its place. The air then is almost always temperate, the light ample and clear, and the sky a brilliant blue, especially after the torrents of rain that come to us up the Eastern Seaboard as remnants of southern hurricanes. I love the light that time of year, for it does something quite extraordinary: It literally highlights the materials of the world. Stainless-steel supports, usually an unremarkable feature of a skyscraper, are transformed into radiant silver lines that stretch vertically into the sky; dark red bricks, rather than appearing in their normal guise as a blurry mass of dull color, strike the eye as strangely singular, as if each one had been etched, line by line, into the side of the building; and even the lowly fire escape, usually recessive and unnoticed, becomes a reflective surface for light, its shape emerging with such precision that it acquires a startling material presence.

The particular optics of this hurricane-washed, end-of-summer light seem to magnify all the overlooked textures of the city, so much so that the eye fleetingly becomes an organ of touch as much as of sight, giving the city rambler much to delight in. Yet, the more perfect the day, the more ill at ease I am likely to become--and I imagine this is true of most New Yorkers--since it was, of course, this same clear light, surgical, almost antiseptic, that made the sky so brilliant, the scene so visually sharp, that hideous day, September 11--the kind of weather that everyone, not only those who were here but those who saw the pictures, calls beautiful. I wondered, for a moment, what the weather was like Thursday morning, July 7, in London when the bombs went off in the subway and on the bus.

The beauty of New York on September 11 felt wrong, like a kind of mockery or cruelty but, then again, because of the quality of the light in late summer-early autumn, the weather is typically beautiful. It cares nothing for our affairs, I thought, and then began to wonder why I ever imagined that it somehow should. Surely this was a romantic conceit and I let it drop at that. But then the impossibly vast, storm-tossed, black-blue sky that fills the astounding painting by Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander, appeared in my mind's eye. I went to my book shelf to locate this wonder of the early Renaissance imagination. When I opened the book and saw, in one glance, the swirling, tumultuous, infinite blue sky above and the swirling, tumultuous, infinite red battle below, each domain a spatial mirror image of the other, I immediately recognized one source for my feeling that nature should be in accord with human affairs. As my eyes pored over the astonishing number of meticulously drawn details, I took in how the magnitude of earthly events--the seemingly infinite number of soldiers rushing into battle against one another from all sides, armed with countless weapons, carrying countless flags and banners, on the backs of innumerable horses--was perfectly matched by the cosmic amplitude of nature unleashed--the swirling storm clouds, the lofty mountain ranges, the turbulent oceans, one blurring into the other, a sky so vast that it encompasses the sinking of the moon at its uppermost corner and the rising of the sun in its lowermost. The catastrophic chaos of war, I thought with a feeling for something approaching cosmic justice, was well met by the infinite scale of meteorological events.

But Altdorfer's vision reflected nothing of the divine order that one expects to see in paintings of this period. There was no heavenly host inhabiting the voluminous, storm-tossed, domed sky of Altdorfer. As I was puzzling over this, another vision of the sky came to me, this time the more modest, poetic, yet oddly empirical watercolors of John Ruskin, who for over 50 years had recorded sunsets and storms and weather horizons in his diaries and had drawn and painted them in loving detail. But before I could go to my bookshelf to look for them, I was overcome by the thought of how tormented Ruskin was by his growing awareness of disturbances in the weather--what he called "plague clouds," "strange, bitter, blighting winds," a sun that was "blanched" rather than "reddened." I am always pained by the thought of Ruskin in his last years--a noble man broken and made frantic by all the injustice, degradation, and ugliness that the new industrial factory system had visited upon the world.

A number of Ruskin scholars seem embarrassed by his last lectures, especially one entitled "The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century" (1884), the name Ruskin had given to the man-made apocalypse he saw all around him. Yet, in my present mood, I wanted to experience the fury of his deep-seeing jeremiad, which his well-meaning defenders today have domesticated as a clear-eyed indictment of early industrial pollution. Upon rereading it, I could almost hear Ruskin's voice intoning that if the storm cloud was not a judgment from heaven, it was "a fearful sign" at least for "the men of old time" of the corruption of a nation that had "blasphemed the name of God deliberately and openly; and had done iniquity by proclamation, every man doing as much injustice to his brother as it was in his power to do." From Ruskin's visionary perspective, the weather was not so much in accord with the actions of mankind as it was a physical manifestation of the spiritual and moral quality of those actions.

The metaphysically charged skies of Altdorfer and Ruskin, where weather reverberates with, or even amplifies, earthly deeds, were still very much with me when, a few days later, I found myself about to cry as I was reading Whitman's account of a night battle at Chancellorsville (Specimen Days, May 12, 1863). After telling in vivid, heartbreaking detail of the raging battle in the woods and the helplessness of the wounded--"the rattle of muskets and crash of cannon ... the red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass"; and then of the terrible fires that consumed the woods and mercilessly burned the men--"some of the men have their hair and beards singed--some, burns on their faces and hands"; and then of the camps of the wounded--"some have their legs blown off--some bullets through the breast--some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out"; Whitman turns his gaze to the sky, for the moon has just come out:

    Amid the woods, that scene of flitting souls--amid the
    crack and crash and yelling sounds--the impalpable
    perfume of the woods--and yet the pungent, stifling
    smoke, the radiance of the moon, looking from heaven
    at intervals so placid--the sky so heavenly--the clear-
    obscure up there, those buoyant upper oceans--a few
    large placid stars beyond, coming silently and languidly
    out, and then disappearing, the melancholy, draperied
    night above, around.

Why did such scenes cut me so deeply? The enormity of the soldiers' suffering was of course the main cause, but the stunning indifference of nature, the serene beauty of the pleasant spring night--the kind of night that everyone has enjoyed and can recall with pleasure (just like that lovely day of September 11)--how could such a night turn into a hellish, chaotic maelstrom? Whitman's arresting word-picture of the savagery and misery set against this pleasing natural background made me feel the awful power of war to derange our world. (I know when I have visited the battlefield at Gettysburg the peace and quiet of those lovely green fields has had the same vertiginous effect on me. How could tens of thousands of men lose their lives here? This lovely pastoral setting--a hideous killing field.) But it seemed to me that such jarring scenes do even more: They sear into our consciousness the smallness, the pathetic insignificance, the futility of even large human actions such as war when seen against the background of weather, which is the normal background of our lives, but at the same time belongs to an entirely different order. I thought of the cosmological order of Altdorfer and then of the metaphysical order of Ruskin. Then, returning to Whitman, something else was revealed by this jarring scene of death amid natural beauty: not only a natural, sympathetic order--"the melancholy, draperied night above, around"--but also a divine one that always stretches beyond our comprehension--"the sky so heavenly--the clear-obscure up there."

Now that the natural world has been so thoroughly reduced to the requirements of abstract scientific thinking, it is increasingly difficult to see the weather from any perspective other than the scientific one. Who today would dream of calling our present-day weather catastrophes the moral and spiritual manifestation of our actions rather than the natural consequence of global warming? Or, more to the point, how many modern city dwellers have the leisure to imagine the weather as anything more than that which makes us turn on our air-conditioners or heaters or requires a winter coat or an umbrella? Which brings me back to where I began--the clarity of the light in September, its powers of miraculous transformation, and the way it poured beauty with sublime indifference on events that should have taken place in the middle of a fearsome storm. For those who are unaccustomed to contemplating the world through this astringently clear light, September 11 forced them to take notice. Now that all of us have seen it, who will ever forget the way the light made the seemingly endless supply of sheets of paper flicker, like white butterflies, as they floated through the air, or the way it etched the plumes of gray smoke, like molten lead, into the surface of the bright, cloudless sky? There was much talk about the breathtaking beauty of that day, but no one seemed able to put into words why it felt so unbearable. Instead, many of us were left with feelings of uneasiness for having had what amounted to an aesthetic experience where beauty should have had no place at all.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein