Is it a little laughter that we need now? Then behold the contrition of yesterday’s frivolous, the new fashion in gravity. The man who edits Vanity Fair has ruled that the age of cynicism is over. He would know. I always wondered what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind, and at last I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan. So now depth has buzz. The papers are filled with hip people seeing through hipness, composing elegiac farewells to the days of Gary Condit and Jennifer Lopez. The on dit has moved beyond the apple martini. It has discovered evil and the problem of its meaning. No doubt about it, seriousness is in. So it is worth remembering that there are large swathes of American society in which seriousness was never out. Not everybody has lived as if the media is all there is. Not everybody has been consecrated only to cash and cultural signifiers. Not everybody has been a pawn of irony. Everybody was shocked by the attack, but not everybody was philosophically unprepared for it. For a thoughtful life is not premised on an experience of catastrophe, except for the exceedingly thoughtless. There are states of happiness that are not states of stupidity. We should not have to choose between being imbeciles and being mourners.
But mourners can be imbeciles, too. “[M]any of those people who died this past week,” Billy Graham instructed the prayer service at the National Cathedral on September 14, “are in heaven right now, and they wouldn’t want to come back. It’s so glorious and so wonderful.” This was Mohamed Atta’s eschatology, too. It is not consoling, it is insulting. We are not a country of children. Nothing that transpired on September 11 was wonderful, nothing. The only effect of these fantasies is to loosen the American grip on reality at precisely the moment that it needs to be tightened. If it makes sense to call on religion in times of trouble, it is not because religion abolishes spiritual pain, but because religion acknowledges spiritual pain. When all the political and military and economic and psychological and cultural analyses of the slaughter are exhausted, there remains the question of the justice of the world. Whether or not it has a religious answer, this is a religious question. About this question it is not easy to be brilliant. Silence is often a surer sign of mental progress than is articulateness. For some people, a house of worship is useful for such a reflection because it is God’s house; but there are those who repair to a house of worship because it is Job’s house, and therefore the natural setting for their objection to the order of things. Belief and unbelief are a disagreement, but they do not disagree about what is significant, and the vocabulary in which they conduct their disagreement is for certain purposes the only adequate vocabulary. And so Billy Graham’s degradation of that vocabulary should have sent all intelligent souls in perplexity running from the church. Of course the air outside the church is not exactly thick with lucidity: at Yankee Stadium last Sunday, at the conclusion of the greatest afternoon in the history of American pluralism, Oprah Winfrey imparted the superstition that “when you lose a loved one, you gain an angel whose name you know.” No, you do not.
Also, in the search for strength, beware fine writing. It, too, is cheap balm. In the New Yorker last week, writer after writer elected to meet atrocity with sensibility. “On the morning of the day they did it,” Adam Gopnik began, “the city was as beautiful as it had ever been. Central Park had never seemed so gleaming and luxuriant...” and so on: the old bathos to protect against the new knowledge. Gopnik has a skill for shrinking everything in the universe to the scale of a bourgeois amenity, but he surpassed himself with the observation that the odor of the destruction was “almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella.” On September 11, knowingness! I was not in Manhattan when it was attacked, but I am certain that Gopnik’s observation is a lie. It is also the remark of a hick, the expression of a desperate provincialism. In the provinces, at least, they struggle against their confinements.
But it was John Updike who made me feel brutish. “Suddenly summoned to witness something great and horrendous, we keep fighting not to reduce it to our own smallness”: his contribution opened with this scruple and then proceeded to discard it, providing a cautionary illustration of the limitations of literariness. The writer witnessed the fall of the towers from an apartment in Brooklyn, but he produced a description of what he saw that would not differ from a description of a painting of what he saw. “Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface”: such writing defeats its representational purpose, because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick: it appears to bring the reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible. Again: “[I]t fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air.” But elevators do not fall the way the World Trade Center fell. Mass murders do not, in any important way, tinkle. Sentences tinkle, though; and the tinkling of Updike’s sentence is a small salvation from the horror. And again: “Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.” Here the epicene evasion is the work of the syntax, which imposes a soft, pleasing pattern upon the charnel-pit that is supposed to be its subject. And finally:
The next morning, I went back to the open vantage from which we had watched the tower so dreadfully slip from sight. The fresh sun shone on the eastern facades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious.
Bin Laden failed. The aesthetic appreciation of the city is intact. The look is glorious. The spectacle survives. “Glorious,” of course, is one of the laziest terms in the language, an instrument of hyperbole that is commonly used to raise the ordinary into the extraordinary and thereby to infuse the speaker with an exaggerated feeling of good fortune. (The profiteroles were glorious.) I do not doubt the evidence of the writer’s eyes: the weather was indeed sadistically beautiful. But why is he writing about the weather? It was a deathscape that lay before him. There are circumstances in which beauty is an obstacle to truth. All this is the testimony of a man who has words for everything and nothing but words. A walk on Montague Street, Updike recalls, “renewed the impression that, for all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for.” Amen, amen, amen; but a principle is not an impression.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.