9/11: a fragment of experience

There’s an old theory that says experience in general is structured like trauma. Or, to put it another way, that trauma is merely a special or egregious case of what we suffer every day simply by coming into contact with the world. Much of what happens to us cannot be fully processed right away. It is simply too much. And so, experience gets packed away into memory where it sits, waiting for an occasion, intentional or less so, when it can be retrieved and dealt with. In this way of thinking, we are all a little like Proust, sorting through our vast store of barely acknowledged experiences and trying to make some sense of them the second time around.

It’s entirely possible five years after 9/11 to have a great deal of discussion about what the event really meant and what its repercussions have been. Simply pick up a newspaper or a magazine or turn on the television. But what has receded farther away, perhaps, is the actual experience of the day. That day barely exists anymore. This is well and proper in many ways, some traumas, some experiences, need more time than others. But it is also an odd feeling to know that such an intense experience does sit there latent, within us all, waiting to be tapped some day, like a kind of mental time bomb.

What I remember most about September 11, 2001 was the muted almost graceful way that the towers came down in watching them from the roof of a warehouse in Brooklyn. There was no sound. The flames and the smoke were distant enough that they were merely daubs of grey and licks of orange against blue. The sky was as blue and as bright as it has ever been. The city was as quiet as it has even been, waiting. Blue. And then, calmly, as if resigned both to the laws of nature and to the whims of human action that had conspired against it, the first tower came down. Something in the middle gave way and the top of the building seemed to slide down on itself, like a telescope. And in a few long, measured ticks of the clock it was gone. Just a plume of billowy cotton spreading out from lower Manhattan into the Bay.

Days later the smell of 9/11 became its main impression, an acridity to the air that everyone recognized but didn’t want to name. There was a burning in the eyes and a bad feeling on the skin. But the actual moment of the event itself was, for us in Brooklyn, like the very absence of sensation, a living abstraction and then a terrible waiting for the rush of experience to come crashing in again as it did the next morning when we woke up dumb, because we’d forgotten that all worlds are fragile and we’d forgotten that we were so very fragile too. And five years later we’ve forgotten all of that again, except here and there in little bits, when we remember.