Thursday, September 14, 2006
Time is running a story this week about America's new crop of history museums -- surreal, content-free multimedia extravaganzas designed to "make the past accessible" to today's family audience. But the photos in the article suggest something closer to mental illness than heritage: Spectral Abe Lincolns, immersive dioramas (with you-are-there environmental effects) and, most memorable of all, a giant disembodied head of George Washington.
This last item will be featured at a new "educational center" near Washington's home of Mount Vernon, planned to open to tourists this fall. Yes, the man who resigned his military commission, refused a crown and voluntarily left the Presidency after two terms will be commemorated with a display that all but screams, "I AM OZ! THE GREAT AND POWERFUL!"
In the early days of the republic, Americans understood Washington's legacy better: The "Father of Our Country" earned his nickname not for superior intellect or virtue, but for humility. He assumed power with reluctance and could lay it aside with grace. In leaving the Presidency after two terms, he set a valuable precedent that only the hubristic FDR dared break.
And now he's a floating head.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Let us now celebrate bad taste.
Not the bad taste Oliver Stone displayed when he turned an atrocity into a celebration of America's decency that left one almost wishing to write the terrorists a thank-you note for showing us how good we really are. Not the sort of bad taste Michael Moore displayed when he placed the September 11 attacks at the end of a Bowling for Columbine montage designed to prove that, yes indeedy, the Great Satan had it coming. And certainly not the bad taste I endured for weeks afterwards from the pastor of my church, when she turned every sermon and service into a harangue against American foreign policy.
I'm talking about more carnal, localized phenomena, like "grief sex" and sick jokes -- things which for many Americans constituted an "unofficial," private response to the horrors of 9/11. I suspect most of us would rather forget these things, but I don't think we should. True, we were shocked and horrified by what happened that day, as was our duty. But that's not all we were by a long shot, and I don't think it resounds to anyone's discredit to say so.
In any case, I find that most of the discussions, in and out of the blogosphere, of "what happened" or "what we felt" on 9/11 seem to have omitted the most interesting portion of what people I knew actually felt and said. If this post should serve as a corrective, then, it's strictly the "and-also" variety, not the "instead-of." I want to describe some of the more anomalous responses I observed among my friends, my neighbors and myself, and attempt to place them within -- or sometimes against -- the larger narrative of grief and resistance that everybody already knows.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it seemed as though (with a few exceptions) the public sphere in Charlottesville almost completely shut down. Clubs refused to open, civic leaders cancelled get-togethers without notice. Certainly no one seemed to know quite how to react to the terrorist attacks -- except for peaceniks, who always know how to react to everything because they react to it in precisely the same way. They must have had white candles and paper candle-collars (to avoid messy and potentially painful wax drippings) stashed in warehouses all over town, in case a last-minute "peace vigil" was required. The peaceniks' thesis, which met with considerable approval at the time, was that since the 9/11 attacks were unthinkable, and since our response to the unthinkable must also be unthinkable, it was best to sidestep the problem of thought altogether and simply do nothing.
A friend and I attended one such vigil, received a candle with protective collar, and watched a small group of people softly, tearfully sing patriotic tunes as if they were funeral dirges. They seemed to take no comfort in the words of "God Bless America," which sounded more like a question than a prayer. The only simile that came to mind as I observed them was that they looked like newly clubbed baby seals. I gave my friend a tug and we left the scene, chuckling up our sleeves. Within a minute, giggles had turned to guffaws. Holding our candles aloft, we began to sing Broadway showtunes in the same despondent style:
Love is sweeping the country,
Waves are hugging the shore.
All the sexes
From Maine to Texas
Have never known such love before.
I'm sure at some point I yelled "Freebird!" But when I tried to strike up a chorus of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory," my friend protested by placing the candle's butt-end in his mouth -- whether to smoke it or fellate it, I'm still not sure. We know that plenty of fellatio did occur in terrorism's wake, as well as anal sex and old-fashioned "missionary" action. (None of it happened to me, alas.) Perhaps love wasn't exactly sweeping the country, but all the same there was no shortage of good, sweaty copulation.
For my part, I won't forget all the beer I drank in the days following 9/11, or the dirty things my friends and I imagined doing with those little candles. (The diameter and tapered shape of the candles ensured a snug but pleasant fit into just about any major bodily orifice.) I won't forget the nasty cracks we made about how "we love to fly and it shows," or retelling old Challenger jokes with the names changed to honor United 93 ("How do we know [insert victim's name] had dandruff?"). Most of all, I remember a local poet-cum-journalist who commemorated the Twin Towers with a rousing barroom rendition of "I Fall to Pieces."
Oddly enough, I feel deep gratitude for these moments: They constitute some of my warmest, most convivial memories, and I'm not sure why. But in those nerve-wracking days after the attacks, when we didn't know what had happened or if we would be next, dirty jokes and gallows humor were not merely a relief, they were a lifeline, attached as they were to the real business of day-to-day living. Perhaps we needed mirth and comfort, and would do anything to find it. That it was frequently callous or cruel was doubtless true but somewhat beside the point.
I should add that there were plenty of jokes against the terrorists as well: One involved the 9/11 hijackers' arriving at the gates of Heaven only to be greeted by seventy-two irate and well-armed Virginians. (Apparently the words were slightly garbled in transcription.) I'm not sure anti-terrorist jokes could be considered in bad taste, though lampooning the Qu'ran would certainly give offense in some quarters. The joke about the seventy-two Virginians is certainly angry -- and the version I heard featured several graphic beatings and mutilations. It certainly qualifies as a response to the 9/11 attacks, but it lacks the subversive edge of a well-turned, anti-official, body-fixated sick joke.
In the 1930s, Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the "carnivalesque" -- which in its broadest sense is a way to live in opposition to the tyranny of "official" society, and in its more narrow sense is a safety valve for impulses that do not lend themselves to strict control. According to Bakhtin, the medieval carnival provided a safe space for ordinary citizens to mock the rigid dogma of the medieval Church through scatological and sexual humor. Free for a brief time from social obligations, peasants could lampoon priests, women could dance in the streets, and cats could look at kings or at least sneak a peek up the queen's skirts. The carnivalesque, in short, reminds us that everyone in the power structure is human, and therefore subject to the same infirmities, foibles and peccadilloes as everyone else. (Of course, Bakhtin's real target was not the medieval Church, but Soviet totalitarianism under Stalin, an ideological tyranny which left no room even for social safety valves -- and which therefore had little use for Bakhtin's scholarship.)
In the days after 9/11, my friends and I shared a carnivalesque perspective without knowing it. Of course, we didn't seek refuge from governmental or religious tyranny as such. Instead, we fled from something more nebulous, a tyranny of popular sentiment that permitted ordinary citizens to do no more than weep and pray. We were told that Americans had to sympathize with the victims and trust our president unconditionally, and that if we deviated from that standard line, we were practically playing into the terrorists' hands. Still, my friends and I had to "cock a snook" at 9/11 for the same reason little boys have to tell jokes about Helen Keller (or in extreme cases, Anne Frank): We had had enough of plaster saints and cardboard leaders, of souls soaring in the ether. Sick humor about the victims reminded us of the fact and perhaps the finality of the body in itself. It was anti-spiritual, at a time when a certain mysticism regarding matters of life and death was considered almost mandatory within the American body politic; it was anarchic, at a time when authority was supposed to give us all the answers we needed.
Still, far from denying common humanity with the victims and their families, or with the politicians who oversaw the response and eventually took credit for it, our sick humor became a way of asserting a more essential, common humanity. And in the insistent, body-centered universe of carnival, common humanity is not a pretty sight, overrun as it is with bodily secretions, smelly excrement, and unruly venial desires. The image of Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush with diarrhea -- or with hard-ons, if you prefer -- is carnivalesque even though it isn't especially funny, because simply thinking of such a thing undercuts our leaders' moral and political authority. It asserts that Hizzoner and the President are people like us not because they think or feel as we do, but because they have stupid little bodies like ours (whether they would have us realize the fact or not).
The bad taste I want to celebrate today is not so much apolitical as anti-political. It can help us resist efforts from both sides of the aisle to exploit terrorism for electoral gain. More importantly, it may remind us that our own emotions five years ago were far from unmixed -- and that for most of us who lived far from the actual terrorist attacks, even the most altruistic and loving support was tempered with a cynical thought of "Better you than me, bud." Because we are currently fighting religious extremists who routinely sacrifice what is "merely" human in pursuit of perfection, I think it's not only fitting but essential to include some unofficial, unsanctioned, thoroughly personal and off-kilter reflections in the sad, official remembrance. Yes, there was grief and horror, on and after 9/11, but among many Americans there were also flashes of strange and inexplicable joy, even liberation.
These feelings would doubtless have no place in a perfect world, and possibly the absurdities of the body would have no place there, either. But they make us human, and for that reason if no other I should not wish to be entirely free from them. Besides, the only weapon which can defeat dogma, ideology, or medieval extremism in any form is this carnivalesque awareness of humanity -- and if we would be fully aware of this aspect of ourselves, we must own up to, perhaps even praise, that occasional lapse of taste.
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