The Passage of Time and the Failure of Memory

This painting by Gerhard Richter is my favorite piece of 9/11-related art or literature; in fact, it might be the only piece of 9/11-related art or literature that I’ve ever actually liked:

September 11 by Gerhard Richter

I first came across it in The Atlantic about 2 years ago, and it resonates with my own changing perspective on September 11th as the years have passed. I was fortunate not to know anyone personally who perished in the World Trade Center towers, but (like millions of other people who lived in New York at the time) I was powerfully affected, perhaps traumatized in some small way, and I felt the effects for many months—indeed, on the first anniversary I felt compelled to write a short essay and email it out to some friends. It was one of the more mawkish things I’m ever likely to write, but apparently it touched a nerve, because the next thing I knew I got a request from a stranger in New Jersey asking if he could share it with his high school students in class. (How much easier that all would have been if I had had a blog back then!)

What a difference eight years makes. If you had asked me in late 2001, when the smell of smoke drifted up the Hudson to my apartment and soldiers with machine guns stood guard at my local subway station, or in late 2002, when I wrote that essay, I think I would have told you that the events of 9/11 had forever altered the way I viewed the world. I suppose that they did, strictly speaking, but I don’t think I would have predicted how quickly other events (wars, elections, tsunamis, droughts, recessions, whatever) would overtake 9/11 at the forefront of my consciousness, and how quickly memories of that period would fade. Sure, I still think about 9/11 sometimes, and occasionally I even feel a momentary twinge of panic when I hear a plane close overhead, but for the most part, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have settled in among a lot of other horrific geopolitical/historical events in my mind, with little special prominence except that they happened to occur in my city and my country (and that the tragedy of those lost lives was compounded by the tragedies of the wars that have followed).

For me, Richter’s painting of the iconic smoking towers captures that phenonemon well. A mere eight years after a period when I was almost obsessed by the events of 9/11 (or am I misremembering that too?), it now all feels like a fuzzy memory. The passage of time, and the failures of memory, have a way of distorting and obscuring the past so much that it is almost unrecognizable. It sounds odd, maybe even ghoulish, to suggest that I feel a kind of nostalgia for such a traumatic period when so many people were experiencing such intense grief, but when I look at the painting, it evokes a yearning to reverse the distortions of the image—that is, to reverse the very passage of time that has allowed most people to “move on” more quickly than anyone expected. A somewhat similar (albeit less tragic) feeling of loss hits me when I look at another piece of art showing a very different iconic image—Warhol’s large National Velvet, which hangs at SFMoMA. It shows the young Elizabeth Taylor, the very picture of beauty and vigor and innocence, literally fading before our eyes, as Warhol manically tries to stop time by furiously reproducing the image over and over and over. Or at least that’s how it always seems to me when I stand in front of it, and it is surprisingly poignant.

All this naturally makes me wonder which of my current feelings and convictions will dramatically alter with the passage of time. I generally approve of taking “the long view” when it comes to current events, because it’s far too easy to become consumed by the fleeting minutiae of the moment, but the danger of the long view is that if your view is too long, then it’s hard to really care about the present. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out in rebuttal to more laissez-faire economists who argued that the economy would work itself out fine on its own in the long run, “This long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

Who knows, maybe in the long run my feelings about the Richter and Warhol works will change too—I guess I’ll have to revisit them in eight years to see how I feel then.

10 Responses to “The Passage of Time and the Failure of Memory”

  1. ruth gutmann says:

    Somehow I had not realized that you were actually in New York City on 9/11. (Too preoccupied with my own reaction?) The NYT did not let us “move on” quickly. Remember the photographs of the lost with “mini obituaries” about their families, what & whom they loved, did, or enjoyed? I think if you and we still lived in NY, everything would be so much more fresh and real. Distance from such a location can help to alleviate some of that pain (I never would have returned to live in my hometown like others did) — though returning soldiers’ post-traumatic stress seems a delayed response, most pronounced when they are back in the US. —

    To this day I feel dread if a plane flies too low — especially at night. Some time ago there was a day-time exercise using special, black (?) fighter planes that flew in formation and made a huge noise. It was frightening and I was really mad that we had not been warned. —

    I don’t think you should characterize your “nostalgia” for that time as ghoulish. That period was climactic in the way it united the country and inspired young people to protect and fight for it. It always hurts me to hear or read that yet another casualty — there have been far too many death lately — is a young High School graduate who signed up after 9/11/. If you contrast that period with what happened next: our government taking advantage of that surge of patriotism in ways too numerous to mention, having a sense of anticlimax is actually too mild! The history of that period will one day emerge.

    As for Gerhard Richter’s painting: you wish you could reverse the distortion, i.e., the event itself…

    John Maynard Keynes was a very smart man! I am convinced that we moderate people are currently taking much too long a view. I mean those of us who are determined to ignore the political craziness that is infecting the country.

    Neil Gabler had a very good piece in the Boston Globe today — the Globe is admirable in its directness and general approach to life in Massachusetts. A former foreign correspondent of theirs, Charles Sennett, now has his own website, GlobalPosts, he has reporters in Afghanistan, f.e.

    Finally, I hope you will post that piece you wrote then. Let us be the judge.

  2. dc says:

    Ruth: I agree that spatial distance, like temporal distance, made a big difference—in general, people I knew who lived in NYC had much more visceral reactions to 9/11 than those who lived farther afield, although there were exceptions in both groups. I was going to address that question in the post, but I decided to keep it shorter. It’s hard for me to say if I would feel any different about 9/11 if I had stayed in NYC. I tend to think that I would still feel the way I do now, but there’s no way to know for sure.

    As for the piece I wrote in 2002, I’ve looked around for it in the past, but I don’t seem to have a copy anywhere, and I doubt anyone else still does either. It may be on the hard drive of a laptop computer that I still own, but the computer is unusable, so it would take a lot of work to retrieve the essay. I remember bits and pieces of it, and I don’t think I’d be embarrassed to re-read it at all, but I’m pretty sure I would write it differently these days. Upon reflection, I think I exaggerated when I said that it was one of the most mawkish things I’ve ever written—I wrote some short stories during that same time period that were much more sentimental. (Incidentally, I just learned that “mawkish” is a cognate of “maggot,” which I never would have guessed.)

  3. dc says:

    It turns out that I was able to harvest that 2002 email from my old hard drive after all. It’s even shorter than I remembered! It’s pretty different from what I remembered in a lot of other ways too. It’s funny to see how different my prose style was back then. I used to love emdashes even more than I do now! (And it’s funny to see that I used the word “mawkish” to describe it at the time as well). Anyway, here’s the link:

  4. ng says:

    Thank you for reminding us — of so many things.

  5. ruth gutmann says:

    Thank you for getting it unstuck. I liked the piece a lot, the quickness with which the thoughts and images follow each other without being a simple enumeration. We also know the neighborhood so well, Sloan-Coffin (sp?) was the pastor of Riverside Church, the man with the huge conscience.

    Your nephew still has a wise mien, and your little niece is already showing signs of becoming an exceptional person. She said that she had a good day during the first full day at Kindergarten. And since at the age of 5 she is tackling the urgent question what she will do as an adult, she thought she might become a Kindergarten teacher! I wish I had had that foresight.

    But even without these little folk, I think life requires no adjective to be meaningful.

  6. Carol Polk says:

    Not to denigrate anyone’s response to 9/11, but I am bemused by the comments that since that day the unexpectedly noisy sound of a plane brings twinges of anxiety or foreboding. If possible, can you think back before then? I have had such twinges at such sounds for many decades; there are plenty of stories about crashes and such bringing havoc into people’s lives unexpectedly. Just today there was a helicopter passing near, well under the fog, probably on the way to a traffic accident but unusual enough to make me pause, but I did not think of the twin towers. Perhaps if you had twinges before the event the sense of them has been subsumed into the 9/11 memory? This might be true of people actually in NYC on the day.

  7. dc says:

    Carol: I suppose it’s possible that I felt similar twinges before 9/11, and that I just notice them more now because they have been, as you say, “subsumed into the 9/11 memory.” That said, the connection between 9/11 and my being unnerved by jets overhead was pretty direct and clear at the time: I have memories of feeling quite panicked when I would hear planes overhead in the weeks after 9/11, and rushing to my apartment windows to look up at the sky (and I am not at all prone to panic in general). That strong visceral response subsided very quickly (a matter of a few months at most), but the occasional twinges that I feel these days do seem qualitatively different to me than any other fear that I ever feel—the fear of being hit by cars when they drive too close to my bike, for instance, or the extremely mild fear of flying that I have felt my whole life (interestingly, that’s a fear that I don’t think has increased at all since 9/11).

    Anyway, who knows. As I said in the post, I’m struck by how few of my early feelings about 9/11 have remained with me over the years, so I’m not particularly attached to the notion that those twinges are a lingering aftereffect of 9/11.

  8. ng says:

    The connection between, say, one’s nervousness at low-flying planes and the events of 911 probably depends quite a bit on one’s age. For a young person, that might have been one of the first times that such fearsome possibilities became real. For others, such awareness came earlier or in some other form.

  9. Carol Polk says:

    ng, that makes good sense. I’ll wager no one posting here is afraid of the possibility of a sniper in a tower, but after the library tower shootings at the University of Texas in 1966 (?) 67 (?), for years, and even a bit nowadays, I have felt a little naked walking through any downtown with tall buildings. For some reason, this made the scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where the sharpshooter is in the church tower facing down the tanks more memorable to me than many other parts of that film.

    Dave, I wonder if your fear of being hit by cars when they drive too close to your bike is equaled by my fear of being hit by cars when they drive too close to me on the sidewalk or my fear, on those rare occasions when I do drive, of hitting some biker when he drives too close to me. THat actually scares me more than the possibility of getting hit!

  10. dc says:

    Carol, I’m exactly the same way: on those rare occasions when I drive, my fear of hitting a pedestrian or cyclist exceeds the fear or getting hit that I feel when I am walking or biking. It would be nice to think that this is because we are both exceptionally selfless, but my guess is that we actually feel this way because being pedestrians and/or cyclists most of the time makes us keenly aware of how menacing cars can be from those perspectives. Then when we do get behind the wheel, we are freaked out by the unbelievable—and now unfamiliar—power that we wield. Or at least that’s how I feel when I drive these days; I’m almost shocked that I’m allowed to control such a massive, fast-moving object just because I passed a basic driving test 20 years ago and passed a few multiple-choice tests in the intervening years. (I try not to think about the fact that all the other drivers out there also have such scant credentials for controlling such massive, fast-moving objects. It’s kind of odd, when you think about it, that our government doesn’t trust us to buy ourselves a beer until we’re 21, yet we are allowed to operate heavy, fast-moving automobiles when we are 16.)

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