18 September 2001 reactions to the attack

16:10: A week after the attack and I'm avoiding more than seeking the many reactions to it on radio and internet. Why? Mostly because they reveal more of the speaker or writer than of the event.

Alan Sondheim's reactions to the attack (like his almost daily writings to a poetics discussion list that I subscribe to) are an exception - they seem to come from a larger mind, sometimes shocking, and yet admitting to being in doubt.

(quotations added later, with his permission:)

Wed. 19 Sep 2001

of the great void or chasm beneath the surface

you can see them rising:smoke rising, fog, you can see them:i dream of a
vast void-chasm::

ascending through the chasm-void:they are rising, rising up:you can see
them rising, you can see them, rising up::

rising from the dark chasm-void chasm:the lost 5400, you can see them
rising:almost distinct, the 5400::

i dream of the wounding darkness:i dream of the 5400, one by one by one:
i dream of the chasm, the void::

of the indistinct cloth, of the face in the cloth through my dream of
the wounding darkness!

i have come out and coming out and coming out:the lost, the indistinct,
the traced:i have come out and coming out and coming out:the 5400, the
5400, the 5400:

the 5400, the 5400, the 5400, i have come out and coming out and coming

from the womb-chasm, from the void, they are rising:they are rising,
they are rising:it is time, one time, and it is time again:the 5400,
5400, the 5400:the 5400, 5400, the 5400

the 5400, 5400, the 5400

the 5400, almost distinct, they are rising up:around me they are rising,
they are rising, they are rising:i will not dream, will not abide, will
never wake from dream::they are rising, rising up, i stay asleep, i will
sleep, i will not abide, i will stay asleep

i stay asleep, remain asleep, they are rising, they are rising,
they are rising up

Thu. 20 September 2001 05.02.54 :

each letter falls burning into the void
falling through chaos chaos burning
i am burned by letters stream or fire of letters
unable to read to write unable to speak
silence unspeaking of letters
void falls through void chaos into chaos
each sign falls burning
each sign falls through signs
i am burned by signs streaming fire of signs
unable to read to write unable to speak
signs falling through signs
'i cannot write letters i cannot write'
'i cannot write signs'
'help me i cannot write cannot read
unable to speak'

(jcj: in the original each line was was irregularly indented - I have not yet learnt how to do that in html - apologies)

21 September 2001

My friend Tom Zummer wrote the following, and has given me permission to pass it on. I have always felt close to his thinking, even moreso in relation to this. - Alan

Some Notes On the Unspeakable
11 September 2001

What recourse do we have, we who work embedded so deeply in language, when words fail?

When they fail so completely and utterly, in confronting tragedy of such proportion.

Is there anything which authorizes our speech, we who remain outside the hole, the blank, utter, negation of those voices who could speak, but cannot?


That is impossible.

For us and for them.

There is no possibility of speaking but from that position, and those voices are silent.

Where might hope lie for us?

Circumscription, writing around a wound, forms a cicatrice, a scar that forever marks the place of absence.

And yet there is the constant reflexive urge to fill this metaphoric hole with language.

Never mind that it cannot support such language, and that at the same time such language occludes the space of horror, take its place, and that this pure negation frames every language.

Even our perceptions, as they are before or at least different from language are compromised.

I stood on my roof watching through binoculars the fall of the northernmost tower.

For some minutes before it collapsed I saw what looked like dust.

Like there was dust crumbling from the edges of the building.

It wasn't until four days later that I realized that it was not dust, but people.

So even at the very moment of perception, or perhaps it is in that gap between perception and cognition, where pure perception has not yet made itself into the world, not yet entered into a relation with the possibility of knowing when it is attenuated, momentarily absolved from commitment to the horror that we are closest to the event.

And for the rush of language that inundates that space, how much of it is cliche, familiar tropes, truisms that order not the event itself which cannot be domesticated nor even our relation to it, but rather our protection from it...

(jcj: the above is a fragment of a long letter - I have taken the liberty of making each sentence into a paragraph so as to make it easier to follow. Apologies.)

links to Alan Sondheim's works:

Internet text at http://www.anu.edu.au/english/internet_txt

Partial at http://lists.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/internet_txt.html

Trace Projects at http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/writers/sondheim/index.htm

CDROM of collected work 1994-2000/1 available: write sondheim@panix.com

Ursula Huws questions the labelling of suicide bombers as cowardly. I quote the following from her email:

... I have received a fair number of emails containing paragraphs like these:

After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt said, "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself." This applies to these acts of terrorism as well. We must demonstrate that we are not afraid of a few inhuman cowards hiding in the mountains in Afghanistan. We must stand as one in full support of our President. Indeed, the civilized world must stand as one against this most common of enemies.

President Bush must make his Peace with the Creator, and then rain the fires of Hell on those who perpetrated this most heinous crime against humanity. This is not a religious issue. Christians, Muslims, Jews, members of every faith and citizens of every nation must stand together, or they will fall alone!


Our Leaders, and our Armed Forces will deliver painful retribution on these cowards.

What I find puzzling about them is something which I have noticed as a consistent strand in the discourse about terrorism over many years (e.g. in the response by politicians and journalists in the UK to the IRA, or the Israelis to the PLO) - an insistence that the perpetrators are 'cowards'. There is I suppose a generic sense in which any attack on an unarmed and unsuspecting victim can be seen as cowardice, but of all the epithets that could be used for these guys (cruel, callous, violent, vicious, unfeeling, inhuman or whatever) 'cowardly' seems one of the least appropriate. Whatever horror it may invoke, it seems to me that on a simple human level, it must take considerable personal resolve to hijack a plane and fly it to what one knows must be one's own certain death as well as that of countless others. I don't want in any way to turn blindly stupid rule-following zealots into heroes. but what is it in the political psyche which makes it necessary to label something as its opposite?....

I was glad that Ursula raised this question and I replied to it thus:

I imagine that (those) who call suicide bombing cowardly might justify the label because the victims are mostly civilians who cannot fight back. But, by military standards, suicide bombing is surely one of the bravest actions there is. Can it be that as victims of it we dare not admit to its bravery and self-sacrifice - and so we use word cowardly to deny suicide bombers the humanity and bravery that they obviously have, or reveal, along with callousness?

And isn't this yet another way to label an enemy as less than human so that we can feel justified or less guilty in treating him or her inhumanly.

I'm reminded of the time before the Northern Ireland peace process when the BBC was condemned for broadcasting interviews with terrorists and their families because this showed them to be people like the rest of us, not sub-humans.

...but before I end this note I look out at the light grey sky, and at this room where I live, and at the silent radio and the switched-off desktop computer... and then at this handheld, which seems to be the only part of my environment that I can interact with today with any flow and pleasure.

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