THE FRIGHTENED MUSE (2001-2006)
By Helen Benedict
Originally posted on Featurewell.com in 2001 and revised in 2006
"The deaths in New York were horrible and irreparable, but they did not make us special. They did not make us more important than any other country in any other war. This is what Primo Levi understood about his war, and what we need to understand about ours."
The week after I left New York to live and write in Paris for a year, the World Trade Center was destroyed and one of my French cousins killed his wife and himself, leaving behind their four children.
Great material for a novel, people suggested.
Café and croissant in the mornings gave way to CNN as I, like so many, sat glued to those endless images of the flaming, collapsing towers the whole world now knows so well. Emails poured in from terrified friends in the States, and phone calls from bewildered relatives in Paris. The French I met regarded me with horror and pity when I told them I’m from New York, as if I had just blurted out that I was dying of cancer.
"Put it all in a story," people kept saying.
The day after the attacks, on September 12th, I went to my cousins’ funeral. The two coffins lay side by side in the church, polished wooden caskets covered in flowers and candles. The official story was that it was a double suicide, but everyone there knew the truth. I stood in the pew behind the newly orphaned children, four boys aged 22, 18, 16, and only 12, and watched their jaws clench and release, their eyes filling with tears. How will these boys ever have a chance at happiness now? I wondered. How, having been so cruelly abandoned, will they ever feel worthy of love again?
"It was a crime passionnel," one of the relatives said, and for a minute I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the crime of murderous fanaticism or the crime of murderous jealousy.
"He was brutal," another relative tried to explain, a word that needs no translation. "He beat his wife in front of the children, and he beat the children too. When his wife tried to leave him and the boys for someone else, he killed her. The youngest child found the bodies."
French television showed bodies floating down from the Twin Tower windows, swooping like autumn leaves. The world seemed drenched in murder and suicides.
"When are you going to write about it?" people kept asking. But my muse, terrified by all this horror, had gone into hiding.
After the sermon, a macabre and inappropriate eulogy to love being stronger than death, and to a god who has his reasons even for such tragedies as these, all of us in the church were invited to walk up to the coffins and say our own brands of goodbyes. Many of the mourners were teenagers because my cousin’s wife was a teacher, and they filed slowly past, each clutching a single white rose. Most people made the sign of the cross over both coffins, laying their hands on them in farewell, but a few of the wife’s family refused to touch the coffin of her husband; they knew he had murdered her. I thought of the desperation she must have felt to be willing to leave her children and my heart raged at what men do to women; and then, remembering the events in New York, at what men do to men.
And then I understood why I couldn’t render this into fiction: It was too soon. To use events like these in a novel, one must have an idea of what they mean, how they weave into the fabric of daily life. One must know what they have taught us. The attacks on New York, the deaths of my cousins—these were too raw for interpretation. To use them so soon would read like opportunistic melodrama, as if I would stop at nothing to make a story. It would feel shameless.
Now, five years later, the Twin Tower attack has become the stuff of fiction, as well as of other forms of writing—not only in books but in movies. Reams of personal essays, poems, plays, memoirs, and stories have been written about it, and with a few noble exceptions, they are either self-serving, self-pitying, or self-obsessed. I reviewed a novel that shamelessly kills off a teenager’s mother in the Towers to give the story its plot. I’ve read essays that dwell on how the attacks have changed the writer’s self-image, eating habits, love life, or exercise regime. Over and over again, these accounts feature one inflated word that blocks out all perspective and wisdom: Me. Clichés of suffering and heroism are already obliterating the lessons we should have learned from this tragedy: that we are not special, not protected, and not innocent.
To be able to write of war or tragedy in the midst of it, to make sense of it, one must not only have distance but humility. By this I mean the sort of humility that Primo Levi, for instance, revealed in his writings about the Holocaust. Never did Levi claim to be braver, stronger, or more sensitive than anyone else; he would not even admit to exceptional suffering. Quite the opposite. Every word he wrote brought out the universality of his experience, the recognition that his suffering in Auschwitz was neither new nor unique but had been and continues to be shared by millions of people all over the world, all the time, in one way or another. His tone was the inverse of self-pity. This recognition of the way suffering humbles and unites one with the rest of the world is the very recognition I have found missing in America—glaringly among our politicians, but among a disturbing number of our writers, too.
In the cemetery after my cousins’ double funeral, the family stood in the cool autumn sun and watched in silence while both coffins were lowered into a grave, one at a time, by a grotesquely clanking machine. The littlest boy was the only one weeping by now, his small face oddly expressionless as the tears spilled again and again from his eyes.
After the burial, we gathered outside the cemetery, not knowing which to talk about first—the New York attacks or the private horror in the family. "C’est la vie," my French relatives kept saying with a characteristic shrug. "La vie est dur mais il faut continuer, n’est-ce-pas?" And in those phrases—"That’s life," "Life is hard but one must go on,"—I heard a wisdom that comes from centuries of war and suffering.
My friends in New York wrote that they were finding it hard to go on; that everyone was in shock. It wasn’t only the dead, the fear of another attack, the horror of the war we were now in, and the lost jobs and security, it was the sense that everything that mattered before had stopped mattering. My writer and artist friends, like me, felt knocked askew. Our subject matter, our obsessions, our carefully crafted observations about life had all been flung away.
My nine-year-old daughter, who was in Paris with me, found herself crying without knowing why. "Will Central Park still be there when we get back, Mommy, or will someone drop a bomb on it?" she asked. This is what we were all wondering: did the life we knew, the life we’d lived and studied all our lives for our art, even exist anymore? Now, five years later, we find that it does—and it doesn’t. Now we struggle not only to find how to deal with the Trade Tower attacks in our art, but the war in Iraq, the deaths we are causing, the mess we have created in the world.
Now, when I think back to that first week after September 11th, when these questions were still fresh and painful, I see what the French mean when they say, "We must go on." For we did go on, even then. The four orphaned boys, whose father had just rejected them in the most cruel and grotesque of ways, still had to rise every morning, just as everyone had to, for the sun is indifferent to human travails. In fact, as if to trumpet this very indifference, the sun chose that week to become its most beautiful. It took to rising just outside my window at seven every morning, peeking boldly between the rooftops, infusing the sky with audacious streaks of luminous orange and rose, before the scudding gray clouds of Paris covered it over. Or perhaps the sun was not showing indifference, but hope.
I walked for hours every day, trying to see beyond all this tragedy and fear so I could find my frightened muse. Above me, the graceful zinc roofs were slick with rain. Below me the sidewalks were littered with dying leaves, for autumn comes earlier in Paris than it does in New York. The leaves fell off the chestnut trees first, turning rust at the edges, then flinging themselves down so heavily that when one hit me in the chest, it felt like a slap. And that was when, between the roofs and the sidewalks, on the walls of the houses, I discovered the plaques:
"In memory of the 112 inhabitants of this house whose 40 children were deported to die in the German camps in 1942."
Or, "Here lived Monsieur Elias Zajdner, who died for France at the age of 41. The former Resistance fighter was deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in May, 1944 with his three sons, Albert, aged 21, and Solomon and Bernard, aged 15. We will never forget."
The plaques are everywhere in Paris, I found, some old, some new, and they are always startlingly specific.
"In memory of the 24 girls, aged eight to fourteen, who were taken from this house by the Nazis and deported and killed in the camps in 1942..."
My skin rose in cold bumps as I read them. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, America claimed to have lost its innocence, but no one in France claimed to have ever had it. "La vie est dur," the French say instead. "Life is hard."
The morning after the destruction in New York, Paris swung into an anti-terrorist mode I had never seen in the U.S. and have not to this day: They called it Le plan vigi-pirate—the vigilant plan against terrorism. The very day after Sept. 11th, every public garbage can had been sealed overnight. Guards were checking bags at the entrances to parks, museums, synagogues, large stores and institutions, and they continued to do so for months. My daughter’s teacher told us that all school outings had been forbidden, and that no one was allowed to park a car in front of a school. When the police saw an unattended package or abandoned vehicle, they blew it up. None of this would have prevented what happened in New York, but it showed that in Europe, readiness for terrorism has long been a way of life. So when America beat its breast and demanded for sympathy and revenge, turning the genuine compassion of the French to scorn and disgust, I felt ashamed. The deaths in New York were horrible and irreparable, but they did not make us special. They did not make us more important than any other country in any other war. This is what Primo Levi understood about his war, and what we need to understand about ours.
September at last drew to a close, that dreadful September of deaths and murders. The sun rose, the stomach grew hungry, family tragedies raged and passed. Our bags were searched, our sense of security was revealed for the illusion it always was, our myopia was shaken. But in the midst of all this, we still had to shop and eat, talk and make love, work, and do our best not to behave badly—we still had to go on. I took my daily walks through Paris, the buildings gleamed in their usual grace, people smiled and did something kind, and the bread was as fluffy and sweet as ever. And I knew that although the muse was hiding, it was only waiting until enough was understood to come out in the open again.