In the 11 years since 9/11, we have witnessed its story through the media, through the internet, through conspiracies, and through the arts.
It is generally accepted that a cultural response to trauma is a necessary part of a society’s coming to terms with the event. However, it seems that when it comes to handling 9/11, we are a little stuck.
How do we cope with trauma in the digital age? The creative marketplace, like the political landscape, has been awash with conversations about terrorism and international security.
Post-9/11 literature is a good example of how this flooded market is absent of definitive work which handles the trauma well enough to satisfy the thirst for a cultural process. Our beloved alumnus Ian McEwan had a fictional pop at the topic in his novel Saturday, while Martin Amis’s collection The Second Plane focuses on the last days of the terrorist Muhammed Atta.
Obviously there is literature out there which addresses terrorism, but has there been a piece which has embodied this specific trauma as successfully as Wilfred Owens’s poetry or Elie Wiesel’s depiction of the traumas of Auschwitz in his memoir, Night?
The bothersome businesses of publishing, political factors, and of course, temporal distance, are logistical explanations for the difference between 9/11 and earlier large-scale traumas.
However, it is arguable that because of how 9/11 has been placed in our growing digital world, it is impossible for us to deal with the event as we may have done 50 years before.
Namely, a writer’s most powerful tool is to stimulate imagination within his readers, but images of the attack have already been lodged into our memories, and so a post-9/11 writer’s job is, perhaps, done before they even begin.
Thoughts and emotions surrounding the event are entirely separate from the reading process because they are tied up with the images and stories we find in the media, rather than those of fiction. Replicating this visual experience creates nothing new, and so ultimately does nothing creative.
This is a central difference between 9/11 and other traumatic events in modern history: the aesthetic experience alone is shared by many, and so we are all, to some extent, privy to its trauma.