Ten years ago, I was living not far from where I live today, a block away from Columbia in a modern high-rise residence hall between Broadway and the river. The fall semester had just started, and in my German intellectual history class we had been assigned Kant’s political writings, to lay the groundwork for studying his Critiques: “Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind,” “Conjectures on the Beginning of History,” and “What is Orientation in Thinking?” Grandiose titles, but this is what I was reading—poring over with great anxiety, in fact, while sitting by my coffeemaker in the dorm kitchen—on the morning that the hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center towers:
Thus, the course which the human race follows on the way to fulfilling its destiny appears subject to incessant interruptions, with a constant risk of reverting to the original barbarism; and the Greek philosopher had some justification when he complained that it is a pity that we have to die just when we have begun to realise how we ought to have lived. (Cambridge, 1991: pp. 228-229, footnote)
In retrospect, that passage seems almost too neatly appropriate for that morning. When we saw the breaking news on TV, my neighbor and I reflexively looked out the window, then raced up to the ample study lounge on the top floor, which afforded panoramic views of the Hudson, Riverside Park, and midtown. His parents worked in one of the towers—they got to safety in time. We stood there staring as the second tower got hit, and we stayed until the north tower fell. On our right, the park and river seemed absurdly calm, as if that part of the landscape had fallen a day behind the southern view. I remember trying to read, and watch, and not quite believing, and trying to get through on my cell phone to my parents—my mother in Los Angeles, and my father in Mexico—to inform them of what was happening, as if everyone didn’t know already, and not being able to get through until after 9 AM, all the while feeling puzzled by the unforgiving glass windows and the jammed phone-line and the precise typeface of my Cambridge edition of the Kant. The orderly why-isn’t-everything-printed-in-me-clear-to-you? font of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought.
I also read and marked:
The third wish (which is in fact an empty yearning, for it knows that its object can never be attained) is a reflection of that golden age which poets have praised so highly. In it, we are supposedly relieved of all those imaginary needs with which luxury encumbers us, we are content with the bare necessities of nature, and there is complete equality and perpetual peace among men—in a word, there is pure enjoyment of a carefree life, frittered away in idle dreams or childish play…The vacuity of this wish for a return to the past age of simplicity and innocence is adequately demonstrated by the foregoing account of man’s original state. For as we have seen, man cannot remain in this state because it does not satisfy him, and he is even less inclined to go back to it once he had left it. Consequently, he must continue to ascribe his present condition and all its hardships to himself and his own choice. (Cambridge, 233)
War poems flooded my memory; death poems. I listed them in the margins, and circled my cursive exclamation of “Kleist!” Donne. Lycidas. Rupert Brooke. Alfonsina Storni. I lacked any kind of political vocabulary back then. Reading the newspapers after that day, in order to gain a cogent political worldview, seemed like the most tactile of challenges, something I still fail at miserably, and it began with that sense of disorientation, of not knowing how to articulate this event, or connect it to my studies in literature and philosophy, which suddenly felt so ephemeral. To be vital, I thought, was to live like the New York Review of Books. So I flailed around in Kant—in a stupor, with a kind of panicked reverence before class—looking for words that would floor me, or that I could at least understand. I skipped ahead. And was rewarded for reading out of order:
Hence freedom of thought, if it tries to act independently even of the laws of reason, eventually destroys itself. (Cambridge, 249)
Over the years I have inverted that phrase “freedom of thought” while grumbling over the rhetoric of the war on terror. I wish that I’d been older when the attacks happened, more aware of the world, less steeped in religion, more interested in America. I think I took many things for granted that day. Basic facts—the toxicity of the dust, the magnitude of the evacuations—only begin to sink in now, and they are linked emotionally to the incredible loss my family went that fall. At the time, I did not know enough about foreign policy to be worried; I was too recently out of my conservative high school to fully grasp the seduction of religious extremism; and I was more focused on reading “Uncle Vanya,” which was helping me understand the dominant narrative of my junior year, the rapid decline of my grandmother’s health. I didn’t care enough about the world. On 9/11, most classes at Columbia were cancelled, after a bomb threat in Butler Library led to an evacuation, and I felt too interrupted to do the German readings more carefully, though now I wish with all my heart that I had. It feels like an opportunity missed, a great loss that comes from not understanding the significance of events. But I went to class anyway. The lecture was taught by Michael Eskin, a kind and hyper-articulate member of the German faculty who felt that our reading was so relevant to the occasion that cancelling class would be tantamount to an act of capitulation. It would not be Kantian to stay home, he said. (A few weeks later, Jacques Derrida would come lecture on the emerging semantic power of the term “September the Eleventh.”) We spent the entire session analyzing the notion of the self-preservation of reason, and of holding on to the idea of reason as the “ultimate touchstone of truth.” A part of me wanted to ditch class and go witness the crowds of people heading north; another inchoate part of me grasped the intellectual significance of what had happened in our classroom, if not in the city, the sense that reading Kant was holding us together in Morningside Heights, or letting us be angry. Still another part of me felt a visceral love for New York unlike anything I’d ever felt for my hometowns, Los Angeles or Xalapa; but yet another part of me, the part that took over in the next few months, was too worried about my grandmother, or too stunned—not by the attacks, perhaps, but more by the imminence of her death—to do anything at all. Paradoxically, I was the one who had died, in the rubble. I’m not grasping at metaphorical or sentimental or empathic writing. The fact is that she thought that I was one of the victims in the attacks. Not even speaking with me on the phone over the next few months, as she herself was slowly dying, would relieve her of this conviction. I did not write poems about it. I did not make music. I threw myself into Latin speeches and Alejo Carpentier, instead. Why, I don’t know. Even with Kant’s admonitions fresh on my mind, I did not engage—or couldn’t, or wouldn’t let myself engage—in any intellectually or civically or politically mindful way, with the horror that unfolded downtown.
The Times ran a wonderful series this week on the items that people saved from 9/11. I deliberately bought a book that day, and saved the bookmark:
That afternoon, I met my friends Ben and Jamie for lunch at Amir’s Falafel, where we sat with Wa’el, the Lebanese owner, as he listened intently to news bulletins on Arabic-language radio. Ben talked about the incomprehensible lecture he’d just attended, on differential geometry. And he and I decided, rather numbly, to go buy books. We trekked down Broadway, past blocks of very quiet Euclidean space, to the Ideal Bookstore—at once aptly and laughably named, and now, sadly, defunct. About the trip, he writes:
“Our book shopping was done at the erstwhile Ideal Bookstore. The owner was deep in a tome of kabbala and grumbled that the events of the day were quite ordinary for Israel. Later my sources in the Columbia Jewish History department told me the man was well known as a gonif.“
The shop was located above Westside Market and the also-defunct Columbia Bagels. It smelled like a hardware store, and the inventory was stashed loosely in bins and shelves marked with unexpected, somewhat peculiar categories: “Poetry, World” and also “Physics for Poets”; “Zionism” and also “God”; “Botany” and “Bach.” Ben bought a severe English edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (we were in the same class), and I picked up a used copy of Theodor Adorno’s Prisms—a light-blue book, with white lettering on the cover and a blurb on the back by Susan Sontag. I didn’t know what to do with myself after we left. My hands felt too heavy to practice the piano back at the dorm, and I didn’t want to be inside, away from people. So I took the Adorno to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, up on Amsterdam, across the street from the Cathedral, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading it and occasionally looking up to observe the empty avenue.
I loved, and love, that Adorno calls Kafka an “information bureau of the human condition.” I underlined that and sailed down the page to mark this bit, where he argues that Kafka’s world is:
“built on the strict exclusion of everything musical…By avoiding all musical effects, his brittle prose functions like music. It breaks off its meaning like broken pillars of life in nineteenth-century cemeteries, and the lines which describe the break are its hieroglyphics.”
Clearly I was on the lookout for something symbolic. The pen I used had electric light-blue ink that somehow made it easier to parse Adorno’s moody parataxis. It seems that the essay on Walter Benjamin is what gripped—or confused—me most, because most of the pages are blotched with blue:
The utopia of knowledge, however, has utopia as its content. Benjamin called it the ‘unreality of despair.’ Philosophy condenses into experience so that it may have hope. But hope appears only in fragmented form. Benjamin overexposes the objects for the sake of the hidden contours which one day, in the state of reconciliation, will become evident, but in so doing he reveals the chasm separating that day and life as it is. The price of hope is life: ‘Nature is messianic in its eternal and total transience,’ and happiness, according to a late fragment which risks everything, is its ‘intrinsic rhythm.’ Hence, the core of Benjamin’s philosophy is the idea of the salvation of the dead as the restitution of distorted life through the consummation of its own reification down to the inorganic level. ‘Only for the sake of the hopeless are we given hope,’ is the conclusion of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. In the paradox of the impossible possibility, mysticism and enlightenment are joined for the last time in him. He overcame the dream without betraying it and making himself an accomplice in that on which the philosophers have always agreed: that it shall not be.
I didn’t understand the point entirely, it just made my heart ache. Like the duende, sometimes the most necessary books come when you least expect anything so brutal or perfect—this happens when you need them most, and when an idea that has always existed needs fresh blood to grapple with it. That encounter is more astonishing than a great poem. Or maybe it’s better to say that all poems respond to the magic of that encounter by trying to engineer it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Adorno’s birthday. Teddy would’ve been 98.