Sunday, September 8, 2002



Even the liner illustrations in Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" illuminate feelings of dislocation and anomie arising from the 9/11 assault -- which, under the circumstances, are rational responses.

Art is a candle
in the vast darkness

Burl Burlingame

Words fail us. The act of verbal and written communication requires us to break down the knowable into a kind of code, so that the message can be transmitted. It's a comfortable, linear process. We're using it right now, you and I.

But what happens when the experience to be shared is simply too vast to be absorbed? Too disorienting and chaotic, too inspiring and poignant, too numbing and too wrenching? Like being there -- thanks to TV -- as airliners descend out of a friendly blue sky like dark thunderbolts, to atomize thousands of innocents in a blinding flash of tumbling technology, to take a terrible, swift sword to the one place we felt safe: home.

Words simply fail us.

There are times when the unknowable becomes the inexpressible, and the events of Sept. 11 caused tremors in the language of America. It's not enough. It's dizzying. We turn to more oblique methods of transmitting experience: the arts, which work under the scrim of conscious thought.

The events of Sept. 11 will be best remembered by the artists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, documentarians. Only these works will have the power to transport you. The power of art to work on the inner self transcends language, and when it's successful -- when it feels real and honest -- it becomes a kind of shared cultural bond.

Imagine trying to experience the hurtling mountains of water in "Blue Crush" in any medium other than the movie screen. The film's technical artistry is such that we're placed right there, yet we accept the experience because the film medium, not words, is the communicative currency of our time.

History shows us that the events of the past year are not unique in the scope of disorientation, and that citizens explain them in the argot of the shared mediums of the age. Survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack (or of other disasters on a grand scale) often describe the horrors of the experience as "looking like a movie -- it just didn't seem real."

Trying to cope with unsettling shifts in the universe in our lives results in transformative art; it's a kind of therapy to grab on to the inexpressible and ride it, to see where it ends up. Such artists often cannot explain where the inner voice comes from; if they can, they are intellectualizing too much. It is not surprising that one of the first groups to respond with an artistic vision of Sept. 11 were comic-book illustrators; they think every day in terms of expressing the impossible, in transformative visual terms.

Bruce Springsteen's brilliant "The Rising," for example, is a direct reflection of his reactions to Sept. 11, and yet he never confronts the event directly. It's a meditation on dislocation, on feeling outside of yourself, on the cancer of revenge, on the redemptive power of faith.

Consider the complex emotions running through the spare lines of "Empty Sky": "I woke up this morning / I could barely breathe / just an empty impression / in the bed where you used to be / I want a kiss from your lips / I want an eye for an eye / I woke up this morning to an empty sky ..."

Springsteen's lyrics on "Rising" are pared to the bone, almost haiku, searching for the hidden, surprising commonalties that make great art. Responding to his work becomes a validation of our own grief-journey. It's comforting to know that we all share not only the simple pleasures of life, but also the nightmares of our existence. It's almost tribal.

The Smithsonian Institution has been charged with collecting artifacts from Ground Zero to memorialize the unknowable for future generations, and what's extraordinary is that everyday office objects simply ceased to exist. Curators have not found a single recognizable piece of a computer or a file cabinet, for example. Or even a doorknob, from a structure that had thousands of doors. Steel beams, though, have been pretzeled into shapes metallurgists claim are impossible. But the mangled objects have a transformative power that touches viewers in ways they scarcely expect, because the emotion comes from within.

The debris at Ground Zero has been cleaned up. But the effect on how we perceive the world through art has just begun.

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