Every year, we wonder what might be appropriate on this day, and we can never think of anything more appropriate than this piece, which John Hodgman originally delivered at a literary reading shortly after September 11, 2001.
My name is John Hodgman. I am a former professional literary agent, which on a good day is a pretty small thing to be, and these days feels rather microscopic. Before I was a professional literary agent, I thought it would be a good idea to be a teacher of fiction in a college MFA program because it is easy and you are adored all the time and of course it pays a lot of money.
I used to have a lot of bright ideas.
I even had two lessons planned out, which by all accounts from MFA programs that I’ve heard, is one more than you need. The first would address the comfort of storytelling. I would explain to my adoring students that stories hold power because they convey the illusion that life has purpose and direction. Where God is absent from the lives of all but the most blessed, the writer, of all people, replaces that ordering principle. Stories make sense when so much around us is senseless, and perhaps what makes them most comforting is that while life goes on and pain goes on, stories do us the favor of ending.
Not a very original idea, but one that seemed more or less reasonable before something happened that showed us how perversely powerful stories can be when told into the ears of desperate and evil men, and showed as well how sadly challenged stories are in providing comfort now. What happened on Tuesday was enormous, sublime in the darkest sense of the word, so large as to overwhelm our ability to describe it, to sense it except in parts, and certainly to order it and make it make sense. In the immediate aftermath, we have only our very personal flash memories, but personalizing an event that has touched so many and so cruelly, announcing by byline our own survival, feels shamefully self-involved. To convert this experience into metaphor, into symbolic gesture feels almost offensive when we are still pressed by such an urgent reality that is ongoing and uncontainable by words.
I have heard a lot recently about the role of writing, song, music, and painting in the tragic blank space in our souls that this event has left behind. Of course, this preoccupation is largely a result of an unconscious bias of the media. If pig farmers had as much currency with NPR as literary novelists, we would be hearing just as much about the healing power of bacon. And knowing that power well, I can say that it is certainly comparable to the reading of a sensitive short story as far as comfort goes; and yet both fall far below the direct aid that is being passed from person to person, below Chambers Street, in our homes, on the phone with strangers, with an actual touch, in the actual, non-symbolic, un-annotated world of grief in which we live. The great temptation is to be silent, forever, in sympathy.
The second lesson plan that I had in those days was a very lazy assessment of storytelling’s function, beginning in the oral tradition, when it served a civic purpose aside from getting you invited to cocktail parties. As I would explain to my adoring students, storytelling served initially in every culture three purposes: to inform, as in relay news and record history, to instruct, as in pass down a set of moral guidelines, and to entertain. We are, as regards this event and its unfolding, all too well informed. And as for entertainment: when I thought this was a bright idea, it was when I was younger and war seemed so far away. But I realize now that those in history whose lives were short and mean and threatened by sword and disease gathered and told stories not as leisure, but as desperately needed distraction, and reassurance that they were not alone.
So if art cannot contain or describe this event, and if for now the suffering is too keen to be alleviated by parable… if stories are for the moment not as critically needed, as courage, as medicine, as blood, as bacon, they can at least revert to this social function. As time goes on, this will all pass away into memory, into a story with a beginning and a middle and finally an end. And that transition from the real into fable will bring its own kind of comfort and pain. Now, though, we may gather and distract one another, take comfort in our proximity, and know that we are, at this moment, safe.
Not many of my ideas seem bright anymore, and I am not a teacher. I am only humbled: to be here, to be alive.
That is all.
Originally published September 27, 2001