This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

September 11, 2001 — It seems ludicrous to be writing a column about books this week. As I write this on deadline day — September 11 — outside my window a plume of billowing black smoke has assumed Biblical proportions over lower Manhattan. I can only assume how the horror of this day has dominoed into something even more extensively evil by the time you read this, and whether — probably — it seems all the more ludicrous to read such a thing as a column about books.

Lord knows today, in any event, it has been for the most part impossible to think in any clear manner about anything much beyond that billowing cloud; it's been like that from the moment I clambered, disbelieving, to the roof of my apartment building this morning to look downtown — when one of the World Trade Center towers was still standing — to now, when darkness both real and unimagined is descending upon New York City.

But the fact of the matter is that the nature of that darkness — the sheer horror that cloud represents! — has been so unimaginable that bits and pieces of literature have been flitting through my mind all day, almost subconsciously. It is as if my mind, feeling completely stymied by the vision confronting it, leaving me to feel as if I'm in a stupor of confounding depression, has nonetheless in its subliminal reaches been madly scrambling to find some bit of data that will help make sense of this, some something, some anything, that will offer a bit of solace, or hope, or comfort, or at least that will tell me some way to comprehend what I'm seeing.

And so without quite realizing it, staring off at that black, continually blossoming cloud, trying not to think of all my neighbors who worked beneath it but thinking of them anyway; trying not to think about the rubble, the falling rubble, but thinking about it anyway; trying not to think about the trapped, and the desperate effort to save them, but — well, I found my mind shifting through scenes of the fire–bombing of Dresden from Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five." I thought about the fear and carnage in "The Red Badge of Courage," and in "All Quiet on the Western Front."

Attempts to relate, I suppose, from someone who's never been to a war but felt today as if he was witnessing one. But not a war exactly — there were no soldiers down there. But maybe that is why those particular books occurred to me — they were about soldiers who were, more precisely maybe, civilians in uniform, trapped in situations of sheer madness.

And the outrageous madness of it is the thing that stumps you most profoundly, of course. You live in the shadow of a mountain, you get up one morning and the mountain is gone — you can't take that in. Your mind just won't do it. And so you relate to what you can. You find yourself thinking about other things — "Catch-22's" — that relate madness on a grand scale to horror. The vast and exquisitely wretched battle scenes in "War and Peace," maybe, because of the way Tolstoy explained that those famous actual battles weren't strategized at all but instances of thousands of humans just being thrown at each other by leaders who watched from a safe distance.

Pulling back, there are moments of stark sanity: glancing thoughts of reading Elizabeth Kubler–Ross on coping with grief. Books by Eli Wiesel, or Primo Levi, about surviving the greatest horror of them all, the Holocaust.

But the mind, on a day such as this, is in far too abstract a state to handle such directness. Those books may be for a later date. Today, staring, staring, staring, I eventually found myself thinking no longer about the titles of war but of simpler domestic tales — thinking, instead, in a way that felt like yearning, of Chekhov, that most humane of writers.

And somewhere late in the day, I remembered something I must have been blocking out, a coincidence too odd to give credence: only yesterday, I had finished reading a new translation of Dante's "Inferno," which closes with the poet climbing out of Hell itself, straining to see "Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears, / Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars."

Last Week’s Column: YOUR AD HERE Fay Weldon agrees to use the name of a jewelry company in her new novel in return for money, and many in the industry are excited about it. But what does it really mean?

All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.