Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trying to see New York

I haven't lived in New York City for three years, now.  I did live there in 2001, just far enough uptown that for me, September 11 was a morning with no real personal danger (though it took hours for me to convince myself of that) but a disconcerting tenth row seat at what at first seemed to be a wildly improbable accident, and then an undoubtedly sinister attack.  I went through a panicked phase, attempting to figure out what I was supposed to do, then an exhausted phase from watching the same unspeakably horrible video clips run over and over for hours.  Finally came a sense that life was going to defy death quietly, as New Yorkers congregated in near silence in midtown bars and restaurants that night, sending the first signal that we were broken, but not destroyed.

The following year Tori Amos released Scarlet's Walk, and even though it is buried in the second half, "I can't see New York" shook me in a way I hadn't been shaken since September 11.  Perhaps it shook me even more profoundly.  What I mean is that the real day was too much: too much to process, to accommodate, to acknowledge.  This minimal song, though it addresses the tragedy only obliquely, makes it possible to engage with this nation-changing moment in a manner that the human soul can understand.  It is the perfect example of how art can explain something that no amount of words could.

From here no lines are drawn / From here, no lands are owned.  And later, I can't seem to find my way out of this hunting ground.  This might be the Manhattan of September 11, but it is even more so the Manhattan of centuries earlier, before America was named.  There is barely any judgment in this song, but there is an incredible amount of subtle acknowledgment.  Tori never comes out and says that before this land was ours to cherish, to lose, to defend, it was a place with its own history, and even its own sense of place.  An event like the attack on the World Trade Center, an event comparable to only a scant few in human history, changes when we understand the land itself as a witness to it.  That idea is one of the major threads in the song cycle that is Scarlet's Walk.

I think for decades we imagined a commercial airplane ride as an experience of tranquility - we dressed up; we felt cosmopolitan; we were so unused to to the idea of being thousands of feet above the ground that it was a metaphysical experience.  Even after World War II, when we knew for sure how much destruction could be visited from 30,000 feet, somehow that knowledge didn't really seep into the commercial flight.  But as more people flew more often, the novelty wore off, and airplanes were reduced to expensive Greyhound buses.  By describing airplane flight with the old, tranquil images - purring engines, beacons, circling down through white clouds - Tori surprises us.  This is not a flight on which the passengers will band together to engage terrorists in combat.  But it is a flight that symbolizes metempsychosis: the transmigration of souls.  The primary image in 'I can't see New York' is the other side: not meaning the landing runway as much as the place separated from us by death.  This use of an airplane to symbolize 'crossing over' may have been mainstreamed by Lost, but it startles me with its subtlety every time I hear this song.

The song is a tragedy, but with the confusing circumstance of no apparent trauma at all.  The most fundamental things are at stake here: the loss of life, the loss of a loved one, the loss of home, the loss of meaning.  And yet the overwhelming sentiment of the song is not terror, or horror, or adrenal resistance, or any effort at all - it is sadness.  Resigned, even meditative sadness.  The tragedy is a given; in this moment when it is realized it is also inevitable.  Tori wastes no energy struggling against it.  Her questions are quite basic, but also quite philosophical: what happens when we die?  Will I see the ones I love when I die?  What is the human condition, when I am up here in this strange place, unable to see the city below me?

And in this way she makes a path to the attacks on the World Trade Center that no one else bothered to take.  It is not a path of patriotism, of dualism, of resiliency, of triumph in the face of crushing adversity.  It is a path of stillness.  In the same way that we feel as though we are sitting still while our airplane hurtles through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, the narrator remains still while her life, her world changes around her in the most sublime catastrophic ways.

Trying to say anything meaningful about September 11 is as futile as trying to say anything meaningful about the mysteries of life and death - we resort to platitudes.  Everything falls short.  What we can share - what is within our grasp - are the quiet moments that happen every day, be they in an airplane or anywhere else, when we glance at those mysteries out of the corners of our eyes, and acknowledge not them as much as their unknowableness.

That is what 'I can't see New York' does for me.  It is an achingly beautiful glance out of the corner of one's eye at all of the Big Ideas that will always be too big for me.  I can spend a moment with them without being consumed by them, and then return to my life which depends upon my ability to keep those overwhelming ideas at bay.  I get that from Tori's hugely sentimental idea that my loved one could promise to find me even in death, his lips still warm.  I get that like a hum from the other side.