I’m not sure I read Canto XVI. Ciardi’s intro to the canto pushed all kinds of buttons in me, and those, I’m pretty sure, read it for me—or, more properly, read into it from me. Anyway, for what it’s worth, my reaction:
“The Poets,” says our translator and editor, “enter the acrid and blinding smoke in which THE WRATHFUL suffer their purification. As Wrath is a corrosive state of the spirit, so the smoke stings and smarts. As Wrath obscures the true light of God, so the smoke plunges all into darkness” (p. 419).
The wrathful suffering in darkness, their spirit(s) corroded, with the True Light obscured. As I read these things, all I could think of was 9/11. 9/11. 9/11. And I don’t just mean the heinous crimes of the day itself but our in many ways dark, wrathful response.
On the day before Thanksgiving of 2002, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Dennis Smith, a former New York City firefighter. Smith expressed frustration with the then-recently-selected final proposals for the World Trade Center site’s 9/11 memorial, none of which planned specifically to remember the heroism of the emergency-services personnel who rushed to Ground Zero. I remember sharing Smith’s concern, but what struck me most about his piece was the broader concern of his closing line: “It is time to think more deeply about how we want to remember September 11, 2001.” Amen.
For the most part, our memories of that day are grim. We recall the violence: Jetliners bearing down, fires raging, great towers hurtling toward Earth. The brutality of these images seared them into our minds’ eyes. And we recall the fear: The sickening realization that the growing disaster wasn’t accidental but the product of malevolence. Once we understood that in the course of one morning a deadly conspiracy had reached all the way from Boston to New York and Washington, and then into the Pennsylvania countryside, we knew that the next horrible blow could fall anywhere, and we all felt threatened. So it’s hardly surprising that, when the day comes to mind, our first reflex is to call up ghastly pictures and for our guts to churn with dread.
But we need to remember more. What happened started with crashes and conflagrations, but in the midst of—and beyond—all that destruction born of hatred, there was compassion. At first it was institutionalized, arriving in the form of police officers, firefighters and paramedics who had been summoned to their professional duties by radio calls and alarms. Yet almost immediately the response became broader, medical students and store clerks rushing into the chaos, summoned in an instant by conscience and heart.
Hundreds of millions of human lives have ended since 9/11, many in hideous ways—
that few of us saw (or that, in some cases, we saw but failed adequately to feel). But on that brilliant September day, people all over our planet, from the Jersey suburbs to Rio and Bombay, saw fellow human beings clinging to their lives when it was clear that they were in grave danger. We saw faces piled on top of one another in the narrow windows of the Twin Towers, struggling for air. We saw men and women desperate for aid waving towels to attract rescuers. And then, only after long minutes lived with them, spent second by second growing to comprehend their plight—only after we had imagined ourselves in one of those windows, or imagined ourselves attached to someone who was—did we see hope yield to hopelessness and bodies plunge through the sky. Only after our minds had raced in search of happy endings did we see those skyscrapers shudder and roar to the ground. The impact of 9/11 has been so enduring because we didn’t hear the news of the tragedy afterward, spoken, for just a few seconds, by a calm baritone next to a still picture; we experienced the day’s events as they unfolded. We really felt what happened, the agony of thousands becoming the anguish of millions riding the Earth somewhere else but made present through live TV.
And so, for an extraordinary moment, witnesses to the same shocking events, participants in the same grieving, huge numbers of us all over the U.S. and around the planet felt a deep sense of belonging with one another in a wider human family. Iron workers from the Midwest trekked, unbidden, across the country on the hunch that their skills could help with the rescue and clean-up efforts in lower Manhattan. A staggering sixty per cent of American households donated to 9/11 relief funds. For once, something terrible had happened but not disappeared into the spaces between us. Something terrible had happened and, in fact, built bridges bringing us together. Jean-Marie Colombani, the editor of Le Monde, declared, “Nous sommes tous Americains—we are all Americans.” What he really meant, of course, was something like this: Though across the ocean, we here in France are also with you. We, too, have seen these mothers and husbands clinging to life, and, knowing love, we have yearned to reach out and help. We have seen the bereft crying over their losses. Your pain isn’t yours alone. It is in all of us.
Alas, time not only “heals all wounds” but “wounds all heals.” And in this case its passage quickly eroded the bonds forged during those hours of shared pain. Once our TV’s were off and no longer drawing us into the same experience, we wound up pretty much back where we had started, in Jersey or India or France. Only warier and angrier. Thus dis/engaged, our minds and hearts ceased to be the primary seats of our remembering. In fact, to a large extent, we stopped re-membering – that is, re-flecting, re-examining, re-considering. After a little while, instead of reaching back into 9/11 to sort out its meaning, most of us moved on, leaving the day to reach back into us – through our guts, as shadows promoting fear and anger. Wrath!
As the terrors of September 11 reminded us, there is, of course, much for us to fear beyond fear itself. But if we’re going to confront the dark forces taking aim at human wellbeing, fear and wrath are not enough. Since the events of 9/11 continue nearly a decade later so powerfully to inform—and deform—our attitudes about the world in which we live, and since fear and anger are so overwhelmingly what that fateful day calls up in us, if we want to do more with the future than lash out at shadows or curl up in our shells, then Dennis Smith is right: We need to think more deeply about how we want to remember September 11.
Clearly, we need, still, to mourn those we lost. We need to celebrate their lives and to express our outrage at the cruelty that took them from us. But we must quickly put outrage aside—must move out of rage—so that we can consecrate ourselves to carrying forward this world that the lost loved.
How? Mostly, of course, we have to be present for the people around us, and the problems that beckon to our particular talents, one at a time. But there is something extraordinary about the commitment made by those firefighters, police officers and paramedics who rushed to Ground Zero that, I think, if we were to grasp it more fully, might help us. Those first responders hurried to the rescue of people they had never met, to a place where they didn’t really know what was going on. All they knew for sure was that someone had recognized trouble and summoned them to help. And, in anticipation of such moments, they had trained to be useful, and then committed themselves to appearing whenever such a summons might be made.
How might those of us who aren’t part of a fire department or an ambulance crew live so that we could do more to respond to pressing needs without waiting for an emotional cataclysm to launch us into action? Especially when we consider that too often a reflexive reaction can be one of darkness. One of wrath.
In 2001 I worked in New York. I worked with high-school students from all around the US and the world who had ventured to the Big Apple to study the city. One weekend in early December of that year, I took downtown with me all of the students with whom I had shared that tumultuous autumn. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and we took advantage of its unseasonable warmth to sail back and forth across New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry. On the return trip to Manhattan, about two dozen of us were standing in the bow. Our eyes were fixed on the scene in front of us (and our imaginations on those two colossal absentees). As we looked, and our hearts struggled, we became aware of a sound, a voice and then many voices, reaching to us from the center of the boat. It was a choir, and as its members moved toward us to form ranks in the doorways opening onto the bow, their voices became hymns. Shortly into the choir’s second offering, three women next to me, clearly in the city for a pre-Christmas shopping jaunt, joined in. I wish I could remember the tune and the words. What I do remember is the spirit then among us—a group of students, three women trailing huge Burberry’s bags and decked out to take on 57th Street, and (as it turned out) a modest Mennonite choir from Ohio, who said that they had come to offer New York a gift of encouragement and healing.
Ciardi’s intro to Canto XVI says, “Within [the darkness], Dante hears souls singing THE LITANY OF THE LAMB OF GOD. The Lamb, of course, is the symbol of the MEEKNESS of Divine Love. As such, it is the opposite of Wrath. A further purification is implicit in the fact that the souls all sing as if with one voice, for Wrath is the sin that soonest breeds division among men, and only Spiritual Concord can reunite them” (p. 419).
What healing there was in those loving voices on the Staten Island Ferry! What purification! After months of raw nerves and grieving, suddenly those of us in that little gathering on the deck weren’t adrift in a world of sorrows. We were gliding along accompanied by our better angels, especially Goodwill and Hope, warmed by the pink and gold of the lowering sun, and heading back to a city, and a future, that many of us now felt much readier to rebuild.
This is the spirit that re-membering 9/11 should promote. This—not something stupidly called the “Freedom Tower”—is what rebuilding should be about. For years, the Statue of Liberty has welcomed the world to our shores and promised sanctuary and freedom. Having gathered into ourselves the strength and wisdom of those drawn by Liberty’s light, and having been reminded again by the horrors of 9/11 that each life must be protected – each mother kept safe for her children, each restless young man kept from losing his soul in hatred – my hope is that we will build something that can move us Americans to sail back out of our harbors on missions of goodwill, something that can signal to our global neighbors that the new beacon lighting our way is lit not by fear but by compassion. By, as Dante and now Ciardi propose, a commitment to Spiritual Concord. Not to being warriors but to being firemen and paramedics rushing to protect life.
Down with acrid and blinding smoke. Down with corrosion of the spirit. Purgatorio must be a process, not a quagmire. It must be purgative, purifying, not just a limbo. We must respond to darkness with reflection, not just reflex. Build memorials to keep our dead, rather than death, present. So that we may be not only susceptible to difficult memories but engaged in active remembrance. So that as we re-member, venturing back into that brilliant late-summer day to recollect how it touched us and prompted so much of humanity to reach out, we will make sure that whatever monuments we construct near lower Manhattan’s hallowed ground can help us to reach past nationalism into the true meaning of America’s vision of “Liberty and Justice – for All.”