The Banality of Memory
A recurring theme for the school-aged is to be forced into essay assignments that demand very broad information: “What I did on my summer vacation,” for instance, or “What my family means to me.” You’ll often find that the child’s first instinct—he or she does not yet posses much filtering or revising ability—is simply to list, in haphazard fashion, disparate memories and emotions, connected only by a logic the child assumes we all follow. The details are random. The order is discursive. It takes years of practice to turn such potpourri into something readable; it may take years more before anyone but a captive audience would consider looking at it.
Linear narrative, then, is something a writer continually forces himself to practice; the default mode of any writer is chaos. Even among much older, experienced writers, there is always the urge to relay things in the manner of the impressionist. It is easier to be Dadaist than disciplined. It is also remarkably frustrating to avoid cliche. This is what makes poetry so difficult to write.
But the same rules go for non-writers, too. Don’t they? Since most people are not scholars, the most enduring and perplexing legacy of September 11, 2001, is likely not to be lessons about foreign policy, statecraft, radical Islam, or even freedom. (We must always resist this vulgar attempt to reduce terrorism to questions of political theory.) Rather, we might think a moment about how we process trauma, and how emotions and memory, despite the best efforts of philosophers and neuroscientists, remain nearly inexplicable. We might also learn how to re-order our lives into something that makes as much narrative sense as it did before. It takes years to make sense of one’s life. It takes years to put it back together after it’s broken apart.
The perfect distillation of these lessons, for me, came from listening to Kevin Cosgrove’s phone call to a police operator, minutes before he collapsed with the south tower of the World Trade Center. I actually had not heard this phone call until recently. I can assure you: all it takes is one listen before it is branded onto your mind forever. Cosgrove was an insurance executive at Aon Corporation. He lived not far from me, on Long Island. He spent his final moments huddled in an office on the 105th floor, gasping for air, wondering whether help would come.
Listening to the phone call, we hear the panic in his voice. We hear the operator’s transparent attempt to maintain order and calm. Cosgrove’s voice also contains a good amount of tense shrillness. Those of us who have ever gone to the emergency room in pain, only to come up against the pencil-pushing triage nurse who tells us to “stay calm,” take a seat, and wait our turn, know how frustrating bureaucracy can be. Now imagine being at the top of a skyscraper that’s about to fall and getting stonewalled on the phone.
The call goes on for a few minutes. When the tower finally collapses, bringing the caller with it, we hear Cosgrove issue a blood-curdling scream, which lasts but a moment. The crushing fall cuts the phone line.
As listeners, we have, in those last few moments, crossed into the hinterlands of the surreal. There is something so final and desperate and incorporeal about his scream—you swear to yourself that something cannot possibly be so scary to listen to. What bubbles up to your throat when you hear it is an amorphous blend of fear, love, hate, heartbreak, terror, guilt—all somehow managing to coexist as a single emotion.
The interplay between emotions and memory can be quite painful, partly because we all have powerful imaginations. We all have the ability to construct scenarios in our heads. These scenarios often hinge on stark contrasts: that between what Mr. Cosgrove, and others like him, felt getting up in the morning, and what he felt only a few hours later, belting the name of God as he fell with a skyscraper.
The contrast between what occurs before and after a tragedy is what keeps us in that surreal state. Try this exercise: seek out your favorite columnists, then read the last piece they filed before the attacks took place. William F. Buckley discussed Social Security and its funding problems. Thomas Sowell talked about Gary Condit. (The news cycle was somewhat sluggish.) Or read your diary entry from September 10, 2001. It’s almost sado-masochistic to do this, is it not? A tragedy’s power is found in the difference between the violent chaos of the event itself and placid banality of the before and after.
And I have noticed, over the past few weeks, an emphasis on this banality. My local daily newspaper keeps printing stories about the ways in which the victims’ families remember their lost loved ones. (I live on Long Island, so many victims lived near me.) A familiar strain in all these stories is the presence of a small keepsake that stands for the dead person’s presence. For one man, it is his son’s Gillette razor, its blade long rusted, which he has kept on the bathroom sink for ten years. For another woman, it is her husband’s truck, which he bought the week before he died. His last new car.
The concept of banality has its own special place in the history of tragedy. Its most lasting formulation is Hannah Arendt’s description of Nazi technocrat Adolf Eichmann. Arendt stressed that such men as Eichmann were not committed to evil in some metaphysical way, nor did they harbor some dark desire to torture humanity. They had families. They attended church. They held some allegiance to social norms. Evil, in Eichmann’s case, was the evil of familiarity. But as observers of history, we expect—indeed, we demand—a much more satisfying explanation: that the Third Reich was run by psychopathic monsters in the mold of John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. It turns out the truth is much less satisfying: the most powerful evil of Hitler’s Germany was that of ordinary men, whose “every day” existences soon came to fit neatly into the engines of terror and death. Thus we have the banality of evil.
So it is with memory. The most powerful memories tend to be like the ones the child jots down in his or her personal essays—small and random, not connected to some “big picture.” We do not remember whole events. How could we? What does this even mean? Of what would these memories consist? We remember only parts—very fractured, very disparate parts.
How ridiculous these parts often are. How ridiculous the triggers of our sadness. It’s not the memorial service that brings the most pain, but a rusted Gillette razor. Picking up the book of a dead loved one and flipping to the page he last bookmarked, knowing he had planned on finishing it but never will. That’s that surreal contrast hitting you again: the power of the familiar and the banal.
Part of what makes terrorism so devastating is its assault on the banal—on our daily routines, for instance, or our commutes to work. What’s more, terrorism forces us to try to articulate our emotions using a vocabulary we don’t have. On September 11, 2001, the entire nation was forced to confront not just evil, but the inadequacy of man’s ability to talk about it. Instead, I’ve heard lots of talk about “closure” lately. In a way, you can’t fault people for resorting to the concepts of pop psychology. The word makes sense, though. Closure is just as real, but just as inexplicable, as the banality of memory.
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