Literature | Politics | Society
On 11 September 2004, waking up to a hot, late-summer Saturday morning in New York City, I caught the subway down to Chambers Street for the annual commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist atrocity. The hallowed site of Ground Zero, where once the two great towers of the World Trade Center had soared, had by this date been completely cleared of the rubble of the past. The diggers had reached bedrock, the hard, grey granite on which Manhattan was founded. But in 2004, the massive new construction which now dominates downtown had not yet begun. Instead, Ground Zero was a huge pit, ringed by a high-wire mesh fence on which pilgrims and tourists had attached flowers, tributes and messages over the years.
When I arrived at the site that September morning, it was already thronging with people peering through the wire squares of the fence at the city dignitaries, the firefighters and the families of the victims gathered beneath the stars-and stripes in the pit below us. Mayor Bloomberg spoke over the loudspeaker. A minute’s silence was observed by the whole arena to mark the moment the first plane hit the North Tower at 8.46 am. Governor George Pataki quoted President Eisenhower: ‘There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child.’ Rudolf Giuliani, the former mayor, read out a letter from Abraham Lincoln, comforting a mother whose sons had been killed in the civil war. Another minute of silence to mark the moment the second plane hit the other tower at 9.03 am. A lone trumpet struck up the Last Post. And then the voices of bereaved parents and grandparents began to read out the names of the dead in alphabetical order, the sound echoing against the empty shells of buildings behind us and the rock below—Gordon A. Aamoth. Jr. Edelmiro Abad. Marie Rose Abad.
Jennifer Wallace studied Classics and English, and has been Senior Lecturer and Director of Studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge since 1995, as well as an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of English. She has served on the jury of the annual London Hellenic Prize since 2010 and has organised four international conferences on the performance of Greek tragedy. She runs the Peterhouse Theory Group, writes extensively and lectures all over the world
Later that evening, I made my way down to the Hudson River for the alternative 9/11 ceremony. Gathering at a pier on the west side of the city, and looking across at the beam of light shooting into the sky where the World Trade Center once loomed, the informal group lit paper lanterns, in the traditional Japanese toro nagashi fashion, and set them on the water to float away down the river in the sunset and out to the open water, past the Statue of Liberty, past Staten Island. Different family members of those who had died in the September 11 attacks made speeches and offered prayers. ‘I want to remember all those who died on 9/11’, said the brother of one woman who had died three years earlier. ‘But I also want to remember all those who have died since in the name of 9/11.’ This was 2004. The Taliban had been toppled and much of Afghanistan flattened. Saddam Hussein had been captured. Civil war was beginning, with hundreds of Iraqi civilians and police being killed by Sunni-led bombings. The first battle of Fallujah had erupted a few months earlier. And American abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib had recently been exposed by the publication of a few photographs.
These two ceremonies to remember the dead were both versions of tragic ritual. Like tragic performances there were some principal ‘officiants’ reading the names, making the speeches, throwing the paper lanterns out into the Hudson—and of course there were the ‘heroes’ whom we were remembering and lamenting—but the rituals were participatory, designed to draw the mourners and the city together. The whole crowd held the minute’s silence with the city mayor or joined together in reflective memory by the water’s edge. … Yet in other respects, these two ceremonies were in marked contrast. The first focused entirely on the American lives lost in New York City three years earlier. … The second ceremony looked outward and was prepared to acknowledge that the events on September 11, 2001, had not ended neatly on that date. A parallel was being drawn between ‘us’ in New York and ‘them’ in Afghanistan or Iraq, those ‘who had died in the name of 9/11’. As the lanterns floated out in the Hudson, traditional boundaries were being questioned.
These two responses to the catastrophe three years earlier strikingly mirrored the stark choice facing the American people that Rowan Williams had articulated so presciently in the aftermath of the attack. He himself had been there on the morning of September 11, 2001. As American Airlines Flight 11 was crashing into the North Tower, the clergy of Trinity Church in Wall Street were sitting down just a few blocks away with invited guests to record a discussion about religious practice and belief. They were ‘interrupted’, said Rowan Williams, the future Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, by terrorists driven by their own version of religious belief. Williams joined everyone else in the area stumbling out of the building in a thick dust of burning ash. There were shouts, sirens, the ‘indescribable long roar of the second tower collapsing’. What he remembered particularly, however, was his lack of feeling, … or even – as he put it – living ‘in the presence of the void’.
Reflecting on the event a few weeks later, Rowan Williams attempted to do justice to this void, to write about its challenges, its potential and its temptations. There were, he said, two courses of action for the American people and indeed everyone around the world who were shocked and still grieving. One option was to use the initial passionate and understandable anger about the injury done to us and turn it into a violent response, continually fuelling the rage with recollections of the attack. … In effect, this would mean seeking revenge, acting quickly for the sake of being seen to do something and bombing the enemy in return. The other option was to pause and reflect, to think about our own vulnerability and that of others, to learn a radical and risky compassion. ‘The trauma … is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents’, wrote Williams. His pamphlet professed to offer ‘hope that risk and reconciliation are a new and living way to avoid the relentless spiral downward to more and worse aggression’. …
The war of choice
Tragic narratives of revenge usually begin with a choice. To avenge or not to avenge? To seek to impose rightful punishment or to keep quiet and turn the other cheek? But revenge tragedies mostly operate as if in fact there is no choice, as if everything compels the protagonist to one course of action. At the beginning of the Trojan War, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, is presented with a terrible decision. The goddess Artemis is angry with him and is preventing the wind from blowing and thus the ships from sailing over to Troy. She can only be appeased by the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia. When Agamemnon hears this injunction from the prophet, he realizes immediately the starkness of his choice. Either he can refuse the goddess’s demand and thus betray the army or he must kill his daughter and thus store up the seeds of violent hatred in the hearts of his family. In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, as recollected by the chorus, he weighs up the options:
The senior lord spoke, declaring
‘Fate will be heavy if I do not obey, heavy as well
if I hew my child, my house’s own darling,
polluting her father’s hands
with slaughter streaming from a maiden
at the altar: what is there without evil here?
How can I desert the fleet
and fail the alliance?
Why, this sacrifice to stop the wind,
a maiden’s blood,
is their most passionate desire;
but Right (θέμις: themis) forbids it. So may all be well!’
Ghost stories grew up in counterpoint to formal literature, sometimes operating in competition with it, sometimes in harmony. In Tales of the Troubled Dead, Catherine Belsey charts the evolution of the genre, monitoring specific stories to show not just how they have grown and been elaborated but how their role and reception have changed as they have been brought into the canon by writers from Homer and Shakespeare to Susan Hill
In Robert Icke’s recent adaptation of the play, Agamemnon’s choice is put even more starkly, in terms that draw on the classic ethical dilemma commonly cited in philosophy: ‘What you’re being told is that the road is about to split, that an action is coming which you either perform—or you don’t. Make that judgement’, says the prophet Calchas.
Yet the choice is not portrayed as a neutral one. Fate has already tipped the scales. Agamemnon seems compelled to choose the course for war. He must opt for the male, public demand for vengeance rather than the female, private alternative of refusing the rush to the military campaign. In Aeschylus’s famous words, he ‘dons the yoke of necessity’ and from then on is committed to the war effort, filled with daring and the capacity for violation. In Euripides’ version of this scene, Agamemnon is influenced by the intense pressure of a scarcely controllable army, a huge crowd of men desperate to go to war and baying for blood. ‘We are slaves to the common people,’ he complains, and those common people are driven by a ‘mad desire’ (or ‘aphrodite’ in the original Greek) to sail to ‘the land of the barbarians and put an end to the rape of Greek wives’.
His efforts to change his mind and overturn the demand for Iphigenia to be brought for sacrifice are thwarted by Menelaus, Odysseus and the other Greek generals. You can’t overturn the will of the people, they tell him. The policy is irrevocably set for human sacrifice and the countdown to war. In Robert Icke’s adaptation, a momentum builds behind Agamemnon’s killing of his daughter based partly upon the rational argument that the sacrifice of one individual will save countless others, since Iphigenia’s death will ensure that the foreign war will finally come to an end. There are also additional motives for Agamemnon, whose characterization in Icke’s version owes much to the figure of Tony Blair ...
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