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American Idyll (an essay on terror and innocence)

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Arthur Strum 3600 words Assistant Professor of German Studies © 2002 Arthur Strum Stanford University Stanford, CA 94305-2030 (650) 723-0397 strum@stanford.edu AMERICAN IDYLL By Arthur Strum I. We aspire, for the most part, to live our lives as private persons. We orient ourselves around the refuge of the family, or the circle of friends, or the solitary self. Public obligations yield to private ones. We have work, rather than a calling -- or to the extent that our work becomes a calling, it
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  Arthur Strum3600 wordsAssistant Professor of German Studies© 2002 Arthur StrumStanford UniversityStanford, CA 94305-2030(650) 723-0397strum@stanford.eduAMERICAN IDYLLBy Arthur StrumI.We aspire, for the most part, to live our lives as private persons. We orient ourselves around the refuge of the family, or the circle of friends, or the solitary self. Public obligations yield to private ones. We have work, rather than a calling -- or to the extent that our work becomes a calling, it is to satisfy essentially private ends. Very few of us -- whether as musician or artist, athlete or scientist, entrepeneur or writer -- reject the comforts, burdens, and consolations of quotidian existence in order to subordinate our lives to the principle of perfectability. Even fewer -- whether the courageous Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, shot and killed outside his house in  Jackson in 1963, or the great Rosa Luxemburg, murdered and dumped into the Landwehr canal in Berlin in January of 1919, or, indeed, Mohammed Atta, the quiet urban planner who helped plan the murder of more than 5000 people in September 2001 -- even fewer of us stake not just private life, but all life, on an obligation or principle which we perceive to be ‘greater’ or ‘higher.’ In their   Strum -- 22  sublimity, in their ability to defy our usual concern with ‘mere’ life, such figures are either awe-inspiring, or – in the case of Atta -- terrifying. Once figures like these have embraced the role seemingly ‘given’ to them by fate -- as Martin Luther King did, when, a pastor, in his first months in Montgomery, he found himself President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, or as Mirabeau did, in Paris in 1789, when he refused Louis XVI’s order that the Estates General meet separately -- their greatest hope is to be embraced by history, to be caught up in its force and to try to shape it. Sometimes, these roles simply present themselves to us. At these moments, even those who understand themselves primarily as private persons may join together to make  history -- in Tiananmen square in 1989, or in the Kronstadt Fortress above Petrograd in 1921, or in Paris in 1789. For the rest of us, most of the time, history is only experienced as an ominous shadow -- as war, or violence, or as the capriciousness of impersonal economic forces. History is not a force we aspire to shape, but a threat we hope to avoid . The perhaps 50,000 people who found themselves in the World Trade Center when the buildings were attacked, and the firemen, police and others who entered these buildings to try to help save them, found themselves, against their own wishes, swept into the vortex of historical existence . It is not surprising that the great majority of obituaries have focused on the victims’ private characteristics, rather than public deeds: these were private persons, who only happened to be present  where history intruded. We call these people ‘innocent’ because they had neither chosen the new roles which were thrust upon them, as political or religious heroes do, nor even been able to   Strum -- 32  prepare for them, as soldiers, or even fireman and policemen, do. They were faced, suddenly, with a situation in which common virtues, the virtues of a private person, were no longer adequate. In a matter of minutes or seconds, some of them seem to have embraced the new role dictated by circumstance. But, as in the case of the political or religious hero, doing so involved a moral risk. In their abrupt decisions to endanger or sacrifice themselves in order to help others, these people did not simply exhibit courage, but were also forced to choose between their private lives -- their duties to the children, partners, and friends they shared these lives with -- and a public one. In a few seconds, they left the realm of mere ‘life’ and entered the more uncertain one of history -- uncertain, because it is likely that (like other historical actors before them) some or even many of the people who made this choice may have failed in their efforts to save others. In the harsh terms of history, they sacrificed their private existences for nothing. It is impossible, for those of us who have never been faced with such a choice, to comprehend it properly -- as little as we can comprehend the sustained, and therefore even more sublime courage of a Medgar Evers or Rosa Luxemburg or Nelson Mandela. Instead, we simply hope that we never have the misfortune of having to exhibit it.II.Even a single human being gives, and has received, an immense amount of human loving labor -- the labor which makes, and develops, and preserves us as human beings. Each of these formed beings builds the world as an artifact. When a person dies, we can try to remember this labor, and   Strum -- 42  consider what has been lost with that person’s death. But when thousands die, this exercise of memory is impossible. Since September 11, a river of obituaries, testimonials, memorials have tried to build our sense of who has been lost, and of what has been lost to the victims’ different worlds as a result of their passing. But since the first days after the disaster, there has been persistent discussion of another loss, which affects all of us: that of the world before September 11th . The loss of this world, it is said, has left a wound . Before September 11th, private activities still seemed to have their own, intrinsic justifications. After  September 11th, these implicit justifications seem to have suddenly, if temporarily, become inadequate. Fishing, museum-going, football, shopping, radio and television, pleasure in nature – even to enumerate them explicitly seemed to expose their weightlessness. In the days after the attacks, every musical review began with the writer’s effort to consider the larger significance of musical performance; every description of a trip, or a meal, began with an apologia. Every activity or diversion, that is, was measured against an impossible standard of significance: the sudden and violent deaths of so many innocent people. One could, it is true, work  -- but here one had no choice. One could also -- even should  -- retreat to the intimate sphere, care for friends and family -- but this activity was considered to  be serious, to acknowledge what had occurred. But every potential pleasure, every diversion or indulgence was smothered by one’s awareness of its comparative insignificance, by one’s guilt at being among the healthy survivors. This sharp awareness faded rapidly. But the world in which these pleasures and diversions were still unproblematic, in which we were not constantly haunted by our consciences – this  world has not quite returned. Its loss, seemingly, is the
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