In the Aftermath of Tragedy

Writer: 
August 1, 2002
Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11

cover photo: James Nachtwey/VII

 

With Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas, Frank Lentricchia co-edited the most recent issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, a journal produced by Duke University Press. The issue's theme: "Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11." One of those essays, by Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe of theater studies, examines the impact of remarks made by German musician Karlheinz Stockhausen; in the days after the terrorist attacks, Stockhausen called the tragedy "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos."

"By the powerful traditional standard set by Aristotle, the pain-giving events themselves of September 11 in New York, as Tommasini argues, are not art. For those on the scene, and their kin and acquaintance, the strike on the towers was only horrific. But the images, on Tommasini's own testimony, are something else. They are 'horrifically compelling.' In other words, in our contemplative security from the real, the images trigger pleasure--call it engrossed compulsion, the kind of spiritual pleasure attendant upon loss of self, as we are absorbed by the transfixing object of our attention. And this very contemplative pleasure, governed by imitation, argues Aristotle, is a deep spring of art. On traditional theoretical grounds, images of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan may indeed deserve to be called art. How difficult is it to imagine--all that shocking footage artfully edited to become a truly absorbing short film?

...Does it make any sense to speak, as Stockhausen did, of the aesthetic character and effects of those violently transgressive acts? The events themselves, not their artful representation? To consider the merits of such an idea would require that we put aside the virtually unavoidable sentimentality that asks us to believe that art is always somehow humane and humanizing; that artists, however indecent they might be as human beings, become noble when they make art, which must inevitably ennoble those who experience it."

--excerpted from "Groundzeroland" by Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe; from "Dissent from the Homeland: Essays After September 11," The South Atlantic Quarterly (Spring 2002); the issue will be available in September