Friday, July 30, 2004

The Rush of Endless Streaming Images

"Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative..."

I was thinking about 9/11 today and that quote popped into my head. It also had some bearing on what a friend said a few days ago about my reading habits being pretentious which, admittedly, offended me more than a direct insult would have.

But really, when I think about it, the art I enjoy the most basically boils down to what Don Delillo said in that quote. The art I like doesn't try to influence opinions or come off as profound (and thus generally pretentious). Rather, it is more interested in pointing out the exaggerations and absurdities of life where the more explosions there are in a film, the more it is enjoyed by the audience. At the same time, it is amazing how the fiction that is usually the most absurd is the fiction that is often imitated or at least reflected in real life.

One of Delillo's themes in Mao II (from whence I got that quote) is how imagery more and more tends to lose meaning and rather become the meaning. Before 9/11, the idea of a couple planes, flown by terrorists, levelling the world trade center would have sounded like a pretty cool idea for an action movie. Why? Because people don't think in terms of reality that often anymore. It sounds like fiction, therefor it would make for a good spectacle with no more concequence behind it than movie magic. In other words, the image of a plane killing thousands would only be seen for just that—an image with no meaning attached. It takes a horrific event on the scale of what happened on September 11th to shock people to their senses.

I can imagine the rebuttal that a movie is just a movie and no one is directly hurt by the images on the screen. I absolutely agree. Hell, I like action movies. My point is that, after 9/11, there were many movies that were cancelled, i.e., never, ever to be shown on account of the plotlines being far too close for comfort to the events that actually occurred. The public would call a movie that attempted, or at least appears to attempt (remembering the argument that we are becoming less and less inclined to look beyond appearances) to capitolize on 9/11 as dishonoring the dead. Yet, when terrorists nuke the Eastern Seaboard as in Sum of All Fears, the outcry is notably lacking. Undeniably, dropping a nuclear bomb is more guesome by far than blowing up the world trade center, but there once again is no meaning firmly attached to the image. I guess we'll just have to wait until someone follows through with nuking Washington DC before The Sum of All Fears becomes as grotesque as those movies we will never see. To me, it is absurd to draw that distiction simply because of the manner in which the terrorists actually did attack.

However, that is not to say I think such movies need to stop being made. Rather, I am of the opinion that what is fiction should be treated as fiction and consumed as such, regardless of its similarities to real world events. Yet, I also agree with Delillo that denying the meaning and implication of the imagery we are watching is a silly exercise.

Since I'm not trying to put out a fully fledged novel here, I do not care to dive back into the specifics of the novel, but it is a really cool and enjoyable book which has stayed in my thoughts for the last 8 months since I have read it. It is hard to have read it and not think about it in connection with 9/11 as it has a lot to do with terror as well as what I have described above. My other favorite passage:

"The way they [the terrorists] live in the shadows, live willingly with death. The way they hate many of the things you hate. Their discipline and cunning. The coherence of their lives. The way they excite, they excite admiration. In societies reduced to blur and glut, terror is the only meaningful act. There's too much of everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed... Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him. It's confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. The way they determine how we see them. The way they dominate the rush of endless streaming images."

One cannot deny the possible validity of what Delillo is getting at. Well, it's something I can leave you to chew on. I know I will be.


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