Detail from Graydon Parrish, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy (2002)

Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature

Aimee Pozorski discusses the complex ways we engage with art and writing in the wake of the September 11th attacks

We are conducting this interview fifteen years after the September 11th terrorist attacks took place. What motivated you to write Falling After 9/11? How did the project begin?

Aime Pozorski, Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Aimee Pozorski, Falling After 9/11: Crisis in American Art and Literature (Bloomsbury, 2016)

The project began with the installation of Graydon Parrish’s 9/11 mural, Cycle of Terror and Tragedy, which was commissioned in 2002 by the New Britain Museum of American Art in my hometown of New Britain, CT. It took Parrish four years to complete the work, and when it was finally revealed, some critics savaged it for its commitments to Classical Realism. After being outraged that reviewers could be so callous, my training in trauma theory kicked in. As a trauma theorist who studies literature, I frequently consider ways in which a text’s moments of so-called failure can actually succeed in telling us something not only about the nature of representation but also about traumatic history itself. What does it mean that so many representations of 9/11 seemed inadequate? I asked myself. And does that have more do to with the nature of trauma and our reception of art and literature than it does with the singular talents or contributions of individual artists themselves? 

“For me, the ‘crisis’ point is not solely with American art and literature, but also in our ability or inability to read these representations.

In what ways did the events of 9/11 prompt a continuing crisis in American art and literature?

For me, the “crisis” point is not solely with American art and literature, but also in our ability or inability to read these representations. And I am not necessarily sure it was so much a “prompting” as it was a way to reframe what we have perhaps known all along. We have a paradoxical relationships to artists and authors: On the one hand, we expect them to reveal to us a truth of humanity that we may not otherwise be able to grasp if it were confronted head on; on the other hand, we chastise them in their very “failure” to tell the truth of an event that was never fully processed in the first place.

Why do you think the image of the Falling Man is such an emblematic figure of that tragic day?

cathycaruth-unclaimedexperience-traumanarrativeandhistory-20thanniversary
Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History

Guided by Cathy Caruth’s writing in her 1996 Unclaimed Experience – a book that seems uncannily to predict our post 9/11 crisis—I argue that our vexed relationship with the image of the falling man has something to do with our inability to imagine the experience of falling headlong to our ultimate moment of death. Caruth says, in a reading of Paul de Man and Kleist that “the problem of the twentieth century is how to refer to falling.” Although she published those words in 1996, it speaks to me as a way to understand the backlash the resulted from the publication of the Richard Drew photograph the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Coupled with the fact that, like Parrish’s mural, it is such an elegant, symmetrical, and formally pleasing image, it seemed somehow inappropriate to exemplify an horrific event in that way.

In your book, you discuss the strange and disturbing status of ‘falling’ itself. Could you say a little bit about that?

Maybe it has something to do with my innate fear of diving headfirst into a swimming pool or anything else for that matter! In all of my 40+ years, I have never experienced the joy or thrill of falling headfirst because the thought terrifies me. It seems to go against humanity’s sense of self-preservation. I think that is what Caruth is getting at when she talks about the inability for people to accept Newton’s theory of gravity – that we are are all, by nature, always falling. At some level, it seems inherently inconceivable, despite its obvious scientific validity. So for a photographer like Richard Drew to capture that moment – the private moment of a man who is about to confront his own death as such a natural moment in time – that feels incredibly disturbing and provocative, two feelings Americans did not want to experience the day after the attack on our country.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Do you think writers like Don DeLillo or Jonathan Safran Foer can help us to come to terms with an event like 9/11?

I do think that literary writing and commissioned art, as well as photography, poetry, and film can help us come to terms with traumatic experience, although perhaps not in a straightforwardly reparative way. Again, the paradox is that they refuse to confront these moments head-on. The experience they depict for us is indirect, difficult, and emotionally provocative, and those are the qualities that allow us access to the moments in a way that journalism and history books do not permit. Don’t get me wrong! I believe fully that we need the direct treatment of traumatic history through historians and journalists. But art and literature have a special quality that speak to us on another level—through our emotions and capacity for empathy that remain fundamental to the human experience.

Why is a discussion of art and literature so important when discussing cultural and historical trauma?

For me, it has to do with empathy and a sense of ethics: A reminder that we are all bound by our own histories that we have yet fully to witness ourselves – another important aspect of Caruth’s work on trauma. In discussing last week Resnais’s Hiroshima mon Amour and Hersey’s Hiroshima with a class of English majors at Central CT State University, one very sophisticated student asked: Do we need a theory of trauma and philosophical essays about ethics in order to understand traumatic history? And another very fine student said: Yes! It gives us a language and vocabulary for taking on these difficult ideas and it gives us access to an experience that is not fully our own by allowing us to have this conversation. Those two, in conversation with one another, in conversation about a moment in history they were too young to take in at the time, explained the importance of art and literature better than I could have in that moment. For me, it is not only about 9/11, but about the successes and failures of representation (in art, literature, film, etc) in the face of any traumatic experience, personal, historical, or political.


Graydon Parrish, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy (2002)
Graydon Parrish, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy.

The book ends with an epilogue where you discuss Graydon Parrish’s striking neo-classical painting, The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy. What draws you to Parrish’s painting, and what can it tell us?

The Statue of Liberty's extinguished flame on the cover of The New Yorker, 13 and 20 February 2017.
The Statue of Liberty’s extinguished flame on the cover of The New Yorker, 13 and 20 February 2017.

I guess it is telling that the book opens and closes with a discussion of this mural. It is very large and all encompassing. It draws you in. It is so lovely. The bodies of the figures in the painting seem to summon the viewer as a call to witness. But mostly, like any good work of art, it seems to change over time.There are dozens of ways to read it. When it first went up, I saw only the effects of 9/11 in terms of a ravaged country and the despair of those of us who inhabit it. But now I see it differently: I see the focus on the children of a new generation, white and brown, and I see the light still glimmering in the torch of the Statue of Liberty on the far right hand side of the painting. One student once said it seemed to anticipate the need for representation after the shooting in Newtown, also in our state. I look at the most recent cover of The New Yorker (Feb 13 & 20 2017) with the Statue of Liberty’s extinguished flame, in response to our current political climate and the unconstitutional Muslim ban, and think the mural also, somehow, seemed to anticipate this moment. I hope that the mural is right and that the flame continues to burn – that we will emerge from this crisis in 2017 just as we did in 2001.

What critics or theoretical approaches do you think have most influenced the book?

Definitely Cathy Caruth influenced this book. As a twenty-two year old MA student in Wisconsin, I read a chapter of one of her early books and thought: I need to meet this scholar. I would have done whatever it takes. In 1998, I started my doctoral program in English at Emory University, where Caruth also taught at the time and she became my mentor, my model, my guide. Her approaches, I would say are deconstruction, which she learned under her mentor, Paul de Man, and psychoanalysis, as her deconstructive reading of foundational psychoanalytic texts (Freud, Lacan) lead ultimately to a theory of trauma that guides my reading today.

“I come from a working class background, and wanted, very early on, to be able to write things that would compel my peers who study high theory, but would simultaneously be understood by my family members who didn’t go to college.”

Falling After 9/11 can be praised not only for the strength of its arguments, but for its lyricism. How do you approach writing in terms of style, and why might it be important?

This is such high praise! It has never been presented to me this way. My writing style, I would say, is very essayistic and conversational. I come from a working class background, and wanted, very early on, to be able to write things that would compel my peers who study high theory, but would simultaneously be understood by my family members who didn’t go to college. I also want it to be relevant, and, for me, that necessitates a style that mirrors the literature that I study: I am very much cognizant of the affective dimension of literary writing. At a seminar in which I was supposed to present my academic reading of a Holocaust documentary, I was introduced as a poet, which shocked and flattered me. If I can write academic monographs as a poet, then I have achieved my goals!

What’s next for you?

As someone once said to me, we are always writing the same book – over and over – during the long course of our careers. That seems to be true of me as well. My first book was on Philip Roth’s representation of American history as traumatic in its founding. My third book on representations of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s will complete a trilogy of books on American literature and trauma. This next book uses narrative medicine and trauma theory first to argue that narrative medicine is an extension of trauma theory in its focus on the ethical witness—in its insistence that we acknowledge the testimony of those who are terminally ill—and focuses on the ways artists, memoirists, and activists disrupted both official governmental silence and conventional narratives about progress, identity, and liberalism.

Falling After 9/11 is available from Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Aimee Pozorski is Professor of English and Director of English Graduate Studies at Central Connecticut State University, USA.

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