Imagination & Compassion

9/11On a sunny spring morning in 1985, I walked downtown to the World Trade Center and took the elevator up to the South Tower Observation Deck. I had lived in New York City for ten years. The next morning I would fly to Amsterdam and this seemed the perfect way to say good-bye… Sixteen years later, I watched the towers fall on a television screen in an eerily quiet Dutch newsroom. Within a couple of weeks I tried to put my feelings into a radio feature. A few years later, authors were doing the same in their books. The following piece was originally written in 2005.

Four years after the events on September 11, 2001, a wave of literary novels appeared, which critics quickly dubbed Post 9/11 Fiction. One striking example is Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The book centers on a boy whose father perished in the fall of the World Trade Center towers. Ironically, it was not a subject Foer was particularly interested in writing about.

Jonathan Safran Foer“I was working on a very different book,” explains the author. “But the book kept changing. I had a draft where there was this nine-year-old protagonist who had the same flamboyant imagination as the boy in the book now and a lot of the same anxieties: fear of flying, fear of skyscrapers. But there was no 9/11 in the book whatsoever.”

Heavy boots

By the time Foer finished writing, many drafts later, 9/11 was central to his story. Some critics said not enough time had passed since such a catastrophic event to produce a great book. “There are things more important than good books,” says Foer, who believes the more people write about it the better. “We need as many voices as possible because unfortunately our national storytellers about the event have been politicians and they’ve been telling a story so different than most people I know experienced the day.” For Foer, the overriding feeling was of profound sadness, or “heavy boots,” as his young protagonist would say.

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened – like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack – an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.”

Historical Perspective

Foer was also criticized for prominent references to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima during World War II. “The way September 11th is talked about in America is entirely without any kind of global or historical context,” he says. “It’s talked about in absolutes – absolute good and evil, absolute terror and justice – with no perspective … I thought including these two events was not only a way of introducing a kind of historical perspective but also reiterated how awful it is when these things happen. ”

Foer BookExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close is more than a history lesson. It’s the story of people trying to communicate with each other in any way possible – with words written, signed or spoken; in letters never sent, messages unanswered, or papers floating out the windows of a burning skyscraper. It’s also about the conflict between reality and imagination.

Sharing Stories

Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote: “Imagination is the instrument of compassion.” This idea resonates deeply with Jonathan Safran Foer. “Books have a very important function in the world – a function more important now than it was before September 11th – which is to tell stories of individuals, stories in which people in other cultures can recognize themselves… We share who we are by telling stories.”

 I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole rest of the earth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love – it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

– Walt Whitman

Imagination is the Instrument of Compassion was originally broadcast in September 2005 as part of the series Vox Humana. This feature references another program, entitled Tragedy in Five Movements, which was broadcast two weeks after the events of 9/11. It featured music by Dmitri Shostakovich, poetry by Walt Whitman, and personal emails sent by New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Audio for Imagination is the Instrument of Compassion is available HERE via Viaway.
UPDATE: Audio appears not to be working properly. Will attempt to retrieve it from another source and post it here as soon as possible. Apologies!

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