Sentences — December 1, 2008, 5:11 pm

Powers of Empathy

“It’s beyond my skills as a writer to capture that day,” begins a sentence that stopped me this weekend and made me break into a very earnest smile. And then there’s the sentence that preceded it:

And then, on September 11, 2001, the world fractured. It’s beyond my skill as a writer to capture that day, and the days that would follow—the planes, like specters, vanishing into the steel and glass; the slow-motion cascade of the towers crumbling into themselves; the ash-covered figures wandering the streets; the anguish and the fear.

I very much like the rhetorical strategy employed here: admit defeat, and then march to victory. The first couple of clauses discount the writer’s capacities, lowering readerly expectations. After all, so much has already been and will be said about that day. How can one add anything of value? And yet, the em-dash draws a line in the rhetorical sand that the writer then crosses—four ways. Four clauses: the planes, the collapse, those on the ground, the feelings one might well have had. “Vanishing” is a good word to describe what happened to the planes, for they did seem to vanish, however well we know that nothing that gentle transpired. “Slow-motion cascade” doesn’t try to do more than denominate–it isn’t “glittering cascade,” or any sort of offensive rhetorical opportunism that would turn ugly into beauty to earn the writer aesthetic points. “Crumbling” yields “ash,” thus it’s only logical that what it falls upon would be named. And then what, most basically, was felt.

Good and clear, and a little daring, that sentence, one which turns out to be fully utilitarian, serving what follows:

Nor do I pretend to understand the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still. My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.

From negation to negation the paragraph goes. The writer, unable to write about the day, is also unable to comprehend what engendered it. Despite those negations, the writer nonetheless isn’t, with these clauses, delimiting a void. Rather, he is trying, through negation, to contain the unknown, which is a thing like anything. As much as I like these sentences for what they say and how they say it, I read them with a very weird feeling located, it occurs to me, deep in my chest. The feeling is extra-literary. Meaning: I find it simply amazing that these sentences were written by our president-elect, in the preface to the 2004 edition of his first book.

That it should—could!—come to this.

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

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I first heard the name Barack Obama in the spring of 2004, while visiting my mother in Chicago. As we sat around the kitchen table early one spring morning, I noticed a handsome studio portrait among the pictures, lists, cards, and other totems of family life fastened to the refrigerator door. “Who’s the guy with the ears?” I asked, assuming he was some distant relative or family friend I didn’t know or else had forgotten. “Barack Obama,” she answered with a broad smile. “He’s running for Senate, but he’s going to be the first black president.”

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