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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2014

Cassandra Among the
Creeps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
Article
Kandahar’s Mystery Executions·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He told me he was made to stand on an ice block for thirty minutes at a time, and would then be forced to run barefoot across the gravel while an officer cable-whipped him.”
Photograph (detail) © Victor J. Blue
Article
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
Post
Art Beyond Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
Criticism
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia

Percentage of G.O.P. House and Senate members in an April 2006 poll who believed humans are causing climate change:

23

Bees can remember human faces, but only if they are tricked into thinking that we are strange flowers.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today