The End of Exemptions for Beauty
The End of Exemptions for Beauty
The WTC attack considered as a conflict between open and closed systems, a one-system people and a many-system people.
The continental United States has a history with beauty and with exemptions from foreign wars. A president of the United States, Franklin Pierce, noted the exemptions in his inaugural address of March 4, 1853: “Of the complicated European systems of national polity we have heretofore been independent. From their wars, their tumults, and anxieties we have been, happily, almost entirely exempt. Whilst these are confined to the nations which gave them existence, and within their legitimate jurisdiction, they can not affect us except as they appear to our sympathies in the cause of human freedom and universal advancement.”
A decade later an English novelist, Anthony Trollope, demurred because exemptions had been forfeited by waging the War Between the States. He noted, “The Americans had fondly thought that they were to be exempt from the curse of war - at any rate from the bitterness of the curse. But the days for such exemptions have not come as yet.”
After the Civil War, although the Nation was still bullying, battling, and buying its way westward, the country seemed sufficiently exempt from European wars. That such exemptions, immunities, and impunities were unrealistic is conveyed by a whimsical statement attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”
The attack on the World Trade Center made the end of exemptions observable. As early as September 12, Justin Raimondo posted remarks, “Terror at Home: the price of hegemony”: “The World Trade Center - monument towering over downtown Manhattan like twin silver phalli pointed at heaven - is but a pile of smoldering rubble. Crashing down along with this symbol of capitalism, modernity, and civilization is the overweening hubris of a government - and a people - which thought themselves immune. It is the doctrine of ‘American exceptionalism,’ the theory that the US - blessed by Providence and released from the travails faced by other nations - is immune, exempt not only from the rules that govern and limit the powers of other nations, but also from history itself…” His interpretation of the WTC as “this symbol of capitalism, modernity, and civilization” is too splashy and general. For the meaning of buildings to be more than a designated concept like “capitalism,” Raimondo must connect the “symbol” with the style of the buildings, the specifiable meanings of those specific buildings.
Slavoj Zizek announced that “…one thing is sure: the US, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved” (“Welcome to the Desert of the Real”). Susan Sontag, in an interview for Salon magazine with David Talbot, October 2001, mentions the popular notion of exemption: “There’s an American exceptionalism; we’re supposed to be exempt from the calamities and terrors and anxieties that beset other countries.” Responses to her statements, in Salon and in The New Yorker, show that questioning a special providence is judged an unpatriotic and irreligious subversion.
Within institutional religions, a few Protestant ministers have said that the exemptions granted to this most favored nation by Divine Grace have been forfeited by bad conduct. The suggestion is that a providential God who once granted exemptions has retracted them as punishment for sin. However in religions of humility, the purposes of God are unknown except insofar as they have been revealed. Only a prophet can bring such accusations, which otherwise are the work of pride. In this discussion, words for “prophet” in many languages might be translated, “a person of heroic humility,” or as “a significantly negated person.” Many persons have been reluctant to become prophets because of the negations, but have submitted to the will of God. The name of Islam is explained as “submission,” yet could be rendered “humility,” as in the humble submission in which a soul is safe within the governance of an omnipotent and loving Allah.
One discovery that can be made within religious adventures is that a people, a nation, a saint, or a prophet chosen by God or Allah are not exempted from suffering, and may even qualify for their tasks through their suffering. Handicaps such as blindness and stuttering can mark a person as especially receptive to the divine. Thus the relations between power and humility are misrepresented in the New York Times when it describes a “spiritual leader” who is a “most charismatic rival” to Arafat: “Crippled from a childhood injury, he is frail, uses a wheelchair and speaks in a high squeaky voice. But his uncompromising denunciations of Israel from his spartan headquarters in Gaza thrill many and inspire suicide bombers” (June 14, 2002). The truth is that even humiliations like “a high squeaky voice” authenticate charismatic leaders so that they do “thrill” and “inspire.” The adjective “Spartan” suggests the self-negation that complements the other negations.
The weaker the person in some worldly power, as though a power or pleasure has been sacrificed, the more heroic the piety. A person who is sightless in this world may have insight into a superior world. The rule is that for a person to qualify as a spiritual mediator, and for a spiritual act to have efficacy, self must be negated or self-negated. Prophets, saints, and martyrs do not receive exemptions from suffering, although they may be redeemed through their suffering.
The World Trade Center stood amid exemptions, but not comfortably. Undertones of anxiety are experienced by a character in an autobiographical novel, How He Saved Her, by Ellen Schwamm. In this novel, a woman leading a privileged life, amid many exemptions, dines with her family at the WTC, in a restaurant named Windows on the World: “The room was walled in glass on three sides. It appeared to hang, thrillingly unconcerned, in space. Planes went by, their lights winking. A city etched in colored light fanned out at their feet. Stars were scattered like buckshot across the sky around this somehow dreary room.” During the evening she meets, and falls in love with, a man who seems to grant no exemptions based on wealth or worldly power. She goes from the “thrillingly unconcerned” top of the WTC to the thrilling concerns of an unexempted life in which she will struggle toward authenticities.
Falling in love while dining at Windows on the World opens systems that seemed to have closed. One of the conflicts in these events is between systems that would close down over people, and systems that open possibilities. Was the WTC a closed system or an open system? Its coherence and self-consistency suggest a closed system, but the people laboring at food services, and the people working at finance, went into and out of many systems. They can be seen to have held the systems open, restoring, maintaining, and even increasing possibilities. According to obituaries which have been written as vivaciously as possible, people who worked in the WTC did not separate the beauty of their experiences from the beauty of the buildings as architectural objects.
The question of the beauty of the WTC survives. Since I rarely used the buildings except as a platform from which to view a spectacle, I did not experience the beauty of open constructive processes in which workers participated. Like many others in Manhattan, I now think the buildings to have been beautiful in a way that I did not see earlier. Then I saw, but did not feel, while now I feel, but can no longer see. I would like to change my testimony.
My experiences of beauty have yielded impressions of what beauty is for me - a sense of the actively beautiful as that with which I desire to conceive something. I see no reason to limit an inspiration to conceive to the physical or to the mental. If with the beautiful I find myself desiring to conceive something, and if I grant exemptions, and no longer put up resistance, I feel an increase in the available energy. Then what are some of the possible relations among beauty, energy, and exemptions? We see in ordinary events that the beautiful person, place or “thing” is more likely to be granted exemptions than the plain or the ugly. In an economics of energy, such exemptions save energy that isn’t spent overcoming resistances. Although beauty can never be quantified, an observer could calculate the degree to which a closed system will open for a beautiful person in ordinary social events. Such exemptions for beauty reach the theme of possibility, because the beautiful opens possibilities in a system.
In the case of the WTC, the attack was aimed by one-system people against multi-system people. The use of one system, especially one that would close over itself in absolute consistency, is dangerous, because closed systems run out of energy. An apparent waste of energy among resentful people is visible in Manhattan, where a Muslim mosque has been built by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Years ago I toured it with its articulate architect, the late Michael McCarthy, the painter and sculptor John Willenbecher, and an Imam who followed our every discalced step, listening with piercing attention. Earlier McCarthy explained that the minaret in Manhattan is a structure that cannot be used by a muezzin to call people to prayer, because loud announcements are illegal. Some Islamic scholars, and McCarthy, judged a minaret to be a structure with no function, hence no meaning. However: “Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah the Amir of the state of Kuwait, …during his visit to New York in September 1988 pledged to donate whatever amount is necessary to complete the construction of the minaret.” As of today, that silent minaret calls the faithful to resent their position under secular power, and to await the dawn of theocracy, when its use might become possible. A minaret waiting beside a mosque on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is important because the WTC has been compared with Islamic buildings in Mecca, even by its architect, Minoru Yamasaki. The style of the WTC is described by Laurie Kerr, whose essay in Slate magazine is a source of my grateful wonder. Yamasaki designed the King Fahd Dharan Air Terminal in Saudi Arabia. His design “…had a rectilinear, modular plan with pointed arches, interweaving tracery of prefabricated concrete, and even a minaret of a flight tower. In other words, it was an impressive melding of modern technology and traditional Islamic form.”
The next year Yamasaki won the commission for the WTC: “Yamasaki described its plaza as ‘a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area’.” “Yamasaki’s courtyard mimicked Mecca’s assemblage of holy sites–the Qaaba…and the holy spring–by including several sculptural features, including a fountain, and he anchored the composition in a radial circular pattern, similar to Mecca’s. At the base of the towers, Yamasaki used implied pointed arches–derived from the characteristically pointed arches of Islam…” Kerr concludes with precision and lucidity: “To bin Laden, the World Trade Center was probably not only an international landmark but a false idol.”
To compare the WTC with Mecca blurs the difference between the profane and sacred. The WTC could never be more than a demonic parody of Mecca, which is a place in which Allah acts from within eternity on the temporal, and from within infinity on the finite. However, on the Internet, someone writes that a person as insightful as bin Laden “…would have instead felt proud that Islamic architecture and Islamic metaphors figured so prominently in the biggest symbol of Western capitalism.” (Cairolive 01/03/02). This statement underestimates the offense to a religion in which spiritual pollutions are as vile as sins or moral faults. A secular appropriation of Islamic motifs is a misappropriation that pollutes the faith, and is not taken for a compliment. Any such secular judgments are of absolutely no interest within the faith, if only because few Euro-American judgments are of any interest. In Saudi Arabia, an airport with Islamic motifs can glorify Allah, so that a picture of that airport on paper-money is sufficiently pious. But secular buildings in Manhattan with derivative Islamic motifs can but distract from the architecture of faith.
One theme in the attack in September 2001 is punishment for our methods of thinking as those blithely pollute Islam. By December 2002, speculation on future attacks should look at other pollutions of Islam, and then follow implications toward the source of the pollution. Because Buddhist sculpture defiled Afghanistan and offended a rival faith, it has been annihilated by purifiers. So speculation should ask: Are any non-Islamic religious sites insulting to Islam? Which secular themes violate the truth of Islam? What other impurities can be exorcised? A favorite on my list is the International Space Station, because it anguishes the sky above Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. These themes will be clarified the next time a pious Muslim, or an Arabian-American, applies to become an astronaut.
The design of the Saudi Arabian airport and of the WTC recall an era in which a theme, often implicit in American art, became explicit and sufficient: possibility. In its openness to change, possibility differs in degrees from probability, which is a condition of fewer options. If degrees of probability continue to increase, they may reach necessity, when a system closes over itself, consistent as a sphere. A peculiar hope, characteristic of much significant visual art in the United States through the 1960s and 1970s, has been to act without reducing possibilities to probabilities, and without exhausting the probabilities into necessities.
The hope of secular optimism is to keep situations as full of possibility at the conclusion of a series of events as at the beginning. The art and the architecture that convey images and ideas of secular possibilities after the Enlightenment are often called “Minimal,” a dead-end notion. In a compromise, I call the style Minimal-Operational or Operational-Minimal, trying to point toward the use of explicit abstract operations that remain visible in the specifiable operations used on materials. Operations can be separated into two kinds at least, abstract operations and concrete operations. Abstract operations work with abstract objects. For example, mathematical operations are abstract, reversible, and ever possible. An abstract operation is not physical, so it can be applied again and again without being diminished or depleted. Abstract operations are applied in specifications and measurements when constructing concrete objects.
Concrete operations apply abstract operations in the construction of concrete objects. While abstract operations are intellectually reversible, concrete operations are irreversible when used in the construction of buildings, yet can still feel “operational.” With the WTC, abstract operations could be inferred from the concrete actions that followed explicit abstract operations. In Operational-Minimal art and architecture, irreversible concrete operations illustrate the reversible abstract operations that have been applied.
A living organic structure follows a temporal order with three parts: 1) possibility in the beginning; 2) probabilities, as those possibilities diminish in the middle of life; and 3) necessities which shape the end, after probabilities have been exhausted. The parts of a living organism are conceived of as interdependent within a system, enjoying flexible interrelations within a process that is closed by the necessity of dying. While the acorn is destined to become an oak tree, as an organism the tree is destined both to produce seeds and later to die. In Islamic art, organic objects are rarely, if at all, represented in the process of birth, life, and death. Rather than the beginning, middle, and end of an organism, flowers are shown in a moment of fullness that bodies forth the timeless ideal of the flower. Organisms are represented in the moment in which their contract with eternity has been fulfilled.
The ideal of such works of art is to show the temporal as it touches the eternal, rather than as it bodies forth “organic form.” In contrast, through much of the 19th and 20th centuries in Euro-America, works of visual art have been seen as “organic” forms. In art as organic form, the hope has been that organic art will exhibit the “livingness” of an organism, yet will not die like an organism. More recently, as visual arts criticized false illusions in the art of organic forms, they both negated the idea of necessary interrelations among parts, and set in motion ideas and images of continuous possibility. However the secular theme of possibility in secular operational art differs radically from the themes of continuous possibility in religious art. In Islamic art, possibility is entirely within the will of Allah. The two approaches to possibility, in this finite world and in the Infinity of Paradise, need not have interfered with each other, but they collided when the WTC was built with Islamic motifs. Such motifs shaped to express otherworldly possibilities were misused as decorative details within a stunning expression of worldly possibilities.
A stark contrast can demonstrate a different understanding of the qualities of an open and of a closed system. Setting aside Islam for a moment to look at Euro-American history in the 1960s, systems that would have closed down over open systems were pried open. This opening of possibilities was occurring in religions, politics, and the arts. Circumstances that we had been told were necessary and inevitable were changed. Start with Councils in the Vatican in which the Catholic Church rethought its identity in fresh images. Look at the situations in Paris, 1968. Around the world, more people began to struggle for and to receive more justice than had ever been possible in the history of civilizations. More people had more constructive possibilities than had ever been available. American secular art and architecture may not have had direct effects, yet they did participate in the mood of the period. What I call Operational-Minimal art, and technological architecture like the WTC, conveyed feelings and ideas of constructive possibility by bodying forth explicit abstract operations. In my experience, that art and architecture operated against ideologies that would have closed down over the minds of people, rendering innocent possibilities impossible.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the problem for some architects has long been how to get a commercial building to express values inherent in technological architecture. Part of the solution was to let materials qua materials remain visible on the surface. The style would not subordinate its materials and methods of building to an architectural illusion. Such materiality of the materials would in effect scratch the surface of the aesthetic experience. And those materials would be hard-edged and in sharp-focus by explicitly manifesting abstract operations. Concrete poured in straight lines, and simple modules in a potentially infinite series, would suffice. Decorative motifs like Saudi Arabian arches both compromised the operational architecture and misused Islam.
The WTC belongs with operational, technological architecture, yet it was less aloof than most. As a whole spacious complex, it hailed a passerby to choose a “desire-line,” that is, to choose a path across an open plaza, guided by whims and responsibilities. Even a person arriving for daily work could respond to one of many options, improvising, while answering a summons toward work intended to increase possibilities. As people say, the buildings made a statement. The statement I accepted was a statement on the theme of worldly possibilities within rational but inspired commercial activities. The buildings stood as models for actions which did not subside into exhausted necessities, but which maintained and increased the possibilities for further constructive actions. Such possibilities imply that the closed can be opened, and that the future can become more than falling passively into place.
I am using the word “possibility” in ways bound to distress some readers. A word is not a concept already out there, humming with meanings. The word gathers meanings when and how it is used to point with toward something, to refer to an abstract object or a concrete object. And on this theme of reference, nothing in itself refers to anything else. The meaning of anything as a reference is constructed when the “thing” is used to refer. The arches at the WTC could be used to refer to Islamic arches by those who know the history of arches; or they could be enjoyed as a flourish, and not used to refer to anything other than generic arches. Although the arches were not necessarily used as a sign of anything by many people, surely they were recognized by students of city-planning. Mohammed Atta, writing a dissertation on a city-scape, could have taught himself to be offended by the theft of traditional Islamic motifs.
Architecture can try to show us how to live, with its use of materials, structures and functions as a model for the way we should live now. The hope is that a building of technological architecture measures up to trustworthy people who strive to measure up to the trustworthy building. At the WTC, technological architecture took account of human feelings, but called people from their congested subjectivity toward an objectivity visible in the abstract geometry. The experience is familiar, but I want it to be seen as somewhat strange: the people and the place were each answerable to the other, a process of reciprocal critiques and reciprocal modifications. If the people said to the buildings, Function efficiently and vivaciously, the buildings could ask the same of the people.
How could the WTC embody possibility any more than other buildings? Note that a copy of a skyscraper is not necessary, nor even very probable. Yet the Twin Towers of the WTC suggested that after finishing one tower, the builders went back to the plans in order to build a second tower. If two buildings are built largely from one plan, then that plan is perceived as abstract, its possibilities undiminished by use, in contrast with the unique use of one set of plans on one specific building.
The identicalness of the two buildings did not limit possibilities, because the buildings were not flush with each other, but each set back in relation to the other. Walking from one building to the other on the plaza, a person was confronted by the symmetries of the buildings in asymmetrical positions. A straight line was not possible from door to door, so that anyone walking needed to improvise a turn between the one and the other. A turn, even within a routine such as arriving for work, enables a person to see people, places, or things from more than one viewpoint, and then to continue to invent a path into a new situation. Permission was granted to choose your path, and later to change it. The buildings encouraged the freedom to set oneself in motion on a path of one’s responsible desires. Losing my way so often, I frequently invented new paths toward Innovation Luggage.
This specific architecture expressed possibility more intensely and persuasively than other buildings in at least three ways: 1) the twoness, as in the name, Twin Towers; 2) the non-identical positions of almost identical towers; 3) the unnecessary but possible height. The buildings were tall in order to express hopes emerging from technology and world trade, rather than hope for spiritual heightening. Commercial motives, like the fame of the tallest buildings attracting tenants into expensive offices, explain nothing. The many critical statements that the buildings symbolized capitalism overlook the need for a building to produce a revelation from within its structures and functions. Such a revelation is not a meaning imposed on the exterior of buildings, it is the advent of a concept within the sensory experience. Let the meaning of a building as a symbol emerge from its specific materials, colors, and shapes, and from the style of life toward which the building summons people. If the architects get the right architectural combination of structures and functions, then meaning and symbolism can almost take care of themselves.
A problem with my celebration of possibility qua possibility is naïve oversimplification, an obliviousness to the existence of evil. Yes, technology increases possibilities, and yes, it can be used to open and reopen systems that would close down over us. But nothing within technology as such can describe differences between good and bad, or constructive and destructive. So while possibility as a theme can seem entirely secular, pertaining only to immanences, even possibilities must be judged in relation to human purposes as good, or true, or beautiful. Such judgments use concepts from outside the world, criteria not derived from events, yet inseparable from experience. These concepts are not immanent, but transcendental, and in my experience, some version of them is inescapable. Yet these are precisely the concepts that secular philosophy either denies if it opposes them, or has difficulty justifying if it accepts them. Enlightened secularism is at a disadvantage in its relations with Islam, because Islam has no hesitation in justifying judgments of transcendent values like goodness, truth, and beauty, securely founded on the will of Allah.
Technology and rationality can support each other, but rationality gets into trouble. As soon as rationality admits that it uses and needs concepts that transcend experience of the world, concepts like true and false, then such abstract concepts can be used as models for the existence of unworldly abstract entities like angels and devils. Transcendentals tend to overlap, that is, to be predicable of each other, the way the good is also the beautiful. Thus the good can be bodied forth as an angel, mixing abstract transcendental concepts with abstract transcendental entities. Because transcendental philosophic concepts overlap, these two concepts, rationality and transcendence, must overlap. Thus we lose criteria for empirical reality the moment we enter rationalist thinking, because rational thought uses some transcendentals, and cannot prevent other transcendental concepts from mixing with transcendental entities.
Euro-American rational and secular thought cannot restrain any of the Islams, but some of the Islams can annihilate the meanings of Euro-American science and technology. Religious systems can use technology for their purposes without responding to any ethics or aesthetics of technology. At their edges religions can even defy criteria of efficiency, reliability, and economy, as in building useless minarets. Fundamentalist preachers in several faiths use television or cassette-tapes to reach semi-literate people, but they overwhelm the technology, with its inherent values, with imposed transcendental values. Empiricism must lament that while modern technology has arisen with open covenants openly arrived at between technology and other systems, technology itself can never impose its values or offer itself as the only system. Technology cannot negate religion, but religion can subsume and negate technology.
Technology cannot but emphasize possibilities, constructing opportunities for novel actions. But such actions can entail self-assertions that amount to an idolatry of the self, a version of polytheism. The contrary to such possibility is the necessity that must be yielded to because it is the will of Allah. Because everything belongs to Allah, and is a gift, the self is nothing in itself. An apparent life and an apparent self only become a real life and a real self after death, which therefore is not negative but positive, and is not an end, but a beginning. That posthumous beginning is the beginning of possibilities on another plane of existence, that is, in Paradise, a realm of continuous possibilities that never subside into probability or necessity.
The theme of negations eventually reaches the theme of exemptions. What are the relations between negations and exemptions? In this historical situation, American exemptions and self-exemptions inspire other people to negate them. In pragmatic terms, the attack on the World Trade Center is inefficient and non-productive, since the attack does not produce food, clothing, or shelter for a single person. But for the men in the attacks, an air-attack on an impregnable city in the United States is the external negation of the negations of Islam, especially its lost exemptions. Those men did not take their revenge on the specific individuals working in the WTC, but on a society that acts on behalf of Becoming at the expense of Being, ignoring Allah, the Ground of Being. For people in a pragmatic mood, a question to ponder is, What positive is constructed by a negation? Can a practical people, embracing technology, understand the religious uses of negation? Although we are familiar with dedicated technologists who become self-forgetful and self-sacrificing when inspired to work, their selflessness or self-emptying is not the kind of negation that facilitates mediation between Becoming and Being, between finite and Infinite, or between temporal and Eternal. Technology cannot use religions and spiritual negations to solve technological problems, but religions can use technologies even while negating their inherent values.
To qualify to perform in that event of 9/11, the actors qualified themselves by their internal negation, that is, by self-negations of their personalities. In their actions until September 10th, the men appeared to negate their Muslim identities with casual American deportment. Why should Americans be suspicious of foreign men who are learning to fly, but not to take off or to land airplanes? After all, what could resentful dispossessed aliens do to the exempted people of an exempted nation? Then, on September 11th, they first negated the American in themselves, and then negated themselves, by a complete annihilation that was difficult to comprehend because of unfamiliarity with concepts that are not empirical or pragmatic. Revealingly, although a large majority of the population of the United States claims faith in transcendental religions, the attack on the World Trade Center was not perceived and judged as a religious act, the only terms in which it is intelligible.
The citizens of the Islamic world matter to themselves in ways that do not matter to the U.S. government. A question arises: Who comprehends the lost power, glory, privilege, and exemption of those people? Who can respect and describe their different methods of thinking? The answer is that the persons qualified to explain fundamentalist Islam to our government are sincere fundamentalist Christians. Radical Christians not only share incomprehension by secular authorities, they share resentments, their awareness of angels, their faith in a book as the revealed word of God, and their modes of transcendental illuminations. Those Christians in the United States who would annihilate their enemies are the experts who could explain Islam at its extremes.
When a something that participates in a positive is opposed by a something that participates in a negative, the conflict is uneven, and the opponents are misaligned. The men who seized the planes used technological power to negate the military-political powers that in their experience negated them. But more positively, and from their point of view constructively, they negated themselves in order to offer themselves unconditionally to a Power of Powers. The difference between the American and the Islamic claims to exemptions is the difference between those Americans who do not go through negation or self-negation to get to the positive, and those Muslims who understand this universal truth: only negations and self-negations qualify persons for increases in spiritual power and spiritual exemptions. Even giving alms to the poor is a self-denial that can generate a positive spiritual experience. In the background is the understanding that the greatest selflessness is love. Such love entails an ultimate and absolutely selfless self-negation because the lover must prefer the good of the beloved to the good of the lover. The love of Allah is manifest in that Allah knows, better than any person can, the good for that person. Ideally, love is reciprocated, so that the two are both lover and beloved, and as lover, each prefers the good of the beloved to the lover’s good. At least I hear that it is so in Paradise.
I offer as a curiosity of the religious imagination that the one concept in which radically different theologies participate is the concept of nothing. However variously negation is understood, every religion seems to have its own self-sacrifice and self-emptying, associated with kenosis. A person who achieves the blankness of the emptied self can reach toward new possibilities in faith, hope, and love. Thus, for the faithful, true experience for the soul begins ex nihilo, spiritual possibilities opening only after a person has annihilated self, or parts of self. Many people who feel negated by America respond with grievances, resentments, and loathings, and a few of them will negate themselves in the faith that their self-annihilation will carry their souls into Paradise. Nothing is where comprehension of the men who flew themselves toward their deaths must begin.
The interpretation and judgment of “suicides” brings back the opposition between two theories of authentic life. At an extreme of emancipation, some people are trying to experience authentic life as satisfaction of their most individual needs and desires, physical, and psychical. Call that authenticity of immanences, and let Jean Genet represent it. Other people are trying to experience authentic life within their monotheistic faith, call that authenticity of transcendentals, let Jeanne d’Arc represent it. Both Jeanne d’Arc and Jean Genet did violence to ordinary life on behalf of absolutes. Each subverted orthodoxies, whether of society or of religion, as each pursued a goal of absolute purity, obedience of the self or obedience of God. Jeanne obeyed the laws of God as revealed from outside her, and Jean obeyed the laws of his own nature as revealed within him. She subscribed to a faith in authentication by God, while he believed in an autonomous self-authentication. Each had to violate the laws of society and government to demonstrate that they were not conforming to ordinary conventions or laws. Such absolutist purity of Saint Joan and of “Saint” Genet was their solution to problems of authentic life. But if you ask me, I think that a person can and should participate in both extremes, transcendence and immanence, while holding each plane answerable to the other in order to avoid the destructive violence of absolutist authenticity.
I offer an adjustment of perspectives to show those men piloting those airplanes dying to their modern selves as the only authenticating act open to them. Throughout these events, when the physical plane intersects with the spiritual plane, adjustments of vision are necessary to see apparent events as they become real within a providential plan of Allah. Death is not death: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord.” Some people practicing a faith have said, “I believe it because it is impossible,” and some have called for greater absurdities in order to challenge reason with faith. In such contexts, faith negates reason. Such faith so revises perceptions that their dying is not suicide, it is a spiritual self-emptying, visible if we see that the men died with a purpose beyond dying. Comprehension of the attacks should understand that to act like a suicide-pilot, one must hold faith like a suicide-pilot.
The spiritual use of emptiness and of self-negation combines with my theme, that possibilities diminish into worldly probabilities, and probabilities increase until they become necessities, but that self-negation can reopen possibilities. These concepts turn and twist, difficult to control, but their resilience is their strength. Suppose we ask, What are the relations between emptiness and possibility? An American Archbishop has publicly confessed after he has been cornered by necessity and has lost his freedom of movement. He lists his feelings as “…remorse, contrition, shame, and emptiness” (New York Times 06/01/22). Of course when he lists “emptiness” he inserts a sleepy word that might reawaken. Yes, he feels the futility of a career that has come to nothing, or worse, almost nothing, so he suffers emptiness. But as a religious sophisticate, he has learned about redemptive suffering, and about how self-negation can restore possibilities. His emptiness entitles the Archbishop to hope for his future, because in emptiness begins possibility.
The narrative of the life of Mohammed is told with anecdotes that suggest the resistance and humiliation he suffered in this world, and his self-negation in the sense of his humility in relation to Allah. He mentions his ignorance about his own death as an example of his limited knowledge. Within the biographical anecdotes Mohammed incarnated humility, manifest in his unknowing. Knowing that he did not know, he did not overreach by presuming to know the mind and will of Allah. He knew that he needed revealed knowledge, a gift from a transcendental plane that strengthened his humility, not his pride. These thoughts are so common to religions that T. S. Eliot can focus the judgment into a fixed point: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Let endless be understood as a continuum of possibilities available through humility.
“Submission” is a governing Islamic concept that overlaps and suffuses humility. Miracles of faith are miracles of submission to the faith. Associating Mohammed with submission, his self-denials qualify Mohammed to mediate between two realms, transmitting, and receiving without encountering resistances. Prophets and martyrs, persons of heroic sanctity who overcome their resistance to the will of God or Allah, achieve the sublime. I am going to call them mystics.
My statement, which shocks even me, is that at least four of those men must be credited with sincere faith, and in these speculations must be called mystics. The hypothesis of mysticism is more adequate to events than “terrorists.” Of course some of these “martyrs” visited a club where women strip and perform mock-sexual acts, where some men drank alcohol and otherwise violated laws and customs of their religion, showing themselves in a parody of Americans that made them invisible to Americans. Clearly these men, at least the few certain to have known the plans, did not conform to orthodox Muslim conduct.
By September, the men to pilot the planes were approaching the mystical marriage of their souls in Paradise. Because they were about to be married, an evening of entertainment before their weddings looks like a grotesque American bachelor party. A bachelor party offers the groom a last indulgent assertion of lone selfhood, immediately before the loss of autonomy within marriage. A reference to such a coarse event is a coarse reference, but either men about to die were entertaining themselves to kill time, or they were participating in a coherent pattern in which meretricious fullness of sensory experience precedes ritual and mythic emptying.
Only some exaggeration will get near the truth here. These “mystics” were extricating themselves from their unjust and humiliating marriage to existence. They divorced themselves from the secular world in preparation for an equitable marriage in Paradise. The very method of the marriage would make them worthy of the love they would receive. They will not be understood until they are perceived as bridegrooms flying themselves into their weddings.
The men suffered pollutions at their lowest point, descending before ascending. After some risky self-pollutions, as they approached the end of time for them, they were to remove all body hair in a ritual of cleaning, and were to follow rituals of self-purification on the morning of their flights. In this paragraph, a ritual is an act that enables a soul to participate in a transcendental continuum (the parallel in a religion of immanences in the Cosmos is a ritual that enables a soul to participate in a continuum of immanences). Accordingly, a transcendental myth is a story about the participation of a soul in a transcendental continuum (God; Allah). I am looking for the plot of a myth the men were enacting: first their meretricious fullness of self amid discontinuities, then their emptying of self in order to qualify to enter the Continuum of Continuums. In a ritual intended to construct a small continuum of its own, the men were instructed to pray continuously, in an uninterrupted series, calling on an absolute negative, “no god,” to support their positive faith: “There is no God but Allah.”
The continuous series of identical prayers, where the repetition does not diminish the power, has many analogies in these events. Allow that a non-Muslim man who in this world marries one woman begins a process that will go through possibility into probability and then into necessity, a quasi-organic dramatic structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Now picture experiences in Paradise with seventy-two women, sometimes called “virgins.” On a theme of possibility, one virgin in a series bodies forth possibility in a way that a wife does not. Setting aside the women, look at the number seventy two. In October, 680, Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet, led seventy-one of his family and followers to certain death in battle. A series of seventy two entities, whether white raisins, virgins, or martyrs, does not accumulate probabilities until they add up to necessities. Each encounter with each of seventy two entities is as full of virginal possibilities as the first.
The elements that succeed each other do not differ significantly from each other. They are arranged in a series that is not organic, but seriatim. Wary questions have been asked about male tumescence and the seriatim virgins, and have been answered by a Sheik in New Jersey who has promised continuous erections in Paradise (that Sheik is blind, hence is qualified to see beyond this world, like Tiresias, Oedipus, and John Milton). Moreover, in some folk theology, upon the Day of Judgment the soul of a “martyr” receives a gift, a kind of dowry, the right to bring seventy two souls into Paradise. So the families of these men who have died in order to enter Paradise are entitled to expect to be welcomed there. Such is the mystical power of martyrs.
In a series of perhaps seventy two entities, each is no more and no less possible than the one before it. Non-cumulative series should be held next to the stories of The Thousand and One Nights. A thousand episodes are not structured like chapters of a novel in which actions emerge “organically” from prior actions. An organic aesthetic structure is like a snake with its tail in its mouth, with mutual implications between the beginning and the end. In contrast, each of Scheherazade’s stories pauses when the narrative blooms with possibilities. With her series, Scheherazade uses possibility to free her from the probability that the conclusion of a story will bring the necessity of death.
How do these series, outside the rhythms of human organic time, relate to the World Trade Center? The very word “series” should evoke the context of the 1960s and 1970s, when organicism was dissolved by the use of mechanical or mathematical series. In architecture, the repetition of units in the WTC enacted the same non-cumulative possibility, the force of sustained possibilities without a dramatic climax. Perhaps neither Osama bin Laden nor anyone in Islam knew or cared about Operational-Minimal styles expressing secular possibilities. But we should be able to see that Islamic series are grounded in a transcendental continuum, and would be degraded if mixed with secular series in temporal experiences. While flowers in Dutch paintings bud, bloom, wither, and die, Islamic flowers hold their bloom outside the passage of time. In Islamic art, a temporal sequence is not visible because a series of flowers is arranged in an abstract pattern in which they preserve their fullness at a steady level.
Within the art, visible in the calligraphy, movement along an arabesque differs from movement along a straight line or even a regular curve. If one walks a straight line into a landscape, following it will bring one to the goal at the end of the line. However if one walks on an arabesque path, the gradual turns do not lead straight ahead or in a direct reversal, but offer a person a series of perspectives that demonstrate that no one point of view is sufficient. Such a series, grounded in a continuum, does not reduce possibility toward inevitability. Some people following arabesques of thought see no reason to be persuaded by verified facts, hence decline to believe a report that concludes without taking into account the will of Allah. Misunderstandings of Arabic responses to the attack need to be corrected: a moderate Muslim need not support bin Laden or murder in order to understand that the event conformed to the will of Allah, otherwise it would not have occurred.
If Islamic art is judged to be decorative, one reason is that forms do not reach a climax and then subside. Just as pictures of flowers do not follow the fate of a seed that grows into a tree which is doomed to die, the renunciation of organic processes is visible in the images of the nineteen men who attacked the WTC. They are pictured as men for whom much remained possible in this world, yet who sacrificed possibilities for eternal necessities. On September 11th, the men set in motion a course of action in which they would reach a point of no return. They were instructed in a letter to strike like champions who do not want to come back to this world. Once they had closed off mundane possibilities, the men would enter their sublime, the irresistible necessities of Allah. The men are seen in their own cultures to have completed themselves by negating themselves, while people killed by the actions of those men are mourned because they will never complete their organic lives.
Again and again, we must adjust our vision if we are to see events as the men in the planes could have seen them, crediting them with sincere faith and with profound concepts. In the perspectives of Islamic terrorists, martyrs and/or mystics, the negation of negations opens transcendental possibilities. So we have arrived at a different set of possibilities from the secular possibilities of the WTC. The conflict between religious and secular possibilities is uneven, because secular possibilities are disadvantaged by confusion in their relations with renunciations, and self-negations. The contemporary American secular is defenseless because it is foundationless and pathless, with no reasoned suggestions about what is to be done now.
The destructions at the WTC are mystical acts, negations of negations in order to produce a positive good. The fundamentalists are people who proudly judge that they know the good for other people better than those other people know their good for themselves. As usual, the sin of presumption is overlooked by radical fundamentalists who presume to know the good for themselves, for other people and for Allah. So let those men be mystics, but then allow that mystics can be good or bad, constructive or destructive, while taking a terrible chance by gambling on their supposed knowledge of the will of Allah. Notice that on September 7th, “Atta goes to Shuckum’s Oyster Bar and Grill in Hollywood, Florida with Marwan Al-Shehhi. According to bar staff, Atta spends almost 4 hours at the pinball machine drinking cranberry juice, while Al-Shehhi drinks alcohol with an unidentified male companion.” Mohammed Atta’s name suggests a soul of humility. He meditated at a pinball machine, playing a series of games for hours, perhaps humbled by a machine that submits a ball to the interplay of gravity, a technological contrivance, and a human knack. He looks to me like nothing so much as a man contemplating his life as a purposeless game of pinball until he annihilates himself in his mystical marriage…
The effects of September on my family were mild, and no one is complaining. I had no worries about my family, with one daughter at work for an art’s agency in Manhattan, another daughter teaching in Ohio, and my son working somewhere on an architectural project. His wife and son were visiting her family in Ireland. After I saw the North Tower collapse, I made some rough calculations and walked home. Soon an e-mail message arrived from Cork, Ireland: DO NOT PANIC. My daughter-in-law Mary Quinn Wilson, my grandson Jackson, and Mary’s mother, Anne Quinn, had emplaned from Dublin. The message reported that the plane had returned to Dublin, but the message was wrong. While the words DO NOT PANIC have scarred my memory, my anguished moments are nothing when compared to the griefs of people cherishing their children on the other planes, those being used as instruments of faith.
Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower carrying two parents, Daniel Brandhorst and Ronald Gamboa, married for ten years. This couple, as an outward sign of their love, had adopted at birth three years earlier their son, David. Whatever the two men had suffered, they had subsumed it in tenderness for their son with whom they were flying home. Then understand that three-year-old David disappeared with his two fathers, in a place that is no longer a place.
A constructed family like that of Daniel, Ronald, and David held open a system of family that has never been as closed as some people like to think. These two men did not reject an ideal of family in order to follow their whims. And they did not renounce their innate desires for the sake of abstract ideals. They used the materials they had been given to construct a family somewhere between an ideal family and a possible family, giving the love they had to give as they could give it.
The approach of these men to the grace of life did not require them to act violently, either to prove their participation in transcendent ideals, or to demonstrate their obedience of immanent desires. If they were like most people most of the time, adjusting the rival claims of transcendentals and of immanences, that is my point. Muddling through among amiable doubts, familial uncertainties, marital compromises, and parental imperfections seems to me more constructive than actions devised to prove either pure transcendence or pure immanence. A triangle does not need to be an ideal in the mind of God, it can be an abstract object near enough to be within our reach. Without the impossible infinities, Euclidian geometric forms become useful in specifications for actual shapes in poured concrete, not models of impossible transcendental perfection.
I am not saying more than that the way we live now, for all the ills it sees, and for all its lack of absolute foundations, is better than pursuit of an extreme purity that is proved by violence against the “impure.” Even if the terrorist-pilots were mystics, some mystics are idolaters of self, overestimating their power and righteousness. Even I can quote Scripture: “Do not become righteous overmuch, nor show yourself excessively wise. Why should you cause desolation to yourself?” I suggest that submission to this wisdom of Solomon is fully in accord with submission to the will of Allah, at least as Mohammed the Prophet conveyed it.
And me? I am seventy years old, and my years have fallen into a structure of early possibilities, later probabilities, and now, my season of poignant harvests. I saw the first Tower collapse, and hours later saw dust rise as the third building collapsed. One afternoon a few days later, walking onto a nearby pier, I put one and one together - many people were wearing masks, and I had a troubled awareness in my breathing. I sensed from the mildest difficulty that I was breathing dirt from floors falling onto lower falling floors, pumping out unthinkable dust that no machine could breathe for us. Obviously our breathing could never be virtual or simulated breathing. At no time could representations or simulations or spectacles suffice. I can say that on September 11th, that while my metaphorical floor was knocked out from under me, and that my metaphorical breath was knocked out of me, I nevertheless needed to stand on a literal floor and to breathe the dubious air.
Certainly our realities are so manipulated into mere images that people sometimes fear that they cannot stand and breathe in their own reality. What is there to say, if speaking from a commitment? In Work on Myth, Hans Blumenberg asks us to question an apparent impossibility: “But what if there were still something to say, after all?” One something that can still be said is that Americans are going to have to produce the truth about the end of exemptions for beauty and goodness. 9/11 annihilated the assumption that America was exempted from the suffering like that of people who live with perpetual terror. If we had any exemptions, we forfeited them: America has been ugly for a long time.
However, justice must listen to appeals, and as an open system should grant retrials. As my last whim, turning my thought toward possibilities, I quote Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hopeful note: “There is an elasticity in the American mind which may redeem us….”