7/04/2002

homeward bound

I’m making preparations for a trip back to the States. I’ll spend what remains of the month of July and most of August in New England. Because I don’t get back to the States very often, it always takes a bit of time to adjust to the prevailing realities there, which don’t always jibe with perceptions elsewhere, to say the least. Especially since the events of September 11th.

I was in Boston that day, but returned to Budapest not long after. I had a visitor from the States in October, whom I met at the airport. We shared a taxi back to town with a handsome Israeli who told us he was happy that the events of 9/11 had finally revealed to Americans the extent to which our fate as a nation is intertwined with Israel’s. Interestingly, my friend from America rejected out of hand the idea that the attack on America had anything at all to do with the conflict in the Middle East. In fact, it seemed to me that he resented the Israeli for trying to appropriate an American tragedy for his own purposes.

(But it could also have been that he was jealous of the Israeli for having caught my fancy. Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the Israeli was much more interested in cakes than cocks. We spent a great deal of time together, the Israeli and I, strolling from café to café, eating cakes and talking about every conceivable aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I managed to maneuver him into my boudoir a couple of days after my American friend had vacated the premises, but all he did was stare up at the ceiling dreaming of cakes. I think it’s unhealthy, this kind of behavior, and more than a little antisocial.)

But back to the topic at hand. In the days and weeks that followed the events of 9/11, I looked on, in, let’s call it ‘restrained horror,’ as the tragedy was reduced to little more than farce by the media. True, the first days were filled with confusion, which was fitting. Anguish and fear and even a strange euphoria like after a terrible storm, when you climb up out of the cellar and stare with wonder at a world totally changed. It is the most human thing in the world to feel most alive in the face of death. There is always the promise of rebirth after such violence. A rebirth through a reciprocal violence.

At any rate, it seemed that reality itself had collapsed with the towers, that what Slavoj Zizek (who can always be relied upon for an…erm…different perspective), borrowing from Peter Sloterdijk, called the ‘sphere’ of reality had been punctured, our bubble had burst. The events of that day threatened to undermine not only American security but, on a very intimate level, American reality. For Zizek the message was basically, to quote his favorite sci-fi flick, The Matrix: ‘welcome to the desert of the real.’

Zizek has written a lot about The Matrix. I had never seen it, though not out of any sense of conviction, as with Schindler’s List. I had studied Jewish philosophy and religious thought for two years under a brilliant rabbi at Indiana University. I was always front and center for his lectures, and when he really got worked up into a froth you ended up totally drenched in his spittle. But somehow, you felt cleansed. I never got better than an A- from him, but to his credit he made you feel that you had really earned whatever mark he saw fit to give you, even if my more brilliant classmates groused that you were only actually worthy of a B+ at best.

As for The Matrix, I just hadn’t gotten round to seeing it. But the other day I had a bit of time on my hands and popped into the video store. I had very much enjoyed the fireworks in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (particularly between the young woman and her beau in the desert, in what must be one of the best love/hate relationships in the hstory of cinema), and had heard that The Matrix was full of similarly spectacular stunts. Not nearly enough of them, as it turned out. But never mind.

There was a lot to like about The Matrix, but it didn’t go half as far as it might have. I can definitely see what Zizek got all hot and bothered about. The concept was kind of cool. But what I found really interesting was Keanu’s hair. He goes through four distinct hairstyles in the film. I’m not a big Keanu Reeves fan, but I’ve got to admit, he’s ravishing all slathered in afterbirth, and totally plucked. That was the real revelation for me.

So Zizek says American’s are living in the world of the Matrix, and that the Third World is the Desert of the Real. This is not, I’m quite sure, what the filmmakers had in mind, and Zizek isn’t saying it was. He’s not working from the perspective of art imitating life, but the other way round. The analogy is not very precise, and therefore not entirely convincing. The essence of it is indisputable, though. Americans have indeed been living in a bubble, in isolation not only from the rest of the world but from reality itself.

Why else would the questions ‘how could they?’ and ‘why us?’ have become the mantra of aftershock? Suicide missions are not foreign to western, not to mention Christian experience, with its long history of mortification and martyrdom. Nor, until very recently (apparently) was it inconceivable that one might risk certain death for a cause. In fact, the masses of firefighters who perished in the towers were on a sort of suicide mission. ‘Why us?’ Was an even more facile question. Both questions envisioned a psychological answer, rather than a moral one. Both conceive of the incident as a personal affront rather than a political assault.

Thus the events of that day threatened not only a financial crisis, but an existential one (and indices like ‘consumer confidence’ show how intimately wed the two realms actually are). It seemed very important in the days following to emphasize normalcy at all cost. In fact, normalcy meant Gallup polls, which established immediately (literally within hours of the attacks) that 86% of Americans saw them as the incident as an act of war. The parade of percentages was as comforting, in its way, as exchange rates are for tourists who feel threatened in a foreign land. Remember Debra Winger in Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, freaking out in the market? In fact, the inane injunction to ‘buy anything, no matter how small,’ to ‘show the terrorists that they could not destroy our way of life,’ was a victory for the enemy, in effect proving the moral point they’d sought to make.

For me, the steady stream of percentages, statistics, and dollar signs was the most horrifying of all. I don’t think that this reflected the vernacular experience of the tragedy. In fact, I think the grief was, as grief is, inexpressible. The outrage demanded, as outrage does, a reciprocal violence. That is the human logic of this sort of thing. And to the administration’s credit, they pursued it, as they had to, in the most responsible way a modern super-state could. Almost too responsibly, if you want to know the truth. Had this happened fifty years ago, there would have been no Camp X-ray. The prisoners would all have hanged by now. The lawyers would not have had a chance to sink their teeth into them.

I don’t want to seem as though I’ve just taken a sharp turn to the right, but part of the problem with American freedom in this day and age is that it’s been bought on credit. My Israeli friends, both male and female, know the cost of freedom. They saw the conflagration immediately for what it was. Because they see the same thing every day, albeit on a much smaller scale. They also know the moral cost of their freedom. They know the complexity of the situation cannot be reduced to platitudes. That freedom means choices, it’s true, but not between Coke and Pepsi. Real choices. Hard choices. Ugly choices. That’s how it is in the Desert of the Real.

I was at the cancer clinic in Boston that day. That morning we’d heard that one of the male nurses, a terribly handsome young man named Michael, had killed himself. There was speculation that it was because his boyfriend had left him. Just as the head nurses in the infusion room were debating over how best to break it to the rest of the staff, there was a newsflash on the television in the waiting room. Flight 11 had just slammed into the North Tower.

‘Geez, would you look at that.’
‘Yikes.’

Do you remember the nation frozen in panic when eighteen minutes later it became apparent that it was no accident? And that there was no place to run and hide. Not for the general population, at least. Do you remember how, for hours, the nation’s leadership disappeared down a rabbit hole?

But we still had Peter Jennings. We’ll always have Peter Jennings. Babbling about the Space Shuttle Challenger. And about how it’s true that Arabs have a different regard for life.

Staring in dumb disbelief. Wondering who would come to the rescue. Who would fight for our freedom. Maybe we should go out and buy something. Yes, that’s the answer.

I remember one of the Hispanic RNs complaining bitterly that the President had been spirited away to somewhere safe, while her children remained across town in school, vulnerable to the whims of any old terrorist who happened along. The nurses were in a spot. Though they felt reality was crumbling, like the rest of us, they still had treatments to administer. They could not drop what they were doing and run to their loved ones during what, for all we knew, might have been The End (maybe it does end in a bang, after all, we were thinking, but no).

She was also quite sure that Mr. Bush had ordered the interception of United Flight 93 headed for the White House, and that this meant he believed his life was worth more than the forty-odd lives lost in that crash. Her certainty that the government would sacrifice the lives of its citizens in such a situation, and that there was something terribly amiss in such an equation, was telling.

There was a young black man with dreads delivering blood and platelets in a blue Igloo cooler packed with crushed ice, who dropped into the infusion room. Within an hour of the collapse of the towers he had come up with an airtight conspiracy theory. It had something to do with a massive insurance scam.

The reason I mention these two particularly is that their faith that if given the chance their government would fuck them was so total the government’s reaction didn’t seem to surprise them in the least. I mention their race because it is not incidental to their sentiments on this issue.

We had gone through the looking glass, that much was clear. We had seen realized, at a terrible cost, a Hollywood fantasy of destruction—our fantasy. The visions of hell-fire that had delighted us in blockbusters like Escape from New York and Independence Day. The ‘return to normalcy’ (which consisted of official pleas that we go out and ‘buy something, anything, no matter how small’) only made things seem all the more surreal. Was that really what constituted ‘our way of life’?

By the next day things seemed, strangely back to normal, in a queer kind of through-the-looking-glass way. There were bits of entertainment news now mixed in with the interminable updates on the smoldering ruins of Manhattan. I stood in the waiting room with a young woman and a young man, watching news of rumors of Whitney Huston’s untimely demise, due to drugs or anorexia, or something. The young woman looked stricken. The young man said, ‘that’s really tragic, but, you know, what happened yesterday must have pushed her over the edge.’

Since then, in the short span of ten months, we have, indeed, returned to a kind of normalcy, forsaking opportunities to examine our virtual reality more closely, knowing, I suspect, what’s on the other side (Zizek’s ‘desert of the real’). But on the 17th of September, when the nation was still between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, Zizek asked,

‘Will Americans decide to fortify further their ‘sphere,’ or to risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude of ‘Why should this happen to us? Things like this don't happen HERE!’, leading to more aggressivity towards the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from ‘A thing like this should not happen HERE!’ to ‘A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!’. America's ‘holiday from history’ was a fake: America's peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere. Therein resides the true lesson of the bombings: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE.’

With amazing alacrity America patched the puncture, sealing itself inside its bubble again. Well, it makes sense. Zizek had fallen prey to the same euphoria the dispossessed and liberal-minded intellectuals who pretend to represent them had. For a moment the whole thing teetered on the brink on collapse, it’s true. The world watched breathless as America lost, and then somehow magically regained its innocence.

Zizek’s conclusion, that we must work to prevent a thing like this happening ANYWHERE ELSE ever again, while reasonable enough for all sorts of reasons, isn’t really very realistic, is it?

I mean, do you remember the Judas figure in The Matrix? There was a fellow by the name of Cipher, I believe it was, who preferred, quite naturally, the virtual reality of the Matrix to the Desert of The Real. Americans long ago acknowledged how crappy life in the Third World is. Occasionally they boycott a company like Nike to show their solidarity with those their insatiable appetite for sneakers oppresses. But the choice was never between sneakers or going barefoot, it was between Nike and Adidas.

But should Americans feel responsible for accidents of birth? Is it your average American’s fault that people are born in nations South of the Border where the economy is not sufficiently developed to offer all the modcons we enjoy? SUVs and big-screen TVs, and beef three times a day, and whatnot. And should we not enjoy them just because others can’t? I mean, isn’t that partly why we enjoy them in the first place?

I have a relatively wealthy British lady friend. Occasionally she invites me and our positively lovely Ukrainian friend to dinner at one of the classier hotels on the Danube Promenade in Pest. Poor, dear O., my Ukrainian friend works on the docks in Odessa on the Black Sea for a pittance, supporting family and friends, who are unable to find work. I asked O. about visiting, something I have been meaning to do for years. O. related, matter-of-factly how the family still lacked a water-heater, which would cost well over a month’s wages. Suddenly Madame von K, who was treating us to dinner, interrupted to ask how much a week’s holiday in Turkey would set her back. I am convinced she did not mean to be insensitive to O.’s plight, she simply wished to assert that her own concerns were equally valid, and that she should not hesitate to voice them simply because O.’s situation was different. Was it her fault, after all, that the economy of the Ukraine was in shambles?

I was once in Morocco with Madame for four torturous days. We frequented a restaurant expressly for foreigners and expats, and were befriended by a most charming waiter named Mustafa. In the same matter-of-fact way, when prompted to discuss his situation, he told us he had to work a lot just to make ends meet. He spoke English, French and Arabic with equal ease, and was terrifically handsome. (Did I mention that he was terrifically handsome?) And he was working as a waiter, and would likely be working as a waiter till his dying day. Madame sat up stiff in her chair, and told him, well, Dante and I both work a lot, too. All in the worst possible taste, if you ask me.

There is this prevailing assumption in the first world, patently absurd, that, given the inherent justice of the markets, someday everyone will share in the wealth we now enjoy, if only they take steps to develop their economies as we have developed ours. Ignoring the fact that our prosperity is predicated on their poverty. Not only dependent on it, but affirmed by it.

If America is indeed an Empire, it’s about time it started behaving like one, don’t you think? All this whinging and whining, ‘why us?’. Apparently wanting to be victors and victims at the same time, to play for the winning and losing team both. Isn't that the New American Philosophy? Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too?

Nor do I wish to be inflammatory. I apologize if I have scandalized any visitors to my site. My aim is only to point out the American predicament as I see it. I have lived abroad almost a decade now, and have been called to defend America—to justify America—on countless occasions, and have done so to the best of my ability. It’s not always an easy task, and it’s not getting any easier. I have abandoned highflown political and moral rhetoric. All I can say is, take a drive through the New Hampshire hills in autumn. Take a walk on the streets of Manhattan (but watch your wallet). Diners. Bungalows. Mark Twain. Mencken. These are matters of the heart. They are sentimental attachments.

The fact is: the uncomfortable psychic gap between The Matrix and The Desert of the Real is only set to get bigger. All the things we enjoy and esteem will only become more trivial, to the point of obscenit, if we dare to see ourselves as the Outside World sees us. When I read Roger Rosenblatt’s July 4th op-ed piece in the New York Times, encouraging American’s to lighten up: ‘At least half the reason one loves this country is that it's a playful, quite nutty place, teeming with ridiculous notions [like the Spam Museum], and silly pronouncements,’ one of which, he claims, was George Bush the elder’s praise of Vaclav Havel ‘dying, or living — whatever — for freedom,’ all I could think of was that line from Rilke, about the laughter turning rancid.

The only question on Independence Day is ‘Would you die for it?’ If you'd die for it, you'll live for it. To live for it means to shake away the sleep, and try to get to the Truth. To borrow another line from Rilke: you've got to change your life.

The events of 9/11 presented a clear choice, just like Zizek says. Persist, fortify, lash out, or step through the screen separating America from the Outside World. It's a moral choice. It's a hard, ugly choice. And there's still time to make it.

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