Year Zero

In the Valley of the Black Pig

by Jonathan Wallace

October 3, 2001

Year Zero is an episodic series of essays on ethical and practical implications of the present crisis. Subscribe here.

William Butler Yeats, in my humble opinion, is the twentieth century's greatest poet and, what's more, he wrote poems that limn every possible mood--as long as it falls somewhere on the spectrum from nostalgic sadness to wild grief. Yeats, at the latter end, is a poet for September 11 and after. There are many choices among his poems, from "The center cannot hold" to the foul rag and bone shop and the horses of disaster, but the poem that seized me in the aftermath of six thousand murders was "The Valley of the Black Pig", which begins:

The dews drop slowly and dreams gather: unknown spears
Suddenly hurtle before my dream awakened eyes....

First, what happened had a nightmarish quality. This is a devalued adjective; please put aside its every day meaning, for example, when you are delayed an hour by a stalled train and say, "What a nightmare." No, I am talking about the dream-like quality of the train station itself being destroyed by falling beams while six thousand people are burning up and being torn apart a few hundred feet above it.

One of my first reactions after running home across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 11 was that I had skated away again. My life has had a recurring pattern, in which I am repeatedly in extreme situations but only for five minutes at a time. Then they are over, without any consequences. In my teens, I took a blind corner at high speed on my bike and was aimed right at the grille of a speeding car, which somehow avoided me. Later we were charged by men with chains while demonstrating outside our high school. A year after that, I stood stock-still in the middle of a police riot, cops beating people just like me with night-sticks, and I didn't get hit. When I was in my twenties, my house burned, I was held at gunpoint briefly in a post office robbery in Paris, and a possibly deranged man in military fatigues pointed a rifle at me in the Connecticut woods. In my thirties, my car slid off an icy road into a snowbank; a few miles earlier and we would have crashed a bridge railing. In my forties, a wheel came off my car while I was driving down the highway at 55 miles per hour. Then I emerged from the subway at the World Trade Center just as the second plane hit. In every one of these situations, the danger ended, or I got clear of it, within a few minutes. I was never hurt, not once, not even a scratch. Of course, now that I have said this, some rough beast, its hour come round at last, will probably eat me for a snack.

In the first two or three days after September 11, I had an intense feeling, verging on a conviction, that this could not really have happened. In real life men do not learn to fly 767's in order to crash them into skyscrapers full of people. I don't even enjoy the kind of cheesy movies in which these things happen. It was as if I had taken a sidestep, a weird balletic jump to the left, into a world in which the rules were different, one replete with a tacky plotline and bad special effects. Perhaps it was a dream inspired by a really bad movie, because it could not be our life.

I even had a theory. Perhaps that car really hit me when I was fourteen, and I have been in a coma ever since. With fierce concentration I, comatose, invented a plausible life, and one far more linear than most dreams (if less linear than most lives). But now the dream was losing its integrity, disintegrating in great wads of frightening, contradictory dream-stuff. A precursor to waking up or dying.

I have had dreams these past weeks: I was in an orderly file of people slowly descending the stairs of a building in danger, but my pet bird flew up, and I followed him; in another, someone I loved fell into a hole in the ground, and I followed, kicking the dirt with my feet to try to punch through to her. My wife says that I have been talking and crying out in my sleep.

Yeats' "unknown spears" are fuel-laden 767's hurtling into buildings.

And then the clash of fallen horsemen and the cries
Of unknown perishing armies beat about my ears.

I often have had the feeling of being more of a spectator, a danger-tourist, than a participant in the events I described. I do not know why I stood still when the police were clubbing people in 1971, when I should have run away; but I imagine myself as a ghost among the real, not tangible enough to hit. This leads to a strangely bifurcated perception: on the one hand, life is violent and frightening; yet all these experiences across more than thirty years have left me with a strange feeling of invulnerability.

Yeats' speaker is a spectactor, not a soldier: a passive witness to the fallen horsemen and the perishing armies. On September 11, all horsemen fell and all armies perished, the murderers and their victims alike. There is no better way to comprehend such a number, six thousand people, than by reference to armies and war. One third the fatalities of the six year bombing of London, in a few minutes. More than one tenth of the deaths in ten years of Vietnam.

What does a helpless spectactor to insane violence do?

We who still labour by the cromlech on the shore,
The gray cairn on the hill, when day sinks drowned in dew...

The spectactor does what I did. On September 12, I went back to work.

I sat at my desk in an eighteen story building in Newark, looking out at the airport from which the flight departed that crashed in Pennsylvania, the one where the passengers resisted. The sight of large planes had a new meaning for me, and I suppose it always will. I kept waiting to see them divert and fall. The little detail which emerged from and gave credibility to the horror was the way one pilot banked his plane, made a small adjustment to make sure he hit the tower amidships. And speeded up as he went in. I saw it on television, over and over. A man doing his job of mass murder with pride.

There was also the constant rumbling. I couldn't figure out if I was really hearing it or if it was in my head. I thought it was probably the sound of fighter jets patrolling overhead, above the clouds where I could not see them.

I went back to work but the job, which had already lacked meaning on September 10, could not hold my attention. I had marked no distant object down, but was just passing the time between my last hill-top and the permanent valley ahead. I had already spent a year of my life without a goal.

September 11 made it essential to stop marking time, to create some new meaning for myself. I wasn't sure what. I kept being gripped by contrary impulses. Perhaps I could join the armed forces as an attorney. I wanted to play some small supportive role in the war to come, to do whatever I could for the thousands who died over my head while I skated away. I looked into it and found I was twelve years too old. Which made me feel more useless still. That first week, I wanted more than anything to be permitted to carry broken stones or look for bodies at ground zero, but there was no place for me there. I had a Harvard Law degree but no skills whatever which were valuable that week. I could not work with wounds or with iron.

Soon I found there was a need for lawyers, though, and I volunteered to help the families obtain death certificates. The other night I attended a training session, where people asked questions like, "What do I do if I start crying while I'm helping someone?" The answer was that at the pier we have trained mental health teams all over the place and we have twelve private rooms for this purpose. If you start to cry, take a break, look for one of us if you need it and in any event go and close yourself in one of our rooms for a while.

I am waiting to be called to work at Pier 94. It occurred to me that one way out of my dilemma--to put it more plainly, a road out of myself--is to immerse myself in the problems of the people who are really suffering. To go to the heart of the matter and see how to help, and discover what I can really do and withstand.

I felt so useless, running away. With things exploding and falling overhead, I did the sane thing, the rational thing, and got out. But still. I read in yesterday's paper of a man named Zhe Zheng who was safe, whose office was in a bank many blocks away. But he was also certified as an emergency medical technician, so when he saw the towers in flames, he got his stuff and went there. Into the heart of the matter. And he died. Perhaps he had a moment, when he saw the building falling on him, to feel like an idiot and wish he had remained a spectator. Maybe not. In a huge empty world in which you can barely hear yourself rattle, he made a choice and made a good end.

I wanted to to have a reason to run in. I know it sounds ridiculous. But at least to have a skill where you can help when things are burning and crashing. Not a law degree and a life asleep. I'll let you know.

A cromlech is a prehistoric monument consisting of monoliths encircling a mound. Like Stonehenge. I hope whatever they choose to build on the Trade Center site, they will leave some space for a memorial. I'm certain they will. And use some of the ruined stone in its construction. Just a piece of a slab or of the twisted metal skeleton which dominated the site until they pulled it down. I do not visit cemeteries, but I know I will go there and sit and remember.

Being weary of the world's empires, bow down to you,
Master of the still stars and of the flaming door.

I am weary of huge masses of people organized to kill. The inverted face of civilization. We are all taught that savagery is our basic state, and civilization is how we organize ourselves for morality. In reality, the converse is true. In a state of nature, we feel an animal pity that minimizes the violence that we do. Civilization is the way we organize ourselves both to crush that pity and to build the tools we need to exercise the malice and sadism which may then fly free.

Hobbes said that civilization is the framework we impose to end violence. Hobbes was wrong. Exhibit A, the shameful twentieth century, with its wars and slaughters of unknown savagery, its nerve gas, crematoria, "Fat Man", napalm and truck bombs, or now the twenty-first with its young civilians screaming and burning up in their offices. Those things we do, and those against which we cannot protect.

I am really fucking tired of the world's empires. Imagine the battle of Stalingrad lasting four thousand years: tank treads crushing bodies and then miring in blood. World without end, amen.

Who is the master of the still stars and of the flaming door? Not God, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What else can still a star?-- On September 11, there was nothing in that crystalline blue autumn sky but decaying particles and hijacked 767's arcing toward murder.