Words, words, words

Raymond Wang
Tuesday 14 July 2015

POLONIUS: … What do you read, my Lord? 

HAMLET: Words, words, words.

Hello from sunny California! Contrary to the title of my post, my project is not on Hamlet. However, the quote from the prince-with-daddy-issues is still pertinent, for reasons I will explain later.

I am trying to trace shifts in American self-perception through how 9/11 is remembered and portrayed in literature. Somehow I managed to convince the history department that this counts as History.

Joking aside, literature and popular culture are, I feel, under-utilised in historical inquiry. One of the aims of my research project is to vindicate their utility as historical sources. There is no reason why novels, poetry and essays should be excluded from, and be subordinate to, ‘facts’ in the historian’s toolbox. After all, Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. 

I have read through a selection of 9/11 literature (16 pieces, to be precise), and am currently comparing the themes explored in earlier and later works. The hypothesis being,   American self-perception shifted in the wake of the Iraq War. The question is whether this is reflected in the thematic development of 9/11 literature.

Initially, I thought that there would be a clear break in said development. That is to say, the initial responses to 9/11 would be ones exploring themes of loss, unity in the face of tragedy, heroism etc.; while later works will explore themes of guilt, confusion, and attempt to explore the ‘terrorist’s side of the story’.

As expected, it’s turning out to be a lot more complicated than that. Early responses to the tragedy are as scattered as the superimposed dust clouds of that fateful day. Ranging from anger and sorrow to a perverse Schadenfreude, writers grappled with representing the unrepresentable. Indeed, the only unifying theme was this sense of frustration at the worthlessness, or rather, bluntness of words as tools ‘to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space’. As our princely friend puts so eloquently, when reality becomes ‘too real’, words are nothing more than ‘words, words, words’.

Surprisingly, themes such as racism were already foreshadowed in earlier works, calling my initial hypothesis into question.

That said, is it so surprising that writers, many of whom have been sympathetic towards oppositional politics, would plant the seed of national self-doubt before the majority of the nation followed suit in the wake of 2003?

Instead of a clear cut thematic ‘turning point’ – every historian’s wet dream – the shift seems to be borne out through the extent to which certain character tropes and symbols are expressed. To be sure, there is a quantitative difference between how often the theme of guilt comes up in earlier and later works (good news for my hypothesis), but this fails to capture the subtlety of the shift. While many of the themes about guilt and self-doubt were there from the very beginning, they were expressed to a further extent in later works. More importantly, writers developed a system of symbols and character tropes to articulate these themes. Indeed, many writers used these to satirise American society, and even suggested that despite of 9/11, nothing has changed. 


As strange as this sounds, is it really that far-fetched? The spirit behind the manufactured ‘authenticity’, the petty concerns of the metropolitan literati, the many absurdities of contemporary art– in short, the very things in pre-9/11 society that the event was supposed to change, was supposed to, for lack of a better word, purge, to leave us with a more unified, ‘sincere’ society in the wake of trauma– is embodied in the very enterprise of ‘9/11 literary criticism’, and indeed, with its loaned words and Shakespearean references, this article.



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