A decade of turmoil

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 7, 2011

memorial_squared_main

BEVERLY HAVILAND
MEMORY AND 9/11

Haviland, a visiting professor and senior lecturer in American Studies at Brown, is teaching a seminar this semester called "Public Memory: Narratives of 9/11."

YOU'VE WRESTLED WITH FREUD'S NOTION OFNACHTRÄGLICHKEIT, MOVING FROM THE SORT OF VOID THAT A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE CAN CREATE TO A SENSE OF MEANING AND FULLNESS. HAVE WE, AS A CULTURE, MADE THAT TRANSITION? I think there's a huge void, still, frankly. In some very real sense, I don't think we're done with the mourning. Because the pain is still felt, nationally. It's not over, we're not healed, we haven't worked it through. In many ways, it's premature to have a memorial. I could sort of sympathize with the people who just wanted to leave Ground Zero as a wasteland for awhile.

THAT SAID, WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE 9/11 MEMORIAL, "REFLECTING ABSENCE," WITH ITS SQUARE POOLS WHERE THE TOWERS ONCE STOOD? I like it. I'm very happy they went with something abstract. I think the kind of controversies that just erupted about the Martin Luther King memorial [over the "angry" expression on his face, for instance] showed us once again the problems with representational memorials.

Part of the reason the [Vietnam War Memorial] works so well for so many people is because it's abstract, so you can bring a lot of what you need, in a way that is harder with representation.

I like the water. I like the way they finally figured out to group the names by association, [listing the firefighters together, for instance] instead of by some kind of arbitrary [means]. It's very social.

YOU SUGGEST WE HAVEN'T REACHED CLOSURE ON 9/11. HAVE WE REACHED CLOSURE ON OTHER LARGE-SCALE TRAUMAS LIKE THE HOLOCAUST OR KATRINA? I would say generally, no.

One of the things that's very different about the Holocaust is the amount of writing that was done about it. [That] contributed to the creation of a story that could be understood by people who had no direct connection with it.

Why do we have a Holocaust Museum in Washington? Well, because Americans all of a sudden identified with the plight of the Jews. There's a really excellent essay by Jeffrey Alexander, who is a sociologist at Yale, about how the Holocaust is transformed into a "moral universal" — the idea of crimes against humanity — so that people identify with it far and wide. And when you look at other kinds of traumatic situations — and you can look at Katrina or you could look at the Cambodian genocide — there is not the body of literature that reaches across cultural boundaries.

The other interesting thing we look at is American slavery. And there is plenty of literature that grows out of the slave experience and Reconstruction and civil rights, but there are such live conflicts, still, about reparations, about how we think about current responsibility for past actions.

There can be points where national narratives come to rest. If justice has been done, that helps; if perpetrators are punished.

THAT RAISES THE OBVIOUS QUESTION ABOUT THE DEATH OF OSAMA BIN LADEN. DOES IT FEEL LIKE THAT'S LED TO ANY CLOSURE? I think that's probably an important event in framing the story, but I think there are too many other things that are still uncertain and unknown. There's still American soldiers on the ground.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at 
dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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