The urge to grandstand is human: Sometimes you feel you just have to wreck people’s self-serving illusions. Have a knockdown, drag-out. Nuke ’em. All in a good cause, you think: Moral rectitude—the truth—requires rhetorical violence. I know because I’ve done my share. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, apocalyptic grandstanding was basically all I did. Despite being until then your standard-issue California-dwelling, left-leaning feminist academic (sort of)—an English professor—I suddenly found myself delivering bellicose right-wing tirades. Monster-blasts of aggression, vengefulness, and rage. Big mean tough talk of exactly the sort I’d previously despised and associated with the most reactionary (and stupid) politicians and talk-show hosts.
The stakes were pitifully low: Most of this fulminating went on in private. Or close enough to it. I was 3,000 miles away when the attacks occurred—indeed, comfortably ensconced at home in sunny, late-summer San Francisco. But when I had to give a lecture at a British university not long after, my mental and emotional chaos did not deter me from making a host of fairly wild impromptu remarks about them, including the statement—delivered with rictus-face and mad gleam—that had I somehow been given an opportunity in advance of the attacks to obliterate Mohamed Atta and his wretched associates, I would have happily done so. I want to kill them! Fucking thugs. The poor students looked frightened and stupefied.
Similar feelings burst forth when an editor in London at a left-wing literary magazine for which I sometimes wrote—we were having lunch—asked why Americans were so stunned by 9/11. Couldn’t any thinking person see that foolish U.S. policies in the Middle East had helped precipitate the attack? I started fuming incoherently about the Houses of Parliament being blown up—thousands of people killed, etc.—while he looked on, baffled. I squeaked on undaunted: If the U.S. hadn’t won the Cold War, London and Paris would now look like Kiev and Smolensk! You guys owe it to us! Hardly the charming lunch guest. In a matter of days, I’d morphed into a sort of cockeyed Otto von Bismarck crossed with the Ancient Mariner: a weird, caved-in convert to some of the very oldest of the old ideas—all the sad, abject, bloodshot human theorems. An eye for an eye and—you know the rest.
But everybody was saying crazy things then. Witness the venerable German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose shocking remarks at a press conference at a music festival in Hamburg six days after the attacks made headlines. The events of 9/11, he’d enthused, were “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” Things had gone from bad to worse to incendiary when, like Batman’s Joker, he warmed to his theme: “Minds achieving something in an act that we couldn’t even dream of in music, people rehearsing like mad for ten years, preparing fanatically for a concert, and then dying; just imagine what happened there. You have people who are that focused on a performance and then 5,000 people are dispatched to the afterlife, in a single moment. I couldn’t do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing.”
Stockhausen’s comments produced immediate repugnance worldwide. “To the victims of terrorism,” wrote a commentator for the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, the composer’s “mental descent into hell … must seem like hideous mockery.” Although Stockhausen subsequently claimed he had been misunderstood, he became a pariah for a while in Europe and North America. His concerts at the music festival were canceled; his daughter, a pianist, said she would no longer perform using the Stockhausen name. When he died, in 2007, many obituarists mentioned the 9/11 scandal; indeed, for some, it overshadowed his extraordinary musical career.
Though a microblip on the scale of things, Stockhausen’s remarks have stayed with me, no doubt because—even after ten years and the inevitable flattening out of one’s 9/11 memories—I can’t decide what I think about them. At the time his comments struck me as loony and repellent, and I was inclined to dismiss them—yes—as grandstanding. Intellectual grandstanding, that is—of a sort I’d seen exhibited by fellow humanities professors at rich universities across the U.S., who despite tenure and plush middle-class lives thought of themselves as Marxists or somehow on the academic left. September 11 had provided them yet another opportunity to reiterate the logic of the dialectic—how you couldn’t really blame the jihadists, because, as Gramsci said … , etc. Happily, few regular people paid any notice or were even aware of these momentous “interventions” emanating from the ivory tower.
But that was how it was after 9/11: Everyone (again, I include myself) wanted to wound everyone else, with words if not weapons. We were all impossibly confused and frightened—like terrified children, really—and otherwise sensible adults reverted to whatever ego defenses they had evolved over a lifetime to ward off feelings of humiliation, panic, and despair. Stockhausen, the Marxists, I myself, we all were doing it. The posturing. Pretending to be intellectual and above it all. Together we’d been dealt an unthinkable blow: Let the railing begin.
Over the decade, though, I’ve come to have second thoughts—heaps, actually, about lots of things—and some about the Stockhausen scandal. Yes, his remarks were stupendously ill-judged. Yet even at the time—with chaos impinging everywhere—I remember vaguely feeling there was something there, some small mote in what he’d said, that might bear thinking about later. Was it that flabbergasting phrase, “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos”? One hadn’t time to ruminate, but one put his comments away nonetheless in some mental drawer marked Needing Further Consideration.
Fast-forward to new, semi-normal life. At Stanford, I often teach a course on Gothic fiction. We read all the early English novels of terror and the supernatural—The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Frankenstein—and I lecture on their relation to what scholars call the “cult of the Sublime.” In eighteenth-century aesthetics, the Sublime was anything that by its size, strength, or the danger it posed to human life produced instinctive terror and awe. Certain natural objects, philosophers like Kant maintained, were necessarily sublime: erupting volcanoes, tempests, huge waterfalls, ferocious beasts, racing floods, swiftly enveloping darkness, and so on. But man-made phenomena could also be sublime: ancient ruins, grim fortresses, the interiors of great cathedrals, colossal towers, pitch-black dungeons, and the like.
The theory held that when sublime objects were contemplated from a position of safety—when, say, one saw a volcanic eruption from a great distance, or even just read a description of one—the results could be thrilling and pleasurable. Unmediated sublimity terrorized, yes, but representations of sublimity produced excitement, a monster-rush of euphoria. The point was not lost on eighteenth-century Gothic novelists; like disaster filmmakers today, they realized that, skillfully packaged, things otherwise dread-inspiring could be a source of perverse yet intoxicating delight.
I’d often used paintings to illustrate the cult of the Sublime: Wright of Derby’s Vesuvius in Eruption; George Stubbs’s Horse Attacked by a Lion; melodramatic Victorian depictions of the destruction of Pompeii and similar calamities. Needless to say, one felt safely distant from the scenes represented; works like the nineteenth-century painter John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath and Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire: Destruction verge, to modern eyes, on the ludicrous—pure Cecil B. DeMille camp.
In 2003, I acquired Here Is New York—a now-celebrated assemblage of photographs taken by New Yorkers during and after 9/11. The photos were riveting—couldn’t be otherwise—but I was frankly dumbstruck by what I could only call, uneasily, their sublimity. Most disturbing were those photos taken at night—searing long shots of the skyline in flames. But uncanny resemblances were everywhere: collapsing buildings, clouds of black smoke, victims fleeing in panic—all the lurid microdrama of cataclysm and death. I was appalled. Worse yet, I can’t teach my Gothic class now without showing them the WTC photos and their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century look-alikes.
What to do with such morbid resemblances? Was Stockhausen right? That there’s something artlike or “aesthetic” about 9/11? When I’ve broached the questions in class, the students seem befuddled, say nothing. But I too feel fairly aphasic—intellectually confounded. True, since 9/11, various writers have addressed Stockhausen’s claim with historical insight and tact. At Stockhausen’s death, his former composition student Robin Maconie wrote a passionate defense of his mentor in which he observed that Stockhausen’s remarks deserved to be understood “from the perspective of a European history and philosophy of suffering as a statement of resistance to the logic of war in the spirit of surrealist art.” Likewise, in Crimes of Art and Terror, a study of violence in modern art, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe have analyzed how difficult it is to separate Stockhausen’s provocations from similar challenges laid down by avant-garde artists since the nineteenth century.
But despite such commentaries I still find myself confused. The fundamental question—what is a work of art?—remains just as muddled as it always was, if not more so. Thus the endless mental debates I hold—with Stockhausen and myself:
Q: So wasn’t the composer’s error a category mistake—the confusing of a real event with something artificial or illusory? A mix-up of Life and Art?
A: Maybe. But given that most people know the event only through representations—we weren’t there, after all—isn’t one’s sense of the “real” event itself illusory? How do you think those paranoid conspiracy theories about 9/11 being faked got started?
Q: Okay, but couldn’t we view some of the representations as works of art? Indeed, aren’t some 9/11 photos “sublime”—if not beautiful?
A: But the subject matter is abhorrent! What sort of moral idiot discusses beauty and sublimity when images document an event in which thousands perished in horrific fashion?
Q: But painters and writers (and photographers and filmmakers) have often represented events resulting in a huge loss of life! Witness the sack of Rome, the destruction of Pompeii, the Titanic … What about Picasso’s Guernica?
A: But these representations involve things now distant from us. The 9/11 attacks still seem like they just happened …
And so on—I fear ad infinitum.
Granted, even after a decade, the conundrums can seem abstract, far less urgent than the ongoing human ramifications of 9/11. Yet one finds oneself casting around nonetheless for intellectual comfort: some intricate, abiding, fail-safe rebuttal of Stockhausen’s thesis. What is the relation between art and life? Stockhausen gave us a terrible gift: an idea that won’t go away, a truly shocking string of words. If you care about art and its meanings, his proclamation retains its exorbitant power to wound. Or so I’ve found; grandstanding alone can’t kill it.
Terry Castle, an English professor at Stanford University, is the author of The Professor: A Sentimental Education.
From Stockhausen’s website, September 19, 2001:
“…I am as dismayed as everyone else about the attacks in America.“
At the press conference in Hamburg, I was asked if Michael, Eve, and Lucifer were historical figures of the past and I answered that they exist now, for example Lucifer in New Yo
rk.“In my work, I have defined Lucifer as the cosmic spirit of rebellion, of anarchy. He uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation. He does not know lov
e.“After further questions about the events in America, I said that such a plan appeared to be Lucifer’s greatest work of art. Of course I used the designation ‘work of art’ to mean the work of destruction personified in Lucifer. In the context of my other comments this was unequivocal
.“I cannot find a fitting name for such a ‘satanic composition.’ In my case, it was not and is not my intention to hurt anyone. Since the beginning of the attack onward I have felt solidarity with all of the human beings mourning this atrocity…
“This whole situation is regrettable and I am deeply sorryif my remarks were misconstrued to offend the grieving families of the brutal terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. I will continue to keep the victims of this outrage in my prayers…”