Crisis and Community
In the wake of the complex event now known simply as "9/11," I was reminded that to be compelled to become a witness to trauma - to be sure one is in trauma's field without being clinically traumatized oneself - can be a heretical relief. Sometimes we flock to the site of an emergency hoping, not for a vulgar thrill, but for the kind of relief from fragmentation, irresolution and passivity that only a sense of immediate contact with the undeniably important can give us. It's a pleasure many professional trauma workers who travel from frontline to frontline have commented upon. It's not a pure or purely moral pleasure: it depends upon the muffled daily safety of what we like to think are ordinary lives. It is a pleasure linked as much to war as it is to the fireman's wild ride to the burning building. It is one of the secrets of heroism, and it is the solace of faith.
Almost by definition, crisis - for that is another name for this kind of interruption - both lies outside the pale of everyday life, and makes our everyday lives pale by comparison. The everyday rhythms of the literature classroom are no exception. On September 11th, 2001, many of my fellow teachers of literature simply cancelled their classes, or gave them over wholly to the discussion of the day's events. They were caught up, not only by a sense of inadequacy ("What I do has no meaning in this context"), but by a fear of being out of step, isolated from the instant community of urgency that had sprung up in the wake of the attacks ("How can I ask my students/myself/the nation to think of anything else?"). Their everyday pedagogy, they felt, failed to bear adequate witness to the crisis of the day.