Ground Zero under construction, New York, 2010. Press Association Images. All rights reserved. I’m just an animal, looking for a home.
David Byrne/Talking Heads (1983)
I am includes all that has made me so.
John Berger (2013)
I taught two classes that day, beginning at 9:30.
Crossing Waverly Place, coffee warming the cardboard cup in my right hand, sensing the ground rumble, the sky groan, I saw the first plane hit while turning on to Mercer Street, the second push out its thick coil of smoke and toxins and ash amid the kinds of sounds that words can’t quite name. Even though New York University’s classes had been cancelled, I went to my first room, where students waited, mute. We were in our second week of working together towards the crafting of exploratory essays, yet the work had brought them back. Before offering my students a single word, I seemed to return to the sidewalk of a few minutes ago, where men and women thronged watching that dark in the morning sky plump, fatten, and tumble to the pavement a cluster of blocks away. Some yanked cell phones from their jacket pockets, scrolled down to a longed for connection, and all swelled their voices at the human sound that failed to answer them. I looked at the student faces arrayed in a half arc around me and said: we can leave this classroom; we can talk about what appears to be unfurling outside; we can go through the lesson I’ve got with me. They chose the lesson. We concentrated on what it asked of us.
Our text for the week was David Grene’s translation of Antigone, spare, focused, like the Greek, on the bones of the sentences, on their unornamented shapes as if lit by the reading of them. We were moving close to discussing a woman in her world, a young girl in ours, faced with the struggle to hold on to what was fading speedily from her efforts to grip it, that dead brother’s body deemed beyond access to the sacred rites easing passage to the realm below, so that the still living were judged capable, now, of ascertaining who merited burial and who missed that meriting, the once universal duty telescoped to mean the right to claim which body had earned the scented oils, the covering over with handfuls of earth. Such telescoping marked, ironically, a widening of the human territory, given the shift from obligation to the dead to manifesting a resounding judgment of the fallen, the godly usurped by the human entitlement to appraise. I wanted to approach what judging demands of us, how it reveals us, by edging near to the play through proceeding, first, to Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, to its 1680s sound-picture of a woman who turned away from everything she needed to say yes to, once the man on the other side of that “yes” proved himself so slight, so paltry, so open to a world without her in it, beside him. Before playing Dido’s lamenting ode, I advised students to note, while listening, any words carrying a freighted charge, to write about the connections between that weight and the music transporting it, the voice announcing it, to attend to the reciprocities of word and elongated sound that allow players to vibrate across the gulf separating them from mindful ears.
About to cue the last few moments of Dido on the stage, I urged students to close their eyes.
Try to imagine, I went on, that you are a woman who has founded a country, who has carved out the turf of your people and who, mourning your lost husband, finds herself ensphered by the spell of a man resembling all that you thought you no longer wanted, a stretch of golden skin, a resonant voice, the companionship that had seemed so gone from you, its distance beyond measure. Try to feel, in your muscles, in the bones beneath them, the sense that you can extend your hand and pull these possibilities close, their heat sparking your own. And try to recognize what it will cost you to see that his devotion to an elsewhere he has yet to discover overcomes every vow that this man offered you in your mutual kindling. That recognition will be the final series of sounds you make. Listen:
When I am laid in earth
May my wrongs create
No trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
There was much, of course, that I refrained from telling them while their eyes were covered by their lids, while the sirens outside started to whine and swirl, just as my students began to write in response to the vocalizing music of Purcell and his wordsmith, Nahum Tate. In favor of intervening as little as I could in their experiencing the opening bars’ slow, downward slide, of taking them to the verge of partnering another body, however fictive, I did not tell students that Vergil, in his tale, has Dido “falling on her sword,” her “blood” spewed in “foam down the blade,” as if she belonged already to the Roman world that will, years later, scrub her city and its people from the earth; that Tate gives us a Dido shading into death, her lady-in-waiting at her side, the death itself undramatized by sword or visible wound, as if witnessing the then-current Glorious Revolution and its rearrangement of regime, off-stage; that Vergil, Purcell, and Tate show us futures enfolded in the past, waiting to shimmer out into the light, that shimmering is the labor of a stylus, a seventeenth-century orchestra, a throat opened up by song. And I did not say that Antigone, that her almost-sister, Dido, both “suffer” from giving “reverence to what claims reverence.” A slain brother stinking in the Theban sun, a man who cannot make his loving promise good, each teaches a revering woman that she will not be safeguarded from suffering, that, even so, we need – as they do – to speak or sing to the world in which all reverential suffering occurs.
All this was not said. But somehow my students felt the burden of it. The first group joined me in my second class, all followed the sequence of prompts I’ve outlined, and in both rooms, the same sounds eddied into air. They heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as a resonating chamber, the pap, the nearby pulpiness, the sap of her voice sliding up to the double injunction that we should “remember” her—but “forget her fate.” They understood the wrinkle, the worry, in the meaning there. That a person exceeds the mathematics of the choices added to or subtracted from, unmade, the totality of her life. That the sum implicit in the noun will never aggregate her. That she must be more than an equation powered by a will poised to make contact with those events that are its referents, some liable, some hostile, to its exertions. As if a person, as if all of us, escaped what we choose and what can be said of us, as if something always lingers outside both. Many students gesture towards these ideas in their notebooks, reading the words aloud after Lieberson completes the final repetition of Tate’s last line, the sinuous curve of her long-vowelled “Ah!” exacting a freight of air greater than one body might ever hold, even if she sustains it and demands, again, that we “forget,” lose sight of, what she could and could not control—“remember” her sound. Some students write that there ought to be rain, that the stage lights must begin to dim as Lieberson reaches the plain of the flat “a,” lengthened at the center of her concluding word. And all think back to Dido’s song next week, when ambulatory morgues appear below Union Square, their generators juddering in an acrid wind. Most will hear, once more, the hum that traveled through our classrooms, called up by Purcell’s song.
Towards the end of Lieberson’s performance, in staggered entrances, a murmur spreads across the air, one student at a time. These murmurs, their graduated thrum gaining force as they combine, make a chorus of Lieberson’s voice, multiplying it. Students tell me, in different ways, that Lieberson and her song are their sound-shield, one translucent enough to enable them to see what requires seeing, as if sound and sight, commingling, produced a third thing, amenable to being carried. That third thing is with us as I take my students to the University Counseling Center, as we walk through its doors, hear a great crunching boom throughout every inch of downtown space, and the Towers thud their fragments to the ground.
A month later, my students’ essays echo – if slantingly – with everything I describe here. Among them, Aria’s begins something like this:
She was sitting outside in the short grass, peeling green apples with a tiny knife. Her body is long, many-boned, and in a blue dress. You can see her collar bone shining, even as the chestnut tree above her sways down. My father sits to the right of her, legs crossed, surrounded by cabbage moths whose whiteness waves over everything. Over the remains of sandwich crusts lying on a red/white gingham cloth. Over my father’s hair, the color of carrots left too long in the fridge. Over apple peels, over the tip of my nose as I angle it her way. I am almost five years old and not yet so tall as my mother’s calf. She has put me in a velvet smock too heavy for the day’s heat. But, as I look at her, my mother seems cold, unwarmed by the sun that makes triangles glint on what I can see of her skin. I will know, years later, about the cancer working there, below where I could not look. Now, in this long ago moment, I want her to move her lips. I want her to push out the words that this photograph can’t give me, so I can hear them in a world that kicked her out of it.
I notice, over the range of these pages, that my students and I have labored at what listening can give rise to, on a planet where the year’s resplendent word is “selfie,” pointing to numberless images that affirm their takers are here, in environments that may change, though the selves yearning for the pictures, producing them with a muted click, do not: throughout a multiplicity of places, the self at the center is as if stuck in its singleness and wears the sticking as a kind of badge.
That badge is one of the perils of sightedness for an image-taker who desires that her centrality in every picture should be repeatable, unchanging, even as the locales around her alter. Unalterable, she is what pieces all locales together, or—to vary the metaphor—her representation must be the pivot on which life beyond the frame revolves. That claim equals much of what our culture tells her, in its advertisements, in many of its schools, in how it sells what it busies itself with overproducing. I read, I listen to, Hans Jonas discussing the work of eyes and ears in 1966, an era nearly prehistorical for my students, though his words prophesy the character of the place we fabricate and continue to affect.
“I have nothing to do but look,” Jonas says: “once there is light, the object has only to be there to be visible,” apprehended “in its self-containment from out of my own self-containment,” present “to me without drawing me into its presence.” Light and its “properties . . . permit the whole dynamic genesis to disappear in the perceptual result,” so that the seer “remains entirely free from causal involvement in the things to be perceived.” Vision may secure “that standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees” a space “for observation and opens a horizon for elective attention,” but “it does so at the price of offering a becalmed abstract of reality denuded of its raw power.” We are vulnerable, under the action of sight, to the license of mistaking the seen for what we make of it, manufacture by means of it. Yet that liberty is precisely what hearing disallows.
“The rustling of an animal in the leaves, the footsteps of men, the noise of a passing car, betray the presence of those things by something they do,” the “immediate object of hearing” becoming “the sounds themselves . . . the actions producing those sounds,” and “only in the third place does the experience of hearing reveal the agent as an entity whose existence is independent of the noise it makes.” “I can therefore not choose to hear something, but have to wait till something happens to a part of my environment to make it sound,” and “this sound will strike me whether I choose or not.” “Something is going on in my surroundings, so hearing informs me, and I have to respond to that change, which affects me as an interested party not free to contemplate: I have to strain myself” in the direction of “what may come next from that quarter, to which I am now bound in a dynamical situation.” These are the dynamics so often flattened out by selves unwilling, or unable, to critique their pictures of a world that resists becalming, denuding.
I think of the Simone Weil who writes, in 1942, of metaxu, a term she borrows from Plato’s Symposium, adapting it to refer to “the wall” that adjoins two rooms, to the spaces interceding between one thing and another, that allow all going forth between them to occur and that are “also their means of communication.” The legendary Antigone and Dido lived in these spaces, in “communication” with the writers who imagined them. My students live there, some starting medical school, Aria now a teacher who returns to the Indiana of her home.
I think of John Berger’s recent book of essays, Understanding a Photograph, where he underscores that “what happens in the face of the tragic is that people have to accept it and cry out against it,” crying out, “very frequently, to the sky,” the “only thing that can be appealed to in certain circumstances.” But “who listens to them in the sky? Perhaps God. Perhaps the dead. Perhaps even history.”
We live in the leeway between earth and sky. We need to speak to it, sing to it, the ground beneath our feet always changing homes.
And, sometimes, sound will come back to us, modified, transformed, carried by the energies in every intervening space.