The Mutilated World
By Scott L. Malcomson
Potomac Books, 2010
In the aftermath of 9/11, Leon Wieseltier wrote a damning article analyzing some of the responses of writers to the terrorist attacks. “In search of strength, beware of fine writing,” he wrote: “It, too, is cheap balm.” Seasoned writers such as Adam Gopnik and John Updike were singled out, one for being a provincial hick (Gopnik), the other for illustrating the limits of literariness (Updike). It may have been harsh, but on the whole Wieseltier’s fury was justified. Did the odor of destruction really smell “like fresh smoked mozzarella”, as Adam Gopnik suggested it did? And did “smoke speckled with bits of paper” curl into the sky, while “strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface,” as John Updike saw it? Such writing, as Wieseltier points out, only manages to call attention to itself; the object of the intended representation is concealed, like scaffolding obstructing the face of a building.
In the early pages of Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power After 9/11, as he strives to convey in words the terror that once seemed to escape articulation, Scott L. Malcomson avoids the pitfalls that Gopnik and Updike didn’t. His prose in these pages has a raw, steely feel to it, delivering images in short, declarative bursts: “a young man with a ripped T-shirt”; “there was an old man in a dark suit, coated with white ash”; “ahead was the North Tower, burning at about the ninetieth floor.” From the Brooklyn Bridge, Malcomson sees the first tower collapse, yet his prose maintains its cool: “The building came down straight like a waterfall (like a pillar of water). It seemed unbelievable that something so huge could drop that way. It took maybe fifteen seconds.” The simplicity of the language, and the almost child-like absurdity of the waterfall simile, conveys perfectly the implausibility and the fear that Malcomson must have felt at the time. Even when he does flirt with sentiment, as in a memory of seeing the World Trade Center from the Staten Island Ferry with a friend and a Budweiser in a paper bag, he narrowly avoids it by seeing the towers as “canvases for the sun’s colors.”
The first half of the book is a chilling portrait of New York City as it makes its way through the dark days of September 2001. Malcomson acts as a kind of post-9/11 flaneur, surveying the ashy streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, musing on the moral and political implications of the attacks. His position as an Op-Ed editor at The New York Times serves as an excellent vantage point from which to do so, and we follow him as he reaches out to figures like Richard Holbrooke and Stanley Fish for ‘expert’ opinions on the fate of the nation. At the same time, we follow Malcomson into his home in Brooklyn Heights where, as he puts it, “It felt very much as though we were animals pushing as far as we could into our burrow.” In this dual portrait of a man juggling his professional and family-related priorities in the wake of an unprecedented calamity, the memoir finds a potent source of strength.
As a writer, Malcomson relies on enviable powers of observation and a talent for metaphor (Bin Laden is thought of as “bingeing on God in a cave”). These qualities enable his careful attentiveness to the subtleties of the changing city; rare is the detail that slips away unnoticed. In the days following the attacks, for instance, the A and C subway lines pass through the Chambers/WTC station without stopping: “the conductor had kept silent as we drifted slowly through the darkened station.” Then, as revised subway maps are introduced, conductors suddenly begin to announce the bypassing of Chambers/WTC:
For some reason today the conductor announced that the train would not stop at Chambers Street/World Trade Center station. He was, for the first time, permitting himself to note its existence, as though some inhibition had receded. We were no longer rolling through it in complete silence, although we passengers were still quiet during this underground crawl through dark emptiness. Why had the conductors begun to admit the existence of the Chambers/WTC station at just the moment when the station had been erased from our map?
In these vignettes of a wounded city, Malcomson’s memoir is at its best, fraught with all the ambiguities of the moment. “Our city was presently coated with pictures of dead people,” Malcomson observes. Encountering a photo caption that reads “Cultural institutions now see a role in helping the city return to normal,” he quips: “I could not think of a single good reason to return to normal, and there were many reasons not to, our dead being the main ones.” Indeed, Malcomson knows he cannot return to normal. Everything has changed, “and in that sense they had already won. They had left us without any choice but to make sense of what they did.”
Making sense of the attacks is what drives Malcomson’s memoir into its second, more overtly political half. His own uncertainty and doubt, his deep-seated inability to arrive (like so many others) at the luxury of permanent conclusions, lends his thinking extraordinary powers of sympathy. “I saw no beauty left in absolute certainty,” he confesses at one point.
Malcomson’s ambiguity for the most part avoids equivalence to moral weakness or relativism. He is unambiguous about the crimes of the terrorists. Appalled by Osama Bin Laden’s television broadcasts, Malcomson even finds himself “wondering whether there wasn’t some way I could get over to Afghanistan and kill these men myself.” Yet his language is occasionally more than a little alarming. Writing of Bin Laden’s Jihadist conspirators Abu Ghaith and Zawahiri, for instance, Malcomson deplores them for being “coy and smug,” and “petty and manipulative,” criticisms that seem to point to a flaw in character, not in moral and political beliefs. Similarly, one of the lessons America has unwittingly been taught, Malcomson argues, is that it “had been ignoring the rest of the world, and now we had paid a high (but somehow, also, deserved) price for that ignorance.” What does he mean? That the slaughter of civilians was on some level not an unfair price to pay for an ignorance of world affairs? That the attacks were somehow justified? But this is Chomsky-territory, entirely unworthy of Malcomson’s otherwise humanist sensibility. Hovering behind this language is the implication, never quite stated, that the attacks were not quite unjust.
The book’s narrative gradually eases into a running commentary on the political repercussions of the Bush administration’s pursuit of war in Afghanistan and, eventually, Iraq. Surely Malcomson is right to be put off by the Bush administration’s jarring rhetoric. “I hoped we wouldn’t go over the line believing that evil is ‘other people,’ God prefers us, and freedom is power. We were, after all, a democracy of imperfect people, not a tribe or a cult.” For that very reason Bush’s “axis of evil” speech is an “apex; one could only descend.” It needs to be said, however, that Malcomson’s opposition to the war in Iraq is arrived at by hard deliberation. He is, for instance, well aware of the crimes of Saddam Hussein: “he was a war president…for Hussein to be zealously pursuing weapons of mass destruction was hideous beyond imagining.” What Malcomson objects to his the Bush administration’s evasions and secrecies; its meat-cleaving approach to allies abroad; its stubborn rejection of all wrongdoing.
Disillusioned with the American political climate, Malcomson eventually pursues a more active role in which to influence the political developments in the Middle East. In early 2003 he leaves The New York Times for the United Nations, defaced New York City for mountainous Geneva. “The notion of joining the United Nations had a strong counterintuitive, throw-caution-to-the-winds appeal, given that the institution appeared to be headed for a grand multilateral train wreck,” he writes. He is employed as head of communications by the new high commissioner for human rights, the respected, seasoned Brazilian – Sergio Vieria de Mello. In his new role Malcomson is able to assist Sergio’s attempts to shift the coalition’s focus toward humanitarian concerns in the rebuilding of postwar Iraq – and help to change the perception of an increasingly weak United Nations. De Mello, Malcomson writes, seemed the very embodiment of “a vigorous United Nations.”
But the experience offers Malcomson little to counteract his disillusionment with American power. A new disillusionment simply materializes in its stead. Malcomson watches with dismay as the human rights system is compromised by, on the one hand, Western self-absorption, and, on the other, resentment courtesy of the Like-Minded Group, countries whose main objective is either “wealth or technology transfers from the West or a possibility of protection from Western culture.” The Human Rights Commission, Malcomson argues, ends up being one of the major obstacles in its own cause; because “you frequently ended up with rights-violating countries making sure they got on the Human Rights Commission,” you eventually had “a commission stocked with states whose main interest lay in blocking the commission’s actions.”
Everything speeds to an abrupt but tragic halt when al Qaeda bombs the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19 2003, and Sergio Vieira de Mello is killed along with twenty-one other victims. Malcomson is shattered. “Of course this reminded me of September 11, which I had taken this job partly to forget.” Malcomson quotes lyrics from Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” which is played at de Mello’s funeral, but much more appropriate are the words of Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”, quoted earlier in the book: “You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,/ you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully./ You should praise the mutilated world.”
De Mello’s death effectively closes the book, leaving the patient reader to wonder at the pointedness of the title, Generation’s End, a rather grandiose implication the book does little to warrant. On the contrary, the two years that separate 9/11 from the U.N. bombing seem above all to be undoing of one man, not a whole generation of them. “I was a wreck and stayed that way for quite a while,” Malcomson writes. Indeed it shows: the narrative ends at a crucial moment, a loss the tip-toe epilogue does little to make up for. Malcomson’s grief is understandable, of course, as is his disillusionment with the United Nations and the United States – his two “unhappy protagonists,” as he calls them, yet the book winds up conveying that disillusionment on a personal note, not a political one, which may be appropriate to the memoir form, but seems disingenuous as a conclusion to so much political reflection.
Perhaps, then, the shortcomings of Generation’s End can be attributed to limitations of the form. Because this is a memoir, Malcomson can afford to be more casual and less concerned with the intellectual responsibilities political thinking demands. This is a shame, because one longs for Malcomson’s book to continue in its path of political analysis. We want to know what the attacks in London, Bali and Madrid did to change his perception of 9/11, or of how the Danish Cartoon Crisis and the murder of Theo van Gogh has challenged democratic principles in Europe. 9/11 is not, as Malcomson believes, a strictly American trauma, and we long for him to view it in its international context.
But in doing so we may be asking too much of Malcomson. As memoirs go Generation’s End is after all a fine piece of writing: moving, civilized, gently humanizing in its tone. This is in itself an achievement; in an era of right-wing zealotry and leftist phantasmagoria, Malcomson’s memoir, at its best, is a timely reminder that the way forward entails a rejection of both, and that only by valuing ambiguity and complexity over simplicity and totality can the ideal of a civilized humanism be saved, and the ominous threats of terror and nihilism be meaningfully opposed.
Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His writing has appeared in Words Without Borders Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation and The Critical Flame. He writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.