Discover more from Homo Vitruvius by A. Jay Adler
A Terrible Honesty
the Sacred Profane
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All writers are a little crazy, but if they are any good they have a kind of terrible honesty.
At 9:41 a.m. and 15 seconds – Tom Junod informs us in “The Falling Man,” his 20-year commemorative article for Esquire Magazine of the 9/11 World Trade Center Towers attack and collapse – photographer Richard Drew of the Associated Press shot the single frame of the 12-shot sequence of a man falling from the North Tower that became the historic photograph seen around the world.
In most American Newspapers, the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man's death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography…. All over the world, people saw the human stream debouch from the top of the North Tower, but here in the United States, we saw these images only until the networks decided not to allow such a harrowing view, out of respect for the families of those so publicly dying.
Several different and complicated ideas and emotions mix together in all that, in confused sets of circumstances. So let’s be fundamental.
What should not be known? Who shall not know it, when and how? Under whose power may the KNWN be not-KNWN?
That’s an odd question, isn’t it? I hope so.
What should not be known?
Shouldn’t everything be known? Doesn’t that go without saying? If you are a certain kind of Enlightenment-cultivated, liberal-humanist, Athens-adoring, Rome-regarding, Renaissance-renewing, multi-culture-cultivating, modern person awed by the discoveries of science and inspired to live each day in sight of the sublime reaches and gut-wrenching depths of art – why, then, the answer is yes, of course . . .
Maybe if you are only some of those things the answer is the same. Which might we take away, which add, to change the answer?
And is to pose the question about everything that is known the same as to pose it about everything that can be known?
To prevent knowledge of what “is” means to withhold knowledge. To prevent knowledge of what “can be” means to decline a pursuit of knowledge. The first imposes, and maybe accepts, an illusory present. The second chooses an alternative future – as every decision among alternatives so chooses, turning away from the outcomes of the paths not followed, which are futures and the knowledge they offer declined.
In principle, do we want to know all that there is to know, given the opportunity and means? Do we not?
Should it be anyone’s choice for any of us, other than for all of us our own choice?
We know many kinds of instances in which those who possess information deny it to others. Parents to children. Those who would not hurt another by a bit of information, from kindness. Those who would hurt another by it, out of malice. Governments, in their self-interest, be it respectable (maybe), in national security, or disreputable, in corruption and coverup.
Each of those positive examples represents a prized value but also rationalizes a utility: preserving states of innocence that those within them are unprepared to lose, protecting emotional health, saving lives. But to declare an image, an element of information (which an image also is), or any aspect of reality to exist beyond a pale of knowledge for others to access means to claim a sacred field, to cross the boundary of which constitutes a transgression. That’s what occurred in the United States in reaction to the Falling Man photo, Junod reminds us, in one contemporary instance of a historic instinct. As ever, a sacred claim produces efforts to impose a restriction, to repress or punish acts that commit the transgression, of sinning against the sacred.
At the end of my third paragraph, I mimicked Jewish practice in writing and speaking the name of G-d. (Get the idea? One omits vowels to avoid writing the actual name of YHWH, which is the personal name of God revealed to Moses on Mt. Sanai. Whether this initial accord with subsequent practice of omitting vowels indicates the same, original intent is unclear.) In addition to writing, in everyday speech, among various available names for God Jews tend to use Hashem, which actually means “the name.” Other Jews will know whose name you’re referring to, so no one need utter the actual name.
In the contemporary United States, a countervailing practice has developed in which some negatively perceived words have had conferred upon them, ironically, their own kind of sacredness in offense, so that to write or speak them, in any context, produces a similar sense of profane transgression, which seeks in response to repress the transgressive act. The practices are much the same too. In writing, one omits letters to avoid inscribing the profanity. In speech, one uses either indirect reference to the actual word (“-word”, like “the name”) or words that are several euphemistic removes from some original word now deemed to offend.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
The now widely known prohibition in Islam against depictions of Mohammed contains, in fact, further prohibition against depicting any prophet, including Jesus and Moses, with the origins of it all to be found in a general aniconism, which opposes the raising up of the idols that images of any living thing can produce: those graven images.
But the idea a word represents, the proposed correspondence to reality it may convey, constitutes an element of the world, a piece of reality. So, too, does an image, in holding Hamlet’s “mirror up to nature” — also in itself, in adding its own artifice to the fullness of reality. To have access to any word or image is to gain some measure of knowledge, and that knowledge remains ever complicated.
Writes Junod of Drew’s image, “The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike.” The man descended through the air, so many thought, like a diver, with such a physical grace to the fall that it felt some kind of implicit commentary on the events. The photograph possesses a form of beauty. It is a great photograph.
But “Photographs lie,” Junod says. “Even great photographs. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling.”
And then? What do the other frames in the sequence show? He did not dive. He tumbled.
He fell like everyone else, like all the other jumpers—trying to hold on to the life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately, inelegantly. In Drew's famous photograph, his humanity is in accord with the lines of the buildings. In the rest of the sequence—the eleven outtakes—his humanity stands apart. He is not augmented by aesthetics; he is merely human, and his humanity, startled and in some cases horizontal, obliterates everything else in the frame.
We can’t know this if we can’t see the photos, if someone is prohibited from describing them to us. If reality is withheld from us.
I’ll suggest further, beyond Junod, that the famous image is not entirely a lie. Where, after all, does the “sequence” of the man’s experience begin and end? With Drew’s frames? Why at those particular boundaries? Did the man first tumble from the window, as he tumbled, in fact, through the air? Maybe. But maybe he did dive, in a grand, despairing final gesture. I think I might. What, rather, was his whole life but another, greater sequence, even if it went unrecorded by a photojournalist or one of the keepers of our histories? Maybe that man lived amid the travails and challenges and joys of his life with a different kind of grace – who knows? people do – and whoever he was whose existence otherwise would have passed from the record of this world unknown to most of us was revealed to us, in a still another kind of grace, in the generous truth of that photo’s vision.
Is the truth of one moment of time entirely obliterated by the next just because it was fleeting? In “A Stone in Water,” in Waiting for Word, I try to consider motion against stillness, the ephemeral against the eternal, to understand the difference or if there is one.
But the instant you always knew was coming arrives succeeding like all the rest. Now upon now upon now the water flows the stone stays still and you offer your attention knowing this moment, too will last forever.
I know what I know about the full sequence of Drew’s photos. I’ve seen them. I know that truth. And still when I look at that one image, the feelings and thoughts about its juxtaposition to the day inhabit me. I know them, too, because I had access to the image and the contrast in my mind between the crash and that beauteous, poignant sight offers meaning for me.
It has always been this way: YHWH. It hasn’t always been this way, not even for Richard Drew, who as a much younger photojournalist, was one of the four who photographed Robert F. Kennedy sprawled on the floor after Sirhan Sirhan shot him. Writes Junod:
the pictures that came out of the death camps of Europe were treated as essential acts of witness, without particular regard to the sensitivities of those who appeared in them or the surviving families of the dead. They were shown, as Richard Drew's photographs of the freshly assassinated Robert Kennedy were shown. They were shown, as the photographs of Ethel Kennedy pleading with photographers not to take photographs were shown. They were shown as the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack was shown. They were shown as the photograph of Father Mychal Judge [at the WTC], graphically and unmistakably dead, was shown, and accepted as a kind of testament. They were shown as everything is shown, for, like the lens of a camera, history is a force that does not discriminate.
You do want to know, or you do not want to know. But if you don’t want to know, what spirit is it that moves in you that would deny the knowledge to others?
Every day of our life together, without exception, whenever my partner Julia has left the house, even for a quick trip to the market, she has slung her camera over her shoulder to take it with her. If something happens down the hall, out on the street, somewhere in the world nearby her, she is determined to photograph it. She is going to record it. That’s her commitment to herself. Over forty years as a photographer, she has photographed:
But she has also photographed:
When I offered my critique last year, of “Hemingway in the Twenty-First Century,” I wrote about how his stated commitment to write “one true sentence” had deteriorated into a pat, ill-considered truism serving to gurufy him: “a handy rosary bead for fretful scribes, the motto above the entranceway to the Church of the Writer Redeemer.” I questioned, “[D]id Tolstoy not write true sentences? Melville, Flaubert, George Eliot? Haven’t good writers been writing true sentences from the start?”
But “[n]one of them,” I wrote, “had so elevated it, so mystified it in the smoke of holy mission: to tell the truth about the world.”
Whatever my criticisms of the mystique of Hemingway, that remains the commitment of any writer, any photographer, any journalist, scientist, or scholar. To tell the truth about the world, not to suppress it and deny it to others, not out of sensitivity or in the belief that one’s own conception of a sacred space should imprison others. For there are so many people who are committed in their lives or are indeed in the very business to construct the edifice of that sacred space. That sacred space is civilization, society, the meaning of all we do and of our lives, having children, creating community, leaving legacies. Progressing.
So that. So that.
We’ve agreed on it. We’ve agreed to it. It’s our compact of purpose in the daytime to shore us against our fear and trembling of the nighttime. And as part of that compact, every politician is an optimist, tomorrow will be a better day, the children are the future, we’re all in this together, whatever we set our minds to we can do. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.
Platitude. Platitude. Platitude.
But some people won’t have it. They will see the flowers of evil and they will draw them for us, in words or images. They won’t shut up. They won’t be shut up. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. They couldn’t have it another way.
They may be profane to others, but it’s a sacred compact they form with themselves.