The good old days: when you could look to farthest downtown Manhattan and see nothing but open sky and the grand old buildings of another age; when urban blight—the abandoned or bustling warehouses and factories, the vacant lots, the decaying piers, the alleys, the child’s endless treasure-trove of it all—was as romantic and magical as any enchanted woods in a picture-book. This was the beautiful realm of the light and the dark of my childhood and my adolescence.
Then the downtown vista was destroyed and dominated by the immense twin towers of absolute ugliness, blandness, and mediocrity. These monuments to soullessness were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the American Concrete Institute in Detroit, the Dharhran Air Terminal in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and, later, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
I was sixteen years old when the construction of these monstrosities began. By the time they were completed, my youth and its realm were gone.
Lesser structures of ugliness and blandness and mediocrity rose upon landfills. The abandoned or bustling warehouses and factories became luxury properties: “living spaces.” The vacant lots became filled with more of the same. The alleys were occluded, the decaying piers vanished and were replaced by insipid “recreational spaces” and dismal “esplanades.” Even the children were no longer children, but blobs of New York Times papier-mache mush, products of “parenting” in these “living spaces,” leashed and tethered for “structured activities” or “quality time” in the “recreational spaces,” malnourished by the pabulum of political correctness, computers, television, and a “balanced diet” with occasional “treats” and “munchies,” with nowhere to prowl, no imagination, and no freedom, having emerged from an aerobically fit and ultrasonically scanned womb, bearing a modish name, and doomed to the common fate of lifeless sterility in a sterile and lifeless place.
But who cares about such things? There was a time when I myself cared about this world and this race; but that time is behind me.
Aéroport Charles de Gaulle, September 11, 2001: the only other person in the smoking section of the l’Espace lounge carried a small black vinyl attaché case on which, in red, were the words EUROPEAN SOCIETY OF CARDIOLOGY. He was a silver-haired gentleman, and, as he sat there calmly smoking, I told him with a smile that I liked the image that he presented: the attaché case and the cigarette he was enjoying. He seemed only then to become aware of this juxtaposition, and he smiled in turn.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said in mock hushed secrecy.
He said that he was returning from Stockholm, where he had delivered an address to an international congress of heart specialists. The doctors attending the congress had been given these attaché cases.
As our brief conversation drifted to its end, I asked him if his duties at the congress had allowed him any free time in Stockholm.
“Have you ever been to Stockholm?”
“Free time in Stockholm is like free time in Purgatory. There is nothing there.”
We sat and smoked awhile in silence. He asked if I would mind if he turned on the television to view the news for a few minutes. I did mind, but I told him that I did not.
And there it was: an American Airlines aircraft lodged like a huge piece shrapnel in the fuming midsection of those big ugly twin towers in downtown Manhattan.
We looked to each other in disbelief.
The second aircraft struck as we were watching.
Black billows of destruction rose to engulf the sky.
Without words, we knew. The will and wrath of Allah had descended.
“Fly the friendly skies of United,” I said, recalling United Airlines’ advertising slogan.
Then the doctor spoke, nodding slowly in grim affirmation of the new age to whose arrival we were now bearing witness.
“At least,” he said, “we can be comforted that the authorities in their care and wisdom protected those lost souls from the dangers of secondary-smoke inhalation.”
He lighted another cigarette, then again he slowly shook his head, but now in negation.
“Welcome to the Apocalypse,” he said. “No smoking allowed.”
My flight home to New York had been about to board. But there would be no flight to New York.
When I finally was able to return home, I found that I was very fortunate. Although my neighborhood was blockaded and in parts evacuated due to damage, my flat, which is only ten blocks from where those towers had come crashing down, was still there.
The air was an acrid, yellow mist of toxic aftermath: a noxious mist that lingers to this day.
I looked to where those towers had stood. I expected to see what the eyes of my childhood had seen: nothing but open sky and the grand old buildings of another age. But I discovered that those detested towers had served only to hide many other new and ugly buildings that had been raised in the past quarter of a century.
I had always felt that I would live to see the twin towers fall. But I had always felt that they would fall of their own cheap construction. Now I wanted to kill those who had destroyed the symbol that I hated. It was a feeling from those old days that were forever lost: these destroyers were not from the neighborhood; they must not be suffered to fuck with it. I mused awhile about volunteering for clandestine-service duty. I was in the mood to cut throats. But, in the end, I did merely what I had wanted to do all the while that I had been stranded away from home: I sat on my own, familiar couch, ate a pizza, and listened again and again to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
There was really nothing else to do. Our government of hollow men seemed intent on waging a gentle and politically correct war. Fewer than sixty years ago, during another war, Japanese and Italian residents of the United States were placed in American concentration camps. Now the hollow men made much of their care that no foreign Muslim be subjected to “racial profiling.” What laughter this must have evoked from those whom the hollow men threatened.
A few weeks after returning home, I finished the novel on which I had been working for the past five years. It includes these words:
Monotheism. The root of all evil.
In forsaking paganism, in abandoning the gods and cleaving the Sacred into Almighties, man had chosen, raised, and embraced under different names and guises long-sleeping Enyalion, the ancient Cretan god of war and destruction, and had begun to “go down,” to use the words of William Blake, “to self-annihilation.”
Enyalion. Ad nihil. Annihilation.
The artificial births of the one true God were the true genesis of the fatal disease that is the plague of Enyalion: the death of the soul.
Cross, crescent, six-pointed star. They were but weapons in the sash of Enyalion.
The Levant—Jerusalem—the cradle of the Beast of all evil; the “holy city” of the three monotheistic religions.
Fuck these three Jerusalem cats, and fuck Jerusalem.
May the many true and sacred gods blow them and Jerusalem from the face of this dying earth.
Lay me down with Aphrodite, let Dionysus flow in my veins.
Fuck the Semite triad. Fuck all the sons of Shem.
I have been told that another three lines of what I had written must be censored, as these lines spoke “the ultimate blasphemy,” for which the possible consequences were unthinkable.
This legal suppression does not bother me, for I now see that this rhymeless tercet will stand alone as a poem.
And, as regards poetry, and freedom also, a reflection comes to mind: “it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing.”
These words, written by T.S. Eliot, in his introduction to Christopher Isherwood’s 1930 translation, The Intimate Journals of Charles Baudelaire, are a philosophical statement that, transposed to the climate of this day, might be deemed to constitute a dictum of dangerous, incendiary, and perhaps even treasonous nature.
I should like to believe that Eliot would still stand by them, as we fail to understand and live by them.