SEP 23, 2001
BY RICHARD POWERS
I was preparing to meet my undergraduate writing class at the University of Illinois when I heard the news. The days topic was to have been figurative speech: metaphor and simile in fiction. On my way out the door, I saw the first headlines. Then the images and the repeating, unreal film. And every possible class lesson disappeared in that plume.
With the rest of the world, I found myself losing ground against the real. The anchors, the reporters, the eyewitnesses, the experts: all fighting against the onset of shock, all helpless to say what had happened, all working to survive the inconceivable. And when the first, stunted descriptions came, they came in a flood of simile. The shock of the attack was like Pearl Harbor. The gutted financial district was like Nagasaki. Lower Manhattan was like a city after an earthquake. The gray people streaming northward up the island covered in an inch of ash were like the buried at Pompeii.
And in this outpouring of anemic simile, again and again with startlingly little variation, people resorted to the most chilling refrain: like a movie. Like Independence Day. Like The Towering Inferno. Like The Siege. Like bad science fiction. Like a Tom Clancy novel. (Clancy, talking to CNN, seemed to find the plot more unbelievable than any plot of his own.) The magnitude of this day could not be made real except through comparison to fiction. Nothing but the outsize scale of the imaginary was big enough to measure by.
Failed similes proliferated throughout the afternoon. Blocks like the apocalypse. Wall Street executives wandering like the homeless. Streets like Kinshasa. Rubble like Beirut or the West Bank. No simile will ever serve. In its size and devastation and suddenness, the destruction of Sept. 11 is, in fact, like nothing, unless it is like the terrors experienced in those parts of the world that seemed so distant on Sept. 10.
I met my class, although I could pretend to no teaching. It was not like a wake; it was one. We shared the shortfall of our thoughts. Its like a dream, my students said. And more frightening still, Like waking from a dream. The America they woke to on Tuesday morning was, like the skyline of New York, changed forever. The always-thereness of here was gone.
The final lesson of my writing class came too soon. There are no words. But there are only words. To say what the inconceivable resembles is all that we have by way of learning how it might be outlived. No comparison can say what happened to us. But we can start with the ruins of our similes, and let like move us toward something larger, some understanding of what is.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company