When I read David Rieff’s recent article in Harper’s Magazine, “After 9/11: The limits of remembrance,” I remembered that it was August 15th on the lunar calendar. I remembered because I was born on both of these days, depending on which calendar is referenced. August 15th is the lunar festival, a joyous Chinese celebration atop a melancholic legend. Thus, 9/11 is always a multicultural event for me, and Rieff’s article, without mentioning race even once, transcends cultures with finesse, subtlety, and personal wisdom simply by rejecting the nationalist institutions that keep us locked in shallow grief.
In his essay, Rieff attempts to more than propose a basic proposition that “in the very long run nothing will be remembered.” This is taken for granted. The most telling suggestion of his subtler purpose is when he writes, “When people are so committed to looking away from human transience, trying to stare for just a bit longer surely is in order.” He asks us to give ourselves the space to forget while looking for just a little bit longer, as if our problem is not lack of collective grief, but lack of collective depth. He makes the honest and politically dangerous observation that “to remember may not just mean to grieve; it may also mean to harbor a vision of securing justice or vengeance long after it is time to put the guns away.”
In his call to forgo politics to allow our commemoration to return to the individuals grieving, Rieff also spanned the empathic gap of immigrants who might not otherwise feel the weight of a “national” tragedy. He recasts 9/11 as a human tragedy, rather than an American one, as he cites the “Buddhist idea of historical and personal transience,” Ecclesiastes 1:11 (“There is no remembrance of former things…”), and Percy Bysshe Shelley. As Cynthia Ozick writes, “Literature universalizes. Without disparaging particularity or identity, it universalizes; it does not divide.” This is a multicultural movement of unity rather than fragmentation, and it provides the empathy we need in times of mourning. We need writers, as Ozick reminds us, not woman writers, or black or white or Asian writers.
My life became torn between two myths after 2001: the terror and grief of 9/11, as well as the gaiety of my birthday and the harvest. One of the most frequent questions I get about my birthday is, “Does it suck?” I am asked that with varying degrees of facetiousness, but the assumption is there: the tragedy of 9/11 is intricately related to my blood. That is why when Rieff observed that “the ghost at the banquet of all public commemoration is always politics — above all, the mobilization of national solidarity,” he opened up my ability to participate. I now have the words to reject an interpretation of my commiseration as an endorsement of the nationalistic politics that goes with it. A rejection of an “us vs. them” mentality is the most important element of multiculturalism. I am reminded of Richard Rodriguez when he wrote, “The bilinguists insist that a student should be reminded of his difference from others in mass society, his heritage. But they equate mere separateness with individuality. The fact is that only in private — with intimates — is separateness from the crowd a prerequisite for individuality…In public, by contrast, full intimacy is achieved, paradoxically, by those who are able to consider themselves members of the crowd.”
In the spirit of sharing our collective myths in commemoration, the legend of the moon festival is ancient and beautiful. Two lovers were damned to eternal separation after the woman swallowed a pill of immortality she promised to share with the man. The pill made her lighter and lighter until she floated onto the moon. There she lived alone with a rabbit, who endlessly ground on a mortar and pestle, trying to make a second pill for her lover. Once a year, on the day of the full moon in August, the man was granted a visit. On the cassette tape reading of this that I listened to as a kid, the story ended with the haunting echo of the rabbit’s pestle hitting and hitting.
The rabbit’s melancholy chore resonates in American culture as well: the endless walking of our bluesmen, or our persistence as “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Cultural myths are transcendental, and only through sharing them and permitting each other the space to imaginatively think like and become one another can we develop the collective empathy it takes to grieve.
Sam is a sophomore. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.