Sunday, November 30, 2003

Maureen Dowd Puts Her Finger On It -The Unbearable Lightness of Memory

They are pretty. Pretty and soothing. Soothing and smooth. Smooth and light. Light and watery.
The eight designs for a memorial at ground zero, gleaming with hanging candles and translucent tubes and reflecting pools and the smiling faces of those killed on 9/11, aim to transcend. And they succeed.

They transcend terror. They have the banality of no evil. They represent the triumph of atmosphere over atrocity, mood over meaning. The designs are more concerned with the play of light on water than the play of darkness on life.

They have taken the heaviest event in modern American history and made the lightest memorials.


"The designs are horribly, horribly bland," mourned Eric Gibson in The Wall Street Journal.

The ugliness of Al Qaeda's vicious blow to America is obscured by these prettified designs, which look oddly like spas or fancy malls or aromatherapy centers. It's easy to visualize toned women with yoga mats strolling through these New Age pavilions filled with waterfalls and floating trees and sunken gardens and suspended votives. Mass murder dulled by architectural Musak.

The designs are reflections of our psychobabble culture, exuding that horrible and impossible concept, closure. Our grief and anger have been sentimentalized and stripped of a larger historical and moral purpose.

Even the names of the models sound like books by Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson: "Garden of Lights," "Inversion of Light," "Votives in Suspension," "Suspending Memory," "Reflecting Absence," "Passages of Light: The Memorial Cloud." All ambient light and transient emotion — nothing raw or harsh or rough on which the heart and mind can collide.

The spontaneous memorials that sprang up right after 9/11, both near ground zero and at police and fire stations around the city, had more power and raw passion. What's missing from the designs is some trace of what actually happened on this ground. Why not return that twisted metal skeleton cross to the site, the one that made the World Trade Center ruins such a chilling and indelible memory for the thousands of Americans who flocked to ground zero in the months after the attack?

That's what makes other memorials, like Pearl Harbor's sunken Arizona, which still emits oil bubbles almost 62 years later, and the rebuilt Berlin church that retained its bombed spire, so emotionally affecting. They remain witnesses to the evils of modern history.

The fussy 9/11 designs also lack the power of narrative. With its black marble gravitas, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial tells the anguished story of how America got sucked in deeper and deeper, with the death toll rising along with the memorial's V-shape design.

Like the White House, these designs turn away from examining what went wrong and offer no instruction. How were we so vulnerable to attack? Who are our terrorist foes? Why do they hate us? The Holocaust museum in Washington shows that you do not have to choose between reflection and instruction; it offers both.

There's no darkness in these designs, literally or metaphorically. They have taken death and finality out of this pulverized graveyard.


The memorial cannot be sunshine-and-light therapy to make current generations feel they have moved beyond grief and shock. It must be witness and guide to future generations so they can understand the darkness of what scarred this earth.
I recall examining the finalists online and thinking how pretty most were, but failing to vote in the online poll because none evoked emotion; none contained salient features of a memorial as Ms. Dowd so eloquently points out in this NY Times Op-Ed piece.


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