Candidate: Pamela Mansutti
Title: TRAUMA AND BEYOND: ETHICAL AND CULTURAL CONSTRUCTION OF 9/11 IN AMERICAN FICTION
Supervisor: Dr.Kevin McGuirk, Dept. of English
Committee: Dr. Andrew McMurry, Dept. of English
Dr. Marcel O’Gorman, Dept. of English
Internal/External Examiner: Dr. Brien Orend, Dept. of Psychology
External Examiner: Dr. David Jarraway, Dept. of English, University of Ottawa
My dissertation focuses on a set of Anglo-American novels that deal with the events of 9/11. Identifying thematic and stylistic differences in the fiction on this topic, I distinguish between novels that represent directly the jolts of trauma in the wake of the attacks, and novels that, while still holding the events as an underlying operative force in the narrative, do not openly represent them but envision their long-term aftermath. The first group of novels comprises Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005), Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). The second one includes Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (2009), John Updike’s Terrorist (2006) and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008). Drawing on concepts from trauma theory, particularly by Cathy Caruth and Dominick LaCapra, and combining them with the ethical philosophies of Levinas and Heidegger, I argue that the constructions of 9/11 in Anglo-American fiction are essentially twofold: authors who narrate 9/11 as a tragic human loss in the city of New York turn it into an occasion for an ethical dialogue with the reader and potentially with the “Other,” whereas authors who address 9/11 as a recent sociopolitical event transform it into a goad toward a bitter cultural indictment of the US middle-class, whose ingrained inertia, patriotism and self -righteousness have been either magnified or twisted by the attacks.
I begin by discussing some of the most significant readings of 9/11 that intellectuals, media and political leaders have given over the last few years and that especially focus on ideas of nihilism, spectacle and death. The purpose of chapter one is to engage in the discussion of the novels not with a full knowledge of the facts but with the understanding of a range of issues and interpretations surrounding 9/11 that the novels under consideration specifically eschew or contrast. The instrumental connection between media and politics and their Manichaean “narrative” will help me make a case, in chapter two, for the role and importance of the New York community in the construction of the infamous events. In what I call the New-Yorkization of 9/11, I aim at highlighting how the situatedness of the public discourses that New Yorkers constructed to tell their own tragedy rescues the Ur-Phaenomenon of 9/11 from the epistemological commodification that both intellectual and political interpretations forced on it. New York voices are essential in the formation of a Habermasian “public sphere” and of a collective historical memory that distinguishes itself from the image of the invulnerable US exploited by the “sphere of Authority.” The third chapter focuses on the relationship between trauma, ethics and fiction, and it attempts to prove that narratives of trauma cannot be divorced from ethical purposes and demands. Pointing to the speciousness of arguments that deem 9/11 literature sentimental and unimaginative, I claim that the traumatic literature on the attacks constitutes an example of ethical practice, since it originates from witnesses of the catastrophe, it represents communal solidarity, and it places a crucial demand on the reader as an emphatic listener and ethical agent. Ethical counternarratives oppose the ideological simplification of the 9/11 attacks and develop instead a complex counter-rhetoric of emotions and inclusiveness that we could read as a particular instantiation of an ethics of the self and “Other.”
Chapter four examines the Levinasian imagery and the theme of isolation in Schwarz’s The Writing on the Wall, along with the novel’s affective vocabulary of resistance to the Administration’s warmongering slogans. Chapter five analyzes motifs of traumatic disembodiment, mis(sed)-communication and individual agency in DeLillo’s Falling Man, considering the falling man’s staged suicides as an ethical performance. Chapter six proposes that Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close uses contradictory emotions to build a powerful intergenerational encounter among traumatized subjects at the Hedeggerian Lichtung/Ground Zero of 9/11.
As much as the 9/11 “ethical” novels suggest that “survivability” in times of trauma depends on “relationality” (J. Butler), the “cultural” ones unveil the insensitivity and superficiality of the actual US society far away from the site of trauma. Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs cynically shows how the Midwestern petty bourgeoisie strives to maintain a politically correct milieu while repressing fear, racial prejudices and revanchism, without realizing that 9/11 and its implication will “retaliate” against the . Updike’s Terrorist, in my view, questions the cultural imperialism of “whiteness” by throughout the story. Finally, O’Neill’s Netherland brings us back to a post-9/11 New York where the resurgence of a “white” cultural supremacy after 9/11 does not foreclose the possibility of multicultural and cosmopolitan negotiations as a vital alternative for traumatized Americans.
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