Apocalypse now

We faced death, and saw the world through the eyes of the brainsick bag ladies we used to ignore. Will we remember their insights?

By Norah Vincent

Published September 18, 2001 10:54PM (EDT)

Lewis Carroll once wrote that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. I think of this often now as I walk the streets of a changed Manhattan, and find myself listening for the first time to all the usual raving Armageddonites who, under normal circumstances, every New Yorker is preprogrammed to ignore.

But, of course, these are by no means normal circumstances, and for once, unbelievably, those same fixture lunatics and unheeded cranks who have been foretelling the end of the world for so long may just have turned out to be right after all. Or so it seems, when you consider that the unthinkable has in fact happened: The world, or at least capitalism's symbolic equivalent, the World Trade Center, has fallen down around us. Add to that the haunting (and until now absurdly superstitious) fact that 2001, not 2000, is the actual Millennium, and suddenly, those brainsick bag ladies you see around Grand Central start to sound a lot like Cassandras -- bona fide prophetesses doomed never to be believed until it's too late.

And now in a sense it is almost too late. Death and disaster have ambushed us, as they are often wont to do, though surely not as alarmingly and ineluctably as they did the people who worked in the twin towers. Those victims had no recourse, no time for appeal. And for those who didn't die instantly, they had virtually no time to think or even pray. For them it was indeed too late. The mortal decisions and revisions that we spend our lives dreading, yet ignoring, were upon them instantly, literally out of the bright blue morning sky. One moment they were in the mundane workaday, and the next they were face to face with the final egress. And in all our reactions to this holocaust, all our news coverage and all our table talk, we've spent nary a word discussing the apolitical reminder at the heart of this apocalyptic event -- that being, of course, our readiness to die.

Yet privately it seems clear that we are all aware of our impermanence and our mortal souls in a way most of us weren't just days ago. Whatever our religious persuasions or lack thereof, it's hard to escape the looming sense that the fundamental lesson of all this destruction is metaphysical, not military, or fiscal, or nationalist, or even emotional. It is those things too, naturally, but not primarily. If attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques in recent days is any indication of the public mood, in a flash, we got religion. We threw up our hands. For once we looked beyond ourselves for explanations.

We're not turning to Alan Greenspan anymore for solace, the way we did in the past few months as recession tightened its grip on the American economy. Even now that the stock market has reopened and plunged more than 600 points on its first day, and we know that our chairman of the Fed, our God of mammon, will have a great deal to do with getting capitalism back on its feet, we also know that his powers ring hollow in the face of life and death, that his sphere of influence is mere window dressing for the real affair.

There has been much talk of Satan and of evil in recent days as well, and this is largely unprecedented, at least among news anchors and other secular commentators who are much too fond of metaphors. Strangely, the world and its consciousness has turned upside down. The thoughts and awarenesses that were once the exclusive purview of the depressed and otherwise insane are now the collective norm. The importance of this should not be overlooked amid the rubble and the ubiquitous, mad patriotism.

When I remember the way New York responded to the attacks on Sept. 11 (I live a mile and a half from ground zero), I am reminded of Albert Camus' novel "The Plague," not only because it too is about catastrophe and the various ways in which people respond to it, both good and bad, opportunistic and heroic, but because it depicts this exact inverted reality I'm talking about.

As happened in New York last week, the city that is struck by plague in Camus' novel is quarantined. Shut off from its surroundings by manned barricades. No one comes and no one goes. Thus, the city becomes a capsule in which normal life, and seemingly time, have been suspended. Rather than poking through the fabric of reality now and then, the way it does in everyday life, death pervades this place. All superficialities have been dispensed with of necessity, and everyone is consumed by the eternal considerations that only the most assiduous philosophers and monks make their daily fare.

Naturally, most normal people are not made particularly happy by the omnipresence of death and all the spiritual concerns it entails. And so it goes in Camus' city. The citizens want things to return to normal. They don't like being trapped with the deep and frightening questions, and they are simply praying for an end to the epidemic. One character, however, a man who had been severely depressed before the plague struck and had tried to commit suicide, has quite the opposite response to the disaster. Suddenly, he feels more alive than ever. Suddenly reality has come to reflect his point of view, a point of view that, until the plague struck, had made his life unlivable. Hence his previous attempt to end it.

This is, obviously, the very essence of existential despair, the constant awareness of mortality, the impossibly cumbersome insight into the lack of meaning so inherent in quotidian pursuits. As it happens, this is also a rather good description of clinical depression, the scourge of our age it would seem, and the reason why so many Americans are enriching the pharmaceutical industry by popping its happy pills. Not to pop them leaves one engulfed in contempt for the absurd denial of death at the core of what passes for everyday life. Life is untenable under these conditions. Very quickly it becomes impossible to convince yourself to do anything even as basic as getting out of bed, because your brain is always saying "Why? What's the point?" And in the face of that colossal question, very little in the way of humdrum, ho hum living can stand up to scrutiny.

In New York City last week, 8 million people had a glimpse of this unusual despair. Reality changed our vantage point, and for two days an entire city was depressed, stunned into existential despair, wandering aimlessly through the ruins of its candyland.

The pall has lifted now, of course, and we are beginning to resume "normal" life. But the question is: Will we remember the insights of those few days? Will those insights teach us to live our lives more consciously, indeed more existentially, with more readiness to die? Or will we bury ourselves once again in the safe and willful ignorance of petty concerns? Most of all, will we pass those familiar crazies on the street and feel a certain unmistakable kinship with them now that, for a moment, we have partaken of their vision? Sadly, but perhaps necessarily, I think we all know the answer. We will choose willfully to forget. And why? Well, of course, because our survival depends on it.

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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