July 12, 2002

Type Slowly

I'm going to sound potentially inhumane for saying this, but I can't read the New York Times's "Portraits of Grief" anymore. I can't bear it.

It's not that it causes me to grieve excessively. I can't read it because it's a failure: it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but during its execution it evolved into the opposite of a good idea.

If you don't obsessively read, or put down the money for a subscription, "Portraits of Grief" is a project to write an obituary for everyone who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. It's not unlike the Holocaust Museum's reading of the names of everyone who died during the Holocaust. "Portraits of Grief" is something of a return of representation on a mass scale. At first I was touched by it. Save for Gaudi's still-uncompleted Sagrada Familia, this century hasn't seen many artistic acts that flaunt expediency and logistics.

Over almost four months, the Times published 1,800 obituaries, usually in the vicinity of 200 words - small glimpses into the lives of the dead. Understandably it became something of a shrine; thousands of visitors make electronic pilgrimages to the Times's web site, where all the obits are indefinitely archived. When the Times stopped running the profiles daily (there are about 1,100 people left to profile, and the Times promises to continue as families are found or become willing to talk), they quoted a reader as saying that reading the profiles was "my act of Kaddish."

The paper itself describes the portraits loosely: "The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense. They were brief, informal and impressionistic, often centered on a single story or idiosyncratic detail. They were not intended to recount a person's résumé, but rather to give a snapshot of each victim's personality, of a life lived."

The informality, however, became formality in a number of months. Most portraits followed a template: a job, a hobby, a significant other, a child, a personality quirk tied together by assumed or quoted connections. In tragedy, it's common to fall back on trusted habits, and the portraits combined the style of literary journalism—facts pulled together into meaning by the writer—with the compression of small-town newspaper obits and intelligent personal ads. The headlines (in fairness, headline writing is an impossible task) further compressed the articles: "Officer with artistic streak;" "Equity-trading philosopher;" "The Knicks and the Gospel."

Ultimately I became desensitized to "Portraits of Grief." The foundation of desensitization is foreknowledge of the unusual and unexpected, and the evolution of the pieces into a loose but predictable structure ceased to surprise me. Suffocated by the weight of repetition, I stopped reading.

Journalism is an obvious art, if obvious art can be art at all. Benjamin, in his essay "The Storyteller," rages against its obviousness, preferring the slow emergence of meaning in the told story.

Reading "Portraits of Grief," and reading Benjamin, I was reminded of Vanity Fair's response to 9/11, a special supplement to the music issue rushed to print, and consisting almost entirely of photographs. This sounds basic but excusable in context, until you remember that Vanity Fair has the best photo staff of any magazine in the world. One photo was of storefronts covered in ashes, blocks away from Ground Zero. A simple shot, with one trick: it looks like a black and white photo, save for a slice of an awning, covered in a thinner layer of ash. Through the ash the red fabric shows through. Through a basic visual deception that catches the viewer off-guard, the photograph gives its audience a necessary pause to consider the surprise and magnitude of the event.

By contrast, "Portraits of Grief" approaches the magnitude of the event by throwing information at it. Ultimately it's less like telling a story than building a cathedral stone by stone, the meaning of the project lying in its conception and completion rather than its individual pieces.

This is not to demean the lives of the memorialized—only to suggest that "Portraits of Grief" acts against itself, defeated ultimately by its attempt to wrap the event like a Christo piece. It's an honorable attempt to react to an event from which no one expects perfection to follow. At the same time, it's a revealing look at why art is representational rather than literal.

The Atlantic Monthly waited until the past month to respond with the full force of its publication. The July/August issue features part one of "American Ground," a book-length treatment of the past several months at Ground Zero. It's a highly awaited article; William Langewiesche, the author, was nominated for National Magazine Awards four times before winning this year, and "American Ground" marks his first piece for the Atlantic as a national correspondent.

His approach to the subject is very traditional literary journalism in the vein of John McPhee and Tracy Kidder. Langewiesche, a former pilot, is obviously fascinated by the technical details of the deconstruction of Ground Zero, and fascinated by the men and women who are more fascinated than he is.

Langewiesche's account frequently concentrates on physical detail: "Even if it had been felled from below, the tower could not have capsized in a conventional sense, because like most other buildings, it lacked the structure to hang together for more than a few degrees off vertical."

Or: "By 1,0000 the steel loses about half its strength…. within the imperfect combustion chambers of the South Tower impact zone it is thought to have reach 1,5000—a temperature unlikely to induce the failure of such a tremendously redundant design…. What it did do, however, was set off raging office fires simultaneously on six different floors… Primarily it fed on ordinary paper—an ample supply of the white sheets that were so much a part of the larger battlefield scene."

At first Langewiesche's writing seemed like the familiar story of the good student burying himself in the details of his research under the pain of terror. After becoming absorbed in the article, however, the piece reveals its structure like anything architecturally sound and innovative. The moments of explicitness—"the risk taking was also the expression of a more creative and courageous impulse, linked to the need for action and improvisation"—reveal themselves to be linked by the quiet, literal moments of detail. A portrait not only of individuals but also of cultures—local to the building, local to the city, local to the nation—emerges.

From Langewiesche: "The Fire Department search parties operated on a regularized schedule in small groups beside the diesel excavators, and they sifted through the fresh debris with workmanlike efficiency. But they also took risks for no obvious reasons—jumping suddenly into newly opened debris holes…. They seemed to have surrendered to an attitude of reckless self-abandonment… To me, however, it looked like a simpler form of grief."

"American Ground," by focusing on institutions and interrelationships, describes an organism taking the ruins apart piece by piece. It's not isolated by "Portraits of Grief'''s stubborn focus on the individual, on individuals linked only by the random chance of being in the same place at the same time. It's not exactly a unified field theory to contrast the chaos theory of "Portraits of Grief," but even in its relative modesty as an artistic project it finds a meaning in the World Trade Center beyond its existence as a place sheltering unique individuals.

The New York Times was widely praised for "Portraits of Grief," and for good reason. It does record the facets of the lives of those lost in our nation's paper of record, which must be a comfort to the friends and relatives of the portraits' subjects. And this alone does, ultimately, make it worthwhile.

I can't, however, envision the document standing as parts rather than as a whole for those far removed from the event. "Portraits of Grief" takes uniqueness and renders it into a pattern; "American Ground" takes patterns and reveals the uniqueness of them. Years from now, we'll turn back to "American Ground," whereas "Portraits of Grief" will remain increasingly inaccessible to history. It will stand as action; "American Ground" will stand as art.