Advanced American Language and Literature
September 28th, 2018
An Inquiry into Absence
Imagine nothing. Impossible, isn’t it? In the effort to describe nothing, by the very nature of the act, it becomes a something; but giving this something a definitive shape— such is the struggle of Suzanne Berne, a journalist, personal essayist, and author, who grapples with the many variations of absence in “Ground Zero,” her op-ed for the New York Times following a visit to the former site of the World Trade Center. Written in April, 2002, Berne found herself immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, left to examine its gaping wound and make sense of it as a writer must. Through a cascade of dichotomous images, diction, and pathos appeal, Berne constructs an inward inquiry through a number of external examples for a poignant reflection on the shape of absence, in the many senses of the word.
Ground Zero. Characterized as a hallowed sight by most, Ground Zero certainly conjures a number of solemn images, whether one recollects the collapsing Twin Towers shrouded in flames and shrapnel, or even the quiet grief afterward, the “little American flags fluttering in the breeze” that are commonly replayed in the news cycles covering this tragedy (174). However, as Berne describes her visit to the memorial, these images are contradicted by the human “repopulation” of the sight (175). By employing the sense of sound, Berne describes the calamity of the memorial: construction, with “the pound of jackhammers, the steady beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up, [and] the roar of heavy machinery,” coupled with the crowds who, at times, view the site as more spectacle than memorial, conflict the typical expectation for a mourning site (174). Dichotomies like this, between high-brow expectation and reality, are central in Berne’s recollections, as they relate to the motif of absence; in this case, the absence of fulfilled expectation.
Another example of dichotomy is in the perverse commercialization of the memorial. Whether it be subtle examples such as the deli on Vesey Street that “advertised” a view of the World Trade Center from its second-floor dining area, to the more grotesque examples, such as the sale of tickets for a viewing platform, or as “incredulous” police officers shorthanded it to the “tickets to disaster,” clearly the undercurrent of commercialized misery becomes a significant point of tension for Berne (175). But by no means does Berne discount her role in this system, even poking fun at herself once she “at last…got [her] ticket to the disaster,” (175). This absence of humanity certainly contradicts typical memorial etiquette.
In exploring the dichotomies within the central theme of absence, Berne clearly appeals to pathos through the aforementioned imagery and diction. With her journalistic prose, she flips between personal experiences, never explicitly telling the reader how to feel, but rather confident in her writing to elicit the appropriate feelings in the reader. This confidence perhaps stems from her formidable writing, which employs a number of tactics. One tactic includes a repeating of phrases and words, like “suddenly” (five times) and “like me” (twice) for rhythm (174, 175). Perhaps, these repeated phrases also help Berne herself, acting as an anchor, emblematic of the disorientation she feels about her experience. Another tactic Berne uses is subtle connotation between words, like how she describes “nothing” as becoming something more potent, which is “absence,” denoting the difference between two words that, by definition, mean the same thing (173). Her dark-humor comes through when describing the “cheerfully painted kiosk” she saw as she waited for the “tickets to disaster,” Berne’s way of showing the ridiculous nature of her situation through diction and syntax (175). Dichotomy, just as she uses it on the broader plane of ideas, is implemented into her phrasings, such as “industrious emptiness” (175). Her syntax follows in-step. Contradictory enough, she constructs her sentence to say that crowds are “craning” to see where there is “nothing to see” (173). Not only does this image directly tie into the absence motif, but it also alludes to Berne’s subtle construction site metaphor: by using the word “craning”, Berne creates the sense that people are as much creating the site as they are visiting it, further refining the shape of absence as a result of people’s mentalities.
Even with this confidence, Berne is humble about her struggles regarding her inquiry into absence: “It takes quite a while to see all of this; it takes even longer to come up with something to say about it” (174). By flipping from large-scale musings on the nature of absence to more specific experiences, like jugglers attempting to entertain the crowd at Ground Zero, she makes the reader feel the disorientation she encountered, this flurry of both too much noise and too little being said. While it’s easy enough to purely critique the memorial, she also recognizes the effort and eloquence in the mourning period, too, in places like St. Paul’s Chapel, where it was showered with the “welter of dried pine wreaths, banners, ribbons, laminated poems and prayers” (174). In this sense, both great darkness and great light have the same effect—blindness. This blindness materializes in the form of the theme of absence: a lack of what to say, how to feel, and how to retell, truly, an absence of clarity. It’s interesting a place of literal vacancy such as Ground Zero has become overwhelming to Berne’s sensibilities—how contradictory, yet, how fitting to the central anchor of her op-ed.
Despite the disorientation Berne relays to the reader, Berne does end up giving shape to absence, discovering what those crowds were “craning” toward—but it might differ from what one would expect. She realizes that the shape of absence is in how absence shapes us, the mourners. This op-ed isn’t explicitly about Ground Zero, at least, not in the literal sense—like all stories, this is about people; in this case, how grief can lead to all machination of reactions, often, dichotomous ones at that. In this way, in the wake of national loss, an absence of life, stability, and security, Berne discovers an outpour of meaning in Ground Zero: “And by the act of our visiting -- whether we are motivated by curiosity or horror or reverence or grief, or by something confusing that combines them all --that space fills up again” (175).
Berne, Suzanne. “Ground Zero” Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. Patterns for College Writing: a Rhetorical Reader and Guide. Bedford/St. Martins, 2018. 173-176. Print.