I can’t imagine anything potentially more tedious, in an election year that is already interminable, than for someone to start bringing up—yet again—September 11. (Joe Biden on Rudy Giuliani: “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”) But a recent incident with our almost-four year old son served, in one bold stroke, to catalyze my thinking about the places where art and faith intersect, and what faith can mean for art.
September 11 had come up in conversation with our son as a result of his ongoing fascination with firefighters. Riffling through my bedside table drawer one day, he pulled out a small pamphlet of Bible verses that the American Bible Society had produced in the wake of the attacks, that I had picked up in one of the Washington, D.C. airport chapels around that time. On the cover of the pamphlet was one of the photographs of grime-covered firefighters against the backdrop of those charred steel girders that all of us can instantly recognize.
As delicately but as truthfully as we could, we told him about how the building was on fire, the many firefighters who had rushed in to save the thousands of people, and how brave they were, but how many had died and “gone to live with Jesus.” That conversation subsequently led, whenever my husband or I would see a picture of the World Trade Center or some reference to the attacks would be made, to more talk about “the time that the firefighters tried to save all the people.”
One afternoon, though, a propos of nothing—and when we had forgotten all about it—Alex started asking us to tell the story about the firefighters again. “I’m going to go get the picture of that building!” he said in his determined way and strode across the living room to the bookcase, pumping his little arms. We assumed that he meant the pamphlet. But the heavy book he came back with instead, balanced awkwardly on his palms, was the Don DeLillo novel Underworld, which features on its cover a black and white Andre Kertesz photograph of the Twin Towers, which frame a small cross atop the tower of what I assume is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“There,” my son said. “That’s the building.”
It hit me then that he was not talking about the World Trade Center as a symbol of global capitalism, Western decadence, or even as a prospective grave for “fallen heroes.” It was not a trope or a synecdoche. His relationship to the photograph did not even have anything to do with religion. (It is said that DeLillo at first objected to putting that photograph on the cover, thinking it too religious.)
Rather, he was talking about the building—a building where people had worked and tried to do good, or not, and which firefighters had not been able to save. And it was a photograph on the cover of a book—in other words, art—that had forged a powerful, concrete connection in his young mind, and he had responded passionately.
That moment seemed to crystallize for me a lot of the spiritual potential of art, and what at the same time irks me in specific about a lot of contemporary fiction. (Of which more in the next post.) Maybe it’s just because I’ve lived for years now in Washington, D.C., where, in the more fashionable neighborhoods, whole lives can find themselves slowly encrusted in ideological machinery.
Or maybe it’s more a reflection of who I am. Let tell you what you are getting (to use a locution from Joan Didion): a thirty-nine year old wife and mother trying to stay in the middle class, in the dicey suburbs of the east side of Washington, attempting to puzzle out some semblance of an artistic vocation. I have had too much of art as handmaiden of anybody’s ideology, right or left, and I am wearied with symbols. (“If it’s just a symbol,” Flannery O’Connor famously said of the Eucharist, “then to hell with it.”)
What I need, instead, is the building.
Or as the title of the second Talking Heads album said it even better, More Songs About Buildings and Food!
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Caroline Langston
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.