On one of the few clear days we’ve had this rainy autumn, I walked down Brattle Street to Mount Auburn Cemetery and wandered through acres furrowed with headstones and eroding statues. The sky was that distant hard blue you see only in the fall, and sunlight filled the laps of all the seated weeping angels. In that clear cool silence, everything I saw seemed charged with profound meaning; the wasps that, drowsy in the chill, buzzed through the fretted door of a crypt nauseated me. We are, I thought, the wasps and I, the only quick creatures in all these acres of graves, and they are moribund. The dying wasps were too obvious a reflection on mortality, as obscene as the contorted bodies in a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. I didn’t turn back; instead, frightened into solemnity, I walked on with the self-conscious gravity of a miscast Christmas pageant Madonna. And after a while, climbing the ridges and looking into the effaced faces of all those grieving angels, I thought: Death is not so fearsome, after all; I have been inured to it. I am changed.
This is what we Americans have been telling ourselves in the 14 months since Sept. 11, 2001: We are changed; we will never be the same again; we are now able to imagine the unimaginable, to face the most uncomfortable of realities. I do not mean to trivialize the events of Sept. 11 with the story of my visit to the cemetery; I mean only to say that my thoughts when I stood in the midst of all those graves were an echo of Americans’ earlier thoughts: I have seen too much death, and now I am changed.
Sept. 11 has most of all changed our feelings about disaster. We have a national security warning system now, a sort of mute, color-coded air raid siren, to further undermine our sense of security. And this formal ordering of fear has been supplemented by slippery rumors of attacks. My family goes to New York City for Thanksgiving every year, but this year—because my aunt knows someone who knows someone who heard that someone was planning an attack on shopping centers—we won’t be going to the post-Thanksgiving sales. “It’s ingenious, you know,” my aunt told me, “because shopping centers want you to be carrying packages. And anyone could just...” Like the security warning system, rumors give us a sense of control. Instead of fearing vaguely, we fear at a specified level, and we fear a threat specified by rumor. This is the way we live now: by codifying fear. This is how we’ve changed, we tell ourselves: We have ordered our fear, controlled it.
On a hill in the center of Mount Auburn Cemetery, there is a white tower like the rook from a giant chess set. Ninety-nine steps spiral to the crenellated parapet, where you can look out on Boston and Cambridge spread before you. When I got to the tower, I had been in the cemetery for an hour; the shock of the wasps had worn out, and I felt at peace with death.
There is a door at the bottom of the tower and then you walk up the narrow, spiraling steps. Windows in the tower light the staircase only intermittently, so that as you climb you are plunged from light into darkness again and again, and although I was climbing up I kept matching my step to the rhythm of the lines from “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay that run, “Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave, Gently they go.”
When I got to the top the sky was immense and Boston retreated a very long way below me, and I felt very small and alone. I was terrified, unable even to stand upright. Hunched and shivering with fear, I scuttled over to the rail and clutched it. Do not let me die, I prayed, oh, please don’t let me die. As soon as I could rely on my legs again, I descended the 99 steps, dragging my arm against the cool, solid core of the tower to ground me.
All the rest of the time I spent in the cemetery I walked unsteadily: My knees wouldn’t work properly. And I thought: I am not changed. It is impossible, I think, to intellectually reconcile oneself with death or disaster, because real fear inspires a visceral reaction. This is why events like those of Sept. 11, although they change the structure of our government and inspire much philosophizing, can never prepare us to accept another disaster; another disaster would find us as terrified, and as bewildered at our terror, as I was at the top of that tower. We say we are changed, and I hope we never learn how mistaken we are.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.