APRIL 10, 2003
Wedge of Light
In "The Varieties of Wounding Experience [Sightings, February 27]," Jeremy Biles, drawing on William James, asserts that wounds strike us from a place prior to logic and outside the limits of our control. Architect Daniel Libeskind's winning proposal for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center Towers site suggests that he would agree; his plans reveal an intriguing interplay between the psychic wounds that physical wounds provoke and the work of the wounded to respond. In giving voice to this relationship that so often operates in the background, Libeskind makes use of a "religious" attitude that takes responsibility for the healing measures available, but also recognizes that, to achieve full recovery, another pre-logical, unavailable event from beyond us needs to occur.
The most striking and attractive element of Libeskind's design is the 1,776-foot spire. The height of the spire grounds our response to September 11th, acting as the stake in the new expression of our national identity. At the same time, it indicates that our principles stand above us as an authority and perfection that is always out of reach. We look up to them for guidance, but our efforts at healing will be our own doing -- however imperfect and incomplete.
Libeskind's designs for the buildings at the site suggest the limits of any attempt to heal through rebuilding. Anything repeated loses the innocent, unexpected potentiality of original work, and any direct attempt to recapture the symbolism and meaning that the original towers took on over time would more than likely slip into irony. Libeskind's buildings are impressive, but their jagged, angular windows and walls suggest that these buildings cannot compare to the simple beauty and symmetry of the original towers in our memory. Rather than masking our wounds, Libeskind makes us conscious of them and conscious of our attempts to recover.
Nowhere is this consciousness more present than in the proposed public memorial space and the elevated walkway that surrounds it. The exposed slurry wall that holds back the Hudson River symbolizes the success of our constructions while measuring the depth of the void left by the collapse of the towers. We do not just see the void when we view the site, we are in the void -- contemplating it, contemplating our rebuilding, and peering up at the spire that soars above it. The sunken memorial space swallows our perspective, shadowing what we view with the sense of loss we feel. Furthermore, contrary to the idealistic authority of the spire we cannot reach, the void represents the authority of the wound to which we all have access. It is from this position of woundedness that any response will originate. The elevated walkway reminds us of our ability to be self-conscious, to understand that our responses are made in woundedness, and to entertain the possibility of other perspectives, including those of our fellow Americans in the space below.
Finally, Libeskind's Wedge of Light, a public space that will be illuminated by the sun each September 11th (courtesy of a gap between the proposed buildings) is an element completed only by something outside of itself. It shows us that, while we cannot rationalize away our loss, we should be open to the possibilities of transformation, especially in the ways and at the times we are most wounded. This is not to suggest that we don't rebuild, but rather to acknowledge that rebuilding will not ultimately fill our void. By understanding and accepting this, we leave ourselves vulnerable and incomplete, and render ourselves ready for healing. In this way, the memorial space is not just a space to remember or a space of woundedness, but it is also a space of anticipation and hope.
In describing the religious attitude, James said "[it is] the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." However analogously he, or we, would interpret that "order," his understanding of the religious attitude provides us with a perspective for appreciating Libeskind's plan for Lower Manhattan. Perhaps, it can provide us with perspective on the other ways we have responded and seek to respond to September 11th.
David Riihimaki is a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.