Maximum Conditions of Darkness

The first days and weeks after the September 11th event was an extraordinary time to observe some of the machinery behind the American symbol making machine. It was also an opportune time to see the symbols being sent into battle against America.

The first days and weeks after the September 11th event was an extraordinary time to observe some of the machinery behind the American symbol making machine. It was also an opportune time to see the symbols being sent into battle against America. As it is with any great tragedy that serves to make people re-evaluate life in general, the September event had this re-evaluation effect on Americans. Life lost its incessant movement forward and suddenly time seemed stopped, the "ship of life" (even the ship of state) becalmed in a windless lagoon.

It was a time when "passengers" on the ship looked around them and "smelled the roses" and thought about other things than symbols. For a brief period of time, Americans slipped outside the trance hold of symbols on their daily life and unconscious, collective feelings moved more into a dim, hazy type of visibility.

This aftermath period was dominated by the symbolism of darkness rather than light. The night-time symbolism was a symbolism America and the western world understood far less than the day-time symbolism of light. Yet it seemed that much could be gained by examining America under the dominance of this dark period. It seemed almost as if someone had turned down the rheostat on the great light of American culture and in the new dimness new objects could be seen that had never been seen before in the bright light of normal everyday life.

Perhaps some symbolic message was even being sent to America as it fell out of its trance on tiny brand symbols for a while. There was this distinct possibility and even a dim glow of hope. I remembered one of my favorite quotes from a little known psychiatrist named W. Bion and his "Brazillian Lectures" of 1974:

"Instead of trying to bring a brilliant, intelligent, knowledgeable light to bear on obscene problems, I suggest we bring to bear a diminution of the light - a penetrating beam of darkness; a reciprocal of the searchlight.... The darkness would be so absolute that it would achieve a luminous, absolute vacuum. So that, if any object existed, however faint, it would show up very clearly. Thus, a very faint light would become visible in maximum conditions of darkness."

Within the "diminution of light" brought to America and the world after September 11th, perhaps there was a fleeting, unique window of opportunity to see these faintly glowing objects - wounded little lightning bugs - that would soon disappear in the glaring light of a grand symbol-making culture getting back to normal again. A unique chance to see those forgotten, invisible everyday objects of American life and culture: the little roadside cafes forgotten when interstates bypassed them; the towns along the freeways never really noticed before; the love we had for our children as they hugged us in the mornings before the family exploded in all different directions into the new day.

Little things. Things never seen as important as that big symbol project all Americans were engaged in day and night: producing symbols through work in the day; consuming symbols through the night and weekends; bragging about our collection of symbols; trying to keep up with the symbols of the Jones family next door.

The symbol-making machinery seemed down for a while and unsure what its future should be. The grand machine with all its moving parts was suddenly stopped. For a while it was possible to examine its frozen parts before they became blurred in movement once again, grinding out American symbols to the rest of the nation and world. Examine them in a dim room like old industrial machines in a factory before light and electricity. Here, they no longer looked so grand and magical.

In the dim days after September 11th it seemed important to open your eyes as much as possible and try to see into the darkness. Just as it sometimes seemed important to shield your eyes from the glaring normalcy of everyday life.

Soon, the brilliant light of everyday symbols would bring back a much needed familiarity and assuredness into the world. Like that little bluebird that appeared out the kitchen window sill at the end of the horrors of the movie Blue Velvet, the "blue birds" of American symbols would also return again to sing their lullaby after the horror of a terrible event.

Gradually, their soothing singing would turn into an invasion of our life like pesky bees at a summer picnic full of sugar. There would be laughing Pillsbury doughboys and dancing tablets for upset stomachs and singing toilet bowls again. Ah, the lights of culture would be back on again and things would again be "Open for Business."


© John Fraim 2001.

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