What Remains

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Eighteen years ago, with whole chunks of my address book gutted by AIDS, I attended the first Broadway production of Angels in America. I emerged from the Walter Kerr Theater, the closing scene still lingering in my mind, to face a bitterly cold February night and a sky brilliant with stars. For a moment, like Kushner’s lost housewife, I imagined every friend I had lost as a separate constellation, mapped for me, forever, in a private welkin.

Fifteen years ago, I produced a documentary about the cultural legacy of The Titanic, and it brought me into contact with Gavin Bryars’ haunting composition, The Sinking of The Titanic.

Gavin Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic (excerpt)

In an interview, the composer discussed his fascinating creative process. He is one of a handful of people who believe that the band was playing the Episcopal hymn “Autumn,” rather than the generally favored “Nearer My God to Thee,” as the ship went down, and Sinking re-imagines that plangent work as it might sound 2.5 miles under water and broken up over time. The resulting musical bed, languorous and solemn, is the alembic in which Bryars floats the most striking aspect of his piece: the voices of actual survivors and sounds drawn from their memories. So the work eerily commemorates the tragedy by placing the (then) living eternally along side the dead, with both transcending time and mortality.

This week, I am listening to Alec Baldwin’s funny, tender, sympathetic reading of Colson Whitehead’s essay, “Lost and Found” which we’ll be featuring as part of a special Selected Shorts program honoring the 9/11 anniversary. “Lost and Found” was originally published in The New York Times Magazine on November 11th, 2001 — one of a series of special commissions asking writers to celebrate the city in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Alec Baldwin reading Colson Whitehead's "Lost and Found" (excerpt)

Written just weeks after the event, it nevertheless manages the astonishing feat of placing that savage act in a larger continuum — the perpetuum mobile that is New York City:

Our streets are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next. We see ourselves in this city every day when we walk down the sidewalk and catch our reflections in store windows, seek ourselves in this city each time we reminisce about what was there 5, 10, 40 years ago… The twin towers still stand because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, were lucky enough to know them for a time.

Each of these works, each written in response to events that redefined history and realigned the souls and minds of all who witnessed them, seems to carry the same message: whatever has been lost will be with us, always, in the space between the world of history and fact, and that of memory and spirit. In the space inhabited by requiem, where, as Wordsworth said in another connection, “We will grieve not, rather find: Strength in what remains behind.”