Thursday, September 25, 2008

Creative Destruction

In the days after 9/11, my mother wisely tried to put the disaster in perspective. In the past, she observed, people died in terrible epidemics and the survivors got on with life. So we have done in New York City since 9/11. Our resilience, the historian Max Page suggests in a fine new book, is grounded in the fact that people have been imagining New York's destruction for more than two centuries.

In The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York's Destruction (Yale, 2008), Page surveys every manner of imaginary apocalypse in Gotham, from fires to floods to nuclear war. He looks at every form of imagery, from films to drawings to novels. Through it all, with many pages of arresting illustrations, he finds conclusions that are surprisingly heartening.

As you might expect, he finds that depictions of disaster in New York reflect both the transformations of New York and long-standing American preoccupations: mixed feelings about cities, mistrust of immigrants, and the apocalyptic dimension of American religious thought. Still, he discerns two recurring themes.

One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city's end.

Page is wise enough to realize that the fears made real on 9/11 could make New York a more frightened and withdrawn place. They could also, he argues, make people more creative and public-spirited. We live delicately balanced between the two, but I'd bet on the latter. So does Page. "New York," he concludes, "will remain the way up for us all, the home of our ideals, and the place to which the world looks for ideas, for success, for art, and for a new start."

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