The Writing of Terrorism: Contemporary American Fiction and Maurice Blanchot

by Christian Klöckner (Author)
©2017 Thesis 256 Pages
Series: Transcription, Volume 10


Terrorism has long been a popular subject for American fiction writers. This book argues that terrorism in 1990s novels by Paul Auster, Philip Roth, and Bret Easton Ellis serves as a key trope to interrogate the limits of writing and the power of literature. Based on the complex literary and philosophical thought of Maurice Blanchot, this study deals with the writer’s terrorist temptation, language’s investment in violence, and literature’s negotiation of radical alterity. Auster’s, Roth’s, and Ellis’s novels elucidate contemporary political and economic developments as well as our cultural fear of, and fascination with, terrorism. The writing of terrorism can thus become the foundation of a different politics where, according to Maurice Blanchot, «there is no explosion except a book.»

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • General Editor’s Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • I. The Writing of Terrorism: Contemporary American Fiction and Maurice Blanchot. Introduction
  • II. Infinite Conversations: Reading Auster with Blanchot
  • III. Ruptures (I): The Double Games Of Leviathan
  • IV. Ruptures (II): Coincidences, The Fall, and the Neutre
  • V. Writing (I): Paradoxical Demands
  • VI. Writing (II): Terror, Freedom, and Death
  • VII. Responsibility: The Anarchic Leviathan of the Book
  • VIII. The Sublime Other: Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and History’s Terror
  • IX. Violence: Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama as a Borderline Case
  • X. Detours: Writing Of Terror(ism) and the Holocaust
  • XI. Works Cited

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I.   The Writing of Terrorism: Contemporary American Fiction and Maurice Blanchot. Introduction

In a book that deals with the question how American novels of the 1990s engaged with terrorism, to begin with 9/11 may seem incongruous. Yet, precisely because 9/11 was not the beginning of a new era, let us start with what is not our affair and ponder the German avant-garde musician Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comments about the terrorist attacks that still haunt our collective memories. At a press conference five days after September 11, 2001, Stockhausen considered the significance of the terrorist attacks and went on to compare the destruction of the World Trade Center to the creation process and the impact of an artwork:

That minds could achieve something in one act, which we in music could not even dream of, that people rehearse like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically for one concert, and then die. This is the greatest work of art imaginable for the entire cosmos. […] You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5,000 people are chased into the afterlife, in one moment. I could not do that. By comparison, we composers are nothing. […] Imagine that I could create a work of art now and you were not only astonished, but you would immediately collapse, you would be dead and then reborn because it is simply too insane. Some artists also try to cross the boundaries of the thinkable and the possible, to wake us up, to open another world for us. […] What happened there spiritually, this jump out of security, out of the self-evident, out of life, this also happens sometimes little by little in art. Or it is nothing. (qtd. in Spahn 38, my translation)1 ← 11 | 12 →

Stockhausen’s comments and particularly his hyperbolic designation of the most devastating terrorist attacks on American soil as the “greatest work of art imaginable for the entire cosmos” were quickly condemned as inappropriate and even nihilist. Although his ruminations were predictably controversial in the tense aftermath of 9/11 and also led to some cancellations of Stockhausen’s concerts, they raise questions that fifteen years later are still worth asking: Do artists and terrorists really share similar fantasies and goals? On what grounds can artistic transgressions be compared to atrocious, criminal acts? Is there an aesthetics of terrorism that we need to grasp in order to better understand terrorism’s cultural effects? And how does one account for the whiff of terrorism “envy” (Lentricchia and McAuliffe, “Groundzeroland” 351) in Stockhausen’s contention that the artist falls far short of the terrorist’s power?

For all the outrage in a public that quite understandably was not much inclined to entertain a radical conception of art at that historical moment, the reasoning behind Stockhausen’s comments was nothing new or particularly extraordinary. In fact, Stockhausen’s aspiration of achieving individual and public transformation through artistic transgression “of the thinkable and the possible” is very much part of the avant-garde tradition. According to this understanding, the transgressive work of art is the veritable work of destruction that sweeps away all traditions and creates in its audience a new consciousness that will, to paraphrase Stockhausen, open them to another world. The terrorists’ devotion to their “performance” in Stockhausen’s account is therefore reminiscent of those performance artists who professed their willingness to die for art’s sake when they critically wounded their bodies in the aestheticized and ritualized violence of staged shootings or other mutilations (cf. Schechner 1822). Crucially, however, Stockhausen extends this violent fantasy to a peculiar definition of the terrorist performance’s ‘audience’: On his mind are neither the eyewitnesses in Manhattan, nor the millions of people following the attacks live on TV. In fact, Stockhausen’s audience designates the attacks’ victims, whose death and resurrection in the “afterlife” of the terrorist work of art is not merely metaphorical, but a physical obliteration.

In the context of the 9/11 attacks, this desire to merge the symbolic and the real, to conflate the spiritual and the physical, as well as to model the terrorist on the figure of the artist was certainly risky business. A theory of art that sought to leave the realm of representation behind in order to become action and attain the real thing was unpalatable when representation in general had become suspicious: Now that reality had caught up with the numerous fictional destructions of the World Trade Center in Hollywood movies, the artistic flirtation with ← 12 | 13 → disaster could hardly be tolerated anymore (cf. Sielke, “Ende”). If Richard Drew’s photograph of the “Falling Man” was already subjected to widespread (self-)censorship because it seemed to unduly aestheticize the suffering of the World Trade Center “jumpers,” Stockhausen’s aesthetic and spiritual interpretation of the terrorist attacks as a “jump out of security, out of the self-evident, out of life” was simply unbearable.

And yet, writers and artists have long dreamt that if they could only bridge the gap between the word and the thing, the canvas and the world, their art could be a means to seize people’s consciousness, demolish the current order, transform being, and recreate the world. Quite often indeed, this fantasy was to be achieved through some form of violence. When we celebrate artworks for their innovative and humanizing qualities that not long ago were deemed shocking transgressions of aesthetics and morality, we sometimes forget how intimately artistic avant-gardes like Symbolism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism or the Black Arts Movement aligned themselves with acts of indiscriminate violence: “The simplest Surrealist act,” André Breton declared in the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” (1930), consisted of “firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” (125). F. T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” claimed that poetry “must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown” and that art “can only be violence, cruelty, injustice.” Tristan Tzara’s “Second Dada Manifesto” apocalyptically pledged the preparation of a “great spectacle of disaster, conflagration and decomposition” (qtd. in Schechner 1821). Appropriating this tradition in “Black Art,” Amiri Baraka famously called for “‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns” (142).

Stockhausen’s commentary on 9/11 demonstrated the topicality of this radical discourse and served for Richard Schechner’s claim that the terrorist attacks stood in “direct succession” to artistic avant-garde movements and actualized some of their “key ideas and impulses” (1825). Philosopher Slavoj Žižek concurred that the al Qaeda terrorists seemed to tap into what Alain Badiou had identified as the twentieth-century “passion for the Real”: the belief of politicians and artists alike that only an act of violent transgression is a sign of authenticity capable of “delivering the thing itself” and realizing a new order (Welcome 5–6). Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe are thus right to conclude that with respect to their shared desire of transgression and transformation, terrorism and this radical tradition of aesthetic theory are “isomorphic” (354). This study seeks to further explore this isomorphic relationship between terrorism and the arts by turning to fictions of terror written in the decade before 9/11, and it keeps in ← 13 | 14 → mind the dictum widely attributed to Stéphane Mallarmé: “I know of no other bomb but a book” (qtd. in McGuinness 812).2

This avant-gardist tradition notwithstanding, many American writers at the end of the twentieth century seemed to have become much more skeptical regarding their ability to live or render authentic experience. They also questioned the social function and power that literature still possessed in a media-saturated “society of the spectacle” (Debord). The paradigmatic fictional text in the discourse on terrorism and the arts for that time period is surely Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991). In this novel, Bill Gray, a reclusive author who has spent the last 23 years writing a book he will never publish, agrees to emerge from his isolation to participate in a media event to help free a poet taken hostage in Beirut. In conversations with a photographer and a mediator for the Maoist Palestinian terrorists, Gray expresses the fatalistic belief in a “zero-sum game” between writers and terrorists in shaping the “inner life of the culture”: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” (41, 156–57). Gray professes that Beckett was the last writer to change the way we think, and he adds: “After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings” (157).3

Stockhausen’s lament that composers are “nothing” compared to the 9/11 terrorists who have just created “the greatest work of art” has to be understood in the context of such widespread cultural pessimism. And even though Mao II’s protagonist reaffirms his belief in the novel due to its commitment to democracy and difference (157), he would probably concede that the man with the greatest impact on American culture in the early twenty-first century was, by many accounts, Osama bin Laden. In a Washington Post article commemorating the death of al Qaeda’s leader and spiritual mastermind, Philip Kennicott wrote sardonically that until September 10, 2001, “it was still possible to believe in the future, like a religion of infinite promise” that held out the hope of a global consensus on capitalism, democracy, and world unity: ← 14 | 15 →

One man dispelled all of that, casting the world simultaneously backward and forward with a single morning of destruction. He refreshed old ideas about history, religion and the role of epic players in the course of human events. The concept of evil had a new lease on life […]. He made so many atavistic ideas once again respectable that the world felt new and different, engulfed in a fresh age of apocalypse.

Even though the genre of the obituary certainly contributed to Kennicott’s hyperbole, the article clearly registered the powerful sense of the attacks’ radical novelty still felt widely ten years after 9/11. And perhaps this sense still rang true precisely because the al Qaeda terrorists’ combination of state-of-the-art technologies with mythic and archaic traditions strangely recalled the modernist methods of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot to “make it new.” To be sure, many writers approached the 9/11 attacks in similar poetic or aesthetic terms. Borrowing from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916,” Jonathan Franzen attributed to the towers’ collapse a “terrible beauty” (2001, 29); for Martin Amis, 9/11 figured as the “apotheosis of the postmodern era—the era of images and perceptions” (Amis 2001). To Paul Auster, whose writing forms a main focal point of this study, the attacks looked so original that he immediately deemed them to be the beginning of the twenty-first century (“Random Notes” 35). Kennicott’s article elaborated on the wide-ranging cultural imprint of the terrorist attacks by pointing to the constraints imposed on urban design, architecture, airports, and public transportation as well as to the changing complexion of movie villains and the re-staging of the “old exotica of Orientalism” in opera and ballet. The terrorist attacks resulted also, he argued, in an intensified interest in the Arab world, “a passionate need to know the art and culture of The Other.” Seemingly, not only had the terrorist displaced the writer in shaping public consciousness, he even had begun to set the cultural agenda.

The terrorist attacks’ cultural impact is reflected in the broad array of artistic responses that proliferated in virtually all media and genres and that tried to relate personal stories or to make sense of 9/11 on collective, cultural, and political levels. Because of its brevity and its task of finding an adequate language for what had happened, poetry was the first literary form to grapple with the events. Dramatic responses soon followed, with Anne Nelson’s play The Guys premiering off-Broadway in December 2001. Many shorter prose pieces were quickly published independently or collected in anthologies. Novels began to make passing references to 9/11 in 2002 before the publication of Frédéric Beigbeder’s French ← 15 | 16 → novel Windows on the World in 2003 opened a veritable deluge of 9/11-themed novels in the following years.4


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (December)
Political Violence Literary Theory Alterity Paul Auster Philip Roth Bret Easton Ellis
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 256 pp.

Biographical notes

Christian Klöckner (Author)

Christian Kloeckner teaches North American literature and culture at the University of Bonn. His research interests include literature and political violence, (post-)modernist poetry, memorial culture, discourses of race and class, and the intersections of financialization, debt, and nostalgia in U.S. culture.


Title: The Writing of Terrorism: Contemporary American Fiction and Maurice Blanchot