reciting it to myself as a private paritta against the brutal normalness of her death — is, of course, perverse. But so are we all. Like most national tragedies, 9/11 exerts a magnetism, our horror always bordering on fascination. Our empathy on voyeurism. There are dozens of YouTube videos depicting the planes hitting the towers, the towers collapsing. I’ve seen them all. We attach ourselves compulsively to the spectacle and sublime anguish of the event — bypassing the more irksome work of reckoning with its meaning. 

As much as the Disintegration Loops facilitate a form of mourning — offering, as Anthony Tommasini put it in the New York Times, “some sense that this loss will also, in time, be folded into the cycle of life” — they betray, in their incessant, unresolved repetition, the symptoms of mourning’s peculiar cousin: what Freud called melancholia. Melancholia, says Freud, “behaves like an open wound.” It aches, bleeds, precludes working through the trauma that caused it. Like the pulsing refrain of the first disintegration loop, the memory of 9/11 emerges and fades in a reliable cycle: as an annual flaring up of fear, anger, sorrow, regret; the return of images hidden or repressed, the reminder of lurking threats. We rehearse our pain. Not because it remains raw but for fear that it will cease to be so. We write essays like this one. Other people read them or intend to or groan at the redundancy of another 9/11 essay. It all feels rote but necessary. Perhaps, like Basinski, we “wish we never had to talk about 9/11 again.” But we haven’t learned how to stop talking, how to welcome — rather than indefinitely forestall — silence.

Once a year, we breathe our collective melancholic sigh: a ritual restaging of grief, an affirmation of our fidelity to the trauma of 9/11, which wards off the unpleasant ghosts of the past. Attaching ourselves to the sublime quality of our misery, we wrench the event free of its political and historical context. We remember 9/11 — in waves of incessant commemoration, ghostly re-performances of grief — in order to forget the horrible truth it inflicted: that America is not so beloved, not so democratic; not the center, not the future.