Howard Jacobson: The terrible beauty of hatred and destruction

'The unimaginable is only too imaginable. We know what cruelties we are capable of'
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The Independent Online

We feel – those of us not dancing – like the prophetess Cassandra, "scenting those old brutal things done long ago", helpless before the coming to pass of horrors despite her foreboding of them, all her presentiments toppling about her like blood from the skies. "O sorrow, sorrow of my city dragged to uttermost death."

We rarely do a Cassandra in this column, feeling more at home with the role of Greek Chorus. "No, I am lost. After the darkness of her speech/I go bewildered in a mist of prophecies."

But all the Chorus parts have been taken, everything has been said, every misted bewilderment owned up to and repeated, over and over. Analyse all you like, you cannot not imagine – that is something else Choruses know – and yet you cannot adequately imagine either. I wonder if that, too, might not be part of the obsessive ghoulish watching to which the whole world has confessed – some consciousness of the debt we owe to imagination but can never pay.

Stare one more time at that bird loosed from hell, propelled with more malign intent than any painter of devils and Last Judgements has ever come remotely close to rendering, and maybe we will get there.

Stare one more time as it banks and swoops, hurling itself at the tower now from this camera angle, now from that, and maybe we will know, as we owe it to them to know, how it was for those passengers at last to realise the mission they'd been kidnapped at knifepoint to fulfil.

We won't, of course, we won't ever know their horror, not even if they were to come briefly back, like so many ghosts of Hamlet's father, to tell us. So on we go, surfing the channels for more, sitting up half the night, watching over and over, conscious, at the same time, that we are doing exactly what the perpetrators mean us to be doing. Marvelling at their work.

For that's the other thing that glues us to the painted pictures on the box: the terrible beauty of hatred's child, destruction. "Let's face it," writes the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, in her poem "Hatred", "it knows how to make beauty./ The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies./ Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.'

I routinely dream of planes crashing into my house. Usually I am at the window, drinking wine, enjoying conversation with a woman. It's the woman who notices the plane. I am too busy noticing her. "Look," she says. "That's cutting it a bit fine." Then we realise it isn't cutting it a bit fine at all. A millionth of a second before it crashes into us, not approximately on top of us but very precisely into us via the window, I wake.

Unlike some nightmares which I am not averse to turning over and rejoining, this one marks the end of sleep. I won't be going there again this night.

It has to be said, though, that the plane attacking my house is always out of control, stricken and perhaps pilotless, and finds me and the woman I am talking to only by accident. Our helplessness against accidentality is what defines the horror.

How my dream will be affected by the spectacle of a plane piloted to destroy I don't yet know. But then we have all witnessed a hitherto unimaginable malignancy this week, and it's too early to say how it will affect any of our dreams. Unless the unimaginable is only too imaginable and our dreams and nightmares are nothing but premonitions of it, anticipations of what we know is coming because we know what cruelties we are capable of.

When I was about 14 I met a Christian missionary to the Jews. He gave me lots of pamphlets, told me he loved the Jewish people, and explained that the world would end where it had begun, in the Middle East. I think he also told me it would be my fault, but I could have misremembered that. I've been scared since, anyway. Who knows, in some obscure way this could explain my plane dream.

If you ask me what I've been scared of, I think my answer would have to be this – the very thing that has just occurred. An event so steeped in ancient grievance that history will unravel and end where it began.

Shapely, if you're prepared to stand back from it. Bad luck if you're a Hindu or a Taoist, but for the rest of us Christians, Jews and Muslims, each claiming the one and only direct line through to a Middle Eastern God, we'll be fulfilling the logic of our immemorial differences.

That we'll be able to see ourselves perish on television, and hear our last goodbyes on mobile phones, makes it only the shapelier. Wasn't that the most Biblical part – planes, skyscrapers, cameras, telephones – humanity consumed in its own impious devices?

But it's not the role of Chorus to follow that line of thought. Altogether too prophetic, and in the end there's something inhuman about prophecy.

The proper way to think about wealth and machinery is to be touched by their insufficiency. There was brisk business in lower Manhattan the morning the towers collapsed, at shops selling $8 flip-flops. Fleeing women needing to change out of their high-heels. And now there are people posting pictures to cars and lampposts, scrawled descriptions of the missing – height, weight, eye-colour. Much like those sad posters you see asking for help finding a lost cat.

It's more than the heart can bear. The most technologically sophisticated community on earth, down now to scraps of paper, worn threadbare with grief.