Essay: Anything Can Happen

August 28, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: A year ago, about this time, this village never looked more like the reason we moved here. The bay was empty of powerboats; the snappy summer restaurants were closed; the beach lay open as a prarie; and the sky, the sky that drew all those painters to Long Island in the 1940s and 50s, the sky was big as Montana’s.You know the next, of course. On September 10, perfect day becomes tranquil night becomes rosy fingered dawn, and then the TV screen, and the airplanes and the cries of “Oh my God.” The world is full of surprises, not all of them pleasant.

REPORTER: Hundreds of people just dying on the ground —

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Until September 11, 2001, the bad surprises belonged to other people–Bopal, Chernoble, somehwere in Mexico, somewhere in Africa.

Now, like those other people, we know that anything can happen. John Guare used that line in his play, Lydie Breeze, “Anything can happen.” The line is said–it is always said–with an admixture of horror and amazement and an embitterment of recognition. Generally, it is not a consoling thought. Anything can happen.

SINGING: If I had a million dollars I’d buy your love

ROGER ROSENBLATT: It can pump itself up to a state of hopefulness when you buy a lottery ticket. But when you apply it to the world of events, it usually focuses on things like a mother murdering her own children; a vast corporation revealing itself as a petty thief; miners, in this modern day and age, still getting trapped in a mineshaft. To be sure, something else can happen, too. The skill of technicians, in this modern day and age, can find a way to get the miners out alive. Anything can happen.

Interesting, how the observation defies, is greater than our imaginations. That tree there. It could become a hand. That hand could grasp a knife. That knife could go for your heart. Or, for a piece of fruit that might have originally fallen from the tree. Anything can happen.

In literature, in plays especially, anticipation is superior to surprise. We might be tickled to see Hamlet knock off all his enemies at the end of Act Five, the teenage King of Denmark, and invent Danish pastry with Victor Borge. But it is more satisfying to us–if not to Hamlet to see the sweet prince die. Life envies art.

Mornings in this village–September 10 included–one looks to the east to see the sun’s rays flash on and off like a desperate SOS through the branches of a particular tree. One would be stunned, but not delighted to see the Moon rise there instead. Anything can happen. Theoretically, we might say that we should have seen September 11 coming. But the audience for that play would have required the perspective of the sun itself.

Where were you on the morning of September 10? Not the 11th, but the 10th or the 9th, or August 26th? The question is asked not merely to confirm that anything can happen, but to suggest that people will make anything happen, will do absolutely anything. Lull yourself into the stark serenity of late summer days, and you conclude that savagery always belongs to somebody else. And then you recall the time you lost your temper and would have killed for a song. Lull yourself into thinking that life is in your control. But anything can happen.

WOMAN: This is my husband. I’m just so afraid.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Of course, anything means anything. There was September 10th and 11th. But there was also September 12 and 13 and October 6th and all the days that followed, when “anything” included sympathy along with rage and embraces fo sorrowful strangers. Such things do not serve as palliatives as much as reminders that we live in a mystery as deep as the empty sea. Anything can happen.

Jesus saves. Lazarus laughs. Fish gotta swim, planes gotta fly. Love walks right in and drives the shadows away.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.