Analysis of "Random Notes – September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground" by Paul Auster with regard to public and private trauma

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

17 Pages, Grade: 2,3



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. General facts about Random Notes - September 11,2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground by Paul Auster

3. The history of trauma theory

4. Analysis of Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground by Paul Auster in regard to private and public trauma

5. Conclusion

6. Sources


We all know about the terrorist attacks on the 11th of September 2001. They were unprecedented in their magnitude and aftermath. In the wake of the attacks a huge amount of personal essays, political opinions and testimonials were produced by several novelists, short story writers, script authors, playwrights and artists. The need of not only reconstruction by engineers and clean-up crews but also stories that try to make the survival meaningful was discovered. A lot of authors try to find a meaning in the silence after the disaster and try to create an index to measure the absences that define New York.

In this seminar paper one of the above-mentioned short stories with the title Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground by Paul Auster with regard to public and private trauma will be analyzed.

In the New York Times Summary of Final Report the following has been written: “We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we all came together as a nation - one nation.” (“Summary of the Final Report” 1)) where the American identity and the American sense of togetherness and the strong intention to defeat the terror and the trauma is shown. In this paper the aspects will be discussed, delimited and analyzed on the basis of Auster's short story, published in Ulrich Bears 110 Stories on the 11th of September 2012, because he had an incredible gift of shaping the horrible disaster into words.

Before the 110 Stories had been edited by Ulrich Bear there was not any single collection that has recorded how New York writers of literary fiction, poetry and dramatic prose responded to the 11th of September. Ulrich Baer commented about his book:” The World Trade Center's twin towers rose 110 stories high. Just as each of these 110 stories was filled with individuals of every stripe, the contributions in this volume represent the diverse [...] texture of New York City.” (Baer 1) With regard to the horrific attacks also the American writer and director Paul Auster felt obligated to shape 9/11 into his own words, within his own story Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground. In his story Auster never had the intention to create an index to measure the absences that newly defined New York or to give a simple answer for the question “Why?”, rather he had the impression to catch the moment of 9/11.

The attacks on the 11th of September have entered collective memory as an event that caused public and private traumas. In the 110 stories both the other writers and Paul Auster tried to impress themselves in creating stories and poems with words for an event no one has the right words for. Ulrich Baer adds in his introduction:” This book should help people - they can read literature as an escape. Literature should help to confront people with reality without promising wholeness or denying absence, shock and loss. The attacks hijacked our imagination and expanded it with a kind of knowledge and a series of images that no one had wanted to contemplate.” (Baer 7)

General facts about Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground by Paul Auster


At the beginning of the story the narrator tells about his daughter and her first time taking the underground all one. He describes the situation that no subways are running anymore and that his daughter luckily passed the Twin Towers before the first one collapsed. Paul Auster reports that it smelled of fire and how his wife's sister called to tell them what happened, what she recognized and how she felt. Afterwards it is expounded how the narrator talks to his barber who tells him about the lady who owns the shop next door and how she spoke to her son, working in the Twin Towers, one hour before them collapsed. Paul Auster thinks of a situation seeing his friend Petit walking and dancing between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, just after the construction of the buildings was completed. In the second part of the story, called Underground, the location changes: Auster portrays a usual situation in the New Yorker underground, how the passengers read their newspapers and books, how they behave and that the sound of the train can be heard. The story ends with a common event, everyone who takes the subway is familiar with: The train stops, the lights go out and the passengers just sit there in silence and wait for the train to start moving again. But on that day nothing is normal and no one is familiar with.

Narration/Point of view:

The story is told by a first person narrator. The narrator is a man and he has a daughter and a wife. A lot of personal thoughts and feelings as a sign for a first person narrator are revealed. The text is written in his point of view and all the other characters in his story are described directly. Furthermore the narrator is very reliable because the text contains his own reactions. At the beginning of Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground the narrator is talking about his daughter - which can be related to Paul Auster's daughter who was born in 1987. So she was a 14 year old girl in 2011. On the basis of this fact one can suspect that Paul Auster appears in his own story as first person narrator - therefore he wrote a story from his point of view.


The story takes place in New York after 9/11. Exactly where in New York and how long after the attacks is not described. But one can be sure, that the story happens directly after 9/11, because the narrator is telling about his daughter's first day to take the subway all alone. After she passed the Twin Towers they collapsed, so hence we are at home at a normal family of New York. If we relate Paul Auster's story to his own life one can suppose that the family lives in Brooklyn which is part of New York, where the social environment is the middle class.The setting creates kind of relieved atmosphere as well as a traumatic atmosphere: First he talks about his daughter and that she was lucky enough to pass the Twin Towers in time and arranged that she could stay at their friend's house. Secondly he expresses his grief and shock about the catastrophe.


The language in the text is very formal and descriptive. While reading the title Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground it seems a bit weird for the reader because the text is extremely formal and structured and nothing textual can be related to or associated with random notes.


For Paul Auster 9/11 was the beginning of a war and harm of the 21st century. The main theme in his story is trauma.

Short facts about Paul Auster:

Paul Auster was born on the 3rd of February 1947 in New Jersey. He graduated at Columbia University and moved to Paris afterwards. Later on he returned to America and actually he is living with his wife Siri Hustvedt and his daughter Sophie Auster in Brooklyn, New York. He is an American writer and director whose writing blends absurdism, existentialism and crime fiction. He also writes books with main themes like search for identity and personal meaning. His books have been translated into more than forty languages. (Auster 35)

The history of trauma theory

As reported by Caruth the originally the Greek word “trauma” referred to an injury inflicted on the body rather than on the mind. Actually it is more and more used to refer to conditions concerning the mind. (Caruth 3) Unlike the injury of the body that is easy to cure, the wounding of the body is much more complex because it is not experienced in real time, which makes it harder to register for our consciousness. Sigmund Freud was one of the first to explore the realm of psychology and psychoanalysis when he discovered that a physical trauma was the basis of women's so-called hysteria. According to Caruth the most general definition of trauma is the description of an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena. (11) The fact that the event was overwhelming for the victim means that the victim's brain was not prepared for a shattering experience. LaCapra claims that the victim was not ready to feel pain and anxiety. (90) The main feature of trauma is that the victim is not aware of the trauma at the time of the occurrence. Because of the unexpectedness of the event, the brain is not able to process the shock immediately. Thus one can speak about a gap between the occurrence of the trauma and the return to full consciousness.

If one relates the knowledge mentioned above with the attacks on the 11th of September it can be said that 9/11 was one of the most unexpected and most shocking of all traumatic events in the recent past. It caused a wave of unbelief as it was broadcast all around the world. It has to be mentioned that one has to differ between private and public trauma. Private trauma means the personal, unique mental and emotional injury that can be caused by a traumatic event or even the loss of family members, friends and colleagues. The person as himself/herself stands in the focus. The personal grief, the mental confusion, the impossibility to tackle what happened and to handle the situation. On the top of everything the question “How to come over a trauma” appears. There are many ways in which a person can “act out” his or her traumatic experiences. In many cases nightmares often take the patient back to the trauma unconsciously but even when awake and fully conscious, the patient can experience flash-backs of the traumatic event. LaCapra analyzes acting out as a mental state “in which one is haunted or possessed by the past and performativity caught up in the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes [...] In acting out, tenses implode, and it is as if one were back there in the past reliving the traumatic scene.” (LaCapra 21)

In comparison to private trauma public trauma refers to the whole city, the whole nation, the whole country or the whole world. It relates to the general impact and feelings of a group of victims or people who are aware of the occurred event. It does not matter if they experience the event live or via television and the news. Nevertheless for the country's nation in which the catastrophe took place the public trauma is significantly worse than the one for people who are farer away and aren't that tight of the event.

In regard to the horrible attacks on the 11th of September 2011 the New Yorker inhabitants had to suffer the strongest public trauma of all. Nevertheless all of America and the full world was shocked and could not put 9/11 into words. In Paul Auster's Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground he describes both - the private and the public trauma.

Analysis of Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground by Paul Auster in regard to private and public trauma

As mentioned above Paul Auster's Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground is divided into two parts: The first one is called Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M. and the second one is called Underground.

To begin with the first part, Auster writes a lot about his family and his own impressions and experiences. Within the first part of his short story signs for a private trauma can be found. The story begins with a description of his daughter and how she takes the subway alone for the first time of her life. The postposition of the word alone is chosen to emphasize the situation of a little girl, who is alone in the subway. It causes fear, as well as curiosity to the reader, because you read the story with having the attacks of the 11th of September 2011 in your mind. In regard to a private trauma it shows Auster's fear and his situation not to know if his daughter was safe or not. The next sentence She will not coming home tonight underlines the fear that can cause a trauma heavily. The reader presumes that something happened to the girl in regard to the attacks. The atmosphere is depressing here. In addition to that, the part of the next sentence The subways are no longer running in New York [...] increases the suspense. Only when one reads the sentence till its end, one knows, that Auster's daughter can stay at a friend's house on the Upper West Side of New York.

At the beginning of the “Random Notes” Paul Auster describes how all the parents likely felt, when they heard what had happened and how hard it was for them to handle the inner tension and anxiety feelings until they contacted their children. If they got a connection to them and knew that everything was fine, they heave a sigh of relief, but if not this anxiety feelings could reach to a personal trauma. Because not everyone could be so happy like Auster whose daughter passed the World Trade Center two hours before the Twin Towers collapsed. In the following section Paul Auster reports what he can see and smell from the top floor of his house: [.] we can see the smoke filling the sky of the city. The wind is blowing toward Brooklyn today, and the smell of the fire have settled into every room of the house. A terrible, stinging odor: flaming plastic, electric wire, building materials. Within this part many signs can be found in regard to private trauma: First of all the author describes the personal impression and how the disaster looked and smelled like. It is very difficult for people to deal with such massive impressions. It is hard to get such horrific pictures out of your head. Even harder is it to not remember the smell of the fire and burning material. Every time someone lights a fire those people will be reminded of 9/11. As said, not everybody can deal with kind of these horrible, not daily impressions and this can lead to a private trauma. In Auster's portray of how the smell of the fire has settled into every room of the house two symbols can be found: Auster's house is the symbol for the mind and the soul of every single human who experienced 9/11 live. And the smell of fire that settled into every room of the house is a symbol for the impressions and the following depressions and the caused fear that ha[s] settled in every part of the people's mind and soul. With mentioning the adjectives terrible and stinging he emphasizes the exceptional situation.

After reporting to the reader his own experiences Auster moves on to his next part and tells about a call with his wife's sister, who just lived ten or twelve blocks away from the World Trade Center and about her friends that live even nearer to the Towers. His sister-in-law tells him how she heard screams after the first tower had collapsed and about her friends who were evacuated by the police after their building had been blown in by the impact and how they walked through the rubble and debris with contained body parts. So the reader of Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground is being brought nearer to the catastrophe. At the beginning the reader saw the catastrophe from a distance but with this call one gets to know more about what happened, how the on-location-situation is and how the people feel. In regard to private trauma one can analyze, that the nearer the humans experienced 9/11 and the more impressions they got, the harder it is for them to handle the situation and assimilate it.

After watching the news on television all morning, my wife and I went out for a walk in the neighborhood. Many people were wearing handkerchiefs over their face. Some wore painters' masks. In this passage a huge inconsistency can be found: On the one hand the reader is placed in a completely normal daily activity watching television and then going out for a walk and on the other hand the daily walk is not normal anymore because the passengers cover their faces with tissues or painters' masks to protect their respiratory tracts from the polluted air. With this inconsistency Auster shows how suddenly and unexpected 9/11 was for the New Yorkers. Maybe Auster and his wife watch the news every morning, but on the 11th of September 2001 the news were different. The news reported about the attacks only. And through showing video clips how the plane crashed into the towers, or how the towers collapsed the media caused a trauma to the public. According to Kaplan a kind of cultural trauma takeover was taking place, as though the media and the classification as collective tragedy began to displace her private, individual experience of the attacks. (80) For the reader it seems weird that Auster and his wife do their regularly activity, but in the following text the reason why they did it becomes clearer. Because later on he talks to his barber who has an anguished look on his face. He tells Auster about the woman who owns the shop next to him and that she talked to her wife's husband just one hour before the Twin Towers collapsed. And that he worked in one of the towers in the 107th floor. Here another type of private trauma is shown: If someone you know and like loses a family member or close friend you would feel guilty if you wouldn't show your sympathy. Also showing sympathy can cause a depression that can lead to a kind of private trauma. You cannot be happy, that you did not know someone who worked in the Twin Towers, you are sad and feel guilty because you can't mourn for somebody - you are just able to express your sincere condolence to your neighbors and friends. In this part of the story a typical solution to overcome a trauma is mentioned, too: The people go out to speak to each other. They try to help each other through sharing their anxiety, pain, fear and impressions. This is a way for a huge number of people to get over an initial personal trauma.

In the next part of Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground Auster thinks back to his friend Philippe Petit, who is a high-wire artist and walked on a wire cable from Twin Tower to Twin Tower in year 1974. At this time the Twin Towers had just built up. It was an illegal act Petit did, but nevertheless Auster describes it as an act of indelible beauty. He has a lot of positive memories of this place, but actually now it turned into a place of death. It is not just the loss of loved friends, it is also the modification of a positive place with so much beauty to a negative place of death, panic and grief. Such modification and the attempt to keep the World Trade Center in mind how it was before can lead to a personal trauma. If a person is mentally closely linked to that place and then it simple disappears because of a terrorist attack it is quite hard to handle that change. Those who are not able to deal with that situation can become depressed and get into a personal trauma. The wire cable on which Petit used to walk between the towers in more than a mile off the ground can be interpreted as a rope that ties two things with each other. Those things could be the connection between America and the World Trade center, as well as the connection between every single person that died here to his or her family who mourned for them. From a higher perspective the cable wire and its height off the ground could be interpreted as something in the people's mind: The Twin Towers collapsed, are not there anymore, sank into the ground, but the memories of this place, the positive emotions and the great impressions of the World Trade Center still float somewhere over the ground, like the wire cable was extended more than a mile off the ground. In regard to trauma this wire cable can be seen as a rescue rope. All the people that have problems in handling the negative occurrences can grab the imaginable rope to get through a personal trauma. Also Paul Auster reports that it frightened him to contemplate how many people have been killed. Such a catastrophe can easily cause traumas, because as mentioned above a trauma appears because of an unexpected and extreme event. 9/11 was one of them. The world was not able to understand what and why the attacks happened and why so many innocent people had to die. For many humans it is impossible to understand this kind of injustice.

In the last section of part one the author says we all knew this could happen. We have been talking about the possibility for years, but now the tragedy has struck, it is far worse than anyone ever imagined and refers to the last foreign attack on American soil, that occurred in 1812. Here the war against the United Kingdom and Ireland is meant. In this statement a realistic thinking can be noticed. Auster just reports the facts. His way of talking radiates a kind of calmness. In no way is he hysteric, random or panic-stricken. This can be seen as one indication of not having a personal trauma. People who cannot handle the situation would never admit, that everyone knew that such an attack could happen. They could never speak so uncomplicated like Auster does. Nevertheless he ends his first part of Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground with the sentence And so the twenty-first century finally begins. With this sentence he reinforces his whole story Random Notes - September 11, 2001, because 9/11 was the first unexpected, horrible and huge event in the 21st century that affected the whole world. It also keeps the following events in the 21st century open: No one knows what happens next, and in Auster's words it seems as this was just the beginning. If you analyze those words in regard to private trauma it can be detected that many New Yorker inhabitants have to deal with a private trauma, but nevertheless it can be predicted that 9/11 unfortunately was not the last horrible event in the 21st century that happened and caused a lot of traumas.

Paul Auster's second part of his short story is called Underground where the setting changes. In this section he tells a second story within his short story. Here the reader dives into another world, another place. The author describes a situation in the subway at a busy time of day. It is not clear if he talks about morning rush hour or the rush hour in the evening. The narrator in this part is homodiegetic and intradiegetic because he is part of the story, sees everything, but doesn't know something about the other characters inner feeling. With describing every single detail he sees the reader feels deeper connected to the story. It seems as if the reader would see everything with the eyes of the narrator. The reported situation is known by everyone who ever had to take the subway or underground in a big city at a busy time of the day: it is hard to find a seat, a lot of newspapers lying around, one listens to other's conversations or watch somebody closely because he or she looks different than the others. If Auster describes some high school children's forty-pound textbooks as trashy novels, comic books, Melville and Tolstoy and as he mentions the book title “ How to Attain Inner Peace” the question why he exactly mentions that title of all has to be asked. In regard to personal trauma it can be said, that not even every “normal” person without psychic problems lives a life in inner peace. For those who are affected by a personal trauma it is even harder to overcome a trauma and begin a life with inner peace. It is kind of ironic to force high school pupils to read such a book, because if there is no interest in the topic it is not helpful. In general it is questionable if such literature can lead to a better life or more harmony. In regard to Bear's 110 stories that should help the population to shape the attacks of the 11th of September 2011 into words one can ask oneself the question if such literature is probably more appropriate to get over difficulties in life or problems with oneself.

The panhandlers with their out-of-tune song and tales of woe; the fractious harangues of born- again proselytizers; the deaf-mutes politely placing sign-language alphabet cards in your lap; the silent men who scuttle through the car selling umbrellas, table cloths and cheap window toys.” It is a common and completely usual situation. Everything seems normal. The narrator listens to the noise of the train and the speed of it. Here an inconsistency can be found: Everyone understands what Auster means here, but it is not possible to listen to a speed of a train. If a train drives fast, there is a typical noise that can be heard because of the train's speed. But in fact you are not able to hear the speed of a train. If this inconsistency is interpreted in regard to private trauma it can be claimed that people who suffer from a private trauma cannot differ between things that really exist and things that they just feel or that happen in their minds. For those it is quite difficult to live a normal life again, because as mentioned above a personal trauma can cause for example nightmares as well as voices that are created by one's subconscious.

After describing all the different characters using the subway and after describing the speed of the train the narrator talks about a common situation in the train: The lurches, the sudden losses of balance, the impact of strangers crashing into one another.

Every reader who has ever travelled by subway knows this situation. Every passenger is familiar with the lurches that are caused by the reduction of the speed when the train reaches the next station. Nevertheless for some of the people in the subway it seems to be unexpected. They lose the balance and crash into one another. In regard to public trauma this can be seen as one main event that follows if a public trauma happened: The nation is affected by a huge and horrible event and can't handle it at the moment. Everybody is shocked and doesn't know how to deal with. In such a situation people lose their balance. Of course not the balance of their body, but the balance of their minds. In a figurative sense they “crash into another”, because they have to speak with others about the event and what happened. They try to share their emotions with others who were affected by the same catastrophe. If such a catastrophe like 9/11 causes a public trauma the people feel the need to speak about it. Not one topic is more important at this moment than the disaster. Nobody is able to shape that what happened into words. The positive aspect is, that no one is a stranger anymore. People crash into one other means that everyone feels and thinks the same and so a kind of unity is created. Next to this another special feature can be noticed in the second part of the short story Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground: If one has a look at the text in relation to public trauma it can be mentioned that the second part and the first part have one main similarity. In the first part Auster describes how he experienced the attacks of the 11th of September 2001. At the beginning the noticed the smoke in the city and then he smelled the fire. After that he met various people on the streets and heard their personal stories in regard to 9/11. In the second part the narrator describes how the people in the subway look like, then he describes what he hears and after that how the people crashed into another because of the lurches. So in both parts the way of recognizing or analyzing a situation is taught to the reader. People can see, hear, smell and feel. And through these canals it is possible to recognize or analyze a situation better. On the other side those ways of perception are the ways how a trauma appears. Because if one just hears something or just feels or smells something this would never lead to a trauma. But the completeness of all the ways of detection together can easily lead to a public or personal trauma. The more one can connect to a catastrophe, the more personal the memories are, the more it leads to a personal instead of a public trauma. In both parts of his stories Auster uses ways of perception to make clear how a person deals with a catastrophe like 9/11.

In the last section of his second part the situation in the story changes: And then, never for any apparent reason, the lights go out, the fans stop whirring and everyone sits in silence, waiting for the train to start moving again. Never a word from anyone. Rarely even a sigh. It is not totally clear when the subway situation takes place and where the subway is at this moment. But it is known, that Auster wrote his short story in regard to the 11th of September 2011 and so it can be assumed that the lights in the subway went out because of the attacks. On the other hand one can be sure, that no one of the passengers knows anything about the catastrophe, because no sign of panic can be noticed. For the readers who have ever taken a subway or an underground know, that it is usual that the train stops, the lights go out for a moment because there are some electrical problems. Usually the trains start moving again within the next thirty seconds. This is why no one is required to panic. The only and main topic that could lead to a trauma here is just the fact, that after the train started moving again or after the passengers have been evacuated they realize the dangerous situation they used to be in. Then some of them tend to panic or hysteria.

In regard to trauma, it doesn't depend if one talks about public trauma or personal trauma, the moment of silence when the lights go out can be interpreted as the moment after the attacks of 9/11 happened. After the first plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers everyone was shocked, stood there in silence, no one worked anymore, no one spoke. Every single person in New York and in whole America stopped doing his or her individual work at this moment. For all those people it seemed as if this was just a very bad joke. No one could really understand what happened and why. There had to be many thoughts in the people's minds like “Who did this?”, “What the hell?”, “Oh goodness, are my friends all right?”, “Can this be real?”. Everyone took a few seconds for oneself - and those seconds could be interpreted as the moment of silence, when Paul Auster's train stopped. The passengers within the short story waited for the train to start moving again, and if one compares this to the people all over the world after the attacks this means, that everyone is shocked and not able to do anything. But after some time the people aren't sure when to go on with their normal lives. They ask themselves questions like “Is it okay if I go on working?” or “Can I go shopping now, or is it too short after the attacks?” as well as “Am I allowed to smile and be happy again?”. Those ones who haven't suffered a trauma are not sure when to go on with the daily life. They wait for the train to start moving again. But those who are affected by a personal trauma wait for ages till the train starts moving again. It is hard for people who lost their family members and their friends because of the attacks of the 11th of September to get out of this silence, this darkness. Those ones who have to deal with a personal trauma try to get out of the darkness, out of the silence, but in fact for those it is a very long way to get over it. Of course some of them try to live their usual live, but in their souls, hearts and minds is still the darkness and the silence. And this is what Auster tries to transfer in his story Random Notes - September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground.


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Analysis of "Random Notes – September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground" by Paul Auster with regard to public and private trauma
University of Würzburg
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analysis, auster, notes, paul, random, september, underground
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Anonymous, 2017, Analysis of "Random Notes – September 11, 2001, 4:00 P.M.; Underground" by Paul Auster with regard to public and private trauma, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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