The Breakfast Table

Destruction and Reconstruction

Dear August,

I agree with you. To mourn innocent victims and then in reprisal to make even more, would be a grave political error. True, it was “an act of war,” but I hope Bush’s use of the word–never very exact–is metaphorical and not actual. The new coalition to fight terrorism has attracted even neutral Sweden and Pakistan (!) (where nonetheless you can still buy video discs recruiting terrorists for Osama bin Laden). If America will collaborate and not dictate, there’s every hope this will work.

Advertisement

Sometime tomorrow morning, all of London and I presume all of England will come to a standstill and pause for three minutes of silence to honor those who died in this week’s carnage. The images are now an indelible part of our 21st century’s blues. In his song “20th Century Blues,” Noel Coward put the malaise down the speed of the new industrial age and a sense, after a world war, of calling it quits with meaning. “What is there to strive for/love or keep alive for.” I think the challenge for the new century is not indifference, but fervor; instead of refusing to suffer (like Coward–“Say Hey, Hey/Call it a day”) we have to embrace the suffering of others to reach some deeper understanding of them and us. It is not just the ground safety issues Americans should have seen coming. Like the Creole lady who raised me used to say: “The fattinin’ hog ain’t in luck.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

War, of course, is about destruction; art–or any creative solution to any problem–is about reconstruction. We will grieve. We will bury the dead. We will fight. We will–though it won’t be as easy as we fondly think–win. I pray, like you, that our victory will be something more than a vindictive triumph. Even now, after today’s minutes of silence, we must join the soiled world and begin to remake it with our new, grim knowledge. Colin Powell has urged Americans to “get back to work.” He’s right. Confidence, like faith, is an ember that goes out in isolation and grows in connection with others. Hope is a defining American property; even in terrible times, it must never be seen to dim. There’s a quote I love, a kind of mantra I repeat to myself in the face of great loss, that I’ll leave with you as an envoi to this exchange. It’s from a writer called Andre Dubus, who lost both his legs in a freak car accident; it goes something like this: “We receive and we lose, and in the time that is left to us, we must try with whole hearts to achieve gratitude.” If this horror builds a world coalition against terror, if it takes us out of our habitual isolationism, if it makes us more sensitive to the cultures beyond our boundaries, and if it deepens our own understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world, then, in time, even this cataclysm will be turned into a force for good.

Power to your pen, August. Keep in touch, and be well.

John

Advertisement