The Breakfast Table

What Now?

Dear August,

What does the iconography of this terrorism –the collapsed towers, the blasted Pentagon–say to the world? It says, “You will not live in your dream, you will live in ours.” The terrorist gesture thrusts back onto America the profound psychic humiliation of being colonized by another’s fiction. “It is when a country has become to its population a fiction that wars begin,” Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain, “however intensely beloved that fiction is.” You say in your last dispatch, “To understand the war, we need to look at the origins … of hatred for our arrogant display of power and our seeming callous indifference to the rest of the world’s humanity.” That interests me not only because I agree but because your habit of mind is already adjusting the historical lens on Them and Us, already looking beyond the fiction of nationhood at some more complex reality. This, I hope, is what our leaders, even in their righteous momentary fervor, will be working toward. We now, all of us, must embrace an ambiguity that is hard to live with and given the boilerplate optimism which has kept us in denial for so long, even hard to comprehend: We must both ardently seek a solution to this horror and at the same time accept the fact that no solution may be possible.

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I mentioned yesterday that terrorism attacks thought; you could see it on the TV screens and in the newspapers and in our own dispatches to each other: In the face of atrocity the public is numb, beyond words, incapable of registering anything but the most banal observations in a curiously rudimentary idiom. Now, in this morning’s papers, we are beginning to tell stories–“The Final Moments,” “The Scale of Catastrophe Begins To Sink In,” “The Stream of Calls To Say I Love You”; I see something promising and redemptive in this. America, which has created a technology of enchantment and built denial almost into a lifestyle, has been jolted into thought. As a professional storyteller, you know that we think through stories, which allows us both to release feelings and to examine them. Every morning on the way to work, I stop to have breakfast with my two mates–one a political columnist, the other a shrink. Today, the shrink said, “The more pain we’re in, the more we’re driven to narrate.” The events of the last few days, which have brought with them such a complex sense of loss, will require a much deeper collective reverie to release them. The stories we tell ourselves about our life and our nation need now to be revised. We are experiencing that in our own psyches, I think; and, if I’m right, even as the righteous outrage of our leaders takes on amperage, a new story about the nation and the geo-political balance of the Middle East is taking shape. If this balanced sense of national and personal identity comes to pass, the thousands of souls lost in this attack–whose deaths seem so arbitrary and so pointless–will have given a great gift to the living.

Over to you.

Regards,

John

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