The Breakfast Table

A Tale of Two Cities


Well, I was conflicted at first about taking on this task, because everything’s been said by everybody twice and who wants to add to the crushing burden of commentary the American people will be staggering under for the next couple of days? But I decided to give it a try for two reasons:

1) So I could have some answer for the question everyone here in New York is asking: What are you doing, what are you supposed to do on 9/11? And 2) because I had such an unusually interesting conversation with you (and a third party) the last time I saw you, a few weeks ago at our mutual friend (note Dickens reference—this will become important later) Lizzie’s party at her new place. Conversation that ranged from country music to the still-mysterious cause of Ovid’s exile, and I thought we’d at least have mutual interests.

You know, as I look back on it, there were a couple of 9/11 subtexts to that evening. First, Lizzie herself: a 9/11 refugee. One of the towers actually fell on her apartment house not long after she escaped. And she’s had a rough year in many, many ways that kind of illustrates how different the experience has been, even within the city, between people like her who experienced loss first hand, and those like myself who experienced it at one remove—50 blocks north watching it on TV. A tale of two cities you could say.

Then there’s the mystery of Ovid’s exile: He was sentenced to die in exile on the bleak shore of the Black Sea for some act of irreverence although, after two millennia, noboby is sure what: the erotic poems themselves or some dis of the emperor? And this is a time, isn’t it, when there’s a kind of hyper-vigilance for all forms of irreverence, which is usually defined as whatever someone doesn’t like. Remember “irony is dead”? Looking back on what I’ve written over the past year, one of things I’m most glad to have said very early on is that “Irony is what we’re fighting for”; irony (properly defined as skepticism, not mere sarcasm) is what theocrats hate most.

Anyway one thing I’d like to hear more about from you is Dickens. We’ve both written about our enthusiasm/obsession, and when I brought it up recently, you said something like, he’s “never more relevant” than now. Maybe you want to say more about that. It’s funny after you said that I dug out a book from my disorderly stacks of Shakespeare scholarship, Valerie Gager’s Dickens and Shakespeare: The Dynamics of Influence, and I discovered something remarkable: “Dickens last written words include a quotation from Romeo and Juliet: ‘These violent delights have violent ends.’ “

Next day he died of a stroke. I have this feeling that Shakespeare lines you come upon by accident have some I-Ching-like resonance. “Violent delights” for instance. In R and J it’s the violent delights of love, but I wonder if it applies in the current situation. Violent delights: They could represent what the terrorists hated about American society, our violent delights. Or to the violent delights of theological intoxication they suffered from. Or both. On this note I’ll go start watching the morning shows (I believe you said you had no TV) and see if there’s anything worth reporting back on.