The Breakfast Table

Disaster Is Not Tragedy. Shakespeare Knew the Difference.

Dear Ron,

I was afraid you’d ask me about the arts and 9/11. My only personal brush with it so far has been in a short story where—it’s too complicated to explain why—a character needs to strip an electrical wire with whatever’s handy and comes up with a box cutter. And then she has the obvious associational thought. I ended up just getting rid of the whole thing as a cheap topical wink-and-nod. Basically—and it will seem odd to hear this from a Dickens obsessive—I hate topical art, which seems to me an oxymoron. I dithered for a while after being invited to contribute to a “writers after 9/11” anthology and begged off. I’ve seldom made a better decision. For my purposes, 9/11 just isn’t usable: I’m mostly interested in people undoing themselves, and terrorist attacks or other large-scale political events seem no more meaningful to me than hurricanes. Other writers and what-not, of course, can do (and will do) whatever they feel like doing. But so far, everything I’ve come in contact with, from Springsteen’s songs to Billy Collins’ cheesy poem to the execrable “Let’s Roll,” has been second-rate at best. How could it not be? There are so many pitfalls: flag-waving outrage, sentimentality, preachiness, faux populism. Disaster is not tragedy. Shakespeare knew the difference. By the way, I’ve always liked Neil Young, too, or at least his electric stuff. But I think that last album has something profoundly wrong with it—I found it not just boring but actively annoying.

Hold everything. I’m listening to the radio while writing this, and W.’s about to speak. Here we go.

OK, it’s over. I know it’s been said before, but I wish for the sake of our national prestige that this man would learn how to pronounce “nuclear.” It’s just not that hard. Otherwise, whoever wrote the speech did a plausible-sounding job. I don’t know enough to be able to argue with the factual assertions—which of course is indispensible for understanding it. But even I can see that he didn’t make a specific case and spot the sleight of hand: “Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause and a great strategic goal”—like he really cares. And that tenuous connection between Sept. 11 and “greater horrors” to come by way of Iraq. And dragging in “respect for women”? And not a word about oil? The payoff was pretty muted, and he saved it until the very end: “The United States of America will make that stand,” and the U.N. is welcome to come along on our excellent adventure. No deadlines. My prediction for how most people are going to see this: a nonstory. Unlike every other speech before the U.N.

Over to you, buddy.