I’d considered doing a special graphic for today, this being Year Five, and using the image above for the rest of the week. But perhaps it fits. Make of that what you wish.
It’s a Victorian-era painting – “Girl in Yellow Drapery” by William Godward, one of those painters who fell down the chasm of disfavor when the Modernists decided that history was over. The style has been derided for years as kitschy schlock, and I have some sympathy towards the view; it’s sentimental and vaguely ridiculous, with all the British ladies dressing up as Roman matrons. But it’s technically impeccable – no small achievement – and history has amplified the melancholy inherent in the pictures. At the height of its power, England played dress-up; they sought an echo in the noble images of another confident empire, and allowed themselves the luxury of languor and repose. It seems Godward was somewhat of a late-comer to the style, though. By the time he painted his mature work, urinals were being hung on gallery walls.
There’s a time and place for a urinal on a gallery wall. I just wish it had lasted less than 100 years.
So is this us, today? Inheritors and refiners of the Greek Ideal, lost in lovely slumber? Depends. Some believe we are insufficiently alert to the perils abroad, others want everyone to snap awake and light torches against the darkness falling at home. You know, the darkness. That darkness. Shredding of the Constitution and all that. (You could make the argument that it’s never shredded – we’d hear the sound of the blades – but rather unraveled, as someone picks a single loose thread they believe is more important than the whole, and gives it a tug to see if it resists. It usually doesn’t.) I figured it would be worse five years on. Actually, no; I figured it would be worse one or two years on, but better by now. While this isn’t a war that can be “over” in the conscipt-kissing-a-nurse-in-Times-Square sense, there are signal moments that define a conflict, and I thought we’d have more. As I’ve always said, tiresomely, I thought at the start this would end in Iran, and would end with a nuke. Not a particularly prescient or original idea, but they were, and are, the king-hell string-pullers who lack the Saudi gift for guile and connections, and that seemed the logical end. Compared to that incandescent conclusion, today seems like we’ve stalled and wondered, but this isn’t the time to judge how it all plays out. We could catch a break. A nuclear Iran could be a hedgehog, not a wolf. Five years from now tempers could be tempered. Most of history is the long slog, not the short sharp shove. But history turns on the simplest of things – a pistol aimed at a man in a carriage, a theorist reaching the Finland Station. It’s the shot not fired as often as the shot that finds its mark. I’d feel better if the former president of Iran wasn’t standing in the National Cathedral lecturing the West on its over-reliance on rationality, but the days of us v. them have been replaced in some quarters by a general belief in the universal We. After all, what did the poet warn against? Those who are filled with terrible certainty. So it matters less what they are certain of; what damns them all is conviction. That’s what you have to beware. Certainty. The wise man today breathes fog and chalk dust.
On the other hand, five years ago I would have taken today as a promise, not a disappointment. Five years ago the skies were silent, except for the high whine of the circling fighter jets; now the planes roll in, one after the other, low over the green rich land. Five years ago the TV was showing the horrors of the day; now the TV shows a story about the events that led up to the attack, a story ten years old. Five years ago I woke from nightmares of seeing pox on my daughter; now I sleep hoping she’ll eat her pears tomorrow at school. Five years.
I’m standing, as usual, at the kitchen island; on the other end of the room is the TV on the TV stand; Gnat’s toys are scattered on the floor. I’ll pick them up after I upload this. The TV is different than the TV I had five years ago; ditto the stand. We’d just moved in, and Jasperwood was rather spare.
It seemed like a palace. It still does. I remember the shower radio; when I turned it on I heard about something concerning the World Trade Center, and wondered why they were replaying stories from long ago. When I got downstairs I saw what had happened. I hit the Tivo button and grabbed the camcorder. In the next week I assembled the footage, partly to concentrate my mind, partly to take my mind off of it, perverse as that may sound. Every year I watch the video on the anniversary, and every year I end up with stinging eyes and coal in my heart. This is probably the right place to show it.
This is what I put together after September 11. I’ve tested this on the Windows machine, so it should work for everyone. It’s a 17MB video compilation of the morning. (There’s a brief introduction, and if you wish to link, link to that. And thanks.) Also, here’s an alternate history in the Screedblog – it was the Newhouse column, which necessitates curt boiling-down to 700 words. I am also participating in a forum on National Review Online, if you wish to read more of my glaringly obvious remarks.
I’ll tell you this: if I ran Time magazine, I wouldn’t have run a cover story titled “What We’ve Lost.”
What We’ve Done, perhaps. Who We Are. Why We Fight. What They Want. But “What We’ve Lost”?
I expected many things five years ago, but an epitaph in the face of survival wasn’t among them. Of course, when you recall the post 9 /11 cover "Why They Hate Us," you do have a nice set of bookends. Forgive me if I've little time to reread the tomes bracketed between those sentiments. Today is what it is. Tomorrow, however, requires our attention.