Long Live Wharton, New York City, Irony

Tomorrow, I'll be reading Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, something of a post-script/counter-version of her brilliant The House of Mirth. It'll be my way of acknowledging the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. Yes, I will also remember the events of that awful day, but I'll have to keep far away from all the public ceremonies, as they will prove too hollow for me to stand. I don't want to be yelling at the television how we don't get it.

Edith Wharton did get it, especially about the brash, resilient, acquisitive, shallow, and unthinking American spirit. Yes, it gives us energy and optimism, but the sheer velocity of it should make us queasy and the pure force of it should make us uneasy.

So with Edith Wharton and her deadly ironical eye in mind, I would like to share this poem I wrote for the first year anniversary of the attacks. Yes, it's about my own dis-ease about this American spirit, which was then exacerbated by the uncritically sincere and maudlin reflections of Roger Rosenblatt in his essay "The Age of Irony Comes to an End."

The End of the Age of Irony

Today is the one-year anniversary
of the end of the age of irony,
and to commemorate this date,
the Governor of New York State,
the honorable George Pataki, will read
the Gettysburg Address, and please
never mind the context, since our sensibilities
have been cleansed of irony, never mind
that when Lincoln spoke the bodies
of a thousand unclaimed Confederate
soldiers lay a-moldering on the fields,
never mind that Lincoln was honoring
the voluntary fallen who had rifles
and something of a call to fight,
and especially never mind that
the gubernatorial election for New York
is less than two months away.
Before Governor Pataki's reading, we
will watch the Fox Network's tasteful
and silent slow-motion replay
of the airline jets crashing
into the towers, the videotape
synchronized to the time of day
when the planes disintegrated
into fire and glass,
so that we will most soberly
and un-ironically relive that moment
in real time. Sometime later today,
we will listen to Samuel Barber's
Adagio for Strings, previously known as the
theme-song to Platoon, but now we
can appropriate it for our collective sincerity,
rename it Adagio for 9/11,
kind of like when Sir Elton John
rewrote "Candle in the Wind," no longer
a gay swan-song,
good enough for an actress with nerve
and sex, but now a belabored
requiem for Our Saint of the Bulimic
and Versace-Dependent.

It is the end of irony. So there's
room only for the authentic,
which means that now we must have art
that “uplifts the spirits and touches
our hearts.” Thus, let our national poet
be poor Mattie Stepanek, wheel-chaired
eleven-year-old, plucky muscular-dystrophy
survivor, friend to Larry King and Jerry Lewis,
whose earnest poems
make even me go all weepy, draining
my cynicism dry. Thus, I no longer write
poems about 9/11, or for that matter,
any poems that would disrupt our use
of the dead for a national media event.

For after the end of the age
of irony, we cannot afford any luxuriant
art, any idle or difficult poem
that would inconvenience our leader’s resolve
to eradicate Saddam, set North Korea
straight, send Iran’s clerics packing.
Days from now, or weeks,
or years, thousands of Iraqis
will lie dead, buried in the spit and rubble
of our smart bombs, and this fact is neither
ironic nor remotely poetic,
because we Americans are no longer a happy,
indulgent people, because, yes,
we have changed our ways for good.


twitches said…
"I'll have to keep far away from all the public ceremonies, as they will prove too hollow for me to stand. I don't want to be yelling at the television how we don't get it."

I thought I was the only person left in this country feeling this way. Thanks for saying it so eloquently.
Catherine said…
Thanks for this eloquent post. I always feel like the US is the "cool kids" in the class, who don't deserve to be shot by the kid who goes mad with a gun, but nevertheless totally fail to get the viewpoint of the uncool kids. Not all Americans, obviously, reading this.
That line about the thousands of dead Iraqis is rather prophetic.