Friday, July 08, 2005


Horrible news from London. All my friends and family are safe, thank goodness, but it's awful to think of the ones who aren't and the ones who care about them, let alone everybody else who now has to face a morning commute full of dread. Of course I've been thinking today of September 2001. I taught my classes as usual on 9/12/2001, it seemed too defeatist not to, and the strangest and saddest thing was going in to teach my first-year students who had JUST arrived at Columbia (it was literally the second meeting of the course) & were completely bewildered and upset and scared and also particularly incomprehending at the photographs of children celebrating in the streets in the Middle East. And what we were reading in those weeks was The Iliad. Which is one thing I'll never get tired of teaching, and particularly moving and apposite in times of war. The passage I couldn't get out of my head afterwards was the one where Priam in Book 24 goes to plead with Achilles to return the body of Hector:

As when some cruel spite has befallen a man that he should have killed some one in his own country, and must fly to a great man's protection in a land of strangers, and all marvel who see him, even so did Achilles marvel as he beheld Priam. The others looked one to another and marvelled also, but Priam besought Achilles saying, 'Think of your father, O Achilles like unto the gods, who is such even as I am, on the sad threshold of old age. It may be that those who dwell near him harass him, and there is none to keep war and ruin from him. Yet when he hears of you being still alive, he is glad, and his days are full of hope that he shall see his dear son come home to him from Troy; but I, wretched man that I am, had the bravest in all Troy for my sons, and there is not one of them left. I had fifty sons when the Achaeans came here; nineteen of them were from a single womb, and the others were borne to me by the women of my household. The greater part of them has fierce Mars laid low, and Hector, him who was alone left, him who was the guardian of the city and ourselves, him have you lately slain; therefore I am now come to the ships of the Achaeans to ransom his body from you with a great ransom. Fear, O Achilles, the wrath of heaven; think on your own father and have compassion upon me, who am the more pitiable, for I have steeled myself as no man yet has ever steeled himself before me, and have raised to my lips the hand of him who slew my son.'

Thus spoke Priam, and the heart of Achilles yearned as he bethought him of his father. He took the old man's hand and moved him gently away. The two wept bitterly--Priam, as he lay at Achilles' feet, weeping for Hector, and Achilles now for his father and now for Patroclous, till the house was filled with their lamentation.

And the other thing that stays with me from that month is a smell, not that heartbreaking and disgusting smell way downtown of burning plastic and flesh, but the smell of Chanel Aquamousse Foaming Face Wash. Yes, it's bathetic (and the one I've linked to is the new version, peach-colored; the one I had then was a sort of pale robin's-egg blue), but smells are evocative that way. If you've ever been very depressed and used a particular shampoo during that time, you are likely to find yourself unable to smell it again afterwards without olfactory flashbacks to your mental state before. And the thing with this very expensive Chanel facewash--which is not at all the kind of thing I'd usually have--was that it was especially associated for me with Ground Zero. When I left my job as managing editor at The Yale Journal of Criticism, the members of the editorial collective--spearheaded, no doubt, by a number of very fashionable women in the group--gave me a ridiculously generous going-away present, a $200 gift certificate to Century 21. I think they thought I would get a nice new suit for my professional life to come. Unfortunately I loathe and despise shopping and it was a year later and the certificate was about to expire and I bit the bullet and asked my mom to sort of ritually escort me (like the way federal marshals escort prisoners on flights) and MAKE me spend the money before it was all wasted. Under her cheerful but determined guidance I found a few items of clothing--it was mid-August 2001, and ridiculously hot--that I have since worn a million times but I gave up around $170 or so and trailed downtairs halfheartedly to the makeup area where I resisted the urge to PUNCH the evil perfume-spritzing saleswomen and desperately fell on the Chanel counter and begged them to sell me something that would use up the rest of this wretched certificate. A few weeks later the store was buried in rubble and I was using this facewash (and it was very nice, by the way, and I not too long ago bought a new tube of it, also off an otherwise unwanted department-store certificate) and its smell just got inextricably linked for me with the other stuff. So that's my story.

And the title of this post? I can't justify it as terrorism-induced escapist reading, since I started reading the first one late last night, but Georgette Heyer is the remedy for many things. The one I had around the house was Bath Tangle, a very battered paperback edition borrowed from my grandmother's hoard for some plane flight home years ago--the giveaway is that shiny brown-yellow altogether non-sticky English Sellotape that is wholly failing to stick together pages falling out because the book's been read so many times. And mid-evening today I hit the library and got a whole stack more (not all of them, just some of the ones I especially like) and have just finished The Grand Sophy, my particular favorite Heyer novel. Aside from everything else, it has a monkey in it. And now I will read some more Heyer and go to bed.

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