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On Two Cities

September 10, 2015

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.’

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities



‘We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds.’ In my life, there were two. In the first, there was a jar of glitter on my grandmother’s dresser, and I was young. I poured it over my head, closed my eyes, and thought ‘lovely wonderful thoughts.’ Drenched in the glitter, I waited, and waited some more. I was waiting, you see, to fly. I dare say at some point I did, perhaps, in my head.


The second world was the one I grew into. It couldn’t be helped: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ In this world, glitter clings to carpets and happy thoughts to money. There is garbage in the streets of Beirut, and rubble in the streets of Aleppo. Migrants on the tracks in Calais, and guns on the trains in Amsterdam. Drugs in Bogotà, and unfolded laundry in my dryer.


Realism is ‘the quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life.’


Realism first emerged in Europe during the nineteenth century, at a time of cholera in both the literal and figurative sense. On the one hand, the continent was overrun with the disease, which had reached its shores through the Indian trade routes in 1826, and in seven subsequent pandemics claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. On the other, it was ablaze with revolutions led by the same middle and working class that had overthrown monarchies in 1789, then grown up and out of its lofty ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.


But even in that age, there were two realities in Europe. One was Gustave Courbet’s ‘A Burial at Ornans:’ dark, sad, and unflatteringly ordinary. The other was Claude Monet’s ‘Impression Sunrise:’ light, pure, and unashamedly utopian.


‘When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money…’

Steve Jobs


C’est la vie. Such is life.



Says who.


Realism may be ‘the quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life,’ but life itself is the way you perceive it.


There were two cities of Viceroys in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’ One, in which time was finite and cholera was real. And another, in which an unrequited love, after fifty-one years, nine months, and four days, was returned.


There are two cities of Paris. One, which on the eve of the 25th of August, 1944, Adolf Hitler wanted burning: ‘The city must not fall into the enemy's hand except lying in complete rubble.’ And another, which Nazi commander Dietrich von Choltitz surrendered, intact, the following day.


There are two cities of Damascus. One surrounded and war-torn,

shelled and bullet-ridden, divided and paranoid. And another, in which artist Tammam Azzam superimposed Gustav Klimt’s beautiful rendition of ‘The Kiss’ on a bomb-ravaged wall.


There are two cities of Saint Louis. One divided along Delmar Boulevard, into white and black, rich and poor. And another, populated by one hundred and sixty milkweed gardens for monarch butterflies to rest in along their three thousand-mile annual migration path from Canada to Mexico.


As for Beirut…


‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.’

― Charles Dickens


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