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Lucien, Twilight of the Superheroes

   Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” is a short story invested in reconstructing the past. In a Manhattan art gallery approximately three years after September 11, 2001, on the night before the opening of an exhibit featuring the art of a Belgian painter, Lucien, the owner of the gallery and a protagonist of the short story, is drinking wine alone. His thoughts turn to the past, and the gallery becomes, in his mind, a kind of time capsule transporting him back to the twentieth century. In this space, he is haunted by the past, imagining that he is visited by Charlie, his deceased wife, by Miss Mueller, his fifth-grade history teacher, and by Rose and Isaac, Charlie’s sister and brother-in-law: “The room in fact, seems almost like an old snapshot from that bizarre, quaintly futuristic century, the twentieth” (10). The present moment of narration in Lucien’s story consists, almost exclusively, in remembering his personal past and in an attempt to contextualize September 11 and show the persistence of historical determinacy even after 9/11.

     Lucien is a character for whom the past is viscerally present and whose affective state is, thus, marked by nostalgia and grief. Turning away from the here and now characterizes his behavior and psychological state from the moment he is introduced into the narrative. Preoccupied with remembering a phone conversation he had earlier in the day with Yoshi Matsumoto, a friend of his who is planning to return to New York in the near future, his attention is diverted from the present, in which his assistant, Sharmila, is preparing to go home for the evening; he “absently” watches her (5-6). And the depth of his grief causes him to perceive his late wife as if she were physically present and even to apostrophize her: “Charlie—Oh, how long it’s been, how unbearably long! Lucien luxuriates in the little pulse of warmth just under his skin that indicates her presence” (10). For Lucien, grief, and his longing for the deceased, is an altogether embodied experience, an object “l[ying] on top of him, heavy and cold” (15). The specters of his past guide his present actions. He vows to Charlie’s ghost that he will take care of Nathaniel, her sister, and her brother-in-law (10). Miss Mueller, too, speaks with Lucien from beyond the grave, and her “shriek echoes around the gallery” (22). Utterly inextricable from who he now is, his past weaves into his awareness of his present surroundings. His youth, his past, is unlike a “misplaced” object because “it [has] dissolved into the making of him” (17).

     Like his affective state, Lucien’s political consciousness is past-directed. September 11, he believes, has definite causes and is in no way unmoored from history. It is a logical consequence of a historical chain of events: "But the future actually ahead of them, it’s now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that pointed them toward the future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain" (32). Underscoring the event’s embeddedness in a historical context, Lucien likens 9/11 to the eruption of a volcano—“an inexhaustible geyser erupted,” “a flaming colossus […] shedding veils of tiny black specks” (25, 34). The dormancy of an active volcano is, of course, deceptive. There is a pressure building up underneath, the building of resentment toward accumulated acts of political oppression. Eruption follows from accumulation; September 11, Lucien emphasizes, follows from a long history of Western imperialism.

     It is telling that the teacher Lucien encounters in spectral form in the gallery is a history teacher. Her presence in the gallery in itself calls attention to Lucien’s enlightened historical consciousness. In one of his flashbacks to his fifth-grade history class, Miss Mueller asks what her students see when they look at a particular statue of a Roman emperor in their history textbook. What Lucien sees in sharp focus is not the statue in the foreground but rather the terrified people in the background, those who are conscious of the imminent demise of their imperialist empire. As the bell rings, he even seems to “hear[] the thrilling crash as the bloated empire tumbles down” (42). For this astute observation, his teacher rewards him with a gold star. His flashback highlights a historical parallel between the Roman Empire and Western democracy. Lucien’s friends have referred to President Bush as an “emperor” who has abused his power, and the American legal system has, Lucien observes, been derived from the Roman “code of law” (40).

     Lucien’s orientation toward the past thus involves a political critique of certain commonplace assumptions about September 11’s position in world history. The prevalent belief among New Yorkers, according to Lucien, is that September 11 was a rupture in history—an event that prevented the unfolding of “the real—the intended—future, the one that had been implied by the past” (28). Also according to Lucien, New Yorkers have come to believe that New York, only three years after 9/11, is “back to normal” and has gotten over the trauma of 9/11. Taking issue with both of these assumptions, Lucien is at pains to show throughout the story that past events, including 9/11 and events much farther back in history, are still very much implied in, or intertwined with, the present moment. He posits a direct causal link between past history and the current state of affairs, identifying the abuses of authority in the Roman Empire as one of September 11's originary causes.

    Just as he denounces the belief that September 11 represents a rupture with the past, Lucien problematizes the belief that September 11 has left no marks on the present. When Mr. Matsumoto explains to Lucien that he is returning to New York because the city is now back to normal, Lucien shakes his head in disbelief, produces “an inadvertent squawklike sound,” and warns Matsumoto to brace himself for a long wait at customs due to fingerprinting, reminding him of the marks September 11 has left on the present state of affairs (6). Not everything is back to normal. There is an undercurrent of discontent in the youth of America. Nathaniel, Lucien’s nephew, seems to be “in some kind of holding pattern—as if […] muffled by reservations” (8). The conflict between Christians and non-Christians has escalated to such an extent that the pilot on Lucien’s plane from Los Angeles to New York encourages Christians to try to convert non-Christians in the seats next to them (24). Fear of Islamic fundamentalists is pervasive. The supposed return to normalcy, Lucien argues, is no more than mere “propaganda,” another attempt to cover up the injustices of the War on Terror (37). While New Yorkers may appear oblivious to these injustices, they act “like people with bad consciences,” exhibiting their inherited guilt in their characteristic irritability (35).

     Through the character of Lucien, moreover, Eisenberg launches a liberal critique of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and urges her reader to analyze the chain of events leading up to September 11. She asks her reader, in Lucien’s words, “Then again, how far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?” (18) The short story as a whole is an exercise in past reflection. As the protagonists’ thoughts drift back into the past, it is easy to lose sight of where these characters are in the present—drinking wine in an art gallery, drinking champagne on a terrace. Lucien’s focus is not on how his future will unfold but, rather, on reading history. Y2K, September 11, the War on Terror, the demise of the Roman Empire—these do not constitute apocalyptic events in which the present is suddenly unmoored from history. For Eisenberg, the true nightmare would be a future in which children would not have even heard of “airplanes and New York and America” (5). Lucien’s meditations on the past conclude with a vision of Charlie looking from beyond the grave at children of future generations. Even if certain events are condensed into only a couple pages, perhaps just finding the historical record preserved as the children in Lucien's vision do—being able to see “Rose and Isaac at their kitchen table, Nathaniel out on Mr. Matsumoto’s terrace, Lucien alone in the dim gallery”—is worth lifting one’s glass to, just as Lucien does as Charlie fades back into the past (42).