1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Tale of Two Cents

Marc Ambinder has a post up about Chuck Grassley's recent claims regarding the "death panels" and contrasts them with Lisa Murkowski. Little need be said about such mendacity here; I'd rather take up the title of Marc's post: "A Tale of Two Senators on Death Panels."

I recently wrote a paper on Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and used as opening gambit, the observation that no title has been so widely mimicked. The reasons are clear enough -- it's a famous book, which has been widely read (it used to be the standard Dickens novel for highschool curricula, before Great Expectations ascended). But most importantly, the form of the title "A Tale of Two ________" asserts a connection without, well, asserting the connection. It juxtaposes two objects without telling us anything about they're actual relationship. They've just bumped into each other, as it were, in some "tale."

Which is not to say that Marc doesn't get some mileage out of the comparison, or turn it to good use. But in general, the "Tale of Two" formula disguises a lot of mediocre essays, papers, and talks which don't have a clear idea of what connects the two subjects. And to extend the point a little further, this is the basic problem of Dickens' original novel, which sets out to clarify the relation between pre- and post-revolutionary France and contemporary England -- homelands of the "Two Cities," London and Paris, where the action of the novel takes place. Despite a lean but complex story line replete with English and French doubles (to cop David Simon, the full "Dickensian"), the plot is ultimately resolved when its French and English objects agree to disagree; Sydney Carton's heroic sacrifice, with the flight of the Darnay family, mark the novel's failure to tease out the connection it was looking for. England and France settle on divorce. It's left to some hypothetical future time when the Darnays will return to a stabilized France and reflect upon what had once driven them all so far apart.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that, while using "A Tale of Two X" is both lazy and a strong indicator that the writer's having trouble deciding what they're writing about, we shouldn't be too harsh. Dickens came up with the title in much the same situation.

'Sides, it's still more effective than Dickens' working title, "The Golden Thread." Try cribbing that.

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