Paul Greenberg

The picture in the New York Times showed an 88-year-old woman sitting on her door stoop in London holding armfuls of bouquets and surrounded by other floral tributes. Not as attractive as the flowers are the cameras, booms, mikes, reporters, cameramen and the other inevitable accessories to fame all around her. Hand to forehead, pondering some inane question or another ("How does it feel to win the Nobel prize for literature?"), she looked a little tired. Like a grandma at the end of a long day, maybe a long life.

Doris Lessing clearly had better things to do than pose for pictures or dispense the kind of instant wisdom that is expected on these occasions. Better things like going inside and answering the phone. All of her friends would have been calling. One of the great things about winning a great prize is sharing the good news with old friends. It must be almost as satisfying as imagining the reaction of one's enemies - though at 88 surely Ms. Lessing has outlived most of them.

Not that the lady didn't have her share of snippy critics. Writers like her do. Because she hasn't been predictable. No one political party, school of thought or interest group could count on her. She's ideologically unreliable. She's belonged to no one but herself.

Having survived the 20th century, which is no mean feat, our newest and oldest Nobel laureate has come out of Africa but, like so many of her generation, she's got a European education. That is, she's seen a lot of death and destruction over her long life. Death may not always educate but it does harden. No wonder she told an interviewer the other day that, though the attacks of September 11th were terrible, they were not as extraordinary as Americans think. "They're a very naive people," she said of us Americans, "or they pretend to be."

Why not both? We are both naive and we hold onto our naivete in the hope that the world is a better place than it appeared September 11, 2001.

Shielded for so long by two oceans and God's mysterious grace ("God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America"), we have become as vulnerable as the rest of the world but don't want to be. There have been some notable exceptions to our golden past - slavery, the near-extinction of the American Indian, and that unpleasantness circa 1861-65 - but we still have trouble recognizing evil as it gathers, or even when it is upon us. And so our reaction to it keeps veering between astounded panic and familiar laxity.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.