Teaching in the Face of Tragedy


Horrific human tragedies encompass us, whether or not in Ukraine, Uvalde, the intersection of Cassin Drive and Quintana Highway in Southwest San Antonio or North Water Road and East Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee, or nearer to dwelling. 

I need to recommend right here that these of you who’re humanists contemplate instructing about tragedy, despite the fact that I acknowledge that such a subject may set off emotions of trauma in college students who’ve suffered horrendous episodes of abuse, violence, assault, struggling, and loss. 

We must always research tragedy not as a result of it’s therapeutic, not as a result of it brings catharsis, however as a result of it can breed empathy and compassion and since no different topic helps us higher perceive the human situation or human character and the way some folks have discovered that means and inside energy to persist within the face of ache, struggling, and grief.   

Whether or not you’re a historian, an artwork or literary critic or theorist, a thinker, or a scholar of faith, do contemplate wrestling with human tragedy in your courses and the ways in which artists, dramatists, novelists, philosophers, theologians, and others have conceived, depicted, defined, and interpreted tragedy. 

Dwell lengthy sufficient, and I think that each one of individuals endure tragedy:  radical struggling, overwhelming ache, and traumatic loss. 

It’s not an accident that lots of the world’s best works of literature are tragedies. Some retell a model of humankind’s fall and expulsion from an Eden.  Others are tales about tragic heroes, these mighty and sometimes admirable figures whose struggling grows out of an error in judgment, ignorance, or hubris.  Then there are these much more profound tragedies during which misfortune grows out of conflicting conceptions of proper, responsibility, or justice. 

Reversals of fortune, which develop out of the capriciousness of destiny or the gods, are central to many literary tragedies.  Because the bard of Stratford wrote in Lear, essentially the most tragic of Shakespearean tragedies:   “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for his or her sport.” 

Trendy literature tends to focus much less on the downfall of elites than on the tragedies of the on a regular basis: of hopes crushed, illusions shattered, desires denied, love deceived, and bonds of household or friendship betrayed, generally out of little greater than accident or mundane character flaws, like conceitedness, avarice, cowardice, gullibility, jealousy, malice, paranoia, or selfishness. 

These democratic tragedies happen not among the many highly effective however, moderately, atypical ladies and men, and sometimes take as their subtext, as within the 1957 tragic romance, An Affair to Bear in mind, what might need been had tragedy not intervened.   

The essence of tragedy, in such works, lies in fantasies unfulfilled, hopes unmet, and potential unrealized.  In distinction to the good historic Greek tragedies, tragedy, struggling, and loss supply no compensation when it comes to enlightenment or self-understanding or consciousness of 1’s inside strengths or, as within the case of Oedipus or Antigone a type of immortality.   

All that’s left is a Darwinian or Existentialist message about nature’s randomness and its lack of inherent that means or goal.  The result’s to go away tragedy’s victims solely anguish and despair.  

Usually, as within the naturalist novel, particular person struggling is attributed much less to non-public weak point or flawed character than to some inescapable power — heredity, for instance, or nature or the workings of capitalism.  A mechanical determinism and an excessive pessimism are inclined to characterize these works.  Within the face of such overpowering forces, the one applicable response is cynicism, resignation, passivity, or fatalism.  

Some tragedies are intensely private, others are collective and develop out of struggle, displacement, discrimination, or pure catastrophe, whether or not fast-paced like a twister, a storm surge, or a forest fireplace, or slower, like drought, deforestation, or desertification. 

Even essentially the most privileged expertise tragic losses.  All of us mourn, all of us grieve, all of us weep, all of us wail.  However that’s to not say that each one tragedies are created equal.  Nonetheless, this reminds us that nothing, not our wealth and financial savings, nor our standing or virtues, can insulate us from tragedy. 

Most of the most well-known quotations about tragedy are derisive or mordant.  There’s Oscar Wilde’s quip in Girl Windemere’s Fan:  “there are solely two tragedies. One shouldn’t be getting what one desires, and the opposite is getting it,” 

Then there are the oft repeated phrase virtually definitely misattributed to the poet William Butler Yeats:  “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him by way of short-term intervals of pleasure.” 

Or a line attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald:  “Present me a hero and I am going to write you a tragedy.” 

Staples of fashionable psychology are recommendation about overcoming tragedy.  These works usually reaffirm the Stoic perception that adversity breeds energy, typically augmented by the Christian notion of the the Aristocracy of struggling. 

People, we’re generally instructed, are particularly allergic to tragedy, discovering it, sure, unAmerican.  William Dean Howells is reputed to have mentioned that “What the American public desires within the theater is a tragedy with a cheerful ending.”   

How, as Henry James noticed in his biographical research of Nathaniel Hawthorne, may People actually grasp the tragic in a land with out “manors, nor outdated country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman church buildings; no nice Universities nor public faculties—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no photos, no political society, no sporting class….” 

Are People inimical to the tragic?  

That’s what Hal Manufacturers, a professor of worldwide affairs at Johns Hopkins College’s Faculty of Superior Worldwide Research, and Charles Edel, a senior fellow on the College of Sydney’s United States Research Centre, argue in an important, yet neglected essay revealed in 2017, properly earlier than the pandemic, the cultural confrontation over racial inequalities, and the struggle in Ukraine.   

Entitled “The Finish of Historical past is the Start of Historical past,” this essay comprises prophetic phrases: “People have forgotten that historic tragedies on a world scale are actual. They’ll quickly get a reminder.” 

That, after all, was the message conveyed by the Chrisitan realist Reinhold Niebuhr (and, in a unique, deeply ironic kind, in Henry Kissinger’s amoral realism)  Whilst Niebuhr known as out the conceitedness and hypocrisy of American overseas policy, and repudiated any illusions of American innocence and advantage and “every attempt to claim divine sanction for America’s goals and struggles,” the good ethicist and theologian reaffirmed the nation’s historic mission to guard and prolong democratic values in a fallen, conflict-riven world. 

Niebuhr’s critics have portrayed him as a Chilly Warfare liberal, even a forerunner of later neoconservatives, in his perception that the world’s evils couldn’t be attributed primarily to setting or economics, and his willingness (in sure circumstances, however not in Vietnam) to make use of energy to advertise an American dominated world.  However that view is definitely deceptive.  In any case, Niebuhr was a social activist and fiery proponent for labor rights and civil rights and a staunch enemy of anti-Semitism. 

Manufacturers and Edel argue that American elites, in World Warfare II’s wake, understood the realities of tragedy, and recognizing how tragic a breakdown of world order could possibly be, took aggressive steps to assemble a brand new rights-based worldwide system.  However, the authors assert, “People are serial amnesiacts,” and that three-quarters of a century after the Second World Warfare that tragic sensibility had dissipated. “People have misplaced their sense of tragedy,” Manufacturers and Edel write. “The U.S.-led worldwide order has been so profitable, for therefore lengthy, that People have come to take it as a right.” 

The authors observe that “even an off-the-cuff survey of contemporary historical past” exposes the fragility of worldwide order, which breaks down for myriad causes: “generally having to do with relative shifts within the stability of energy, generally having to do with clashing ideologies, generally having to do with easy blunders and different idiosyncrasies of statecraft.” 

But these breakdowns, and the good energy struggles that ensued, additionally, periodically, served as sources of inspiration for efforts to safe a secure worldwide order, from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815, to the Forties, when the United Nations was established and the Bretton Woods worldwide financial system created. 

Manufacturers and Edel argue that the teachings of the Forties pale and had been more and more “changed by a worldview that’s equal elements naive, harmful, and ahistorical.”  Given the various U.S. interventions because the 1983 invasion of Grenada, I believe their insistence that america has one way or the other retreated from the preservation of world order is vastly exaggerated. Certainly, one can argue that American actions, not inaction, performed a central function in undermining the soundness of the worldwide system. 

And but, I do assume that this society has not adequately confronted as much as the realities of tragedy: Tragedies that movement from largely unrestrained gun violence, from  poverty and inequitable entry to well being care and prime quality education, and from the tragedies which have accompanied the American makes use of of navy energy  

It’s in American fashionable tradition that the American failure to withstand the realities of tragedy are most blatant.  It was over three many years in the past that media research scholar Mark Crispin Miller described the essence of American fashionable tradition as “deliberate antirealism.”  That was lengthy earlier than the juke field musical dominated Broadway, that Marvel superhero movies dominated the nation’s cineplexes, and that algorithm-driven video streaming ruled the small display.  I see scarcely any indicators of a tragic sensibility in our mass tradition

Maybe our latest encounters with so many real-world tragedies will reacquaint People with a tragic sensibility that isn’t cynical or pessimistic, however that nonetheless acknowledges that there are crimes and injustices which might be tragic and ought not be ignored.  I can solely hope so. 

We can not escape from historical past nor evade our social duties. 

But when this society is to really withstand the tragic in our midst, we within the humanities should do our half, elevating consciousness, opening minds, and main tough conversations which might be knowledgeable by the creative, literary, philosophical, and theological insights from our forebears mixed with the most recent pondering as we speak. 

To show tragedy is to not succumb to what Susan Sontag known as dying porn or to revel within the sufferings of others.  It’s, I’m satisfied, a necessary activity:  to grapple with a few of life’s deepest mysteries: Why ache, struggling, and evil exist and why some, wholly unfairly, undergo rather more than others.  

If the humanities fail to wrestle head-on with these broad philosophical, theological, and moral points, then these disciplines actually will accede to irrelevancy.  

Steven Mintz is professor of historical past on the College of Texas at Austin.



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