It’s not about cheering us up

David Simpson

  • Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic by Terry Eagleton
    Blackwell, 328 pp, £55.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 631 23359 8

In the age of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, tragic drama concerned the deaths of nobles and notables, individuals whose lives were closely entwined with the health of the state. In the 19th century, on the other hand, both the drama and the novel found moral and aesthetic gravity in the deaths of ordinary people. In our own apparently democratised First World there are few kings and princes who need to be reminded not to be tyrants, and the occasional exposure of corrupt corporate moguls presents the spectacle merely of cheap greed brought to some sort of justice without convincing anyone that the body politic is thereby purged of its ills. Many critics have claimed that modern life has no place for exemplary transgression or suffering. We don’t attribute Bill Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky to the vengeful interventions of Aphrodite; nor do we imagine that the gods decided who went to work in the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The fall of Presidents (to say nothing of Cabinet ministers) and the deaths of ordinary people have not accumulated a rhetoric of tragedy: the dead of 9/11 are presumably too numerous and too much alike for the traditionally rigorous individuation of tragic fate. Indeed, in the United States the word has hardly been used about 9/11: we hear about evil, not tragedy. At the same time, however, tragedy is trivially everywhere. To take some recent instances: the ‘tragedy’ of a college president caught committing plagiarism; of a fellowship candidate’s failure to produce a proposal that does him justice; and of Roy Keane’s inability to keep his mouth shut. There is no serious life left in this language, one might think.

Terry Eagleton thinks, or wishes, otherwise. The elitist view of tragedy is for him the work of literary critics, not of writers, who are entirely persuasive about the moral dignity and social significance of suffering and death in ordinary lives. It is the critics who have disdained modern life’s suitability for the tragic mode, and have made an aesthetic virtue out of suffering in the past, persuading themselves that what was horrible then can be metaphysically pleasing now and that present-day suffering is undignified and uninteresting. Past pain is thus sanitised while that of the present is dismissed as beneath attention – a useful strategy, Eagleton supposes, for those who have lived through the bloodiest century in human history and would prefer not to look at it too closely. This wilful ignorance is aggravated by the common use of the word ‘tragedy’ in contexts ranging from accidental or unexpected deaths to simple setbacks or nuisances. Many died ‘tragically’ in the Bali nightclub bombing, which was also declared ‘tragic’ for the tourist industry. Must this second usage not trivialise the first, robbing the word of any serious meaning and insulting the memory of the dead? Can an inanimate abstraction such as the tourist industry experience tragedy?

There are two things to be said about this. First, many of the deaths in Bali probably happened instantly, whereas tragedy has traditionally been thought to involve an extended consciousness of one’s fate and the ability to articulate it for others. So tragedy may seem, to some of the critics Eagleton takes to task, the wrong word for the experience of those who died. But this must surely be false. While some will have died instantly others must have had time for conscious reflection. Certainly, most of those in the World Trade Center had time to think about what was happening: time to make phone calls, to attempt escape and realise the futility of the attempt, to talk to others facing imminent death, to experience their last moments as just that. The same is true of those on the planes, the captives and their hijackers. The assumption that in modern disasters people die instantly is often, in other words, a fantasy, the sources of which repay analysis. It is part wish-fulfilment (no one wants to linger, to know violent death), partly a reflection of the ideology of automatisation, partly a denial of the task of explanation.

Second, is it true that a tourist industry cannot experience tragedy? Of course it can’t, in the simplest and most obvious sense. But the industry is made up of people on whom other people depend, people in need of food and lodging, whose minimal subsistence has been threatened by losing their jobs, whose psychological wellbeing may have been shattered by what they saw. All this can be imagined as contributing to outcomes that we might view as traditionally tragic, including the extended consciousness of decline and death.

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