WHEN I first arrived at Oxford University in the early 1980s to pursue graduate work, I was all swagger on the outside, but that was to conceal the soft center of terror within. I had gone from being a big man on a small Midwestern campus situated between two cornfields to a nobody at an ancient European university whose “New College” had been founded in the fifteenth century. For one thing, there were the social bewilderments attendant upon entering a society where class was a more important and more complex phenomenon than I had ever known it could be. But in the end my greatest fears were centered on academic performance. I remember in particular being crushed by my tutor’s response to my essay on King Lear. My argument had been something to the effect that the tragedy of Lear’s humiliation and Cordelia’s death was mitigated by the spiritual insights these two characters had gained. In particular, I pointed out the Christian implications of Lear’s famous words to Cordelia:
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies….
My tutor, who combined a gentle and kindly soul with a bear-trap of a mind, suggested that perhaps I was sentimentalizing what was in fact a shatteringly bleak ending—that I was missing the savage, tragic irony of the play. After all, he said, Cordelia is executed right after this speech and Lear himself dies from the shock. Within moments he is screaming “Howl, howl, howl” and is then himself dead, dead, dead. The play, my tutor reminded me, was deliberately set by Shakespeare in pagan times, so the characters have no access to Christian consolation, no heaven to right earthly wrongs and make everything better.
I don’t recall whether I blushed, but I was immediately overcome by both shame and gratitude. I not only sensed the merit of his challenge but I also felt liberated. My youthful, earnest religiosity had imposed itself on the text, papering over an abyss of waste and horror with innocuous pieties.
Naturally, this got me thinking, not only about the way that religion can become a set of blinders, but about my own experience, which had involved its share of personal tragedy. It also set me on a search for a faith that can encompass tragedy without reducing it to a meaningless episode, something left behind and forgotten in the larger story of redemption.
Over the intervening years I’ve become convinced that we all refuse tragedy at our peril, whether we are believers or not. The strange truth is that tragedy is largely absent from the pews and bookstores of the postmodern West. We study it in old books and plays, and we use it casually to refer to plane crashes and early deaths from cancer, but the full-blooded thing itself is gone.
The absence of the tragic sense of life is killing us.
In the culture I know best, that of the United States, tragedy is something that our founders believed they were leaving behind forever. They saw our shores as the new Eden. As it says on the back of the dollar bill, ours was to be a novus ordo seclorum, a “new order of the ages,” free from the dark and bloody entanglements of Europe. Farewell, ancien regime. At the opposite end of the scale from the finality of tragedy is the myth of re-invention.
To refuse tragedy is to refuse to live in history, for history is the story of conflicts and injustices that cannot be merely undone. Perhaps that is why America believes it can help to re-invent other nations: history is not an obstacle.
As I listened to the radio a scant six hours after the space shuttle Challenger had broken up over the skies of Texas, a nasa engineer came to the microphone and said: “We can fix this.” After 9/11 we pondered military strategies. Today we not only deny tragedy; we hardly pause to mourn. Not when the can-do spirit is on the line.
As tempting as it may be to lay the blame for tragedy’s demise at the door of an impoverished religious sensibility, I have to say that secular modernity is also indifferent to the tragic sense. Where are the great tragic masterpieces of modernity? Where are the symposia in the New York Review of Books on the death of tragedy?
My intuition (and perhaps the beginning of a mature response to my tutor) is that tragedy is only possible when the deepest metaphysical questions are still available to us. If meaning is socially constructed, there can be no cosmological baseline against which to register a tragic circumstance. One man’s tragedy is another man’s farce. From Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, and Racine, tragedy only makes sense when we can ask the questions that theodicy asks: why does suffering often seem to be out of proportion to guilt; where are the gods, or God, in what seems to be an unjust cosmos; how is it, to use Lear’s words, that we are “more sinned against than sinning”?
I recently asked the literary critic Alan Jacobs where he finds tragedy in contemporary literature. His response is that the form has left the West and migrated to the global South. In particular, he singled out the Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Ben Okri.
The one American writer whose work I believe rises to tragic stature is Cormac McCarthy, at least in his Border Trilogy, and this is in part because these novels are about the confrontation between American characters and the global south as found in Mexican culture. The protagonists are true American heroes—you might call them the last cowboys, anachronisms surviving into the nuclear age. They are everything cowboys should be: self-reliant, laconic, courageous, attuned to nature, willing to fight for what is just. And when they cross the border into Mexico they become entangled in tragic circumstances from which they cannot extricate themselves.
Take John Grady’s odyssey in the first book, All the Pretty Horses. Displaced from his grandfather’s ranch, he goes to Mexico in search of opportunity—especially if that means working with horses. No sooner does John Grady cross the border than he is confronted by his comic double, a bony youngster named Jimmy Blevins who has run away from an abusive home. When the frightened child-man Jimmy loses his horse during a lightning storm, he is determined to get it back, though the Mexicans who find it are unwilling to give it up. The cost of his ill-fated quest will have terrible consequences not only for himself but also for Grady.
But if John Grady seems to tower above Jimmy Blevins in depth of soul, he pursues a similar quest to fix things, to restore what was lost, even if the cost involves the possibility of violence. McCarthy allows the reader to see Mexico as a place of lawlessness and treachery, and yet there are innumerable small hints that it possesses a generosity and wisdom America lacks. The Americans, individualists who think in terms of property and its restoration, fail to register the hospitality and communalism of the Mexicans. John Grady believes that he loses his paramour, the daughter of the padron on the ranch where he works, thanks to Jimmy Blevins. But in reality he could never have had her: too much history, class, and culture separate them. He cannot fathom the idea that powerful forces beyond his control can only be endured and not fixed.
A broken man at the end of the novel, John Grady wakes one morning, shivering and alone. He sees a group of Mexican peasants. One asks him where his serape is. When John Grady answers that he has none, “The man loosed the blanket from his own shoulders and swung it in a slow veronica and handed it to him.” The word “veronica” here comes from bullfighting, where the toreador swirls the cape around. But of course Veronica (“true icon”) is the traditional name for the woman in the Gospel whose cloth bears the imprint of the suffering Christ on the road to Golgotha. John Grady’s tragedy is that he cannot grasp the tragic sense of life. This man of action cannot see the heroism of the wizened old Mexican ladies kneeling beneath garish statues of the bloody crucified Christ, women who celebrate the Virgin Mary because of her active embrace of suffering. Like Oedipus’s, John Grady’s virtues blind him to his own limitations before the brute order of necessity.
It is precisely here that a true theology of tragedy can begin to take shape. The notion that Christianity is somehow alien to tragedy—that it is simply and straightforwardly “comic” because the resurrection makes for a happy ending—could not be more radically wrong. In his essay “Tragedy and Christian Faith,” Hans Urs von Balthasar singles out three essential elements of tragedy: that the good things of the world cannot sustain themselves and are lost; that this places us in a position of contradiction or alienation; and that this condition is bound up with an “opaque guilt,” in which individual moral responsibility cannot account for all suffering, leaving us subject to a mysterious “inherited curse.”
According to von Balthasar, Christ does not banish tragedy but carries it into the heart of God. Christ “fulfills the contradiction of existence…not by dissolving the contradiction but by bearing that affirmation of the human condition as it is through still deeper darknesses in finem, ‘to the end,’ as love….”
To go to the end means…not only entering total defeat, the total bankruptcy of all earthly power and every project of salvation, but to go to the end of the night of sin, in that descent into hell where the one who dies and the one who is dead come into an atemporal state of being lost, in which no more hope of an end is possible, nor even the possibility of looking back to a beginning. And this as the conclusion of a tragedy of earthly life that itself already stood under the law of contradiction: since God’s omnipotence wished and was able to make itself known ontologically in the Incarnation as powerlessness and unutterable limitation….
This may sound grandly theological, but I would argue that it has the most concrete and far-reaching consequences for the way we experience the world. If faith is to remain true to experience and not become a sentimentalized blindness, it must be permeated by the tragic sense of life. Unless we can believe that God has willingly submitted himself to the harsh necessities of the created order, then we will be helpless when those necessities lay us low. We can only lean in to these forces, and know that such a posture is not passivity but action of the profoundest sort. Passion is not passive.
My tutor was right to challenge my reading of King Lear, but is it possible to embrace the fullness of this tragedy and yet see in its darkness an echo of the divine self-emptying? I think so.
For von Balthasar the resurrection is not “in any way a fifth act with a happy ending” but a mysterious affirmation of a love that can bear tragedy to the end. That is why, in the forty days that followed it, Christ was not magically made whole but bore the marks of his passion, and would not rest until we placed our hands—and our hearts—inside them.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.