Teaching in the Face of Tragedy


Horrific human tragedies surround us, whether in Ukraine, Uvalde, the intersection of Cassin Drive and Quintana Road in Southwest San Antonio or North Water Street and East Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee, or closer to home. 

I want to suggest here that those of you who are humanists consider teaching about tragedy, even though I recognize that such a topic might trigger feelings of trauma in students who have suffered horrendous episodes of abuse, violence, assault, suffering, and loss. 

We should study tragedy not because it’s therapeutic, not because it brings catharsis, but because it will breed empathy and compassion and because no other subject helps us better understand the human condition or human character and how some people have found meaning and inner strength to persist in the face of pain, suffering, and grief.   

Whether you are a historian, an art or literary critic or theorist, a philosopher, or a scholar of religion, do consider wrestling with human tragedy in your classes and the ways that artists, dramatists, novelists, philosophers, theologians, and others have conceived, depicted, explained, and interpreted tragedy. 

Live long enough, and I suspect that all of people undergo tragedy:  radical suffering, overwhelming pain, and traumatic loss. 

It’s not an accident that many of the world’s greatest works of literature are tragedies. Some retell a version of humankind’s fall and expulsion from an Eden.  Others are tales about tragic heroes, those mighty and often admirable figures whose suffering grows out of an error in judgment, ignorance, or hubris.  Then there are those even more profound tragedies in which misfortune grows out of conflicting conceptions of right, duty, or justice. 

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

Modern literature tends to focus less on the downfall of elites than on the tragedies of the everyday: of hopes crushed, illusions shattered, dreams denied, love deceived, and bonds of family or friendship betrayed, sometimes out of little more than accident or mundane character flaws, like arrogance, avarice, cowardice, gullibility, jealousy, malice, paranoia, or selfishness. 

These democratic tragedies take place not among the powerful but, rather, ordinary women and men, and often take as their subtext, as in the 1957 tragic romance, An Affair to Remember, what might have been had tragedy not intervened.   

The essence of tragedy, in such works, lies in fantasies unfulfilled, hopes unmet, and potential unrealized.  In contrast to the great ancient Greek tragedies, tragedy, suffering, and loss offer no compensation in terms of enlightenment or self-understanding or awareness of one’s inner strengths or, as in the case of Oedipus or Antigone a kind of immortality.   

All that’s left is a Darwinian or Existentialist message about nature’s randomness and its lack of inherent meaning or purpose.  The result is to leave tragedy’s victims only anguish and despair.  

Often, as in the naturalist novel, individual suffering is attributed less to personal weakness or flawed character than to some inescapable force — heredity, for example, or nature or the workings of capitalism.  A mechanical determinism and an extreme pessimism tend to characterize these works.  In the face of such overpowering forces, the only appropriate response is cynicism, resignation, passivity, or fatalism.  

Some tragedies are intensely personal, others are collective and grow out of war, displacement, discrimination, or natural disaster, whether fast moving like a tornado, a storm surge, or a forest fire, or slower, like drought, deforestation, or desertification. 

Even the most privileged experience tragic losses.  We all mourn, we all grieve, we all weep, we all wail.  But that’s not to say that all tragedies are created equal.  Still, this reminds us that nothing, not our wealth and savings, nor our status or virtues, can insulate us from tragedy. 

Many of the most famous quotations about tragedy are derisive or mordant.  There’s Oscar Wilde’s quip in Lady Windemere’s Fan:  “there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it,” 

Then there are the oft repeated phrase almost certainly misattributed to the poet William Butler Yeats:  “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” 

Or a line attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald:  “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” 

Staples of popular psychology are advice about overcoming tragedy.  These works typically reaffirm the Stoic belief that adversity breeds strength, often augmented by the Christian notion of the nobility of suffering. 

Americans, we are sometimes told, are especially allergic to tragedy, finding it, yes, unAmerican.  William Dean Howells is reputed to have said that “What the American public wants in the theater is a tragedy with a happy ending.”   

How, as Henry James observed in his biographical study of Nathaniel Hawthorne, could Americans truly grasp the tragic in a land without “manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class….” 

Are Americans inimical to the tragic?  

That’s what Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and Charles Edel, a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, argue in an important, yet neglected essay published in 2017, well before the pandemic, the cultural confrontation over racial inequalities, and the war in Ukraine.   

Entitled “The End of History is the Birth of History,” this essay contains prophetic words: “Americans have forgotten that historic tragedies on a global scale are real. They’ll soon get a reminder.” 

That, of course, was the message conveyed by the Chrisitan realist Reinhold Niebuhr (and, in a different, deeply ironic form, in Henry Kissinger’s amoral realism)  Even as Niebuhr called out the arrogance and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, and repudiated any illusions of American innocence and virtue and “every attempt to claim divine sanction for America’s goals and struggles,” the great ethicist and theologian reaffirmed the nation’s historical mission to protect and extend democratic values in a fallen, conflict-riven world. 

Niebuhr’s critics have portrayed him as a Cold War liberal, even a forerunner of later neoconservatives, in his belief that the world’s evils could not be attributed primarily to environment or economics, and his willingness (in certain circumstances, but not in Vietnam) to use power to promote an American dominated world.  But that view is certainly misleading.  After all, Niebuhr was a social activist and fiery proponent for labor rights and civil rights and a staunch enemy of anti-Semitism. 

Brands and Edel argue that American elites, in World War II’s wake, understood the realities of tragedy, and recognizing how tragic a breakdown of world order could be, took aggressive steps to construct a new rights-based international system.  But, the authors assert, “Americans are serial amnesiacts,” and that three-quarters of a century after the Second World War that tragic sensibility had dissipated. “Americans have lost their sense of tragedy,” Brands and Edel write. “The U.S.-led international order has been so successful, for so long, that Americans have come to take it for granted.” 

The authors note that “even a casual survey of modern history” exposes the fragility of international order, which breaks down for myriad reasons: “sometimes having to do with relative shifts in the balance of power, sometimes having to do with clashing ideologies, sometimes having to do with simple blunders and other idiosyncrasies of statecraft.” 

Yet these breakdowns, and the great power struggles that ensued, also, periodically, served as sources of inspiration for efforts to secure a stable international order, from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815, to the 1940s, when the United Nations was established and the Bretton Woods international monetary system created. 

Brands and Edel argue that the lessons of the 1940s faded and were increasingly “replaced by a worldview that is equal parts naive, dangerous, and ahistorical.”  Given the many U.S. interventions since the 1983 invasion of Grenada, I think their insistence that the United States has somehow retreated from the preservation of world order is greatly exaggerated. Indeed, one can argue that American actions, not inaction, played a central role in undermining the stability of the international system. 

And yet, I do think that this society has not adequately faced up to the realities of tragedy: Tragedies that flow from largely unrestrained gun violence, from  poverty and inequitable access to health care and high quality education, and from the tragedies that have accompanied the American uses of military power  

It is in American popular culture that the American failure to face up to the realities of tragedy are most obvious.  It was over three decades ago that media studies scholar Mark Crispin Miller described the essence of American popular culture as “deliberate antirealism.”  That was long before the juke box musical dominated Broadway, that Marvel superhero films ruled the nation’s cineplexes, and that algorithm-driven video streaming governed the small screen.  I see scarcely any signs of a tragic sensibility in our mass culture

Perhaps our recent encounters with so many real-world tragedies will reacquaint Americans with a tragic sensibility that isn’t cynical or pessimistic, but that nonetheless recognizes that there are crimes and injustices that are tragic and ought not be ignored.  I can only hope so. 

We cannot escape from history nor evade our social responsibilities. 

But if this society is to truly face up to the tragic in our midst, we in the humanities must do our part, raising consciousness, opening minds, and leading difficult conversations that are informed by the artistic, literary, philosophical, and theological insights from our forebears combined with the latest thinking today. 

To teach tragedy is not to succumb to what Susan Sontag called death porn or to revel in the sufferings of others.  It is, I am convinced, an essential task:  to grapple with some of life’s deepest mysteries: Why pain, suffering, and evil exist and why some, wholly unfairly, suffer much more than others.  

If the humanities fail to wrestle head-on with these broad philosophical, theological, and ethical issues, then these disciplines truly will accede to irrelevancy.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.




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