Tragedy since 9/11: Reading a World out of Joint, by Jennifer Wallace

Robert Eaglestone praises a bold attempt to reveal how much of our moral thinking is still conducted in the shadow of the ancient Greeks

十月 17, 2019
The Avengers
Source: Alamy

To most of our new students, cutting their fresher’s rug to astonishing new bands such as Black Country New Road and Black Midi, 9/11 must seem distant, outside their living memory; and to all of us, the invention of classical tragedy is long ago. Yet, as the philosopher Simon Critchley argues, we make the ancient Greeks anew in each generation. And this is what Jennifer Wallace has attempted in her book on tragedy in our contemporary world.

The core of her argument is that the “patterns and concerns of tragedy” are also those of our world and its current crises. These include the strain between the individual and the collective, pity and the pain of others, recognition and revenge, refugees and the communal responsibilities owed them. Tragedy, the author suggests, allows us to understand and weigh the significance of the events we see around us.

Take one of her best examples, the refugee crisis. “Supplication”, she writes, “lies at the core of Western literature from its earliest beginnings.” In Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women and Euripides’ The Trojan Women as well as King Lear, uprooted vulnerable people seek help. Recent versions of the plays sound contemporary resonances, of course, but her point is even stronger: it is in these works of literature that the very concepts of supplication and refuge, and their human impact, are bought to light, explored and memorialised. The works are not necessarily calls to action – we are free to walk out of the theatre – but they make us alert and challenge us to engage.

Wallace’s range of tragedy is impressive and (perhaps too?) capacious, ranging through the classics via Shakespeare, the Renaissance and Ibsen all the way to Richard Adams’ Watership Down and recent adaptations and tragedies. For example, I was delighted by an illuminating discussion of George Brant’s Grounded (2013), a play about a drone operator, the decisions she makes from the sky, like a god, and the guilt she feels. (Wallace notes that in New York, Anne Hathaway played the pilot. Lucy Ellinson was mesmeric in the London run, and – as if to make Wallace’s point – also starred in a production of The Trojan Women.)

So what are the possible objections? That Wallace’s examples are too canonical and that we ought to take a look at Joss Whedon’s 2012 film for Marvel, The Avengers? But what are the Avengers but genetically spliced or gamma-radiated versions of older, more acute and closer-to-the-bone epics and tragedies? Captain America is Aeneas; the Hulk the protagonist of Sophocles’ Ajax. And what about the argument that Tragedy since 9/11 is too literary, and that we could just read the policy briefing instead? But the deep strata of human experience on which the policy briefing rests is, exactly, these tragedies: they help to form the categories by which we come to understand the world.

Oddly, there’s a sense of being embattled throughout this book. Wallace argues that literary criticism “should be reinvested with an ethical, political, moral relevance”: amen to that, but why “reinvested”? I’m pretty sure that these disciplinary characteristics never really went away. Again, a weird sentence proclaims that this book on tragic events in the modern world is “highly controversial”: spoiler – it’s really not, there’s a whole (uncontroversial) subgenre of them. That said, Wallace’s powerful, deeply felt, thoughtful and convincing book is an especially good example.

Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of The Broken Voice: Reading Post-Holocaust Literature (2017).


Tragedy since 9/11: Reading a World out of Joint
By Jennifer Wallace
Bloomsbury Academic, 240pp, £18.99
ISBN 9781350035621
Published 5 September 2019

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