MLA: A nation in real need of some tragic characters

December 20, 2002

The lack of tragedy and moral ambiguity in US cultural forms leaves Americans naive about the the world, says Ken Hirschkop

September 11 is commonly described as a national tragedy (a Google search for this phrase turns up little else). It involved the gruesome death of thousands of innocent civilians who died on account of their assumed nationality. A nation’s media often rushes too quickly to nationalise every disaster that befalls its citizens, but the description was apt in this case.

A nation, however, is more than an aggregate of people. It is composed of laws, legislatures, armed forces, banks and factories: in short, an array of political and economic institutions that structure the activities of its citizens. But it has been far more difficult to understand September 11 as a national tragedy in this more complicated sense - that is, as an instance of mass suffering in a political context. Americans, we have been told, reacted with disbelief not only at the sheer horror of the atrocity, but also at the possible motivations of its perpetrators. They simply could not believe anyone would hate them enough to do such a thing. And the reaction of many, though not all, Americans since has been rage at anyone who dares to suggest that those responsible for the atrocity could be motivated by anything other than a sheer, inexplicable malignity.

This inability to comprehend catastrophe in political terms is rooted partly in the lack of a tragic dimension in American popular culture. It is not that American culture avoids disasters or calamities - it positively revels in them - but it is unable or unwilling to understand them in tragic terms. There has been endless debate on the meaning or nature of tragedy, and a well-known conservative line of criticism insists that only the undereducated call garden-variety

disasters (floods, plane crashes and so on) tragic. But whatever definition is chosen, tragedy in its modern form depends on plots in which good intentions, or competing but valid priorities, are deflected or channelled towards unexpected outcomes. Tragic suffering is not inflicted by simple villainy: it represents the working-out of a complex action, in which the motives and deeds of characters often contribute to unforeseen and unintended misery. The eventual disaster stems from a sequence of events, and is sometimes the direct consequence of the actions ( Macbeth ) or the inaction ( Hamlet ) of the victim. As the complex result of an intersection of actions and motives, tragedies, even when they have distinct villains (Iago, for instance), can therefore entail an interesting degree of moral ambiguity.

It is this ambiguity that seems to make tragedy uncongenial on the American scene. The literary critic Franco Moretti has argued that modern tragic plots typically pivot on a moment of truth, a turning point when the compromises and little evasions of everyday life fall away to reveal a painful but necessary choice or situation. The narratives that litter American culture certainly have their pivotal moments of truth, but it is telling that these moments are moral rather than epistemic: the turning points tend to be those moments when, faced with a clear choice between the paths of good and evil, characters critical to the plot finally acknowledge the pressing claims of conscience. How many times has the police or detective drama depended on the witness or relative of the accused who suddenly decides to tell the truth he or she has been hiding for months or years (a particular favourite of mine when I was younger, the “forensic drama” Quincy , seemed to depend on this ruse every week)? It is as if the only conflict that can be narratively worked through is that between the claims of what is right and the possibility of corruption, selfishness and so on.

Of course, most American popular culture cannot even contemplate the possibility of an unhappy ending, let alone a tragic one. But even where an identifiable hero comes to ruin, as in the recently acclaimed American Beauty , moralism wins out over complexity. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey to you and me) has his moment of truth when he discovers that the teenage object of his fantasies, whose erotic allure has prompted a full-blown male midlife crisis, is in fact an inexperienced virgin. At which point he pulls back from the moral precipice (he is about to have sex with her), attains a serene wisdom and, of course, dies immediately after. The narrative is grim and relatively sophisticated. But it resists being tragic in revealing ways. Once Burnham knows his teenage icon isn’t the sex object of his dreams, there is no decision to make. He knows exactly what he must do, and he moves with a lithe moral certainty most tragic heroes could only envy. There are no hard choices, no conflict of principles, not even a struggle with his own desire. And Burnham’s tragedy does not reveal to him a truth lying underneath appearances: it leads him to the banal, utterly untragic conclusion that he should feel grateful for “every single moment of my stupid little life”.

A culture that effaces tragedy makes it difficult to understand how well-meaning individuals, morally well disposed in their personal lives, can nevertheless find themselves promoting national policies with tragic and destructive consequences. The lack of tragedy in US popular culture is one factor - there are, of course, many - that leads Americans to project the nation as a mere extension of the personal, occluding the instance of politics altogether. This means they cannot appreciate the discrepancy between motive and consequence

that is so central to politics, and that the institutional dimension of politics and economics is reduced to a question of mere technique. It also means they are powerless to understand the motivations of those who inflict great suffering on others, whether they are US political leaders or terrorists with America in their sights.

The cultural theorist Raymond Williams once remarked that today people can see more drama in a week than their ancestors could in a lifetime. But the drama that Americans consume each week leaves most of them wholly unprepared for the political world they must inhabit.

Ken Hirschkop is a senior lecturer in English literature and director of graduate studies at the University of Manchester. A paper by him will be read at the National Tragedy session at 10.15am on December 28.

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