Tragedy grapples with gap between human meaningfulness and despair

September 6, 2002

In following the excavation efforts at Ground Zero, Jennifer Wallace was struck by how we mirror the theatrical tragedy in trying to answer shocking loss with a reminder of the value of those we mourn.

In the months following the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, two very different public projects for retrieving and mourning the dead were mounted in New York. One was the grim excavation of the rubble at Ground Zero and the search for traces of the 2,823 people who died there. The other was the daily publication in The New York Times of a brief biography of each victim, a 200-word profile accompanied by a photograph, which soon became well known collectively as the "Portraits of Grief".

One act of mourning, the excavation, highlighted just how few bodies there were to mourn. Of the 2,823 victims, only 1,364 were finally positively identified - the remaining 1,459 must presumably have been vaporised. The other act, the "Portraits of Grief", presented us with recognisable, solid bodies to contemplate, even if they were only bodies of text.

I began to read the daily "Portraits of Grief" last autumn while teaching a course on tragedy at Cambridge University. How could I discuss devastating tragedy in literature such as Euripides's Trojan Women or Shakespeare's King Lear and not ponder the cataclysmic tragic event still unfolding across the Atlantic? Tragedy, after all, has traditionally been literature's way of confronting, and perhaps redeeming, the worst horrors in life. It tries to make sense of a senseless world, to find a pattern and purpose in apparently random suffering. If literary critics were to be engaged in the world around them, I thought, they needed to respond in some way to the aftermath of September 11.

So I read the "Portraits of Grief". They seemed to me powerful works of tragedy bringing a human dimension to an inhuman disaster. Just as Aristotle stressed the importance of the pattern of the tragic plot, so The New York Times tried to give shape to the disaster by transforming ordinary lives into significant narratives: "Pictures of Jose Cardona show him dancing on a conga line with his wife and friends... He cried when the couple found out that she was expecting their first child and the baby would be a sonI Mr Cardona, 35, had been working for Wall Street companies for 14 years, most recently as a clerk at Carr Futures. The baby is due in January."

And just as tragedy in literature focuses our attention on one hero and on his or her dead body, so the newspaper demanded our compassion for each person who died. "One felt," said novelist Paul Auster, "looking at those pages every day, that real lives were jumping out at you. We weren't mourning an anonymous mass of people, we were mourning thousands of individuals. And the more we knew about them, the more we could wrestle with our own grief."

But the tragedies in literature that I teach students don't always make sense. They strive for Aristotelian purpose and catharsis, but the sheer meaninglessness of suffering is often intractable. In the Bacchae , Agave's concern, when hearing that she has in her madness torn apart her own son on the hills of Cithairon, is to make the body whole again:

Agave: And the dear body of my son, father - where is it?

Cadmus: I found it with difficulty, and have brought it here.

Agave: Are all his limbs joined decently together?

Agave wants to have a body to mourn and a fitting end to the nightmare as some sort of grim consolation. But her hopelessly naive "decently" is undermined by Cadmus's "with difficulty" and by his silence owing to the lacuna in the text. How can anything be "decent" again when it has been so scattered in fragments that it can scarcely be retrieved? Euripides pushes us to a new type of world in the Bacchae in which there can be no reliable justice, no order, no decency. The god Dionysus only presides over a dangerous, imploding moral vacuum at the heart of things, beneath whose force nothing stays intact or is adequately answered.

Similarly in Hamlet , the world is so "out of joint" that even the human anatomy cannot hold steady or be offered up in its reliable form for contemplation, despite Hamlet's melodramatic: "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable." For the body as a symbolic whole, under Hamlet's relentless questioning, disintegrates, from Hamlet's opening wish that "this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew", through his bitter observation that the "paragon of animals" is but a "quintessence of dust", right to the scene by Ophelia's grave in which he reflects upon the skull of Yorick. The body is reduced to its minute constituents in an environment that appears to lack order or meaning, a place of radical doubt and futility. At the end of the play, Hamlet can only gasp nihilistically before he dies that "the rest is silence". He might finally be at rest, but he is still without answer or certainty.

So I found myself drawn, also, to the periodic reports in The New York Times of the progress at Ground Zero. The poignant fluctuations there between hope and despondency chimed with my sense of the urgent despair located in tragic literature. For eight and a half months, workmen dug down into the ruins of the World Trade Center, prising apart concrete and metal, sifting through piles of ash and carting off rubble to a landfill site for more sifting and DNA analysis. One firefighter said: "You look for anything that resembles human. Anybody, anything. Could be clothes, could be bone."

Progress was measured statistically: 1.6 million tons of rubble removed from the site, 105,000 truckloads of material, about 1,800 more individuals still to find. But, even more heart-rending, it was also measured archaeologically , in the sense that the levels of the dirt left to dig acquired a stratigraphic meaning, took on tragic significance. In March, with just the basement of the south tower left to dig, one firefighter, Keith J. Dillon, summed up the desperation: "It's not over, but it's definitely winding down. You've got a great number of people that you want to find, and you've got a certain amount of dirt that's left. And there's a gap. That gap is going to be a sorrowful one. But we can't make more dirt."

I was haunted by Dillon's "gap". He meant, of course, the gap between the number of victims missing and the number of human remains positively identified, the gap between statistics and physical dust. But he also meant, I think, the gap between consolation and disillusion, between a reasserted human meaningfulness and an indifferent world without meaning.

Those who study tragedy in literature will recognise the significance of that gap all too vividly, for although tragedy might try to give voice to sorrow at times of inarticulate shock, it nevertheless also produces Cadmus's speechlessness and Hamlet's silence. But we can appreciate the persistent attempts over the centuries to bridge that gap, to write stories such as the "Portraits of Grief" and to answer scepticism and despair with a reminder of the form, value and significance of each individual whom we mourn.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. A longer version of this article will be published in the Cambridge Quarterly .


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