Accounting for Tragedy: A Prefatory Note
Dear Professor F,
You may recognize portions of what follows. This essay represents a wound-and-repair effort. In its first life, it served as one of two writing samples in my application to the department. I’ve held onto it as a touchstone for a certain tidiness of thought that I’ve since struggled to achieve. (A college professor of mine once remarked that the more one reads, the more connections one can’t help but make, until it seems that one couldn’t possibly talk about anything without footnoting everything . . . This was his way of explaining why writing gets harder, not easier, as one progresses through her education.)
There’s a small, singular purpose at work here (appropriately buttressed by a slim Works Cited): namely, to vindicate Stanley Cavell’s reading of King Lear against Harold Bloom’s dismissal, and to do so in such a way that I preserve Cordelia—her tenderness and truth, say—against Lear’s mad accusations, which Bloom, weirdly, would join in (Lear, I, i).
Whatever faults the essay founders on—and I’ll have more to say about these by and by—the essay holds its weight formally and steers steady in a way that I was and continue to be grateful for.
A happy touchstone, then. But touchstones—those schists we would strike our gold against—tell false as well as true. Proving the lie in what we would have authenticated, a touchstone may appear to us a petra skandalou, a stone of offense, a stumbling stone, scandalous. In this second sense I might say that this essay has held onto me.
What is there to be scandalized by in an essay as patly academic (even unambitiously so) as this? I want to begin to address that question by telling a very short story:
For a couple of years, three or four times a week, a friend and I ran the lakeshore trail together. We’ve since become too busy to keep up with it (him dissertating, me preparing for my exams). Of course, running together also meant talking together and our conversations, season by season, storm by storm, were—for me—both rich and challenging. One winter run, rounding the recently-wind-wrecked point at Oakwood Boulevard and deep into a discussion about I don’t-remember-what, I suggested that it might be important for a child to come to recognize that she is unloved, that her parents don’t love her, that what her parents have to offer—whether by choice or constraint or both—isn’t and shouldn’t be confused with love. My friend was aghast. He sputtered something about the erotic bonds that bind parents and children, attachments verging on identification, and finally exclaimed, “You have no right, Catlin! No right to call another’s love into question!”
To say I was startled is an understatement. I had thought I was making a bold, but ultimately uncontroversial point. I was even a little bit proud of myself for daring to say it so plainly. But my friend cast shame on me. And I was duly ashamed. I was ashamed the way children are often ashamed: without understanding why, distressed, dumb-stuck, desperate for rescue. He and I ran home in silence.
* * *
Around that time I was reading through several of Professor N’s essays. N is a historian, a story-teller. The stories he cares to tell take up themes of identification and exclusion. He’s interested in how communities understand themselves, and in how that self-understanding is fed by and feeds into specific forms of violence. If there’s a normative dimension to his work it lies in the critical appraisal of what gestures and tropes these communities employ to authorize their own brutality. He would turn the mirror on political, cultural, and religious rhetoric—most especially rhetoric of righteousness—showing up the pretension and self-deception of their announced moral aspirations. As he once put it to me in an email exchange, he would “shock fantasy into some awareness of itself.”
Implicit in this project is a faith in (a fantasy of?) the emancipatory powers of shock. The relevant metaphors are at once tectonic and pioneering: By ‘destabilizing’ and ‘unsettling’ we ‘break new ground,’ ‘open up new domains,’ ‘draw new boundaries,’ and ‘establish new territories’ of thought. Of course, for all of this shifting about, we find ourselves here on rather old and familiar firmament: this is progressive liberalism where what is needful is just a clearer perspective, a truer view of the world, a more honest look at ourselves, a better map . . .
So be it. (Let someone else make the Nietzschean pitch at this juncture.) It is good and right that the hypocrisy of the ages be called out (polities of love shown to be founded on enmity, our blithe and godless Christendom shown to be a species of Nazism). It is good and right, but is it enough? What I miss in N’s work—what I would seek to develop in my own—is the absent account of how we’re so much as able to recognize hypocrisy as such, others’ and especially our own. This caesura seems to me intimately related to another: namely the absent account of what we’re to do in the wake of such recognitions. The map is great, but how does one read it?
By what lights do we illuminate our histories as histories of obfuscation? And illuminated thus, what shadows do our histories throw on our already-dark future? I take it that to call out enmity-in-the-name-of-love as anything worse than strategic is to engage a concept of love more substantive than—say transcendent of—its immanent strategic expressions. So too, to critically call out the betrayals of the Western Tradition is to make some positive appeal to its promises. My thought is that we can only reprehend false charity, false justice in the apprehension of a truer charity, a truer justice. And furthermore, that apprehending these, there is naught for us to do but labor toward them, though it means risking their failure all over again. Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, has an argument along these lines for the reality of goodness that relies on our very real aversion to evil. (Evil can only evil by virtue of some good . . . ) His reasoning progresses as a variant of Descartes’ discovery of the idea of infinity within himself, an insurance plan against skepticism and relativism. It’s more than a little embarrassing to find myself thinking in step with the stuffy Oxford dogmatist (only marginally less so to be thinking in step with the dreaming Frenchman). Can I preserve myself from the wilfulness of their conclusions, even as I claim their questions as my own? Like them, I would ask after the what and, especially, the whence of our highest ideals.
To so much as pose the question is to tempt metaphysics. In college I studied under the generation of academics who came along after Lewis and his friends. These were true seculars, the Enlightenment’s long-awaited children. To throw your hands skyward in their classes was to invite ridicule. They were this-worldly through and through. Of course, the pendulum has since swung back the other way and theological terms once again find a home in our academic discourse. (In continental philosophy circles fellow students use the word agape with impunity. They are confident that they know what it means, confident they know how to mean by it.)
I might welcome this turn-of-tide. College required a radical realignment of my sightlines, trained as they had been “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” not on what is “temporary,” but on what is “eternal.” My most native intellectual climate (my Ithaca, say) is utterly other-worldy, and these recent trends in the academy forecast currents that could carry me home. So it’s against myself, against my heart’s longing, that I refuse to get on board. I no longer want part in a heaven that would demote human suffering to so many “light and momentary troubles,” whether or not they are “achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
Is it too bold to call Pauline logic a birthright? But it is mine, and so inescapable. Still, I disclaim it. In this I would usurp myself, though it means a kind of exile (Lear, V, iii).
And where does this exile find me but in those this-worldly histories N relates? None of us can be bothered to fight against what we don’t in some sense believe in, and my attraction to N’s work is patently born of my dissatisfactions.
Through the elisions of his analyses (those very caesuras I complained about), he effectively eschews any explanatory apparatus that might legitimate pain and thereby authorize violence. His is a criticism that keeps its course, a criticism of suffering without consolation.
I mean to own that the question that drives me (regarding the what and the whence of our highest ideals) is, at least in part, a quest for consolation (that insurance plan, Lewis, Descartes, and so many others drew up). I’m brought to the brink of metaphysics, but, loathe to take that step, I fall back. Or: I take that step, but—like everyone still living—find myself duped by the Cliffs of Dover. To fall from them is always and only to fall to back into this world, down upon one’s knees, “a miracle” by some accounts, but no such thing by most (Lear IV, vi).
* * *
In a long (and I fear ever-lengthening) article on Emmanuel Lévinas’ thought, I attempt a more thorough-going discussion of the relationship between our transcendental projections of peace and the permanent war of our political theater (between our highest ideals and their human inversions). Here, now, I’d like to bring these considerations back to King Lear and what was at stake between me and my friend on that long lakeshore run following the storm.
When I said what I said about the unloved child, I had a one-time student of mine in mind. Amy was fifteen when I met her. Her mother was addicted to methamphetamine, angry, and prone to physical violence. She urged Amy to get pregnant so she—Amy’s mother—could collect additional drug money from the state. The school administrators and I suspected her of prostituting Amy—a suspicion we couldn’t quite corroborate, but which we didn’t try too hard to, burnt out as we all were on a corrupt and incompetent system.
Amy would show up at school skinny, bruised, and bugging. We’d pull her aside and query her. She’d begin, “I know my momma loves me . . . ” And I—a barely-twenty-something with a rapidly-changing picture of the world—would want to scream, “Your mother doesn’t love you! This isn’t love!”
If I were still committed to that screaming voice in my head, still committed to what I said to my friend on that run, I might work out a logical defense of my dualism: ‘A mother loves her child’ is a meaningful proposition if and only if the inverse, ‘A mother does not love her child,’ might also in some cases obtain . . . But this is nightmare-speak. Horrors crowd the mind. Euripides’ Medea, Toni Morrison’s Sethe. Joan Didion reports—
. . . I also read, in the papers that came one day late from the mainland, the story of Betty Lansdown Fouquet, a 26-year-old woman with faded blond hair who put her five-year-old daughter out to die on the center divider of Interstate 5 some miles south of the last Bakersfield exit. The child, whose fingers had to be pried loose from the Cyclone fence when she was rescued twelve hours later by the California Highway Patrol, reported that she had run after the car carrying her mother and stepfather and brother and sister for “a long time.” (The White Album)
For want of love? Such stories dement love, oust it from its sense and us from our senses. So it was love, then? “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; / No more of that” (Lear, III, iv). The questions slip our grasp.
* * *
Let me pull back, try another tack. At the turn of the 20th century, Anglican Bishop, Charles Gore finds ‘God is Love’ to be the most difficult scripture. Several decades later, in her T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, Helen Gardner responds “it is not at all difficult to believe” that God is Love, “if we only mean that the highest and best thing in the world we know is Love . . . ” She explains, ‘Love is God’ “raises no problems, for we are simply divinizing the highest moral value we have found in our experience.” According to Gardner, problems arise only “if by God we mean the Creator of all that is,” for how can we sanely set the seal of divinity on the stupidity, the fury, the pettiness and perversion we find everywhere about and within us? How can we call, all that, all that is, God’s work and the work of Love? Many of us can’t and won’t. Tallying its joys and its sorrows, we hasten to join Ivan in the ticket-return queue. We will affirm the world piecemeal (Gardner’s “highest and best thing”), but not en toto.
But which are its joys, and which are its sorrows? What is that ” highest and best thing” Gardner speaks of so certainly? (Have we all had it? Do we all know it? Would each of us recognize it if it came to us by night? Or would we like Psyche need to inspect it? And if we lit the lamp over its sleeping form would it fly from us, leaving us to wonder if that was Love at all?) I think of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” concluding in remorse: What did I know, What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices? And of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” the grown-son’s recriminations rhyming with the child-son’s affections: You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt, / Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt. And I think of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—: every word a word of hate, even as the metered breath pants with desire. How, in any of these, are we to parse (are we to parse?) the ‘highest and best’ from the ‘lowest and worst,’ the love from the un-love, the heavenly-ideal from the earthly-real? It seems to me that in these matters, our most meticulous Manichaeism can only re-discover the problem.
* * *
My father and I rarely talk on the phone. We don’t seem to have much to say to one another. When we do talk, we debate, usually in generalities and abstractions, waxing philosophical rather than broaching the personal. The concrete, the particular, are unbearable to him. And I’m my father’s daughter.
He called me recently, asked what I was working on. I told him that I was writing about parents and children and messed up love. My father mused flatly, “Well, every parent wants what’s best for their child.” “You really think so?” I countered. “I know so,” he answered, his voice deepening slightly. “Parenting is an exercise in selflessness.” “Selflessness!?” “You heard me. Don’t parrot me.” He stopped then, checked his anger, continued, “Of course parents may be confused about how to love their children best, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love them. Parents can’t help but love their children. They do everything in their power, give everything they can to ensure their children’s happiness, safety, and well-being.” “But—“ I interrupted. “No ‘but’s. To be a parent is to love your child more than life itself. No parent harms their child on purpose.” “They do! All the time! You—” “No! You’re wrong, Catlin!” And for perhaps the first time in my life it occurred to me stop, to let it go, not out of fear of punishment or retribution, but out of care for him and whatever fantasies he clings to of himself. “Okay, dad. Parents love their kids.” We hung up shortly thereafter.
It’s easy enough to guess at what my father has staked in the purity of parental love. But what do I have staked in proving him wrong? I know my momma loves me. My daddy loves me too . . . In the name of what divine love do I denounce these human loves as broken? And why do I want to recognize myself as unloved? What emancipatory power is that shock supposed to afford me?
* * *
I take it that the news-story Didion cites is so terrible in part because the little girl is not abandoned by her mother alone. The mother drives off with the girl’s stepfather and siblings: Theirs is a car full of love. A villain, a monster, a sociopath (a person with no fellow-feeling) might commit any number of atrocities. But here we have a family, a tiny polity of love, establishing itself as N said it would by designating its its lone five-year-old enemy who doesn’t want to be an enemy, who wants to be a citizen, who runs after that car for “a long time,” until finally clinging to a fence.
One of Shakespeare’s many inventions is the introduction of villainy into tragedy. Iago, Gonereil, Regan and their like are distinctly Christian devils. (Milton learns from him: Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. / Evil be thou my good.) As such, they are inconceivable on the Athenian stage. Note though that these modern devils do not by themselves make for tragedy. Shakespearean tragedy as much as Ancient Greek requires a hero on whom all good is not lost, whom remorse may still seize, who loves and is loved in return.
You’ll remember I asked what could be scandalous about an essay as patly academic as this. What I am scandalized by (stumbling over, ashamed of even) is its subtle but persistent (seemingly intractable, for all of my edits) claim that what Lear bears Cordelia is not in fact love. (I hear my own desperate voice crying, “That’s not love!”)
Late in the play, in a tent in the French camp at Dover, a suddenly lucid Lear recognizes his banished daughter. At the sound of her name on his lips, she weeps. He imagines her tears are a poison for him, a poison he offers to drink. He rushes to explain, “I know you do not love me,” and goes on, “You have some cause.” But Cordelia’s tears are not poison, and she protests, “No cause, no cause.” At this Lear falls back into madness. He asks, “Am I in France?” (IV, vii)
Lear knows his love for Cordelia to be illicit: unallowed, unallowable, impossible to express save as repression, denial, refusal, banishment. (To quote my friend, his love for Cordelia is an erotic bond, an attachment veering into identification.) Lear is not in France. He is in Britain, and still (though barely) Britain’s King. Asking “Am I in France?” he asks also “Am I – France,” in the King of France’s body as it were. For it’s only from within France’s husband-body that Lear can fantasize the fulfillment of his longing. (Which is why he fantasizes death—the death of his father-body—as a wedding night, and why he longs to die alone with Cordelia in prison (IV, vi).)
Cordelia loves her father according to her bond, “nor more nor less” (I, i) And how much is that exactly? Just like his kingdom, it will be at once too little and too much for Lear: too little to hold on to, and too much bear. I’m disinclined to make a Christ figure of Cordelia. I’d rather have her as a Jesus strung up un-risen, un-rising. We have no reason to believe that her love for her father isn’t colored as his is by longing, but unlike Lear she permits her love—however messed up—positive expression, she allows it a life in this world.
With alarming clarity, Lear declares, “You do not love me,” And to the degree that I respond, “He does not love her,” I participate on the play’s damning logic. I’ve called this logic a dualism, a Manichaeism. Now it seems to me also a form of contempt: contempt for messed-up-ness, and the messed-up-ness of love. With shame, Lear hides from what he has contempt for. And with pride he hides from his shame. He abdicates Cordelia, of course, and his kingdom, and with them his sanity, and these are his way of abdicating his life, this world, and everyone in it.
(Earlier I quoted Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, 4:16-18. These verses are memorable as life so often seems to call for their consolation. But they are terrible in that what consolation they offer can only amount to abdication. Here is Pauline contempt for this world, this world where love is muddled at best, murderous at worst; and here is Pauline praise for the next world, the next world where love is holy, and where for all we know nobody lives.)
What is the opposite of abdication? Etymologically, it’s declaration. But not any declaration will do. Declaring Amy unloved (if only in my head) I thought to preserve her from the burden of taking so much violence, so much suffering—all that, all that is—up into her concept of love. I thought to maintain for her some whole love above the fray of broken loves, that every broken love might be measured and discarded. Be careful. Don’t cut yourself. Here, throw it away.
With Cordelia in mind, I wonder if any of us so much as could believe ourselves to be unloved while also believing ourselves capable of loving. Cordelia is able to love Lear because she knows—in a knowledge beyond certainty, an acknowledgment or faith—that in spite of every violent betrayal he loves her. Here declaration exceeds itself as a ‘saying’ and comes to take on its full meaning as a ‘claiming’—it is an up-take, an in-gathering, an affirmation of what is. It begins to look like a holiness belonging to this world.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. I’m very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts.