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It is hard to label “tragic” anyone as cheerful and optimistic as President George W. Bush. Perhaps more than any leader in history, Bush is a Christian. Religious conversion is the defining experience of his life, and it is in his nature to convert others. Because he is a 21st-century American and not a 12th-century Crusader, he preaches the ballot box rather than the cross; as I have argued elsewhere ( Mahathir is right: Jews do rule the world , October 28) that amounts to the same thing. Telling in this regard was the president’s London oration last week. No less than five references to “ideals” and “idealism” showed where his heart lies; recall his campaign declaration that Jesus Christ was his favorite political philosopher.
Mephistopheles introduced himself to Faust as “ein Teil von jener Kraft, die stets das Boese will und stets das Gute schafft. (a part of that power, which always wants to do evil, but always does good).” Reverse this, and you have the tragedy of Bush: he wants universal good, but he will end up doing some terrible things.
The more Bush preaches idealism, the more the course of events pushes him towards imperial methods. The sort of “Iraqification” Washington has in mind does not differ much from what I foresaw in early October: “He wins who best can tolerate instability. Once upon a time the British were quite good at that. They ruled India with a tiny civil service and a small army, recruiting local forces and using them to excellent effect in a fragmented, multi-ethnic sub-continent. In essence it means recruiting Turks to patrol Basra, Kurds to patrol Tikrit, Shi’ites to occupy Baghdad, while offering bribes, territory and other inducements to Iraq’s neighbors to meddle.” (How cherry-picking militant Islam can win October 3).
Something quite like this is on the menu. Here are two relevant news reports:
Item 1: Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, wrote (in the November 20 Wall Street Journal): “There are over 60,000 peshmerga [armed forces] who have fought alongside the coalition and who are keen to contribute. We accept the sensitivities that preclude using Kurdish troops in Arab areas. However, the peshmerga can be used to provide backup and guard facilities, as well as protect the borders of our country, thereby freeing up Iraqi forces for operations in the Sunni triangle.”
Item 2: “Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has quietly announced his recognition of the Iraqi Governing Council and acceptance of the US timeline on the transfer of power in Iraq. The announcement speaks to a partnership that will direct the future course of Iraq. The alliance is of direct short term benefit to both countries: The United States gains a partner to help combat Sunni insurgents, and Iran will be able to mitigate the long-standing threat on its western border,” reported the Stratfor website on November 19.
Reverting to the old imperial methods of handling unruly locals is not what Bush wanted for himself, but the tragic logic of events impels him in this direction.
“American tragedy” (despite Theodore Dreiser’s dreadful novel) is something of an oxymoron, for America is the land of new beginnings. Tragedy invariably takes the form of a shadow from the past darkening the present and future. But something like the River Lethe girds the American continent, through which immigrants forget their past and with it their past tragedies. One might say that the American tragedy is the incapacity of Americans to understand the tragedy of other peoples. America can cherry-pick out of the nations those individuals who wish to be Americans, but it cannot force back on the nations its own character. Its efforts to do so have perpetually destabilizing consequences for other peoples. Not idly does Osama bin Laden denounce Americans as “crusaders.”
Tragedy, I have argued on past occasions (See above, “How cherry-picking militant Islam can win”) trains the mind to distinguish the necessary from the merely accidental. Men do not risk everything on a throw of the dice of war unless they must. What we loosely call the great tragedies of history are just that, collisions which men no more could forestall than the shift in the earth’s tectonic plates. In another location I have discussed the tragic character of the Napoleonic wars and World War I (Do not click on this link, October 29, 2002).
More tragedy than history, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War illuminates the flaws in the Athenian character which sent Athens to defeat. Modern historians, eg, Donald Kagan, purport to improve on Thucydides by correcting factual errors, but instead dilute his message. Americans have difficulty distinguishing the tragic from the trivial. The trivial as opposed to the tragic view of history begins in the modern period with Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, a too-clever-by-half critique of Roman generalship. Niccolo Machiavelli’s interest was to flatter Cesare Borgia into believing that his capacity to manipulate was infinite, if only he would listen to Machiavelli. So much for the Straussians, for whom Machiavelli is the founding father of modern political science. Like Immanuel Kant, the Straussians believe, “We could devise a constitution for a race of devils, if only they were intelligent” (see Why radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8).
What distinguishes tragedy from comedy is the element of necessity, not a sad or happy ending. The Old Testament story of Abraham’s family is a tragedy in structure, yet it holds out at least the promise of a happy ending (through eventual redemption). So are the Homeric epics of the Trojan War, even though their endings are mixed (sad for Agamemnon, happy for Odysseus).
If a piano falls out of a 20th-floor window and lands on Daffy Duck, we laugh. If a piano falls out of a 20th-floor window and crushes a loved one, we do not laugh, but neither is it a tragedy. September 11, 2001 was a tragic event. So was America’s invasion of Iraq. It is Bush’s tragedy to be the protagonist in the tragedy, rather than the playwright.
The first “tragedy” of the modern era, the original “Spanish tragedy,” is a case in point. Although he kills all characters, Fernando de Rojas called La Celestina (1499) a “tragi-comedy” because misadventure rather than necessity drives the plot. Despite the high body count, it remains a hilarious piece of black humor, next to which Bertolt Brecht reads like The Little Prince. By contrast, England (William Shakespeare), Spain (Calderon de la Barca), Germany (Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller), and Russia (fill in any writer’s name) knew tragedy. Not so the French. Their national poet Victor Hugo adopts the structure of French bedroom farce, with the minor difference that violence takes the place of sex. The beggars of Paris, for example, storm the Cathedral of Notre Dame to rescue the gypsy girl Esmeralda from a charge of witchcraft; the deaf hunchback Quasimodo mistakes the attempted rescue for a lynching and pours molten lead on their heads; misinformed, the king orders his troops both to slaughter the beggars and to hang the witch. Because chance prevails, not necessity, the effect is not tragic, but merely grotesque. It has more in common with Grand Guignol than Sophocles.
Among the French, Hugo’s grotesquerie evokes cynical laughter. (“Victor Hugo was a madman who thought that he was Victor Hugo,” sniffed Jean Cocteau). The subject of tragedy baffles Americans, though, and Hollywood misread the hunchback tale as a sentimental story. Take the case of America’s greatest playwright, Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill. Peel off the top layer of so-called “French tragedy” and, as noted, you will find the structure of a bedroom farce. Peel the top layer off O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and you will find the structure of a 1950s television situation comedy. Laudanum, whiskey and tuberculosis in O’Neill replace the situation comedy’s typical plot devices, eg, a lost report card and the window broken by a baseball (American readers will note that it is a long time since I have seen one of their situation comedies). But the dramatic structure is identical; there is no tragic flaw, and no resolution, and everything will be exactly the same in the morning, ready for the next episode.
For American readers whose O’Neill is a bit rusty, here is a more current example, namely, the purported tragedy of the season, Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed film Mystic River. “As close as we are likely to come on the screen to the spirit of Greek tragedy, and closer, I think, than Arthur Miller has come on the stage … The crime of child abuse becomes a curse that determines the pattern of events in the next generation,” gushed the film critic of the New Yorker magazine. Wrote the critic of the New York Times, “Mystic River is the rare American movie that aspires to – and achieves – the full weight and darkness of tragedy.” In fact, my web search suggests, every critic who reviewed Mystic River characterized the story as a “tragedy.”
But like Hugo’s hunchback story, Mystic River is not tragic, it is merely grotesque. (Full disclosure: I have not had access to the film, but read the Dennis Lehane novel whence it is derived). Young boys murder the daughter of a hoodlum for a lark. Within minutes, and close by, a childhood friend of the hoodlum murders a sexual predator whom he has encountered by pure chance, prompted by memory of molestation suffered as a boy. The hoodlum mistakenly concludes that his childhood friend is the murderer of his daughter, and murders him in turn. Distasteful and somewhat depraved, Mystic River nonetheless is comedy, based on random events and mistaken identities. Do not look for strategic judgment where this sort of concoction passes universally for tragedy.
Daniel Pipes (whose column now appears in Asia Times Online) wrote in 1996: “Fat’hi ash-Shiqaqi, a well-educated young Palestinian living in Damascus, recently boasted of his familiarity with European literature. He told an interviewer how he had read and enjoyed Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Jean-Paul Sartre, and T S Eliot. He spoke of his particular passion for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, a work he read 10 times in English translation “and each time wept bitterly.” Such acquaintance with world literature and such exquisite sensibility would not be of note except for two points – that Shiqaqi was until his assassination in Malta a few weeks ago an Islamist (or what is frequently called a “fundamentalist” Muslim) and that he headed Islamic Jihad, the arch-terrorist organization that has murdered dozens of Israelis over the last two years.”
I cited this example on September 22, 2001 (Washington’s racism and the Islamist trap, adding, “An unconventional warrior with a passion for Sophocles is a formidable opponent indeed. One imagines a Central Intelligence Agency analyst slipping the Encarta CD into his computer at this point to look up who Sophocles might have been. It’s going to be a long, long century.”