Living On

Alex Hirsch
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

One popular view in contemporary democratic thinking holds that everything is densely interwoven in a field of public flesh. Everything is crossed and crossing over in a richly enfolded chiasm pulsing with togetherness. The world is seen as an active nexus where singularities merge and respond in mutual transfer. “We participate each other,” writes Norman O. Brown.

There is something highly seductive about this vision. But of course this is only half the story. The constant presence of friction, struggle and conflict – of politics – built into human affairs, belies all this conviviality. The idea that we are always already thrown open to one another misses the point that despite this situation we remain crucially at odds with one another.

This is the point of departure for what some are starting to call the tragic sensibility. To start, the tragic sensibility downplays rationality and especially rationality’s pretension to sovereign mastery over destiny and fate. It also casts doubt on the faith in the sufficiency and autonomy of the self. More specifically, the tragic sensibility names the rivalry between, on the one hand, what our will intends and, on the other, the worldly forces that conspire to thwart those intentions. In this way, it affirms the notion that we are vulnerable to powers not entirely within our control. But there is more. The tragic sensibility offers a searching reflection on the moral conflict generated out of contestations over the meaning of public pain.  

A haunting example of this can be found in Incendies (2010). A kind of Sophoclean tragedy, the film traces the journeys of twin siblings, Jean and Simon Marwan, through an unnamed Middle Eastern country (which we can safely assume is Lebanon) that is mired in a history of religious strife and catastrophic violence. Each sibling is tasked with tracking down an estranged family member (Jean, the twins’ father; Simon, their brother) when Nawal, their mother, posthumously leaves behind two sealed letters to be delivered to each by the twins.

As the twins work respectively to locate their father and brother they begin to unravel the mystery of their mother’s life. Weaving together past and present into an uncanny mosaic, the film gives the supple impression of a world where the consequences of what has happened endlessly open out. 

In a series of flashbacks to the 1970s and ‘80s we learn that as a young woman Nawal was a Christian who fell in love with and was impregnated by a Muslim (Palestinian?) refugee. She eventually gave birth to a son; but, having disgraced her family (once by bearing a child out of wedlock, again by loving a Muslim), the boy is abandoned to a local orphanage while Nawal herself is banished to Daresh, a fictional city on the brink of civil war. 

In Daresh, Nawal enrolls at the local university where she becomes a student activist and editor of a pacifist newspaper. Disgusted with the wanton violence committed by those who espouse the faith to justify hatred, Nawal disavows her Christian past in the name of promoting a peaceful future. 

In one of the film’s most wrenching scenes, we see Nawal riding a bus through a dangerous region of the countryside, frantically searching for her misplaced son amongst orphanages recently razed by Christian guerilla fighters. Along the way the bus is viciously attacked by the Phalangist, who spray a torrent of machine gun fire into its interior before setting the bus ablaze. Nawal, having survived the initial assault along with a handful of others, escapes by baring her cross out the bus doorway. Ironically, the Christian identity Nawal had repudiated saves her life but only at the price of making her the hapless witness and unwitting accomplice to a massacre. 

The tragedy of the scene can be viewed in light of what Bernard Williams writes of tragic situations: there was nothing Nawal could do and yet something had to be done. For Williams, what makes scenes such as this tragic is that Nawal is caught between an impossible choice (reclaim her Christian identity and live, or maintain her righteous contempt and die) and a no less compelling imperative to act (sacrifice her pacifist ideal and act vengefully against the Phalangist in order to prevent such massacres in the future). There is no right thing to do. Whatever Nawal does she is at once right and wrong. There is only the tragic happening and Nawal’s response to what that happening has rendered in her. 

Read in this light, one might say that the tragic sensibility is less interested in coming up with prescriptive standards of action (what should Nawal do?) than in asking questions about how to live on despite the lack of available options (how can Nawal survive such a scene with her moral integrity intact?). As Bonnie Honig puts it, the goal is “to salvage from the wreckage of the situation enough narrative unity for the self to go on.” 

There is plenty that can be said about what this modicum of narrative unity might be composed of (a self that is, as Kathleen Stewart puts it, a “fabulation that enfolds the intensities it finds itself in”). But what the tragic sensibility helps to supplement is a sense of what Hayden White means when, in a tragic key, he writes “History is not something that one understands, it is something one endures – if one is lucky.”

This is not to say that with tragedy there is no hope. The tragic sensibility is not tantamount to resignation. Rather, it is about finding ways to live with the intractable quality of conflict endemic to human experience. Not in order to be free of the troubling questions such conflicts evoke. Instead, the tragic sensibility is about grappling with the predicament of yearning for redemption and yet always failing to become redeemed. This is what Paul Gilroy means when he defines tragedy as “suffering made useful but not redemptive.” The tragic sensibility is all about finding ways of being lucky (in White’s sense); not merely to survive, but to live on (an important difference) even when mourning and redemption read like so much messianism. More, it is about marshaling creative forms of aesthetic responsiveness, political judgment, and critical imagination germane to the shared precarity such a condition entails. 

Think of Palestine, where the tragic sensibility of Incendies has taken hold. The goal of reconciling the sectarian conflict between Israeli settlers and Arab aboriginals has long been abandoned by most everyday inhabitants of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Instead the accent is placed on harnessing ways of living with what has turned out to be irredeemable. 

Neil Hertz talks about this in his recent ethnographic travelogue, Pastoral in Palestine. In 2011, Hertz lived in Ramallah, a Palestinian enclave settled in section A (according to the Oslo Accords of 1993/1995) of the West Bank, while teaching in neighbouring Abu Dis. He writes that of the many people he met, people whose occupied cultures were constantly under threat of erosion and collapse, few expressed any wish for reconciliation; only a desire to invent new modes of being / becoming in the midst of catastrophe. Hertz recalls encounter after encounter with people for whom “There is no solution, only ‘The Situation.’” Salim, a dinner guest, explains this to Hertz one evening: “It will just go on…One must live with it.”

This isn’t pessimism. Nor is it complacency. Indeed, one might say Salim’s position is akin to what Jonathan Lear means by “radical hope.” By this Lear is referring to a hope that is directed toward some future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is: “Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.” A hope that looks forward despite the future’s unpredictability; a hope without guarantees. Only a tragic sense that if we persevere, and act to sustain ourselves, we may get lucky. 

It is important that we recognize all the ways that we are borne out in thick expressions of mutual active witnessing that take shape in everyday rhythms of life. In the flux of a complex world, we really do “participate one another.” But this way of speaking must be complemented by a tragic sensibility sensitive to all the ways that we are connected as well as separated by what is happening and what the happening’s breaking down is doing to us. And we must listen carefully to those like Nawal and Salim who have been quietly inventing modes of staying power, techniques for committing to living on with the tragic sensibility when the deus ex machina of redemption remains an empty promise.