In the Teeth of Tragedy

Having recently experienced a terrible tragedy–the untimely death of my estranged wife by suicide–I can’t suppress a passing literary thought: Is there any major work of tragic literature,  broadly conceived, that is more preposterous, more wildly inapposite to the subject matter, than the Book of Job?

The Book of Job is one of the literary masterpieces of all time, and provides a profound discussion on the suffering of a just man.

No, it fucking isn’t–and no it fucking doesn’t.

Could anyone capable of speech, much less an omnicient and omnipotent deity, produce a theodicy more fallacy-strewn and tone deaf than the drivel that the Hebrew God serves up in answer to Job’s tribulations?

1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
2 Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
6 Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

In other words, what suffering? Look at all the shit I did for you!  You can see why Republicans think that the morality of welfare reform has a Judeo-Christian basis. This is what the average Republican ideologue sounds like when he wants to cut the budget for some poverty relief program–or frankly, when he opens his mouth to say anything at all.

I would, as a kind of expert on this topic–tragedy, I mean–advise anyone searching for specifically literary solace from tragedy to avoid the mind-numbing banalities of the Hebrew Bible, and read or watch Sophocles or Shakespeare instead. Ignore any philistine who tells you that these authors are too foreign, too exotic, too emotionally distant or weird, to offer insight into the tragic dimension of the human condition. Read or watch them without preconceptions and make the judgment for yourself.

When I discovered to my shock that my wife had, in a moment of terrible despair, taken her life and deprived me forever of the chance to say what I’d always wanted to say to her, I drew comfort from my emotional kinship with Oedipus, Antigone, Ajax, Hamlet, and Shylock. I was neither inclined to wonder what the Judeo-Christian God might have to say about my situation, nor to point my browser in the direction of whatever wisdom might be on offer at Fake Nous. Even in the teeth of tragedy, I’m gratified to say that I have more sense than that. Just a passing thought: I don’t wish tragedy on anyone, but if you experience one, I hope you’ll have more sense than that, too.

Thanks to Britt Long for a helpful conversation on the Book of Job. 

14 thoughts on “In the Teeth of Tragedy

  1. The better responses to profound grief involve acknowledging it, feeling it, expressing it, working through it (mostly privately perhaps but being seen and understood in it by others is important to). Even if it is true that, from some impartial or cosmic standpoint, any given personal tragedy is just more shit happening and not that significant — part of the point, I take it, of The Book of Job — that just misses the point (viz., significance to the grieving person). Same with “this too shall pass” or “I know it seems like the end of the world now, but it really isn’t.” No: not if one is trying to acknowledge, feel, express and work-through. Be well. (Antigone: yes.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Acknowledging, feeling, expressing, and working through grief are all crucial. But there’s a fourth crucial thing: understanding it.

      Two separate things here. Suppose an event takes place that causes you enormous grief. One thing worth doing is understanding the event itself: why did it happen? Once you experience grief, you need consolation, and I would say that understanding is consolation-conferring.

      Another thing worth doing is understanding your response to the event. “Grief” is too coarse-grained. A particular event causes a particularized sort of grief in a particular person. So the question to ask is: why this form of grief in me, in response to this event?

      You come to terms with the event once you get both things in place: why did this event happen, and why am I reacting to it as I am? The ultimate object of the inquiry is to figure out whether your reactions are appropriate to the event.

      The relevance to the suicide of an estranged spouse is, I hope, obvious. It’s not enough to feel what you feel in response to an event like this. Processing is a matter of asking why she did what she did, and why I feel as I feel. Obviously, the first inquiry is harder because the evidence is less accessible. But some evidence might be accessible.

      I think your description of the Book of Job is far too charitable. Joan Acocella gets it mostly right in this famous piece in The New Yorker, “Misery“:

      If, for many Westerners, the question of why God allows good people to be tortured is no longer a pressing issue, why is it that Job appears to be the most fascinating book of the Old Testament? I can’t think of a single character in the Bible, apart from Jesus or David, who is quoted more often than the dramatis personae of the Book of Job are.

      This is without doubt due, in part, to the Book’s amorality. I believe that if you woke a lot of people in the middle of the night, and asked them why they cared about the Book of Job, they would name the most troubling, least sympathetic character in that document: God. He, not Job, is the star of the Book, and though he is not loving or fair, that seems to be part of the attraction. Once God appears and speaks, you are almost blown to the ground. “Hast thou an arm like God?” he demands. Then, in a rolling magnificat, he names the things that he has created: the earth, the sea, the night, the light, the constellations, the clouds, the winds, the dew, the rain, the snow, the hail, the frost, the thunder and lightning. He goes on to the animals: the goats, the asses, the hinds, the peacocks, the ostriches, the grasshoppers. In two celebrated passages, he describes with pride the monsters he created: Behemoth and Leviathan, Behemoth’s counterpart in the sea: “His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.” God’s description of the warhorse is even more exalting, because this creature is unquestionably real, not fantastic. Likewise the eagle: “She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place. From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.” She brings pieces of flesh back to her children. They feed on the blood.

      God’s speech slaughters the moral, the what-should-be, nature of the rest of the Book of Job. It is the knife flash, the leap, the teeth. And despite, or because of, its remorselessness, it is electrifying. It is like an action movie, or a horror movie. Of course, Job is important in the story, but today he seems the pretext, the one who is like us, and makes the argument that we would make. As for God, he makes the argument that, at least as far as nature is concerned, is true. ♦

      I think Acocella is wrong to assume that the question of divine justice is no longer a pressing issue, and that Job is a fascinating character. She’s also wrong that God makes an argument with a true conclusion. But her interpretation of the Book of Job is right. The Book of Job is a celebration of fideist amorality as a response to the sources of grief. It’s specifically an attack on the idea that grief should be understood. What it says is that, whether experienced or not, grief should go intellectually unprocessed so that it’s never integrated into any coherent conceptual framework. You shouldn’t bother to ask why an event happened, because you’ll never know, and you shouldn’t worry about the appropriateness of your reactions because there is only one appropriate reaction: resignation. You should just accept that what happened had to happen, and leave it there.

      But a tragedy is by definition something that could have been otherwise had people thought, chosen, or done otherwise. In mourning Alison’s death, I’ve encountered a lot of people who unwittingly have adopted the perspective of the Book of Job: don’t bother to understand it, because you can’t; don’t over-think the alternative possibilities that might have led to a different outcome because (a) there weren’t any, and/or (b) that’s just too morbid or depressing an inquiry to undertake.

      I have the reverse view. What makes Alison’s death so tragic is that it didn’t have to happen. The only consolation I’ll ever obtain from the world is figuring out how it might have gone differently, and reconciling myself at last to the fact that it didn’t. Contrary to Job’s God, it makes perfect sense to try to make sense of the world. The understanding of grief requires a morally-laden inquiry, the only kind that makes sense of any specifically human event. Sophocles, Aristotle, and Shakespeare got that. Job’s God didn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I agree with your stress on understanding as well (this is part of the proper processing of grief) and that Job’s God is inveighing against this as well as against the ultimate significance of the personal tragedy. However, for many, in this context, understanding is an understanding of the place of the tragic event in some larger cosmic scheme of justice (and perhaps God meting it out). “Understanding” a tragic event in these terms is unproductive and a fool’s errand.

    It is also true that understanding (in the more realistic sense you embrace) can be a distraction from feeling, expressing, and the other emotional aspects of working things through and becoming reconciled to a tragic event (perhaps to the extent that this emotional work never really gets done). This, too, might be part of an incomplete or misleading folk wisdom of “don’t try to understand” or “there is no understanding things like this.”

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    • I agree with all of that, especially that the pursuit of understanding can distract from the task of experiencing grief itself. I just think understanding gets short shrift in discussions of grief. It’s a mistake to over-intellectualize, but it’s also a mistake to fail to achieve coherence.

      I actually first wrote about this in a paper I did on 9/11. When I finally get a chance to revamp my Academia page (and this site), I will put it up. But one thing I’ve always thought is that Americans got so lost in expressions of grief (and rage) over 9/11 that they missed the opportunity to understand what happened–with tragic consequences.

      What’s true of large-scale tragedies like 9/11 is also, I think, true of small-scale tragedies like Alison’s. In my experience, religion is of some, but very limited, help in coming to terms with tragedy–something I say as a fictionalist about religion with an appreciation for the good that it does, even if, taken literally, it’s mostly false. There is no substitute for tragic art. I think of Beethoven, Sophocles, and Shakespeare, but Alison’s favorite art form was film (she went to film school). Toward the end of her life, she saw and fell in love with the 2018 version of “A Star is Born” (with Lady Gaga). I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to the song “Shallow” again.

      Early on in our relationship, she practically lived in the world of the SHO series “Penny Dreadful” (which I watched with her from beginning to end). She was also a huge “Game of Thrones” fan, but “Penny Dreadful” was her deepest aesthetic love, and also one of mine.

      She identified completely with the Vanessa Ives character. I find it too painful to watch (or even think about for long) right now, I can’t imagine when I will ever be able to watch it again. But it was a beautiful, profoundly moving series. Despite my deep interest in the literary works it’s based on, I would never have watched it on my own; I didn’t own a TV, and wasn’t much of a TV watcher anyway. (It’s based on Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, among others–all monsters living among the “normal.”).

      When I saw it with her, she’d seen the whole thing before, so we watched it at her place, with her running commentary on her favorite scenes. (As I think you remember, “Alison” and “running commentary” were synonyms.) People often derided Alison’s stream-of-consciousness style of speech, but she was profoundly insightful at times, if you were willing to put up with an uninterrupted monologue and really listen. Watching and discussing this film with her was an education–an education in tragedy, actually. It’s hard to convey the gratitude I feel for her, and the sense of loss in not being able to repeat the experience.

      It suddenly occurs to me that one of her favorite novels was Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which she recommended to me over and over, and was a little disappointed that I never sat down to read. I didn’t sit down to read it, not because I dismissed the recommendation, but because I was frankly anxious about the emotional experience involved in reading it. I wasn’t sure I could handle the book, and am even less sure now.

      I suppose that some day, I’ll have to screw up my courage and read it, if only for insight into her. Not that I could tell you when.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I believe the three of us saw “A Star is Born” together, immediately prior to the pandemic. Discussing it afterward, you and I were concerned precisely with understanding the tragedy portrayed.

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  3. Irfan, thank you for sharing all the information about Allison and what you know (and don’t know) and what you think and feel about it all.

    You bring to mind for me how varied have been the circumstances of the deaths of loved ones in my life, and some differences in how I felt about them. I have a notion a long time now that there is just one large human story, and that is the story of life and death and love. The feel of that story arc to me is much the feel of some final lines of The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love.”

    Bringing to mind such a large arc lets one at least occasionally relax a bit in some ignorance of what had gone down in bringing about a death. But with personal loved ones, we have a considerable nagging need of more details, which (I don’t know why) brings a drop of peace with a drop of further particulars. When I was 20, and my cousin, age 19, who had grown up next door to us, was killed in Vietnam, I was so wanting to know if the Marines there bringing his body to home, church, and cemetery had known him or known anything of him concerning his life and death in Vietnam. (They did not.)

    Because of various family estrangements, there was considerable opaqueness to me surrounding the deaths of my brother (2001), my stepmother (2005 – and her death was even deliberately concealed from me for several months – sibling rivalry stuff), and my sister who died by suicide last year. Of course those are cases in which one’s closest affiliation were in early part of life—unlike your relationship to Alison or mine to Jerry (d.1990).

    I looked up this morning what Kant had to say about Job in the essay “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials” (1791). As a Christian youth learning this story, I was surely against the side thinking there must be some unknown defect in Job for which he was justly receiving these losses. I’d have easily been on the irrational fideist side of saying that God bringing such losses to an innocent and God-bound man was only a showing of what ideal love of and trueness to God looked like. God by definition was wholly good, and what God was doing to Job had to be good in some way unknown to us. Had a loved one died at that time of my life, I imagine the story could give some comfort, especially when joined with illumination and reunion in the next life. Today, of course, I think of God as people’s personification of goodness, however unspecific that goodness, and I think all the powers imputed to God different from the course of nature and humans alone in nature as false and as derailed thinking. Both sides in the Job story were wrong in framing human existence in such a way that they were seeking answers to questions that are not sensible. And like you, I’d find nothing comforting there.

    We have our own different frame and questions. In 1995 I did watch (alone) the story of a modern religious man that really spoke to me, and I think it was designed to reach not only the believer, but the atheist. That was the 1993 film Shadowlands. There has been a later film made of that same true story, but I’ll not see it because the ’93 version with Hopkins and Winger became so much to me. It is my top film. “That’s the deal” and its surround gets to the quick.

    I was so sorry that you and Alison had come apart, and I’m sorry she has stopped. Deepest sympathy for you.

    Wishing you clear and warm memories and the long time living needed to reach being able to have them without so much crush of pain as now—and more and more proportion of good things and times of you two in comparison to the pains and horror of later times.

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    • Thank you for the comment, Stephen. I found it both thought-provoking and consoling at the same time.

      The point you make about the need for details is an interesting one. I have been in both situations–bereavements where it was impossible to get details, and bereavements where details were plentiful. And in a sense, I’ve had both attitudes, total indifference to details (indeed, irritation at those who pressed for them), and an obsessive desire for them. In this case, I’ve oscillated between those two poles. On some days, the thought of a detailed accounting of Alison’s death doesn’t just inspire indifference, but positive revulsion. I absolutely do not want to think about the events that immediately preceded it. But on other days, I feel the reverse–the need to reconstruct her last moments, her last day, her last week, down to the last detail. I think the first response is an attempt to accept the finality of death, whereas the second is an attempt to look for the fork in the road where, had just a few variables been different, the whole outcome might have been different.

      This ambivalence, or Janus-faced reaction to death, seems to me to cohere with what I said to Michael above. When we confront death, we want consolation, and understanding is a source of consolation. I don’t think it’s psychologically possible simply to accept the death of a loved one as a brute fact without attempting to put it somehow in a broader context. This is probably true of all deaths, but more acutely felt with suicides. Whatever one’s ethical perspective on the legitimacy of suicide, the act itself is very hard to take in. In my case, I feel no sense of moral condemnation, just a sense of tragic pointlessness. I’ve had this conversation with many people, most of whom disagree with me, but I am convinced that Alison’s suicide was unnecessary. It was a classic “death of despair” in the sense used by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, produced by chronic pain, confusion, the effects of medications, a sense of isolation, a sense of helplessness, and a sense of the walls of life closing in. There are days when this explanation produces a certain measure of consolation, and others where it simply produces unmitigated pain.

      As it happens, given the circumstances of our divorce, there has been some opaqueness in my case as well. Despite the ambivalence I just described, I semi-paradoxically find myself resenting the opaqueness even on days when I don’t really want to know the details. I guess the explanation is obvious: one might not want to know the details, yet resent the fact that the details were being withheld.

      I somehow was not aware that your sister committed suicide. I recall your announcing her death, but not the manner of death. Am I misremembering? I’m conscious of the fact that over the years, I have blocked out or misremembered death announcements I’ve encountered. I either forget them entirely, or remember them in ways that are more palatable than the facts might indicate. I think this arises from my intimation that Alison might meet a premature death. As I’ve said above, she actually brought the topic up fairly often.

      I wasn’t aware of Kant’s essay on Job (or discussing Job), and now want to read it. I vaguely knew what “Shadowlands” was about, but I suspect it will be a long time before I can watch it, or frankly, watch any movies. I’ve found over the years that as my personal losses have mounted, I’ve lost interest in film. Relatedly, I find it very difficult to watch videos of Alison, despite the abundance of videos I have. I have more of a desire to read, but somewhat less energy to do it than usual.

      I was once quite religious as well, but on the view I held, problems like those posed by Job were all resolved by the infinite rewards of the afterlife, in the light of which the finite miseries of this life were all canceled out. I’ve written about that in my contribution to this book:

      I appreciate your writing so candidly about this. It’s helped me a great deal.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for all these thoughts, Irfan.
        I had not revealed until this post that my younger sister’s death last year was by suicide. From the distance that my older sister and I had from her situation and course, it strikes us that younger sister Helen was in continuous physical pain and limitations of movement from pains and obesity and that in her last months she intensely sought medical investigations of what was wrong with her (and was hospitalized, at least once for skin infection anyway) and concluded (much information in hand) that no one could alleviate her situation. My older sister and I think Helen had set her plan by late December ’19. She carried it out (gunshot to heart) in late January 2020. Her last post to Facebook was the day before she ended it. That was a picture of me, a smiling day in Central Park.
        Thank you so much for sharing all this and this closeness.

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        • I’m very saddened to read that, but grateful to you for sharing it. It sounds like your sister’s death, like Alison’s, was a “death of despair” of that sort that Case and Deaton discuss in their book. I read the book this past summer with a sense of anxiety (but not yet doom) about Alison’s future. For whatever reason, reading it then has helped me come to terms now with what has happened. I think the book allowed me to put her death into a broader context; it allowed me to see the forces acting on her that impelled her to the decision, and made it understandable. Suicides are sometimes interpreted as vindictive acts of spite against the living, but I don’t see Alison’s death that way. I regard her death as tragic rather than spiteful, and so, have reacted with grief rather than anger at her.

          I also think that her death is part of broader socio-political phenomenon with broader socio-political implications; it’s not a one-off idiosyncratic event. Though my energies are at a somewhat low ebb, that realization suggests that her death can lead to constructive thought and action in the future–too late for Alison, but perhaps early enough for someone else. That allows me to think that Alison’s death was a tragedy, without implying that it ought to be written off or forgotten.

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          • Following with interest. As Irfan knows (but perhaps you don’t Stephen) my mother killed herself while I was in graduate school. I’m mostly at peace with this event : not being able to save her (not my job to do so, in any case not something I could do without dragging myself down), keeping hold of this desire as a wish and as a helping or saving desire that seeks an object (for good and ill), knowing that I was a damned good son to her, knowing that — barring some miracle — what happened was almost certainly going to happen. I’m terrified that the same fate awaits my brother (half-brother) and this can paralyze me.

            There are, for sure, medical, personal, cultural, economic, legal, etc. causes. The relative causal contributions — and what it makes sense to “put pressure on” to change — varies in cases and circumstances. But there are certainly general social (cultural, institutional, economic) conditions that contribute and seem to have gotten worse in recent generations. I have not read the Case & Deaton, but now plan to. I’d be happy to do a little “reading club” and blog some summary/discussion.

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  4. Pingback: Facing the Whirlwind (1) | Policy of Truth

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