Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Civil War as Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been writing a series of blog posts (first, second, third, fourth) on the question of whether the Civil War was a tragedy. He argues that it isn't. Now, Coates is, as I've noted before, one of the most perceptive and interesting writers writing about American history today, so I don't disagree with him lightly, but I think he's wrong about this.

I don't think, however, that he's wrong because he's wrong about what the Civil War was; I think he's wrong because he's wrong because he's wrong about what tragedy is.

Let me see if I can explain.

The first thing to say is that, until fairly recently, to say that the Civil War was a tragedy was not false so much as a category error. "Tragedy" was a literary genre (and still is -- but it's no longer, as used, only that). You could write a play (or, by extension, a novel or a history) of the event as a tragedy -- or you could write it as a comedy, or a chronicle, or a farce, or a horror. This is particularly true since the Civil War as a big, complex event, and had tragic, comedic, farcical, horrific, and many other elements besides. But the event itself was just an event.

I grant that the word "tragedy" has moved on, and so should we; but it's worth remembering its literary roots, because they're still important. In particular, their persistence entangles the common word "tragedy" in two almost-contradictory meanings. Coates is using one; I am going to argue that the word should be reserved for the other. So he's right, by his definition; but I think his definition is a poorer one, so that (in another sense) he's wrong.

Coates is using the word tragedy in a way that has two overarching implications: first, that the event in question was avoidable -- it was a tragedy, and if only we'd done something different and better, then it wouldn't have happened. Secondly, that the event in question was negative -- if not entirely negative for every person on Earth, then overwhelmingly so. Ultimately, a tragedy is something you wish hadn't happened -- meaning that it might not have happened, and that it was bad that it did happen.

It is in this sense of the word that Coates argues that the Civil War was not a tragedy. And, of course, he's perfectly correct. He points out the overwhelming good -- emancipation -- that arose from the war (this first point is, at least in his bit of the internet, fairly uncontroversial). And then the bulk of the argument tends to be about whether this good could have come about otherwise -- could we have had a peaceful end to slavery, as happened (for instance) in Brazil or with Serfdom in Russia, or was a war the only way that it could have ended? So that people who disagree with Coates -- such as Matt Yglesias here -- tend to imagine that another, less violent way to end slavery might have been found. In reply, Coates argues -- correctly, to my mind -- that the nature of the South as a slave society* made no other ending possible. So the Civil War was neither evitable nor (on balance) negative in its consequences; hence, it was not a tragedy. As Coates writes, "Shorter me: I'm glad the Civil War happened". Because if it hadn't happened, slavery would have continued; and slavery was an evil that had to be ended, and there was no other way. QED.

In this use of the word, any sort of bad thing, or at least any avoidable bad thing, is a tragedy. On the news airplane crashes and the like are referred to as "tragedies" -- they were evitable, and they were bad. And, I grant, this use of the word is very common, probably increasingly so. Perhaps the change of the word's meaning has gone too far to be reversed (not unlike, say, "beg the question" -- or "novel", which every year my students seem to think refers to any book, nonfiction or otherwise). But I hope not, because I think "tragedy" has a different meaning than that (even aside, that is, from its earlier one defining a literary genre) -- one for which there are not other synonyms.

You see, I don't think that evitable things with bad consequences -- say, airplane crashes -- are tragedies. I think they're horrors, calamities, catastrophes. One might write them up as tragedies, but they aren't, in and of themselves, just by happening, tragedies.

Because, traditionally, tragedies were not evitable; traditionally, tragedies were the working out of inevitable fate. In the classical Greek tragedies, this tends to be a fate decreed by the Gods, inhuman in their purposes and methods.** In Shakespearean tragedies, this element of inevitability is turned inward: no longer brought upon by the capriciousness of the Gods, it's brought about by the tragic figure's own character.*** This is a version of tragedy that I (and a great many other people) ultimately feel is richer than the Greek version -- his shift of the locus of tragedy from outer fate to inner character is one of the reasons that Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare.

In this sense, tragedies are the working out of the inevitable consequences of character flaws of great (in the sense that they tend to be kings rather than peasants) figures. They're not, perhaps, inevitable in the sense that if they person in question had been other than they are the events needn't have happened. But the person's character is too deeply embedded in them to make this a live possibility. Othello without his jealousy, Macbeth without his ambition, Hamlet without his hesitation, Lear without his arrogance, simply would have been other people. Once those people were placed in those situations the tragedy was inevitable.****

In this sense, the Civil War was a tragedy: it was the horrific working out of a deep character flaw. America's racism (and, really, it was America's, not just the South's, although the role the South played was of course unique) led to the bodies all over the floor at the end of Act Five.

Nor is the other element that Coates focuses on -- the unquestionable good that arose from the Civil War -- incidental to this understanding; rather, it's essential.

In the traditional literary sense, tragedy is not simply the working out of horrors due to inevitable character flaws (or fate); it is an elevated version of that. In a literary context, the elevation is largely due to the language and the literary presentation: Hamlet is a tragedy because it's Shakespeare writing it as Hamlet, and not me nattering on about some Danish prince who saw a ghost, spazzed out and killed a bunch of people.

In a historical context, however, the element of literary presentation drops away. What replaces it -- what elevates mere horror into tragedy -- is that some good comes out of the horror. The case is even tighter if the good could have come about no other way, and if the good is proportionate in scale to the horror needed to bring it about. In the context of the Civil War, more than six hundred thousand dead are elevated by the fact that it lead to the end of slavery for millions. Coates recently asked whether seeing the Civil War as a tragedy involved "saying something like, 'It's really tragic the South was, uhm, the South?'"; and that, I claim, is precisely right: the sin of slavery was embedded in the South (really, I think, in America's) nature, just as ambition was in Macbeth's or jealousy was in Othello's. The Civil War was the working out of the character flaw; what elevated it to tragedy is that it was the only way a good end -- emancipation -- could have happened, given the character of the nation involved.

(Note that in a literary context the good outcome is optional because the nobility is supplied by the literary form. It's not necessarily absent -- there's no good at the end of Hamlet or Lear, but Macbeth ends pretty well for the people of Scotland, with the rightful King restored and villainy punished. But it's not a necessary component. With the switch of the term from literary genre to classification of an event, the good outcome not otherwise achievable becomes necessary as the ennobling element.)

This is not, I should note, a sense of "tragedy" that I am introducing; it is an established usage -- a stage between the purely literary usage and the common habit of making "tragedy" synonymous with "catastrophe". For example, mid-Twentieth Century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr uses the word in a similar way in his 1952 book The Irony of American History:

The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument for the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt.
This is not, to be sure, precisely the use I'm suggesting here -- Niebuhr focuses on a conscious choice, what W. H. Auden famously called "the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder"*****, which doesn't fit the case of the Civil War since emancipation was very much an unintended consequence of the decision to go war -- but it's pretty close. As for why this usage is preferable to the modern usage, I think it's because, first, it is more closely connected to the traditional meanings which we still closely identify with the word -- we still see Lear and Hamlet and Othello as tragedies -- and, second, because there is no other word which means this, whereas the airplane-crash sense of tragedy (the sense in which Coates correctly argues the Civil War was not a tragedy) has lots of available synonyms, such as "catastrophe" or "calamity".

To clarify further, let's contrast the Civil War with another war which, while a horror and a catastrophe, was not a tragedy: World War One. World War One was not a tragedy partly because it seems like it ought to have been avoidable -- perhaps not, it's arguable -- but above all because nothing good came out of it, certainly nothing comparable to emancipation. World War One is simply a calamity, out of which arose a great many other calamities of a calamitous century. There is nothing ennobling about it at all -- nothing equal to the scale of the horror, nothing that couldn't have come about in a better way. We can, simply, wish that World War One hadn't happened. That's why it's not a tragedy.

Whereas we can't wish the Civil War hadn't happened -- not given who we, as a country, were. We can wish that we were otherwise -- that the South was not the South, that America was not racist. Which is like wishing that Hamlet wasn't Hamlet -- better, perhaps, but it's not him any more.

The Civil War involved terrible, mass death, but it was the only way to end American slavery, which had to end; that defines rather than denies its tragic character.

Perhaps the first person to see the Civil War in this way -- as a horror, but a necessary horror, a horror that came about due to character flaws too deep to be dealt with in any other way -- was none other than Abraham Lincoln, in the famous passage from his second inaugural:

The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether".
Lincoln here mixes the Greek sense of tragedy (brought about by the will of the gods or, in his case, God) with the Shakespearean (the consequences of a character flaw, namely, slavery). But the basic elements are the same: he sees the horror ("this mighty scourge of war") but also sees that, perhaps, it is necessary to right the wrong that lay at America's heart.

So yes, given what America was -- a nation built on racism and slavery -- one has to be, in some sense, glad that the Civil War happened -- sad, perhaps, that it was necessary: sad that we were who we were, that we couldn't have ended slavery another way as other countries did, or, better yet, never committed that sin to begin with. But we were who we were, we did what we did, and thus it had to end as it did: in a horrific war with a morally necessary outcome that could not have been otherwise achieved.

In other words, a tragedy.

Update: Some hours after I wrote this, I saw this post by Freddie deBoer (via) making some similar arguments to what I'm making here, in particular this passage:

...the classic definition of tragedy [is] that the tragic is the downfall that springs from character, that tragedy occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable. In this sense I would say that the Civil War is precisely tragic: given the character of the early United States, it was both inevitable and necessary. That equality was codified in so many of our foundational texts while simultaneously denied to many millions of the country's people isn't merely an ugly contradiction but one which made violent correction inevitable.
deBoer is rather less impressed with Coates than I am overall, and he says a lot in his post that I disagree with; indeed, the post might be fairly characterized as something of an anti-Coates rant. But he's clearly thinking along the same lines as I as far as how to understand "tragedy" goes. (deBoer has a follow-up post here, presenting a somewhat more nuanced take on Coates's work (although still a critical one); but don't follow it for more on my topic here, because by that point deBoer's mostly talking about something else.)

* Historians use "slave society" as a technical term, contrasting it with a "society with slavery": the latter includes slavery as one of its features, but not as a foundational one. In a slave society, the entire economy, society and culture are inextricably entwined with slavery's role within it. The American South was a slave society; in the Eighteenth Century (and stretching into the early Nineteenth in some places) the American North was a society with slavery.

** It is in this sense that David Simon has defined The Wire as a Greek tragedy, with our (post-modern, post-industrial) institutions standing in as the capricious and cruel Gods.

*** Following the Greek philosopher Heraclitus's famous aphorism that "Character is fate".

**** There's a nice commonplace -- I think it might be due to A. C. Bradley, but I'm not sure -- that if you switch the heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies, there's no play. Othello in Hamlet's situation would have simply dispatched his uncle; Hamlet in Othello's would have seen right through Iago. A tragedy is the working out of the flaws of a particular person as embedded in a particular situation; change either and it is no longer a tragedy.

***** Which George Orwell equally famously castigated as a phrase which "could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word," adding, "[p]ersonally I would not speak so lightly of murder." -- an attack which was, apparently, one reason that Auden disavowed the poem and excluded it from his Collected Poems.


phosphorious said...

In interesting post, but I still think that Coates' point, that it's NOT a tragedy, can be defended even given the classical definition of "tragedy."

Tragedy results from a tragic flaw in an otherwise heroic character: MacBeth, Othello, Hamlet, Oedipus, are all heroic figures in many ways, but each had a fatal flaw that doomed them. If they were simply bad men who came to a bad end, where's the tragedy? (In any sense?)

What the neo-confederates would have us believe was that the South was a tragic hero. . . basically good, but with a fatal flaw. And that flaw, to hear them tell it, is something like "We loved freedom too much." The story (again, as they tell it) is that they were just about to end slavery themselves until the hypocritical North tried to coerce them. . . which their love of freedom would not allow. Or something like that.

In other words, by calling the Civil War a tragedy, we fall into the trap of seeing the South as essentially noble, the flawed hero of its own Shakespearean drama.

The other. . . and in my opinion better. . . way of looking at the Civil War is that the bad guys lost. Period. I take it that's what Coates has in mind as well, although obviously don't speak for him.

Stephen said...

Phosphorious: thanks for the thoughtful comment.

It's true that Lost Causers could distort this story. Nothing's distortion proof.

But I think that the tragic hero here is America -- which was, genuinely, a revolutionary force for freedom in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a freedom that (however) was just for whites, and was based -- in every way, economically, ideologically, and otherwise -- on African American slavery. On the other hand, the degree to which America advanced generalized notions of freedom -- which were eventually claimed by many, including African Americans -- was real. (Langston Hughes wrote "America never was America to me" -- which is true, but there is also a good reason he uses "America" in the second sense.)

So our flaw, racism/slavery, was inextricably bound with our genuine achievement, freedom -- in the tightest, and most ironic way. Hence the tragedy of the war, necessary to bring about the moral imperative of emancipation.

That'd be my preferred telling. But even if you wanted to make the South the tragic hero, I think you could tell a plausible story. It's just that the story you'd tell would be different, in its flaw, than the neoconfederate one. The flaw would be that its ideal of freedom was both real and essentially racist and slavery based. (The bit about how the south was about to end slavery is neither here nor there, since both Coates and I arge arguing that the only way that slavery would have ended was the war. That claim of theirs is simply false.)

The South was, arguably, the ideological center of American ideals of freedom -- ideals that arose inextricably entwined with slavery. (The classic work on this paradox is Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, which shows how they arose together.) And in certain ways Jefferson, Washington and the rest really were noble -- as well as also being evil, as slaveholders. Which is to say: they were complex, as befits a tragedy. But I don't think seeing even southern culture as having nobility as well as evil in it is necessarily neoconfederate.

And while I certainly can't speak for Coates, I wonder if he wouldn't like some version of this. One of the things I appreciate about his Civil War blogging is that he doesn't just dismiss the south as "bad guys" -- managing to try and see them as human, and to see their point of view, without ever loosing sight of slavery's evil. Coates sees the situation as complex. Again, as befits a tragedy, which, generally, star complex people -- people who aren't either simply "bad guys" or "good guys",

But personally I'd tell it about America. It's simpler. And I think at least as true, if not truer. (And the north's complicity in slavery was incredibly deep anyway.) Note that Lincoln told it of us, America, and not just the South: we collectively sinned, and we all -- north and south alike -- were paying the just price for it.