Black Death Does Not Happen “In the Greek Sense”
Aaron Robertson Responds to a Very Bad Tweet
“It’s a tragedy what happened to Breonna Taylor, but in the Greek sense. By all means let’s criticize American policing, but outrage here should be directed primarily at Jamarcus Glover. His actions put her in danger and crucially led her boyfriend to fire his weapon in fear.”
–Thomas Chatterton Williams in a tweet from September 24th, 2020
“Given the . . . modern Western conception of the self, grounded in an individual body and an individual consciousness, it comes as no surprise that political engagements with ancient Greek tragedy often focus on individual embodied consciousness in the persons of the characters of tragedy.”
–Page duBois, “The Death of the Character” (2014)
My grandfather and I don’t often get to see each other, so when we do, he tells me how much he loves me and jokes his way into solemn discussions. The clock is ticking, he is saying, and we don’t really know each other. Who are you? What woman is in your life? Are you happy? Is your spirit prepared for God? What do you think of Black Lives Matter?
This last question came up a few months ago, when I was back in Michigan. I smiled. My high-school-age sister, who has only recently started discovering our mother’s side of the family, had never seen one of these discussions. She sat beside our grandfather. Some time before that, she and a friend had painted a giant BLM logo on a large rock near her home in Ann Arbor.
There were no fireworks because my sister and I chose not to set them off. I missed my Papa. He’s been caring for his 95-year-old mother, who feels abandoned by her family and lashes out at her son. I had no interest in sanctimony. I wanted to learn about him.
We disagree. He will be voting for Trump. The Black conservatives in my family don’t worship at Trump’s altar but view him as the idiotic envoy of God, whose kingdom will come in unexpected guise, as a thief in the night. My grandfather was a noncombatant in Vietnam, returned to the US, started a family, and made good money as an engineer.
He asked, in good faith, what I thought about the “disrespect” for authorities that many protestors were showing. “If you are acting right, then you won’t have to worry.” He told my sister and I a story I’d never heard. Years ago, he was driving in the suburb where he lives when a car sped past. The driver was white. A siren went off and the police pulled my grandfather over. My grandfather, who makes an unsuccessful show out of trying to make waiters laugh, charmed the cop. His hands were visible, his papers in order, his diction immaculate, his job admirable. He made it home.How many times have you ever heard of a fearful Creon withdrawing his decree?
I asked if he understood the way he’d been mistreated in that story. My grandfather conceded that, although it may not have been fair, he found contentment in his conduct. Many are the agents of the world who do not recognize Christlike behavior. The persecuted must be prepared to emulate Christ Immanuel, even in his martyrdom. My grandfather could not tell that I was refusing to cry. He had just confessed his resignation.
If you wanted to theorize in exactly what way my grandfather was prepared to die at a traffic stop, you could refer to the work of historian Kimberly Vanesveld Adams. In a commentary on the Greek playwright Sophocles and Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Adams writes of a Christianized “Antigonal tragedy.”
Antigone fascinates many people because she is an ideologically stalwart woman who defies her politicking uncle to honor the way of the gods. Her death comes about essentially because of her commitment to self-sacrifice. Buried alive in a tomb, Antigone decides to kill herself just when the audience learns that Creon, her uncle, has had a change of heart. Did Creon kill Antigone, or did she do it to herself?
Had I been thinking of Sophocles, perhaps I would have remembered the lines: “What things I suffer, and at what men’s hands / Because I would not transgress the laws of heaven.”
I didn’t remember them, of course. Sophocles never saw the light of my grandfather’s eyes. How many times have you ever heard of a fearful Creon withdrawing his decree?
In his 1966 book Modern Tragedy, the theorist and critic Raymond Williams censured the erroneous tendency of scholars—to say nothing of laypeople—to assume that the meaning of “tragedy” had not changed in the more than 2,000 years since the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about it in his 4th-century treatise, Poetics.
The late Hellenist academic Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood noted something similar in a 2005 essay, writing that Greek tragedies “are not timeless. They are cultural artifacts embedded in the society that generated them, for they were produced and underscored through the deployment of perceptual filters shaped by the cultural assumptions of 5th-century Athens.”
Our more or less shared notion of tragedy as a form with generic conventions that we recognize in books, movies, and songs was not inevitable. Tragedy, the Shakespeare scholar Hugh Grady wrote about the evolution of the term, now usually evokes “a performed discourse aimed at creating a specified emotional change (to fear and pity) in its audience through the manipulation of a specific kind of diction, characterization, storytelling, and plot construction.”
This isn’t quite the satyr plays performed in Athenian theaters or the choral odes sung to the god Dionysus. Some historians of tragedy, like Simon Goldhill, have written about how much our Romantic idea of the tragic was influenced by 19th-century German idealists like Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who were themselves shaped by ancient tragedians, especially Sophocles. Friedrich Nietzsche, reflecting on the work of the Idealists, noticed that the transformation of tragedy from its origins in ritualistic performance to a more abstract philosophical outlook represented, as Grady wrote, “a loss of immanent, organic meaning.”
A long-winded way of saying that tragedy has, at various times, described specific acts embedded in a particular social context. Some have also tried to abstract “tragedy” from the history it describes, putting aside the way sorrow is immanent in death to highlight some totalizing narrative arc.
Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent response to Breonna Taylor’s death has the whiff of an argument that the Hungarian historian György Lukács outlined in his books Soul and Form (1908) and The Theory of the Novel (1914-15): the claim that tragedy, as manifested in the individual’s life, expresses something essential about humanity, about humanness. Tragedy (here more philosophical than literary) could be a helpful frame to explain the moral order of the world, Lukács believed.
What is the point of my stupid exercise here? It is certainly not to explain why Breonna Taylor’s death is sad. Have you rolled your eyes at the semantic quibble, at the invocations of the ancient Greeks, Hegel, Nietzsche? I hope so. Who wonders if Black death is a “goat-song” heard during a Dionysian ritual?This is not an argument about the consolatory, instructive qualities of art.
There is something foul about speaking of Breonna Taylor’s death “in the Greek sense.” Williams’s condensed intellectualizing (there are only so many characters Twitter allows, to be fair) seems to call upon an ancient muse, seeking the imprimatur of Reason or, at least, proclaiming familiarity with certain syllabi. A vague invocation of literary-philosophical theory encases Breonna Taylor in a story with dramatic form. It is the kind of objectification that many others are rightfully mourning.
“You can learn and convey significantly more that is true about life and death by consulting the classics than by scrolling through a morass of ideologically inflected soundbites on Twitter.com,” Williams wrote in a follow-up tweet.
This is not an argument about the consolatory, instructive qualities of art. What doesn’t sit well with me this morning is Williams’s idea of what is tragic, which seems to derive from inherited fictions more than life. The grave issue here is the misalignment of his frame.
Maybe a literary scholar would say he is “Hegelian” or even “Aristotelian” in his focus on the ethical agency of the individual. Williams makes Jamarcus Glover the bogeyman of The Life and Struggle of Breonna Taylor. If Taylor is Williams’s Tragic Heroine, Glover is what Simon Goldhill calls her “inscrutable but necessary fate.”
It does seem like Williams believes Taylor’s death was a tragedy, in the way the individual is the essential site of true moral struggle. Jamarcus Glover was Taylor’s inevitable “tragic flaw,” if you’ll recall your high school English lessons. If we do subscribe to Williams’s notion of the tragic as a moral universe embedded within the individual, we must ask why Glover, instead of the individual cops, bears the burden of his blame.
When does this game end? Do we want to expand this tragedy and speculate about the material conditions of Glover’s life? The individuals who may have caused him harm as well? And who hurt the people who hurt Jamarcus Glover? Is it not clear that there is a danger in over-analysis and keeping one’s head buried in a book?
Who are we trying to impress?