Not long ago I was teaching Oedipus Rex to Sophomores. Tragedy can often be particularly difficult for students to engage with. For some it is the lack of a serious parallel in their own lives. For others, a dark piece of literature is just a depressing echo of an already grim reality. When familiarizing students with the cultural and historical context of a piece of literature, introducing and re-teaching skills, and keeping up with the continuous classroom chores (returning papers, making announcements) the “why” of what we do can often be lost. Why are we reading this? Why have the people before us read it? As I prepared to get students started, this quotation from Susan Snyder came to mind:
“In its unerring movement towards the inevitable conclusion, tragedy enacts the cadential rhythm of every human existence, even while it protests that inevitable end in its countermovement of expanding heroic self-realization.”
These particular kids were sharp, so I gave it to them unaltered and asked them take a minute to read it and paraphrase it in their own minds. When I asked for volunteers to share their thoughts, some of the students clearly resisted the idea that life itself is a tragedy, but a few others explored it. And their musings have led me to think more deeply.
We all must face death, both our own death and the deaths of those we love. Many other kinds of losses in our lives are deaths too – the deaths of hopes, dreams, or relationships. One way to view a literary tragedy is as a means to vicariously experience a loss and come to a more profound self-awareness. Obviously we’re hardly the first to ponder what this is all about – Socrates was exploring this idea when he defined catharsis. But really, what is there to be aware of? We may come to acknowledge that suffering is a real and painful problem – more so than we realized in our ignorant, insulated moments. We may even come to acknowledge our own frailty, arrogance, or transgression. But it is not enough if tragedy only brings us to the end of ourselves, but not the beginning of something else.
In looking closer, I discovered that I believed something much closer to what Victor Hugo put forth:
“The pupil dilates in the night and at last finds day in it, even as the soul dilates in misfortune, and at last finds God in it.” Les Miserables, Jean Valjean: Book Three - Chapter One
There is not an easy answer, because faith is not easy. But God’s transforming love, his sovereign power, his unknowable wisdom – our recognition and reliance on these in our relationship with him is what redeems tragedy.
As Christians all over the world celebrate this day as the start of a 40 day preparation for Easter, they are reminded that from dust we came, and to dust we return. But God’s power shines victorious over death – both physical and spiritual.
“So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body… When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, I death is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 & 54-57
If you celebrate lent this year, I hope that it draws you ever closer to Him.