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Our Quiet Tragedies

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555), via Wikimedia Commons

The recent image of the Pope praying for a disfigured man made me think that our ability to share such moments, moments of great suffering and compassion, is both a blessing and a curse—a blessing because such images remind us of how terrible and beautiful life is, and a curse because, as Solomon put it, “this too shall pass.” Don’t get me wrong. I thought the Pope’s action was very moving. But viewing such images can also be merely therapeutic, offering but a momentary diversion from our own troubled souls.

One of the values of art (and sometimes I wonder if it is also its defining characteristic) is that it creates images of suffering or grace that stick—or at least that stick longer than other images. Reflecting on depictions of human suffering in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden writes:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along

I’ve been re-reading Tobias Wolff recently, and I think that if understanding the “human position” of suffering is the criterion for being an “Old Master,” Wolff must be one. His stories show us again and again how small moral accommodations, or how seemingly small chance happenings, become the seeds of future tragic events. And the effect is anything but therapeutic.

One of Wolff’s earliest stories is “In the Garden of North American Martyrs.” Mary, a history professor at a small American college, learns early on to keep her own ideas to herself. She does so because when she was young she “saw a brilliant and original man lose his job because he had expressed ideas that were offensive to the trustees of the college.” Mary, however, is careful not to allow the same fate befall her: “Before giving a lecture she wrote it out in full, using the arguments and often the words of other, approved writers so she would not by chance say something scandalous.”

The words for her own ideas and beliefs, however, grow faint and she becomes the image of herself that she at first projected. She becomes “something institutional, like a custom or a mascot-part of the college’s idea of itself.” The college goes bankrupt and Mary is forced to take a much less desirable position at a fledgling college in Oregon. While the landscape at the new college is beautiful, Mary suffers physically from the dampness. Her lungs begin to give her problems, her hearing aid shorts out and she finds toadstools behind her refrigerator. She feels rusted-out, old and broken.

Mary festers in Oregon until a former colleague invites her to apply for an open position at a famous institution in upstate New York. The invitation seems too good to be true, and while Mary does not at first trust to hope, when she is invited for an interview, she begins to believe that this opportunity may in fact prove to be her salvation. When Mary’s former colleague, Louise, picks her up at the airport, however, something is wrong. Louise is preoccupied with everything but the issue at hand, and when Louise realizes that she has forgotten to tell Mary that she will need to teach a class the following day, she tells her to just “wing it”–something Mary has never done. “Look on this as a vacation,” she suggests. It is only the following day while she is on a tour of the campus that Mary realizes that she has been invited to interview for the position to fulfill a quota–one that stipulates that at least one woman must be interviewed for each open position.

In an old review for The Nation, Brina Caplan wrote that Wolff implies that there is “no such thing as a meaningless choice. Every decision emerges from a consciousness which it both expresses and modifies.” This consciousness, however, can be modified for better or for worse, and what Wolff most often shows us is how these seemingly meaningless, small moral accommodations are the root causes of much larger, tragic events in our future lives. While Mary’s initial decision to listen rather than speak might have helped her to keep her job at her first college, the end result is that she loses her sense of self. In this sense, Mary is a tragic hero of our times. Her tragic flaw is not hubris but pragmatism. She gives up part of her self in order to keep a certain “quality of life,” which is nevertheless taken away from her.

For Wolff, however, if small decisions can have tragic consequences, these consequences can, in turn, be redeemed, even if opportunities for redemption arise unexpectedly in fragile moments of circumstance. Such an opportunity arises for Mary, and she tries to take it, but ultimately fails. Mary arrives for the class she is supposed to teach, and she has decided that she will indeed “wing it.” She rattles off a number of facts about the brutality of the Iroquois; in particular, she reminds the students that the college has been built on the land where the Iroquois used to hunt, torture and eat people, to the great consternation of the faculty present. The head of the search committee stands up and shouts “That’s enough!” but Mary refuses to stop. Paraphrasing Micah 6:8, she urges her audience to “mend” their lives: “You have deceived yourselves in the pride of your hearts and the strength of your arms. Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, thence I will bring you down, says the Lord. Turn from power to love. Be kind. Do justice. Walk humbly.” She turns off her hearing aid “so that she would not be distracted” and seems to speak her mind, her self, into a fuller, more present existence.

Yet, what seems to be a moment of redemption turns out to be merely one of substitution or displacement. Instead of coming to know herself—in the classical, not modern relativistic, sense–Mary merely substitutes one version of her constructed self (the quirky, silent academic) for another (the female victim of powerful male cut-throats). Thus, Mary’s initial tragic decision to stop speaking her beliefs and values into existence is compounded by her refusal to recognize later in life that her present situation is at least in part a consequence of that initial decision. Here, she blames the academic “machine” for its oppression while at the same time refusing to acknowledge her own failings. And so when Mary compares herself to the Catholic priests who were martyred at the hands of the Iroquois, she both exaggerates her own victimization and misses the ironic sense in which she has, in fact, already become a very North American sort of martyr. After all, it is Mary herself who chooses at the beginning of her academic career to give up her ideas and beliefs to save her so-called “quality of life” rather than, as is the way with most martyrs, giving up her life for her ideas and beliefs.

While few of Wolff’s characters experience redemption, most, including Mary, desire it. In this sense, Wolff is both a reluctant pessimist and a pessimistic optimist. While he understands the “human position” of our private tragedies–that we often bring them on ourselves in the small, seemingly meaningless decisions that we make in our lives—he also affirms that our longings for redemption are universal, and, therefore, as much a part of what makes us human as pain and suffering.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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