Et Tu, Brute?

When I was in high school, we read Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. As freshmen, we cringed and wrung our hands after learning the fate of Thomas Hardy’s Tess, the main character in his masterpiece tragic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, who, frankly, never had much of a chance.

My sophomore year, we spent weeks discussing the suicide of Willy Loman, the sad sack protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I’ll never be able to forget Melville’s unfortunate Billy Bud, hanged by his neck from the yardarm for a crime he didn’t commit, or the murder of Jay Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lovesick millionaire, shot to death in his own swimming pool.

These works of literature and others like them can be tough to read. They’re sad, and those who read them often find themselves feeling sad, too.

But as Aristotle wrote in Poetics, his famous essay on Greek drama, the purpose of tragedies is to “arouse sensations of pity and fear, and to purge [the audience] of these emotions so that they leave the theater feeling cleansed and uplifted, with a heightened understanding of the ways of gods and men.”

Anyone who’s ever listened to the blues knows how this works.

And yet, sometime over the last thirty or so years, tragedies fell out of fashion. Perhaps this is a result of the general backlash against anything even vaguely intellectual that’s run rampant in the U.S. for the past few decades, or maybe it happened as a consequence of the current trend of not making students read anything that might “trigger” their emotions.

Whatever the reason, in tragedy’s absence we have created a culture that worships at the altar of Hallmark, with all of its films’ hollow characters and contrived happy endings. As a society, we are perhaps more uncivil to one another than we have ever been. We kill one another in the streets; gun down schoolchildren in cold blood, and yet claim not to have the stomach to read Elie Wiesel’s Night.

It’s time we brought tragedies back.

We need to read and understand tragedies because they alone are capable of helping us understand the human condition in a way that evokes empathy. They can help us learn to forgive one another’s imperfections, and to recognize, even rail against, injustice, regardless of the sex or color of its victims. Tragedies teach us that life is unpredictable and unfair; time is precious; love and loyalty are often stronger than the forces that seek to undermine and destroy them, and that it’s possible to be resilient when confronted by forces beyond our control.

One of my favorite novels is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I read it in my tenth grade English class and still think of it often. Set during the French Revolution, the book tells a dramatic story of true love, monstrous corruption, and unjust death in a way that only Dickens can. I cried when I made it to the end of the last page, not because the ending was sad, although it was, but because it felt all too real.


Comfort vs. Enlightenment

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” —Pablo Picasso

I read an article recently about a California school district that banned several works of classic literature from its curriculum after parents complained that the books made their kids uncomfortable. All the banned books, which included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, deal in some way with the ugly history of racism in America.

Among parents who filed complaints about the books was an African-American mother whose daughter had been subjected to racially charged taunts by a white student who said he was inspired to do so after reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This is, of course, completely unacceptable as well as a remarkably sad indicator of the backwards belief system that many white people in this country are still holding onto for dear life.

But while I understand this mother’s desire to protect her daughter and other students from further trauma, I would also argue that this incident is solid proof that these books need to be read and discussed.

After the books were banned, PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend free expression and promote literary culture, released a statement saying, in part, “Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.”

You don’t need to be an English lit major to know that the point of these books is to make people uncomfortable. They are designed to make us think critically about our past and current beliefs and actions, the state of our society and culture, and what can and should be done to make the country we live in a better place for everyone who lives in it, now and in the future.

If we don’t understand the history of racism in America, we will never be able to have a productive discussion about the racism that exists here and now. Only once we are out our comfort zones are we are truly free to consider new ideas and other people’s points of view, and to examine what our own roles have been in perpetuating poisonous belief systems and ideas.

We as a society have gotten used to having the ability to selectively filter out news and information we don’t agree with, or that we find upsetting in some way. We are quick to vilify and criticize people who say and believe things that conflict with our own ideas. But art and literature can and should be a bridge that spans the raging river that divides us—a safe pathway that can lead to constructive discussion and practical solutions if we are only brave enough cross it.

The white student who made those racial taunts (and likely his parents) is responsible for his own actions. His morally reprehensible behavior was not the fault of the book he was reading. He used Mildred Taylor’s masterpiece as an excuse for behavior he likely would have exhibited anyway.

We need to ask ourselves: Do we want our young people to develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to become good citizens and work toward making our society a better, more tolerant and just place? Or are we OK with future generations of Americans shying away from the difficult tasks that must be tackled in order for us to live up to the ideals that America supposedly stands for?

Art holds a key to the truth. We need more of it, not less.