Why people dwell on tragedy

Titanic

By Joe Perez

Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at The New Republic, tries to explain why people seek for meaning in tragedies. The victims of tragedies, Franklin says, remind us that they were once like us, but now emptied of significance on account of their tragic end:

To look at the video of Anne Frank, or a slideshow of the Titanic’s ephemera—an alligator handbag, a water-crumpled top hat and dress shoes—is to know for certain that the girl leaning off the balcony, or the people to whom these objects belonged, were once like us. In their deaths they became myth, but in life they were unexceptional: The video shows Anne Frank, as one of my Twitter correspondents put it, “before she was Anne Frank.” We know that Anne Frank was real; we don’t need a video for that. But we long for artifacts because they seem to offer a route to authenticity, a direct access to the moment of disaster that we obsessively replay. As such, they become repositories of meaning—empty of their own significance, but imbued with it by virtue of their context. And for historical catastrophes such as the Titanic or the Holocaust, the desire for an object to convey meaning is particularly acute, since otherwise the event feels morally empty, and thus dangerous…

I think it’s really hard to make generalizations so baldly as Franklin does. People make meaning of Anne Frank or Titanic relics for a wide array of reasons, pre-modern magical thinking or myth making, modern rationalism, and post-modern existentialism, for example. Franklin’s effort to claim that tragedy victims become placeholders emptied of their own significance, a “route to authenticity,” is a narrowly postmodern concern (I believe), projected onto every possible onlooker.

Thus, I can’t really agree with Ruth’s conclusion, that contemplation of tragedy allows us to “relive” them so as to keep death abay:

An extreme catastrophe affords us a kind of luxury: a comfortable perch from which to reflect upon our own mortality. We don’t know what will finally happen to us, but whatever it is, it won’t be that. We will not go down with the Titanic; we will not be murdered by the Nazis. We speak of the contemplation of these stories—as historical events or as something close to myth—as “reliving” them. But in fact it is death to which they bring us safely closer.

Which is a perfectly fine way to look at tragedy if you are Ruth Franklin. But a more integral perspective must not impose any one rubric for interpreting tragedy for all people — especially if it means elevating postmodern interpretation to the pinnacle of human wisdom. But World Spirituality is not without its own rich perspective on tragedy.

World Spirituality acknowledges a deep brokenness at the heart of Reality — samsara, the Cross of Christ, Original Sin, chaos and incompleteness, what have you — and insists that authenticity to our True Self is to affirm such brokenness by living into it and through it with courage and love … not to deny the brokenness in favor of fake grace or spiritual bypassing. To reflect on an icon of such brokenness — a picture of Anne Frank or the purse of a Titanic victim — is to encounter suffering that is not separate from our own (or to resist the suffering, falling away from True Self, in an inauthentic pose).

I would not say, as Franklin does, that we “relive” tragedies vicariously in order to be brought closer to death, but in a safe way. Perhaps that is so for some selves. But I would say that our Unique Self encounters in a relic of the Titanic or a Holocaust survivor its own likeness in partiality and wholeness, and — unless its feeling is set aside in favor of the False Self — finds freedom from death with each effortless, instantly arising act of continued contemplation.

Support This Work

So that we can make these teachings and reflections available to everyone, we need your generous support.