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  • Putting Tragedy to Work for the Polis: The Rhetoric of Pity and Terror, Before and After Modernity
  • Gloria Fisk (bio)

When George W. Bush addressed the United Nations two months after the terrorist attacks of 2001, he put the rhetoric of tragedy to a time-honored purpose: to imagine a new political community that would advance his interests. He thanked his auditors for the kindnesses they extended to Americans as he asked for more: “After tragedy, there is a time for sympathy and condolence. And my country has been very grateful for both. . . . But the time for sympathy has now passed; the time for action has now arrived.”1 The action he had in mind was of course war in Afghanistan and beyond, and his purpose at the General Assembly was to create the “coalition of the willing” that would wage it. “Every nation has a stake in this cause,” he averred. “As we meet, the terrorists are planning more murder, perhaps in my country, perhaps in yours.”

National borders were diminished in proportion to this plot, which imperiled any sense of security that his auditors might enjoy, even in their seats. “Last week,” Bush recalled, “anticipating this meeting of the General Assembly, [the terrorists] denounced the United Nations. They called our Secretary General a criminal and condemned all Arab nations here as traitors to Islam.” Nobody was excluded from this community of potential victims, which bound the citizens of every nation; the adherents to every religion; the just and the unjust alike. Bush imagined a global community with this rhetorical gesture that works through two movements, which are related but distinct. First, he establishes the pity that people feel when they witness other people’s suffering; then, he reframes that concern that his auditors expressed toward distant others as a precursor to the terror that they would feel for themselves.

That rhetoric divided Bush’s foreign and domestic audiences. It served the president and his administration well among their constituents, who rallied to support his “war on terrorism,” and then to validate it with his second term. It proved less winning among America’s traditional allies around the world, however, and also among literary writers in the [End Page 891] United States. “In America today,” observes the critic Benjamin Nugent, “what’s ‘literary’ is often taken as a subset of what’s ‘liberal,’” which is worth noting because it has not always been so. “History is full of serious writers stumping for nonliberal ideas and leaders,” Nugent recalls, citing a legacy that includes T. S. Eliot, the Italian Futurists, and all of the writers who joined the Communist Party during the reign of Stalin. With that tradition in mind, he embarks “on a monthlong hunt for Republican writers of what is commonly called literary fiction,” and he finds only Mark Helprin.2

The particulars of Nugent’s argument are debatable, but the generalization that he draws is not. Few prominent writers of “what is commonly called literary fiction” have expressed support for President Bush’s policies at home or abroad, and in that context it is particularly striking that many of them appeal to their audiences through the same logic that he used at the UN—the narrative logic of tragedy. Moreover, novelists began to recuperate this logic well before the terrorist attacks of 2001, and even before Bush became president in 1995. During the 1980s and 1990s, the novels that topped most critics’ lists reiterate a narrative that begins in disaster, and they use that proleptic form to suggest a threat that resists every evasion categorically. Prolepsis gives the reader foreknowledge of the bus accident that will destroy the town of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter; of the assassination that will rock the nation of Don DeLillo’s Libra; of divorce amid bereavement in Richard Ford’s Independence Day; of the infanticide in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the murder in Jazz; of the Holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, and Martha Cooley’s The Archivist; and of the terrorist bombing in Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral.

These novels create an experience of fate in secular terms by constructing protagonists whose stories...