6 Nov 2008

Freedom Feeds Hope: Barack Obama the Tragicomic

Corry Shores
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In Euripides’ prologues, a deity foretells the tragic event. At the beginning of Hippolytus, for example, Aphrodite says of the title character that “for little he reckons that Death hath opened his gates for him, and that this is his last look upon the light.” As predicted, the tragedy ends with Hippolytus concluding: “'Tis finished, my endurance; I die, father; quickly veil my face with a mantle.”

Nietzsche claims that Euripides maintained a revolutionary theory of tragic effect: it is obtained not by suspense, but through heightened eloquence.

Longinus notes that Euripides “forces his own genius, in many passages, to tragic heights, and everywhere in the matter of sublimity it is true of him” (On the Sublime §15).

What Longinus terms sublime, we call heightened eloquence:

Sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown (§3).

This sublime eloquence supersedes any normal eloquence, because its effect

is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer. Similarly, we see skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude (§4).

Longinus explains that one of the primary ways sublime eloquence is obtained is through melody and rhythm.

Sublime eloquence, for Longinus, must be tragic, because at certain times Aeschylus falls short of being tragic solely because he is not sublime, that is, not supremely and powerfully eloquent (§3).

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cornel West diagnosed the American people with a self-destructive nihilism. He asks: “Now that the nation has the Blues, can that nation learn from a Blues people?” (“The Paula Gordon Show” September 24, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US).

The great American truth tellers, be they artists, be they song writers...blues artists...or be they hip-hop artists, they recognize that you have to muster the maturity to face truths that are painful. And in the end America either faces those truths with courage and dignity...or America loses its democratic experiment. That’s why after 9/11, the question is, can a blues nation learn from a Blues people? (On Point, September 20, 2004).

He theorizes that African Americans survived despondency through a unique cultural strength: tragicomic hope:

Tragicomic hope is what the Blues is all about: the ability, the courage to muster a smile in the face of tears, to keep laughing in the face of darkness, not to allow despair to have the last word even as it looks as if you have a chance of a snowball in hell for your project to be realized. You been lookin’ up and down for so long, but you keep movin’ anyway. You been feelin’ down for so long, but you keep pushing anyway. That’s Curtis Mayfield. That’s Louie Armstrong. That’s John Coltrane (On Point).

Black culture consists of black modes of being-in-the-world obsessed with black sadness and sorrow, black agony and anguish, black heartache and heartbreak without fully succumbing to the numbing effects of such misery – to never allow such misery to have the last word.

The ‘ur-text’ of black culture is

a guttural cry and a wrenching moan – a cry not so much for help as for home, a moan less out of complaint than for recognition. The most profound black cultural products – John Coltrane’s saxophone solos, James Cleveland’s gut gospels, Billie Holiday’s vocal leaps, Rev. Gardner Taylor’s rhapsodic sermons, James Baldwin’s poignant essays, Alvin Ailey’s graceful dances, Toni Morrison’s dissonant novels – transform and transfigure in artistic form this cry and moan. The deep meaning of this cry and moan goes back to the indescribable cries of Africans on the slave ships during the cruel transatlantic voyages to America and the indecipherable moans of enslaved Afro-Americans on Wednesday nights or Sunday mornings near godforsaken creeks or on wooden benches at prayer meetings in makeshift black churches. This fragile existential arsenal – rooted in silent tears and weary lament – supports black endurance against madness and suicide. The primal black cries and moans lay bare the profoundly tragicomic character of black life. Ironically, they also embody the life-preserving content of black styles – creative ways of fashioning power and strength through the body and language which yield black joy and ecstasy (Cornel West Reader 102).

Thus the tragicomic is not merely tragic, because it also inspires a mature hope. It is not the crude optimism found in feelings of imperial superiority. Hope realizes one’s own flaws, while yet pushing forward (On Point).

At the moment in which we must look defeat, disillusionment, and discouragement in the face and work through it – a sense of the tragicomic keeps alive some sense of possibility. Some sense of hope. Some sense of agency. Some sense of resistance (Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom 3).

West provides the example of lines from the Negro spiritual Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen:

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Nobody knows but Jesus

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Glory hallelujah.

This exemplary shift from a mournful brooding to a joyful praising is the product of courageous efforts to look life’s abyss in the face and keep ‘keepin’ on.’ This struggle is sustained primarily by the integrity of style, song and spirituality in a beloved community (e.g., Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom). It is rather like Ishmael’s tragicomic “free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy” in Moby Dick, but it is intensified by the fiery art of Aretha Franklin’s majestic shouts for joy (“W.E.B Is its Bois: An Interpretation” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience 103).

Cornel West’s theory is that only by means of Black cultural tragicomic hope can America emerge from the darkness of its nihilism and imperialism. Only a Bluesman can save the nation.

Barack Obama displays this tragicomic hope in his extraordinarily eloquent speeches, in their rhythm, melody, and message.

Like the Nobody Knows spiritual, Obama often turns his message from despair to tragicomic hope:

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.

(Concession Speech, 8-Jan-2008, New Hampshire)


The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

(Nomination Victory Speech, St. Paul, 3-June-2008).

The rhythms in Obama's speeches have the tragicomic affect of steadily marching through darkness toward light.

History has proven West’s theory: the U.S. healed by means of African-American tragicomic eloquence, with its profound musical power.

And Longinus’ theory as well:

a question which a certain philosopher has recently mooted. 'I wonder,' he says, 'as no doubt do many others, how it happens that in our time there are men who have the gift of persuasion to the utmost extent, and are well fitted for public life, and are keen and ready, and particularly rich in all the charms of language, yet there no longer arise really lofty and transcendent natures unless quite exceptionally. So great and world-wide a dearth of high utterance attends our age.'

'Can it be,' he continued, 'that we are to accept the trite explanation that democracy is the kind nursing-mother of genius, and that literary power may be said to share its rise and fall with democracy and democracy alone? For freedom, it is said, has power to feed the imaginations of the lofty-minded and inspire hope, and where it prevails there spreads abroad the eagerness of mutual rivalry and the emulous pursuit of the foremost place (§44).

1 comment:

  1. It’s great to see how you weave this all together. For sure what you say is right. I want to offer an alternate perspective. Consider this an op-ed.

    Is there not a danger in a leader's eloquence and in a people's music? There is no doubt that Obama represents a new era, and this is worth celebrating. Obama won not only because of his eloquence speeches, but also because of his sublime and eloquent public relations campaign, which far surpassed the right wing's efforts this time around. There is something unspoken about Obama’s supermarketing public relations industry. Those on the left remained silent on the issue because it seemed like it might be the only way to win this thing, and it worked. Obama saturated the media flows with his messages. It was unprecedented. But what does it do for the future of our democracy? Why did he opt out of public financing? What if the Right had managed to flood the media flows with their messages? We need to be wary of those who use media to shape perceptions. When it comes down to it, is a form of manipulation.
    Music can be dangerous because it sways our passions and can sidestep reason. It is the perfect complement to manipulation. I remember a story about how soldiers in Iraq blasted Metallica in their tanks when blowing up other humans, it pumped them up. Music creates a short circuit in our movements; it makes us move without reasons. I feel slightly cautious when a public speaker becomes too musical. How was it that Hitler was able to hypnotize a whole generation into unimaginable acts? I am not saying Obama is Hitler. What I am saying is we need to be cautious of being led. My feeling is our future would have to be one without a leader. When it comes down to it a leader cannot be trusted. Cooperation is not led.
    I saw an interview with Dr. West today. He said that Obama at this point symbolized and represented change. But he stressed we needed to see substance and not just symbols. So let’s take Dr. West's advice and talk about substance and not representations, and maybe leave aside racial or national identifications too. Today Obama choose Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff. Emanuel is has been called part of the right wing of the Democratic Party. He supports the military occupation of Israel. Does this sound like change? 70% of Americans do not support the military occupation of Israel. Why is this guy so close to the newly elected president? Ok, maybe I am being hard on Mr. Obama, but he works for the people and not for special interests such as AIPAC. Today Obama is vetting for Treasury Secretary, who's on the list? Ah, I see, Lawrence summers, the same man that worked for the World Bank and said that Africa was "underpolluted" http://www.forces.org/evidence/who/files/wb.htm Is he really on this short list? Come on Barack! Who are you? I am starting to feel like republican.
    All this aside, I am hopeful that things will get better, and the arrival of the tragicomic will be a positive thing. But I still think we cannot let down our guard. The real fight just started. Let’s not wander off dreaming.