Tragedy and the Proper Name

—Jeremy Matthew Glick

The Name-of-the-Father creates the function of the father. —Jacques Lacan

What do you know about me, given that I believe in secrecy? … If I stick where I am, if I don’t travel around, like everyone else I make inner journeys that I can only measure by my measures, and express very obliquely and circuitously in what I write… Arguments from one’s own privileged experience are bad and reactionary arguments. —Gilles Deleuze

Returning home from school my second year of college, I learned that my father took a second (really third) job working as a cashier for a popular bookstore chain whose café stayed open till midnight. He went back to work after a full day at the Port Authority.  On such days, his commute began at five a.m. and ended at midnight. When I lived in my parents’ house, this was my wake-up call since my father stored his suits in my bedroom closet (my bedroom was actually a closet) and insisted turning on the overhead light. My mother was away at a teacher’s convention in Atlantic City and I was restless in anticipation of my evening date. Rummaging though a shopping bag on our kitchen table I discovered that he purchased a pack of long-cigarettes. My parents proudly quit smoking over a decade ago—being an avid smoker, I had no hang-ups on the matter. Yet my discovery brought tears.  It’s not that the pack of Marlboro Lights triggered a discomforting reminder of my father’s mortality; rather, it signified the rage I felt by his internalization of how money often engenders shame, where we live. A financial miscalculation caused him to bounce a check and suffer substantial bank penalties. He took the cashier job to make up the difference. A package of cigarettes, delightful panacea for stress, remains the saddest recollection of my father since it signified a defeat by work. Neither the last, nor the gravest.

One night (returning from date #2) I found another bag, this time neatly placed on my unmade bed. My father brought home an advanced copy-proof of the first of Madison Smart Bell’s novel series on the Haitian Revolution—All Souls Rising. It was the first full-length account I read of the event that structures this study and most of my advanced graduate work—followed that Spring semester by The Black Jacobins assigned in an undergraduate seminar on Cultural Materialism taught by the brilliant and endlessly kind, Brian Rourke. Years later, during a campus job talk, a customary scheduled meeting with the Dean of Humanities gave a small cause for worry. I wanted to avoid a political fight (perhaps on Robespierre and the question political violence) during the brief time spent with this University executive—a historian of the French Revolution and son of a famous ideologically fraught American sociologist. I read the work of the father as an undergraduate with anger and read the work of the son with a dis-attached curiosity in preparation for our meeting. As it turned out, we ended up having a most delightful chat about All Souls Rising, since the Dean was friendly with the writer.

Weeks after my father was killed on September 11th 2001 in the World Trade Center I had a conversation with Darryl Scipio, a close friend from University. Almost instantaneously the media apparatus and Bush II cabinet coupled pronouncements of empathy for the lives lost and mourners from that day with jingoistic calls for reprisal and collective punishment. I turned to him after a memorial service for my Dad and said: “D, I’m really fed up with how the politicians and pundits keep referring to the attacks on the Trade Center and Pentagon as a ‘tragedy.” He responded using his nickname of preference—“But Perm, it IS a tragedy…”

So much of the way I think about tragedy as a genre and political category comes from the work of Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy, in which the critic labors to show how flawed the elitist linguistic divide separating tragedy as a high art (the tragedy of Comparative Literature, English, and Classics curriculums) versus tragedy’s everyday use as signifying a grave event, a calamitous lost. Furthermore, Williams persuades us to view the tragic resonance of lived experience as having something to say to women and men who think seriously about making revolution. Despite my deep investment (then and still) in Williams’s ideas, in that moment with Darryl I could not make the connection. Two years later, Martin Harries expertly responded to a review in London Review of Books of Terry Eagelton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic that argued that the word tragedy was not utilized to describe the event of September 11, 2001:

In his review of Terry Eagelton’s Sweet Violence, David Simpson (LRB, 3 April) twice insists that ‘in the United States the language of tragedy was not invoked in describing 9/11.’ A Google search reveals about 853,0000 websites linking the term ‘tragedy’ to ‘September 11’, and a large number of these sites must originate in the US. Do all of them illustrate merely, that tragedy is, as Simpson puts it, ‘trivially everywhere’? Part of the interest of his review is that it complicates precisely the confidence that we can at a glance recognize trivial uses of ‘tragedy’.

Simpson’s reply to Harries in which he “wager[s] that few if any of them propose a serious definition or theory of tragedy…” willfully misses the point. Terry Eagleton’s mentor Raymond Williams’s insights on tragedy still require reading and rereading. Rejoining the definition of tragedy found in study of the humanities with how tragedy is used in daily speech, still a vital task that speaks to 21st Century political events.

During the same campus visit, I presented a job talk on Malcom X’s use of Hamlet during his participation in the Oxford Union debate. The talk labored (albeit unsuccessfully) to flesh out a different sense of what I was referred to as the Black Radical Tragic. This main key word frames this entire study and is in solidarity with but differs from David Scott’s important work on C.L.R James and tragedy (a work that came out while I was working on the dissertation stage of this project and encouraged me greatly to labor on).  During the question and answer period, a member of the audience challenged me to unpack what I mean by the Black Radical Tragic in a most grating fashion: “What is the BLACK in Black Radical Tragic? Is it because Paul Robeson is BLACK? Is it because Haiti is BLACK? Is tragedy BLACK because Paul Robeson is BLACK?”

The content of this person’s query and the hostile form in which that content was conveyed—a mix between how Hedda Gabler (hero) sounds in my imagination and how Woody Allen (not so much) sounds in real life—merits thinking. It was almost as if the frenzied stress put on the repeat, amplified utterance BLACK is an attempt to discredit not only the legitimacy of Black as a site of meaning but places a strain on the proper named subject (Paul Robeson). As well as the conceptual work I attempted to claim for tragedy within my orbit of Black radical texts—repetitions of the Haitian Revolution. Concept, proper name, and Black as a marker ripe for speculative thinking blurred and my interlocutor’s frenzied repetition and conflation put them in a space of temporary duress. I was tempted to reply to my critic with a recitation of the seventh and eighth stanzas of Ed Roberson’s “Cape Journal: A Sand Pile”:

7.

Robison Robinson

Roberson Roberston

Robeson what does it matter?

none of the crackers

keeping records

on us could spell either.

I am clear.

the length of my myself I have moved

the melanin color to color

8.

so when daddy decided

to open his business

by filing according

to white people’s spelling

none of his brothers had any

of the same

names

stupid crackers

everyone remembered them

telling you shut up

you couldn’t spell

hell with it then

look in my goddamn face

and see

my damn name

I did not respond by way of Roberson; nor did I sufficiently explain the conceptual work done by what I refer to as the Black Radical Tragic. Hopefully, the pages of my book serve as a long overdue explanation and an always on-time expression of gratitude to my father.

Jeremy Matthew Glick is an Associate Professor of African Diaspora literature and modern drama in the English Department of Hunter College, CUNY. He is author of The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution (NYU Press, 2016).