Meaning in Tragedy

James McCormick discusses Stoicism in war; the training that prepares men for these contests is the subject of Jonathan Smith’s “The Texas Aggie Bonfire: A Conservative Reading of Regional Narratives, Traditional Practices and a Paradoxical Place” (pdf format), which he concludes with

conservatives need conservative culture theory to better understand the social institutions and practices that are necessary to conserve conservative goods like community, authority, piety, solidarity, and manliness. Conservatism must become, in spite of its own best instincts, more theoretical, if only to understand how and why it must become more conservative.

Published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, the essay is a tightly written and thoughtful academic work; it is strongly humanist in its appreciation of human complexity. It is sympathetic with the traditions of the Aggie Corps as few academics are. (And although it is tightly documented, the fun of that first footnote establishes a voice confident and understated.) His argument is for a “conservative view of culture” which is

further recommended by the very uncertain prospects for meaning, reasons, persons, and human places in rival views of culture. I am persuaded by the philosophers who argue that the effort to ground practical reason in nature has necessarily failed (MacIntyre 1984; C. Taylor 1989). I do not see how reasons, and therefore persons, could exist in the groundless and antinomian world proposed by Nietzscheans and postmodernists (Jones 1994). And I am not persuaded that the road back to viable traditions has been permanently blocked by the landslide of modern disenchantment, however much this has been exacerbated by the chicanery of new right politicians (Gray 1995, chap. 10).

He traces the development of different ways of defining the self, making poignant the boast by Ingmar Berman and Liv Ullman that their Scenes from a Marriage increased the divorce rate dramatically when played on national television, their given “common good” and self definition arising from the intensity of experience. Of course, in both a marriage and the bonfire tradition, such a self-conscious, analytic process leading to an intensity of experience signals the loss of unself-conscious piety, of an intensity that arises from the loss of self.

The widely noted increase in vulgarity and aggressiveness among Bonfire workers was defended as a means to “to let off steam, to ‘get grody,’” and “release tension” (Battalion 1987c, 1989). This tension arose from the paradoxical commitments to tradition and instrumental rationality. Lionel Trilling (1971) gave us the culture theory to understand this. The virtue of sincerity, or being honest, that grew so important in the early modern period, gave way in the nineteenth century to the virtue of authenticity, or honest being. Honest being is being one’s self, unconstrained by social conventions. As Nietzsche argued, social conventions (in this case “political correctness”) and the comfort of bourgeois life efface the self and turn it into a mere instance of the cultural superego. The modern cult of authenticity reacted against this “weightless” self (what Kundera [1984] famously called “the unbearable lightness of being”). The reaction took myriad forms, but everywhere sought experiences that would intensify the “sentiment of being,” or “the gratifying experience of the self as an entity” (Trilling 1971, 99, 122). As Jackson Lears (1981, 32) put it, “a weightless culture of material comfort and spiritual blandness was breeding weightless persons who longed for intense experience to give some definition, some distinct outline and substance to their vaporous lives.”

For the red-ass student, Bonfire afforded just this sort of experience. It was an antidote to the alienation that accompanies instrumental rationality. The irony is that, even as he sought to recapture the experience of an honest soul, the red-ass student admitted a degree of discomfort in, indeed alienation from, a world in which he was not entirely at home. He had become a postmodern conservative.

I described this phenomenon with llttle theoretical context nor real understanding in an earlier post about the sea change of the sixties (“The Cool Fifties, the Hot Sixties”).

Masculinity is a core value at a military school, even one that has become coed: his argument recognizes the importance of how a society leads “boys” to become “men.” Perhaps the fact that the author has two young sons has made him more aware on one level of what he always seemed aware on an intellectual one:

A man is an artifact. This is because a male can easily shirk or flee adult responsibility, and so must be sternly compelled, by habituation, conditioning, and shame, to do what society needs him to do. Society asks of males three things that, left to themselves, they cannot be trusted to do. First, it asks them to accept the role of fatherhood, a role more artificial than motherhood because it must be imagined, is sometimes imaginary, is all too easily refused. Society also asks males to use their strength, sense of honor, and aggressiveness to perform two additional tasks that unconditioned males cannot be trusted to perform: risk their lives in battle and share the fruit of their labor. A man is thus made from a male when a male recognizes reasons to accept these roles of father, warrior, and provider (Gilmore 1990).10

Smith’s sympathies were clearly developed and molded over a long period and reflect his own engagement with the bonfire tragedy.

Personal Post Script: Smith’s article helped give me a context for much about these traditions that seemed both foreign and admirable, although sometimes silly and even deadly. My experiences weren’t unusual: one semester, a girl sat in the back of a class I was teaching (many are co-enrolled and the traditions of the “big” campus influence those of our little one). She was not “there” much of the semester, clearly traumatized. She and a girlfriend had taken cookies out to the cut; somehow something terrible had happened and a tree fell across the car – killing her friend in the passenger seat. The combination of youth, lack of sleep, power saws, huge timbers, and far too much alcohol hurt many and some died. But that something was lost when the bonfire was banned was something even non-Ags like me could sense and, caught in the midst of these discussions, Smith saw where it had gone awry and still viewed the tradition with respect. This is clearly the work of years of thought not only about the bonfire but where we are going as a society.
But he also helped put something else in context – or at least helped me understand why I’d said something that even I thought was weird at the time. My first daughter was planning her wedding when it happened, already living with her husband-to-be and trying to plan for his clan’s American visit that would coincide with their wedding. I’d been a hesitant about the ritual and traditions, about the responsibilities of a large, at-home wedding. But that fall, the importance of the symbolic, of the ritual was brought home to me. My mother had been married at home, so had I. We had this mini-tradition going.

Those who lost their lives had not seen (nor did their family and friends often see) this loss as the result of a silly prank. My daughter was in Austin and few around her saw anything meaningful in the tradition. But she wanted her wedding traditional; she wanted the ritual to be enacted in a symbolic manner, complete with a polka band. In a way, she understood what I was groping toward – Protestant mid-westerners tend to be ill at ease with rituals. Nonetheless, strangely and even irrationally, I was brought around to the idea of a larger wedding; the turning point was that bonfire tragedy. No one understood (including me) why it led me to embrace a ritual in which two people are subsumed in a marriage – a marriage designed to benefit both but primarily to provide a shelter in which their children can be born, mature, and become men and women. My daughter couldn’t follow my reasoning, but the truth was, neither could I. Smith’s article helps me understand this apparently random response; at moments like this we dimly understand that what we feel is not necessarily irrational, just because the rational explanation is out of our reach.

And it seems to me that that great ritual of the wedding and the customs of marriage so integral to any culture have also been individualized and changed in ways that Smith helps us understand. We have become self-conscious and defensive, our voices shrill and our arguments even brittle. We know something is lost but sometimes have trouble defining what that something is. That is a topic for another day – and one that perhaps a woman blogger thinks of as a man considers war.

Related posts:
Stoic Warriors – The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind
Stoic Warriors 2 — Where Risk, Pain, and Death Are Ignored

2 thoughts on “Meaning in Tragedy”

  1. I think the modern world strongly underestimates the power of ritual. We believe ourselves so self-aware that we no longer will respond emotionally to ritual. Yet evidence suggest that we still do.

    I think rituals still function as temporal markers in our memory dividing that which came before from that which came after. A ritual like a wedding alters people’s behavior and expectations about a relationship by dividing the relationship into a before and after. A gradual drift into long term cohabitation doesn’t create a similar boundary.

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