A friend of mine comes from a recent Italian immigrant family, an assortment of Catholics molded by their cultural and religious history, regardless of their outward piety. As is common among such people, they lived in a multifamily dwelling: Aunt Antonia was married to Uncle Giancarlo, Aunt Rose to Uncle Annibale. Aunt Antonia always suspected her husband of cheating, an accusation he denied in his quiet, mid-twentieth century masculine way. One day a woman came to the house and Uncle Annibale answered the door. She held a child—his love child, begging him to care for it. “You cheated on your wife; the kid is your responsibility.” And so, he did take the baby in. Aunt Antonia was, however, sure that this was really her husband’s child, the result of one of his countless affairs. No matter how much Annibale protested and Giancarlo denied, she remained unshakeable. She was the protagonist in the tragedy that was her life; she would be cheated on and disdained—to hell with anyone who thought otherwise. Every dinner together she would accuse and accuse; as steadfast as she was in suspicion, so were the two men in denial.
When Giancarlo died, Antonia went up to Annibale at the funeral. “Will you finally tell me the truth now, now that he’s dead? You don’t need to cover for him anymore.” Giancarlo was adamant: he had nothing to hide. The fault was his; the child was his. And yet, nothing could shake Antonia. She went to her grave convinced her husband had wronged her, that everything was a grand, tragic conspiracy.
Tolkien famously called the battle against Morgoth (or Sauron) a “long defeat.” In this view, we wage a noble war, facing mishaps and outright massacre, in the name of some lofty principle. The end is good, but the process itself is the unfolding of countless sleights and injuries.
These two stories are not all that different. One finds tragedy in the short term, in one life—here tragedy is the horizon of one’s expectation for one’s life. The other finds the same in history, expanding the events of The Battle of Maldon (a favorite poem of Tolkien’s) into a grand historical vision, a kind of beleaguered Hegelianism.
Such views are not universal. We need only look to the slogan “the right side of history” or to the plastering of “live, laugh, love” across homes all around these United States. There is “human perfectibility” and Rousseau; there is the incessant cry that “it’s all right.”
Whence, then, do such views of the world come? Certain religious traditions embed tragedy into their very DNA. This needn’t mean that every believer adopts such ideas or that one need be pious to embrace them. Religious affiliation is a messy business. Not every member of the Ulster Defense Association was a devout Presbyterian, nor were the rank and file of the IRA always ring-kissing papists. Perspectives are often cultivated early in one’s life, often determined for a person before they have a chance to decide for themselves. And, from there, material circumstances will continue to shape and reform these existing sensibilities. Nothing is simple; these are tendencies and dispositions, not cold hard facts.
It is in this sense that Catholicism offers a tragic view of life. We are stuck here in the saeculum, the great in-between, poised for battle in a deep valley between the great hope of Easter and the eschaton. Our savior was bloodied and murdered; our Church has never had a shortage of institutional crises. When our medieval forebears lost, it was because they had displeased God; when they won, it was often, in their eyes, in spite of themselves.
But this, I contend, is the ground of true hope. Properly speaking, hope can only exist as a flickering flame in a vast, forbidding darkness. Some traditions nurture this virtue; others justify how the world is in all its supposed glory. Catholicism, Shia Islam, and Judaism are imbued with this tragic sense—they (and other traditions) prophesy better futures. But “better” here is the key term: defeat is central; it is the only possible precondition for the victory of the true, the good, and the just.
One could cite a million examples, though perhaps one of the most striking is Wulfstan, Archbishop of York’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, his address to the people of Britain in the face of constant Viking raids. He castigates the people not for their lack of courage or their inabilities. He does not go on about how they can and should win; rather, he blames their utter lack of faith and their constant injustices toward the poor, asking what else they could expect:
"The rights of freemen are taken away and the rights of slaves are restricted and charitable obligations are curtailed. Free men may not keep their independence, nor go where they wish, nor deal with their property just as they desire; nor may slaves have that property which, on their own time, they have obtained by means of difficult labor, or that which good men, in Gods favor, have granted them, and given to them in charity for the love of God. But every man decreases or withholds every charitable obligation that should by rights be paid eagerly in Gods favor, for injustice is too widely common among men and lawlessness is too widely dear to them.
And in short, the laws of God are hated and his teaching despised; therefore we all are frequently disgraced through God’s anger, let him know it who is able. And that loss will become universal, although one may not think so, to all these people, unless God protects us.
Therefore it is clear and well seen in all of us that we have previously more often transgressed than we have amended, and therefore much is greatly assailing this nation."
— Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, 11-13
“Unless God protects us”—so does Wulfstan tell the Anglo-Saxon that they stand on a razor’s edge, always only moments from defeat and danger. They allow themselves to deteriorate, to blaspheme, and so what is already a wretched existence becomes a catastrophe.
In more recent times, one need only look to the Catholicism of Ireland for an analogue. Here was a people conquered, subjugated, and abused—yet a people who kept fighting. They did not, however, for many centuries, fight with the expectation that they would simply win. They had known too many defeats for that. Instead, they would fight precisely because this must be a “long defeat,” a just war waged at a great cost, the horizon of tragedy, the daily trek filled with a million banal losses.
Catholicism is not the only religion imbued with this tragic sense of life. Shia Islam, for example, traces its origin to a defeat: the ruinous battle of Karbala. Here the Sunni Umayyad Caliphate (with its massive army) killed Husayn ibn Ali, the man Shia consider Muhammad’s rightful successor. From that point on, while the fortunes of Shia polities have waxed and waned, the entire tradition has never been able to escape this sense that they are on the outs, that the way the world is, is not the way things should be. The battle against worldliness is never over, at least not until the end of time.
Hence the greatest feast on the Shia calendar: Ashura. Much like Good Friday for Christians (though we should not equate the two), Ashura celebrates precisely this defeat—in truth, it mourns this originary tragedy. Shia flagellate themselves and openly weep at Husayn’s tomb. Their blood flows. What matters is lamentation and laceration. It is telling that, for Sunnis, Ashura celebrates the victory God gave to Moses over the Egyptians. What a difference!
This attitude remains with us today. Hezbollah, for example, has its base among the extraordinarily poor Shia of southern Lebanon. While it has enjoyed some military success, its roots are nested in failure: the failure of a people to escape oppression and immiseration. Iran’s post-1979 constitution strikes a similar note. Notice the prominence of martyrs and death:
“The sapling of the revolution, nurtured by the blood of more than 60,000 martyrs and 100,000 wounded and disabled, and billions of tomāns of financial losses, finally bore fruit after more than a year and a half of unrelenting and continuous struggle amidst the cries of: ‘Independence, freedom, Islamic government!’ This great uprising, which was achieved through faith, unity, and the decisiveness of the leadership, and the self-sacrifices of the nation, succeeded in annihilating the calculations, relations, and institutions of imperialism. The Iranian Revolution opened a new chapter in the [history] of mass popular revolutions in the world. The 21 and 22 of Bahman 1357 [12 and 13 February 1979] were the days of the collapse of the monarchic system when domestic tyranny, and the foreign dominance that relied on it, were crushed. With this great victory, the rise of the Islamic government that was the long desire of the Muslim people announced its final triumph.”
— (The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 3)
This constitution is remarkable in admitting its own contingency, celebrating a perceived victory over forces of oppression; the government it establishes, however, exists only on account of the suffering of many martyrs. Its future status is also uncertain, looking forward to the eschaton without delusions about its own permanence. For example, Article Five reads:
“During the absence (ghayba) of his holiness, the Lord of the Age, May God all mighty hasten his appearance, the sovereignty of the command [of God] and religious leadership of the community [of believers] in the Islamic Republic of Iran is the responsibility of the faqīh who is just, pious, knowledgeable about his era, courageous, and a capable and efficient administrator.”
— (The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 8)
Compare this with the rhetoric of ISIS, a state that preached not only its own righteousness, but its own role in the hastening of the end of times. This is not unlike how some Evangelical Christians view their role in supporting Israel. Their narratives preach imminent victory, the crushing defeat of the non-believer sooner rather than later.
Judaism too seems to contain this seed of the tragic. Moses never did make it to the Holy Land; the Temple was demolished twice. For much of history, Jews have found themselves estranged from the land promised them, lacking the very building that enabled their relationship with God at all. Books upon books are devoted to the ethics and liturgy of sacrifice—and yet now such sacrifices are impossible. But, as I said above, this sensibility need not always manifest in religious truisms or pious talk.
Take, for example, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. I wouldn’t want to give too much away about a work of fiction, but suffice to say that one of the characters, Sally, sums up the film’s tragicomedy by saying: “it's the Second Law of Thermodynamics: sooner or later everything turns to sh*t. That's my phrasing, not the Encyclopedia Britannica.” The film is imbued with the sense that things simply will not go the protagonists’ way. There is no such thing as short-term victory (if there can be victory at all). It is, if such can be the case, the cinematic version of the anecdote with which this piece began.
This set of views about the world is not, however, hopelessness; in fact, it is the only ground from whence true hope can spring. Too often we confuse optimism with hope; we think that saying that things will be okay will make them so. But there is no room for faith in a better future if such becomes a mere slogan, if victory is assumed. Hope, rather, is a small flame kept alive through cold and dark nights; its ground is precisely the “long defeat” of which Tolkien spoke. Its power comes forth in bursts, making real victories that, by their very nature, are contingent and thus all the worthier of celebration. It is not, as is often said, darkest before the dawn. Sometimes, as Gary Brecher once said, it’s dark because it’s midnight. True hope is thus the recognition that there will be dawn at all, that, even if it is far off, even if the true dawn comes outside of history itself, that at some point what is true and good and holy will burst forth. Eventually.
Is this not the message of the Cross—that without the blood and gore of death there can be no life, that suffering cannot be escaped, only endured for the promise of something better? Is this not what we learn from the degradation of the Israelites in Babylon? There are the crimes of Haman and the near destruction of a people, and yet there is the promise of vengeance, of Haman’s death as restitution for the failure of Saul and the Amalekites? Is this not the celebratory mourning of Ashura shining, in fits and starts, founding an imperfect, transitional, but (in the eyes of believers) just polity? Hope is all these things and more—a virtue denied to the optimist, a vision of things yet to come rejected by the one satisfied with the present.
Feature Image: Ashura in Bahrain in photo (2011) by Gabby Canonizado via Wikimedia Commons.
Chase Padusniak is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in late-medieval mysticism and urban political culture. His blog, Jappers and Janglers, tackles various issues, from political economy to the role of religion in modern life. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and their two cats. He invites you to follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.