“Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope,”* a Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Is tragedy dead? If so, is this a “tragic” loss for our culture? And does the scope of the presumably disastrous effects of its presumed demise include the Religious Society of Friends? If so, is there any prospect for regaining the tragic sense, and thus regaining hope?

These questions are the springboard for this book, which came out of a 2001 course at Woodbrooke, the British Quaker study center, taught by the authors as a team.

Many scholars and historians argue that tragedy, thought by many to be the noblest of the dramatic forms, declined or disappeared in the West after the 1700s, more or less in inverse order to the rise industrial and technical society. Other scholars dismiss this view as reactionary posturing, no more than false nostalgia for the “good old days” when men were men and tragedies were tragedies, an age that never existed.

Most of the contributors here, however, identify with the death-of-tragedy approach, and shape their contributions accordingly. Moreover, they extend its reach beyond literature to encompass Christianity (“the gospel,” writes Richard Sturm, ” . . . has an essential link with tragedy.” (25) and sociology as well.

Combining both of these latter fields, Douglas Gwyn recaps his account of the approach and then loss of the “Quaker moment” in the 1650s, when the new insurgent movement could perhaps have bent the course of early capitalist development in Britain and its burgeoning empire in a more humane, communitarian direction. This so-near-and-yet-so-far thesis, drawn from his book, The Covenant Crucified, (Pendle Hill, 1995) is here viewed as an instance of tragedy, one, Gwyn argues, Friends today are scarcely capable of recognizing as such.

Pink Dandelion, who has done considerable sociological research on British Quakerism, combines that discipline with history to describe the trajectory of British culture in the past century as one of almost unrelieved post-imperial decline, spiritual as well as material and social. He sees England now as disfigured by the processes of “McDonaldization” and “disneyization,” both of which are signs of a cultural loss of hope. With this outward decay has come a spiritual famine as well, of which British Quakerism, which Dandelion paints as disintegrating and doomed, is a fitting case study.

Brian Phillips focuses more closely on a telling slice of this process, the character and fate of a wealthy circle of Edwardian Quaker grandees at the turn of the last century, who took it upon themselves to be the “moral tutors of the (British) empire,” influencing it and its rivals toward peaceful suzerainty over the civilized (and “uncivilized”) world. Their main avenue of such “peace action” was to cultivate and use access to monarchs, presidents and prime ministers to make pleas for peaceful forms of statecraft.

Phillips’s account of the 1909 visit of Allen Baker, a pillar of this Friendly “peace elite,” with Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany is a prime example of the high ideals of this group, and their vitiation by overweening self-regard and illusions of influence. Including quotes from an admiring memoir by his children, he notes that:

     “[Baker] had a deep ‘concern’ that he must see the Kaiser, and pass on to him the message in his heart. He remembered that Quakers, by their plain outspoken words, had sometimes in other days had an unexpected influence with kings . . . . Allen Baker appealed to the Kaiser to see in himself a convinced peacemaker – ‘a great Christian monarch’ with the capacity to make ‘the hosts of evil . . . fall before him’. Pressing the Kaiser to accept this calling. Allen Baker insisted that ‘countless thousands have been praying for this to happen’, adding that it was his ‘deep conviction that the voice of God is saying even now: Thou art the man!’ ”

Baker and Baker, J. Allen Baker: Member of Parliament, London: Swarthmore Press, 1927, pp. 188-9

The narrative then moves on to report how:

     ‘as he spoke these words with much emotion. Allen Baker took the Kaiser by the arm and looked earnestly into his eyes. Tears were on both their cheeks, and . . . the Kaiser was much moved.’ As the audience drew to a close, Allen Baker implored the Kaiser to recognize that: ‘the true destiny, the true greatness of a nation is to he a blessing to other nations. Germany has been built up as a great Empire; her monarch has been made a blessings to his people: hut have the German people and their monarch realized enough of their mission to the other nations of the world?’ (Baker and Baker. 1927. pp. 188-9) Allen Baker’s children end their account with the clear assumption of a conversion effected . . . .”

The passage (70-73) makes painful and humbling reading, as we watch Baker interpreting the monarch’s every gesture and sigh as proof that his royal soul had been touched and changed in the manner of a convert at a revival meeting. In the terminology of this book, Baker is much closer to being a comic than a tragic figure; the “Quaker peace elite” which he epitomized are tailor-made for a Gilbert and Sullivan parody rather than some ponderous blank verse epic.

This Quaker venture, like so much else, was reduced to ashes in the destruction of World War One, the preposterousness of its pretensions only too apparent amid the rubble. But the notion of the grand influence and wide shadow cast by the tiny Society of Friends lingers on, if only like a family ghost, in more contemporary forms. This fact alone makes Phillips’s account the more astringently salutary as a corrective. I found it by far the most useful piece in this collection.

Doug Gwyn’s second piece, a long Postscript ostensibly assessing the impact of the loss of the tragic on liberal Quakerism in the US as well as Britain, is a disappointment. Gwyn derides a modern

“Quaker faith and practice that maintains a ‘profession’ in words of a reality no longer in ‘possession’ – the very hypocrisy that early Friends denounced so strongly in the Puritan culture of their day. It is only by continuing to use the sham of right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity as their rhetorical foil that Liberal Friends manage to maintain their own parody of Quaker faith and practice. By chronically trading in caricatures of ‘Christianity’, Liberal Quakerism has become a caricature of itself. This cannot last. And when it collapses, it will be no tragedy.” (127)

This trope is a familiar one from Gwyn and a number of other like-minded writers. I have dubbed it “Handbasket Theology,” and will repeat here the verdict that it is mostly bunk, a tinny jeremiad which gets less persuasive with each repetition. (See also my review of Among Friends in Quaker Theology #2 (online at: http://quakertheology.org/ issue2-5.html). Dandelion joins Gwyn is forecasting the early disappearance of Quakerism in Britain, mainly from terminal post-colonial ennui. Charting the prospects for the Society in its homeland is beyond my expertise, but it can be said with confidence that for the US, Gwyn’s jibes miss their mark: liberal Quakerism in the US is far from on its way out.

Indeed, Gwyn’s diatribe clarified the thrust of the book, showing that this Handbasket thesis underlies much of its death-of-tragedy framework; and as a scholar named Eagleton who is cited in the Introduction rightly observed, a reactionary pose it is. This is confirmed by its subtheme of the (orthodox) gospel-as-tragedy, with liberal Quakerism robbing Quakerism of its meaning as the crudities of industrial-technical life emptied out the wider culture, as they likewise did in the tragic literature.

I don’t buy it. For one thing, although I’m not a literary scholar, it seems apparent to me that despite the ritual dirges, tragedy is not dead, at least in American literature. For instance, I only recently saw a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Death of a Salesman, and its tragic qualities seemed obvious and rich. For that matter, given our more recent history, some tragic writing has moved properly from fiction to non-fiction. Journalist David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, a classic account of how America’s policy elite sank into the bloody quicksand of the Vietnam War, is nothing if not tragedy of a very high order, the more affecting for being true.

One contributor here, Rachel Muers, who is also the only woman represented, is not buying the Handbasket refrain either. She points out that in the West the conventional view of tragedy was tied to a socially-constructed “metanarrative” which was “the right way of seeing the world. It claimed to explain everything, tell the story of everything . . . .And the metanarrative was told by white upper-class men and protected their interests . . . . It went under such names as objectivity, common sense, truth.” (114) (And, perhaps, tragedy?)

“Then,” she drily observes, “cracks appeared in the metanarrative. There was Marx . . . .There was feminism, and the claim that the interests and perspectives of half the human race were concealed by the metanarrative.” (114)

Not to mention those of the poor, nonwhites, etc. In other words, defining the processes of change in post-imperial British society as decline and decadence is not the last word, because to many persons and groups these changes also brought good news, an opening of locked doors and closets, chances to become visible and to speak for themselves. As Muers insists, despite all the mess, it is a situation in which many can find and sustain hope.

To be sure, the situation remains deeply in flux, and there are certainly nefarious factors at work – one thinks, for instance of militarism, a term that rarely comes up in the book. But Muers’ outlook presents a sharp and welcome contrast to the overall gloomy cast of the rest of the writers.

For my part, as suggested earlier, I don’t think tragedy is “dead,” either as a literary genre, a way of experiencing life, or a prospect for the Society of Friends. This book was useful in clarifying that conviction. Indeed, given the present momentum of several large forces in our current social order, we could well be presented with numerous opportunities, not just to read or observe, but to live out the tragic course of life. The only question is whether there would be any survivors left to write the sagas.

Postscript: The price of a book ought not to be relevant to a review, but it is: at $79.95 for 180 pages, one has to wonder what the authors had in mind when they went to such a high-ticket scholarly press to get it into print. Much more economical alternatives are now easily available. The best guess is, the title will look good on the academic vitae some may be accumulating. But there are downsides to this: few meeting libraries can afford it. Thus its readership will be minuscule; and hardly anyone beyond the most hardy reviewers will gain the benefit of the work that went into it. Which is too bad, because this is an interesting, if uneven collection.

*”Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope.” Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, Rachel Muers, Brian Phillips, & Richard Sturm. Burlington VT: Ashgate, 184 pages.

Leave a comment