Meacham: Obama, Faulkner, and the Uses of Tragedy

Speeches have a terrible time with middle age. In the moment, a powerful address can move a crowd or a wider audience. In the long run, too, oratory often offers insight into the mind and motives of those who came before us. Most major addresses by public figures, however, are doomed to obscurity once their immediate impact has faded and before they are rediscovered by posterity—if they ever are. President Obama's Nobel acceptance speech may suffer the same fate, but I doubt it. The remarks he delivered in Oslo did what memorable speeches do to achieve memorability: they were consistent with, and codified, the longtime language and vision of the speaker. We remember "with malice toward none" and "we have nothing to fear" and "tear down this wall" because the words embodied the essential Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan, respectively. Obama's Nobel speech cannot be summed up in a similarly pithy quotation. Taken all in all, though, it is likely to endure because it is the testament of a man whose tragic view of the world is deeply and authentically held. Obama may well become the first president since Lincoln to lead the nation in a running meditation on the ways and means of fate.

Tragedy has been thought of in different ways at different times. In its purest sense, "tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear," said Aristotle. "Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments." For classic tragedians, the death of a farmer in his bed is sad; the death of a king in his palace or of a general in battle is tragic. Aristotle was defining a particular thing in a particular context—he was writing in his Poetics, and was thus concerned with tragedy as a literary and dramatic form. Anthony Trollope once argued that tragedy was embodied in a blind giant, a creature haunted by the memory of his former power. In the 1930s, Reinhold Niebuhr said, "The history of mankind is a perennial tragedy; for the highest ideals which the individual may project are ideals which he can never realize in social and collective terms."

It is this last insight that informs Obama's thinking: tragedy as the acceptance of the fact that the world will never fully conform to our wishes, and that even the noblest human efforts will fall short of our highest aspirations. "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes," Obama said in Oslo. "There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified … I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world … To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." Politicians tend not to speak this way. It is more fun to inspire than to warn.

Obama is no nihilist, however. Like others who see the world as it is but choose the slow work of trying to make things better than they were before, he believes the fight worth fighting. Listening to the president in Oslo, I thought of another Nobel speech in another field from another era: William Faulkner's remarks on accepting the prize in literature in December 1950. It is worth quoting at some length. After noting that the great question of the nuclear age was "When will I be blown up?" Faulkner said: "I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail." That, like Obama's, is a tragic vision to believe in.