If literature has nothing to say to tragedy, then what good is it?
This question arose in my American Lit Survey class today during a discussion of a section of Art Spiegelman's Maus and some poems responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The fact that the Norton Anthology, like so many others, divides American literature into eras based on wars suggests that literature does have something to say in response to tragedy. Sometimes what literature says to tragedy is that there's really nothing that can be said, no gesture sufficient to respond to the enormity of the situation. D. Nurske's poem "The Reunification Center," for instance, catalogs the unusual offerings distraught survivors pressed on those working through the chaos following the collapse of the towers: "we offered aspirin, / stock certificates, a child's rocking horse, / a teddy bear with an empty eye socket, / but no one consented to receive that treasure."
I don't have any eyeless teddy bears to offer my colleague whose husband died unexpectedly yesterday morning. Everyone who heard the news was stunned speechless, unable to comprehend that a person we just saw last week walking hand-in-hand with his wife has suddenly left us without warning. People keep pointing out what a genuinely nice person he was, as if nice people ought to be immune from death, and we wonder what we ought to do for our colleague. Of course there will be the common gestures, but cards and flowers seem inadequate to the shock.
What would I want if I suffered such a loss the week before finals? I would want someone to bring the loved one back to life, but resurrection is beyond the power of poets and professors alike. I would want someone to take care of my classes, my advisees, my meetings and grading and assessment reports, but my grieving colleague's close-knit department will manage that. What can the rest of us do?
And if we can't do anything, then what are we good for?