Tragedy with a Happy Ending ... is already here

“Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending.”

I like that funny quip, but I am surprised when I hear that some people really believe it.

What the little joke really means is: Americans, being new and young, don’t understand culture, in comparison with other cultures, mainly Europeans. Europeans know what tragedy is. They’ve been doing tragedy for two thousand years. It’s established, you can’t change it, it is what it is and anyone who does things differently doesn’t get it. What the funny saying is saying is that the Europeans have the right of definition when it comes to culture.

I heard the saying recently in a podcast of an excellent podium discussion on American history at Stanford featuring Jack Rakove and Gordon Wood (yes, I’m a fan). It was a toss-off statement, Americans making fun of their own supposed lack of culture. But it surprised me that they took it seriously: They were talking about writing books for a broad public and they accepted the adage that Americans are too naïve (that word was used) in their world view to accept anything but the positive: If you write about tragedies in history, you won’t find a public in America.

It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and it completely disregards the greatest cultural achievement of American culture: the art of ambivalence.

It’s true, we like “tragedies with a happy ending.” Not because we don’t understand culture, but because it’s a conundrum that accurately reflects the world we live in. It is a world filled at the same time with tragedy and privilege. Though the tragedy hurts, the privilege far outweighs it. People in America (and in the Western World in general) live far better than they ever have. Horrible things still happen, but if you compare them with the horrible things that happened regularly in the past, they are now less horrible and less frequent.

The American love for this conundrum – that both the good and the bad coexist – is not tragedy, it’s not comedy, it’s not something that Aristotle invented two thousand years ago and that Europeans still slavishly adhere to – it’s new. It’s ambivalence.

The best examples come of course from pop culture – America’s greatest and most influential contribution to world culture. My favorite is Bruce Springsteen’s song Born in the USA. I was in Germany when it came out and Germans hated it – for them it was a typical example of flag-waving, ignorant American patriotism. They really complained about it. Of course, that’s what Europeans do anyway, complain about America, and they welcome any new opportunity to do it. And of course none of them listened to the lyrics.
Born in the USA was a highly political, critical and deeply tragic look at our country – written so you could dance to it. That’s ambivalence. That’s good times and bad times at the same time, that’s feel-good and feel-bad at the same time, it’s the tragedy with the happy ending. You could dance to it with tears in your eyes, smiling.

This ambivalence is a great component of American pop culture. You can see it everywhere, especially in TV shows today: 24 and Law and Order are all about the ambivalence of the rule of law, Breaking Bad, Weeds, The Shield are about the ambivalence of morality. You can go on and on: It’s a powerful and highly intelligent cultural revolution that continental Europe, stuck in patterns established two thousand years ago, doesn’t understand and it missing out on. (The exception is England – we inherited the tradition from them, like so many cultural traditions.)

Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending? I say: more power to them.


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