Noah Feldman


On his book The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

Cover Interview of May 26, 2020


As I was preparing the book for publication, in the spring of 2019, two sets of events occurred that seemed very much like afterimages of the Arab spring. First in Algeria and then in Sudan, large crowds gathered to protest unfree elections that promised to keep in place two old, long-standing dictators, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir. Both leaders resisted for a time, but the protests persisted. Soon enough Bouteflika resigned, and Bashir was removed by the Sudanese military. The people, it seemed, had gotten what they wanted—at least in the moment.

What do these belated mini-Arab springs mean, taking place as they are in the depths of the Arab winter? One lesson is that the original Arab spring protests still possess resonance and the power of example—notwithstanding the tragic consequences that followed in most of the places where they occurred. A second lesson is that genuine, optimistic political action to change government remains possible in the Arabic-speaking world, even in the face of the experience of tragic failure.

The third lesson is more sober: the 2019 protests carry ennobling political meaning even if they ultimately fail to produce significant improvements in the lives of the peoples of Algeria and Sudan—as seems possible and even probable.

What I am really asking is, What comes after tragedy? Aristotle’s catharsis is thought to be a purging or a purgation—an inner experience that transcends the emotions of terror and pity and turns them into something cleansing. Tragedy functions as a shaper of the viewer’s internal cognitive and emotional state.

But the Arabic reception of Aristotle’s conception of tragedy is, famously, different. Ibn Rushd, the great medieval commentator on Aristotle, interpreted tragedy and comedy through the filter of the very different Arabic literary genres of blame and praise poetry, in which the poet faults or idealizes an enemy or a patron. This reading—or perhaps misprision—is explored by Jorge Luis Borges in his poignant and beautiful orientalist story, “La busca de Averroes” (“Averroes’s Search”).

As Ibn Rushd has it, tragic catharsis “makes souls become tender and prompts them to accept the virtues.” This version of catharsis starts inwardly, with the preparation of the soul taking place through the experience of observing tragedy. But it moves outward, to the embrace of character virtues that can then be expressed through actual human action.

In this way, the catharsis of the Arabic Aristotle invokes a different, competing strand of Aristotelian thought—a strand that sees not reflection but the doing of politics as the highest form of human flourishing. The point of tragedy, in this vision, is to offer inspiration for the exercise of virtue, including political virtue. Tragedy can thus be made to have a practical, forward-looking purpose. It can lead us to do better.

There is no handbook for successful self-determination. No single political or constitutional solution will fit every polity.

Yet tragedy seen through the lens of the Arabic Aristotelian tradition may nonetheless guide us toward political virtue, by its capacity to help us do better in the future. Bleak as circumstances are now for Arab politics, there will be changes. New possibilities will eventually emerge. The current winter may last a generation or more. But after the winter—and from its depths—always comes another spring.