13 Pages

WITNESSING Witnessing subjects: a fool’s help


In 1996 Augusto Boal took a seat in the legislature in Rio de Janeiro running under the curious platform, “The Courage to be Happy.” Happiness, for Boal, is both a personal and a social task that is always difficult and involves making things better: more generous, more ethical, more just, more alive. It also involves holding in tension what in every private or public relationship are contradictory dynamics: those that generate and nourish, those that violate and tear down. “What would happiness be,” asks Adorno, “that was not measured by the immeasurable grief at what is?” (cited in Cornell 1992: 17). This concept is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. Playwright David Hare writes about the challenge of trying to perform a tragic musical on Broadway. He says that much of America is plagued with a fantasy of wish-fulfillment where artists are asked to tell people that everything turns out well in the end, that no matter what is suffered, what is lost, “everything is all right really” (1991: 148). I am interested in the importance, even the ethics, of a courageous, tough kind of happiness that is based not in avoidance, but in contact with others and oneself. Is there a relationship between happiness, suffering, and the capacity to bear witness, to be present to both the losses and the capabilities of others? This chapter looks at possibilities for witnessing generated by Boal’s work in the context of the pragmatic ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and asks what the notion of a courageous happiness might bring to the ethics of witnessing a tragic world.