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The soothing touch of tragedy

Eben Harrell

In modern usage, the word “tragedy” has become devalued. It has come to mean “awful,” or “terrible,” or even “slightly sad.” In a recent public meeting, a Pitkin County Commissioner declared it a “tragedy” that there’s not enough money to repave Colorado’s roads.

Literary critics have begun to wonder whether tragedy is a dead art form. Western civilization entered the last century with a feeling of buoyant optimism and progress. We leave behind a period littered with conflict, destruction, and unparalleled barbarism.

For many literary critics, tragedy was just another of the countless causalities of the last century. To speak of an individual’s importance has become embarrassingly old-fashioned. Playwrights, long the guardians of the tragic form, now refuse man the honor of a tragic nobility, placing him instead as a desperate creature stuck in a theater of the absurd. Choruses have become mobs; kings, tyrants. The days of the tragic hero crossing the sword of his will against the sword of destiny are surely over.

This is dangerous. Robbing man of his tragic nobility traps him in a spiritual wasteland where hope, redemption, or purgation will never be delivered. It leads to a despairing brand of nihilism, the nihilism of men sitting around waiting for deliverance, waiting for Godot.

I want to argue here that tragedy is not dead. The tragedian’s impulse continues to flourish. A few years ago, Witold Lutislowski’s cello concerto was performed as part of the Aspen Music Festival. Lutislowski is a Polish composer, a man who lived through both Nazi and Soviet occupation. The piece sets the cello against the orchestra in a struggle between the single and the collective. It is a searing plea by a doomed, individual voice against authority. How can we possibly say the concerto is not a tragedy when “Antigone,” a play with an identical theme, represents the form’s highest achievement?

I think we need a more generous understanding of tragedy. Those who proclaim tragedy dead aren’t looking in the right places. They search Broadway’s playbills for five-act dramas or productions with Greek choruses, come up empty-handed, and so declare the genre dead.

In doing so, they are falling victim to what the critic Robert Corrigan calls “the formalistic fallacy” of tragedy, the tendency to describe, define and judge tragedy in terms of certain formal or structural characteristics (whatever those may be) that we claim must pertain to all tragedies, as if we can relate “Othello” to “Oedipus,” or “Moby Dick” to “Macbeth,” in terms of their specific form.

This is ludicrous. A productive discussion of tragedy must abandon all talk of a universal tragic form ” there simply isn’t one ” so as to identify other similarities among tragedies. It must discuss poetry as well as prose, Verdi as easily as verse. Only then will we begin to see why tragedy is still important, more important even than religion or politics, in helping us live our lives.

A good starting point is to identify a distinction between “tragedy” and “the tragic.”

“The tragic” can be understood as a certain feeling, a certain way of looking at the universe that has persisted more or less unchanged in the Western world since the birth of tragedy. “Tragedy,” on the other hand, is the diverse and constantly changing dramatic form that attempts to communicate and ultimately reconcile the tragic.

We find “tragedy” in the realm of aesthetics; “the tragic” in the realm of existence. One is art, the other life. “Tragedy” is form; “the tragic” content. The “tragic” is universal ” it is the one similarity between all tragedians. “Tragedy,” on the other hand, is deeply personal. It is the particular artistic form the tragedian uses to express and reconcile “the tragic.”

Before we can move on then, we should first have a better understanding of what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he spoke of “a tragic sense of life.” The tragic sense of life contends with life’s most fretful elements. It is at bottom an overwhelming sense of defeat, a sad acknowledgment that despite our greatest efforts, our most extravagant hopes, we are always doomed to failure. When we are born, the only certainty is that of death. Life, whose only desire is to go on living, is always ultimately defeated. The universe is cruel and random, always moving toward entropy. Everything in the natural world is destined to end; “everything in nature is tragic in its fate.”

Photographer John Haynes provides a useful visual aid for our discussion of “the tragic” in a photograph presented in Taking the Stage, an exhibit at The National Theatre, London. In it, we see an old man, a tattered coat upon him, bound in rags, struggling up the sheer wall of what looks to be a deep trench. Shovel in one hand, grasping the top with the other, the man struggles up the craggy terrain. His position is perilous (his right foot seems to be slipping), but he nonetheless climbs in expectation of reaching the top, keeping his concentration by setting his vision firmly below ” he will not look up at his destination until he arrives. What waits for him at the top ” what, by implication, waits for us all as we struggle through life ” is a neat, rectangular patch of Bible-black abyss. Thus we have a profoundly “tragic” portrait ” the solitary traveler on his sad and lonely way to the grave.

Along with avoiding the confusion of “tragedy” with “the tragic,” we must also avoid defining hamartia ” that which triggers tragedy ” as a “tragic flaw.” This standard definition is misleading; the tragic is far too random to be engendered by a character flaw. Indeed, the opposite is usually the case.

The term hamartia, after all, taken from the practice of archery, literally means “missing the mark,” trying with all one’s knowledge and learning but still veering off target. Indeed, the tragic usually occurs when a character does everything he knows to be right, but still “misses the mark.” It occurs in much the same fashion as when Joseph K, without having done anything wrong, is arrested one fine morning; or more specifically when Ahab, having lived by all the proper laws of seamanship, can one day lose his leg to the whale; or when Willy Loman, having desired only to root his children in the heart of the American dream, finds himself alone and disillusioned.

The tragic flaw, if there is such a thing, should be understood not as a weakness but as a strength suddenly inverted into weakness, those times of chaos when the measure of our success becomes the root of all failure. We should redefine hamartia in terms of one of Eliot’s “Dry Salvages,”

a bare rock that

in navigable weather is always a seamark

To lay a course by: but in the somber season

Or the sudden fury, is what it always was …

When life changes unexpectedly, when the “sudden fury” of the tragic sets upon us, it can be the very thing that gives us direction, the mark by which we direct our lives that becomes “what it always was” ” the bare rock waiting to sink our titanic expectations.

Thus the “tragic” comes to us in times of “catastrophe” ” literally, a shift in direction, an overturn of order ” when our world comes unglued, when things no longer make sense or line up coherently. What happens when we face the tragic is really a failure of maps; in the tragic situation, man finds himself without warning in unrecognizable territory, struggling to navigate a terra incognita.

When this happened to all of Europe in 1914, we came to call it “no man’s land” (and here again John Haynes’ photograph is helpful, depicting the moment when man clamors, half-unknowingly, “over the top”).

But what is so frightening about “no man’s land” is precisely that all men and women visit there sometime in life, even if we are destined to end there in death. “No man’s land” exists at the moment the doctor enters the room with a chart; the moment when the tires hit ice; when the phone rings late at night.

Usually, these moments are thankfully brief, and purgation comes fast (“Oh thank heavens, doctor, it is benign”), but the insight is always blinding, and vestiges linger, burning an image of our own futility that we can never quite escape. Of all the ways used to describe these fleeting brushes with the tragic, the expression “my life passed before my eyes,” which implies life’s contraction into grains of sand, into a nanosecond of eternal time and importance, seems most overused and most apt.

It is the tragedian who calls us back into no man’s land, who implores us even in the face of defeat, “Once more unto the breech, dear friends.” Thus in literature conditions are set, relief usually delayed, and suffering prolonged so that these normally brief times in “no man’s land” become what Karl Jasper calls “boundary situations,” man held at the limits of his sovereignty, left for us to observe and contemplate: Job on the ash heap, Prometheus on his solitary crag, Lear on the heath, Willy Loman “out there in the blue, riding a smile and a shoeshine.”

In these boundary situations, man’s protective covering ” society, language, clothing ” is stripped off. The tragic character is left symbolically naked, exposed as nothing more than “a forked animal.” Alone and naked, he is left to summon the godhead, to ask of the lonely universe the question Lear went mad in an attempt to answer: “Is man no more than this?”

Another way to ask the tragic question, and one that Shakespeare asked of Lear, would be “What can we find in life ” even the tragic life ” that makes it redeemable”? It is to ask, as Norman Maclean does of the Mann Gulch catastrophe, “Did any good, any good at all, come of this?”

The answer for most tragedians must always be “yes.” For if, as Kierkegaard wrote,

There were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscene passions produces everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all ” what then would life be but despair?

It is the self-appointed job of the tragedian to find that which saves life from total despair. In order to do this honestly, he must face life at its starkest, pushing it out to Jasper’s boundary situations, venturing into the “bottomless void” that lies hidden beneath all. Only in that void, in the face of all that is writhing and seething, can life honestly be redeemed.

For some the task is too great, and the project fails; and so the absurdist playwright Arthur Adamov can say, “The refusal to live and the joyful acceptance of life both lead, by the same path, to inevitable failure, total defeat,” and decide to end his life shortly thereafter.

But for others the task is a call to arms, a project for a lifelong struggle to answer Hamlet’s most famous question in the affirmative. It is to show that the softness that makes us frail makes us tender; that a crown of thorns can be a sign of royalty, tragedy a celebration of disaster.

To write tragedy is to peer into the abyss and examine the starkest and darkest of the universe in order to prove it contains more than chaos and defeat. This is what Milton meant when he set out to justify the ways of God to man. It is what Shakespeare indicates when he beseeches great men to address the “poor naked wretches of the world,” and with compassion “show the heavens more just.” And it is what Norman Maclean meant when he declared that “one of the chief privileges of man is to speak up for the universe.”

The tragedians are the artists who, like William Faulkner, “refuse to accept the end of man.” This is not to say that characters need to be saved at the end of tragedy ” only that life itself needs affirmation. The vision of tragedy is eminently organic ” ripeness is all. The grape may fall, but the vine holds strong.

Tragedies are works of art that present a certain feeling, a certain mood, a certain mode of understanding. They present it, and they attempt to overcome it. Purgation ” the cleansing of the tragic ” is the most defining element of tragedies. Although we may never quite recover stability after acknowledging the tragic sense of things, still we celebrate tragedies for the slight touch of serenity they offer at their end.

This feeling is the slight sigh, or silent sob, you let out at the end of a book, film or play. And although there is no Greek chorus to greet you at its end, these works of art are still tragedies in the only sense that matters.

These are dark times we live in. In the distance, many hear Gabriel’s horn. We look around at a world in disarray, at skies darkened, soils poisoned, people teeming with hatred, we look at our own lives ” short, fragile, destined to end ” and we need a little help. Politicians try to manipulate this need; religion tries to distract us from it.

But it is only the tragedian, the artist, who takes the burden on his shoulders and carries us to salvation.

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com.

When life changes unexpectedly, when the “sudden fury” of the tragic sets upon us, it can be the very thing that gives us direction.

To write tragedy is to peer into the abyss and examine the starkest and darkest of the universe in order to prove it contains more than chaos and defeat.


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