Monday, January 26, 2015

Beautiful Tragedies

After any shocking murder or accident gets publicized, two things reliably happen. First, it gets called a “tragedy” by college administrators, horrified Facebookers, and newspaper columnists. Then the ire of the elite is raised, and it gets asserted that no, everyone’s wrong; a tragedy isn’t just any disaster, it’s a disaster with X, Y, and Z characteristics.

The first group might be silly, but the second is silly and also wrong. True, the ancient Greeks didn’t use their word tragôidia to describe events like Eric Garner’s death or the Charlie Hebdo massacre. They also, for that matter, didn’t use the word tree to describe a photosynthesizing stalk—they called that a dendron. And since we don’t stick to Greek usage in the second case, why in the world should we feel obligated in the first? If we all obeyed the pedants, ἔτι ἂν καὶ νῦν ἕλληνιστὶ ἀλόγως ἐλαλήσαμεν.

But besides their bizarre criticism of ordinary English usage, the anti-tragedy crowd has a deeper flaw: more often than not, they themselves don’t know what the “true tragedy” is that they are trying to defend against the vulgar throng. Take, for instance, Tom Koch’s article today in the New York Times, which criticizes the common tendency to call it a tragedy when, say, “drunken high school students … drive off the road.” Here are Koch’s grounds:
But if everything that is avoidable, stupid and simply untoward is tragic, then nothing really is — not if we insist on its description of a specific kind of human sorrow. In devaluing the word, we devalue what it is meant to express. We trivialize what we wish to make truly important.
Now, what does Koch think the word tragedy is “meant to express?” It’s unclear from the article, whose line of thought is hard to follow, but he seems to suggest what he thinks in this paragraph:
For an event to qualify as tragedy, its telling demands some kind of emotional catharsis, a resolution to the losses it details. This month’s Je Suis Charlie march in Paris qualifies. But more important, to be worthy of its name, tragedy must instruct.
So we have two criteria: a tragedy must be a) a story with a relieving resolution, and b) have morally sanitary effects. So the shooting itself was just awful, but since our society rose up in unison against it, proving it had learned something, then there was a tragedy.

But why choose these criteria? Why say programmatically that “tragedy must instruct”? By that standard, couldn’t I just as easily say that France’s permitting the cartoons to be printed was a tragedy? After all, the affair certainly came to a thudding, popularly celebrated conclusion, and it instructed thousands all over the world that the free West is bent on insulting Islam. In any case, Koch might have insisted that everyone in a tragedy speak in iambic trimeter—and he would have had more grounding from the ancients.

At the end, Koch gives up the pretense of his “qualifications” and tips his hand:
The tragedy lies not in the simple fact of [the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’] murder but in the decades of military encroachment and colonial expansion that helped to radicalize a religious sect. It lies, too, in our culture’s failure to integrate new members in an ethos that is inclusive and assures a political space for legitimate complaint.
I think I know the reason why Koch wrote this article. He wants to reserve the word tragedy’s strength as fodder against the phenomena that he thinks society needs to be more revulsed by. Attacks by Muslim extremists? That’s just mayhem, just like a high school senior dying on the road. But the Western colonialism that caused the attack? We should be able to call that tragic. That political preference is all that motivates Koch’s supposedly etymological point. It’s toxoplasmic propaganda in the clothing of philosophy.

But criticizing Koch and the pseudo-pedants isn’t why I sat down to write this post. I’m writing to describe what, if for whatever reason we decided to apply the Ancient Greek meaning of tragedy, the word would describe in our society.

A tragedy, from the Greek tragos, “he-goat”, and aoidia, “ode”, was just what its name suggests: a goat-song. What this originally meant to the Dorian Greeks is unclear, but it’s possible either that the singers wore goatskins as they performed, or that the best singer won a goat as a prize. Regardless, by the time the Athenians were putting on tragedies, the term had come to mean any song or play with a serious, grim theme—as opposed to a comedy, which was funny and lighthearted.

It was hotly disputed among the ancients what the purpose was of this terrible entertainment. Aristotle’s position was the most famous: we go to plays, he said, to purify ourselves from the fear and sadness displayed on stage. But I think that we’ve made a little too much of Aristotle’s fabled katharsis, which he really just posits as an afterthought. More important to Aristotle were the artistic elements of the tragedy, which he spends several pages discussing:
Since the [tragic] representation is performed by living persons, it follows at once that one essential part of a tragedy is the spectacular effect, and, besides that, song-making and diction. For these are the means of the representation. By “diction” I mean here the metrical arrangement of the words; and “song making” I use in the full, obvious sense of the word.
You might have noticed that very few people on Facebook call for us to restrict the word tragedy to events that are set to rhythm and music. But if Koch were really true to the ancient Greeks, he would have done just that. Tragedy is art, and nothing besides that. When we’re not on stage, we don’t speak in meter, and there’s no chorus to howl in Dionysian passion when something bad happens to us. Life just sucks, and only art can be beautifully tragic.

Many people miss this truth, partly because artistic tragedy is so seductive that it can lead us to seek in out in real life. And in truth, a tragedy is a wonderful, terrible thing, whether or not Aristotle was right about catharsis. Last November, I saw Don Giovanni—a tragedy disguised as a comedy—and was brought literally to the edge of my seat, capable of neither breathing nor clapping by the end. I have almost never been filled with so much simultaneous horror and longing. The events that happen on stage would be disgusting and mundane if they happened in real life—rape, murder, deceit, death by huge statue—but in Mozart’s musical language, the story seems to be spoken from the mouth of the gods. Even the brutish lackey speaks in recitative, and the songs—even the ones about sadistic torture and nihilist misogyny—are pure delight.

I think this delight led Nietzsche into saying this:
The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. ... Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction. (Twilight of the Idols, “What I Owe to the Ancients”)

Before I criticize Nietzsche, I want to say that this account of tragedy touches something solid. To borrow a metaphor from Julius Evola, Nietzsche wants to use tragedy to ride the tiger of suffering; to climb onto its back and use it as a source of joy, instead of submitting to it and being torn apart by its claws. Is this possible? Certainly; I’ve felt it myself. (While watching the end of Götterdämmerung, for instance. A fact I really wish I didn’t know is that Hitler likely listened to it before shooting himself.)

But in general I stand with the pessimists that Nietzsche criticizes here. Nietzsche was so enamored by the liberating spirit of Greek tragedy, that he seems to have forgotten the consequences of applying poetic principles to ordinary life. And it seems not just distasteful, but immoral to me to attempt to turn real human suffering into a source of happiness. Pain dominates most human and animal lives, and its grimness can’t be transformed or denied without insincerity or willful indifference. I refuse to make that denial. In the face of Auschwitz, Nietzsche’s embrace of life is much more grotesque and evil than even pessimist nihilism.

That’s why tragedy’s best feature is that it’s not real. In my view it takes its beauty from precisely the fact that it floats far above true human experience. Robert Jeffers has a relevant comment here:
Poetry is not a civilizer, rather the reverse, for great poetry appeals to the most primitive instincts. It is not necessarily a moralizer; it does not necessarily improve one’s character; it does not even teach good manners. It is a beautiful work of nature, like an eagle or a high sunrise. You owe it no duty. If you like it, listen to it; if not, let it alone. 
Lately I had occasion to read more attentively the Medea of Euripides, and, considering the reverence that cultivated people feel toward Greek tragedy, I was a little shocked by what I read. Tragedy has been regarded, ever since Aristotle, as a moral agent, a purifier of the mind and emotions. But the story of Medea is about a criminal adventurer and his gun-moll; it is no more moral than the story of “Frankie and Johnny”; only more ferocious. And so with the yet higher summits of Greek tragedy, the Agamemnon series and the Oedipus Rex; they all tell primitive horror-stories, and the conventional pious sentiments of the chorus are more than balanced by the bad temper and wickedness, or folly, of the principal characters. What makes them noble is the poetry; the poetry, and the beautiful shapes of the plays, and the extreme violence born of extreme passion. 
—Robert Jeffers, ‘Poetry and Survival,’ excerpted by Rush Rhees in Without Answers.
There is thus an important distinction between the suffering in tragedy and the suffering in real life. In ordinary life, evil is boring, banal, and icily cutting. I’m talking about children who die in freak accidents, men who mug ninety-year old women in the park, and Islamists who force children to blow themselves up in crowded places. In the theater, though, such horrible events are exquisitely beautiful. Mimì dies of tuberculosis while singing, Gretchen drowns her baby in Faust, Othello murders Desdemona; and our reaction in all these cases is to sigh in pain, overcome by the drama’s beauty. This is the wonderful effect of the brazen bull. Tragedy in art has no moral content: it is simply a spectacle of incredible passion. Catastrophe in life is infused with morality—with real evil—and unless we take a sordid pleasure in other people’s suffering, it’s just sickening. (Love is the only real human pain that’s beautiful in real life as well as on stage. But that’s for another post.)

Think how many plane crashes get
 oil-painted and hung in museums.
So the “true tragedies” of today don’t happen with real guns. They happen at the Metropolitan Opera, at the movies, and on Youtube. And the tragedy, in the Greek sense of the word, is one of the most mysterious, beautiful elements of our culture. Tragedy in the popular sense is the dullest and most oppressive.

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