Section 5: The Death of Tragedy:
Tragedy has had a long history and has always been, and indeed continues to be, of great cultural significance. Who has not heard of Shakespeare? Even my own mother, who left school when she was 15 in 1932 had studied Julius Caesar (not ranked as a tragedy but as a history play, I hasten to add) among other plays of the Bard of Avon. I studied Richard II for my Intermediate Certificate, Hamlet for my Leaving and Macbeth, King Lear and Othello later at college, all tragedies written between 1601 and 1608. Then we also studied Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello which could all be considered love tragedies. At times I was lucky enough to attend performances of some of these tragedies as well as reading them all for my literature courses. I really loved those plays, the Elizabethan language, the beautiful words, the iambic pentameter - a line made up of five pairs of short/long, or unstressed/stressed, syllables. But the greatest thrill, of course, was and still is, the effect that language has on the emotions of the hearer/viewer – how the language carries the very tragedy in it as well as do the actions on the stage.
Then, of course, our teachers and lecturers defined tragedy for us in the classical sense. At school they told us of the Greek origins;but mostly they confined themselves to Shakespearean tragedy alone. What were we told about the nature of tragedy at school? Well, I remember one erudite teacher speaking of the development of drama/tragedy from religious celebrations in Ancient Greece and later in the medieval mystery, morality and miracle plays. We were never informed of the fact that the classical Greek and Roman tragedy was largely forgotten in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the beginning of 16th century, that is, at the time when these latter plays were being performed. Probably our teachers did not know these facts. Not much was said outside this fact of its provenance. We only learned of the Ancient Greek tragedians like Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus in college some years later.
Other facts that we learned about the nature of tragedy were (i) that it involved a great person of serious character or dignity who experiences a reversal in fortune – a fall from grace as it were, (ii) that this tragic hero possessed a tragic flaw or character flaw which led to this inevitable fall and that we, as readers or audience could experience what our teacher, Mr. Bartholomew Doyle, M.A. called “catharsis” or a an emotional cleaning or purging. In this regard we were healed through our experience of these emotions – in response, of course, to the suffering of the characters in the drama. Now, all of this above, is straight from the classical text of Aristotle called the Poetics. From recent reading I have found out that Aristotle did not mean innate or intrinsic “flaws” in the hero but rather a “mistake” (or “mistakes”: the Greek word “hamartia” means mistake not “flaw”) made by the main character.
Gray begins this section with a discussion of Hegel’s notion of what tragedy is. I recall from long ago Hegel’s dialectical approach both to history and epistemology by way of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis. He was to apply this somewhat restricting formula to his theory of tragedy. Hegel saw tragedy as the collision or conflict of right with right. There are weighty arguments or deep and bitter feelings of right on either of the two sides in the drama. But, here again, Gray rightly points out that morality has absolutely nothing to do with tragedy.
Gray on Tragedy:
Tragedy is born of myth, not of morality. It had its birth with the ancient Greek gods – on Mount Olympus. The likes of Icarus and Prometheus are tragic heroes – the first who flew too close to the sun, thereby perishing, and the second a Titan, known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it us mortals for our use. Both were punished for their mistakes (harmartia)
Tragedy has nothing to do with morality. It has much more to do with mortality – again my conclusion and words, not Gray’s. He says that it has more to do with “fatalism” and the “fates” rather than morality. I guess we are saying the same thing in different ways here. For the likes of Homer and Euripides and for all the other Greek tragedians he argues that
tragedy came from the encounter of the human will with fate. Socrates destroyed that archaic view of things. Reason enabled us to avoid disaster, or else it showed that disaster does not matter. This is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote that Socrates caused the ‘death of tragedy.’ (Ibid., 98)
I owe Gray a lot here because he has allowed me to bring my philosophical and literary studies together in a beautiful unity through Nietzsche’s angle on tragedy. Gray continues, and I am carried along with the flow of his sweeping and poetic prose – if that isn’t a contradiction? :
The pith of tragedy is not the collision of right with right. There is tragedy when humans refuse to circumstances that neither courage nor intelligence can remedy. Tragedy befalls those who have wagered against the odds. (ibid., 99)
Christianity does not, Gray argues and I am wont to agree with him, offer any tragic interpretation of life’s events, that is, its sufferings, quite simply because it offers the ultimate or final carrot of afterlife – Heaven and Hell and even Purgatory for those who hold with the three dogmas. Hence, for Christians life is not a tragedy – rather it is a “divine comedy” as Dante put it, as there is after all an afterlife in which all tears will be wiped away. Nor indeed, if I may flesh out Gray’s words more, is there a sense of the tragic in the Humanist creed because, after all, they look forward to infinite or continued linear progress where more and more will have the chance of a happy life. In the mean time what are we poor human animals to do? Quite simply, Gray argues, that we must learn, believe it or not, to thrive in our own misfortune by going to such tragedies which will help us to purge our emotions. In this way we will be “ennobled by extremes of suffering.”
Gray continues this section by giving an account of a Russian author who spent many long years in the gulags in Russia under different regimes. The author he quotes is Varlam Shalamov of whom I have never heard before. Information about this man’s life is immaterial because the point the great man made was that in such places like gulags morality does indeed cease to exist. The concentration camp survivors of the Nazi empire of evil teach us as much.
So what are we to glean from this rather depressing section? Well, I suppose the implications are that we are mere human animals who are fated to die because that is the way we are hardwired in our very genes. The fact that we dream up illusions and myths, which are at the very heart of all cultures, is a marvellous creative activity and possibly, or even probably, a good one insofar as they help us not to grow too depressed at our inevitable destiny. Let me finish we a few sobering words from Gray:
At its worst human life is not tragic but unmeaning. The soul is broken, but life lingers on. As the will fails, the mask of tragedy falls aside. What remains is only suffering…. We are wise to hold to a semblance of tragedy; the truth unveiled would only blind us. (Ibid., 101)
The above is indeed very bleak, but most definitely true. Such thoughts are a diet for the mentally fit and sound; for those who have made a deeper journey. However, many of us need much more even than the semblance of tragedy. There are many of us who need, yes deeply need, the semblances also of all the different religions in their many colourful masks and even the semblances of the many humanisms from agnostic to atheistic forms of the same. It is, in short, a question, in the final analysis of how much suffering the human spirit can take. How far can a creature go before he or she or it (I’m referring here to our animal brothers and sisters) break under the strain of the indifference of the universe to our so brief existence?
Once again I ahve uploaded a picture I took in The Burren, Co. Clare, in June 2008. The persistence of life is for me encountered by the strength and endurance of these plants which push up through the limestone ground of West Clare.