March 7, 2012KR BlogEnthusiamsEthicsReadingWriting

Notes on Capital-T Tragedy

1. Why it started with the Greeks and showed up again with the Elizabethans.

What makes a tragedy tragic—as opposed to a story with a sad ending—is that the sufferer is nobler than the inexorable, stronger Force (Fate or the Gods) that inflict his suffering. The outlook that elevates the human being even in his downfall is the tragic outlook. This is why tragedy originated among the Greeks. It is of a piece with their plastic art and its fixation on the human form, and, specifically, human musculature. Those defined bodies—in what contemporaneous art do you see the human form portrayed like that?—are a human being’s “inner self” becoming visible. The Greek soul is not attributeless and amorphous as in Hinduism, nor an abstract “light” as in the Semitic religions. The Greek soul is, in a sense, the Greek body, the human body.

You find this fixation on human anatomy and musculature reappearing at the same time you next find tragedy: The Renaissance. It is no coincidence that the anatomist Andreas Vesalius died in the same year the tragedian William Shakespeare was born. The 17th century tragedies of Shakespeare return to this notion of the superior nobility of the human being. The tragic hero is nobler, even when in rags and madly raging on the heath, than “the Gods,” who “kill us for their sport.” We are as flies to the Gods; the Gods are mere boys, cruel, devoid of empathy.

The commonly noted characteristic of the tragic hero, his royalty or high position, relates to this sense of the sufferer’s nobility. The social position of the tragic hero in relation to other men parallels his spiritual position in relation to the Gods. This, too, explains why tragic heroes speak poetry (“elevated speech”).


2. Why Biblical religion didn’t produce tragedies.

The Book of Job represents an attempted entry of the tragic into a religious tradition that will not tolerate it. That is why Job is aggressively humbled by one of the longest divine tirades in the Bible. God senses that Job’s suffering is making him a tragic figure—that is, noble in spite of divine affliction—and harangues tragedy out of the Old Testament. Milton’s Samson Agonistes would have been a true tragedy—if only he hadn’t pulled the temple down around him.

The Crucifixion is another attempted entry of the tragic. Christ the man is nobler than those who crucify him. But his tragic character is again undermined: His nobility comes from his unrecognized status as the Son of God. It is God on the cross. As soon as this substitution takes place, and the sufferer is seen as divine instead of totally human—as soon as the suffering is given a higher meaning—we experience something else, which, though immensely affecting, is not the tragic effect.

This is because the (non-Greek) religious temperament, whether Indian or Semitic, insists on God’s infallible rightness and justice. The tragic world-view, by contrast, is humanistic and admits a degree of nastiness in the greater-than-man. God/The Gods/Fate can be unjust and petty and cruel; Prometheus and Lear, though grotesquely broken, remain the noble ones.


3. Indian religion and the potential for tragedy.

In all of Hinduism, I can identify only one potentially tragic character: Rama’s wife, Sita. She follows her husband into exile even though she doesn’t have to; she is abducted by the Lankan king, Ravana; Rama goes to war and saves her from her captivity. When she is brought back to Ayodhya, public gossip about Sita’s conduct in Lanka makes Rama abandon her, while she is pregnant with twins, in the wilderness. She survives in an ashram and raises his twins. Later, after Rama’s own twins sing his own story to him at a festival, she is invited back to Ayodhya. There Rama asks her, in public, to undergo a trial-by-fire of her purity. She proves herself, but she is so hurt by his demand that she vanishes into the earth, a form of suicide. The Hindu tradition has tried to undermine the tragic nature of this situation—with Sita being, in her suffering, nobler than an avatar of Vishnu—in three ways: emphasizing her wifely obedience, apologizing for Rama (insisting he exiled her against his will, for reasons of state), and ignoring the episode entirely. (Occasional scholarly insistences that this later part of the Ramayana is a spurious addition or interpolation assist in that.) A Hindu tragedy is possible; but it would have to be a tragedy with the aging Sita as tragic heroine; and Hindus themselves might not want to see it.


4. The tragic artistry of historical events.

The secular West may be uniquely receptive to a rebirth of tragedy. Like the Greeks, we are increasingly obsessed with human musculature and athletics; this is a sign of the exaltation of the human, a prerequisite for tragedy. There is a decline of traditional, God-exalting religion among educated, urban populations (cities are usually where religions die and take birth; the countryside, which originally put the “heath” in “heathen,” is the last to lose an old religion and the last to convert to a new one).

It is this increasing receptivity to the tragic, in my opinion, that has aided our preservation of the Shoah. This preservation was by no means an instantaneous response; Wiesel’s Night had immense trouble finding a publisher in the United States. The intense cultural force of these events intensified over time. History itself took on the extreme, unjust character of acts in a tragic drama. The persecution between 1933 and 1945 even took on a five-act structure: Progressive social isolation, systematic legal exclusion, forced immigration, mass deportation, mass extermination. The Jews of Europe strike us as infinitely nobler and infinitely more human than those who persecuted them. Their physical degradation evokes, not just pity, but specifically tragic pity—because, unlike Christ’s, theirs was immense suffering without redemption, without higher meaning, and without resurrection on the third day.  The persecutors were human, but over time, Nazi camp commandants and bureaucrats of mass murder have taken on, in our novels and films, the characteristics of Fate in the Greek tragedies or “the Gods” in King Lear: Though all-powerful, they are baser than those they make suffer; they are inscrutable; “they kill us for their sport.” That this tragedy did not originate in a body of myth but was itself lived history is a horror that surpasses Aeschylus.