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Monday, November 7, 2011

The Tragic v. The Merely Sad

I have some work to do in distinguishing tragedy and a tragic outlook from other outlooks and assessments with which it might be conflated. I will have to say, at some point, what the difference is between a tragic outlook and an apocalyptic outlook, or between a tragic outlook and pessimism or fatalism, or between a tragedy and a calamity or catastrophe.

As a start, and in the spirit of going back to my own archives, I'd like to state explicitly my intention to reserve the terms 'tragic' and 'tragedy' to a much narrower range of uses than is common these days.

This is actually a pet peeve of mine, the way the terms 'tragedy' and 'miracle' are widely overused and misused. I wrote about this back in 2005, in another (currently inactive) blog:

In the most precise sense, a miracle is an event so extraordinary as to actually violate a law of nature. If a large building were to levitate in the air before a crowd of reliable and otherwise sane witnesses, that would be a miracle. As a skeptic, I would want to know a lot about those witnesses: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and all that. But I still respect the word, and want to reserve it for its original use.

But now, anytime anyone anywhere has some unexpected good fortune, walks away from a bad accident, wins the lottery, is cured by some new innovation in modern medicine, is conceived by natural or contrived means (hence "the miracle of life"), sees the face of Jesus on a piece of toast, rescues Fluffy from a burning house, or generally has something happen to them that makes them happy, it's called "a miracle" on the evening news. A miracle is supposed to be something literally impossible, but it's been gradually reduced to something improbable, unlikely, or just really weird.

In the most precise sense, a tragedy is the relentless working out of fate, where hubris meets nemesis, and where the tragic hero is unaware of what is happening until the trap has finally closed. (The obliviousness of the tragic hero is what is properly called "irony"). This is tragedy in the Greek sense of the term. I don't know that I believe in "fate", and I certainly don't believe in the Greek gods, but I can respect the idea that past actions can have current consequences, and that some of them may be deserved. Since I respect the idea, I respect the word and want to reserve it for its original use.

But now, anytime anyone anywhere has some unexpected bad fortune, is killed or injured in a bad accident, loses the winning lottery ticket, is not cured in spite of innovations in modern medicine, fails to rescue Fluffy from a burning house, or generally has something happen to them that makes them unhappy, it's called "a tragedy" on the evening news. A tragedy is supposed to be momentous and ironic, but it has been gradually reduced to anything that is in any way sad, from the truly horrific to the truly banal.
In the original post, I worry that this represents a deadening or a flattening of language, akin to or suggestive of Orwellian Newspeak: through overuse, the term 'tragic' is diluted to the point it means little more than 'double-plus-ungood'.

There is some hyperbole in this way of putting it, of course, but I do still worry about an impoverishment of our language and of our moral imagination if we are not able to think and speak of tragedy in its narrower sense. Consider, from that same post:
On and just after September 11, 2001, it occurred to me that news coverage of the attacks suffered from the impoverishment of language. Again and again we were told that we were witnessing a "tragedy", but the word just floated out there, serving to reduce the horror of that day to the scale of every other slightly sad or plus-ungood event that had been packaged and sold as "tragedy" by the 24-hour news marathon over the preceding decades - right down to the death of Fluffy.

Surely, I thought, the events of September 11 were horrific, horrible, terrible; the attacks themselves were heinous crimes, perhaps even unspeakable (literally!) outrages against our common humanity. They were, I thought at the time, the result of a catastrophic failure of imagination (about which more in another posting). But were they "tragic" in the full-blooded sense of the term?

I suspected then, and I still suspect, that the journalists, quasi-journalists, commentators and other assorted natterers reached for the words "tragedy" and "tragic" because they had no other words to express how horribly, horribly sad and outrageous the whole thing was. They had to fill air time with something, and the conventions of the business dictate that the term for something really, really sad is "tragedy" - a word to be uttered with a somber tone and with a bunching together of the eyebrows.

The irony, of course, is that this use of the term effectively distracted everyone from the deeper sense in which the events of those days might really have been tragic in the Greek sense of the term - the inexorable working-out of a chain of events set in motion long before, something we should have seen coming.

Why should we care about this? I'm worried that, someday, we'll come across something truly miraculous or truly tragic, and we won't know what to call it.
A little less than a year later, I revisited the question, and offered an amendment:
So, getting back to my earlier post on tragedy, it occurs to me that I may have been too hard on people. When something awful happens - perhaps even the death of Fluffy - it can break through the complacent assurance with which we tend to view the world. It throws our own mortality in our faces, shows us the fragility of everything we take to be rock-solid.

Now, I do think that the term is used too casually in the media; mostly, people should say of things that are really just very sad that they are really just [feeling] very sad [about them]. I also doubt that anyone would write a play about the death of Fluffy.

But then, consider these passages from Robert Fagles' translation of Agamemnon:

Cassandra to the Chorus:
Oh men, your destiny.
When all is well a shadow can overturn it.
when trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,
and the picture's blotted out. And that,
I think that breaks the heart.
or, earlier on, the Herald to the Leader of the Chorus:
Think back in years and what have you?
A few runs of luck, a lot that's bad.
Who but a god can go through life unmarked?
or, still earlier, the Chorus:
Zeus has led us on to know,
the Helmsman lays it down as law
that we must suffer, suffer unto truth.
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
the pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.
From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench
there comes a violent love.
Robert F. Kennedy misquoted Edith Hamilton's prose translation of this passage in an impromptu speech upon hearing of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Here is Hamilton's (1930) version:
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.
So maybe there can be a chance to attain some measure of wisdom in any experience of grief and pain, from the ridiculous (the death of Fluffy) to the sublime (the death of Dr. King). To this extent, at least, any really sad thing can have at least a tenuous relation to tragedy.
(Of course, this didn't stop me from reacting with scorn to another example of the same abuse of language about six months later.)

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