What Is Tragedy? (Now people think it’s when a bunch of people die.) / "Can’t you see? Those planes are to blame! Just look at that frame again and again."
The Liberator Magazine 4.1 #9, 2005
Theme For English B
Something is missing. Just look at tragedy. Tragedy used to be about responsibility. Now people think it’s when a bunch of people die.
Let’s look at three images of tragedy:
Image #1: Did you see The Titanic, the story about the unsinkable ship that sank? Was the Titanic’s fall tragic? I can almost see the headlines now, “Tragedy! Titanic Sinks!” But what makes the sinking of the Titanic tragic? Was it the large number of people who died? Was it the fact that it was a freak accident, a surprise? Was it because it was terrible?
No. These things are not tragic; they are much closer to being melodramatic. The Titanic was cast as the hero, the flawless creation of modern science that was ready to take on the villain: Mother Nature. The villain had sunk many ships killing many innocent people, damsels in distress, but not the Titanic -- its creators were full of pride, so sure that it was the epitome of perfection and proof that human’s creations were more powerful than God’s.
But the fact is, it sank. And who was to blame? Was it the iceberg’s fault? If its fall was only due to the iceberg, than we have a melodrama, not a tragedy. The iceberg is the villain dressed in black; the passengers play the innocent victims; and the hero, the titanic dressed in white, goes down. At the end of the day there is a moral: black clothing is bad and white clothing is good, the hero is the hero and the villain is the villain. Nothing more is considered here and at the end of the day there is only the hope that, while the battle was lost, people wearing white clothing will win the war. This is clearly melodramatic.
How could we make the Titanic’s fall tragic? The creators must realize their responsibility for their own fall. For its fall to be tragic we’d have to rewrite our play. In our play the Titanic would still be built with the desire to conquer Mother Nature, to tame the wilderness, to prove that God is not so powerful. That same iceberg would hit the Titanic; and yes, the Titanic would still sink. People all over the world would realize that it had sunk and they would be terrified. At first they would blame the iceberg and the terror it caused. Then they would blame the builders of the ship, accuse them of sabotage and call them iceberg-lovers. They would blame everyone they could think of -- even a three-legged dog with no fleas. So far, not much has changed in our story.
But here’s what we would add if we wanted to write a tragedy: when all of their plans seemed to be sunk they had a realization: their pride had caused their own fall; they could not give all of the blame to Mother Nature, who was not the villain as they were not the heroes when they were trying to conquer Her, tame Her, and blame Her for all that was evil.
Unlike melodrama, in tragedy we have this realization in which we take responsibility for our own fall. The Greeks, who were heavily influenced by cultures all around the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa, referred to this realization as a catharsis. Translations of Aristotle’s Poetics claim that it is “the purgation of pity and fear.” It is pity for the sinking ship -- a representation of its creators’ pride and it is the fear that you, too, could be responsible for your own fall and that you, too, could be sinking. Unlike melodrama, we do not end with a moral that reaffirms a man-made morality. In tragedy, we end with a catharsis, a realization, a confrontation with a truth that may be so intense we may have to at worst, poke out our eyes, go mad, turn to stone, or kill ourselves. This is how much of Greek, Roman, and British tragedy ends. But there is another possibility: the truth we realize could inform how we live; we could let ourselves become the truths we know; we could have a catharsis and through our realization we could evolve.
Image #2: In the beginning there was a king who was too prideful and his pride blinded him -- he wouldn’t listen to how anybody else was feeling and so little by little he began to fall. He lost his castle, he lost his purple robe, and he lost his crown. At first he blamed others. He kept blaming others even as he neared the bottom. Just as he was about to reach the very bottom he realized how far he had fallen and he began to wonder why. As he searched within himself he saw something terrifying. At first he looked away, but a part of him felt drawn towards it. He finally got the courage to look up at what he was afraid to see and what he saw is what he knew: he had responsibility for his own fall. Some say that the truth was too much for him and that he died instantly. Others say he poked out his eyes. But others say that he survived his realization—that what he saw helped him to better know himself, to evolve.
Image #3: The twin towers fall and everyone agrees that it is terrible. No one I know thinks it isn’t terrible. But the play that is written claims that the planes are to blame, they are dressed in black; the victims inside are damsels in distress and the US becomes the heroes dressed in white. At the end of the day we can expect a moral to the story: white clothing is good and black clothing is bad, and damsels are lucky that people wearing white protect them from harms way. But this is clearly melodramatic.
How can 9-11 become tragic? By now we know that it involves a realization. The US must realize how it caused its own fall, how it has responsibility for the falling of the twin towers. And through this fall an opportunity exists: we could look at all of the genocide and instead of blaming, forgetting, or going to war we could evolve, we could ask ourselves the question, “How did the US cause the fall of the twin towers?” and we may find ourselves asking a very difficult question: “When did the war in Iraq begin?”
Unlike tragedy, melodrama does not end with these questions. Melodrama does not see the history behind the fall; it sees the fall as an isolated event; it loves to see history as a series of isolated events arranged in a chronological order. It only wants us to consider the image of the twin towers falling again and again. When we ask, “What happened?” it only responds with one answer, “Can’t you see? Those planes are to blame! Just look at that frame again and again.” In melodrama we never question the heroes or the perceived innocence of the victim. In melodrama there is no catharsis, no movement within us. In melodrama evolution is not possible.
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