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Reflections on the Next American Tragedy

Photo by Edith Maracle

In a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine (“The End of History is the Birth of Tragedy [2]”), the authors, both professors of strategic studies who have served in government—i.e., members of the “Washington elite,” by some lights—argued that, “Americans have forgotten that historic tragedies on a global scale are real. They’ll soon get a reminder.”

The article drew parallels between tragedy as an art form and public policy, so as a writer I was naturally intrigued. But although I found the article rich in food for deep thought—some of which I hope to bandy about here—I found other aspects puzzling.

The authors argue for an aesthetic that recognizes humanity’s own role in creating disaster, without which whole civilizations fail to recognize the potentially cataclysmic consequences of their own actions. With this I could not agree more wholeheartedly.

The prime example they provide is Athens in its Golden Age, the 5th century B.C.E., a culture that first developed the art form we now refer to as tragedy.

“This tragic sensibility was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote that tragedies produce feelings of pity and horror and foster a cathartic effect. The catharsis was key, intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage and to encourage both citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate.”

There are at least two problems with this example, however.

One is its misunderstanding of what Aristotle meant by “catharsis.” The authors aren’t alone in this, of course, because Aristotle wasn’t perfectly clear. Arguments over that particular definition have been virtually continuous ever since he made it. I’ll have more to say on that below.

The second misunderstanding is one that, to their credit, the authors themselves recognize. The “tragic sensibility…purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture” by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, among others, hardly spared their native Athenians from making horrible blunders.

Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, though the cost of the decades-long conflict, not just in terms of money but men and resources and influence, proved so draining to both sides that Sparta, the nominal victor, also fell into irreversible decline.

And how exactly did that come about, and what did it look like? For that we need to turn to a historian, Thucydides, not a tragedian:

“Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programs which appeared admirable – on one side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy – but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still. Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour. Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.”

I doubt anyone reading that passage can miss the parallels to the present political moment. Just as anyone reading Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes could not see in contemporary world affairs man’s “many passions and his miserable ingenuity in error, always dazzled by the base glitter of mixed motives, everlastingly betrayed by a short-sighted wisdom.”

So if tragedy didn’t save the Athenians, how could it possibly make any difference to us? Similarly, why didn’t the next great era of tragedy, beginning with Shakespeare and ending with Corneille and Racine, do anything to mitigate the horrors of the Anglo-Spanish War, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Year’s War, the last being one of the longest, deadliest, and most destructive wars in European history? (I’m leaving out a number of ancillary conflicts, obviously, like Tyrone’s Rebellion and Cromwell’s devastation of Ireland.)

My point: as writers, why should we consider tragedy as a form any more important or relevant to current affairs than any other?

I mentioned above that I thought the authors of the article misunderstood what Aristotle meant by “catharsis.” Yes, Aristotle believed that great tragedy inspired feelings of pity and fear—pity for the character who suffers, fear for what we suspect is about to happen to him or her. But by catharsis he did not mean merely externalization of these two emotions for cautionary examination and inspiration.

Inherent in catharsis is a sense of wonder. And wonder is not a state that spurs anyone to act.

James Joyce addressed this in his Paris Notebooks, where he developed the aesthetic theories that Stephen Daedalus would advance in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce read Aristotle avidly and admired him, considering him second only to Aquinas among western philosophers. Joyce argued that great art inspires us to seek nothing beyond the work of art itself. The sole aim of “proper” art is to provoke a sense of awe before its beauty.

Specifically, tragedy’s inspiration of feelings of terror and pity should not be confused with a sense of loathing, a wish to recoil from or do something about whatever aroused those feelings or correlates to them in the world, because whatever is truly grave in human existence, and thus worthy of tragedy, concerns what is “constant and irremediable in human fortunes.”

“Nor is an art properly tragic which would move me to prevent human suffering any more than an art is properly tragic which would move me in anger against some manifest cause of human suffering. Terror and pity, finally, are aspects of sorrow comprehended in sorrow.”

Joyce held much the same view of comedy, in that he believed it achieved its greatest perfection in an arrested awareness of joy, not a desire to fall in love or save the planet or make anyone, singular or plural, happy.

This contrasts with a distinction I heard recently in a lecture by Professor Marc Connor, who specializes in modern Irish and American literature:

“[T]ragedy is the domain of fate, of a world that cannot be changed. Comedy is the domain of transformation, the hopeful view that the world can be altered through human effort.”

Either way, it would seem that the authors of the article on the need for tragedy to inspire us to act not only misconceived catharsis, they arguably misunderstood the very nature of tragedy.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong about the urgency of this particular moment, or that part of the problem isn’t cultural. But before launching off on proposed solutions and dragooning writers into them, maybe we should spend a moment asking: How did we get here?

It turns out America has a very rich history of tragedy, a lot of it still relevant. Start wherever you want: The Scarlet Letter revealed the destructive power of sanctimonious hypocrisy. Moby Dick, though a flop in its day, has become a classic not just because of its marvelous whaling detail but because of its prophetic demonstration of our powerlessness against the forces of nature. As both misfortunes still afflict us, it’s difficult to say how effective these books were in alerting us to the prospect of disaster, or inspiring anyone to take action. Maybe that wasn’t the point.

In the 20th century, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams developed a distinctly American theatrical tradition steeped in tragedy with characters as varied as Edmund Tyrone, Willy Loman, and Blanche DuBois. I’d add Faulkner to that list, as Camus did. This tradition arose in the midst of two world wars and the Great Depression, and those who took the playwrights’ messages to heart—and let’s not fool ourselves, it was hardly the majority; all of Faulkner’s novels were out of print when he won the Nobel Prize—understood quite well that world-wide cataclysm wasn’t just possible and real, it had become the norm.

In the 1960s, after the studio system imploded, American cinema enjoyed a decade when “the lunatics ran the asylum,” and with the Vietnam War as background produced some of the greatest films ever made in the U.S., many with a tragic ethos: Bonnie & Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, Catch-22, A Woman Under the Influence, Chinatown.

Then something happened. In a keynote talk at the San Miguel de Allende Literary festival two years ago, screenwriter Kirk Ellis (John Adams) talked about the death of humanism in American cinema, and provided a precise date for its demise: May 25th, 1977. That’s the day Star Wars opened in American theaters. (I’d argue that the death rattle started two years earlier with Jaws, and continued into 1976 with Rocky.)

Those three films reminded Hollywood what a blockbuster looked like, and how much money could be made, especially in comparison to the critically acclaimed but downbeat flops of the previous decade.

Shortly, the major studios were enforcing a tacit rule: Enough with bummer endings. Audiences don’t want them. It’s exactly the kind of lie that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” got swept away by a landslide desire for “Morning in America.” Before long focus groups were rubber-stamping this fecklessness, whole generations grew up with relentlessly chipper endings, and American storytelling found itself toeing the edge of a void.

A similar phenomenon occurred in publishing with the succession of mergers that corralled the various houses into a few conglomerates. One of my mentors, Oakley Hall, remarked about this in the 1980s, warning that the obsession with profit at every turn for every author that this trend signaled would inevitably lead to a marginalization or even elimination of superb books that didn’t suit the market, i.e., had no hope of being money-makers, no matter the quality or importance of the work.

Yes, there remain works with a tragic sensibility that not only succeed but become bestsellers, some even get adapted into film: Mystic River, The House of Sand and Fog, The 25th Hour, In the Bedroom, to name only a few. I’d add a personal favorite, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, though no film adaptation has yet appeared. I’m sure you can name some as well.

But I’d argue this remains the exception, not the rule, and even novels with a distinctly tragic sensibility, like Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, all too often get gussied up with optimism once in the hands of filmmakers. “It’s the nature of the form,” some argue. I wonder.

I agree that the general American cultural gestalt is distinctly resistant to tragedy. Blame perhaps “American optimism” (versus “European pessimism”), or the sheer muscle of the market where the most people made happy equals not just success but quality.

Regardless, and here I agree as well with the authors of the article I cited at the outset, this can have disastrous consequences.

Tragedy embraces the notion that we are, by our very nature, inclined to error. We can’t help ourselves. Our very psychology and biology conspire to lead us astray: into virtuous indecision, misbegotten confidence, blind loyalty, premature self-congratulation. And worse. Much worse.

I agree with Aristotle and Joyce that great tragedy stops us cold, forces us to realize that the problems we face are hard-wired, inscrutable, and not amenable to facile solution.

But I also agree with the Foreign Policy authors that an acquaintance with tragedy over time can train both the mind and the heart to understand oneself, mankind, and history with a certain wary humility. I’d add that such a view is necessary for a functional republic. I’d also add that it’s relatively rare.

That humble self-awareness—or self-suspicion—forms the logic underlying checks and balances. Only such a vision recognizes the need to rein in our innate craving for power, our lust for glory, our belief in the salvation of secrecy, our vain delusion that we’re the historical exception.

Strip away tragedy, you’re left with bread and circuses. Sappy clowns and matinee heroes. Sooner rather than later, they begin to grate. The prattle rings hollow. One does get sick of being lied to.

Or maybe not. And perhaps that’s where the actual tragedy lies. We can write all the bitter endings we can dream up. We can’t make our readers take what we’ve written to heart, or do anything once they close the book—presuming they bothered to read it in the first place.

Coretta Scott King once remarked:

“Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation. That is what we have not taught young people, or older ones for that matter. You do not finally win a state of freedom that is protected forever. It doesn’t work that way.”

The tragedy waiting to be written, and perhaps played out on the world stage, concerns when that state of freedom is lost, perhaps forever. Not in some antiheroic tale where the protagonist never possessed the greatness necessary, nor in some dystopian fantasy where the worst has already happened and those who might have prevented it remain conveniently offstage. But in that moment when there remained a chance we might pull through—except, you know, it was us.

Do you think writers have any obligation to address what must be “earned and won and re-learned” with every generation?

What books with a tragic sensibility have impressed you, haunted you, inspired you? How? Why?

Are you letting a tragic sensibility inform your current work? 

What do you make of the conviction that great literature’s purpose is not to inspire action, but to create a state of arrested understanding and wonder?

About David Corbett [3]

David Corbett [4] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [5], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.