Some Thoughts On Tragedy

In the Aristotelian view of tragedy, the horrific events we see in a play are meant to arouse the emotions of pity and fear in us.  So strongly would these emotions be aroused as we watched Oedipus kill his father and marry his mother in Sophocles’ play that we would eventually reach a cathartic state, wherein all of our passions would be purged, and we would be left free to contemplate the workings of fate.

Aristotle thought that genuine tragedy could only happen to kings and queens–those highest up on the social scale.  Calamitous events–murder, rape, robbery–did happen to everyday people, but only royalty had the power and position in society to make the playwright’s vision of genuine loss truly instructive.  This particular idea of tragedy held sway for a very long time in Western culture–through the Middle Ages, which were in the process of developing, through the mystery play, a monotheistic response to suffering; and into the Renaissance, which began to use again the fragments of Greek and Roman plays that had been recovered.  Shakespeare’s great tragedies all happen to people at the top of the social scale–an emperor, a king, a general, and two princes.

Not until we come to the eighteenth century do we find writers willing to argue that tragic events can and do happen to everyday people, and not until the twentieth century, in the plays of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, do we find writers willing to create tragic plays centered upon the lives of working men and women–a farmer, a businessman, a salesman.

That literary history developed this way is not really all that surprising.  The middle class began to develop in the Europe of the eighteenth century, and the middle and upper-middle classes have been the backbone of the American economy for 200 years.  The French tragedians, O’Neill, and Miller simply recognized what had become obvious:  everyone, potentially, had a lot to lose; anyone could rise high, yet be brought low, often through no fault of his own, or by events he cannot control.

What happened yesterday to reporter Allison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward was tragic in both the modern sense and the Aristotelian.  They had the good things in life we all want–love, families, work that satisfies–and each of these things was taken away by a man who also had them, lost them, could have earned them back, but chose instead over the last two years to take another path.  I emphasize the matter of choice here because it is also in the matter of choice that the modern view of tragedy differs from the classical.  To put it simply, tragedy is a calamitous event that need not have happened, and yet it does.  Poor Oedipus was up against it:  the oracle said he was going to kill his father and marry his mother, and there’s nothing he could have done about it.  But we in the twenty-first century don’t believe in fate.  The pain of tragedy for us comes from knowing that events need not have turned out that way.  Natural disasters and even, to some extent, wars we accept as inevitable.  We don’t control geological or climatic processes on this planet, and we allow individual governments to do as they will, even if it means allowing suffering, because we assume the existence of collective wisdom within governments to prevent wars or fight them, as need be.  The deaths caused by such disasters we do not necessarily regard as tragic.

But we take a different view, and properly so, of those events wherein perpetrators have chosen, through forethought and preparation, to act as they do.  Vester Flanagan did not have to kill two people and wound another, even if he thought he had to.  It was a free choice, made by a man two years removed from the job he had held, made by someone not bound to act in any way.  He planned what he did and could have chosen at any moment during that planning to make a different, better choice.  But he did not.

The deaths of Parker and Ward are tragically Aristotelian in the sense that those two victims were rising and happy in life, only to be brought low.  Part of me wishes that their deaths could have been Aristotelian in the full sense, though.  Their loved ones need peace, and so do I.  But there’s nothing cathartic in contemplating their end, nothing majestic or peaceable in considering the will of inscrutable gods.  I feel only emptiness inside, a sense of waste; and I am haunted by something only a modern man may know:  the knowledge that the events of yesterday were not inevitable.  None of them had to happen.

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