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Tragedy misapplied to socio-economic hell zones?

November 24th, 2014 · No Comments

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/arts-and-books/wire-greek-tragedy-optimism

I linked to this two days ago with an enthusiastic tone that I have to withdraw to some extent, having considered the article.
The attempt to find the tragic mode reborn in a television crime drama series is notable but won’t really work. And I fear a conservative gesture to suggest that a socio-economic hellzone is ‘tragic’, all too conveniently beyond amelioration in the wise counsel of reactionaries who fetishize a ‘tragic view of life’.

The issue of tragedy is the source of much confusion, and I think the reason is the stark narrowness of the original definition: a tragedy is a poetic drama that expresses a core ‘tragic’ plot, which is? Noone has ever really defined that type of plot, and clearly the inventors of the genre, the ancient Greeks, weren’t sure themselves, and we see Euripides starting to exit the genre. With Shakespeare the genre reinvents itself, but the results are known, it seems, by ‘taste’ rather than conventional definition.
I think the problem is the fallacy of trying to generalize with a definition something that is historically based as an historical given, not as the expression of an abstract ‘genre’ in realization. No common definition of tragedy has succeeded in formulating a generalization. The genre is strangely emergent from the Iliad, which seems to express a world view that was later to blossom into a ‘tragic’ perspective. Nietzsche tried to mix his view of greek tragedy with, one suspects, views of his ‘overman’ type, but there again despite a genuine insight the search for a definition seems to fail.
The requirement of poetry is a stumbling block for many who impatiently demand a universal field for tragedies. I can’t see any reason why that can’t be the case, but the reality is that tragedies, as Shakespeare rediscovered seem to work very easily with monarchic figures. That certainly doesn’t mean that there can’t be tragedies for a range of ‘classes’ but noone seems to have really succeeded in that. Meanwhile I simply can’t accept a conservative designation of ‘tragedy’ for the socio-economic blues of ‘weekly’ crime dramas, pegged to claim the dismal is tragic. The resolution here is that the term ‘tragedy’ doesn’t apply very well to such situations, and it is a misuse of concepts to claim a situation that might require a leftist revolution should be considered hopeless to satisfy the sentiments of those hankering for tragedies in modern life.
The requirement that ‘tragedies’ be poetic dramas is rejected by many but, with the exception of works like Moby Dick, the requirement holds: and the issue of poetry should be a warning that this device makes ‘tragedies’ into unique abstractions beyond the level of dramatic realism. So the riddle of ‘poetry’ as adding a new dimension that facilitates the ‘tragic’ as a genre of explicit art is one key component of the riddle. Try it as an exercise: try to script a plot fragment with blank verse (a start of five lines might be enough!): the whole nature of the discourse changes.
So in a way the issue of tragedy flunks the ‘genre’ test and rests with its notable exemplars, Shakespeare, Racine, and the Greeks, whose resolution of the riddle died with them.
It is worth critiquing even this definition by citing the many ‘poetic tragedies’ attempted by the Romantic poets (in English): not one is read or performed today. And it is useful to follow the history of blank verse: its brief flowering and slow by steady decline, in a world of vanished ‘tragedy’. You might also read WHEE over again, with reference to its sneaky asides on the issue of tragedy for a discussion that should start with Icelandic sagas, that of ‘Amlodhi’, the source of ‘Hamlet’ being notably relevant to the non-solution of the riddle of tragedy.
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