Wednesday, April 27, 2005
On Tragedyfrom Vermischte Bemerkungen (tr. as Culture and Value):
Every tragedy could really start with the words: "Nothing would have happened, had it not been that..."Wittgenstein's point addresses the matter nicely as far as our everyday understanding of life and tragedy goes. But in literature, we stumble into something a little different. It is said that every great bit of theatre ends with a wedding or a funeral. The first of these is comedy, the second tragedy. But what makes for most tragedies? Let's rephrase Wittgenstein:
(Had he not got caught in the machine by the tip of his clothing?)
But surely that is a one-sided view of tragedy, to think of it merely as showing that an encounter can dedide one's whole life.
Every tragedy could really start with the words: "Nothing would have happened, had he not insisted..."The great literary tragedies do not owe their pathos to some deus ex machina upsetting an applecart that had been going breezingly along. Rather, they involve man smashing into his most fearsome enemy - himself. Tragedy comes when two parties are at odds, something has to give, and nothing does.
In contrast to tragedy is comedy. Though it's not in the etymology, it's useful to think of comedy as the place where things come together. Whether it's the happy ending of the traditional comedy (as in Molière & co.'s), the convergence of plot lines at the end of a good episode of Seinfeld or the emergence of a punchline from a meandering shaggy dog story, what comedy offers is an appropriate resolution.
The French have a lovely word, justesse, which implies that everything is just-so - in balance, appropriate, harmonious, etc. It's what you're looking for when making sure there's neither too little nor too much icing on the cake, so to speak. Comedy, at its best, is possessed of this justesse. Witness the ending of the comedy, The Marriage of Figaro. The Count is revealed as a fool and a lout. Everyone's somewhere between angry and upset with him. And then it all resolves. He is not stripped of his seigneurial rights - because he didn't really have them. Figaro is not cuckolded, nor his bride seduced, nor the Countess betrayed.
The Marriage of Figaro gave the King of France the willies, and rightly so, for he was not prepared to abide by its lesson. In some ideal world, a world where things worked just so, the King might have managed to relax his power sufficiently that it wasn't worth it to overthrow him. Instead, the King, then Robespierre, insisted upon their way of doing business. They both lost their heads.
Wittgenstein is right to observe that in everyday life, tragedy is lurking just 'round the corner. So is happiness, actually. In some cases, that's just the way it is. But in other cases - the feud with the boss, the argument with a loved one, the conviction that you saw that parking spot first - the real gift life offers is the opportunity to give way if an insistence that you win is really an assurance that everyone will lose. Life's too short for such nonsense. And if you push things far enough, life will be even shorter. Better, then, to move one step beyond Wittgenstein. Life is in many ways happenstance, buffeting us about in a world where much is beyond our control. But the worst of life's tragedies come when we ourselves are the engines of our own destruction.
The snippet above draws on my fussing about with Corneille's Le Cid. Below I link two pieces, the first a spoof, the second a serious essay, that lay the background for what I've said above.
The Cid Goes to the Grocery Store
The Cid - or the Conquest of the Count
posted by gbarto at 3:55 PM