Since at least the day of Aristotle, there have developed as many theories of tragedy as there are people with enough time on their hands, large enough dictionaries, and few enough video games to be bothered thinking about the issue. Hence, I naturally find it of the utmost necessity as an academician to contribute my own assessment. These thoughts will be highly subjective and anecdotal, so to save time and space, I will give an advance disclaimer that I expect you, dear reader, to preface nearly every subsequent sentence in this post with an unwritten “For me…”
I am not enough of an expert in criticism to confine myself to the genre of tragedy as others have struggled to define it. Instead I want to talk about the more generally tragic, melancholy and just plain depressing arts, and why we, or more correctly I, find them so engaging and, paradoxically, inspiring. Perhaps I love Hamlet, the Old English elegies, the Old Norse sagas, and Thomas Hardy’s poetry for partly the same reason that I like eating wasabi and bitter melon. (No, not together. Although…) Some might call this masochism. I just call it good taste. But even I have to admit that there is something not quite intuitive about the idea that someone– and evidently more than one someone, based on the sheer continued existence of these arts and foods alike– should enjoy eating plants based on evolutionary properties designed precisely to discourage consumption, or partaking in entertainment that revels in the inevitable despair and destruction inherent in human existence. And counterintuitive Facts are why we civilized creatures of specialized professions come up with Theories.
Let’s start with the example of the officially second most depressing song of all time, Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday.” If you don’t know it, have an idea of what to expect based on the fact that it’s also called the “Hungarian Suicide Song.” The singer talks about being at peace with the decision to commit suicide while experiencing an overpowering depression in the wake of a loved one’s death. After the release of Holiday’s translated version in 1941, the BBC promptly banned the airing of vocal performances because they deemed the lyrics detrimental to “wartime morale”; this ban held for just over 60 years. A publisher who declined to publish the original Hungarian composition concurred:
“It is not that the song is sad, there is a sort of terrible compelling despair about it. I don’t think it would do anyone any good to hear a song like that.”
That quote brings me precisely to my point. The last thing I want, or have ever wanted, or will ever want, at pretty much any time in my entire life, is to witness any form of self-styled “creative expression” that is designed to “do anyone any good.” Edification in the arts is not a selling point, it’s a substitute for ipecac. If you don’t want to believe me, turn to the authority of the Hallmark Channel. Just have a toilet brush on hand in advance. There is a reason why “Gloomy Sunday” is still fondly YouTubed, while the only reason anyone today has heard of “There’ll Always be an England,” for example, is (if they’re geeky anglophilic punks like me, at least) via its pithy ironic usage by the Sex Pistols and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. People know when they’re being patronized. They may get caught up in the spirit of the moment (i.e. peer pressure), especially when their government-funded media is censoring all the good shit, but sixty years later the truth will out. Producing entertainment that is designed to improve morale or be otherwise utilitarian is like baking a dessert sweetened with saccharin. It’s a pathetic mockery that’s shiveringly hard to swallow and will probably end up giving you stomach cancer, at least if you’re a rat. Seriously. Gross, man.
The frowning of kindergarten teachers, wartime governments, and other such crushers of souls upon the expression of morbidity is a fantastic reason to love it. People don’t want to take something away from you if it has no power. And like when your parents tell you to be in bed by eight o’ clock so that you “won’t be tired the next day,” you know deep down that the rule isn’t for your protection but for theirs. And once you realize that, you can’t help but wonder: What is it that they are afraid of? What’s going to happen if I push this big shiny red button?
Sadness is subversive. It’s bad for productivity because it takes attention away from the external processes of life, questions the ultimate worthiness and validity of definitions of progress, and often confirms the audience member’s sense of alienation and isolation, rather than constructing a sense of social purpose. On a more abstract level, it turns the gaze inward, to contemplation of subjective grief and despair, which pulls against the tide of social norms in dictating opinion and behavior. Everyone can do the Twist in unison and laugh at a shared joke, but no two people will listen to “Gloomy Sunday” and feel the same sadness. Grief is not, or at least much less readily, shared than pleasure. (In this, I beg to differ with Jello Biafra, who in “The Lost Orgasm” bemoans the fact that the expression of pain is more socially acceptable than that of pleasure. In a few instances, this may be the case; but when the pain of which we speak goes beyond a gnarly BMX wipeout [is that a thing?] and delves into the realm of human sorrow, essentially no one wants to hear about it. If you go there, they’ll give you weird looks and tell you not to embarrass yourself in front of people you don’t know, and then stop answering your calls. Trust me on this one. Don’t try it at home, kids.)
Okay, so there is pleasure in the subversive because deep down we are all, or most of us, still six year olds who really want to find out what happens to the cat in the dryer. But what is the continued savor in this expression of doom and gloom, disaffection, and disquiet? What makes gloom a serious contribution to the arts, and not a juvenile rebellious fetish? (Which punk music is NOT. Screw you.) Wouldn’t we rather be happy, and to do that, don’t we need to think about happy stuff?
Of course, there is irrefutable truth in sadness. No one lives without it. But hemorrhoids are equally undeniable and universal, yet to my knowledge (most) people don’t spend time and energy Google Imaging them. It wouldn’t make you feel any better to do so, because you already know that everyone else gets them and that they look and feel basically the same as your own. They are a collective pain, which therefore doesn’t require communication. Ironically, it is precisely that form of pain that denies pure empathy– emotional suffering– which provides a meaningful creative inspiration and subject. By definition, the futile task of translating solipsistic experience into public discourse provides its own raison d’etre. The exercise is fruitful because it is futile, because what may be easily and comprehensively expressed, rarely needs to be expressed at all. The truth of human sorrow is all-encompassing but fractured: it reflects everyone, but all from different angles. It is not a mountain which can only be photographed from a finite, if enormous, number of perspectives; it possesses a limitless number of real shapes, to which neither accuracy nor legitimacy can be properly ascribed.
Engaging with the shape of one’s own sadnesses, then, is an act of reclamation of the individual experience. When we experience another’s expression of grief or depression, we know that we are not required, and not able, to accurately identify with the shape of the creator’s experience. Instead, we indulge in our own creative and interpretive impulses by transforming the inevitably flawed language of emotional expression into a portrait of our own feelings. This process allows one to realize and embrace a hardwired distinctiveness from every other individual, and at the same time to understand that this alienation is ultimately the tie that binds all individuals together. By recognizing and validating emotional isolation, we gain a deeper empathy for the similarly fractured lives of others.
I am beginning to feel like this isn’t making sense, so I’ll turn to another example, my most favoritestestest poem ever: Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Arnold begins and ends the poem with indicative description of the collective. The pebbles act as a unit– a passive one at that– as they are drawn and flung by the inexorable force of the ocean. The counterpart to the “grating roar” of this endless, cyclical wearing at the borders of human existence is the “clash” of the “ignorant armies.” Within these descriptions lies no element of individual agency or experience. The pebbles and the armies do only what they have always done, and the only thing they can do: ebb and flow, break and reform, according to the laws of nature. The sole redemptive, though potently bittersweet, property of Arnold’s perception of this reality is the intensely private emotion and action to which it impels him. When he implores “love, let us be true/ To one another,” he directly predicates this imperative on the world’s inherent incapacity for fulfillment and solace. His answer to the acknowledged substrate of sorrow is to construct an active, intentional realization of identity and form a deliberate connection to another individual.
The unstated implication, then, is that did the world contain “certitude,” “peace,” and “help for pain,” this choice would be neither necessary nor desirable. It would instead be possible for men to drift through the sea of existence like pebbles, satisfied to fulfill their preordained collective roles and properties. Only through disillusion with the external is Arnold able to access self and self-direction, and, in doing so, to form a genuine connection with another individual. Through the powerful imagery of Arnold’s text, readers are able to apply this disillusion to their own private sorrows, thereby gaining the same consciousness and potentially forming a legitimate connection to Arnold as well as to themselves.
One final example, and then at long last I’ll leave this topic be: The story of Griselda. (The version related by Boccaccio and, particularly, Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale”; not Petrarch’s bastardized excuse of a “translation.”) Griselda explicitly and completely submits her will to the control of her tyrannical Lombard husband. He takes control of her entire external identity and strips her of all individual identifying characteristics, beginning with the garments that define her social role. He appropriates the children she bears, making her believe that he is sending them to their deaths. Significantly, the only request she dares to make is that the physical integrity of the infant bodies be preserved, but she is offered no assurance even of this. Here, the redemptive aspect of the story– the reason for its affective power and, I believe, Chaucer’s purpose in translating it– is the tenacious intactness of Griselda’s emotions. It is precisely by subverting her inner identity and never making it explicit in her outward actions that she protects it from destruction. Like Arnold, by fully acknowledging and submitting to the tyranny of human tragedy, she does not counteract but rather overcomes it. She transforms herself from subject (in a political sense– in grammatical terms, rather, an object) to a repository of latent power.
This, I think, is ultimately the pleasure to be derived– at least by me– from the dark and tragic in all its artistic forms. By making the audience conscious of the inexorable “human misery” of the external world, it enables the construction and defense of individual identity and a consequent escape from the unending ebb and flow. Once this identity is realized, at the expense of collective fulfillment, genuine interpersonal bonds become cemented in the understanding of shared isolation. It is not necessary for the tragic to offer a deliberate pandering of edification. By becoming conscious of our own tragedy– or tragedies, properly, plural– we have the choice to subvert the “morale” thrust upon us by the world’s tides; to redeem these tragedies and create, in them and through them, our own meaning.
As Arnold Lobel’s Owl, that most respectable of moderately buffoonish middle-class Victorian talking clothed animals, concludes, after contemplating the fate of spoons behind the stove and unusable pencil stubs, “Tearwater tea is slightly salty, but it is always very good.”