Posts Tagged ‘tragedy’

Pity and fear without catharsis

May 18, 2014

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes bookworms lost in a labyrinthine fiction, “at last finding the error visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to clear themselves; .. as birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

Who knows how many times The Iliad has been translated, paraphrased and transcribed. A hall of mirrors would be needed to explore intertextuality across iterations of translations and adaptations of the epic.

The Alexandrian poet Cavafy rewrites the image of the horses of Achilles with elegant simplicity:

When they saw Patroklos killed,
who was so brave and strong and young,
Achilles’ horses began to cry,
their immortal nature outraged
to witness the work of death.
They tossed their heads and waved their long manes,
stamped their hooves on the ground, and they mourned
Patroklos, whom they felt was soulless – ruined –
flesh made lowly now – his spirit lost –
defenseless – without breath –
he had gone from life back to the big Nothing.

Zeus saw the immortal horses’ tears
and was sorry. He said, “I should not
have acted so mindlessly ..
it would have been better if we had not given you away,
.. What are you doing down there
with miserable human beings, fate’s playthings.
Neither death nor old age pursues you,
yet fleeting disasters torment you.”
But for the endless disaster of death,
the two noble animals shed their tears.

A revisionist Trojan war story like Troilus and Cressida rendering the story’s heroes as vulgar brutes and the epic duels as cowardly ambushes is reminiscent of the counternarrative to the Alexander Romance in Roman traditions painting Alexander the Great as a bloated drunk. It falls outside the story’s traditional genre, but not outside the classical repertoire of genres, having something more in common with Euripides or Menander than Sophocles or Aeschylus.

Northrop Frye wrote that “as tragedy moves over toward irony, the sense of inevitable event begins to fade out, and the sources of catastrophe come into view. .. Tragedy’s ‘this must be’ becomes irony’s ‘this at least is,’ a concentration of foreground facts and a rejection of mythical superstructures.”


Shakespeare takes the war at Troy into the territories of irony in his Troilus and Cressida, about two minor characters of legend, younger than the heroes, adolescent lovers trying to navigate the socially awkward long-siege polity within the city and the camp. Where Homer “is rapid, plain and direct in thought and expression, plain and direct in substance, and noble” the Shakespeare is cynical, witty and harsh.

There’s an interesting angle on the structure of zero-sum games in The Responsibility Virus (2003): the understanding of failure is governed by four values, “(1) To win and not lose in any interaction, (2) To always maintain control of the situation at hand, (3) To avoid embarrassment of any kind, (4) To stay rational throughout.” This is certainly a cookbook for bitter ironies, and Shakespeare’s war story is bitter to say the least.

Invoking concern about pain and suffering, especially in the context of alleged injustice, always invokes zero-sum game rules by implication. Shakespeare refutes the game and so gives a more merciless portrait of the war than Homer, stripped of ennobling respect for loss and life in favor of camp bawdiness and sneering skepticism of grand reputations for prowess or courage.

Richard Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad makes a glorious image out of the wounding of Menelaus:

“As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple
colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses;
it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider
longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king’s treasure,
.. to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman:
so, Menelaus, your shapely thighs were stained with the colour
of blood, and your legs also and the ankles beneath them.”

The vulgar feminine side of war in Troilus and Cressida is garish compared to this royal contest in arms. “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” is the real subject here, a stranger to honor and glory, merely a living, feeling creature grasping at words erringly but insistently, untrusting as a listener but cocksure in every utterance, sly and clumsy at the same time.

Freud posits that the creation of ritual scapegoats for purging collective guilt was pivotal in the birth of civilization, and that the transcendent arts harbor the secrets of redemption for civilization’s discontents. In this play ritual use of high emotion is set aside. Matter-of-factness robs the errors of hope of tragic significance, and only the foibles of conventional wisdom loom large in the disappointments of the point of view characters, their dreams devalued as well as deferred. Discontent is a problem for which the play offers no solutions whatever.

Aristotle was perhaps the first to argue that the cathartic energy in dramatic tragedies contributes to virtue in the experience of theater-goers, and that the literary arts are part of a moral education. But what do we say about “problem plays” like Troilus and Cressida, closer to a satire than a romantic comedy, boldly combining elements of tragedy and farce?


The contingencies of love and necessity fall out with remorseless logic in this story about thwarted romance and dishonorable deaths, and the darker side of psychology, the shadow play of Eros and Thanatos, deepens the conflict in ways that bring about guilt with or without room for redemption, allowing that redeeming moments can themselves be refused.

Troilus and Cressida dances around the option of withholding deus ex machina from a love story or a war story in ways that invite an analysis of intertextuality with Shakespeare’s Pericles or Cymbeline. Above all the play focuses on the regrets of partaking as a social animal in the vicissitudes of conscience, neither glamorizing violence nor validating love as anything other than a glue of convenience among fickle but appetite-driven beasts of nature.

Another translator of The Iliad, I. A. Richards, writes in a book on literary criticism that one can hardly run short of aphorisms about what makes art transcendent – he lists a series of “conjectures, a supply of admonitions, many acute isolated observations, some brilliant guesses, much oratory and applied dogma, inexhaustible confusion, a sufficiency of dogma, no small stock of prejudices, whimsies and crochets, a profusion of mysticism, a little genuine speculation, sundry stray inspirations, pregnant hints ..”

“Beautiful words are the very and peculiar light of the mind.”
“All men naturally receive pleasure from imitation.”
“Unity in variety.”
“The eye on the object.”
“Significant form.”
“The pleasures of Fancy are more conducive to health than those of the understanding.”
“The expression of impressions.”
“Empathy favorable to our existence.”
“Delight is the chief, if not the only end; instruction can be admitted but in the second place.”

He won’t have “mystery mongering” that pursues literary criticism argumentatively while glossing the “impasse” in musical theory, that chasm between technical details discernible in their combined effects, and the aesthetic outcomes that are more like “high inspiration” or “free play” than “shop mechanics” to the approving ear. Instead he expounds an ambitious cognitive theory of the way in which literary work is perceived and critically received.

Richards quotes Sir Walter Raleigh describing Christina Rossetti’s poetry: “Full of that beautiful redundance and that varied reiteration which are natural to all strong feeling and all spontaneous melody … the expression rising unsought, with incessant recurrence to the words or phrases given at first, with a delicate sense of pattern which prescribes the changes in the cadence.” I have an abiding ambition to describe drama or screen acting performances with compliments this articulate and apt.

Richards brings forward memorable analytical tropes like “mutations of regime” and “aesthetic or projectile adjectives,” “profane dissection” and “prudential speech,” “dictionary understanding” and “internal order,” “mnemonic irrelevances” and “stock responses,” “doctrinal adhesions” and “technical presuppositions,” “immaturity” and “construing,” “tied images” and “the fatal facility with which usual meanings reappear when they are not wanted,” and how “the importance of an impulse .. can be defined for our purposes as the extent of the disturbance of other impulses in the individual’s activities which the thwarting of the impulse involves.”

This last is nicely elaborated on: “The adjustment to one another of varied impulses – to go forward carefully, to lie down and grasp something with the hands, to go back, and so forth – and their co-ordination into useful behavior alters the whole character of his experience. These efforts point to promising ways of liberating associative logic from the reputation of non-logic, and bringing it more thoroughly under analysis.”

His study is poetry rather than drama, but a cognitive theory of the cathartic impulse in tragedy would be welcome at this level of detail, something treating the associative logic of thwarted expectations in problem plays that withhold this sublime satisfaction while they play on the pity and fears of the audience. I’ll see if I can come up with one myself, building on my notes from Richards’ work and Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism among other sources.

Making music “hospitable and deep enough…”

February 14, 2013

It was Nietzsche who dreamed of a music “hospitable and deep enough” to accommodate this moral imagination’s roundly punished exiles, described in Beyond Good and Evil:

“… music which does not fade, turn yellow, turn pale at the sight of the blue voluptuous sea and the luminous sky of the Mediterranean … whose soul is kindred to the palm-tree and knows how to roam and be at home among great beautiful solitary beasts of prey …

“… a music whose rarest magic would consist in this, that it no longer knew anything of good and evil, except that perhaps some sailor’s homesickness, some golden shadow and delicate weakness would now and then flit across it: an art that would see fleeing towards it from a great distance the colors of a declining, now almost incomprehensible moral world, and would be hospitable and deep enough to receive such late fugitives.”

The palm tree seen here by its shadow is one Elaine Scarry singles out many times over in On Beauty and Being Just, starting with an image that is easily missed in Lawrence of Arabia’s rapid-fire prose translation of The Odyssey. Ulysses, she explains, “having nearly drowned, comes upon [the child Nausicaa], whose beauty simply astonishes him.” The lines from Homer are:

I have never laid eyes on anyone like you …
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me. Wait,
once I saw the like – in Delos, beside Apollo’s altar –
the young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light. …
so now I marvel at you, my lady: rapt, enthralled,
too struck with awe to grasp you by the knees
though pain has ground me down.

She is the only child not to run, when those playing with her notice they are being watched by a naked man washed up on the shore.

This steadfastness gives him hope, “that he will be made welcome” in Ithaca, the city he left behind so long ago, and be received with “mercy and some love.”


The magical distraction from the improbable journey behind him seizes him briefly in “the now,” instead of being daunted by the last leg of a voyage as bewildering as Xeno’s paradox.

The sight of her must have been the necessary reprieve, that makes going home seem possible after all, logic traps in pure math banished back to the chartrooms of stars.

A day enclosed in the fragrant pine walls
that keep our house warm, a boring day
with the deep eyes of a wine filled glass,
wondering what a closed window forecasts,
whether I should open it. Would light
and its bright reminders of life oppress
the room and disclose your absence? Night
visits the afternoon inside. What then
fades away is the right shape of the knife,
the memory. The ideal and loved voices
of the lost find us in our beds, the first poetry
exhausts its tenderness on these moments,
slight movements of thought shed light on a face.

The days twist together like braids of red
garlic that hang from the rafters, until
you have filled the house and the smell of bread
is imbued with the chambered bulbs’ thick, shrill
fragrance, strident as a woman’s voice, filled
with unspent hours collecting inside
the heart of our life together. What spills
onto the table top is the aside
to your companions, thinking of me
from that distance. I know you think of me,
but be unkind, so you will not be shattered
when you see, be amazed when I forget
to run toward if you come to me faster than I
could greet you. At war’s end you will come,
much as you went. If by sea, there is no light house.

False stars will light your way with every candela,
home to where a slender young palm tree bent
in the wind like a girl of Ithaca. I can’t believe
I allowed you to go, that you went with my blessing.
Some women do not seem to feel the blow,
their loss a gift to their country that brings
neither pain nor joy. I see them giving
their prayers over to the dead without thought
of virtue, just as the myrtle breathing
its fragrance in the night gives grace, untaught.
If you are changed, and do not wish to write,
and do not think on me, but still return
from the wilderness and the sight
of war wounds scattered like wild roses, learn
to love me again, promise to try, turn
aside from black death and look on the earth
won back for peace, a summer of yellow pears
and blue grass where it is, after all, sweet to sleep.

What have I struggled to remember all this time?
There are none of the flowers I described to you.
What buckled under the hours, drowned under
the weight of silence? Where has it sparkled
like iron, hot air dancing with embers? With you
I felt my hands were meant for more
than practice on the patient strangers calling
out of courtesy. To extend a kiss. I thought a letter
might come. Where is our love, where has it
overflowed? I stumbled over the thought of you
today, could sound out none of your promises,
senses bound. I broke a branch of acacia,
fragrant and turned many times. With this
I can comb the bleary numbness out of a
shadow overhanging the porch. Today I shun
the world of fantasy. I don’t recall
my name in your voice or shudder, enthralled.
Yet light persists. All is brown from stem to pith.

Yet such beauty is an enchantment, as dangerous as a faerie paradise where adventurers enjoy immortality just long enough for homesickness to become unbearable, only to return to a world in which their loved ones have been long outlived while they were carousing in the otherworld.


The hospitality of the immortals is both fabled and dearly priced, because their friendship lacks perspective on mortal life.

Take Admetos: when his hospitality to an incognito god was rewarded with a second chance at life, he found only his wife was willing to take his place to satisfy Death. The blessed man began to curse his fate anew, over his wife’s bleak objection, “Time will soften this. The dead are nothing.”

Her lucky husband wailed, “put on black garments, cut your hair, cut the manes of your horses.” In the Euripides rendition of this tragedy, the chorus found a lesson here more dire than the will of any god:

Necessity, you alone need
no altar,
no image,
no sacrifice.

Your will can crush iron.
And your spirit is a cliff that knows not shame.

So faith that the arc of history “bends toward justice” is rumored to be just a shadow of inner errata – the old self-serving bias acting up again.


Uninterested in deus ex machina as a literal basis for holding out hope for a better world, Freud looked at spirituality as a psychological projection, complete with our usual cognitive imperfections: “The dim inner perception of one’s own psychical apparatus stimulates illusions, which are naturally projected outwards, and characteristically into the future and a world beyond. Immortality, retribution, the world after death, are all reflections or our inner psyche …”

Music can be less punishing than such prose, yet ascertain its direction and feeling clearly.

Euripides and the shock of force

January 7, 2013

Simone Weil says of the Iliad, “Force is its sole hero,” proven when those who believe they can wield it victoriously are quickly brought down by the same. Euripides would rewrite the war stories of Homer’s epic, generations later, with an even darker sense of tragedy.

Another two thousand years, and Shakespeare would satirize the Iliad in a Trojan war play that paints their women as whores and their heroes as bombastic hypocrites.

Weil is kinder toward the figures cut by the Iliad’s heroes when they boast idly in camp:

Except when one has a spirit downcast by the enemy’s reputation, one is always much stronger than an absent opponent … [ going forth] as if to a game, a holiday free from daily care.

In every instance, the centrality of brute force survives. The complexity of its manifestations evolves alongside the civilization retelling the myth.

The significance of the sense in which the violence objectifies all it strikes down becomes more ambiguous, as object relations in a world of high technology change the way we look at ourselves.


Picasso, a fishing scene

But the theme is always rampant violence, and this violence transcends the agendas at play on the battlefield in the sense that, for many reasons, no one who inflicts it fully commands it.

Weil argues that Homer’s depiction of the war strips away heroism from everyone in the Iliad but the elemental force that overwhelms all humans caught up in its storm:

The thoughtlessness of those that wield force with no regard for men or things they .. believe they have at their mercy, the hopelessness that impels the soldier to devastate, the crushing of the enslaved and the defeated, the massacres .. make up a picture of unrelieved horror.

If this was true throughout the history of the poem’s preservation, now it needs to be said outright. Is that strange? The reader might miss it. Why is this so now?

In her peculiar literary study The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that a weapon and a tool are alternating realities for the same objects, the one used to transform flesh over the objections of the sentient living victim, and the other used to transform inanimate materials into artifacts.  Like a hammer, or a nail – depending on whether one is building, or crucifying.

Craftmanship explains the tool and the artifact that seems to have an internal life in the imagination, hence suggests a metaphor between tool and weapon that has nothing to do with clubbing your roommate over the head with a screwdriver. Now we have mail order DIY kits for amateur crafts hobbies, made with disposable parts for the disappointed trier to discard without remorse after a half-hearted effort.

That leaves only the sense in which tools, like other objects, can be appropriated for use as weapons on short notice. Would someone using a weapon then assert that to use it thus is no different than using a tool? Some do, and this is a different sort of assault, a psychological one.

Pain silencing is another running theme in Elaine Scarry’s writing, and it is related to the distinction between weapon and tool. The importance of such a distinction in the moral imagination has grown hard to grasp in the life of cities. Taking gold to foxes is as obscure, far from the fluid emotional sciences of health dating to life before money-back guarantees on treatment plans, along with land stewardship among homesteaders, personal valor in war and the hunt.


A hunt in miniature.

So it is normal to think slaughter strange, and flinch from the thought of how we take our food. Yet hope of redeeming in blood survives in our work ethic, vague, neither salt nor hazard but strain itself, even strain against boredom for the sake of having suffered something for wages.

It is normal to rarely turn away from what charity disguised as work is at hand, even if the make-work is clearly more wasteful than productive, apart from keeping “idle hands” out of trouble. The grim alternative is to live off charity, while looking for work that gives traction not from resistance to misdirection, but from the dear work of choosing direction well. This alternative is called being vain and self-indulgent by those who ration charity by conditioning it on participation in tiresome make-work.

The silver perfume of the sun, the muscles of the sun
Are in that wind;
A wind that splashed the schizophrenic deadness
Of the town like honey or a swarm of native bees.
To live there is like living in a tree;
Rome, Paris, are the slagheaps of a pigmy:
Your life, like God’s, descends in heresies.

Holy Sidney

In the brutal symbolism of sacrifice, the lamb may be substituted for the human sacrifice, but at the expense of our willingness to differentiate between a lamb and an object, like an offering of incense. Successfully silencing a human in pain deepens that person’s experience of being objectified, but animals can stand in fear quietly too.

Simone Weil makes the same argument in her essay The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, that “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing” (paraphrased by Susan Sontag).

Simone Weil argues that Homer’s war epic rises above savagery only in glimpses of the courage to face its great cost with humanity, and to view the destruction with a steady capacity for regret. She calls this regret a “bitterness emerging from tenderness and enveloping all men equally, like the bright light of the sun.”

Though the duels of the Iliad dominate our cultural memory of the Trojan war, she finds another subject more central to the poem that made this war a major subject in literary tradition. She picks out a scene before the fatal duel with Achilles, in which Hector comforts his wife, and draws our attention instead to the courage with which they face their parting moments with unstinting regret.

The spouse, in evoking the disgraces of slavery that await his beloved wife, omits that one the mere thought of which would blot their tenderness.

How then do we remember to feel human ourselves, when we recognize our own vulnerability to the forces that surround us?


A sailing stone in Death Valley

Perhaps it is the less tender bitterness of tragedies like Hekabe that allows a playwright like Euripides to make you shudder. Whereas in the Iliad, as Weil’s essay observes, “nothing of value, whether doomed to die or not, is slighted; the misery of all is revealed without dissimulation or condescension; … all that is destroyed is regretted,” in the dramas of the war’s aftermath, Euripides makes unmistakable the victors’ slight regard for a queen reduced to captivity as a slave, mirroring the gods’ blithe disregard for the carnage their flights of fancy leave in their wake.

The Underworld aesthetic in The Legend of the Seeker evokes the imagery in the last lines of “The Show” by Wilfred Owen, a poem which begins “My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,” and details a landscape with rifts traveled by worms, whose “bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten” tellingly:

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward .. / And Death fell with me

.. picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,

Anne Carson says this of the aftermath of the Trojan war evoked by Euripides in his tragedy Hekabe: “…the world after a world war becomes a simple place. It is divided simply into the dead, who are the majority, and those who have somehow managed not to die, whom we call the living. How they live is not important.”

She says this of the heedless fighting on, among survivors who turn to the silent majority, the dead, for a reason to go on and can only think of revenge.

Between irony and bitterness, where are the alternatives to simple defeat? Who survives and who will find the jokes of the gods of war funny? Again, force is the sole hero, but no longer an easily admired one.

The carnival fee for peeping at misery

November 4, 2012

Laughing at extreme violence that is purely fictional is the more innocent side of the attraction of paradox. The less innocent side is promoted as grand and challenging in a novel like The Heart of Darkness. But when the shock is procured on a petty stage, it is called “prurient” and “base” – mere excitability in the presence of blood, which we fear in ourselves and associate with the murderer’s exultation in wickedness.

Hence the conflict in the story of Leontius, told in Plato’s Republic:

“On his way up from the Piraeus outside the north wall, he noticed the bodies of some criminals lying on the ground, with the executioner standing by them. He wanted to go look at them, but at the same time he was disgusted and tried to turn away. He struggled for some time and covered his eyes, but at last the desire was too much for him. Opening his eyes wide, he ran up to the bodies and cried, ‘There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on this lovely sight.’”

The human carnival of humiliations is an interesting indulgence, not that different from the more unflattering options in today’s reality TV line-up. It is a trigger we will pay to pull in our hearts, though we may be embarrassed in polite company to admit to the appetite we don’t know how to explain. Yet that very potential to be embarrassed by one’s desire to look is part of the excitement that draws the crowd.

Poster for the 1932 carnival horror film “Freaks”

Perhaps it is exactly that, in fact – an appetite for permissible venues to plunge ourselves in the experience of shame, known to translators of the Greek word aidos as a word of many connotations (including awe, respect, self-respect, sense of honor, sobriety, moderation, regard for others, regard for the helpless, compassion, shyness, scandal, and dignity), some of which are pleasures ranging from the delicate (coyness) to the sublime (reverence).

Anne Caron discusses these possibilities in connection with the plays of Euripides, a body of work in which already “the real” is an evasive subject, the unconstructed life of the audience a controversial point of departure for dramatizing their favorite myths. Misery, and a shame that serves no redeeming plot device within the action of the play, is what makes tragedy obvious as a genre, as a transaction between values and audiences.

Here pain is already beginning to look like the great challenge in aesthetics that legitimizes street-wise speakers’ disrespect for ethics held to be conventional, the metaphor for the intransigent real that will not be kept off the stage even if it beggars description.

A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of commonsense fact and tries if he cannot understand other areas in terms of this one.

This original area becomes then his basic analogy or root metaphor.

He describes as best he can the characteristics .. discriminates its structure. A list of its structural characteristics becomes his basic concepts of explanation and description.

Thus far the conventional textbook on aesthetic elements by Stephen Pepper. Archetypes are hardly fit to mention among the details of oral tradition and its mundane asides, without being drenched in blood. What do we love about this stuff for images?

Blood rhetoric is as old as story telling conventions come, full of florid literalisms like the Pangs of Ulster and the wine-dark sea under an army of triremes moving on Troy.


When we tire of the iron in suspension, we set all on fire, and the dogged phoenix abducts what we held dear when we wanted only blood. Does recent wresting from the body’s interior implied in colored blood give sexual energy to its description? A trace of an invasion that succeeded in taking down a vivid obstacle, a making of an impression on a living form?

“Beauty is a dreadful and awe-inspiring thing! It is dreadful because it has not been unriddled and never can be unriddled, for God gives us nothing but mysteries …

Beauty! I cannot bear the idea that a man of exalted mind and heart starts with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. Yet even more shocking is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not give up the ideal of the Madonna and his heart may be afire with that ideal, truly afire, just as in his days of childhood and innocence.”

– Dmitry in The Brothers Karamazov

This is not the artist speaking but his subject, a sardonic one. A Russian who reads Schiller and identifies with the sentimental manic depressive episodes of productive melancholy in the writer’s life ironically.

I came across the above passage on a similar mood from Plato in Regarding the Pain of Others, where Susan Sontag reflects on the dark side of the photojournalism mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.” She discusses a desktop photo of death by a thousand cuts in portrait. We are none too pleased with ourselves as social animals when pity gives way to a rather naked enjoyment of the sight of misery or death as spectacle.

We have no rationale for the impulse to look, no excuse for the felt gratification at finding out what we were turning toward.

Sontag also quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest, noting that when Trinculo notices Caliban, he immediately pegs him for an excellent candidate for a carnival exhibition: “not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver … When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.”

Even these duller dimensions of shame may be enjoyable in a sense, when we have sought out the confrontation, mentally prepared to meet the enemy within just so. A little control, a casual way to exit, and we pay to go in. We vibrate with its power over our desires, a complex web of pains through which it binds us to others, selectively but not without sacrifice.