Thursday, February 21, 2013

tragedy ain't so bad

We are wasting too much damn energy. We are erecting too many platforms of nonsense. Those forms are becoming insufferable -- from New Age woo, transhumanism, ancient aliens, and numerology to the sophisticated blarney of dark matter, quantum strings, the multiverse, and rational inquiry. We are doing entirely too many different things, writing too many damn books about this, that, and what-have-you.  

Collective human consciousness is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own claptrap and superstitious glomming. Too many launching scaffolds are being built for ostensible escape from tolling of the bronze bell. Replacing the older versions of coping is a plethora of sublimated credulity and desperate optimism. Politics has become an annoying plague. It's as if people nowadays are not paying sufficient attention to the Greek philosophers, to Schopenhauer, to Nietzsche, to Mahler, to the poets.

This increasing hysteria must stop.  

We are not getting out of this thing alive. Instead of projecting one's mortal angst -- "I never want to die!" -- onto invisible conspiracies like the Rothschild-Illuminati threat and other specimens of existential paranoia, consider the Greek tragedians. Or Unamuno.

Miguel de Unamuno's classic The Tragic Sense of Life develops a theme of tension and a kind of resolution within that tension. Reason tells us we are mortal. Subjectivity tells us that can't possibly be the case. So we find ourselves between the two -- suspended in the tragic. There, we might live in the paradox of a hopeless faith. We know we're going to die, but we might live as if we're immortal. I think Unamuno would agree that such an attitude is better than sublimating awareness of death into modes of vocational and avocational panic, into forms of nonsense. The title of one of his plays -- The World is a Theater -- brings to thought a question and a possibility. Where do the characters of a play go after the final act and the actors leave the stage? Perhaps they persist in an impossible (therefore true) state of aesthetic resonance.

Speaking of theater, playwright Maxwell Anderson referred to it as "a religious institution dedicated to the exaltation of the spirit of man." Surely -- and strangely -- ancient Greek tragedies continue to cast a genetic echo into that implied theater exaltation.

George Steiner's book The Death of Tragedy argues that we have lost the ancients' sense of absolute pessimism -- a noble way of being in despair. The gods were a permanent mystery. We were without official ontological papers. We were left to our own forms of meaning and action within the looming context of oblivion. The old tragedies bore such things out and lent to the stage action a heightened sense of coming to human terms with choice and will, with error and consequence. 

The Greek Chorus interjected commentary and information into sequences of dialog and action, perhaps representing the characters' super-egos. Insinuations of fate and persisting. Through the unfolding of staged situations within the context of the choral tragic, audiences experienced catharsis. They left the theater restored to poise.

So...rather than deflect the problem of existence as such into manias and horoscopes, two things are called for: composure and the slow making of melancholy art.

Greek Chorus -- Hildegarde Haas, 1949


  1. The interjection of commentary between the lines of dialogue appears in many modern and nearly-modern dramas. Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" comes to mind. More esoterically, Joyce's novels, by their form, interject commentary. Less so, Hugo in "Les Miserables" diverged ad nauseam, sometimes with dramatic intent (as in the long description of Waterloo) but someimes for reasons that can only be regarded as "demonstrative," (as in his boring discussion of monasticism. As for writing or thinking about the Greek philosophers, one POV has it that all of philosophy is a continuing commentary of those guys. But you point is well taken and excellently expressed.

  2. Cool stuff. Thanks for reading and commenting, Frank.