Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Reality /
2000 08 22

Tragedy Requires a Public Context
Mission: to distinguish academic use of the word tragedy from pop and media usage

Your death, dismemberment, malfeasance … is personal, local. It has consequence, but the consequence is not universal. If Atlas holds up the world while Joe Blow scratches his belly, Joe Blow’s death is a misfortune to Joe Blow; Atlas’s death is a misfortune to all in the world no longer held up.

See Logic: Assumed Connections.

If you disrespect the Constitution, so what? Especially if no one notices or takes offense. If the judge, the senator, the president … disrespects the Constitution, if Atlas drops the world … It’s a different matter, is on another level, has a vaster scope.
Nixon lying in the White House had international implications; George Washington as a boy, lying about lying, was still local, amateur: private.

The popular (media) meaning of the word tragedy is very different from its historical and academic use.

thanx kis

The newscasters routinely refer to transportation fatalities — car and train wrecks, airplane crashes — as tragedy (pandering, as always, to the masses) (complying with the wishes of their true bosses) (who remain invisible). Classical literature reserved the word for misfortunes that directly affect the entire society. I believe we would benefit by applying the academic meaning not because “Aristotle said so”; but because the media’s usage is invidious as well as trivial.

Oedipus isn’t a tragedy because Oedipus had killed his predecessor. Nor was it a tragedy because his wife/mother committed suicide. Oedipus putting out his eyes with her brooch is not what makes Oedipus a tragedy. What makes that play a tragedy is the essential fact that Oedipus was the king. And that doesn’t matter unless classical training (or rare insight) show you that for traditional cultures the king was the people.


When Shakespeare has his kings refer to themselves as “England” or “France” that is no idle figure of speech. Contemporary culture handicaps us in this perception: even told, we still may not see it.

The king dying doesn’t make it tragedy. Even traditional societies knew their kings were mortal. Aristotle emphasized that Greek tragic figures have a “tragic flaw.” Contemporaries are further handicapped in their assumption that a “flaw” is or ought to be correctable. There’s nothing in Greek (or Shakespearean) tragedy to suggest the tragic figures could have “done anything about” their tragic fate. The point as I see it is that the society is helpless with its “fate.” (There were thousands in the previous century who were helpless to stop slavery, tens of thousands in this century who were helpless to stop “Vietnam.”)

Joseph Wood Krutch argued that for Christians, tragedy should be impossible. (I translate: no matter how we fuck up, even after we’ve killed God himself, railroaded him, God will still bail us out. If we light a candle. If we light a candle, he’ll love and forgive us, even though we don’t obey the law, ignore his messages, kangaroo and torture his representatives and alternate identities.) Our flaws are obviated by Christ’s mercy. That argument would be valid if: Christ’s mercy were real; and if: we were Christians. (Lighting candles doesn’t convince me.)

I had trouble with classical literature at the times it was being assigned to me because I believed that Christ’s mercy was real and that I was a Christian. (How could I sit still for Hamlet when it was about a very unchristian revenge? Now I believe that classical literature is more, not less, profound than biblical literature (however much I remain convinced that both together are not worth one formula by Prigogine or one perception by Godel or Mandelbrot).

But now I try to concentrate on the main point at hand. A bus full of people killed at a railroad crossing ends their lives, impacts their surviving family members, lessens some kleptocratic coffers … A whole national soccer team crashing from the sky grieves the nation … But they are nothing compared to … say President Nixon’s administration. Watergate was a tragedy we were prevented from being purged by. Nixon should have put out his eyes, castrated himself, had his head kicked through the marketplace …; not raised his fingers in his stupid V. “Vietnam” was a tragedy we weren’t allowed to confront at the time it might have purged us. Nixon’s flaw exposed our flaw in having voted for him (and Kennedy, Johnson … any of them.)

The Civil War was a tragedy in which the flawed society was killed (though it was reborn in some ways even more flawed). And these flaws are not things we can easily be glibly tried for, such as whether our killings are “premeditated” or “involuntary.”

Oedipus knew he had killed a man on the road years before. What he didn’t know was that the man was a king and his real father. We knew what Nixon was when we voted for him. (We just didn’t think his death wish extended to us.) We knew slavery was wrong. We knew the slaves were human. It didn’t matter what rationalizations biblical scholars could come us with for us. (And what makes the Bible an ethical guide? Actually read it sometime.) (Do we now know that the wage slavery of the north was only marginally, factitiously, different? Would an alien anthropologist recognize our distinctions between a plantation and a sweat shop as real? Do we see that the south too in its way was industrial? Cotton is not food, but industry.) Do we see that we’ve kept all the flaws? Insisted on retaining them? Do we see that we’re asking for it?

Well, if Jesus is Christ, and Christ is God, and God is real, then it doesn’t matter. He’ll bail us out. All we have to do is light a candle. And go right on fucking up.

See my Hubris post. I promise there a related piece on Quantum Differences: relevant here too.

It’s Not My Fault

2005 11 21 More soldiers have shot more civilians in Iraq: including a baby. Reuters quotes: “This is a tragedy,” said Major Steve Warren, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baquba, near where the shooting occurred. “But these tragedies only happen because Zarqawi and his thugs are out there driving around with car bombs,” he added, referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a militant leader in Iraq.

Now, never mind the politics; focus on the theology. For the ancient Greeks tragedy was the gods fucking up the king for their own purposes. At the least the king was supposed to learn a little humility, to recognize his helplessness: in a universe he doesn’t really rule. In this situation the soldier blames the army’s enemy: The guerillas made me do it. gods, the nature of things, is displaced by politics. The killers aren’t responsible for the killing; other killers are. It’s not my fault, cries John Belushi.

Where are the gods? All right, where’s God? And where’s the humility?

The Greek gods took the responsibility for the tragedy. Here man takes on all responsibility as far as decisions and actions are concerns, but takes no responsibility for consequences not to his liking.

In democracy the public replaces God as the infallible one.

I don’t mind God getting demoted; I can’t stand man getting promoted. Not without taking the moral responsibility too.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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