Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tragedy Revisited

My recent research into the notions of moral imagination and moral luck has led me to revise (slightly) my previous view of the use and misuse of the term "tragedy."

The first part of Martha Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness is a study of Greek tragedy, particularly Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Sophocles' Antigone. As I read her interpretation, it occurred to me that I would need to actually read the plays themselves. I had read Antigone before, but I don't think I had ever read anything at all by Aeschylus.

So, I dug in: I read the whole Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus as well as a handful of his other plays, Sophocles' Theban plays, and even a few plays by Euripides. I had to read the Oresteia twice so that I could catch the irony the second time around: almost everything said in the first half of Agamemnon has a double meaning, which only comes clear if you know how the whole thing ends.

The thing about tragedy - and this from Hegel as well as Nussbaum - is that the characters always have only a partial view of their situation. They get themselves into trouble when they act with too much pride, too much confidence that their view is the only correct view. This is most acute in the conflict between Antigone and Creon.

The audience and (sometimes) the gods see more clearly: they can see the partialness of the views on both sides, and can see the tragic collision that is afoot. Judging Orestes' case in Eumenides, Athena declares that she can see justice on both sides (Orestes on the one hand, the Furies on the other), so she institutes due process of law to sort it out.

This take on tragedy meshes nicely with what I've been reading about moral imagination and the cognitive bases of ethics. We always understand the world through a set of conceptual schemes or mental models; this is how we select from the overwhelming detail of the world around us, this is how we make meaning. But mental models are always partial - by necessity, because they must be selective.

We get into trouble when we think that one mental model - the one we happen to have right now - is complete and authoritative. When we do this, we are riding for a fall. One of the functions of tragedy as a dramatic form is to show the audience just how much trouble we can get into, and how big the fall can be.

This has led me to the possibility of recasting skepticism in new terms, since I've worried about being too reliant on Hume, with all his dogmatic empiricism. Skepticism may be nothing more than a matter of recognizing the partialness of all mental models, and resolving always to be open to other ways of looking at things. In other words, skepticism is a persistent effort to avoid the kind of pride that leads to tragedy.

(I should look into whether the avoidance of tragedy might have been behind the thinking of the Pyrrhonians, whose goal was tranquility, an end to unnecessary strife.)

So, getting back to my earlier post on tragedy, it occurs to me that I may have been too hard on people. When something awful happens - perhaps even the death of Fluffy - it can break through the complacent assurance with which we tend to view the world. It throws our own mortality in our faces, shows us the fragility of everything we take to be rock-solid.

Now, I do think that the term is used too casually in the media; mostly, people should say of things that are really just very sad that they are really just very sad. I also doubt that anyone would write a play about the death of Fluffy.

But then, consider these passages from Robert Fagles' translation of Agamemnon:

Cassandra to the Chorus:
Oh men, your destiny.
When all is well a shadow can overturn it.
when trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,
and the picture's blotted out. And that,
I think that breaks the heart.

or, earlier on, the Herald to the Leader of the Chorus:
Think back in years and what have you?
A few runs of luck, a lot that's bad.
Who but a god can go through life unmarked?

or, still earlier, the Chorus:
Zeus has led us on to know,
the Helmsman lays it down as law
that we must suffer, suffer unto truth.
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
the pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.
From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench
there comes a violent love.

Robert F. Kennedy misquoted Edith Hamilton's prose translation of this passage in an impromptu speech upon hearing of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Here is Hamilton's (1930) version:

And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

So maybe there can be a chance to attain some measure of wisdom in any experience of grief and pain, from the ridiculous (the death of Fluffy) to the sublime (the death of Dr. King). To this extent, at least, any really sad thing can have at least a tenuous relation to tragedy.

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