Monday, May 13, 2013

What Makes Us Cry -- Part One: Tragedy, with Fear and Pity

Time for the flip side.
As covered in last week's post our stories in our entertainment the media has generally divided our stories up into two halves: that which makes us laugh aka comedies, and that which makes us cry aka tragedies. Today I'll begin a long series of posts exploring that often "sad and serious" side of our dramatic mask duo. This series will alternate with exploring several genres. The two series will alternate as I explore the many sub-genres and ask if they truly can be considered subgenres of Comedy & Tragedy or genres in their own right. Here's a question, do you simply consider something "sad" as tragic? Is Tragedy simply something that's sad, or is there something more to it? Obviously I'm going to spend the rest of the article trying to convince you that there is more to it, so let's cut to the chase, shall we?

Noh is equivalent but also different.
Tragedy is arguably our oldest and most preserved genre known to mankind. And it doesn't just exist in western literature, but has its equivalents in Asian literature, most notably in the Noh theater of Japan. While comedy is more nebulous, tragedy has had a clearly defined set of rules to it thanks to Aristotle and the people who preserved his works. As such we can read Aristotle's Poetics today and get a strong sense of what tragedy was like for ancient Greeks. In fact for the majority of our history from the Renaissance to today, writers of Tragedy have gone back to Aristotle to get a sense of "the rules".

Peer pressure never looked so good.
When you read Poetics, one gets a strong sense that Aristotle adored tragedy and thought Comedy was rather base and ugly. Aristotle however does go on to give a good history of how both genres came about, saying that comedy came from the "phallic songs" and tragedy the dithyrambs, or wild and ecstatic songs sung in praise of the god Dionysus. Dithyrambs were typically about a chorus of singers interacting with a "leader" telling the story of some part of Dionysus' life. Supposedly the big shift occurred when Aeschylus added a second "leader" thus disturbing the "call and response" nature of the dithyramb by sometimes having the two leaders interact and butt heads.

Let me pause for a moment on the term "call and response". To those familiar with a religion, one would typically find within a religious service there are moments when the audience is asked to read or chant something in response to the religious leader. This sense of religion is important because ultimately, no matter how we try to hide it, tragedy ultimately comes from religion and thus has a lot of religious overtones. Specifically it came from worshipping the great god Dionysus--who was a male fertility god, god of wine, and god of theatre. It was thought each year that the god Dionysus would be ritually killed and then dispensed to be "consumed" by the rest of his followers, giving them life from his harvested death. If that ritual sounds familiar it's because you can still see it in practice in the religion of Christianity today. It's the communion ceremony, only its "dying god" is Jesus Christ--not Dionysus.

This ritual surrounding the death of a god and how it renews the community is still at the heart of tragedy, for all tragic heroes act as stand in for the "dying god" and their deaths are an act which renew the community that surrounds them. However, like Dionysus, just because they die that doesn't mean they're dead. It's here where we have to explore why the tragic deed is done in the first place.

It could turn on him at any moment...
While Comedy focuses on the community at large, Tragedy usually follows the journey of a special individual who is the stand in for the dying god. Typically tragedies tell serious or sombre stories about a tragic hero attempting to change some aspect of his or her society. In trying to change the "way of the world", the tragic hero butts heads with the "order of things". Literary critic Northrop Frye describes their position as being "atop the wheel of fortune" reaching up towards the heavens and by doing so causing the wheel to turn and them to fall. The higher plane they reach out to is typically a cosmic order such as the gods or God, or sometimes an abstract mystical order like "destiny", "fate" or "the stars" which is greater than the heroes themselves, but at the same time slightly a part of or desire to be a part of. Remember the term Alazon from the last theoretical post on comedy? Well, now we get to view the world from their perspective--not the Eiron's. In this world view accepting things "the way they are" is seen as an unjust crime, and not striving to liberate oneself from the chains of the human body and be part of that cosmic order is tantamount to being corrupt and giving in to our base natures. Being human is seen as something negative here, for being human means we aren't perfect or transcendent. Whereas comedy relished and found strength in the idea that "we're all human, we all make mistakes, and we're all dependent on our bodies", tragedy sees our humanity as a curse--as it traps our "immortal souls" for lack of a better term. This is why death in tragedy isn't truly about death, it's about the liberation from these chains of life and our ascension into the immortal realm. And this is accomplished now in a modern society that generally doesn't believe in an afterlife (or at least the same afterlife) by a person falling in order to rise and become a legend or a story in their own right to be told throughout the ages. That's the note Othello ends on with his final monologue asking us to tell his story and remember him as "one who loved not wisely, but too well." In the same sense you see Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, doing the same thing in her own ritualistic suicide filled with life-giving symbols (putting the asps to her breasts and turning herself into a mother goddess figure of sorts). 

Time, that ticking rascal!
There is a sense in tragedy of the ticking clock. In the beginning the tragic hero seems to have control over time, or at least is in sync with it. After committing the tragic deed which violates the "natural order", they then become wild and crazy (much like Dionysus) and out of sync with "time" as it increasingly moves faster and faster. Time and timing are both especially important in tragic works by Shakespeare. This is why tragedy always seems to take place in the past, and very rarely in the future. Because the sense of time and having the right timing can be played up by the author in the past. When set in the past the ticking clock is inherent as the audience on some level knows the coming wave of history and it can create the sense of fear and pity for our tragic hero as they continue unaware of that coming event. And when a tragedy does take place in the future, it's usually about the end of one age and beginning of another, with man trying to hold on to a vanishing past that now has become legend.

And all of this is great and wonderful, but how does all of this make us "sad" or "cry"? Well, for that answer, I turn back to Poetics:

"A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; ... in dramatic , not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." --Aristotle

It's the senses of pity and fear that cause us to feel sad or to cry. And that feeling of sadness or the action of crying is a purgation (aka catharsis) of those feelings of fear and pity. Catharsis gives us a feeling of "release" or satisfaction and it all ties into how we connect with the tragic hero and his or her plight. Were they noble causes to fight for? Did they end up making mistakes along the way that they ended up paying for? Were the forces they were up against needed to be changed? And how does that reflect our own positions?

Aeschylus, the father of tragedy
A tragic hero's attempt to change their world and inability to do so as "mere human beings" inspires those feelings of pity and fear within us as readers and viewers. We pity that they were "doomed to failure" and fear ourselves what consequences would come from overturning "natural law". But yet we also look on them and find inspiration to change the so called "natural order of things". Even Greek tragedies end in an old system giving way to a new. The father of tragedy, and most influential tragedian, Aeschylus, shows us with his tragic trilogy of how the death of Clytemnestra by Orestes' hand led the Greeks out of the monarchial world of blood feuds and helped establish the justice of democracy in ancient Athens, by having that murder be tried by Pallas Athena herself and twelve jurors of Athens. From the violation of "natural order" by a matricide that had to be committed (since Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon) we come to see how that act led to the end of that system and the beginning of a new system, which WE (the Athenian audience watching the play) established. In that light, tragic heroes are criminals who "had" to commit the cosmic crimes in order to bring about change in the long run--long after they're gone. They become our martyrs--though not all tragic heroes have to die in order to become so, they can become martyrs simply by their act of falling.

Tragic heroes are our martyrs, and like Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar, can turn a crowd of hatred and indifference into a loving crowd baying for the blood of those who killed their martyr. Tragic heroes fall, but they fall to inspire us and through their fall live on in how they continue to inspired and renew us--the audience members. We pity their fall, we fear their fall, but through fear and pity we come to a catharsis which allows us to see how we have changed the world for the better, or how we can continue doing so in the future. It's a communion ceremony for society, except without the bread and wine.


Classical Examples:

The Oresteia
The Bacchae

Modern Examples:

The Diary of Anne Frank
The Matrix
I Am Legend
Cloud Atlas

Here's your video clip: Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar that I spoke about. Watch as he through the power of story telling transforms Caesar into a tragic figure.

Until next time,



Next Theoretical Post: 5/20/13 - What Makes Us Laugh -- Part Two: Romantic Comedies, when Opposites Attract

Next Serial Post: 6/3/13 - What Makes Us Cry -- Part Two: Melodrama, when to bring a handkerchief