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What is Tragedy?

Discussion in 'Archive: The Amphitheatre' started by aardvark, Oct 19, 2002.

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  1. aardvark

    aardvark Jedi Youngling star 1

    May 4, 2002
    It's one of the oldest questions in literary criticism. Aristotle first had a go in his Poetics and people have been arguing about it ever since. There are of course textbook definitions which might suit school essays - but lets 'try and look beneath the surface' and explore the substantial debates about the genre which have preoccupied western culture for two millenia.

    Jan Kott argued that, to have a sense of the tragic, you needed to have a concept of the absolute - a transhuman force of inevitability against which human fate is determined. As such concepts lapsed in the 20th Century, Kott argued, human experience turned from being tragic to being grotesque - hence the tragi-comedies of Samuel Beckett. Brecht, on the otherhand, rejected the classical notion of tragedy because it shows the human condition to be governed by implacable, inevitable forces and offers no possibility for change and transformation.

    I've just been reading Terry Eagleton's new book, Sweet Violence, which attempts a reassessment of the tragic and its various meanings. What is interesting about Eagleton is that he reverses the Aristotelian distinction between tragedy as an art-form and tragedy in the more colloquial sense of a really bad thing, such as dying in a car crash. In other words, Oedipus discovering that he is responsible for his own misfortune is a higher form of tragedy than someone who just happens to die tragically, because Oedpius' story says something about the human condition. Eagleton argues against this, pointing to global human disasters such as Rwanda or even Sept 11th and arguing that it is wrong to place art above such events. It's a variation on ?Adorno's claim that there can be no 'art after Auswitzch' -- that art/literature etc. is incapable of representing such depths of human tragedy.

    What is tragedy in 2002? Is there still a place for literary tragedy, can language represent the tragic or has the human capacity to inflict violence on itself gone beyond the capacity of language to represent it? Do events like Sep 11 etc. reinforce Kott's point that human experience is now grotesque - or is there a way of reformulating and recreating a sense of the tragic?
  2. Rogue_Product

    Rogue_Product Jedi Padawan star 4

    Jun 12, 2002
    Tragedy - derived from the Greek word for "goat" if memory serves me correctly - seems to be a dead art form. Indeed, the Greeks perfected it, but the whole idea of it was that something unforeseen would create a tragic outcome. Unfortunately, today, the unforeseen tragedies of the ancient civilisations have become cliches (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet can be seen as tragic, yet today it is a cliche).
    Also, tragedies were designed to shock. What shocks modern society in the form of art today? There is horror and "thriller" but nothing out of these can bring about the sort of shock that a tragedy did to an ancient audience. Unfortunately, tragedy is a genre of the old world, one that we can only remenise about and analyse in its true form, rather than try to mimic in today's world.
  3. aardvark

    aardvark Jedi Youngling star 1

    May 4, 2002
    I didn't mean tragedy in terms of a narrow generic form, but in its wider sense. There have been theories of modern tragedy, starting with Ibsen and including Beckett and most recently, the work of Sarah Kane. What is interesting about Beckett and Kane is that their work is also in many ways about exploring the problematic of tragedy. There is also Satre and tragedy ('hell is other people') and many dramatists - Pinter, Churchill, Bond, Arden - who have approached or reformulated tragedy from some perspective.

    The real point of my post, however, was to respond to the question posed by Eagleton - can art/culture adequately represent human disaster?
  4. SirLancelot

    SirLancelot Jedi Padawan star 4

    Jun 10, 2002

    from the greek "tragos" meaning goat and "Ode" meaining song. literally translated means GoatSong.

    it originated from the original Dyonisian cults in ancient greece. it evolved forom simple goat sacrifices to more elaborate plays, praising the gods.

    i could go much more in depth on this but my english teacher gave us such a good speil on this that i can never do it justice.
  5. ParanoidAni-droid

    ParanoidAni-droid Jedi Padawan star 4

    Nov 27, 2001

    According to that great philospher, Mel Brooks, "tragedy is getting a paper-cut and going up to Mount Sinai to grieve about it. Comedy is falling down an open manhole and dying." In short, I think he means it's a matter of perspective and context.


  6. Ariana Lang

    Ariana Lang Jedi Youngling star 5

    Oct 10, 1999
    Actually, the quote is "Trajedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die."

    In other words, if it's not happening to me, it's funny.
  7. zeekveerko

    zeekveerko Jedi Knight star 5

    Apr 30, 2002
    Of course our modern artists certainly have the ability to portray tragedy.

    Movie examples:

    Requiem for a Dream clearly illustrates the tragic story of the junkie who can't control his desires, and Magnolia shows that tragedy can be changed to comedy with one cosmic event.
  8. Salty

    Salty Jedi Master star 5

    Dec 24, 1998
    I think the biggest difference between comedy and tragedy is how it ends. Literary comedies end with everyone being exactly where they're supposed to be. A literary tragedy is where people don't end up where they're supposed to be. People like happy endings. It's rare to read a book or watch a movie where the bad guy wins or things don't work out in the end. It's just part of human nature. People want to be reassured that everything will be alright. I believe this is why tragedy as an literary artform has basically died.
  9. flying_fishi

    flying_fishi Jedi Knight star 6

    Mar 26, 2002
    I think tragedy is when the human soul reaches the emotional saturation point... when someone reaches the utter depths of despair, the event(s) that put them there are tragedy :)
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