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?