I have a challenge for you: listen to your local TV news and see if you can get through it once – even just once – without hearing tragic, tragedy, or both.
I just heard it again myself: “It appears to have been a tragic accident.” If you know how newsreaders say these things, when I tell you it was a concluding statement you probably have the intonation contour in your head already: roughly A AD D D DC [pause] A CC BAA (“it aPPEARS TO HAVE BEEn [pause] a tragic accident”).
What is tragic? What is tragedy? Well, the words have a certain feel that’s worth a look. They have the paired tongue-tip affricates of, for instance, judge, but with that rolling-in /r/ you get in /gr/ and /kr/ words such as great, grief, crap, Christ, grip, and gross. It has a bit of a different feel with the /t/ or /d/ (which become like “j” and “ch” before the /r/) – think of the feel of traffic tragedy on the train tracks – perhaps lacking the sense of base or depth you get from the back of the tongue, but there’s that straining-forward constriction: say tragedy emphatically and see how your lips thrust forward like an African mask. So the word has a good feel and shape for the effect.
But is the effect appropriate? Are these words well used? Ah, there’s something of a debate about that. This is where the newer usage of these words really gets some people’s goats. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus weighed in on it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
—Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.
—Repeat, said Lynch.
Stephen repeated the definitions slowly.
—A girl got into a hansom a few days ago, he went on, in London. She was on her way to meet her mother whom she had not seen for many years. At the corner of a street the shaft of a lorry shivered the window of the hansom in the shape of a star. A long fine needle of the shivered glass pierced her heart. She died on the instant. The reporter called it a tragic death. It is not. It is remote from terror and pity according to the terms of my definitions.
More often the dissent is on the basis of the Aristotelian idea, in which a hero capable of great acts falls to disaster (catastrophe) in a sudden reversal (peripeteia) through a flaw of character (hamartia), an overreaching (hubris). The audience (and perhaps one or more characters) experiences emotional cleansing (catharsis) through this.
But Aristotle’s idea was just Aristotle’s analysis. He didn’t write any plays himself – he described them a century after the heyday of Athenian drama – and the plays of the classical Greek theatre did not universally follow the pattern he described.
So what was a tragedy, originally? A goat song, it seems, if the usual etymology of τράγος tragos “goat” and ᾠδή oidé “song” is to be believed. But no one’s entirely sure exactly how that came to be the name of the serious drama of Greece. Perhaps it was related to the satyr play that originally formed the fourth piece after a trilogy of serious works.
What we do know is that Greek tragedies involved a small number of actors and a fair-sized all-singing, all-dancing chorus; that they focused on mythical subjects; that the actors wore masks; that the writing was poetic; and that they didn’t always end, um, tragically. Sometimes the ending was happy. Even when it was sad, the hero didn’t necessarily die – Oedipus, for instance, just blinded himself and went into exile.
Obviously the sense of the word has shifted somewhat in non-theatrical usage. In the world of the people who write and read the news you get, a tragedy is not something that happens over a period of time with a playing out of any sort of plot at all. It is not schematized with duration. If someone on TV or in the paper says that, for instance, some ongoing bit of mismanagement is a tragedy, you know you’re listening to commentary. When it’s news qua news, a tragedy is “an instance of a bad (usually deadly) thing happening”.
If, say, a good kid makes a number of stupid mistakes and has a terrible accident in which at least one person dies (whether or not it’s the kid who made the mistakes), it is the accident itself that is referred to as the tragedy. To refer to the whole story as a tragedy would be evaluative in a way that is reserved for commentary.
And it’s all in little hits. The news is full of not three-act or even one-act plays but rather something that is to a drama what a shooter is to a glass of wine, or what a one-bite snack is to a restaurant meal. Tragedy has lost its masks, its chorus, its traffic of the stage; there is no peripeteia, no hamartia, no hubris. Just the anti-orgasm of fatal catastrophe.
And tragic? Ah, tragic, now, that’s even better. It’s like unfortunately. It doesn’t add any more information about what happened. Rather, it adds information about the attitude and character of the person speaking it – the person wants you to know that they know that it is a bad thing, and they want you to feel that it is a bad thing too.
To say of an incident in which someone at a party in a park died “It appears to have been an accident” might seem somehow to dismiss or diminish it. There are accidents all the time, after all. No, no, this is not some simple traffic accident. We must make it clear we are at not ff but full-on g. In order to show that you appreciate how bad it was, and to give that emotional clench that newscasters tend to love, it is necessary to state the obvious just so that no one thinks “Isn’t it obvious to you?” – and so the viewers can feel the punch a little more.
And what’s the effect of that punch, by the way? The viewers probably don’t know or have any connection to the person. Consider: If a friend of yours dies and another friend tells you about it, do they say “It appears to have been a tragic accident”? Likely not. You’d think “Do you think I don’t know it was bad? Do you think I don’t know you know?” Among friends it would be just “It appears to have been an accident” – or “They think it was an accident.” No, the tragic is part of the aesthetic experience of the news.
Yes, indeedy. You may or may not hold to the theory of catharsis, or to the theory of rasadhvani, or to any other particular theory of aesthetic perception, but we know that our response to fiction – movies – has a metacognitive value. We are getting experience, in a way, because we are receiving stimuli highly resemblant to real-life stimuli, and so we have similar reactions. But the lack of immediate consequences for us allows us to experience these things in an at least slightly different way. We can swirl them in the glass, sniff them, roll them on the tongue.
And that’s what much of the news is for most viewers and readers. It has no direct effect on us. It may have happened in reality, but we are not experiencing actual consequences from a stranger’s death or house fire or whatnot, or from some star’s divorce. I know, no one is an island when all is said and Donne, but unless the “tragedy” involves something we have a direct connection to, it’s more like entertainment. We see it, we are shocked, we can process the shock aesthetically; we feel bad, and we feel good about ourselves for feeling bad.
And so you know, when you hear tragic – when you are listening to the goat-song bleatings of some drudge who has dredged up a bleeder to lead with – that you are being invited not just to know, not just to experience, but to know the knowing and experience the experiencing. To feel the terror and the pity, and come away ennobled in your humanity. And all in one act.
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