Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Tragic View of Life

The Wall Street Journal Online has the latest on David Mamet's political coming-out. This is an appropriate metaphor, as it seems that Mamet did not actually convert, but realized that what he said his politics were was completely different from what is politics in fact were.

Of course, what is of interest to us here is not Mamet's politics per se, but the foundation on which he says his politics is based: the tragic world view.

The tragic world view is central to dramatic writing.

"That's the essence of drama," Mr. Mamet says. "Anyone can write: And then we realized that Lithuanians are people too and we're all happier now. Who cares?" Tragedy is devastating, he says, precisely because it's about "people trying to do the best they can and ending up destroying each other.

"So it wasn't a great shift to adopt the tragic view, and it's much healthier," he says. "Rather than saying, as the liberals do, 'Everything's always wrong, there's nothing that's not wrong, there's something bad bad bad—there's a bad thing in the world and it's probably called the Jews,'" he says sardonically. "And if it's not called the Jews for the moment, it's their fiendish slave second-hand smoke. Or transfats. Or global warming. Or the Y2K. Or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. And something must be done!'"

It's the last part—the temptation to believe that everything can be fixed—that Mr. Mamet thinks is the fatal error.

Mamet no doubt points to why so much art today is bad and boring. If you do not have the tragic view of life, you can write neither tragedies nor comedies (correctly described by Carol Burnett as "tragedy, plus time"). There is no drama without a problem -- and the drama is likely to be boring if it is easily solved. Why? For one, it's completely unrealistic.

Look at some of Shakespeare's comedies. They typically end in marriage. Yet, you are left with some uneasiness. Are these matches really going to work out over the long haul? Probably not. The problems are temporarily resolved, but you know that there are deeper problems that cannot help but emerge. Othello could have been a great comedy if Shakespeare had concentrated on the lead up to the marriage -- and stopped precisely at the marriage. Rather, we got what happened afterward.

In the tragic world view you understand that you cannot know what the results of your actions will be. There are unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences. Great drama investigates these very things. Othello is swayed only because of the chance dropping of his wife's handkerchief. A seeming small thing that has great significance with the right(wrong) words. And yet there are those who do not understand this, who think that their intentions are all that matter, damn the consequences. Or, they do not see or understand that there can be any consequences other than those they intended. It is naivete combined with willful blindness -- they are naive to believe it, and willfully blind to the consequences of their actions.

Is it any wonder, then, that the further left a person turns, the more ill-humored they become? Janeane Garafalo used to be one of my favorite comediennes. Now she's about as unfunny as one can imagine. On the other hand, Chris Rock, who many imagine must be a political liberal, in fact embodies this tragic world view. In this sense, Rock is deeply "conservative" (really, classically liberal, as conservatives don't really embody the tragic world view, but believe with the right policies we can all be made good -- just in a different way than the left). He will be funny only so long as he continues to have the tragic view of life.

All of the great artists have the tragic view of life. They must if they are going to produce anything worth reading, hearing, and/or viewing. In the end, the only thing that matters for an artist is, as Mamet says, "is can you put the asses in the seats and can you keep the asses in the seats. That's not me, that's Aristotle. I've forgotten the Greek for it." The first step in doing this is by embracing the tragic view of life. It is the driving force behind economic growth, it is the driving force behind human action, it is the driving force behind all great art.


  1. Your post is little more than a puny defense of Mamet's rambling and rather obnoxious attempt of transference from the Imaginary to the Real. It does not follow that though fictional tragic events may resemble factual tragic events they are identical. Mamet writing a tragic sequence and, say, a journalist reporting a tragic happening are clearly quite different -- If need be, I'll enumerate the disparities. Also, I must comment on the very telling example you used with regards to "Othello". I can only hope that your readers take your word and have not and will not read Shakespeare's play for themselves. How does one forget the direct agency (an utterly controlling one at that) of Iago over all characters and much of the events in the tragedy? "Othello" is not a play of chance, of the unforeseen consequences of daily interactions; rather, it is a play about manipulation, jealousy, and the destructive pursuit for power (i.e.: both of over the Other as neighbor and of the Other as self). If "Othello" is to shed light on any system, it does so on our modern day Corporatist (ersatz) free market order.

  2. Now, I cannot say for certain, but it appears that you don't really understand what it meant by "tragic." I say this precisely because of your example of "a journalist reporting a tragic happening". Just sitting here, I cannot think of a single time I have ever heard of a journalist reporting a tragic happening. I have heard journalists reporting many sad things and terrible things and horrible things, but nothing truly tragic. That is, of course, because it is difficult at best to know if something is truly tragic.

    So what is meant by tragic? Well, a tragedy takes place when a person acts for the good (or thinks he is acting for the good), with bad consequences for him and others. A tragedy takes place because of our necessary ignorance. Which is why Oedipus is one of the greatest works of art - it is the tragedy par excellance precisely because it deals with the tragedy of knowledge and ignorance. But it is not the only one. Yes Iago is a manipulator, but his manipulations were completely ineffectual until the chance dropping of the handkerchief, which he took advantage of. It was both Iago's manipulations and, even more, Othello's ignorance -- of what really happened with the handkerchief, of the true nature of Iago, of who his true friends were -- that drives the tragedy.

    BTW, corporatism is the opposite of a free market.

  3. Even with your (or, as it seems, your blithe and blind adoption of Mamet's) somewhat oversimplified (permissive-cynical) elucidation of what qualifies as "the tragic", one may yet, and with ease, chart that same "tragic" in the "sad things and terrible things and horrible things", which might be (and often are) reported daily on. By your own words you've betrayed yourself as a sponsor of and an observer of such, and only through observation is tragedy known. Correct?

    Is it consistent even with your narrow definition of tragedy? Can you now understand my statement regarding "a journalist reporting a tragic happening"?

    Furthermore, when Mamet writes that "all Arabs" wish (when speaking of Israelis) "to kill them all" he forfeits any protection that his concept-adoration for populist-tragedy might have (attempted to) secure. Of course, none of his half-hatched opinions reflect on you directly. But indirectly...?

    To such "half-hatchedness" however: I must disagree with your reading of "Othello". Iago's "manipulations were completely ineffectual until the chance dropping of the handkerchief"? That is quite a selective reading of said play. Really, A gross misreading at that!

    Finally, to your "staid" BTW -- irony is something you might want to master. Also, you may want to look up the definition of “ersatz”.

  4. I'm not going to defend everything Mamet has ever said. The only person I agree with 100% of the time is myself, and then that is only at any given time -- I disagree with many positions my past selves have held.

    I do agree with Mamet, though, about the tragic sense of life. And Mamet and I both agree on the definition of tragedy -- as does every other expert in the field of tragedy. A tragedy is not a sad happening. In fact, tragedy is a specialized term, meaning a certain kind of play. It's popular misuse and misdefinition is none of my concern, other than to battle against it when people specifically misuse it when discussing both tragedy as an art form and the tragic sense of life. In both of those cases, it is used in a very particular way that has nothing to do with the popular misuse you are promulgating. I would not turn to a journalist for the proper use of any term.

    The word "tragedy" means, in Greek, "goat song." The "goat" refers to both scapegoating and to the satyrs who appear in the 4th play of the tragic series, the satyr play. They play a great part in the irony of the tragic series. Of course, by the time tragedy in its pure form made its return, the satyr play had been lost, and the irony internalized to the single play (rather than the series) that constituted the tragedy. So a tragedy is a kind of play -- not a sad, etc. occurrence. And the kind of play it is is as described. This is accepted by all the experts on tragedy, whether playwrights or literary theorists/scholars (I am both).

    I do understand your statement about journalists reporting on a tragic happening. It is what I focused on in pointing out that you don't have any idea what you're talking about when it comes to tragedy. If you did, you would have never used that as an example, except to refute it.

    As for Othello, I am willing to bet I have read Othello more recently, more often, and more thoroughly than you have. I recommend you go read it again and see how effectual Iago is before the dropped handkerchief, and what manages to finally convince Othello. Until that point, Othello brushes off everything Iago claims. Of course, Iago had to have been making the effort so that the handkerchief could be convincing, but it all revolves on that dropped handkerchief. Also, I am not the original of the idea that the handkerchief is central, Harriet Hawkins is, as I point out in my Evolutionary Aesthetics. She points out that those who don't recognize its importance are the ones who are simplistic in their reading and understanding of the play.

    As for the BTW, you are quite funny. There is no indication that you had an ironic bone in your body, so you may forgive me for missing the one instance where it occurs, at the end. Accusing me of not mastering irony is, well, most ironic -- as everyone who actually knows me would tell you. The bracketing of "ersatz" throws question as to what you are making reference. It does not necessarily imply, as you seem to think, that corporatism is a stand-in or replacement for free market in the way you structured the sentence.

  5. Specifically, does "ersatz" belong to "corporatist" or to "free market"? If you corporatist, you and I are in agreement; if to "free market," then we are not. As you structured the sentence, "ersatz" can belong to either term.

  6. I can only suspect that you were somewhat of a poor student considering how rather common of scholar you are (or claim to be). When I wrote of Mamet's " ... attempt of transference from the Imaginary to the Real." I thought that I made clear the error, for, "It does not follow that though fictional tragic events may resemble factual tragic events they are identical. Mamet writing a tragic sequence and, say, a journalist reporting a tragic happening are clearly quite different...." You returned -- an argument of a kind: "well, clearly, you do not know tragedy."

    Your basic historico-reductive explanation of tragedy only demonstrates you have (as I've already written) but a narrow (or, if you will, limited) grasp on what tragedy is; perhaps you're in need of a brush-up class at your local community college (anything would help!). For one thing, there is nothing of displacement in your reading of tragedy. Displacement which demands an observer. Yet, forgive me! You wrote that "This is accepted by all the experts on tragedy, whether playwrights or literary theorists/scholars ..." Wait! You wrote that? You're correct only in a most cynical way ( a way dependent on an enormous hold of ignorance). But enough of that for now.

    I thank you kindly for your generous and wise elucidations on "Othello". I understand that you are "not the original [sic] of the idea", but rather a transponder of some other's idiocy. Dear fellow, if it were true that you've read Othello "more often ... more recently", than I, then great! It appears, however, your thorough and often readings have gained you nothing more than a mediocre appreciation of the play.

    Regarding your question "does "ersatz" belong to "corporatist" or to "free market"? If you [sic] corporatist, you and I are in agreement ...", I'll tell you that belongs to both, in that, it follows from the Real of either.

    Also, would you mind telling your friends that they may have no idea what irony is?

  7. Ph.D. in the humanities, one of my areas of specialty being tragedy. The highest score possible on my qualifying exams and oral defense.

    Just because you insist on remaining in error, that doesn't mean I am "too narrow" in my definition. You may certainly continue to misuse terms if you wish. In an academic setting, nobody is going to use the common misuse of the term. One can nevertheless understand what the typical uneducated person means by using it in the common way. Since this is an academic setting, it is important that the term "tragedy" be used as properly defined: as used by scholars and playwrights.

    I have noticed that when people hide behind "anonymous" they feel like they can act like complete jerks -- one, after all, doesn't have to take responsibility for one's words. (BTW, the first "sic" s unnecessary, as I used the term correctly -- demonstrating your ignorance of basic grammar -- though the second "sic" was necessary for the typo.) (Also, being a jerk doesn't make one ironic. It makes one a jerk. I have attempted to have a decent conversation here despite you.)

  8. I suppose we're at an impasse. I did not mean to hurt your feelings. Perhaps, you were a great student -- in fact, now that I've thought it over, it's always the "proper" students which become ... there I go again. Pardon me.

    My ignorance of basic grammar? Well, I suppose you might have a case here. Except, you should not. At best, what you wrote was written clumsily: " I am not the 'original' of the idea that the handkerchief is central...." Come now! "Originator" is much less annoying. And, really, I'd say, much more correct considering the intention of your statement (and the time period in which you live).

    I apologize for "acting" like a jerk. I read your dissertation, and you are surely not as simple as your above remarks lead people to believe.


  9. One suspects irony (due, particularly to the last phrase of the last sentence), yet I will choose to accept your apology as sincere.

    Your quibbles about original vs. originator are one of taste. Yes, I slipped into an archaism. But that is like arguing that Rothko should have painted with more purple than red, simply because one prefers purple.

    My assertion about Othello is not a complete analysis of the play, and was never intended to be understood as such. It is an element most people do not take into consideration, and which adds to the complexity of the play. I have begunto notice many people making the mistake of thinking that just because a single element of something is pointed out, that the one doing so is acting the reductionist. People need to give the benefit of the doubt rather than assume the worst. Generosity of spirit will get one much farther - which harldy means one should not raise questions if there are in fact questions. But imagine the difference it makes when one assumes one should give the benefit of the doubt rather than that one should assume the worst.

    1. You should stop feeding the troll. He's only trolling you and you kept taking the bait. I wish I'd read Othello to be able to argue better, but knowing Aristotle's Poetics a little and Oedipus the King, I understand that your view of tragedy is neither narrow, nor incorrect.
      I don't too understand your post though. Do you know about the 'Tragic View of Life' in and of itself? I'm trying to find information on it for my Elements of Drama class.

    2. I don't mind such discussions. They help me refine my own arguments.

      A person with a tragic view of life understands that humans have constraints and that even good acts will eventually have negative consequences, given enough time. We cannot control every consequence of every action. This means that gooda cts will have negative consequences and bad acts will have positive consequences. This hardly means one shouldn't try to do good or that one should be indifferent to the bad -- since in each case, intention does matter, as does the overall trajectory of one's acts.

      Only those with a tragic view of life can write tragedies, because only such a person could understand that Oedipus, for example, is attempting to exceed his natural bounds -- in this case, of knowledge. If you think people do not have bounds, tragedies do not make sense. You end up with arguments that miss the point of tragedy.

      In fact, only by understanding the world in this way can one understand the emergence of the Invisible Hand/spontaneous order. Self-interested actions result in the emergence of a social order that allows for large-scale social cooperation. We understand there are unintended consequences/externalities/spillover effects only if we have a tragic view of life. As also understand that there are both positive and negative versions of these. This does not mean we should not act -- as not acting is an action in a real sense -- but that we must do so with a full awareness of the fact that there will be these kinds of consequences. Thus we must be careful and knowledgeable of our boundaries. Only with such awareness and knowledge can we make good decisions.

  10. I just happened by this polite scholarly discussion. One very good book on the tragic sense of life is Miguel de Unamuno's Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida (On The Tragic Sense of Life) (1912). Best, Dario Fernandez-Morera