On tragedy

For those who were unable to make class today, the film we saw was Wendy and Lucy (2008), directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams; it’s available on Netflix. Remember that the films we watch and discuss in class are fair game for quizzes and the exam.

Is Wendy and Lucy a modern-day tragedy? How so? How not? What would count as its katastrophe (reversal of fortune)? 

I was thinking after class that a tragedy of this kind might be a powerful rebuttal to the American Dream masterplot (a culturally-specific version of the rags-to-riches or virtue rewarded masterplots). The American Dream effectively means that with hard work and dedication you will achieve success; failure in this scenario is therefore one’s own fault–perhaps one is lazy, or not wanting it enough. Tragedy, on the other hand, would say that success and failure happen , for no reason other than inexorable determinism plus a bad choice or unfortunate error or bad luck. In reality, no doubt, our successes and failures are too overdetermined to reduce to a single cause or narrative.

Another film that might bear comparison to tragedy is Fargo, by the Coen Brothers, a much livelier and funnier movie than Wendy and Lucy but also remarkably similar in its structure and emphasis on determinism. Another movie that is also at least conceivable as a tragedy is The Ides of March (2011), directed by George Clooney; it is different from the other films I mentioned because it focuses on the higher echelons of power. The body count is low, however, and if there is a tragic hero it is the Democratic contender (Clooney’s role), who is not the main character (that would be one of the Democrat’s junior campaign managers, played by Ryan Gosling).

Here is the remarkable quotation I read in class:
“Le me put forward one possible definition of ‘tragedy’ in its pure or absolute mode. ‘Tragedy’ is a dramatic representation, enactment, or generation of a highly specific world-view. This world-view is summarized in the adage preserved among the elegies ascribed to Theognis, but certainly older, and present also in Middle Eastern sacred texts: ‘It is best not to be born, next best to die young.’ This dictum is a transparent shorthand for a larger conception. It entails the view that human life per se, both ontologically and existentially, is an affliction. That non-existence or early extinction are urgent desiderata. The proposition implies that men and women’s presence on this earth is fundamentally absurd or unwelcome, that our lives are not a gift or a natural unfolding, but a self-punishing anomaly. We are unwelcome guests, old enough at the moment of birth (as Montaigne says) to be a corpse and blessed only if this potentiality is realized as swiftly as it can be. A ‘normal’ life-span, let alone old-age, are sadistic misfortunes. It follows also–and this is the key issue–that suicide is both logical and economically advantageous in the root sense of the word ‘economic’. Or to cite Camus: ‘suicide is the only serious philosophic question.'” (pg 535-36. From George Steiner. “Tragedy, Pure and Simple.” Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond. Ed. M. S. Silk. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. 537-46.)

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