Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It Ain't Over 'Til the Goat Sings

"The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means." -Tom Stoppard

There is a very popular TV show here in the Philippines called Face to Face. Airing Monday through Friday at 10:30 AM, it presents us with real people and their real problems, but the setup is adversarial, like the American Jerry Springer show. It pits bickering neighbors and family members against one another: cheating husbands are confronted by their wives, opposing sides of a soured money transaction face off, an old man and his unsupportive children present their sides of the story.

There is much shouting, much name-calling, and the plastic chairs on which the people sit are frequently thrown across the stage. In between them is the show's host, an attractive, fashionably dressed woman named Amy Perez who spends most of her time fleeing from the fray or shouting "sandalilang!" ("hold on!") as the day's guests attack one another.

A panel of "experts" - a lawyer, a psychologist, and a priest - give their advice to the parties. My companion watches the show every day, and at the climactic moment when all is forgiven and the estranged parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors embrace one another in reconciliation, she always cries.

I always laugh, and she asked me why. I told her that it wasn't true, that people's problems can't be fixed like that, in the course of an hour. It could happen like that, I suggested, only after alot of coaching takes place. Besides, such problems are often never resolved. Only in a bad movie, or a scripted TV show, is life ever so easy.

I sympathize with people who want life to be like a bad movie - with problems solved, everlasting love, and virtue being victorious. But that isn't the function of art. I want a movie, or a novel or a play, to be true to life by capturing what I have found to be the qualities of life, which are not always cheerful or edifying. They don't improve on life by giving everyone a happy ending. They make life - however we may find it - a form that gives it meaning, that makes its meaning apprehensible, that shows us a pattern, a symmetry that we didn't see before.

That's the trouble with life: not that it's always sad or disappointing but that it makes no sense. When someone dies in an accident (or when, over this past weekend, people are murdered by a madman or a soul singer dies young), people call it tragic. But it isn't tragic.(1) What they mean to call it is "senseless". But to declare that Amy Winehouse's death was "senseless", or that all those Norwegian teenagers died "senselessly" would arouse anger and indignation.

So we say it's tragic without realizing that the word is only a euphemism - a painless lie disguising a painful truth. No other word quite fits because they are too brutally specific. Meanwhile the perfectly useful word tragic has become, through overuse, the catch-all word for everything from natural disasters to freak accidents. It's as if the only thing that people remember about tragedies from their high school literature studies is that "everybody dies".

Tragic has the advantage of being vague as well as somewhat grand. By definition, an accident can't be tragic simply because in a universe ruled by Fate, there is no such thing as an accident. Everything is foreordained and everything happens for a reason. This is a simple and comforting philosophy, but one that few people take seriously any more. The majority of people in the West, who only admit to faith in God when pressed, and have given up believing in the immortality of the soul, understand that nothing happens for a reason, that life and death have no meaning, and that once richly meaningful words like tragic no longer carry much weight, except as synonyms for awful, terrible, horrendous, sad, pitiful, or pathetic.

In his essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", George Orwell writes that

"It is doubtful whether the sense of tragedy is compatible with belief in God: at any rate, it is not compatible with disbelief in human dignity and with the kind of 'moral demand' which feels cheated when virtue fails to triumph. A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him."

The word tragic has degenerated from its original meaning because our faith in human dignity has declined. Only art is left to redeem our lives from the meaninglessness in which our decadent civilization has stranded it.

(1) The Oxford English Dictionary is, of course, neutral on the subject: "tragic, adv. 1. extremely distressing or sad; 2. suffering extreme distress or sadness; 3. relating to tragedy in a literary work."

[The word tragedy means "goat song" in Greek.]

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