Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Is Tragedy Possible?

Recently on Classed there was a little discussion of whether Christian tragedy can exist. The original concept for discussion, from a member's reading in Ryken via the Tapestry of Grace curriculum, suggested that no, it cannot, since the full Christian message precludes a "bad ending." I disagreed with this idea, perhaps to my peril, since I had not spent a long time considering the original source's argument. In any case, I responded thus:

I think the point that tragedy cannot express the whole Christian worldview assumes that "Christian art" SHOULD express that whole worldview. Actually, isn't that what we hate about "Christian fiction" sold in Christian bookstores? Everything gets happily tied up in "heavenly ever after." While our groaning in this world is not pleasant, it is more interesting than our imaginations of heaven, born of ignorance. And a happy ending that does not include a conversion would not be "Christian" enough, would it, to qualify?

I am intrigued by the concept that there cannot be a Christian tragedy, meaning one that tells the Gospel fully. Perhaps there cannot be one with the tragic hero a Christian, but I'm not sure about that, either. Cannot one escape the flames of hell but still suffer greatly as a result of his own sin, causing others to suffer, too? (David) Is it not properly cathartic by Aristotle's standards if we know he "makes it" to heaven in the end? Hmmm....

It just so happens that I am now reading an old anthology, Great Reading from Life, and it includes an article I found here: "American Drama in a Tragic Age." This two-part editorial, part from 1946 and part from 1959, provides another perspective--the editors suggest that the American idea of progress, of egalitarianism (thus no hero), etc., is what keeps Americans from producing great tragedy:

To gain a sense of tragedy, Americans must therefore virtually reverse two of their dearest values: on the one hand, we must recover our awareness of evil, uncertainty and fear; on the other, we must gain a sense of man's occasional greatness (which is quite a different thing from 'the dignity of the common man'). For tragedy, in essence, is the spectacle of a great man confronting his own finiteness and being punished for letting his reach exceed his grasp. The Greeks had two words for this--hybris, pride, and moira, fate--which told them that subtle dangers lurk in all human achievements and that the bigger they are the harder they fall. But if Americans believe that there ar no insoluble questions, they can't ask tragic questions. And if they believe that punishment is only for ignorance or inadequate effort, they can't give tragic answers. They can't have the tragic sense.

That sense is to feel a due humility before the forces that are able to humble us, without wishing to avoid the contest where the humbling may take place. We will be a more civilized people when we get it.
(pp. 275-276)

This is fascinating stuff! :-)

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