Far from calling for microscopic views of reality and fishbowls, tragedies call for us to shatter the fishbowls and throw out the microscopes, to stop obsessing about our vulnerabilities and on how to overcome them, to stop thinking of ourselves as helpless victims of wicked forces.
It is a grey day today. The sun was dampened by thick clouds throughout the morning and afternoon. They are still heavy, I see, layers upon layers of them, in all shades of moving gloom. A lone person is crossing the street. His company is a flock of pigeons that has taken up meeting at the eastern entrance to the Midtown Tunnel. His quiet steps do not disturb them. They are joined by a new flutter of wings and a spiral landing.
The emptiness that surrounds me is more reminiscent of mid-winter Lowertown Saint Paul than it is of the proud City that stretches up to pierce they sky: the modern world’s La Dominante.
Two ladies have come out on their balconies. They ring little bells. Their neighbor—who doesn’t have a balcony—reaches up with her arms. Only her hands make it through the crack and out her window. They are clapping. A man is on the rooftop of the building next to theirs. His fingers awkwardly twist to reach beneath his mask while still leaving it in place. He is whistling. A bullhorn is blasting from the taller building behind him. I cannot see the blaster. I do see other people, in ones and twos, from that same skyscraper as they clap in their balconies, and more people on other balconies on other floors, and others again standing in front (and stretching to reach out, if they can) of the windows of the dozen or so skyscrapers that stand to the south of my home.
It is 7 p.m. New Yorkers, suddenly become timid, cower together to honor those on the “front line” in the “fight against the invisible enemy.” In a few minutes we will hear Sinatra sing “New York, New York.” It is someone’s attempt to remind us that we were once the City that never sleeps. The last bars of the song will end our little evening get together.
I have finished my minute whistle salute, removed my earplugs, and shall soon return to my desk. What is the difference between an adventure and a tragedy? I ask myself as I look out at the people who have become shadows of themselves.
We live in a myopic age. There are few, very few today, who have the courage to step back and look at the forest. Most get lost in some small clearing by a brooklet gazing on a tiny blade of grass. Microscopes and not telescopes are the instruments of our age, cells and not galaxies its objects, properties and not entities, details and not the landscape.
Our myopia is temporal. We have the attention spans of a goldfish, that—or so it is reported—do not die in those little fish bowls because they have forgotten what is on a given side of a bowl by the time they turn around and make for the opposite one. We have no grand view of ourselves and our lives, our families, and our history. It is not by chance that the great mistakes of the past keep on being repeated. Like the goldfish, we do not remember the past. It is not by chance that “philosophers” keep on “rediscovering” hot water. They seem to think that they are the first ones to have come up with a thought. It’s not by chance that we keep on rehashing the tired old modern solutions to our woes. We have forgotten the problems, and that we have to think them through.
Our present is shrinking by the day, by the hour, the minute, the second. The bleeps of our cell phones, of our computers, our urgent need to check and respond to them ensure our constant distraction. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we start salivating as soon as we hear them. And every time we take the bait and pick them up, it is not just our present that shrinks, it is ourselves. We are turning into goldfish.
Like goldfish, we live in miniscule bowls: they are our worlds. They say that we live in the age of global communication, that the world has never been so small, so close, so connected. The truth is that we are become monads who travel in bowls. Their walls bend the world around us so that its refraction traps us in a cradle. We receive distorted shards of reality; fragments of discourses, a phrase, a clause, a word; splinters of culture: a building, a statue, a gondola. Never has the world been so vast, so distant, and so lonely.
COVID-19, it seems, is the vindication of the microscopic, the cell phone, the fishbowl. It lends credence to the tale that it is the details to which we must pay constant attention. If a tiny virus can terrify the herds, destroy the economies of the entire world, if it can muzzle the coxswains and make them take flight, make the proud cower on their balconies, then it is the miniscule that should dictate the agenda of our lives. Our world, or so we are endlessly told, depends on it.
What is the difference between an adventure and a tragedy?
We all know the difference. Tragedies are the stories of the Macbeths and the Medeas, the Othellos and the Oedipuses, of those who have a tragic flaw that cracks under pressure and shatters them. They are the stories of the Banquos and the Ophelias, the Iphigenias and the Antigones: the innocent victims sacrificed to the shattering of the tragic flaws.
Adventures are the stories of the Arthurs and the Aragorns, the Portias and the Pevensies, the larger than life heroes who withstand great pressure and valiantly win the day. They are the stories of the Trumpkins and the Tumnuses, the Cinderellas and the Sleeping Beauties: the innocents whom the heroes save from their doom.
Looking out at my City, I realize that the great tragedies would make one think that they demonstrate that the microscopic view of reality is the only truly responsible one for an enlightened society to adopt. If only Lear had dealt with his ἁμαρτία (hamartia), his tragic flaw, and Othello too, if only they had both received proper diagnoses and treatment, Cordelia would not have died, and Desdemona not been strangled. So we weep for Antigone and Iphigenia, Juliet and Medea’s children, all of them victims to the tragic flaws that seem so eminently fixable, if only Creon and Agamemnon, Friar Lawrence and Jason had received proper care and had had those little details addressed.
This is especially true because tragedies, the real ones, also suggest that humanity is at the mercy of wicked forces (or persons) bent upon the cracking of the fatal flaws. Oedipus was powerless before those sins that were his undoing. They had been foretold, as had Macbeth’s grabbing the throne. Orestes’s matricide was the last of a long chain of shatterings that ineluctably unfolded from his father Agamemnon’s cracking under the pressure of Artemis, who demanded the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia as retribution for the hunted deer. Othello was Iago’s victim.
Yes, tragedies suggest that the microscopic view is the only responsible one, and the fishbowls too. We must protect ourselves from tragic flaws and the nasty forces that would exploit them. This is what New Yorkers think. I need only to look out my window at them cowering. They are responsible people, all of them, who refuse to let the “invisible enemy” crack that tragic flaw that will shatter us all: mortality. And the Governor and Mayor ensure that they remain responsible. They give daily reminders of how powerless we all are before the “invisible enemy” and how each of us could succumb to it and drag the others down with us.
As for adventures, they seem like distant things on this grey grey day, a ray of light for children, who have not yet understood—and must be sheltered from the knowledge—that they too bear the “tragic flaw” and are surrounded by the “nasty forces” that will eventually overcome them. Where are the heroes who would rescue us?
And yet, I mull as I sit here looking at the pigeons chattering, having a ἁμαρτία in no way guarantees tragic consequences. The heroes of the great adventures all had tragic flaws. Arthur had one that he shared with Lancelot: Guinevere. Aragorn was the throne-less heir to Isildur’s tragic flaw. Edmund Pevensie was a traitor. Achilles had his heel. St. Thomas was a doubter, and St. Peter on the fainthearted side.
They too had enemies, nasty ones. Morgan le Fay was as perfidious as any witch (she was one), and Sauron was no joke. The White Witch was as treacherous as they come, and the Enemy of Man, the Prince of Lies the most dangerous of them all.
And the heroes’ flaws also cracked under the pressure of the “nasty forces” that plotted their destruction. Edmund betrayed his siblings. Arthur lost Excalibur. Lancelot was an adulterer. St. Peter denied knowing his Lord, not once but three times.
What, then, is the difference between an adventure and a tragedy? Is the whistler living an adventure or a tragedy? The ladies with their bells?
Oedipus did have a tragic flaw. It was not his τύχη (tyche) his fate. It was his ὕβρις—hubris. It blinded him into believing that he had understood his fate and could overcome it: that he could turn himself into what he was not. By acting on his arrogant myopia he made himself the cause and instrument of the fulfillment of his own tragic fate, as he laments when he blinds himself. So too was it for Agamemnon, Creon, Lear, and Macbeth.
Tragedies are self-inflicted fulfillments of myopic foretellings: horrific events caused by the blindness that they confirm. Far from calling for microscopic views of reality and fishbowls, tragedies call for us to shatter the fishbowls and throw out the microscopes, to stop obsessing about our vulnerabilities and on how to overcome them, to stop thinking of ourselves as helpless victims of wicked forces. It is precisely the fishbowls and the microscopes that cause tragedies. Tragedies are the apotheosis of myopia, they occur when detail obscures the whole landscape.
It is humility that wins the day, and honesty: the acceptance of our own incapacity to fix ourselves, realizing and rejoicing in the fact that it is not ours to change our natures, the nature of the world, but to be and grow.
It is once again Oedipus who shows the way. Once he recognized his blindness, Oedipus learned to see and realized that there was another chapter to be lived. At Colonus, he accepted the fullness of the prophecy concerning him: that he would die in a sacred place and the land in which he was buried would be blessed.
With his acceptance, Oedipus turned his tragedy into an adventure, and taught that the suffering of the tragic heroes (and their victims) is meant only to be a single act in the play. It can, of course, always become the entire play, if the tragic hero insists that that act is the entire play. That is the real tragedy, when men turn into “idiots” and decide that it is they and they alone who must weave the “tale,” filling it with “sound and fury.” That story is the self-infliction of the truly tragic, the story of complete self-destruction, man’s turning himself into “nothing.”
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.