9:45 a.m., July 28
Crime and Punishment
The word tragedy has become such a standard part of our everyday speech that we have lost its context.
We use tragic to qualify everything from earthquakes in Japan and Haiti to spilling wine on our favorite piece of clothing.
In the case of Haiti and Japan, those are natural disasters. The wine spill is the personal disaster of a vapid personality.
None of it is tragic.
Tragedy is characterized by the individual struggling against an impossible situation of their own creation. Often, tragic heroes will have a flaw or misjudge a situation which leads to their downfall. Hubris, excessive pride, is the favorite flaw of ancient tragedy.
The resulting suffering is usually out of balance with the error.
For example, in the Iliad, one of the earliest tragedies, Hector’s error is to kill Achilles’ best friend Patroclus. Not only did Hector kill Patroclus, he stripped him of the armor Achilles had provided and put it on himself. Hubris.
The result was Achilles returning to combat. He brought with him a fury that choked the river Scamander with the bodies of dead Trojans. Homer says that Achilles cut the Trojan army in two and drove it off the field.
Hector then went out to face Achilles with the knowledge that he would be killed. Achilles beats Hector in single combat, ties his corpse to a chariot and drags it around the walls of Troy. Achilles then takes the body of Hector back to his camp to desecrate.
The punishment did not match the crime.
A further aspect of tragedy is that no one character is completely good or completely bad. Both sides of a conflict have merit which forces the audience to oscillate in their alliegiances.
For all its mythology and meddling gods, Greek tragedy is a more accurate representation of conflict than the black and white, good guy-bad guy pablum we are fed in blockbuster movies.
In the case of the Iliad, both Hector and Achilles have attributes that we like and some that we don’t--both meet their end because of their own character flaws. Some associate with Hector, others with Achilles.
An earthquake or tsunami that devastates is not a tragic event. In a natural disaster, the victims have done nothing to provoke the situation.
To tragedize an event that isn’t tragedy is a disservice to those affected and to the idea of tragedy itself.
The point of tragedy is to teach us that often we suffer from our own hand.