All of Us Cry in the Same Manner, Each of Us Laughs Differently?!

Text prezentat în cadrul conferinţei cu tema: Laugh so you don`t cry? Contemporary Encounters of the Tragic and the Comic. 1-3 martie, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India

-an essay-

Writing about tragedy and comedy nowadays is merely more a scholastic intellectual convention than a concrete step or approach meant to elucidate some contemporary literary issues. And this is because tragedy and comedy as pure literary genres (as Aristotle defined them) or species of dramatic genre ceased to exist. Using the original Greek terminology, one has to accept that both, tragedy and comedy are nowhere to be found in what we call today, with a name lacking precision, but fuelling different intellectual debates and providing conferences with some delightful topics, modern literature. Three statements have to be made  as an explanation for the theoretical approaches I use in my text. First, I will discuss tragedy and comedy in Aristotelian terms. Tragedy is seen as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (Aristotle, Poetics), while comedy implies an “imitation of characters of a lower type –not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly” (Aristotle, Poetics). Secondly, my analysis covers the European cultural space and all my arguments and demonstrations use European references. I would be more than glad to see that they are applicable to other cultural spaces, but not at all would I feel responsible if not. Thirdly, outside the Aristotelian paradigm, I will not use the terms tragedy and comedy, since I have a strong conviction they don`t exist anymore as pure genres, and thus I prefer terms like tragic and comic literary elements instead.

From being independent texts in themselves in Antiquity, these two concepts evolved or decayed (if one must necessarily be nostalgic!) to being components embedded in literary texts, serving a much more sophisticated consciousness, both with readers and writers. Today we have the tragic-comedy, a perfect paradox in front of which poor Aristotle would be astonished and confused. At the end of some theatre plays called tragedies, the hero does not die anymore, which is a serious deviation from what Aristotle wrote about tragedies. More than this, even the dramatization of the old tragedies follows the zeitgeist of our era.  In February, 2011, the German director Frederika Heller put on stage the tragedy Antigona (Sophocles), where the ancient chorus was replaced by a… rock band. One of the female characters, Ismena, Antigona`s sister, has …a moustache. I am not talking, of course, in terms of aesthetic quality; I am just arguing for my decision not to talk about tragedies outside a certain paradigm.

The far from mysterious disappearance of pure tragedy, so popular in Ancient World, lies within the technical limitation which tragedy imposed on writers, readers or viewers and a certain dogma which implies that a literary text has to have an extreme emotional impact on the reader. For Aristotle, tragedy had a specific purpose of generating feelings such as fear and pity among the audience. “Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear and pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design” (Aristotle, Poetics).

 This are limitations, serious ones, because, due to the spreading of literature nowadays and due to the habit of reading, which is, of course, regulated by a market which functions with the rule of the market, not with the rule of the canon, the reader cannot be challenged to feel rising in himself or herself, like in the Ancient time, extreme emotions with  Aristotelian devices. The concepts of fear and pity themselves were transformed by industrialization, capitalism, globalization or, why not, by fascism and communism.

A special chapter in our discussion is, also, the deep connection between tragedy and religion. Both tragic and comic texts were, initially, parts of religious rituals. The evolution of the European society from polytheism to monotheism and the appearance of Christianity as a main stream religion made it impossible for tragedy to exist in the exact form imagined by Aristotle. In Aeschilus`s tragedy Agamemnon, the main character sacrifices his own daughter to the goddess Artemis; destiny is played by the will of Gods. With the appearance of Christianity, the Latin liberum arbitrum, free will in English, became a concept praised by many Christian theologians. In the Cathehism of the Catholic Church, we find the following paragraph: endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude. In this new context, the entire inner motivation of the tragic hero to surrender in front of an implacable destiny controlled authoritatively by Gods loses its consistency.

The sense of tragic itself is altered in a world in which the death of a character does not have the same significance. Dozens of characters die today in detective series and novels without arising any feelings of pity and fear in reader. The producers of a well-known British series, Midsomer Murders declared once that in one of the episodes, they had simply forgotten to give an explanation for the existence of a corpse by the end of the episode. The inflation of corpses in that episode was so high that one of them had simply been forgotten. In Agatha Cristie`s novels, very often many murders have no other reasons to exist than to cover or explain the initial first. On the other side, comic elements found a way to transgress all this evolution of literature, being less perverted, less affected in their own core. Moliere developed his comedies of manners and of characters without affecting the principles which this genre is based on to such an important degree. Also, nowadays, we have dark comedies where death can be laughable and suicide aesthetically enjoyable, occasion and source of amusement like in the dark comedy Harold and Maude (1971). So, how exactly a poor tragic hero, with such high moral standards, with his hunger for pathos and seriousness, is supposed to survive in such a fictional world?

As for comedy, so categorically dismissed by Aristotle, considered not serious and profound, it has had quite a spectacularly ironical destiny. Unfortunately, the presumed second book of Poetics, which dealt with the theory of comedy, is lost or may have never existed. Nevertheless, Aristotle made some remarks on comedy in the first book: “comedy aims at representing men as worse, tragedy as better than in actual life” (Aristotle, Poetics). Revitalized by Classicism, so brilliantly explored in the French literature, the comic elements preserved their substance. One can say that the same happened with the tragic elements in Corneille and Racine`s plays. Still not quite so. In the tragedy Le Cid, some scholars see entire passages as being impregnated of tragic-comic meanings.  Racine was accused of not killing any of the characters at the end of his tragedy Bérénice. Maybe he was too merciful, but the incident, one of the many, proves the perverting of the concept.

While tragedy is associated in Europe with the Classical Antiquity, at least in the collective mentality if not, I dear say, everywhere), comedy has still a label of modernity on it. Though, it is too early to draw a conclusion, I will rephrase it as a premise, but the listener/reader should know that, at the end of the paper, it will definitively be the conclusion: all of us cry in the same manner, each of us laughs differently. Now, let us imagine that crying is a metaphor for tragedy or the tragic sense and laughing is one for comedy or the comic sense. If we do this, we are in front of a rhetoric question which deals with an exercise of imagination. It is well-known that a literary text survives centuries after being written because of its flexibility, because of its capacity to transmit different ideas and feelings to different types of readers. Now the question which arises from here is: between tragedy and comedy, which one is more flexible? The scholar Ian Johnson makes an interesting remark which gives us the answer in one of his lectures on Shakespeare: This apparently simple structural difference between comedy and tragedy means that, with some quick rewriting, a tragic structure can be modified in a comic one. […] If Juliet wakes up in time, she and Romeo can live happily ever after. If Cordelia survives, then, Lear`s heart will not be break; she can marry Edgar, and all three of them can live prosperously and happily for years to come. And so on. Such changes to the endings of Shakespeare`s tragedies were commonplace in eighteenth-century productions, at a time when the tragic vision of experience was considered far less acceptable and popular by general public.

On the other side, comedy, like laughing itself, is so specifically expressed, so different and so complex, so astonishingly linked to a cultural context that the fascination towards it has never ceased to exist. After such a pleading in favor of a premise which I already uncover as a conclusion, let us go back, for a little while to Aristotle. If he dismissed comedy and pleaded for tragedy instead, many centuries after, we are looking around us just to see the exact opposite of it. So, what has happened to literature in the mean time?! An earthquake of such magnitude has taken place so that to reverse the trend? Disappointingly enough for those who appreciate Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes, nothing of this kind has ever occurred. Between Aristotle and Oscar Wilde, no literary sudden devastating earthquake, no bloody conspiracies, nothing miraculous is to be found. It was just a cause-effect evolution which accompanied the evolution of the entire society symmetrically.

I have invoked, together Aristotle and the English writer Oscar Wilde here not to forget about them, as producers of Midsomer Murders did with their corpse, but, merely as names which represent another pair of metaphors for the entire change of paradigm. For Aristotle, literature is mimesis (imitation) of reality. For him, the purpose of art is catharsis. In this sense, nothing is more coherent than considering tragedy as the literary queen, because it discusses severe subjects, themes that were considered essential like destiny, divinity, death s.o.: Tragedy is, then, an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of magnitude, by means of language enriched, each used separately in the different parts: it is enacted, not recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such emotions. But this definition emerged from the firm Aristotle`s conviction that art finds its inspiration and model in reality. Staged, tragedy functioned as religious ritual and, at the same time, as collective excitement. The printing press was not yet invented, the time machine is not yet invented, so Johannes Gutemberg could not interfere with Aristotle`s thinking. Literature could not be spread around the world with the rapidity known to us today. Consequently, the literature consumer did not affect the act of writing; he was merely a clapping audience. Literature was not only strongly regulated by canon, but also its prisoner. In this sense, tragedy paid a way to much a tribute than comedy, which explains the discredited status it has nowadays. Let`s take a closer look. In discussing tragedy and comedy, with their initial meaning, I propose to you three levels of analysis: plot, characters and purpose.

Aristotle defined plot not as story, but as “the arrangement of the incidents” with a very strict cause-effect chain of events. “The plot […] is the first principle and […] the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place” (Aristotle, Poetics). The end of the tragedy is the final effect of a series of causes and it has to solve all the conflicts developed during the play. An open end was inconceivable. The concept of deus ex machina is entirely forbidden. The main incompatibility with nowadays literature comes from the strict pattern a plot is forced to obey. Irrespective of the theme, the finality of the plot has the hero defeated at the end. The main character, in the background, confronted with an insolvable situation, crushed by it, chooses death. All the events during the tragedy have to be linked and they develop one from another, coherently, without any gaps or fractures. A tragedy should start exploring an ancient Myth (Aristotle calls them “received legends”) which an author cannot change essentially or alter by the intervention of irrational episodes. The bigger and important a tragedy is, the more it explores themes and literary motifs universally understandable with which the audience can empathize. The entire mise en scene of a tragedy is a place the audience usually associates with a certain grandeur: a battlefield or a castle while the setting for comedies was commonly used places like a room in a normal house or a public place.

A discussion about characters implies a brief reflection on an indispensable collective character, the chorus. The chorus, usually ten or fifteen people, was an intermediary between actors and audience. It explained parts of the play and set an example to the audience of how to react to what happened on stage. The main character of a tragedy is condemned to live a tragic destiny: he realizes his mistakes or misunderstandings, but when he does it, the course of events cannot be undone or restored. Therefore, the great fall starts. Stronger than the audience or most of the mortals, far more advanced in ideals, thinking, acting and reacting than most ordinary, common people, the tragic hero suffers from a form of delusion generated by the disproportion between what he tries to achieve and what he finally achieves. Confronted with his error of judgment, this superhero collapses and ends dead…

 On the other side, the comic character is adapted to survive. He is, in most of the cases, a common mortal, who not only does not fall, but recovers from various, sometimes improbable, situations to triumph in the end, being in most of the cases at the centre of the play. While the tragic hero has, from the very beginning, strong moral ideals, the comic one finds his better side only after his flaws, his weak points are exposed and laughed at. His final triumph is often due to luck, quid pro quo`s or cheating other characters. His moral inconsistency offers the writer a lot more fields to explore. It is, if we have to resume, the difference between the superhero (in tragedy) and the antihero (in comedy): the first one is a monolithic structure, animated by fixed patterns and rigid rules, while the second one releases the writer`s imagination, opens a door for further developments and finally and paradoxically, generates a bigger empathy in the audience than the superhero. Consequently, on a long run, this is the reason for which the tragic character, as it was imagined by Aristotle, could not find a way to survive and preserve his superiority over the comic one, still vivid in today`s literature.  


Discussing tragedy and comedy at the level of purpose implies a brief recourse to etymology. For Aristotle, comedy derives from komos, a kind of show performed by males around the image of a phallus. There are some other testimonies (Aristophanes) about the connections between comedy and some sexual rituals. As for the tragedy, according to the same Greek thinker, comes from tragoedia, a ritual song dedicated to Dyonisus, the Greek god of grape and wine, associated with the idea of pleasure. From this perspective, there is not too big a difference; this is why researchers say both species derive from the same initial root, which Aristotle admits: “Be that as it may, Tragedy, -as also Comedy- was at first mere improvisation, The one originated with the authors of the Dithyram, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped” (Aristotle, Poetics).

 In terms of purpose, it worth discussing the perpetual lamentation which haunts the tragedy, because, in my opinion, here one can find one of the main causes which created the inadaptability of tragedy in our modern time: the hero ends crushed by an inevitable destiny, a destiny far more powerful than any reaction this hero can have in front of it. So, whatever story one imagines, whoever the super hero is, no matter how much he tries to solve his moral dilemmas, the end is ineluctable, unavoidable, a fatality. It does not matter how talented a writer is, the technicalities embedded in the canon limits drastically the creation itself. At the same time, comedy promotes an open end which deals with very out to date concepts as cynicism, irony, self-irony, satire, delusion, self-delusion, a. s.o. The capacity of a comedy to diversify itself grows in proportion with every cultural space it covers. Through allusions to linguistic, historical or social contexts, a comic text has an amazing ability of adapting to modernity.

I have mentioned Gutemberg earlier, the inventor of the printing press in Europe, because his invention introduced a new variable in the literary equation: the active reader. Once he appeared on stage as a reader and not as a passive audience, like in Aristotle`s time, he started demanding the same rights as the writer. The canon started fading or, at least, it  started losing its rigidity and, in this new literary scenario, not so firmly regulated, comedy found its way out while tragedy withdrew itself in the background. Of course, this does not mean that after Aristotle, we do not have tragedies anymore. If one just thinks of Shakespeare or Jean Racine, one has to admit that no reasonable researcher can talk about a complete silence or disappearance. But the point this paper intends to make and, at the same time, the question it aims to answer to is how comes that such a well-regarded form of literature  has lost ground in front of a dismissed, unserious, ignoble one (I am talking about comedy).

So, synthesizing in a metaphorical statement, Gutemberg was the first of Aristotle`s enemies. The second one, not less lethal, was an extravagant 19th century English writer: Oscar Wilde. In The Decay of Lying, among other things, the charming dandy impersonates a character named Vivian, who talks explicitly and at large about how Life imitates Art. Although it is not precisely the topic of this paper, the subtle irony of this text is worth mentioning. Wilde chose to develop his anti-mimesis theory in a text conceived as a Socratic dialogue. Well, if one has to fight a battle against Aristotle`s ghost, at least one has to have the courtesy to do it on a battlefield familiar to the old Greek philosopher.

What are the implications of Vivian`s apparently extravagant statement “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”?! First, let us bring to discussion Wilde`s arguments: “The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate apple-women, break into sweet-shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers. This interesting phenomenon, which always occurs after the appearance of a new edition of either of the books I have alluded to, is usually attributed to the influence of literature on the imagination. But this is a mistake. The imagination is essentially creative, and always seeks for a new form. The boy-burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is, with trying to reproduce Fiction, and what we see in him is repeated on an extended scale throughout the whole of life. Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy” (Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying)

 An important distinction should be drawn at this point of our argumentation: the anti- mimesis theory does not originate from Wilde, it was just acknowledged in The Decay of Lying, published and recognized as a phenomenon which started much earlier, maybe the most obvious of its manifestations being the idea, present in almost all Christian countries in different degrees, of Imitatio Christi. The first consequence for the tragedy, as it was  theorized in ancient Greece, is that it could very well function in a paradigm when it imitates life, but cannot become a fictional rolling model in a world where life imitates art. If we transfer a Darwinian concept to literature, the survival of the fittest is the process we are talking about. The tragic elements were not designed to be flexible in relation with the reader; they have too many restrictions to be capable of accepting influences from outside the canon. The tragic hero, the tragic plot, the tragic effect on audience, all of these were fatally secluded. Finding the same narrative solutions (death) for all the problems surrounding the hero, tragedy lost its status as literary queen. Readers are now in search of diversity, they started appreciating the unforeseeable, the sudden change in the destiny of a character quite a long time ago.  

Instead, the comic elements, accepting more natural modern concepts as Deus ex machina, quid pro quod, intertextuality, irony, black humor, have had, also, the advantage of preserving a certain, if not national, than, at least, regional specificity. All of us have heard of the British humor, although not all of us can appreciate it. Humor is an important part of how a nation defines itself while the tragic sense is, at large, the way we define as species. In the precise moment when we come across with aliens, beings from outside our planet for the first time, maybe we will go back to tragedy, because it gives a monolithic representation about who we are and how we perceive ourselves as an unity We do not have the slightest chance to communicate with aliens if we use comic devices; our sense of irony would seem not to make any sense at all, our most laughable jokes will arouse an astonished movement in their antennas, our most appreciated comedians or stand-up comedians would sound like a declaration of war. But till then, we indulge in a type of literature which shows specificities, which has an enormous potential to evolve and to keep up with modernity. Thank you for your attention!


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