Revisiting Tragedy: The Poetry of the Human Struggle
This week, I am revisiting my first post about tragic heroes and the importance of tragedy in world literature. The prevalence of tragedy in world literature, from picaresque travelogues to war poetry, speaks to an innate human desire to see something real in books, to feel something true in every line. Humanity, stifled under higher ideals and lofty theology, looks for comfort in authentic depictions of human suffering and idealism. Humanity seeks confirmation in something truer and emotionally raw.
Fate has long held a special place in tragic literature. Questions of fate and causation reveal a deeper human desire to understand the dynamic between free will and the metaphysical, to try to explain the universal question “Why me?” From Macbeth trying to comprehend his tragic downfall to the poor fishing family of Steinbeck’s The Pearl, trying to understand the curse that their supposed good luck places on their suffering family, writers of tragedy are fascinated with fate. What literature tells us about fate and heroism is not that supreme individuals carry out supreme deeds. Instead, literature and poetry in particular tells us that heroes are flawed individuals who gain much from their unique mix of hamartia and superhuman talent, but also suffer greatly.
In recent weeks, much has been made of the new documentary The Last Dance about the life of basketball legend Michael Jordan, yet what comes through in the film is a much more complicated personality than is usually portrayed. Did Jordan have a supernatural drive for excellence and exceptional talent? Yes, but he was also plagued by an obsession, almost an addiction, to competition and winning which shattered his friendships and left his personal life on shaky ground. This is part of what makes him endearing. The tragic heroes of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl are not endearing simply because of their idealism, but because of how much they suffer for their idealism. What makes a tragic hero heroic is not talent or even victory, but the sublime depth of their human feeling and suffering.
Since the creation of Greek tragedy centuries before the beginning of the Common Era, tragic literature has evolved in many different directions. Most clearly, it developed into the Shakespearian tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet, but in a more modern context, it morphed into the genre of novels identified by scholars as “picaresque.” Picaresque novels follow the journey of a hero plagued by disillusionment and their own moral flaws, yet instead of their hamartia culminating in an Aristotilian peripeteia, these faults and naiveté are what make them endearing to the reader. Picaresque novels comment brilliantly on the state of society and humanity, in a way that gets lost in the midst of the catastrophic emotions of more traditional Greek tragedies.
The most iconic example of this is Don Quixote, Cervantes’ early 17th century Castilian masterpiece, long considered to be the first modern novel. Don Quixote follows an aging country gentleman obsessed with books about chivalry and tales of knights-errant. Quixote wanders Spain with his right-hand man, Sancho Panza, looking for adventures and claiming to be a knight-errant himself. Quixote sees castles where there are country inns, queens where there are country servants, and most famously, he attacks a line of windmills believing them to be devilish giants. Quixote and Panza have resonated with centuries of readers not because they are perfect examples of wisdom and herois, but because they are imperfect and idealistic. Quixote is the dreamer who imagines himself away from the stifling boredom and routine of rural Catholic Spain. Panza is the pragmatic farmer who is nonetheless attracted to the idealism and naiveté of Quixote.
In some ways, Quixote is a tragic hero; he dies regretting his delusions, but he is also an endearing symbol of virtue, innocence, and escapism. Picaresque novels take Greek tragedy to the next level, conveying emotions far more complex and varied. Later, in novels like The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, modern writers brought these themes into a more modern context, simultaneously rejecting romanticism and nihilism, portraying life as vibrant and worth living, but devoid of any overarching meaning.
In addition to Ginsberg, poets have done similar work to help illuminate the tragic experiences of human life. For example, the English poet A.E. Housman wrote extensively about “shell-shocked” and despondent soldiers. Their innocence and suffering are endearing, but they are filled with tragic regret and do nothing to stop the violence around them. These picaresque antiheroes show us that life itself is the meaning, not any specific purpose or calling. These novels and poems are the evolution of Greek tragedy in a modern context. They reveal a deep human desire to have our despair and suffering, as well as our hope and idealism, confirmed. By rejecting divinity and pessimism, tragic literature speaks to humanity truthfully and frankly. Tragic literature does not give us the answers, but it shows us the value of the interminable journey and the value of the emotions we experience along the way. It condemns the pessimist and the optimist, moulding together hate and hope to form a better understanding of the truth of human life. Tragic literature explores the darkest moments of the human experience and imbues its heroes with flaws and illusions so that humanity can experience the worst that can be said of it and emerge with confidence in the value and beauty of all the ups and downs of life.