Wednesday, January 19, 2011


English teachers that speak of 'rashness' as being the tragic flaw of Oedipus are just plain silly. I have been thinking about things, as I shovel about this coyle. I have been thinking of questions around tragedy. What is tragedy and what is the tragic? I have been forced to use, as a starting point, the fragments I can remember from high school English class. Many thoughts and points are able to be brought to the fore, to be garnished and gnawed upon. Spat out or savoured in turn. All this thinking and all these thoughts have been aided by my special circumstances. Working in a used book store gives me access to a great many interesting books, and also allows enough slow times for me to be able to read some of these books. More importantly working in a book store allows me to amuse myself with the idea of being a 'cultural worker'. A role I am sad to say is the closest I can get to calling myself qualified to make any sort of comment about the nature of tragedy being not a flaw, not a character breach or defect, but rather a manifestation of the ignorance that forms the scaffolding of everyday life.

The high school English teacher voice in my memory requires me to understand the tragic flaw of the tragic hero. I find in my traffic light waiting time that this idea of the tragic flaw may be a stumbling block to understanding. Aristotle speaks about Hamartia - the tragic flaw. The Greek New Testament uses the word to mean, among other things, sin. The Philosopher speaks of Hamartia as errors made in ignorance, or by accident. When one combines the concept of Anagnorisis (recognition, particularly self recognition) we can see that tragedy is based on the solitary actors ignorance and smallness in the face of the uncaring immensity that is the external world. It is this ignorance that makes the actors in tragedies appear to be controlled by external forces.

It is the not being able to fully grasp the external world that causes tragic characters to make their all important fall. In this way we can see Oedipus does not have a flaw of rashness, but rather he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. When in his ignorance he thinks he is doing the right thing by fleeing, he is only hastening the inevitable. This lack of control which causes the actors to appear to be little more than playthings of fate is another expression of our ignorance.

The first idea that we should chase out of our heads is the idea of the tragic flaw as being a lack of moral fibre, as moral weakness, or sin. This seems to be mistaken, and is a typical of Christian readings. Hamartia is used in other works of Aristotle to mean an injury caused by accident or ignorance. This exposes one of the founding elements of tragedy, indeed of all of life, put bluntly - we do not know. In the case of Oedipus he is obviously ignorant of his true nature. This because his adoptive parents had lied to him from the start. How much of our lives are based on the small and large lies that our parents and our society tell us? Oedipus more than most, but very few of us can truly say that we know our own history. Even less can we say that we know what will be the outcome of our actions beforehand.

As they are meant to be performed on stage tragedies must deal with action with actors making decisions, allowing the plot to be a revealing of the consequences. To allow the ephemeral, when for a moment ignorance is pushed away. Ignorance and activity, the engine of both tragedy and real life. Agamemnon, cursed down generations for the crimes of an ancestor, ignorantly goes to embrace and is killed. Clytemnestra does not act in ignorance, in the sense that she does not have all the facts. She is trapped by a terrible set of circumstances, and is left with no alternative. Brutalised and raped by Agamemnon, forced into marriage, her first husband and infant son murdered, she must kill Agamemnon to avenge the sacrificial murder of their daughter. She must kill to allow herself to breath, to live, to put to an end to only the sharpest point of her anguish. In turn Orestes must kill his mother, who killed his father, who killed his sister. What a bloody household, all based on the crime of Tantalus, that of killing and cooking his own child to test the Gods. The gods use the House of Atreus as a warning to others not to doubt. The extravagant events control the actors, the actors do not control events. In a very real sense this is a type of ignorance, as events are moving around the actor, and the actor has no control. I think it was Heidegger who referred to time as the horizon of being, here we can amend this postulate and say that it is ignorance which is the horizon of being. As an aside I recall reading a report into work place conditions, and a conclusion was made, it not being overworked that leads to stress, it is the feeling of lack of control.

Many arguments can of course be put forward to refute my point, and I am sure that many of the arguments will be overwhelming. Including my clumsy style and inarticulate way of explaining my ideas. One can say I that cherry pick from the competing versions of the texts of the ancients, that I take parts of the story from one source and another part from a different source. This may be true, but it is not true of all human thought, even if only by accidentally mixing up of conversations or readings, indeed this blending of thoughts is one of the pathways of transmission. A solid and easy line of argument would have to wrapped in the idea that there is no simple way to describe all the stories that are called tragedy. There will always be exceptions and elements that do not fit correctly into any schema. I am happy to stand by my thought that ignorance of true events, and the lack of control of the unfolding world give rise to the tragic actor forced to make choices. Choices which are often between two compelling goods. When they make these choices they do so in an attitude of ignorance. Either they are ignorant of the true situation, or of the thoughts and plans of the other actors, or more abstractly they are ignorant of the external forces which shape and control everyday life. Marx described this buffeting by world historical forces as follows "[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."


Late Afternoon approaching winter
Reddening chill slap across the face.
Low cold sunlight limp long thin shadows
Gray of pale trees swaying the wind.
Smoke rises from Yasnaya Polyana.
The cold hardens the mud and allows
Movement on the roads. And old man stands
One side of the rutted hardened track,
Watching the smoke rising, tears falling,
Anger impotent. Manuscripts torn and burnt,
Tables, chairs, beds, chopped and splintered
All burnt for warmth and contempt. The old
Man stands the side of the road, silent
Tears his hungry hut. Bodies of soldiers
Buried the clear glade desecration.
A feeling of superiority nurtured
By command. Up jumped the troopers.
In a battered ad-hoc armoured car,
Embellished death head cross.
The soldiers laughed and knocked down,
Knees down the frozen ground, the old man.
Shouting orders the old man and his wife
Could not understand. The old man
And his wife implored the invaders,
Who did not want to understand.
Only laughed and pawed the old woman.
Broke the door, chair, all the windows,
All the plates and cups in the house.
The old man cried and begged mercy
Leave us be, we are old. Pawing
The ground and he grabbed one soldier's
Knees. Think of your own gray father,
Your old grandfather, we have nothing,
We care nothing of Stalin, leave us be.
His wife was bleeding from the mouth.
And he wailed all the louder shaking
And impotent. A laughing rifle butt
Ended his talking, started blood flowing.
She flew to his side and the soldiers
Took bottles of home made wine, and two
Chickens throttled and stuffed into
A bag as dinner. Pots and pans
For cooking. The armoured car drove
Rattling and menacing away.

Down the road children huddled,
Wounded soldiers suffered,
An ancient monastery. Look here,
We shall not attack the old and pathetic
They shall soon pass, but here we find
The future, the ones who shall mature
And cut our throats while we sleep. Let us
Free ourselves of this vengeance. With cans
Of petrol and hand grenades the soldiers
Laughed and toasted the fearsome
Cries of screaming choking agony.

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