The Utility of Tragedy

This one’s gonna ramble a bit and talk about depressing stuff some, so consider yourself warned.

So Saturday night was my 29th birthday, and I was in a show, and afterwards I went out with a couple of friends and drank beer and — impassioned and tipsy — tried to get them to explain to me what the utility of tragedy is in the current world.

This question sprang up out of the intersection of a few different trains of thought. It’s October 2017, and a year ago I was hugely confident that by November 30th I would have finished first drafts of two plays and have a female president. Turned out I was extremely wrong about both of these things!

We’re well into the first year of USA’s 45th presidency. Ten months of nearly constant crisis mode and psychological battering. Ten months where I slowly realized that I’m living in a bizarre but very real informational war zone under an incompetent but very dangerous head of state installed by a foreign power. About ten months where I’ve had regular episodes of existential despair over the possibility of nuclear war. (And all this, of course, doesn’t even take into account my last few years of deepening my understanding of racial injustice in America, of refugee stories, and of gun violence, which provided a nice foundation of “boy howdy the world’s a shitshow” for this year’s panoply of awfulness.)

The other day I was binge-watching pop culture video essays, and found myself intrigued by The Nerdwriter mentioning that “passable movies” are ones that are “a far cry from great or noteworthy or something you’d like to see more than once.” That got me thinking about what stories I’ve come back to multiple times in 2017. I’ve seen plenty of movies and plays and read plenty of books this year, and enjoyed and liked plenty of them.

2017coolmovieswithemojis

Just a sample. It was a pretty good year for movies, all things considered.

But there weren’t many I went back to more than once, despite frequently exclaiming as I left the theater “I would totally go see that again!” Movie tickets are expensive and I am lazy. That doesn’t mean they weren’t amazing movies — Moonlight and Hidden Figures are unquestionably very well made movies that I only saw once, and while I know people are divided on Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman I thought they were both extremely well constructed. It just means I haven’t seen them twice. (But I did actually see Get Out twice in theaters.)

While I was thinking about that, I also watched the Nerdwriter’s take on Black Mirror.

I’ve only seen a couple episodes of Black Mirror, one of which was the notably uplifting (and yet slightly ambiguous??) “San Junipero,” and a big part of why is what Nerdwriter articulates in this video:

What Charlie Brooker, the intensely smart creator of Black Mirrorhas given us are tragedies that are often senseless — in other words, tragedies that withhold catharsis. The result, I think, is that we end up feeling much closer to these stories. The cathartic appreciation that’s meant to transform our pity and our fear never comes, and we’re just left with the pity, and the fear.

I remember once asking my mother if she wanted to come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and she told me, essentially, “I’ve spent my whole life seeing people be awful to each other. I don’t need to pay money to go see two hours of it.” There’s a lot of dark/serious/tragic media that I feel similarly about, especially right now, in 2017, in this time and place. Just waking up in the morning and looking at Facebook or Twitter or the New York Times headlines in my inbox feels like adding a piece of glass to my shoes. Why would I feel the need to spend money and time consuming a story that reminds me how terrible people are and how insignificant our actions are in the great, tragic roll of the wheel of fortune?

And yet.

The stories that I probably spent the most time with this year, the ones I discovered for the first time and came back to over and over, were tragedies. Specifically, Hadestown

And Rogue One.

Animated gif of Cassian, Jyn, Bodhi, Baze, and Chirrut.

447px-aias_und_kassandra_28tischbein29

Ajax and Cassandra, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1806

I also spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year with the myth of Cassandra, working on my own storytelling and wrestling with the fact that Cassandra’s story is one of bad thing after bad thing happening for no good reason to a woman that culminates in her murder, and that I hate writing stories with downer endings. (I’m bad at writing endings in general, but that’s a slightly different personal writing problem.)

None of these stories ends well. Hadestown is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and ends, as it must, with Orpheus turning around and Eurydice being lost to him. Rogue One ends with every single one of the characters we’ve become invested in sacrificing themselves and dying. Cassandra is killed by Clytemnestra, alone and far from home. Sure, you could take any of these stories and follow the “how to listen to Into the Woods/Hamilton without crying” approach: just close the book or stop the movie or soundtrack halfway through, when everything is still hunky-dory. Where stories end, after all, is subjective — it all depends on how long you follow them.

But no. I like the endings of these stories, too. I don’t check out early. Partly, I think, because they’re cathartic, in the old-fashioned Aristotelean sense of the word. Belting along to a sad song or feeling my heart pound during a good action sequence feels good physically as well as emotionally. Each story is, to quote the Nerdwriter quoting Northrop Frye, “intelligible because its catastrophe is plausibly related to its situation.”

But I’ve also been coming back to a line from Hadestown, a sentiment that I echoed myself when trying to understand Cassandra and that runs through the end of Rogue One — and through many of my favorite horror movies. “It’s a love song / About someone who tries.”

Tragic heroes are traditionally heroes because they do everything in their power to do the right thing, the thing that will let them survive, the thing that defies fate — and they fail anyway. Hamlet tries to avenge his father and save Denmark — and fails. Oedipus tries to save his city and his family from destruction — and fails. The stories elicit pity, in that we feel the pain of the hero when they lose, and we fear for them as we watch them struggle, because we recognize what their great losses would mean to us if we experienced them.

I guess I find more pleasure in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome in spite of their best efforts, than I do in tragic stories where the heroes are overcome because they never had a chance. And it’s absolutely because I need to believe that trying, that striving for something, matters, even if the something is not achieved. I need to believe that because we beat health care repeal a few times, but the fight isn’t going away. And because the world’s getting hotter and the storms are getting worse and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and swathes of California are wrecked. And because I walk past a lot of homeless people in Seattle, and my friends are crowdfunding their medical care and their rent, and the world is just really hard to live in.

So I gotta believe trying makes a difference. That it bends the arc of the universe a little, or it saves that one seastar, or whatever.

Or maybe I just don’t like downer endings.

Recommended reading/watching/listening:

 

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