Patroclus did as his dear comrade had bidden him. He brought Briseis from the tent and gave her over to the heralds, who took her with them to the ships of the Achaens – and the woman was loth to go. Then Achilles went all alone by the side of the hoar sea, weeping and looking out upon the boundless waste of waters. He raised his hands in prayer to his immortal mother, “Mother,” he cried, “you bore me doomed to live but for a little season”…
These lines, charged with dramatic intensity, are from the first book of the Iliad. Achilles’ bride Briseis has just been taken from him, and he goes to the sea, where he prays to his immortal mother Thetis. Samuel Butler’s translation seems to omit an important detail, which most other translators have retained – in the original Greek, it is specified that Achilles reaches the sea and sits down before praying. In terms of the dramatic image, it makes a big difference.
The elision notwithstanding, we can imagine Achilles in the timeless moment just before he sits down and starts praying - we can see him standing before the sea, cross-armed, his lips pursed and his brows creased in a bleak fury. Among Homer's many gifts to us, there is this vignette, which encapsulates the central theme ('μῆνις', wrath) and atmosphere of the whole Iliad. But there is also something else. In this primal fresco of a brilliant young man standing before the endless expanse of the sea, we find the symbolic essence of a genre that has fascinated and puzzled literati for millennia. It is a supreme encapsulation of tragedy.
The tragic nature of the Iliad is what gives it its enduring power. The Odyssey intrigues and captures the reader’s imagination with its tales of wonders and distant lands; it is a story filled with magic, monsters and guile. Ultimately, it is completely satisfying because it closes with the mother of all happy endings. The Odyssey is the perfect adventure story.
But the Iliad is the tragedy. Though it does not read as well or as easily as Homer’s other great epic, it rings with an existential power which the other book simply cannot match. It transcends its own genre in a way that very few epics have ever done. This is remarkable, because tragedy is a category that tends to abort itself when it is taken out of the dramatic infrastructure in which it so naturally unfolds. Numerous examples can be found of narratives in other mediums that attempt to replicate the tragic effect, from Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native to the Marcel Carné / Jacques Prévert effort in film, Le Jour se Lève. Almost all of them fail in one way or another. Tragedy simply does not yield. You cannot haul it and lump it from one genre to another without losing it somewhere in the process. You cannot bend it without breaking it. And you certainly cannot stray away from having Achilles in the front of the sea. Any story that takes a single step out of that diorama instantly ceases to be tragic.
What is tragedy? The question is old – old enough to be a little tiring. Theory on the subject goes as far back as Aristotle – it is well known that the world’s first book on literary theory, the Poetics, was essentially a book about tragedy (along with a cursory glance at epic and lyric poetry, of course, and the whole other book on comedy which went lost). Since then, so much has been written on the topic that it hurts to think about. A scholar called Oscar Mandel, back in 1961, wrote an entire book entitled A Definition of Tragedy. This was the fruit of his efforts:
A protagonist who commands our earnest good will is impelled in a given world by a purpose, or undertakes an action, of a certain seriousness and magnitude ; and by that very purpose or action, subject to that same given world, necessarily and inevitably meets with grave spiritual or physical suffering.
My personal reaction was to think that it reads less like a definition than a description, but Mandel can at least be credited with precision. For Herbert Joseph Muller, tragedy is ‘a fiction inspired by a serious concern with the problem of man’s fate, a spectacle of a relation between good and evil, a dramatic representation of a set of values’. (The Spirit of Tragedy, 1956). Not only is this inaccurate, as ‘good and evil’ are usually the subject of morality plays rather than tragedies, it is also tremendously vague. Even some comedies are ‘inspired by a serious concern with the problem of man’s fate’, and almost any self-respecting story will be ‘a dramatic representation of a set of values’.
There are some intriguing essays on tragedy that have been produced in the twentieth century – JP Vernant’s Marxist reading is definitely worth looking up – but on the whole, most of the original theory on the subject was written before the year 1900. I may be stretching it, but I can’t think of anything new that has been said on tragedy at all since Nietzsche.
Almost all theory on tragedy is derived from, or has been directly influenced by, one of three main works, the most famous and widely quoted of which – and by a great distance – is Aristotle’s Poetics. It is also the least useful. The fact that it has been so enormously influential does not make its arguments more valid. In fact, one of the problems with literary theory surrounding tragedy is that so much of it is stuck on Aristotle, to the point that some critics appear to spend more time on his arguments than on the plays themselves. When Ashley Horace Thorndike, writing in 1908, argues that ‘[a] typical tragedy is concerned with a great personality engaged in a struggle that ends disastrously’, he is only paraphrasing Aristotle.
The Greek luminary, however, was interested in an exegesis of genre that is no longer very relevant to us. His claim that tragedy is ‘an imitation, not of men, but of action and life’ doesn’t really mean much anymore, as the argument applies to representation generally more than it does to tragedy specifically. Aristotle was writing at a time when poetry – either epic, lyric or dramatic – was the only narrative form there was other than history. This is why he was so careful about distinguishing them as their own separate genres.
The rise of the novel, and later that of film, are sufficiently important developments to outmode most of Aristotle’s arguments. Tragedy used to be a genre that encapsulated a number of narrative functions – functions which have been retained, but split and delegated into different subgenres. For instance, Aristotle specifically says that tragedy should arouse ‘fear’. This goes hand in hand with the (somewhat less widely appreciated) fact that tragedies are a very bloody genre. Most of them involve people killing or mutilating each other, from Oedipus driving nails into his eyes to Agamemnon’s skull getting split with an axe. Several of them really bring gore to what seems like an unreasonable extreme, such as Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays or Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (and that’s without beginning on John Webster).
This is neither an expression of sadistic voyeurism nor some sophisticated aspect of high culture. It is no more and no less than stories being used to exorcise our inner anxieties, primarily those related to the fragility of our own bodies. When seeing, as we do in King Lear, a man having his eyes ripped out on stage, it gives a form to that fear and lets our psyche represent and resolve it, putting it to rest. This is to a very great extent what Aristotle was talking about when he spoke of the ‘purgation of emotions’ (otherwise known as catharsis) that we undergo in tragedy.
I mention this specific role of the dramatic genre because contemporary culture evidently fulfils it otherwise. The component of physical anxiety and gore has been enucleated from tragedies and transferred fully onto what we know as the Horror genre (enveloping its many subgenres, from psychological thrillers to splatters). These films do exactly the same thing that tragedies did in another age: they stage our anxieties related to death, violation, or sex, and by giving them a form, they let us deal with them. Unsurprisingly, Aristotle’s statement that tragedy should inspire ‘fear’ now seems alien and distant from us – there can be tension and conflict, certainly, even some suspense, but do you really expect to be scared when going out to watch Othello?
There is much in the Poetics that is similarly outmoded – including the statement on tragedy’s other main emotion, ‘pity’ – and an unwillingness to dismiss the Aristotelian axioms has been the greatest millstone around the neck of tragic theory.
Obviously I am not suggesting that we should just ditch the Poetics as a whole. It is mandatory reading if only for how widely it informs our history of criticism, and there are plenty of arguments that are still of interest (such as Aristotle’s wonderful meditations on language and metaphor). It is just that an understanding of tragedy is best served by leaving Aristotle and his historical moment aside, and looking at what it is that makes tragedy unique not only in our own culture, but in all cultures in which it has appeared. Because there clearly is such a thing as a recognisable element that we call tragic – one that has not and cannot be transferred to other subgenres like that of Horror. The aborted imitations which attempted to render tragedy in other mediums are case in point. They were trying to bring the tragic outside of tragedy, but even as they carried over all of the Aristotelian jigsaw pieces, they could not reproduce the whole. They had lost Achilles and the sea.