Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rectifications (18) – Tragedy is….

Rectifications (18) – Tragedy is….

Torrey Orton– November 18, 2009

Tragedy is the stuff of everyday life now. It, and its associated feeling grabbers - the "loving family", the "caring" father, mother, family who have been beset be trouble(s) of various types, are our daily companions in the print and virtual press. This irritates me for the usual reason: yet another important word demeaned by overuse.

So, what am I squawking about again! Perhaps I'm lacking a good replacement for it - another term for fully fledged tragic events. I feel that 'tragedy' has lost its power through indiscriminate application. A bit like 'fantastic', 'awesome' and the other denatured exclamations. That's why they have to be reinvented about half generationally I suppose.

To shortcut my rising argument, let's go to an idea of what tragedy may be. It's a bit academic but can be made everyday usable.

"In tragedy, there seems to be a mix of seven interrelated elements that help to establish what we may call the "Tragic Vision":

  • The conclusion is catastrophic.
  • The catastrophic conclusion will seem inevitable.
  • It occurs, ultimately, because of the human limitations of the protagonist.
  • The protagonist suffers terribly.
  • The protagonist's suffering often seems disproportionate to his or her culpability.
  • Yet the suffering is usually redemptive, bringing out the noblest of human capacities for learning.
  • The suffering is also redemptive in bringing out the capacity for accepting moral responsibility"

One typical opportunity for an access of public tragic sentiment is road accidents, especially multi-party, multi-death ones. These are so predictably young men in drug and/or drink assisted excesses with uplifted senses of immortality. Supply your own recent example here. Note that the stereotype is beginning to be breached by the spread of similar behaviour among women of the same age. Binge babes and boys.

Now, such incidents qualify as tragic because they are (1) catastrophic, their outcomes (2) seem inevitable, (3) they definitely are beyond the limits of the participants, (4) the participants suffer terribly for more or less time and (5) the suffering seems disproportionate to the drivers' mistakes.

However, they fail to qualify as tragic on the remaining two criteria. (6) The suffering seldom seems redemptive; no one seems to learn from it. The young continue to prove themselves vulnerable to terminal velocities. And, (7) finally, the drivers are often not around to take responsibility for their mistake – so redemption is short-changed once again.

I'm all little inclined to withdraw criterion 5 from the qualification list since the judgment of disproportionate damage to the drivers seems arguable. Anyway, perhaps what we have in the more personal events like driver risks (drink, showing off, and fatigue allatonce) raised to the level of near inevitability are instances of the banalities of youth.

As you see, a modestly close look at what characterises 'tragedy' seems to come out around more than 70% on the side of the present liberal usage. In its worst employ, 'tragedy' is anytime where anything gets hurt in anyway. Many of the everyday "tragedies" meet the better part of the minimal criteria for a tragedy.

We certainly cannot say that someone who falls in the line of a freely undertaken duty died tragically because they were in the line of duty. Police, soldiers, and fire fighters come to mind. Are all large scale death events tragedies? How can tsunami victims and terror victims be equated? If the natural events become signal national historical events like Gallipoli or 9/11 do they automatically qualify without regard to the provenance of the event?

So, where we can we find the real thing? What is a tragic event which fulfils the criteria, especially being an event from which we can learn something? Are we in some now, as a race (the human one I mean!)? GFC, Climate Change, fluid and food declines, for instance? Were historical tragedies recognised in their times?





  1. Isn't it fascinating how word usage changes, sometimes deliberately sometimes without any seeming logic.

    I once read a report from an organisation which (in 1898) changed its name from society for the feeble to the spastic society because the word 'spastic' did not have a perjorative connotation. A century later noone can use the word 'spastic' without being perjorative.

    And I suppose the reason it matters is because if we don't all intend the same meaning when we use a word conflict and confusion are inevitable

  2. or, you can say that a bit of truth is lost, to be recovered by other means if possible, each time a workable term is discarded/degraded for avoidance purposes, or deception purposes, as is the case with tragedy now...