I’m phrasing that question in a straightforward manner very deliberately, because I do see an element of beauty in artistic representations of tragedy. Last week I watched the film Dancer in the Dark: in many ways a brutal, bleak film about tragedy and despair. Yet, while it brought tears, there was something undeniably beautiful about the film as well.
Today I want to think a little bit about why, because if tragedy is by definition, well, tragic, it seems problematic to think it beautiful. And yet it would be a mistake to equate tragedy in art with tragedy in life; the two are linked in many ways, but to call them equals trivializes real tragedy and ignores the particular ways art can re-present the world.
In The Poetics, Aristotle calls Tragedy “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude […] through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” To Aristotle, character is of secondary concern compared to plot. With regard to character, he says “the example of good portrait painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful.”
If we follow Aristotle’s logic, the “beauty” of tragedy is, first, its elevation of flawed humanity to poetic form, and second, its ability to draw out powerful emotions in a healthy way. In Aristotle’s model, however, genuine human subjects either are inappropriate for this type of elevation or would by their complexity weaken the tragic effect.
Written in 1949 for the New York Times, Arthur Miller’s essay “Tragedy and the Common Man” argues that genuine human subjects, regardless of status, are absolutely central to the expression of tragedy.
He writes, “I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing–his sense of personal dignity.” He goes on to say, “Only the passive, only those who accept their lot without active retaliation, are “flawless.” Most of us are in that category. But there are among us today, as there always have been, those who act against the scheme of things that degrades them,” the brokenness of the world around them.
The tragic hero, according to Miller, is not always a revolutionary; rather, it is someone who is willing to challenge, to question: “The Greeks could probe the very heavenly origin of their ways and return to confirm the rightness of laws. And Job could face God in anger, demanding his right and end in submission. But for a moment everything is in suspension, nothing is accepted, and in this stretching and tearing apart of the cosmos, in the very action of so doing, the character gains ‘size,’ the tragic stature.”
Miller concludes by rejecting a pessimistic view of tragedy. He says, “For, if it is true to say that in essence the tragic hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity. The possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won. […] Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief–optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.”
Miller points to the hard-to-define quality that distinguishes, for me, between a book or film whose ugliness and grief is worth confronting and one that wallows in its ability to manufacture despair and hopelessness.
It’s the look on Selma Jezkova’s face as she sings, “This isn’t the last song,” and in the final words of the film, “They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” It’s in the characters who say, “There must be more. Better must be possible. I refuse to be satisfied with only this.”
Other tragic (to varying degrees) films and books I really appreciate:
- Pan’s Labyrinth
- The Interpreter
- A Beautiful Mind
- Blood Diamond
- Woman at Point Zero (book)
- Everything is Illuminated (book)
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (book)
- The Vagrants (book)
- The God of Small Things (book)
- Les Miserables (book)