Tuesday, 19 December 2006

random ruminations on tragedy

It has been said – forgive me this limp locution; ‘it has been said’ – the opening flourish or flatulence which arouses interest or confirms boredom. ‘It has been said’ I trumpet and of course the expansion of what follows or its contradiction paces the well worn groove of discursive convention. Ahh immediately we are dealing with a writer aware that sometimes his tools are his subject, that he writes not of something, just that he writes. Ahh let us read more attentively or indeed let’s cast his sides away – for his awareness is a guarantee of his possession of the field or that his awareness pleads, no matter how he might miss the mark, for an indulgence that he is at least trying.

Enough, have the courage of your conventions. It has been said that consciousness is essentially tragic. It has been said that life is essentially suffering. Now it becomes clearer. This ‘It has been said’ I now see it for what it is; an attempt to seem pleasantly tentative, urbane even, a notion that though this is of interest to me I will appear detached and that this detachment invites accord or contradiction, it is a tactic to maintain a distance between me and the subject when we all know that none exists. Therefore allow me to start again. Let me state categorically that consciousness is tragic and that life is suffering. The only difference between these two statements is that one (the former) is the public face of the latter’s private mass, weight, corporality or ineluctable density.

Tragedy invites communion and community whereas suffering is only ever private. And thus I return to ‘It has been said’ or maybe ‘And lo it was given’ or any other like utterance that moves the private to the public, the interior to the exterior. You see, it weren’t me Your Honour, it was the subject.

All art is an adventure in being. Actually all cultural manifestations are an adventure in being. However being (in its quotidian guise) is often an adventure in denial. Thus narrative adventures, pictorial representations or abstractions, fine Tuscan dining, the entire complex of human cultural engagement seeks to excite those moments, reveal those moments, maybe even dupe us into moments of being. To take us away from what maybe, what was, what could have been to simply (ha ha ha) what is. And ‘Is’ is only ever present.

‘It has been said’, ‘And lo it was given’, ‘In the beginning was the word’. Language is the problem and of course it is the solution. Just as life is the problem and of course it is the solution. And now I feel my subject or indeed myself is running further and further apart to the point where there is again a subject and again there is a discrete ‘I’ and thus I am plunged afresh into the techniques that threaten to obscure precisely what they attempt to clarify. Actually I suspect that a little of the above is motivated by the fact that I am straying into philosophy and I have neither the skill or the depth of reading to ground my arguments sufficiently and thus hope that a certain personal ‘style’ can save me from a reasonable demand for rigour. Subject, self…yes, well forgive me this literary fib…Enough.

Consciousness is essentially tragic. Aristotle was very naughty. Tragedy does not purge – Antigone does not lead to a moment of catharsis, no humours are expelled. Tragedy is essentially a confrontation. It is a perfect example of an art form that is both problem and solution. Its conventions or techniques are sturdy. A chorus, a protagonist, an antagonist and sometimes more. Each strophe and antistrophe framing the movement of event and argument. An architecture of rhythm and movement that is both light enough to allow play and strong enough to contain the molten contradictions it contains. Who is the arbiter between Antigone and Kreon? Our chorus can see virtue in both their respective positions. Who has the power to be decisive in this context? Is it a god? Is it someone of superior intellectual resource? No, it is a blind man who for a living consults the entrails of birds (what the…). I think that this was no less ironic to an Athenian audience than it is to us and no less troubling. What seems certain and fixed is exposed as both arbitrary and uncertain. As Greenbaum says (or sort of says…a paraphrase) in commenting on another literature ‘I was seeking an escape from contingency…there is no escape from contingency’.

Yet Greek tragedy contains this vertiginous dissolution whilst never rupturing its form. Order maybe re-established but the hollowness of its pragmatism remains exposed. There is no redemption just the furtive ache for a redemption denied. It is the problem and it is also the solution. It is a solution not without a refreshing terror or perhaps less histrionically an oft well needed salutory slap. It is a solution that reveals itself in community, in audience but denies communicability. In this you are alone. And in this isolation the art of tragedy becomes again the private suffering fact. Has it been transmuted? Has it become cheerful? I think in some ways it has. The contours of its egotism are diminished, its particularity is ignored, its billion private ancestries erased. It becomes or seems to be more objective, more a commonwealth than an issue of private failing or injustice or incapacity. The skinlessness of its refiguring brings, sometimes, if not cheerfulness then at least exhilaration.

Maybe it is in this aspect that lie the seeds of that sloppy, nagging demand or wish or assertion that great art is always ‘moral’. For I think in the face of suffering compassion is not a bad response and when our consciousness has been refreshed suffciently and when the familiar is again made strange and some apprehension is excited that when talking about universal values the only thing that approaches universality is the fact of suffering then it is not surprising that a demand for its amelioration creeps in. Good for people but bad for Art. For in the public realm of tragedy to apply a balm is lethal for it ignores that the problem is always the solution.