This past weekend, I was reading an article on tragedy, and in the book The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner said that the rise of rationalism and the dominance of secular worldview has destroyed the metaphysical grounds for tragedy for today.
The ancients thought they were a small but very important part of a larger reality. Steiner said that in Greek tragedy & Shakespeare, mortal actions are surrounded by forces that transcend man. In Orestes, we see the Furies and in Macbeth, there are the Weird Sisters. There’s no Oedipus without a Sphinx, nor a Hamlet without the ghost.
Yeah, I can hear you saying, so friggin’ what? Tragedy paints life as a great mystery beyond human understanding and they show us how little of the world belongs to man. But we today don’t have any such overlords. Our science, our skeptical reason has conquered the superstitious beliefs in the mystery beyond our understanding.
The Greeks thought that we were noble only because we understood suffering and death – unlike their gods. But today, nobility, redemption are mere quaint anachronisms, burned and buried deep in the trench of WWI and fried in the gas ovens of Auschwitz.
This is where the gods in my upcoming graphic novel, Pantheon will point out the irony that by getting rid of divinity, mortals have actually lost their significance. We have destroyed not just merely superstitions, but also many ideas that centered our place in the cosmos (Earth is no longer an important world, just a very ordinary planet, Darwin expelled our divine origins, and Freud forced us to realize that our conscience is nothing special). Modern philosophy no longer has any ground to build a noble portrait of man.
Tragedy depends on the idea of greatness. But today we can’t even conceive of anyone being worthy of such an honorific.
Certainly, there are tragic elements preserved in literature and film and genres like science fiction, but does that mean they’re tragedies despite the widespread changes in culture and worldviews? It would be difficult to classify them as tragedies qua tragedy, when they have many other elements inimical to classic tragedies.
The last authentic tragedy were probably by O’Neill (Mourning Becomes Electra) & Arthur Miller (Crucible). The closest thing we do have to tragedies are found in existential literature (Phillip K. Dick short stories, Sartre’s plays) and film noir (Dark City, Sin City) so we may not really need tragedies anymore. We’ve recast them with modern sensibilities – minus the metaphysical footing of divinity and the prestigious role of humanity – and replaced the tropes with themes like angst, freedom and characters like gritty, brooding anti-heroes.