Recently I’ve thought about how tragedy has been minimized in modern culture if not totally eliminated. If tragedy is supposed to be the aesthetic experience par excellence, the most divine product, then its slow fade to black is worth investigating. It is a given that the greatest of literary geniuses of the modern era consistently fail to produce a contemporary account of tragedy, and the reasons are legion.
Setting aside the potentially many other factors, here is one possible account: despite evolving as rational creatures, our animal nature remains potent. It reacts only within the sphere of perception, the immediate environment, which chains thinking to the heat of the current moment. Our rational and animal natures have been in constant conflict. During reflection we formulate plans for a goal, but in the heat of the moment, we sink to emotions and lose perspective. Sometimes we’re clever when we get what we want without hassle, but hardly ever examine the consequences or whether that is necessary. The deliberate, rational and reflective thinker is often eclipsed by the screaming, reactive and emotional child.
But the ancient Greeks, supposedly, were closer to the “great leap forward” (from immediate Dionysian experience to Apollonian abstractions) than we were, and they found this dual nature to be tragic. Man was tragic, because his knowledge is insignificant, his vision, limited, and his goals, ultimately comic. We find the protagonist in Oedipus Rex optimistic, because he thinks he knows enough to decide what to do, and at the same time, he is beholden to his emotions and desires. Given a limited perspective, the protagonist is doubly reckless – but once the poor sap finds out the awful truth, he rips his eyes out. Despite being able to see the world, he couldn’t see into himself: his inner eye was blind.
The Greek drama has changed – and despite a brief resurgence during Renaissance, and a short-lived fad of existentialism in the 40’s, these days, we’re no longer tragic, or at least, our culture values has changed and the majority of our creative art reflect little tragic elements. Perhaps it is because of the enculturation of the Grand Dogma during the Age of Reason, outlets like therapy replaced the catarthic function of greek tragedy, resulted in the decline of the audience for tragedy.
Also, look here for additional comments on the tragic and religious impulses.