Monday, October 20, 2008

It's All Greek to Me

A major pillar of our story-telling tradition is set firmly in the cement of the belief that the gods--later to become God--or the Fates--later to become opinion polls--knew better than we mere mortals or, indeed, we mere voters. Those who scoffed at the professed wisdom of the gods, the oracles, later to become God, were guilty of a crime. Depending on our social status, the crime was either the felony of hubris or the misdemeanor of blasphemy. The term tragedy was reserved for those of greater pretension than us; accordingly comedy and farce became the tragedy of the working classes, and welcome to it.

We have come some distance from believing that only those to whom the Muse calls is the artist, poet, painter, dancer, musician, etc. Now we know better. The Muse no longer has to call us, an online university will suffice. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became president and literally broke the back and spirit of the Air Traffic Controller's Union, he went to work on The Fates and the gods, reducing them to their more Right-to-work status of common sense. If there were anything to be learned of tragedy, it would trickle down to us from somewhere on high, deus ex machina, god or goddess lowered onto the stage in a bucket which is in turn controlled by a winch.

Trouble is, tragedy, even though demonized by anti-intellectualism, still works. Lear works. Hamlet works. Not to forget Macbeth. Audiences like to see or read about men and women who are brought down from their perch of conviction or their sense of entitlement or of self-importance, either by tragedy or by humor. Stop for a moment to consider some of the possible permutations of Lear from tragedy to comedy. A man from Omaha who owns a slew of McDonald's franchises decides to divide them among his three daughters. A man from beautiful downtown Eastlos, the East L.A. barrio, decides to retire and split his stable of portable taco stands among his three daughters. Or imagine the humoring down of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to the level of a man who is being aced out of his position on the line at a car wash, and his wife nevertheless saying the memorable line, "Attention must be paid to such a man."

Tragedy used to involve the literary equivalent of people in high places, individuals involved in clashes of ethical conduct or individuals backed into the tight squeeze of a pair of narrow moral shoes, say Antigone and her battle with her uncle over the matter of her brother's burial and what said burial meant and indeed, why the brother was dead in the first place. It's a bit of a stretcher to equate Antigone, the play with All My Sons, but if you look closely, many of the same red-meat elements remain. Today, tragedy can more properly involve individuals who have some how come to the understanding that they can never achieve the Platonic ideal of perfection. They can do well, ultimately better, but not perfect. Some individuals can't even get into a situation where they can try to do their best because they are bombarded by some kind of bureaucracy. Bad as bureaucracies can be, they still trump some of the other possibilities of organization. So the little guy, stuck in some bureaucracy where he can't excel--only do well--goes home to try his hand at something where he could conceivably fail, which becomes his safety valve, his pole star. And then comes the tragedy wherein what he does at home produces a meteoric success which he can never hope to duplicate.

Look carefully at the Greek plays, both the humorous, say Frogs, or the tragic, say Antigone (because we have already said it). Then look at the modern mise en scene, individuals doing things they don't want to do, individuals nourishing some tangible dream that sustains them through the quotidian, individuals who excel at something they don't very much care for while simultaneously striving beyond all reason for Process in something where they are tangibly ill suited. Observe their behavior, then begin writing.

Just as there is more to Hellenism than polytheism, gyros, and shishkebab, there is more to tragedy than Greek drama. The devil is in the details. And the kalamata olives. Your individual process begins with the knowledge that you have for a time been striving for perfection and have come to the realization that such perfection is not within your grasp, and then the realization that reaching is within your grasp.


Anonymous said...

My son was drawing a picture. He wailed, "It isn't perfect!"

"Sweetie," I said. "No picture is perfect. Even the most famous artist in the world makes mistakes. So, learn from your mistake and make another picture."

He glares at me. "I want to make the best picture."

"There is no best picture in the world," I say, thinking about all the things I would change in my art.

"Don't say that, Mom. I want mine to be the best."

I sigh. "You're supposed to have fun making it. Otherwise, I suggest you do something else."

He throws his pencil down and pouts. A moment later he is back at his picture. He seemed happy.

You'd think 5 is young to be worried about perfection, wouldn't you?

Anonymous said...

I was finally free to write fiction when I decided I didn't have to write the perfect book. I cursed the Gods of English Lit degrees and got on with it. Thanks for the reminder though, that reaching is within my grasp. "Progress, not perfection" as the wise 12-steppers say.