wisteria, lilacs, nazis

The wisteria are subsumed in an aura of bees, absolutely balmy with intoxication. I sympathize with them. The perfume is so strong it crowds out other thoughts, even damaging motor control.

The beauty and exuberance of spring are often the setting for tragedy. As the whole world becomes young and beautiful, renewing itself, death, illness, being left out and loss become harder to bear. My parents used to play this record that eloquently embodies the feeling

But why do we like this and more deeply, the great tragedies? Perhaps comedy requires more sheer talent than tragedy, but tragedy is considered greater. Why is that? Comedy is so important – crucial and with any luck – daily. Humor is the essential lubricant of life, to distance and laugh, to change the angle of vision and invoke the angel of perspective. But the experience of tragedy and the art forms of tragedy are not something daily. We need time to go where they lead. An artistic tragedy, a film, a play, a book, requires time and a willingness to go under the protection of art through a passage of pain, in order to accept it and so release it. Surrender. Give the agony its due and thus leave some of it in the hands of those who can manage it better than we. We need to keep going without the weight of our losses becoming a pair of cement overshoes. We need help to digest what we can and leave what we can. Since it is both impossible and wrong to simply leave our dead on the side of the road, we have to be given a vehicle in which loss is both the conveyance and the fuel, as well as (a lesser amount of) dead weight.

Tragedy and the tragic viewpoint is also the antidote to anxiety about success and Sisyphisan straining against failure. As Alain de Botton says, the idea that we live in a meritocracy is both lovely and ridiculous. We do not and we never will since it is not possible. But because the mythos of our time, the air we breathe, is the idea that we are equal, that anyone with gumption and talent can be a success, most people live with self-excoriation and fear of failure. Our self-respect is tottery. It seems to be part of the make-up of even those we describe as fabulous successes, this gnawing insecurity, envy, fear of looking down.

We’ve got all the self-help gurus preaching to us that we should believe in ourselves, but that very thing is the problem. We believe in nothing but ourselves. If everything is our own achievement, then everything (including our cancer for godsake) is our own bloody fault.

Euripedes did not believe that, the tellers of Oedipus and Lear and The Trojan Women did not believe that. Yes, the flaw lies not in our stars but in our character, and yet, nature, culture and the gods also have their will and their way.

It is well to take responsibility for one’s life. One of the reasons that it is well is because when we take responsibility, we feel more powerful, capable and willing to try. But the dark side of ‘responsibility’ is an enormously hubristic view that in both good results and bad, we inappropriately appropriate the powers of the gods to ourselves.

This is a mistake of such enormous proportions, that it leads to both the creation of tragedy and the denial of the source of the tragedy. Stay with me.

Dahlan and I have been working hard on the new Creativity in Captivity concert for Puebla, Mexico this summer. When you live with the reality of what people went through in the concentration camps, the repulsiveness of The Secret or the whole ‘you-manifest-your-own-reality’ crew comes home.  Many of those guys get a little squirrelly when confronted with something like the Holocaust, but god love em, many just plow on through because that is where the logic of their argument takes them – that somehow every circumstance is of our own making. If there is one thing the self-help movement is not interested in, it’s tragedy. That may be why the same people who are into it are the ones who send sentimental sad-eyed dog videos – sentimentality being the antithesis of tragedy.

The Muslim women killed in honor-based violence, the Jews and Rom and homosexuals of the Nazi camps, did not create that reality. That reality was created by people whose reading of Nietzsche and his superman made them think they were as gods. That’s crazy-talk. That is the road to the tragedy created by the disrespect of tragedy. Disrespect of tragedy is disrespect of the gods, disrespect of the forces greater than ourselves.

And that is what it looks like blown up big, but small and personal, it looks and feels like our endless anxiety about success and failure. To enter into the tragic universe is to find the seed of compassion, even for yourself.


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