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Tragedy: The modern heist.

By Alan Wall. 


The Tragic Dilemma

The gods still lurk in the background of modern tragedy. Characters cock one ear to see if they can make out the congratulation or tears from afar. But they hear nothing, or perhaps they hear the distant sound of laughter. It is not a cheering sound. It is what Samuel Beckett called the mirthless laugh: ‘It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs…at that which is unhappy.’ If Aristotle’s requirement for catharsis retains any validity, we are more likely to achieve it in a laugh these days, hollow and silent though it might be.

Modern tragedy often goes for the heist: we do not stumble into crime, as poor Oedipus did.

Modern tragedy often goes for the heist: we do not stumble into crime, as poor Oedipus did. We choose it, even if reluctantly. Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather explains to Kay that the gangsters all around are separate, existentially and ontologically, from himself: ‘That’s my family, Kay; it’s not me.’ But then the assassination attempt takes place against his father, Vito. Suddenly the sea-green incorruptible Michael decides his old man must be avenged and protected. He himself will execute the miscreants. By the end of the second film we know that Michael has merged entirely with his Sicilian genealogy. He is so much his family, with its obsession with vendetta, that he has his own brother killed for his disloyalty.

Modern audiences are in love with crime. If we are watching or reading a tragedy, there is a fair chance it will be about crime, or riddled with crime. There is nothing new here. Shakespeare is obsessed with crime; so is Dickens. Both writers seem to test out crime as the final step we can make, the outer limit of the actions we can take to achieve our identity and fulfil our desires. Such fulfilment is quixotic, and inverted. As Macbeth says (very wisely) to his wife: ‘I dare do all that may become a man. Who dares do more is none.’ Unfortunately (tragically) he does do more, and in over-reaching himself into murder and usurpation, he waves farewell to peace of mind and sleep. He enters the ever-present tense of suspicion and embitterment.

Tragedy requires a journey up and a journey down. We witness the elevation, and the preeminence, then we witness the fall. This progress can be easier to see in crime, though high finance has started to run it a close second.

Still Going On…

Most people have a fair notion of what the tragic is: they make no reference to Aristotle, but then why should they? It is not a question of a particular action and its defining characteristics. It is an effect. The effect is one of loss; of destruction; of the despoliation of potency and beauty. This effect can be elicited through simple juxtaposition. Produce an image of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in their prime. This was the ultimate Hollywood couple. This was glamour incarnate. Surrounded by kids, with a room in their mansion-house known to the loving pair as the Fuck Hut, and festooned with double-locks. Now lay this glittering image next to one of Newman’s coffin, and next to that is Woodward in the wheelchair she occupies these days, disabled by the dementia that afflicts and distracts her. Do we not feel exactly the same prompt that Shakespeare felt?

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age
When sometime loftie towers I see downrazed
And brasse eternal slave to mortal rage…

And nobody, however rich, can escape it. Something that did not escape the composer of the spiritual ballad ‘All My Trials’:

If living was a thing that money could buy
You know the rich would live
And the poor would die…

And yet we might be being simplistic about the tragic effect here. Let us go back to the first image, the one featuring Newman and Woodward in all their pomp and  glory. Is there no tragedy inherent here? Well, Newman was already on a case of beer a day, call it twelve pints, sometimes starting with six bottles for breakfast, and after the beer, came the whisky, after which he often fell to the ground and hurt himself. Not entirely radiant then? Behind this glamorous marriage was the one he had to wreck to reach it, the one to Jackie Witte, and the three children it produced. One of those kids, Scott, did himself in. You can call it suicide if you like, but if a fellow gets himself strung out on enough hard drugs and chasers, it is hard to be specific about that last blast — whether it was meant to end it all, or just take you a notch higher than you managed the night before. Either way, Scott gave his body a bigger cocktail of chemicals than his body could take that night. The wrecked marriage and the wrecked son never left Paul’s mind and the crate of beer a day, plus whatever else, helped him dull the pain somewhat.

And recent memoirs have made plain that Paul wasn’t always faithful either. Not only that, but being unfaithful, he was so strung out on the booze that he couldn’t even do the one thing you expect an adulterer to do, if adultery is all it’s cracked up to be. It seems it was one thing to look into those blue eyes that gazed out at you like an Aegean sky above the Greek features, but come bedtime, our man could barely fall over without assistance. Curious, the way tragedy always creeps backwards, once it creeps into a narrative. It illuminates the past with a chiaroscuro worthy of Piranesi.

The Democratic Deficit

If we stick with the Aristotelian model, democracy made tragedy hard work. That singular figure rising so toweringly high, then dashed down, is complicated by democracy, which renders all things collective. There are certain exceptions to this collectivity, and how we reward their exemplars. There is celebrity, which means you have been plucked from the crowd, and are now interrogated by cameras on a daily basis. The same crowd awaits your first false step. There is gambling, usually much more anonymous, but a quick route to the top, with catastrophe as well as glory awaiting you at each casino. And there is sport. The route up is usually lengthy but the downward chute can be speedy. Then politics. You are supposed to be representing the collective, in a democratic society, and yet we know only too well how the individual trajectory of the politician takes precedence, up or down. At last there is the hardy perennial: crime. Crime clears away the democratic illusions. But we can come back to that.

The categories are not mutually exclusive. Become famous in sport and you will become a celebrity. We even have the curious phenomenon of the Kray Twins. They were hardened criminals who sought celebrity simultaneously. So they were being photographed by David Bailey and hanging around with Barbara Windsor and Lord Boothby one minute, while breaking people’s arms round the back of pubs and killing the odd traitor to their code the next. This did ultimately produce a certain conflict of interest, and the twins finally got banged up for many years, but they had a good run for their money. They were a source of endless fascination, which points us to a curious fact, namely this: democracy has been in love with crime as one of its favoured forms of tragedy for well over a century. In crime you can bypass all the fine meshes of democracy, rise up swiftly and fall back down just as quick. Cinema, the creation of democratic media, chose crime as one of its prime subjects. Even before the figures on the screen could be heard speaking they could be seen shooting. Think of the movies Paul Newman is most famous for: Left-Handed Gun; Cool-Hand Luke; The Hustler; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Sting. In four of the five he is a criminal. In the fifth he is on the edges of extortion and deceit. Cinema is born in deceit. Cinema deceived twenty-four times a second. And its deceit can be reversed in a single frame. The great tragi-comedy that is The Sopranos ends when the screen, which is the consciousness of Tony Soprano, goes blank. A bullet ends the series. What other ending could there be? Oedipus blinded himself. With Tony, it is an assassin with a gun who closes his eyes. So there is a kind of progress, after all, if only technological.

It was apparently Stalin who first said that if 10 men die that is a tragedy, but if it is 10,000, it is a statistic. Tragedy dilutes itself in crowds. We need to see the face of tragedy, and it tends to be singular. It is hard to see the tragic face in crowds. We search for the spotlight on the individual features. There are exceptions to this. Euripides’ The Trojan Women goes back and forth between Hecuba, Cassandra and Andromache. Brecht’s Mother Courage shows us the whole family undergoing the ravages of war, and morally degrading themselves, so as to survive. But on the whole we return to the solitary figure.

Raymond Williams felt that modern tragedy had come to an impasse with the tragic individualism of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. This death could not get past itself, and it had no chorus to comprehend it. Willie’s life had been a falsity from beginning to end. In order to live the American dream, he had to lie every moment of the day. The American Dream had to lie to itself in the mirror, and pretend its origins had not been in slaves and gold.

The Criminal Exemption

We should insist upon a distinction that is seldom made. Tragedy can be two things: cancellation or fulfilment. There is a sense in Wagner that if the man and the woman sing together as they die, then they have reached a summation. There is here a kind of completion that is satisfactory, despite the pain and the loss. Whereas with Romeo and Juliet we simply feel a sense of estranged cancellation. These two lovers lost each other. Now death possesses them as much as they can ever possess one another.

The gospels are not tragic texts, despite the crucifixion. They are not tragic because the miracles are not reversed. The blind man can still see; the lame man can still walk. And Lazarus has not returned to the dust of the grave. If the miracles had been reversed, then the mission of Jesus would be reduced to dust, and his life would be a tragedy of cancellation, but in fact it is one of fulfilment. This was the mission, endured through to the end. This was a necessary ending, not a fortuitous reversal. He had after all offered himself up for voluntary annihilation.

Does tragedy permit a final end, one beyond the theatrical closure, one in which all can be made well? George Steiner reckoned Christianity had, in one sense, put paid to tragedy in its true form, since Christianity offered ultimate redemption. Though redemption on the far side of crucifixion might still sound tragic enough to some, Steiner still felt that it cheated. Nietzsche thought even Socratic chirpiness, that questioner who sits so sly, fluked the bona fide tragic dimension. Bob Dylan put it rather well too:

They say that everything can be replaced
They say that every distance is not near…

It is the genuinely tragic perception that nothing can be replaced and that every distance is near.

It is the genuinely tragic perception that nothing can be replaced and that every distance is near. So near that it makes its way inside you. For the broken-hearted, no substitution is ever possible. The heart once broken is broken for ever.

Walter Stein in his book Criticism as Dialogue argued that King Lear was both Christian and tragic and that Lear’s final ‘Look there! Look there!’ was not merely the tragic hallucination of an old man whose wits had come astray, but the genuine trans-mortem vision of possibility, that a Christian tragedy permitted. Well, maybe.

In Euripides, humanity displays a preternatural facility for self-delusion and denial. In ecstatic trances. In drunken orgies. But there is also a realism that would shame many a modern writer. In The Trojan Women, they see with horrendous clarity what awaits them. Defeat in war meant the men would be slaughtered, and the women taken into sexual slavery, assuming they were still worth the sex. There is no distinction here between crime and society. We have to wait, historically, for that to happen.

In the real tragic world no moment can substitute for any other moment. Each one is gone for ever with its own passing. Nor can there be any redemptive representation. You are here; it is thus. As Dylan put it once again:

The truth was obscure
Too profound and too pure
To live it you had to explode.

Or as tragedy put it: to live it you had to die.

Claude Lanzmann came to the same conclusion when he made Shoah. He would not have actors representing the people concerned. He would not have anything representing anything. Instead he followed the traces that remained as scrupulously as he could. He found what remained of the Holocaust and filmed it. He said he found the whole notion of ‘representation’ repellent. It is a step away from reality.

Tragedy says the price is too high; the gods will not be bribed.

What could it mean, anyway, to redeem someone or something? To bargain for their salvation. To buy them out of their imprisonment. To ransom away their death penalty. Tragedy says the price is too high; the gods will not be bribed. And so we live in a world where we say, He’s dead; we’re next; better have a carnival anyway. But please don’t talk about redemption. Don’t tell us that resurrection stops you being dead.

We appear to live in the age of the female tattoo and aerial bombardment. The ideology of aerial bombardment is that whatever conflict you appear to be having with whatever foreign country, drop enough bombs on it, and you will resolve the matter swiftly. One would have thought the experience of Vietnam might have put this notion away for ever (particularly the swiftly part), but no. Of course, if your economy is substantially based on manufacturing vast amounts of armaments, then you are going to have to blow a fair number of people away from time to time, or a quarter of your GDP might render itself redundant.

What we often find in tragedy, ancient and modern, is a desperate wish to protect us from the future, which is inexorably coming our way anyway. Oedipus is taken away to be exposed so that he can’t kill his father and bed his mother. He survives. Then in Corinth another soothsayer predicts he will kill his father and bed his mother. He flees — back to Thebes, naturally. There Tiresias predicts what will happen again, and is banished for his pains. The future refuses to be avoided. You can banish whomsoever you choose, what will come will come anyway. Avoiding the future is like damning up a mighty river — you can’t stop the flow of the water; you can only divert it. For a while.

In ancient tragedy, every box was filled with the future. Open it and the future springs out at you. As it did Pandora. You cannot cancel the future; if you try, the future will cancel you. This is the heuristic tragedy. In modernity the boxes contain the past. We discover how we came to be thus: this is the hermeneutic tragedy. We can see how it got this way, but we can’t really see any way of reversing the process. In antiquity, the future is contained in the symmetry of the past. In modernity, tragedy is contained in the contingency of the present. It is the contingent and gratuitous that hacks us down. We fell out of the prescribed pattern.

Crime simplifies it all for us. We turn to crime as we turn to a formulaic model. Ah look — this is the way it works. At the beginning of The Godfather, as we said, Michael Corleone insists he is not one with his family. The rest of the film proves him wrong. He becomes the shadow of his father. Life after all is a form of Sicilian loyalty. He even kills his own brother to prove the point. And Willy Loman cannot strive to fulfil the American dream, because there is no American dream for him to fulfil, only a shoddy fake. Willy fakes everything, the fidelity of his marriage, the heroism of his sons, his own salesman’s progress through life, the state of his American soul. Everything is bogus. He is the tragic hero of the bogus; the Everyman of democracy. A democracy that lies to itself.

But crime when portrayed accurately does not lie to itself. It knows precisely what it wants, and then it goes out and gets it, however many people get killed in the process. We remember how Beckett’s answer to tragedy is laughter. A pretty grim form of laughter. A laughter that echoes from mountain to mountain, and as it echoes, discovers that there is no God there to listen or reciprocate. The laughter is what is left of God’s voice, after God has gone.

The end of The Sopranos comes when the screen goes blank. Tony has been outmanoeuvred with a bullet. But then, this is the life we have chosen, as Lee Strasberg playing Hyman Roth says in Godfather II. This is the form of justice we have elected to live by. Mo Green gets a bullet in the eye. It is a curiosity of The Sopranos that the only real imprisonment Tony is subjected to is at home. The imprisoning bars of his life are domestic. But then this is a different sort of tragedy, the one Leonard Cohen spoke of when he described ‘the homicidal bitchin’ / That goes down in every kitchen.’ Here the forms of murder tend to be slower, and often escape prosecution.


ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Image credits.
Abstracet ancient, backgrounds (Litay); Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Œdipus the Wayfarer, circa 1888 (via Wikimedia Commons); publicity portrait of the movie The Long, Hot Summer, depicting Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (via Wikimedia Commons); Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778), Le Carceri d’Invenzione, planche XI, L’Arche aux gradins (via Wikimedia Commons); Dangerous Krays (via Wikimedia Commons); James Barry (1741–1806), King Lear and Cordelia, 1776 (via Wikimedia Commons); Pandora’s Box, based on Frederick Stuart Church (1842–1924) (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons); theater masks, background removed (fergregory).

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