Monday, August 31, 2009

The Importance of Tragedy

One of the things I always thought odd about American taste in fiction and cinema is our aversion to tragedy. Filmmakers, in particular, are constantly changing movie endings for American audiences to "lighten" them up. Many British books just aren't carted over the ocean for the simple fact that they're just "too depressing."

I had a lot of trouble understanding this phenomenon. I figured it had something to do with our belief in the American Spirit and Manifest Destiny. I figured we were terrified of tragedy, and in love with the idea that science and progress and good, god-fearing folks could overcome everything.

But it still bugged me. Because I love tragedy. I love watching the inexorable trudging on events toward a inevitable end knowing there's no way to stop it... but watching our heroes bravely try anyway. I like the cathartic rush.

Then I watched this TED talk with Alain de Botton and was suddenly stuck by what he had to say about our aversion to tragedy. Tragedy, he points out, was created to teach us compassion. Instead of looking at somebody who's down on their luck and saying, "God, she's such a loser. She must have done something pretty terrible to end up that way," we learn the old "there but for the grace of god go I" lesson. We learn that each person who's down on their luck isn't a loser, but merely "unfortunate."

But in America, we don't believe in misfortune. We believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We figure that bankrupt people living out of a friend's house, unemployed, with chronic medical conditions, working temp jobs, are just... losers. Lazy. Meritless. After all, if they worked hard and had merit, they'd be winners, right? They'd be successful American entrepreneurs.

But what our American dream ignores - each and every time - is the influence of tragedy on people's lives. We don't like tragedy. We don't like the idea that sometimes you really do get hit on the back of the head with a shovel for no reason. Sometimes, shit happens.

Because if shit happens, then we can't ignore the bum on the street. We can't plead entitlement for healthcare. We can't just say, "If you don't own your own house, you're a loser," or "if you don't have a car, you're a loser."

Without tragedy, without teaching compassion and morality by putting us all in the shoes of good people who experience bad things, we look down on the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt, the destitute, with scorn, derision, and not one ounce of compassion. After all, they must have *done* something (or *not* done something) to get there, right? I'm good, I'm hard working. That will never happen to *me.*

I mourn our lack of tragedy.

13 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Some of us used to love tragedy--for about twenty years it was all I wanted to read--but as we aged found that tragedy all around us, and finding it in fiction is too much a reflection of our lives. We've learned the lessons. Now hopeful endings help me cope and break through the paralyzing and boringly repetitive cynicism.

Kameron Hurley said...

I certainly understand that shift. And yet, for younger folks - particularly the priviledged - I think tragedy is an incredible teaching tool.

oldfeminist said...

In the 1930s, the US Hays film code established certain rules for movies that had to be followed. One was that criminals could not "get away with" their crimes. Bonnie and Clyde may have a glamorous life, but they have to die in a hail of gunfire.

Though the Hays code is gone, psychologically it lives on. And this unrealistic expectation, that evil is always thwarted and good always triumphs, lives on as well in a more general sense in the American cinema.

I'm 49, and I am no less interested in reading or seeing tragedy now than I was when I was younger and had less to worry about. In reading and watching tragedy I see the ways people cope and think about how I cope with my own.

I can identify more fully now with accurate portrayals of tragedy, rather than glorifying or romanticizing or even trivializing it.

And I can learn even today about situations I don't have intimate knowledge of, different tragedies from my own, increasing my capacity for compassion.

Anonymous said...

I should be more clear: I'm not saying I don't want to learn about others' experience and sufferings, as I'm well aware there's more I don't know than I do, but when I read books all about darkness and suffering and the characters are left there, I don't feel that I've learned any more about their experience than I have if they're left with some hope.

I'm not interested in fluffy bunny stories (I watch few Hollywood movies or mainstream TV), but after a time horrific stories for the sake of horrific stories becomes a bludgeon rather than a teaching tool.

Like the difference between _The Duchess of Malfi_ (which I love, but damn) and say _Hamlet_.

Or maybe the difference between horror and drama.

Lon said...

This is an amazing insight. Thanks for sharing it. I think I'm going to link to it.

TochiO said...

Which is why The Wire, whose tragedy was absolutely GREEK (and despite it being a critical darling), was never a huge ratings hit. Well, one of the reasons anyway.

Mind if I link this?

Steven Brandt said...

I think your original idea, that it's the American "never say die" spirit that is closer to the mark. At least half the country is liberal and in favor of health care and entitlements, and they do not provide a market for tragedy.

Kayanna Kirby said...

I don't like tragedy because it's sad. Life is difficult enough. The news and politics and just everything around is tragedy enough. When I spend time reading or watching a movie, I don't want to be depressed afterwords.

The movie, "No Country For Old Men" was a good story, a well acted, and a well directed story. I hated it. It was too sad.

More than American idealism, I think its that people want to find inspiration in stories. Inspiration that this person was facing horrible situations and they fought and won.

These stores are hopeful. They keep peoples spirits up. How does it feel to go with a character that you start to care for and they fail. they fail.

I don't need to read about that or see it on the screen. I can look around and see that all the time.

Reading and movies are entertainment. Personally,I want to be entertained. Take me away to another place. Let me live vicariously through someone else for a few hours or days. Let me feel the let downs and sorrows but also I want to feel vindicated or happy or satisfied.

No life is rarely like this. But this isn't life, It's art.

Moira Russell said...

Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. I think your writing's awesome.

I think tragedy is best summed-up in that great quote from Ecclesiastes -- the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. People don't like to think that despite their best precautions, their strongest efforts, one day they could wind up fucked with no appeal and nothing to do but just fight on as best you can.

There was an interesting part of a really heartrending news article that was going around the blogs a while ago -- about whether parents who were unwittingly responsible for their children suffering heat-related deaths in locked cars should be prosecuted for murder. (Not talking deliberate neglect, here, but the parent actually forgetting the child was in the car.) One prosecutor was more forgiving of the parents, who were wrecked with remorse, because (IIRC, can't find the article) his daughter had died young of leukemia. He understood that sometimes terrible things just happen, and despite the particularly American zeal to assign blame and responsibility, a lot of the time it just doesn't work that way.

Kameron Hurley said...

Lots of good stuff here. Thanks for commenting all, and yes - feel free to link away. These are all public posts!

Moira - I think you hit the nail on the head. It's really, really, painful to admit that despite all of our best laid plans, good deeds, patience, persistence, and best attitude - bad things happen. Terrible things happen to good people, and that scares the crap out of people (me too).

Neile - there's a big bold line for me between tragedy and horror as well. I can't *stand* horror. I have no interest in horror, which I find often borders on the pornographic. Most horror is about evoking a really basic gut response. Few (tho there are some) ask you to truly care for and identify characters (particularly in cinema. Less so in fiction).

Tragedy, tho... I recently finished Bloodtide and Bloodsong, and was totally blown away. These are great stories about people with the best intentions who completely destroy one another's lives.

I worry sometimes that our love of "bad guys get theirs" and "good guys get rewarded" really obscures our reality. Knowing that bad things can happen despite my best intentions is actually very comforting to me. It's when I expect perfection and then utterly, inexplicable, fail that really screws me up.

I think you see this a lot in those stories about kids who go to college and have meltdowns, or folks who experience their first failure at 25 and never recover. If we expect perfection, if we don't make room for tragedy, if we attribute tragedy to "losers," we'll be forced to view ourselves (and those we love, and strangers, all of humanity, really) as utter failures the first and only time a terrible thing happens.

And that's a bad precedent. Because just as often as bad things happen... good things can happen too. Good things can happen to bad people. And good things can happen to people in a bad situation.

That's far more realistic than our idealistic futures where the meek inherit the earth.

Never That Easy said...

What a thought provoking post: My grandmother and I were talking this summer about our reading choices - I was plodding through some disheartening work of non-fiction, she was skipping through the roses of some romance novel, and she said she doesn't read anything that makes her feel worse than she already does. And there are times when I have to do that to - when ONE MORE PIECE of bad news will be the piece that breaks me, and so I read/watch/listen to only happy things/things with happy endings.
So I don't know about other peoples' appetite for tragedies, but mine definitely reflect what's going on in my own life. I'll have to think about what that means as far as my compassion for others.

Dara said...

I don't mind reading a tragedy every now and then, but I'm not fond of books with absolutely no bright spots or hope in them. It makes me depressed and I don't like dwelling on the horrible side of things.

There certainly needs to be tragic elements in stories. I'm not against that. I just don't like reading stories that have one tragic incident after the other in it. I try to read them but nearly always stop halfway. I don't want to mope around all day after reading a book and because I'm one of those overly sensitive types :P.

Life's hard enough as it is; just watch the evening news. While I'm not one for always having a fluffy happy ever after, I like reading a book that has hope and promise in it. I like the escape. Why dwell on the depressing side of life? Life's too short to dwell on tragedy.

But that's my humble opinion :P

Anonymous said...

long time it's been, eh.. and what a treasure this post is.. from the stand point of writing to reading the symbols on paper to living the real life.. the juxtaposition is pure and true! thank you... again

this is Living Reading!