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Tuesday, May 29, 2007Which Is Superior "Comedy Or Tragedy"
The Greeks understood that comedy (the gods' view of life) is superior to tragedy (the merely human). But since the middle ages, western culture has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. This is why fiction today is so full of anxiety and suffering. It's time writers got back to the serious business of making us laugh
Julian Gough explore it:
Julian Gough's comic short story "The orphan and the mob" (published in Prospect, March 2006) has won the 2007 National Short Story prize
What is wrong with the modern literary novel? Why is it so worthy and dull? Why is it so anxious? Why is it so bloody boring?
Well, let's go back a bit first. Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods' view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.
Many of the finest novels—and certainly the novels I love most—are in the Greek comic tradition, rather than the tragic: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, and on through to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and the late Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5.
Yet western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic. In 1984, Martin Amis reinvented Rabelais in his comic masterpiece Money. The best English novel of the 1980s, it didn't even make the shortlist. Anita Brookner won that year, for Hotel du Lac, written, as the Observer put it, "with a beautiful grave formality."
The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. When Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time's Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting.
But why this pressure, from within and without? There are two good reasons. The first is the west's unexamined cultural cringe before the Greeks. For most of the last 500 years, Homer and Sophocles have been held to be the supreme exponents of their arts. (Even Homer's constant repetition of stock phrases like "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea" are praised, rather than recognised as tiresome clichés.)
The second reason is that our classical inheritance is lop-sided. We have a rich range of tragedies—Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides (18 by Euripides alone). Of the comic writers, only Aristophanes survived. In an age of kings, time is a filter that works against comedy. Plays that say, "Boy, it's a tough job, leading a nation" tend to survive; plays that say, "Our leaders are dumb arseholes, just like us" tend not to.
More importantly, Aristotle's work on tragedy survived; his work on comedy did not.
An obsessive nicknamed The Dettol Man died after continually cleaning himself and his home with the disinfectant, an inquest heard.
Recluse Jacques Niemand may have been overcome by fumes from the dozens of bottles of the cleaning fluid he kept in his flat.
The 42-year-old had so much of the chemical in his system his body was starved of oxygen, the inquest was told.
More than 100 bottles of Dettol were found crammed in a suitcase at Mr Niemand's home. Several buckets containing the fluid were also found.
His sister, Ruth Bain, said the man had suffered from an obsessive cleaning disorder for years and she would not go into his home because it was 'stifling'.
Several police officers who went into the flat in Didsbury, Manchester, following Mr Niemand's death later went off sick with aches after apparently being overpowered by the smell of cleaning products.
Pathologist Lorna McWilliam said it was difficult to say if the chemical got into Mr Niemand's system because he had breathed it in or drunk it.
Trial and error are usually the prime means of solving life’s problems. Yet many people are afraid to undertake the trial because they’re too afraid of experiencing the error. They make the mistake of believing that all error is wrong and harmful, when most of it is both helpful and necessary. Error provides the feedback that points the way to success. Only error pushes people to put together a new and better trial, leading through yet more errors and trials until they can ultimately find a viable and creative solution. To meet with an error is not to fail, but to take one more step on the path to final success. No errors means no successes either.
In fact, one of the greatest misfortunes you can meet early in a project is premature—yet inevitably still partial—success. When that happens, the temptation is to fix on what seemed to work so quickly and easily and look no further. Later, maybe, a competitor will come along and continue the exploration process that you aborted, pushing on to find a much better solution that will quickly push your partial one aside.
Cultures of perfection
Too many organizations today have cultures of perfection: a set of organizational beliefs that any failure is unacceptable. Only pure, untainted success will do. To retain your reputation as an achiever, you must reach every goal and never, ever make a mistake that you can’t hide or blame on someone else.
Imagine the stress and terror in an organization like that. The constant covering up of the smallest blemishes. The wild finger-pointing as everyone tries to shift the blame for the inevitable cock-ups and messes onto someone else. The rapid turnover as people rise high, then fall abruptly from grace. The lying, cheating, falsification of data, and hiding of problems—until they become crises that defy being hidden any longer.
Clinging to the past
If some people fail to reach a complete answer because of the lure of some early success, many more fail because of their ego-driven commitment to what worked in the past. You often see this with senior people, especially those who made their names by introducing some critical change years ago. They shy away from further innovation, afraid that this time they might fail, diminishing the luster they try to keep around their names from past triumph. Besides, they reason, the success of something new might even prove that those achievements they made in the past weren’t so great after all. Why take the risk when you can hang on to your reputation by doing nothing?
Such people are so deeply invested in their egos and the glories of their past that they prefer to set aside opportunities for future glory rather than risk even the possibility of failure.
Why high achievers fail
Every strength can become a weakness. Every talent contains an opposite that sometimes makes it into a handicap. Successful people like to win and achieve high standards. This can make them so terrified of failure it ruins their lives. When a positive trait, like achievement, becomes too strong in someone’s life, it’s on the way to becoming a major handicap.
Science, and the rationalist movement in general, face a "sinister challenge" from leftwing thinkers who promote cultural relativism, according to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
He told a packed Hay Festival audience that although the threat from creationists and the religious right is well-documented, science is also under threat from the other end of the political spectrum: "I think we face an equal but much more sinister challenge from the left, in the shape of cultural relativism - the view that scientific truth is only one kind of truth and it is not to be especially privileged."
As an example, he cited Kennewick Man, the 9,000-year-old set of human remains found on the banks of the Columbia river in Washington State in 1996. The view of local native Americans that Kennewick Man was their ancestor, despite strong scientific evidence to the contrary, initially held sway, and they were able to put a stop to research.
Fellow panelist for the "Guardian Science Experiment" was the geneticist, Steve Jones, of University College London. Speaking to the event's tag line "Have we abandonned the enlightenment?", he reserved special venom for the animal rights movement, which he attacked as "stridently anti-rational".
He particularly objected to the claim that research on animals does not work. "The standard claim made again and again is that research on animals has killed millions of people ... scientists are fooling themselves in suggesting that it works," said Prof Jones.
The truth is the opposite, he said. Millions of diabetics, for example, are alive today because of the availability of insulin. The hormone was discovered through research on dogs.
"That's what I find most uncomfortable - the denial of scientific truth because of pre-formed beliefs," said Prof Jones. "That is what the enlightenment was set up to prevent and that is what I strongly feel has come back."
Earlier in the debate, Prof Dawkins had revealed that last year he received a Christmas card from the archbishop of Westminster - although not one from President Bush.
The third panelist, the President of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees, felt that he should grasp this olive branch with both hands because scientists needed to form an alliance with moderate faith groups in order jointly to fight fundamentalist religion.
"He should send Christmas cards to a few more archbishops," said Prof Rees, "on the grounds that if we give the impression that science is hostile to even the kind of mainstream religion that we have in this country, I think it will be more difficult for us to combat the kinds of anti-science sentiment that are really important."
But with Prof Dawkins now seemingly set on training his formidable intellectual artillery on politically-correct lefty thinking, the chances that he will expand his Christmas card list to cuddly archbishops seem pretty remote.
See and know why?
Black spots have been discovered on Mars that are so dark that nothing inside can be seen. Quite possibly, the spots are entrances to deep underground caves capable of protecting Martian life, were it to exist. The unusual hole pictured above was found on the slopes of the giant Martian volcano Arsia Mons. The above image was captured three weeks ago by the HiRISE instrument onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently circling Mars. The holes were originally identified on lower resolution images from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, The above hole is about the size of a football field and is so deep that it is completely unilluminated by the Sun. Such holes and underground caves might be prime targets for future spacecraft, robots, and even the next generation of human interplanetary explorers.