In the age of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, tragic drama concerned the deaths of nobles and notables, individuals whose lives were closely entwined with the health of the state. In the 19th century, on the other hand, both the drama and the novel found moral and aesthetic gravity in the deaths of ordinary people. In our own apparently democratised First World there are few kings and princes who need to be reminded not to be tyrants, and the occasional exposure of corrupt corporate moguls presents the spectacle merely of cheap greed brought to some sort of justice without convincing anyone that the body politic is thereby purged of its ills. Many critics have claimed that modern life has no place for exemplary transgression or suffering. We don't attribute Bill Clinton's encounters with Monica Lewinsky to the vengeful interventions of Aphrodite; nor do we imagine that the gods decided who went to work in the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The fall of Presidents (to say nothing of Cabinet ministers) and the deaths of ordinary people have not accumulated a rhetoric of tragedy: the dead of 9/11 are presumably too numerous and too much alike for the traditionally rigorous individuation of tragic fate. Indeed, in the United States the word has hardly been used about 9/11: we hear about evil, not tragedy. At the same time, however, tragedy is trivially everywhere. To take some recent instances: the 'tragedy' of a college president caught committing plagiarism; of a fellowship candidate's failure to produce a proposal that does him justice; and of Roy Keane's inability to keep his mouth shut. There is no serious life left in this language, one might think.
LRB 3 April 2003 | PDF Download