Comedy, Tragedy, and the Tendency To . . .

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

An interesting exchange at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience regarding Julian Gough’s essay Divine comedy in Prospect.

In my studies and reading, the question of why a general tendency would develop around a given type of approach is an interesting question to pursue and I look forward to a more involved exploration of the subject by Gough, given that I find the writing in the Prospect article too general. Hasn’t Milan Kundera already explored this territory in his own way?

Gough writes:

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.

It may be true that western culture has had lopsided inheritance (this implies a missing balance) and indeed our awareness of the Greek ouvre is very small, but I’m wondering at the value of the argument itself or whether we can validate a writer’s tendency to limit from their choice of mode (to what degree is mode, voice, and style governed by choice?) or whether writing in the tragic mode is an act of self-censorship or can be construed as such. Not to mention that people have explored a range of comedy and tragedy across culture.

I share Gough’s love of the comic tradition. These are the works I enjoy reading (and writing). Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” is a favorite story. And I must admit to not having read an American novel in a while (I’m currently slogging my way through Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building). And I’m about to devote as much time as I can to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which is one of my favorite unfinished journeys.

I do wonder, in this day and age in America, why we aren’t seeing a flood of comedic works.

In my opinion, and this shouldn’t count for much given my limited experience with a totality, the fiction I read in literary magazines is bland and, yes, I would argue, tired of itself. At the moment I can’t remember who wrote “Heliotrope,” a story published in Confrontation. Small, unassuming, powerful, I thought, one of those rare works that keeps me coming back.


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