Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On the Emergence of Tragedy

While one can certainly identify elements of tragedy in literatures around the world, tragedy in its purest form has only arisen at certain times and places: 

       Ancient Greece                          -- 5th Century B.C.
       Ancient Rome                            -- 1st Century A.D.
       Renaissance Europe                   -- 17th Century A.D.
      Shakespeare, et al (England)
       Post-WW II Modernist America – 20th Century A.D.
      Eugene O'Neill
      Robinson Jeffers

Why do we see tragedy arising at these times, in these places? Are there any similarities among these times and places? Let us look at the social situation of each:

5th Century Athens
       Athenian political hegemony after defeating the Persians
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants
       Golden Age of Athens

1st Century Rome
       Stable government under Augustus after Civil Wars
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of new people and ideas from the furthest reaches of the Empire
       Golden Age of Rome

Renaissance England
       Stable monarchy under Elizabeth after period of political instability and the defeat of the Spanish Armada
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants
       Elizabethan Age considered a Golden Age

17th Century France
       Stable French government under Louis XIV after period of wars
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants coinciding with colonialism
       Called the Grand Siecle (Grand Century)

Post WWII Modernist America
       World dominated by American hegemony after the central role of the U.S. in winning WWII
       Strong economic growth
       Influx of immigrants from around the world
       This period is known as The American Century

What we seem to see here is a major cultural shift, followed by a peacetime during which certain artists have the time and luxury to consider the changes that took place. Most cultural changes are gradual, or the jump is not that dramatic. But sometimes you get cultural changes such as we saw with the Renaissance.

Above is a cusp catastrophe model of cultural change.  It is rare for a culture to move along the front edge of the topological map. More commonly, cultures evolve along the back side of the map. We can see what will happen if one moves from one stable section to another along the front of the map -- sudden, surprising changes. One can imagine that during such changes, people will have a desire to figure out what, exactly, just happened. And that's where tragic art comes in. The bigger the jump, the purer the tragedy that will be written.

Coincidentally, during long periods of stability, we tend to see epics written, providing confirmation for that culture.

Tragedy affirms the new cultural forms, while trying to make sense of them.

Comedy arises out of conservative impulses, to ridicule the excesses of the new.

Drama tends to combine the genres. Novels, especially. These can in some ways be seen as storytelling for storytelling's sake. 
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