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TRAGEDY AND CONTEMPORARY IDEAS Introduction:-Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas is the third essay of part one of Raymond Williamss

book Modern Tragedy. As the name suggests, this essay is a discussion of tragedy in relation to contemporary idea. Williams has tried to re-interpret the varieties of tragic experience by reference to the changing conventions and institutions. Tragic experience, because of its central importance, commonly attracts the fundamental beliefs and tensions of a period. Through tragic theory, the shape and set of a particular culture is often deeply realised. The major contributions to tragic theory were made in the 19th century before the creative period of modern tragedy. Modern age is a major period of tragic writing directly comparable in importance with the periods of the past. The writer has discussed the major points of the tragic theory; which are: Order and accident; the destruction of the hero; the irreparable action and its connections with death; and the emphasis of evil. It is generally said that there is no significant tragic meaning in everyday tragedies because the event itself is not tragedy, but only becomes so through shaped response. Williams does not agree with this view. He cannot see how it is possible to distinguish between an event and response to an event, in an absolute way. In the case of ordinary death and suffering, when we see mourning and lament, when we see men and women breaking under their actual loss, we are in the presence of tragedy. Other responses are also possible: indifference, justification, even relief or rejoicing. But where the suffering is felt, where it is taken into the person of another, we are clearly within the possible dimensions of tragedy. But it is also possible for some people to hear of a mining disaster, a burned out family, a broken career, or a smash on the road without feeling these events tragic in the full sense. Such events are called accidents and are not connected with any general meaning in them. Williams mentions Yeasts and Hegels exclusion from tragedy of certain kinds of suffering as mere suffering. This modern separation of tragedy from mere suffering is the separation of ethical control and human agency from our understanding of social and political life. What we encounter again and again in the modern distinction between tragedy and accident and in the related distinction between tragedy and suffering is a particular view of the world which gains much of its strength from being unconscious and habitual. The events not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: War, famine, work, traffic, and politics. To see no tragic meaning in them is a sort of our bankruptcy. We can only distinguish between tragedy and accident if we have some conception of a law or an order to which certain events are accidental and in which certain other events are significant. In the definition of tragedy as dependent on the history of a man of rank, some deaths mattered more than others, and rank was the actual dividing line, the death of a slave was no more than incidental and was certainly not tragic. Ironically, our own middle class culture began by appearing to reject this view: the tragedy of a citizen could be as real as the tragedy of a prince. The extension from the prince to the citizen became in practice an extension to all human beings. The emerging bourgeois society rejected the emphasis on rank in tragedy: the individual was neither the state nor an element of the state, but an entity in himself. In this view, there was both gain and loss: gain-the suffering of a man of no rank came to be regarded as important; loss-in the stress on the fate of an individual, the general and public character of tragedy was lost. Eventually new definitions of general and public interest were embodied in new kinds of tragedy. But the idea of a tragic order had to exist with the loss of any such actual order. What happened, at the level of theory, was then the abstraction of order and its mystification. What had been a whole lived order, connecting man and state and world became, finally, a purely abstract order. Order, in tragedy; is the result of the action. In any living belief, this is always the relation between experience and conviction. Specifically in tragedy the creation of order is directly related to the fact of disorder, through which the action moves. There is an evident variation in the nature of tragic disorder. It can be the pride of man set against the nature of things, or it can be a more general disorder which in aspiration man seeks to overcome. In different cultures, disorder and order both vary, for they are parts of varying general interpretations of life. We should see this variation as an indication of the major cultural importance of tragedy as a form of art. It is often argued that tragedy was dependent, in the past, on ages of faith, and is impossible now, because we have no faith. This relation between tragedy and stability of belief seems to be almost the opposite of the truth. The ages of comparatively stable belief, and of comparatively close correspondence between beliefs and actual experience, do not seem to produce tragedy of any intensity. On the contrary, tragedy depends more on an extreme tension between belief and experience than on an extreme correspondence. Williams concludes this discussion with these words: Important tragedy seems to occur neither in period of real stability, nor in periods of open and decisive conflict. Its most common historical setting is the period preceding the substantial breakdown and transformation of an important culture. Its condition is the real tension between old and new: between received beliefs, embodied in institutions and responses, and newly and vividly experienced contradictions and possibilities The most common interpretation of tragedy is that it is an action in which the hero is destroyed. This fact is seen as irreparable. At a simple level, this is so obviously true that the formula usually gets little further examination. But it is, of course, still an interpretation, and a partial one. If attention is concentrated on the hero alone, such an interpretation naturally follows. Not many works that we call tragedies in fact end with the destruction of the hero. Certainly in almost all tragedies , the hero is destroyed, but that is not normally the end of the action. Some new distribution of forces, physical or spiritual, normally succeeds the death. In Greek tragedy, this is a religious affirmation in the words or presence of the chorus. In Elizabethan tragedy, it is ordinarily a change of power in the state. To our consciousness, the important action has ended and affirmation, settlement, restoration or new arrival is comparatively minor. This kind

of reparations is not credible; it looks much too like a solution, which 20th century critics agree is a vulgar and intrusive element in any art. It is not the business of the artist to provide answers or solutions, but simply to describe experience and raise questions. When we say that in tragic experience, the action is followed right through until the hero is dead; we are taking a part for the whole, a hero for an action. We think of tragedy as what happens to the hero, but the ordinary tragic action is what happens through the hero. When we confine our attention to the hero, we are unconsciously confining ourselves to the individual. The tragic action lies in the fact that life does not come back, that its meanings are reaffirmed and restored after so much suffering and after so important a death. Death gives meaning and importance to life. Human death is often the form of the deepest meanings of a culture. When we see death, it is natural we should draw together in grief, in memory, in the social duties of burial-our sense of the values of living, as individuals and as a society. Death is absolute, and all our living simply relative. Death is necessary, and all other human ends are contingent. Within this emphasis, suffering and disorder of any kind are interpreted by reference to what is seen as the controlling reality. Such an interpretation is now commonly described as a tragic sense of life. To read back life from the fact of death is a cultural and sometimes a personal choice. A choice is always variable. To tie any meaning to death is to give it a powerful emotional charge which can at times obliterate all other experience in its range. Death is universal, and the meaning tied to it quickly claims universality. Other readings of life, other interpretations of suffering and disorder, can be assimilated to it with great apparent conviction. The connection between tragedy and death is of course quite evident, but in reality the connection is variable, as the response to death is variable. What is generalised is the loneliness of man, facing a blind fate, and this is the fundamental isolation of the tragic hero. To say that man dies alone is not to state a fact but to offer an interpretation. For indeed, men die in so many ways: in the arms and presence of family and neighbours: in the blindness of pain or the blackness of sedation; in the violent disintegration of machines and in the calm of sleep. To insist on a single meaning is not reasonable. When men die, the experience is not only the physical dissolution and ending; it is also a change in the lives and relationships of others. Our most common received interpretations of life put the highest value and significance on the individual and his development, but it is indeed inescapable that the individual dies. What is most valuable (life) and what is most irreparable (death) are, then, set in an inevitable relation and tension. The tragic action is about death, but it needs not end in death unless this is enforced by a particular structure of feeling. Death, once again, is a necessary action. Evil is a traditional name but it has been appropriated by a particular ideology, which offers itself as the whole tragic tradition. What tragedy shows us, it is argued, is the fact of evil as inescapable and irreparable. Mere optimists and humanists deny the fact of transcendent evil, and so are incapable of tragic experience. Tragedy is then a salutary reminder, indeed a theory, against the illusions of humanism. The true nature of man is now dramatically revealed against all the former illusions of civilisation and progress. The current emphasis of Evil is not the Christian emphasis. Within that structure, evil was certainly generalised, but so also was good. The struggle of good and evil in our souls and in the world could be seen as a real action. Culturally evil is a name for many kinds of disorder, which corrode or destroy actual life. As such, it is common in tragedy, though in many particular and variable forms; vengeance, ambition, pride, coldness, lust, jealousy, disobedience, rebellion. In every case, it is only fully comprehensible within the valuations of a particular culture or tradition. Tragedy commonly dramatizes evil, in many particular forms. A particular evil, in a tragic action, can be at once experienced and lived through. In the process of living through, we come not so much to the recognition of evil as transcendent but to its recognition as actual and indeed negotiable. Good and evil are not absolute. We are good or evil in particular ways and in particular situations, defined by pressures we at once receive and can alter and can create again. Tragedy, as such, teaches nothing about evil, because it teaches many things about many kinds of action. Yet it can at least be said, against the modern emphasis on transcendent evil, that most of the great tragedies of the world end not with evil absolute, but with evil both experienced and lived through. Williams concludes this essay in these words: If we find a particular idea of tragedy, in our own time, we find also a way of interpreting a very wide area of our experience; We must try also, positively, to understand and describe not only the tragic theory but also the tragic experience of our own time. Williams way of writing is not so difficult to understand. He seems lacking the ability to produce any opinion from his mind. Instead, he induces his opinion to some creative work and deduces a kind of view one has to accept as his own. In other words he takes a body of work from the past and uses it as a way of rejecting or accepting the present. However, he takes the work from past not to reject it but to accept it and interpret it in terms of past as well as present. To do so, he says, is necessary to reject the ordinary meanings of tragedy as a misunderstanding. Tragic experience, in his view, attracts the fundamental beliefs and tensions of a period, and tragic theory interests mainly the sense that the shape and set of a particular culture is often deeply realised through it. Chief among these is the assumption of a permanent, universal and essentially unchanging human nature. But if we reject this assumption, tragedy is then not a single and permanent kind of fact, but a series of experiences, conventions and institutions. It is not a case of interpreting this series by reference to a permanent and unchanging human nature. Rather, the varieties of tragic experience are to be interpreted by reference to the changing conventions and institutions.

After providing a background to modern times and formation of theories, Williams says that the Universalist character of most tragic theory is at the opposite pole from our necessary interest. The most striking fact, he says, about modern tragic theory is that it is rooted in very much the same structure of ideas as modern tragedy itself. The denial of the possibility of tragedy, according to Williams, is not very easy to explain. In his view, it is significant that the major contributions to the theory were made in the nineteenth century. It was the time when the creative period of modern tragedy was not started yet. This period, however, has since been systematised. The people who did this systematisation were expert in evaluating their past against the present. They were so trained in their academic background that they could not bring together the critical theory and critical practice. The modern critical theories, in Williams views are not even worth the number to be counted on fingertips. According to him they are: order and accident; the destruction of the hero; the irreparable action and its connections with death; and the emphasis of evil. Whether we agree with Williams or not, the way he approaches his topic seems praiseworthy. The background he provides us with the modern tragic theories is sufficient enough to make them comprehensible for us. He presents the discussion on tragedy in relation to the contemporary ideas. He has discussed four things: order and accident, the destruction of the hero, the irreparable action and its connections with death and the emphasis of evil. The tragic experience of every age is unique. Williams says that modern age and its suffering are very complex and it would be a mistake to interpret the tragic experience of the modern man in the light of the traditional concepts. Tragic experience reflects the beliefs and tensions of a period. It is generally said that there is no significant meaning in everyday tragedies because the event itself is not tragic; only becomes so with a through a shaped response. Williams does not agree to this view. He cannot see how it is possible to distinguish between an event and response to an event, in any absolute way. In the case of ordinary death and suffering, when we see mourning and lament, when we see people breaking under their actual loss, we have entered tragedy. Other responses are also possible such as indifference, justification, and rejoicing. But where we feel the suffering, we are within the dimensions of tragedy. But a burnt family or a mining disaster which leaves people without feeling are called Accidents. The events not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: war, famine, work, traffic, and politics. To feel no tragic meaning in them is a sort of our bankruptcy. The emerging middle class rejected rank in tragedy. The individual was not a state; but the entity in him. Williams is averse to any kind of theorizing so he declares: It is necessary to break the theory if we are to value art Raymond Williams rejects the argument that event itself is not tragic but becomes so through a shaped response. It is not possible to distinguish between an event and response to an event. We may not response but it doesnt mean that the event is absent. Suffering is suffering whether we are moved by it or not. In this way, an accident is tragic even if we do not apply to it the concepts of ethical claim or human agency. He also doesnt seem to approve the distinction between accident and tragedy. Famine, war and traffic and political events are all tragic. It is often believed that tragedy was possible in the age of faith and it was impossible now, because we have no faith. Williams, on the contrary, believes that the ages of comparatively stable belief do not produce tragedy of any intensity. Important tragedy seems to occur, neither in periods of real stability not in the periods of open and decisive conflicts. Its most common historical setting is the period preceding the complete breakdown of an important culture. Its condition is the tension between the old and the new order. In such situations, the process of dramatizing and resolving disorder and sufferings is intensified to the level which can be most readily recognized as tragedy. Order in tragedy is the result of the action. In tragedy, the creation of order is related to the fact of disorder, through which the action moves. It may be the pride of man set against the nature of things. In different cultures, disorder and order both vary, for there are parts of varying general interpretations of life. We should see this variation as an indication of the major cultural importance of tragedy as form of art. The most common misinterpretation of the tragedy is that hero is destroyed at the end. Our attention is so concentrated on the hero that we miss other aspects of tragedy. Reading of Hamlet without the Prince Hamlet is nothing but reading it without the State of Denmark would also be meaningless. Destruction of the hero is normally not the end of the action. In most tragedies, the story does not end with the death of the hero; it follows on. It is not the job of the artist to provide answers; but simply describe experience and raise questions. Modern tragedy is not what happens to the hero; but what happens through him. When we concentrate on the hero, we are unconsciously confining our attention to the individual. The tragic experience lies in the fact that life does not come back, that its meanings are reaffirmed and restored after so much suffering and after so important a death. Death gives importance and meaning to life. The death of an individual brings along the whole community in the form of rituals and condolence as in Adam Bede; so tragedy is social and collective and not individual or personal. Death is absolute and all our living is simply relative. Death is necessary and all other human ends are socially collective. Death is universal so a dead man quickly claims universality. When we confine ourselves to the hero, we are, unconsciously, narrowing the scope of tragedy. By attaching too much attention to the death, we minimize the real tragic sense of life. Man dies alone is an interpretation; not a fact; when he dies, he affects others. He alters the lives of other characters. To insist on a single meaning is not reasonable. The tragic action is about death but it needs not end in death. Moreover, what about the other characters who

are destroyed? Williams says: We think of tragedy as what happens to the hero but ordinary tragic action is what happens through the hero There is a growing belief that in the modern age, the true nature of man is evil and evil is more potent and attractive. Tragedy shows us that evil is inescapable and irreparable; a sole reminder against the illusions of humanism and optimism. The theory of evil is significant in tragedy but not without limitations. There has always been a great emphasis on evil as a source of tragedy. But there is a tendency to generalize evil. He thinks that most of the great tragedies of the world end not with absolute evil but with evil experienced and lived through. Tragedy dramatizes evil in many particular forms: not only Christian evil but also cultural, political and ideological. Good and evil are not absolute. We are good or bad in particular ways and in particular situations; defined by pressures we at one received and can alter and can create again. Williams rejects that man is naturally evil or good. Conclusion:- Modern age is the age of confusion. Hence, there is need to take a body of work from the past and reject the present-time theories about tragedy in creative drama. It is necessary to reject ordinary meaning of contemporary concept of tragedy as well. We have to explain tragedy in the context of unchanging human nature or its basic human faculties. Certain changes in religiou or moral or anthropological concepts may take place over periods of time but human experience remains unchanged. Give a critical appreciation of Williamss essay tragedy and contemporary ideas. How tragedy is affected by its contemporary era? Tragedy must be affected by the age in which it is produced, do you agree with Williams? Emphasis on evil is a recurrent concern of tragedy. Discuss with reference to Raymonds critical essay, tragedy and contemporary ideas How does Williams present tragedy in contemporary ideas? Discuss. Prepared by Professor Saleem Raza