Mar 26, 2010

What is the Difference between Comedy and Tragedy?


"Midway in my life's journey, 'I stumbled into a wood.'" 
 Dante, Inferno, Canto I, Line 1

    What is the difference between comedy and tragedy? We enter the woods; at the threshold of woods and plain are the dividing lines between tragic and comedic, between love and loss. The woods represent chaos in literary symbolism. Or not. Everything depends on the red wheelbarrow. Is it how we see it? In Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, when the eloping lovers enter the woods at night, all hell breaks loose. Lovers are switched. A wayward actors' troop is also lost, set to perform at a state wedding, but one of their players is turned into an ass, being an ass anyway - his name is Bottom. Puck, the mischievous sprite, pours a potion into the Queen of the Fairies' eyes and she falls in love with Bottom.
    In the morning, though, after all the enchantments have worn off, everything is turned right - the basic structure of a comedy. A comedy is technically a narrative that begins with a conflict, like mixed up lovers or lost in a wood, but in the end conflict is resolved - which is why Dante's journey through Hell is called a comedy. Dante goes through the stages of hell and survives to tell the tale. Dante, with Virgil the poet's help, makes it to Purgatory and, eventually, with Beatrice's intercession, ends up seeing the beatific vision (which is quite boring, if you ask me). Isn't the journey in the telling?
    And what is the difference between a comedy and a tragedy? Is the line always direct, written in the sand? I agree the line is a thin one, as played out in Woody Allen's farce Melinda and Melinda. The movie is a demonstration of the thin line between both genres. Is life at its essence tragic or comic? The movie tells the story of Melinda from two perspectives, one tragic, the other comedic. In the tragic version, Melinda shows up at her sister's dinner party unannounced and all hell breaks loose. She dumps her husband for a younger photographer but the center cannot hold and she ends up in the tragic version in a mental hospital. In the comic version, Melinda shows up at the dinner party as a childless and down-trodden neighbor who captures the attention and delight of the guests. The film cleverly goes back and forth between the two stories as a way to illustrate the point the difference between tragedy and comedy. For the ancient Greeks tragedy was primarily a cathartic experience. To process tragedy, the events of the narrative are re-enacted on the stage and by seeing the horrible events unfold on stage (or on screen) the spectator comes away cleansed from the experience. Thus the invention of drama. Emotion is processed publicly as a way to experience collectively the pain of tragedy. Even today don't we go to a sad movie and cry? What happens in this experience? Are we sad for our own sorrows or someone else's? Are our tears and identification with a character on the stage? Do we cry so we can replace our own sufferings with the sorrows of someone else, an emotional scapegoat? Tragedy is not a private act, but a public one. We publicly place sorrow on the stage to feel better afterward in the same way we laugh collectively in front of a prime time TV show even when it is not funny. Catharsis is a purging of the emotions but the same can be said when we witness, and privately enjoy the suffering of others; a little bit of schadenfreude, gaining pleasure from the downfall of others somehow makes us feel a little bit more exalted. Even though we don't like to admit it, don't we often say to ourselves about someone else's tragic story, I am glad it isn't me?
Odyseeus slays the suitors
Comedy and tragedy depend on a slight twist of fate; Woody Allen likes to play with this idea, beginning Melinda and Melinda with a discussion of the difference between the two. It is a gross deduction, but life is a comedy when we are the ones who do not suffer and it's a tragedy when the tables are turned. When Dante is in hell he is a comedy for he goes through hell commenting on the suffering of other people. Dante meets Odysseus in hell, the man of many wiles who was separated from his wife and family for twenty years. Dante punished Odysseus in hell for his extreme pride or hubris, a lack of understanding of his own human weakness. Odysseus in life is punished to roam the seas in a search for home because he relied on his own intellect and not on the gods. Odysseus returns home, rids his halls of the suitors and he reunites with his wife and son. Dante does not view Odysseus so comedically, however, and remains suspicious of Odysseus as if inspired by Poseidon's rage. Dante sees Odysseus as the man of many deceits. The flip flop is directly related to fate, perception, choices, and perhaps luck.  If I am deceived to believe life is merely either a comedy or a tragedy, I deceive myself. Pride and self-deception cause war; cause intolerance - the inability to see truth in any given situation. The blindness is our own. Someone may ask, why are seers physically blind? By losing their physical sight, they gain an inner sight of the mind. It is not what you see but how you see it. The narcissist sees only himself. The hero sees his victories. A murder does not see his crime. A lover sees an ideal. I am blinded from truth not because truth is absolute, but I am unable to decode properly what I see before me. The Greeks seem to have understood this which is why they created the blind seer who could see but they also saw that most of us are Cassandra and we do not listen. It is not that we do want to listen, but rather, we are blocked - flustered for a bit, and we cannot read properly. It is in the tangle of interpretation that we go back and forth: comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy, comedy, tragedy ...   


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