Low Characters in Ludicrous Situations

Reflecting on the unfolding disaster that is our social and political life in the United States during the consulship of Biden, I cannot help but think of Aristotle’s description of the structure of Greek tragedy. Obviously, the parallels are not exact. For one thing, tragedy as Aristotle understood it was a quick affair, its action over within a single day. Our national tragedy, by contrast, seems to lumber on indefinitely. 

Then there is the question of the character of the protagonist. Aristotle’s chap is “a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Sound like Joe Biden? Almost, maybe, but not really. Rudy Giuliani was not talking through his hat when he invoked the specter of the “Biden crime family,” as the words “laptop,” “China,” and “10 percent for the big guy” remind us. 

There are many other differences between tragedy in Aristotle’s sense and the disaster we are suffering through. Still, when I think about the development Aristotle traces from ἁμαρτία (the tragic flaw) through ἀναγνώρισις (recognition) to περιπέτεια (the sudden reversal of fortune) to καταστροφή, the “catastrophe” that ties up the loose ends and consummates the action, I think “We’re somewhere on that road,” though exactly where is hard to say. Have we achieved the enlightenment of recognition yet? I am not at all sure about that. 

Signs of the sudden reversal of fortune are all around us, though evidence of any impending catharsis (κάθαρσις) is exceedingly meager. Why? Perhaps it’s because the emotions through which the purgation is supposed to take place are not yet fully present and accounted for. Aristotle said that the emotions of pity (ἔλεος) and fear (φόβος) are the motors of tragic fulfillment. My sense is that there is plenty of fear abroad. Pity? Not so much. (Although, thinking about it, maybe there is plenty of pity around us, too. “Pity,” Aristotle says in the Rhetoric, “may be defined as a feeling of pain at an apparent evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves . . . and moreover to befall us soon.”) 

At the end of the day, though, I wonder whether we’re caught in a tragedy at all. I have no doubt that we are hurtling towards a catastrophe (in the Greek sense) that will be, well, catastrophic (in the modern sense). But Aristotle insists that tragedy is about grave matters and noble characters. Comedy, he says, is about low or mean characters and trades in the ludicrous or ridiculous. Isn’t that where we are now? Have we embarked on a new genre, featuring low characters in ludicrous situations who ultimately come, and bring everyone around them, to a disastrous end? Or perhaps it is not so new, but is just the “dark” or “black” comedy that elite opinion, which likes to smirk but hates happy endings, so loves to wallow in? 

That, frankly, seems closer to the case, and were we Chinese perhaps we would call it “comedy with tragic characteristics” (or maybe vice-versa). The ground underneath us is too spongy to say for sure. Anyway, I am impressed by contributions of linguistic slippage to our predicament. In part, it is a matter of cowardice: of refusing, for fear of social obloquy, to call things by what Orwell called “their real names.” Or maybe—and here again Orwell is a major authority—it is a matter of trying to subvert reality by linguistic legerdemain? 

It used to be that we knew, well enough, what words like “man” and “woman” meant. We even knew that “justice” was one sort of thing, “social justice” a disingenuous counterfeit. We no longer know those things or, rather, we know them all right, but we are afraid to say so. Once again, George Orwell is a good guide through these politically tinged linguistic thickets (I expanded upon this idea recently in this column).

To alter my authorities, let me recall that famous scene in Through the Looking Glass in which Alice has an exchange with Humpty Dumpty about semantics, identity, and power.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

I wonder what Humpty Dumpty’s pronouns are? 

In any event, we can see that he makes for a very modern, even Machiavellian, sort of omelet. “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.” Could Callicles or Thrasymachus or Lenin put it any better? Could Anthony Fauci or Merrick Garland? 

Listen up! This column comes with a free racing tip. Glenn Youngkin is going to win the Virginia gubernatorial race Tuesday (or next Friday or whenever it is that the Democrats stop voting and concede the race). But even before the starting bell there has been lots of ludicrous, not to say pathetic, hanky-panky going on in the paddock. Humpty Dumpty would have approved of the effrontery though deplored the stupidity.

 Just a day or two back, people associated with the Terry McAuliffe campaign assembled a small group of men (and one woman) holding tiki torches in front of a “Youngkin for Gov” bus and shouting “We’re all in for Glenn.” The tableau was supposed to shout “white supremacist.” Indeed, it transpired that the Lincoln Project (motto: “behind every boy there’s a Lincoln Project man”) organized the stunt. So what the photo really shouted was “look how desperate we are!” (and also how stupid: one of the supposed white supremacists was black). McAuliffe campaign communications director Jen Goodman instantly tweeted that the picture was “disgusting and disqualifying.” But then the fabricated nature of the photo was exposed and the story collapsed. Goodman deleted her tweet, but the internet never forgets: her original declaration of outrage was clipped, widely circulated, and preserved for posterity and ridicule. 

So, I am not at all sure how to categorize the performance we are sitting through. Not pastoral or pastoral-comical, surely, but maybe (apologies, Polonius) “tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”? 

In any event, whether or not we’ve achieved any serious “recognition” or enlightenment, can that sudden change of fortune be far behind? The catastrophe will not be nice, but the catharsis will doubtless be something worth waiting for.

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