THEOSOPHY, Vol. 52, No. 9, July, 1964
(Pages 272-275; Size: 12K)


[Article number (21) in this Q&A Department]

Horace Walpole once remarked, "This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." This epigram, though probably correct in its implication that tragedy is as much a view of life as a literary form, seems nevertheless a great oversimplification of the nature of literary tragedy, since it indicates that anyone who "feels," and who has talent, could write one. Many writers and critics think otherwise, however, declaring that a tragedy could not possibly be written today in our complex and compromised world; our view of life is too secular and too muddled to permit it.

What view of life, then, would allow for tragic expression? Is it conceivable that a Theosophist could write a tragedy?

The question is not one that can be definitely answered, except of course by the actual production of a tragedy by a Theosophist, and then no essay would be needed. Yet it might be possible, even helpful, to define some of the difficulties which such a playwright surely would encounter. Certain ideas, or rather certain attitudes towards one's ideas, do indeed seem inimical to the tragic vision, and it is important to determine whether theosophical ideas -- or again our attitudes towards these ideas -- are also in some way inimical to it. Richard B. Sewall, in an important book about tragedy, declares that "the tragic vision is in its first phase primal, or primitive, in that it calls up out of the depths the first (and last) of all questions, the question of existence: 'What does it mean to be?' It recalls the original terror, harking back to a world that antedates the conceptions of philosophy, the consolations of the later religions, and whatever constructions the human mind has devised to persuade itself that its universe is secure. It recalls the original unreason, the terror of the irrational. It sees man as questioner, naked, unaccommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside, and the irreducible facts of suffering and death. Thus it is not for those who cannot live with unsolved questions or unresolved doubts, whose bent of mind would reduce the fact of evil to something else or resolve it into some larger whole. Though no one is exempt from moments of tragic doubt or insight, the vision of life peculiar to the mystic, the pious, the propagandist, the confirmed optimist or pessimist -- or the confirmed anything -- is not tragic."

It is pertinent at this point to recall the words of the Gita: "One who is confirmed in this belief is not disturbed by anything that may come to pass"; which seem to indicate that the "confirmed" Theosophist (in this way like the "confirmed" Christian, who believes in a heavenly reconciliation in the hereafter) is able to escape, or in some way be carried beyond the realm of tragedy. Yet, as Sewall indicates, tragedy requires action -- the hero's counterthrust against his fate. Lamentation is not enough; there must be an active dialectic with destiny, a dialectic which "is not of ideas in the abstract but of ideas in action, ideas as lived." And as soon as there is action, it seems inevitable that there will also be what Jung calls "the terrible ambiguity of immediate experience" -- the sort of ambiguity in fact from which tragic action might spring. Thus it is that Marlowe in Doctor Faustus is able to write a real tragedy, despite the Christian dogmas underlying his story. According to church doctrine, Faustus is completely in the wrong and deserves damnation; humanly speaking, though, he is caught in a dilemma, drawn by two opposing forces, both powerful, both noble. Attempting to cut through the ambiguities, he decides to embrace one of the forces, the "wrong" one, as it turns out; yet the ambiguities still remain, and actually invite us to share his feelings of uncertainty and to experience pity and terror at his fall. Like Macbeth, it is a story of damnation, and no doubt has inspired many nice arguments among theologians as to concepts of hell, free will, etc.; but since it is told almost completely in human terms instead of theoretical ones, it would conceivably be possible for a Theosophist to write much the same play, and yet be thinking (though this applies more closely to Macbeth) of the terrible process of the personality's annihilation if it persists in following evil.

It follows that tragedy is to a large extent a view of life, an attitude, even towards the ideas we hold (since "attitude" means "ideas as lived"). Perhaps it is not the highest possible attitude, perhaps one day we will progress to the point where the universe will appear to us as a vast and divine comedy; but if the tragic outlook is not the highest, yet it is very high, and we might be less than honest with ourselves if we take our theoretical beliefs for heartfelt and mind-tested knowledge, and think ourselves above the tragic vision when we are really below it. The Book of Job according to H.P.B. is highly theosophical, and represents the process of spiritual initiation. Yet that work is surely a tragedy, at least right up to the moment when Yahweh appears in the Whirlwind (a point at which, it may be argued, the work soars beyond the limits of tragedy, beyond catharsis or complete emotional release, into a mystical self-abnegation or spiritual release). If the "Lord" really is the Law, then we must quickly get rid of our usual complacency regarding it; for the Law in the Book of Job appears all-powerful, terrifying, inscrutable. How often, when we fail to understand the reasons for some event in life -- a plane crash, perhaps, or an assassination, or an imbecile birth -- do we shrug our shoulders and say, "It is Karma," as though that meant it was somehow "all right," that everything was neatly accounted for and could easily be understood if only we had the right decoding device. Such is the view of Job's "comforters," and they are shown to be wrong -- not theoretically (though even there they are incomplete) -- but humanly. They are wrong because they are complacent. Sewall speaks of Job as "making an important -- and 'tragic' -- statement about the nature of truth. In tragedy, truth is not revealed as one harmonious whole; it is many-faceted, ambiguous, a sum of irreconcilables -- and that is one source of its terror." It seems evident that unless we are willing to face this awesomeness, to fling our challenge at the Law itself -- not in order to disprove it, but to see it face to face -- unless, in short, we are willing to feel a tragic awareness of alienation from a once known, once loved, sense of cosmic harmony, we will never bring ourselves to the point of writing a tragedy, for we will never realize the tragic potential of life itself.

Yet if it is theoretically possible for a person to write a tragedy while still adhering to theosophical philosophy, it remains a question as to whether a person -- Theosophist or not -- could write such a work in our enormously complex and yet equally flat and tasteless civilization. Tragedy requires a situation, a hero, and an action. Have we any heroes nowadays -- anyone who can gather together and comprehend all our complexities, remain undiminished in the presence of skyscrapers, uncowed in the face of the State? Many modern dramas, avoiding this question, present as hero some "simple genuine soul" struggling to maintain integrity while being attacked and tantalized by a cruel vast world. The "whole man" of the Renaissance seems inconceivable today, for he would have to be a colossus. Indeed, if a tragic hero can exist today, we may find it necessary to revise our conception of what a hero is, and with it, perhaps, our definition of tragedy.

As for the tragic situation, that too seems to have undergone a change; for if the universe is ordered, it is not so obviously ordered as the Elizabethan's universe, or for that matter, the Greek's. Perhaps today's potentially tragic situation has to do with man's poignant sense of alienation from a divine order, even from human values. And perhaps therefore a tragic confrontation might not be with the Whirlwind at all, but with a sense of universal emptiness. From another (and more theosophical) view, the underlying situation from which tragedy could spring may reside in what Jung calls the dichotomy between a conscious mind, which knows nothing, and the unconscious, which has intimations of everything but cannot express itself except indirectly and incompletely.

But what could tragic action possibly be? Is the only conceivable gesture one such as Anouilh proposes, some free, non-contingent action, often self-destructive, which has no other purpose than to show man's freedom to act without compromising or looking for reward? It is difficult to answer any of these questions. One might conjecture that since man has become more psychologically orientated than ever before, it is likely that his actions will be primarily internal, representing an increasing struggle to discover and face the "contents of the unconscious," and perhaps the contents of the world's collective unconscious as well. This is not to say that outward actions in tragedy have not always been emblematic of inward changes, but there seems something new in today's situation, a greater and more painful self-awareness than has generally existed before, a more pervasive feeling of being lost, a deeper anxiety. Whether these and other elements will bring about the death of tragedy as an art form, or will serve as its rejuvenator in the near future, is a question which can find no adequate solution in the theories of critics. As indicated at the beginning, we can only wait and see.

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(August 1964)
[Article number (22) in this Q&A Department]

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