My professional organization has been pleased to issue the “AAG Statement on Charlottesville Tragedy and White Supremacy”—this in spite of the fact that no one has shown the least interest in ascertaining the opinion of the AAG. It is, if you were wondering, exactly the opinion you would expect. But what I’d like to talk about here is not the “heartfelt sympathy” they ostentatiously express for “the victims of the Charlottesville tragedy and their loved ones,” but their abuse of this word tragedy.
As Aristotle explained, there are no “tragedies” in life, there are only “misfortunes.” A man is bumping along in a state of prosperity (which means as he wishes), and then for one reason or another is plunged into adversity (which means opposition to his wishes). Things do not go as he envisioned or according to his plan, for as Crosus explained to Solon, “oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin” (Herodotus, History, 1.32).
Death is one of life’s gravest misfortunes, and most especially sudden death, since few things are more opposed to the wishes of a prospering man than the sudden (and possibly terrifying and painful) extinction of himself or of one he loves. Thus, I am sure we can all agree that the sudden death of Heather Heyer was, for Miss Heyer and all who loved her, a very grave misfortune.
But the grave misfortune of Miss Heyer’s sudden death was not, in itself, a tragedy, because as Aristotle tells us, tragedy is properly the “artistic imitation” or “representation” of misfortune. The “Charlottesville Tragedy” on which AAG HQ felt moved to issue its statement must have been, in other words, the artistic imitations of that misfortune that appeared on television and in the newspapers.
And even these artistic imitations do not, by themselves, meet Aristotle’s criteria for tragedy, which are actually rather exacting. I do not wish to imply that Miss Heyer’s sudden death was a case of “poetic justice” in which a wicked woman received her just deserts, but simply note that Aristotle specifically excludes “the downfall of an utter villain” from tragedy (this being, incidentally, why the misfortunes of participants in the legal rally are excluded from the “Charlottesville Tragedy” of AAG HQ).
Tragedy also requires that the misfortune be “unmerited,” and that it be suffered by “a man like ourselves.” By “unmerited” Aristotle does not mean that the evil must come, as we say, “out of the blue.” A man may suffer unmerited misfortune as a result of his own “error or frailty,” since neither error nor weakness are moral failings that merit punishment.
Indeed the tragic figure’s frailty and proneness to error is part of what makes him “a man like ourselves.”
An artistic imitation of the unmerited misfortune of a man like ourselves has the purpose, Aristotle tells us, of arousing the emotions of pity and fear, for “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Poetics 13.2). I would say that the grave misfortune of Heather Heyer satisfies these criteria. She did not in any sense deserve to die, and I or someone I love might very well have been standing where she was standing.
There, but for the grace of God, go I!
The story of the sudden death of Heather Heyer is certainly (for me at least), an object of pity and fear. But a piteous and frightening artistic imitation of grave misfortune is still not yet a true Aristotelian tragedy. True Aristotelian tragedy requires the final criterion of catharsis.
“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that . . . through pity and fear affecting the proper catharsis, or purgation, of these emotions” (Poetics, 6.2).
The word catharsis is not easy to define, and from this quote might be mistakenly understood as a moral hardening into pitilessness and Stoic indifference. The historian Arnold Toynbee suggested that we learn the meaning of catharsis through the experience of catharsis, rather than from any definition. This is the experience of being sad but at peace with the world, and it is brought about by imaginative identification
“with people who had experienced all and more than we had experienced, and who were now at peace beyond the world of time and change” (The Tragedy of Greece , p. 12)
Much more might be said about catharsis, but I trust it is sufficiently clear that it is not an inflamed resolve to avenge the victim of a grave misfortune, even when an artistic imitation of this grave misfortune has inspired both pity and fear.
Catharsis has something to do with what I earlier called “metaphysical sadness and redemption,” with “hope at the brink despair.”
And it is here, of course, that the AAG (and a great many others) fall short in their claim to the word tragedy. Their artistic imitation of the grave misfortune of Heather Heyer, far from being a cathartic tragedy, is instead a “bloody shirt.” Its purpose is not to lead people to a place of “peace beyond the world of time and change,” but rather to make people mad as hell, and to fill their hearts with bloodlust to crack some heads.