Tragic Urgency in (Very) Short Fiction
CWC guest blogger: Randall Brown
Prescriptive tragedy invariably begins with Aristotelian rules of tragedy, proceeds through a flurry of Greek phrases, and ends with a checklist that renders the reader and the writer blind to the tragic vision. So, as expected, most writers ignore the tragic—or include it without any conscious desire to employ its energies in their pieces. But within the tragic exists two powerful competing desires, a Dionysian need to raze the world and uncover its meaninglessness—and the opposing Apollonian wish to reconstruct the world and rediscover its deep meaning and purpose. The short short, pieces one-thousand words or less, arises as the perfect form to contain such a dynamic—its Dionysian need to end almost before it begins and its Apollonian quest to arrive at meaning before, like lightning, the whole piece disappears—infuses the short short form with tremendous tension, something I call “tragic urgency.”
I tried to resist the temptation—or is it a need?—for a definition of tragedy. Simply put, tragedy itself resists such attempts. Most of us, however, have been “brainwashed” by school teachers to think of tragedy as having fixed requirements—and to disabuse readers and writers of such a belief requires an alternative vision to be put forth.
My own definition, gleaned from reading text after text after text, is this: tragedy occurs when some positive character trait, action, desire leads, inevitably and forever, to a negative outcome—to doom, annihilation, meaninglessness. This dynamic, of course, leads to questions: Why are we fated for doom? How can one know when an action will lead to ruin? How can one ever act in such a world of uncertainty? Who has it in for us? The gods? The world? Our own selves?
Through tragedy, we gain the vision to ask such questions and glimpse the impossibility of ever answering them. As Victor Frankl argues in Man’s Search for Meaning, one cannot escape the “tragic triad” of pain, guilt, and death—and one becomes fully human only at that moment when he/she finds the “courage to suffer,” to “creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.” How does one do that? Frankl answers as such: “By (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an attempt to take responsible action” (161-162). Here, Frankl supports the tragic ideal of Hegel, as paraphrased by Louis Ruprecht in his Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision, of “looking the negative in the face, and dwelling with it” (34).
In a tragic world—a world that has it in for us—one must find the will to act, knowing full well that such actions might be doomed from the outset. Here, the world is a trap—and more often than not we are doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t. The tragic hero does act, and in that moment of action, he accepts the world for what it is; he asserts himself against the gods, the fates, the state—all those forces that would render him/her meaningless. Ah, see that trap, that attempt to define the indefinable. Tragedy, like the world, is what each of us makes of it. But at its center, remember, is that sense of something positive leading to something negative, and out of that negative outcome, something equally positive. As Ruprecht argues, “The tragic vision, as opposed to our modern posture, believes in the possibility—not the inevitability—of redemption, come what may” (56). Elizabeth Hardwick, in writing of Robert Lowell as part of Hardwick’s collection of Robert Lowell’s letters, perfectly describes this tragic character: “His fate was like a strange, two-engined machine, one running to doom and the other to salvation” (xvii).
Although in real life most of us obviously would want to avoid the tragic, as both writers and members of humanity we have much to gain by having the courage to face the tragic truths of our world. Tragedy asks us to engage in the search to know both the external and internal worlds of our existence at the same time it reminds us that such knowledge will always be denied us. If we refuse to act—to engage in such a search—our innocence of the world’s workings might lead us unknowingly down a path toward doom; however, if we do set out upon a quest, we are doomed to fail, for the world cannot provide us with the answers and certainties we seek. Tragedy reminds us that we are doomed no matter what and that our humanity depends upon our ability to face that fact, to act in spite of it, to embrace uncertainty at the same time we must refuse to settle for it.
We are much like Sisyphus, doomed to roll that rock up a hill, engaged in an act and a life that surely must end in meaningless. Albert Camus, in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, views the fate of Sisyphus differently:
But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The acceptance of that struggle we must all make frees us from our fated suffering, makes it our own rather than something imposed upon us. The tragic focuses upon such moments, such journeys—and the short short is uniquely designed to capture the urgency of the conflict.
(Randall Brown's Mad to Live won the Flume Press 2007-08 Fiction Chapbook Contest)
(Post-Industrial Sisyphus (1987) by Washington State sculpter, Robert Gigliotti)