The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, September 04, 2008

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)


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I often think of the tragic as universal, and therefore anything specific becomes comic. A man whose wife betrays him because his essential goodness alienated her- that's the stuff of tragedy. But when Gladys Hershfeld is caught in the garden shed with Murry Drysdale while her husband is off fundraising for feline cancer- that has a whiff of comedy.

The flash fiction piece, by the nature of it's intense focus usually pursues the hyper-real. As a consequence, it avoids the grandly abstract and the possibility of 'high tragedy'.

But your interesting thoughts here, Randall, make me wonder if I've missed something. There's a way to the universal through the specific, and perhaps when flash is particularly potent, it manages to dive so intensely into the specific that it's too brutal for comedy and digs right down into the tragic.

Thanks for guesting with us, Mr. Brown.

Fri Sep 05, 01:28:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous ruth taylor said...

Interesting essay, Randall. I'm a big fan of Camus's Sisyphys (sp?), but it's so long since I read that book that I'd sort of forgotten and am glad to be reminded. I also used to read (and like) a lot of Greek tragedies. When I think of contemporary works, however, nothing that fits the mold you describe readily comes to mind (The Road, perhaps?).

Can you give us some examples of Short Shorts that to you exemplify this tragic urgency?

Fri Sep 05, 03:22:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Darby said...

It's in interesting way of regarding short short fiction, when the two walls (beginning and end) are so close together, when you go in expecting to finish in minutes, as opposed to days for a novel, the tragic arc gets squeazed.

I wonder if the next logical step in urgency is to experience a painting or a sculpture. The Sisyphys scultpure is a good example. To gaze at it is to experience its beginning and ending simultaneously. You must see its tragedy and determine for yourself if there is hope hiding just beyond that tragedy.

When there's less time to contemplate, as readers, we rely more on instinct. A novel may carefully direct you toward a Dionysian or Apollonian ending, but when it comes at you before you can think about it and both are somehow present, the reader has to make the decision for themselves how they want to perceive it. A reader's own perception is a bigger variable in the short short equation.

Fri Sep 05, 05:20:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

That's the challenge of this type of short short, isn't it? We need to draw upon the reader's courage, as well as their ability to intellectualize, so that they too achieve that understanding: we have no choice but to embrace our struggles. In a thousand words or less, of course. Great essay, Randall.

Fri Sep 05, 07:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous martin heavisides said...

Have your read Walter Kaufmann's Tragedy and Philosophy? It's one of the best studies of tragedy I know. I can't summarize his conclusions, except to say he seems to agree partly and partly disagree with what you say here. You might find it interesting to bump up against him on this.

Fri Sep 05, 09:55:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Randall Brown said...

Here are some texts I used in thinking about tragedy. They include both short-shorts and "textbooks."

Almond, Steve. Interview. SmokeLong Quarterly. 16 July 2005.

Almond, Steve. “Pornography.” Boulevard. Missouri: Opojaz, Inc. September 2001.

Berlin, Normand. The Secret Cause: A Discussion of Tragedy. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1981.

Brown, Randall. “Awww!” SmokeLong Quarterly. Features. 30 July, 2005.

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” 15 August, 2005.

Collins, Myfanwy. “Remember.” Pig Iron Malt. 11 July 2005.

Davis, Lydia. “The Mother.” break it down. New York: High Risk Books, 1986. 119.

de Schweintiz, George. “Death of a Salesman: A Note on Epic and Tragedy.” Western Humanities Review. Winter, 1960. pp. 91-96.

Fish, Kathy. “Wren.” FRiGG. Issue 5, Summer 2004. 11 July 2005.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Original copyright 1924. New York: Scribner. 2004.

Frankl, Viktor F. Man’s Search for Meaning. “The Case for Tragic Optimism.” New York: Washington Square Press. 1984. 161-179.

Glover, Douglas. “Short Story Structure: Notes and an Exercise.” The New Quarterly: New Directions in Canadian Writing. Number 87. Ontario: Saint Jerome’s University. Summer 2003. 162-177.

Hamilton, Saskia, ed. The Letters of Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2005.

Heyen, William. “Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the American Dream.” American Drama and Theater in the 20th Century, edited by Alfred Weber and Siegfried Neuweiler. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen: 1975. Rpt in Harold Bloom, Ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Landon, Jeff. “Flying.” Quick Fiction. Issue 7: Love and Marriage. JP Press: Jamaica Plain. 2005. 44.

McCaffery, Larry. Some Other Frequency: Interviews with Innovative American Authors. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1996.

Miller, Arthur. “Tragedy and the Common Man.”The New York Times, February 27, 1949, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 3. The appearance of this essay followed closely upon the opening of Death of a Salesman at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949. Copyright 1949 by Arthur Miller, Copyright © renewed 1977 by Arthur Miller.

Morrow, Lance. Evil: An Investigation. New York: Basic Books. 2003.

Mose, Gitte. “Danish Short Shorts in the 1990s and the Jena-Romantic Fragments. The Art of Brevity:Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis. Per Winter et al eds. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 2004. 81-95.

Palmer, Richard H. Tragedy and Tragic Theory. Westport: Greenwood Press. 1992.

Parkinson, Patricia. “Lemon Pistachio Biscotti.” Long Story Short. 11 July 2005.

Raphael, David. The Paradox of Tragedy. New York: Ayer Company Publishing. 1960.

Ruprecht, Louis A. Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision: Against the Modern Failure of Nerve. New York: Continuum. 1994.

Sewall, Richard B. The Vision of Tragedy. New York: Paragon House. 1990.

Siegel, Paul. “Willy Loman and King Lear.” College English 17 (March 1956), 341–345.

Stern, Jerome, ed. Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Really Short Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1996.

Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without a Country. New York: Seven Stories Press. 2005.

Williams, Diane. “Science and Sin Or Love And Understanding.” This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. New York: Grove Widenfeld, 1990. 116-117.

Young, Joseph. Lit Pot: Flash Fiction Contest 2003. 11 July 2005.

Sun Sep 07, 08:16:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Randall Brown said...


Flash writers are sometimes drawn to the structure/form of jokes, which of course are not the same thing as "the comic," maybe because that sense that, as someone whose essay I read said, "The comic character needs short, the slip on the banana peel." The specific, as in the case of Willy Loman, often evokes in me not only the comic, but also pathos/pity. I like your use of the hyper-real, here, the "so intensely," and maybe the flash from itself--its intensity and brevity (its beginning and end) so closely connected--evokes a tragic sense. Or, more accurately, certain flashes do so, the ones charged, "too brutal for comedy," ones that "dig right down" and leave us both in and out of breath.

Sun Sep 07, 08:27:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Randall Brown said...

Hey Ruth.

Thanks for reading this! I left a biography that has some of the short-shorts I've come to love that might be said to have that sense of the tragic.

Sun Sep 07, 08:28:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Randall Brown said...

Hey Darby,

I really, really like your connection of the flash experience to that of a "painting or a sculpture." Sometime, perhaps, the hope is the painting or sculpture itself, something created that stands against the tragic truths of what the gods have created to confine us--things such as death. And there that sculpture or painting or poem asserts itself long after its creator has passed from the earth, against the gods who have said we cannot last. And yet, there it is, enduring.

Sun Sep 07, 08:31:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Randall Brown said...

Thanks, Tony. I find your work (check out the new Smokelong Quarterly on 9/15) has at its heart the willingness to look to look right at IT, to discover the beautiful within the terrible. Your work is chock-full of that kind of courage. That's one thing I love about it.

Sun Sep 07, 08:34:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Randall Brown said...


By "biography," I mean "bibliography."

Mon Sep 08, 08:08:00 am GMT-4  
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