Dramatising death

Why is every accident and disaster now seen as a 'tragedy'?

Ciaran Guilfoyle

Topics Politics

What has happened to our sense of tragedy?

Once we empathised with the tragic dramatis personae – men of affairs like Oedipus or Hamlet who had fallen from positions of greatness. Now, the concept of tragedy has been extended to cover many reported fatalities. Fatal accidents or disasters are routinely reported as yet another ‘tragedy’ – ‘Mother tells of lake tragedy, ‘Tragic lessons of India’s quake’, ‘Tragedy at Jenin, says US envoy’.

Laying flowers at the scene of a fatal incident, complete with heartfelt messages of condolence and soft toys, is now considered entirely normal. Whereas funerals are private affairs for family and friends, anyone can leave flowers or notes by the roadside/school gate/family home, allowing Everyman to share in the grieving experience.

But not every death is deemed a tragedy worthy of tribute. Instinctively, the public never lays flowers by the hospital bed where the nicotine-stained smoker wheezed his last, or at the foot of the concrete lamppost where the speeding motorist met his maker. These deaths are usually seen as avoidable, resulting from the victim’s refusal to adopt a responsible, non-smoking, 30mph lifestyle. For a death to be seen as truly tragic, it has to have a little something extra.

The irony is that the ‘self-induced’ deaths of smokers and motorists bear a much stronger resemblance to the original Greek tragedies, than do the deaths of victims of injustice. If anyone is responsible for the tragedy that befalls King Oedipus, it is Oedipus himself. It is his patricide and incest, and his subsequent determination to uncover the truth that brings tragedy upon him, his wife/mother Jocasta, and the city of Thebes.

There is no dereliction of duty on the part of any other character, no one from whom compensation can be sought, no means by which private grief can be transformed into a public demand for justice. It is difficult to imagine Oedipus claiming compensation for loss of sight.

The problem with seeking justice following a tragedy is that we are prevented from simply coming to terms with our grief. Instead we are roused to search for a crime, a perpetrator and an appropriate punishment. And if none exists, we campaign for a change to the law. This recourse to justice works neither for the greater good (tragic events will continue to happen), nor for those grieving for loved ones. No matter how high the compensation payment, the dead cannot be brought back to life.

The concept of tragedy is undermined when justice is demanded as a response. But the reverse is also true: justice is deformed when crimes are interpreted as tragedies.

When President Bush described the 48 deaths caused by the American bombing of an Afghan wedding party in July 2002 as ‘a tragic loss’, he could have been describing the bitter end of a 48-man assault on Mount Everest. His use of the word ‘tragedy’ suggested that the deaths were somehow the result of Afghan foolhardiness, not America’s war on terror. The bombing would more accurately have been described as an atrocity, not a tragedy.

Similarly, the murder of 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire, was treated by the media and the police as a tragedy of the highest order. It was certainly a brutal crime, and whoever committed it ought to be tried and punished. But to interpret the murders as tragedy (and in such an insincere way – with one online book of condolence having a drop-down menu to allow us to select from ready-made messages of grief) actually detracts from the criminal intent.

So how should we confront tragedy, if not with notions of justice? Those with a proper grasp of tragedy appreciate that it can move us to more than tears.

In his 1961 book The Death of Tragedy, literary critic George Steiner claimed that the advent of Newton and Descartes, and the subsequent development of science and reason in the eighteenth century, had allowed mankind to apprehend and comprehend nature, thereby overcoming ‘blind necessity’. Men now sought explanations for events not in the dispositions of God, but within man-made natural science. For Steiner, this explained was why there had been no great tragic drama since Shakespeare.

But Steiner was not quite right. We cannot deny the unparalleled power of science, but it does not make us perfect. Rather, it makes us perfectible. There are still social and natural phenomena beyond our knowledge. So despite the progress we have made, we continue – like Oedipus – to live as the restless subjects of internal and external forces to which we are blind. Indeed, that we sense mastery over these forces to be within reach makes our faults and their consequences all the more tragic.

When tragedy does strike, our ability to see events through Sophocles’ eyes helps us to recognise it and grasp its wider significance. It also helps us to realise that a campaign for ‘justice’ does less to honour the victim than does a bitter determination to persevere with life. Campaigners could determine, say, to help find a better cure for the disease from which the victim died, rather than sue the hospital for failing to diagnose it early enough.

Something is wrong with life when every death is seen as a tragedy, and every tragedy an injustice. Our inability to make these important distinctions signals a failure to understand our own human nature. This is not a call to abolish grief. Individuals should be left alone to grieve – it is the rest of society that needs to snap out of it.

(1) Mother tells of lake tragedy, BBC News, 24 April 2002

(2) Tragic lessons of India’s quake, BBC News, 15 March 2001

(3) Tragedy at Jenin, says US envoy, BBC News, 20 April 2002

(4) Inquiry into killer PC’s home history, BBC News, 31 August 2001

(5) Full inquiry promised into Afghan bombing, BBC News, 6 July 2002

(6) See the Soham tragedy website

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Topics Politics


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