Tragedy is a genre known to us since the time of ancient Greece as human suffering and sorrowful events that befall the characters in a play. Generally, the protagonist is morally just and is similar to us with the exception of his extraordinary stance in society, who succumbs to deceitful fate with his banal flaw, ultimately leading to his downfall.
The primary purpose of tragedy was to purge us of our repressed emotions, called ‘catharsis’.
Tragedy, according to Schopenhauer, manifests the worst-case scenario of common human failings. By witnessing such art, we become aware of something which possibly cannot be known positively, the dark desires, the repressed ‘will to death’ becomes apparent. When one becomes aware of such terrors and horrors of life rationally, one becomes indifferent to life, which is what the Buddha did.
To stand with the Buddha and Schopenhauer on this matter is life-denial. To check its validity, let us analyse the above argument empirically. Greek civilisation should be the best choice for this matter because they were the inventors of tragic dramas. We would expect the Greeks to be engulfed by Nihilism, but the result was contrary.
They were the most culturally sophisticated civilisation.
When they witnessed the terrible fate of Oedipus, the torture of the great admirer of humanity Prometheus, and Orestes’s matricide, instead of lapsing into apathy, they acted decisively.
They concluded that life as a whole is not wretched, but the life of some unfortunate and erring individuals was so.
But why is it so important? Tragic dramas are profound and sublime. They remind us of the brevity of human life. We experience this existential dread from a safe distance away as an observer, but cause an existential crisis through empathy.
This emptiness is the first step of self-realisation. It makes us question our existence, which begins the quest for the purpose in life.
Tragedy does not confine to ancient poems or plays written like Homer’s Odyssey or Shakespeare’s quintessential Hamlet.
Nowadays, TV series, movies and books also contain this tragic essence. Some wellknown modern tragedies are A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan, and Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles.
These days, tragedy and art are fading because of science.
We may have science, but we are still unable to prevent poverty, unemployment, depression and terrorism. Due to this, there is a void, which we desperately try to fill with escapism and hedonism. So until science is advanced enough to fill this void, we need a metaphysical comfort that is currently best brought by art and tragedy.
A version of this article appears in the print on December 17, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.