Dan Ariely provides thought provoking insight about the way we make decisions in his TED talk "Are we in control of our decisions".
Ariely points out that almost all of our decisions are made for us due to the way they are presented. We often gain illusions from our choices that greatly influence the things we chose.
First, Ariely shows some examples of visual illusions such as this table or this cube:
The table on the left seems longer, but is in fact the same length as the one on the right. Similarly, the square on the top looks brown while the one on the bottom looks yellow, but they are in reality both brown. These are visual illusions that show us how easy it is to deceive our eyes. Ariely tells us that our decision making is deceived in a similar way through "cognitive illusions".
An example of one of these "cognitive illusions" is a study on advertisement customers of the Economist
. When presented with the choices of:
Print only: $89.00, Web only: $125.00, or, Print and web: $125.00, the most popular choice was Print and Web, while no one chose web only, and few chose print only. This trend occurred because the customers saw that print only had the same price as print and web together, so they chose to buy print and web because it appeared to be a good deal. Why settle for one when you can get both for not paying more?
Interestingly, when the web only option was removed, more customers chose print only than print and web together. When the comparison was gone, they chose the cheaper option. I found this point extremely interesting because, I know I have often fallen for tricks like this. Judging something based on what you have to compare it to is in our human nature, but it often hinders us rather than helps.
Illusions like these show us how our decisions are already made for us because what we really want is not what we consider in our decision making. We consider instead how the options are presented to us and make comparisons to alter our decisions.
I personally believe this relates to literary tragedy because the tragic characters often fall to cognitive illusions. For example, It has been foretold that Oedipus
would kill his father and marry his mother. This "pre-decided" fate influences all of Oedipus' decisions so that it eventually becomes true.
gives us a strong idea of his definition for tragedy in his essay "The Tragic Fallacy"
Krutch spends a lot of time specifying what tragedy is not. First, it is not an "imitation of noble actions"
once said. This is because: a) true art cannot be defined as an imitation but an adaptation, and b) the concept of nobility is too abstract and holds different meanings for each person. I agree with this because a genre such as tragedy, which is enjoyed by people of all backgrounds and beliefs couldn't have become so popular if it were based on controversial ideas such as nobility. People must relate to tragedy somehow for it to be so well loved. And not all of us can relate to the same definition of nobility.
Krutch goes on to show us just what it is we can relate to in tragedy, and that is a “celebration of human greatness". Tragedy is not a dark gloomy genre, but is in fact "an expression not of despair, but of the triumph over despair and of confidence in the value of human life." What I concluded from this is that tragedy may include sad or depressing situations based on the fact of human suffering, but it does so in order to show us that humans possess the passion, power, and perseverance to come through that suffering. Essentially, it's a testament to how capable we are.
One last point that "The Tragic Fallacy" makes is that tragedies still have "happy" endings. This may seem farfetched due to the fact that tragedy is characterized by suffering, but Krutch explains this statement clearly:
"Whatever the character of events, fortunate or unfortunate, which they recount, they (the authors) so mold or arrange or interpret them that we accept gladly the conclusion which they reach and would not have it otherwise."
Essentially, even though it's sad that Juliet
kills herself (for example), we as readers can be satisfied with the strong act of passion, strength, and meaning her death holds. As Krutch says:"We accept gladly the outward defeats which it describes for the sake of the inward victories which it reveals."
So even if tragedies don't have a "happily ever after", we can still find satisfaction in their meaningful endings.
' Oedipus Rex
is a clear, classic example of tragedy. Looking back on the standards Aristotle set for tragedy, we can see how this play fits the mold perfectly.
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First, the tragedy must have a hero who makes a mistake. Our hero is Oedipus
. He has become king of Thebes
by answering the riddle of the sphinx
, and now he is anxious to avenge Laius
, the previous king, in order to end the plague of misfortune on the land. Oedipus' mistake was made long before he was king. Since it was prophesied he would kill his father and marry his mother, he specifically stayed away from the couple who had raised him. On his journey he ends up killing the king of Thebes, and goes on to marry his wife. Little does he know that he was adopted, and the man he killed, along with the bride he now has are his true parents. This is truly a tragic mistake because Oedipus went to great lengths to avoid the prophecy, but in the process came to fulfill it.
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Another important requirement Oedipus Rex
fits as a tragedy
is the tragic outcome of the tale. When the truth of his deeds is revealed, Jocasta
, Oedipus' wife/mother, kills herself in shame and grief. Oedipus takes
the pins from her robes and gouges out his eyes in violent fashion. Also,
another tragic act is the murder of Laius by his own son who is unaware of his
Oedipus grows from this tragic experience, by
changing from a somewhat arrogant king to a lowly blind man who is disgraced.
The price of learning the truth of his identity is the fact that he has to live
with the horrors of that truth.
In my opinion, these requirements Aristotle puts into place which Oedipus Rex follows are a meaningful and useful view on tragedy. It is interesting to see that stories like this are not meant just to be sad or depressing, but they contain a lesson learned by the character that is applicable to the lives of you and me. The pattern followed in this story helps me see the sadness and loss within the play. Oedipus really doesn't know of what he's done. He has spent so much time and effort to avoid the prophecy, but it was all a waste. The harshness of this drives the point Sophocles is trying to make home for me: that pride comes before the fall.
In his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man"
Arthur Miller provides an in depth look at tragedy in literature. He starts out by correcting the common association of tragedy and nobility or royalty. Often, we view tragedy as something experienced by people in great power, such as many of the heroes of classic tragic works like Hamlet
and Oedipus Rex.
We think of it as something above ourselves but Miller argues that regular people like us can experience and relate to tragedy. Miller
goes on to explain that we can relate to tragedy because of the feelings evoked by it. The characters are ready to die in order to protect their dignity. Tragedies are defined by heroes struggling to "gain their 'rightful' position in society". The hero either loses his place or longs to gain a higher position, and spends the entire story in attempts to gain that dignity. What is then revealed is something called the "tragic flaw", which is essentially something that stands for the character's unwillingness to ignore whatever challenges his dignity. This flaw is used to make the character start to question things about the world which they have never doubted before. There is an "underlying fear of being displaced" that readers can directly relate to. I can relate to this feeling because in our society people are always watching to see you fall. Look at all of the tabloid magazines who broadcast and delight in the mistakes that celebrities make. Reputation is the hardest thing to keep clean, and redemption is near impossible. Everyone fears that they will lose the favor of the world.
The tragic flaw also leads to a revelation of moral laws to the character. This allows the character to grow and realize his fears in order to weigh how much he is willing to give to regain his dignity.
Lastly, Miller talks about the misconception that tragedy is full of pessimism. He claims that even though a story has a "sad" ending, it can actually be rather optimistic. The hero in a tragedy gives his all to achieve his rightful place, reaffirming for readers the "indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity." Tragedy has to hold some hope for victory. If it does not, it is defined as pathos rather than tragedy. Pathos
involves characters fighting battles they have no chance of winning, while tragedy has a "nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. In the end, tragedy embodies hope in the "perfectibility" of man.
Miller's view of tragedy was very insightful for me. I like how his formula helps draw meaning from tragedy and helps identify themes within the stories. I can also see just how tragedy can relate to common people. We all have flaws and fight to keep our dignity and reputation.
In this video, Alain De Botton shares quite a bit of insight about how we as humans view success and failure. He also ties in how literary tragedy relates to all of this.
First, De Botton states that in our modern times, career anxiety has become increasingly common. Everyone experiences an inevitable moment when, "...what we thought we knew about our lives, about our careers, comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality..."
He says that one of the reasons we feel this anxiety is because of snobbery around us. He defines a "snob" as someone who uses only a small part of you to judge who you are entirely. Essentially, the respect they show you is directly related to how much power your position holds. I can relate to this (as I am sure many of us can) and I find this definition for snobbery very fitting. In my own life I have let others' opinion of me cause me to feel like a failure.
Another reason for this anxiety is that we have extremely high hopes for our careers. In this day and age, people are essentially equal, so there is more competition. With this equality also comes envy. This envy is rooted in our societal definitions of success versus failure.
We live in a meritocratic society, which means we believe that people become successful because of their talent and hard work. People are successful because they deserve it. The problem with this philosophy is that if you base success on merit you are also saying that those at the bottom, the "losers", deserve to be there as well. This is cruel because we cannot be successful at everything, and we shouldn't be labeled as losers because of the things we fail at.
If this were true, all of the heroes in tragic works would be losers. We cannot say they are losers simply because they lost. De Botton explains that tragedy is an art showing how people fail, and it allows them sympathy. The reason we want to label characters like Hamlet as losers is because our ideas of success and failure come from people other than ourselves. Our families, traditions, and media force ideas of these concepts upon us. De Botton stresses that we need to get rid of these ideas and define success and failure for ourselves.
What I have taken away from this video is the realization that failure and success are in the eye of the beholder. Just because I may not live up to society's ideal image, does not mean that I have failed. Basically, my own opinions determine whether I have succeeded or failed.
"That's so tragic!"
This phrase is commonly found in 21st century high schools everywhere. We use it to describe events that are unfortunate. From the break-up of a popular couple, to a car accident in the student lot, we use the word "tragedy" to describe it. I have always thought of tragedy as just as sad story, but what is tragedy really? Where did it originate and What properties define a tragic work?
| | As with many literary concepts, tragedy finds its origins in Greek drama. Back in the day, all those famous philosophers (such as Aristotle, Sophocles, and all those other wise guys) developed the art of tragedy. The concept has been altered over the years by Roman's and European's alike, but the same basic principles apply.
And what are those basic principles you ask?
Well, first, tragedy by definition is (according to Wikipedia):
"...a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in the viewing."
| | So essentially, it is a form of entertainment that teaches us to delight in the pain of others. That seems a little harsh, but I suppose it's fair enough. In Aristotle's definition, a tragic story starts out with a hero who makes some sort of error that is specifically unrelated to any flaws the character possesses or any outside cause. The character then suffers greatly due to his/her mistake and, in the words of Aristotle, undergoes "a change from ignorance to awareness of a bond of love or hate."
Since Aristotle's days, others have argued different theories about tragedy. G.W.F. Hegel, for example, believed that in modern tragedy, individuals’ "self-destructive passions" cause their own tragic events. Still, tragedy at its core is a look at human suffering and the events that cause it.
These are new thoughts for me personally. I had always just defined tragedy as a story with a bad (unhappy) ending, but it is more than that. It involves the inner-workings of the characters more than anything. The tragic events that befall them depend directly on their strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and actions. Also, there is a purpose to it. Tragedies aren't just meant to make us cry, they're intended to teach us about life and help us learn from the mistakes of others.
I think tragedy is probably the most relatable form of literature because all humans make mistakes and suffer the consequences. We can sympathize with the characters and apply what they learn to our own lives.
So the next time you refer to something as "tragic", be sure to check and see that the situation fits the specifics for the genre. The philosophers of old will thank you.