10 Observations on Tragedy in a Digital Age
10 Observations on Tragedy in the Digital Age
The essence of tragedy as a narrative device is that you’ve created your own mess (perhaps without realizing it), and now you face the consequences. The digital age, with its technocratic and plutocratic optimism, is incapable of grasping this view of human frailty.
In other words, the notion of tragedy is almost meaningless in a world where Elon Musk aspires to be a starship commander and Bill Gates acts as medicine man to cure the planet. And it’s not just billionaires. A defining quality of our time is that everyone believes they have all the answers. That’s why the most popular career goal for youngsters right now is to be an influencer. Such a mindset can’t even begin to grasp the self-creating and self-perpetuating nature of tragedy.
Yet influencing itself is the foundation for tragedy. Hamlet and Oedipus would probably try to be influencers if they were alive today. Viewed in the proper light, influencer is a career path of tragic dimensions.
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In such a culture, the word tragedy must be misused, because we prefer not to confront its true meaning. Even I’m guilty of this. When Person A hurts Person B, we call it a tragedy. But the profound insight of tragedy only arrives when we grasp that Person A (yesterday) is the greatest obstacle facing Person A (tomorrow). That’s why the word tragedy is often spoken aloud, but the concept of an individual’s tragic flaw is rarely whispered even in private
The greatest tragic narratives of my lifetime have been The Godfather films and Breaking Bad. In these sagas, the protagonists destroy themselves in measured steps, and the audience is shaken by both the process and the consequences. The distinctive flavor of our times is that audiences want to view these individuals as heroes (or anti-heroes, to use the fashionable term), and will thus cheer these characters on to their final destruction.
This suggests that the audience is culpable to some degree. They knew that Tony Soprano is a broken person, but they applauded his every narcissistic and violent move. Are you surprised that they argue endlessly over the fairness of his death? Or even over whether he died?
What I find remarkable is how rarely movies and TV shows imitate this device. It’s extraordinarily powerful when shown on the screen, but there’s something in our contemporary mindset that resists it. Hollywood execs probably have stacks of market research showing that audiences prefer the happy ending—as is inevitable in a tragic age that lacks a sense of tragedy.
For the same reason, we live in an age of hubris, but the word hubris is almost never spoken. The dictionary definition: hubris is excessive self-confidence and pride that (according to the ancients) will stir up the wrath of the gods. You will be punished for your hubris.
Maybe the ancient gods aren’t quite a threat anymore. And that excessive self-confidence looks good on your business plan and in your job interview. Hubris also get retweets and followers.
And that perhaps sums up a key difference between STEM subjects and the humanities. The STEM student is taught that hubris is a useful vocational skill—you get the grant, you get the job, you get a raise. Humanities students, forced to read all those boring tragedies, ought to know better.
The great tragedies (Macbeth, Oedipus, King Lear, etc.) aren’t much different from the leading news stories today—we simply haven’t been taught to see the connections. The most striking fact here is that the tragic protagonists of our own time would never view themselves as such, believing instead that they are heroes—straight out of a Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise mold. Their fans and followers believe this too. This might be the most pervasive and poorly understood psychological parameter of the digital age.
One of my great regrets is that I never signed up for the class George Steiner taught as guest lecturer at my college—his topic was “Greek Tragedy in the Modern World.” In the first few weeks of the course, he required his students to read all of the surviving ancient Greek tragedies—then they studied modern extensions or evocations of the same tales by Joyce, Sartre, and others.
If I had to teach a class like this, I’d add a different twist. The students would read 20-30 old tragedies, and then apply them to current-day celebrities, influencers, and power brokers of various stripes.
Homework might look like this:
The leading digital age entertainments are almost immune to tragedy. I’m sure you could construct a tragic video game, but few would want to play it. I could present myself as a tragic figure on Instagram, but the dude sharing cat photos will always have a larger following. Those Marvel superheroes each carry the tragedy of their warped existence silently inside. When tragedy is compressed into the size of a short TikTok video, it turns into comedy.
Despite the hubris on daily display, almost every kind of negative social metric is on the rise—depression, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, violence, etc. At some level this is connected to the psychic cost of living in a tragic age which refuses to confront tragedy.
Fixing this is difficult, perhaps even impossible. But if a fix is within our grasp, part of the solution will reside in music, art, and stories. Even the tragic story can be healing, if told honestly.
The ancients understood this, and we ought to learn from them.