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#7- 31: Tragedy or farce?

The Zero Point Where the Poles Converge, or, The Comic Reality of the Tragic // A conversation between Olga Egorova (Tsaplya), Artemy Magun, Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya (Gluklya), and Alexander Skidan

Olga Egorova (Tsaplya): Well, pour the drinks.

Alexander Skidan: Yes, let’s begin with the fact that alcohol – spiritus – is bound up with the spirit of the Dionysian mysteries that gave birth to tragedy.

Artemy Magun: As well as with sex and rock ‘n’ roll.

Olga Egorova (Tsaplya): Well, pour the drinks.

Alexander Skidan: Yes, let’s begin with the fact that alcohol – spiritus – is bound up with the spirit of the Dionysian mysteries that gave birth to tragedy.

Artemy Magun: As well as with sex and rock ‘n’ roll.

OE: Artiom, we all read your article and now we have a better grip on what tragedy is. But questions remain. In particular, what is tragedy in today’s world? Is there a place for it? Should we – artists, practitioners – create tragedies today?

АM: Well, what are your own thoughts?

ОE: You see, what we do is situated in some other dimension, although certain viewers of ours call it tragedy. But it doesn’t resemble tragedy.

АM: Because it lacks the element of exaltation, of catharsis.

ОЕ: Well, yes. Our work is kind of Brechtian playing at tragedy. For example, in The Tower, when the characters are frozen in the embrace of the red monster and corresponding music is playing, I’ve noticed that certain viewers have tears in their eyes. Does this have anything to do with tragedy?

АS: It has something to do with catharsis, but not with tragedy. In ancient tragedy, the heroes go beyond the human; they shake up the universe. It is impossible to imagine such a figure today, and the subtlest playwrights allow us to sense this impossibility. In his early play Ivanov, Chekhov attempted to write a tragedy in the classical mode, with the principal hero at its center, but he was unsuccessful. So beginning with The Seagull we have a completely different kind of dramaturgy, dispersed and decentered. Yes, the characters in these plays suffer a “human tragedy,” but this is the tragedy of being unable to go beyond a particular limit, the tragedy of the ordinary man, who unlike, say, Dostoevsky’s characters, does not wrestle with “cosmic questions” or overturn the world order. And even if one of them commits suicide, like Treplev, people continue to play lotto. A particular destiny, no matter how it is shattered, changes nothing.

Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya (Gluklya): Fine, tragedy has gone from our lives. But this doesn’t mean that people don’t suffer, does it? Maybe we could find some kind of equivalent to tragedy?

АS: But to do this we have to understand clearly which key aspects of tragedy are gone and gone for good, and which aspects continue to exist in altered form.

NP: I think that one could try to bring the hero back, to show the exertions bound up with longing for the sublime, all the more so because attempts to shake up the universe would really come in handy for us right now.

AS: In ancient Greek tragedy, the hero is the embodiment of sovereign power, a king or demigod, and the world crumbles with his downfall. Where can we find the sovereign in an age of secularization, depoliticization, and other “democratic processes”?

АM: I categorically disagree with what Sasha has just said. There are two high points, two heydays of tragedy – Greece in the fifth century BC and the seventeenth century. For a number of reasons, during these eras society recognized its own tragic element. But, first of all, the tragic element always involves the destruction of the hero. The interpretation I mentioned in my essay is Hцlderlin’s, and he argues that tragedy is society’s experience of parting with its heroes. This involves secularization, parting with myth, and parting with the world of monarchy, because, as Rousseau correctly put it, tragedy is the elimination of tyranny. The most well known tragedy reflects this in its title – Oedipus Tyrannus. Yes, sovereign power is present, but it is shown in a state of complete crisis, powerlessness. And the downfall of the king is regarded as a certain world-shaking event that consists in the downfall of heroes per se. This, strictly speaking, is the theme of tragedy. So when you say that tragedy has come to an end because there are no more heroes, this sounds strange, because this is precisely what tragedy tells us about. I agree that the historical situation is different today, and that society – at least, western society, the society of what Nietzsche called morals – does not regard the single individual as a possible leader, genius, and so forth. This is denied. However, the very problem of the isolated individual and how the isolated individual is united with the collective remains. In this sense, contemporary tragedy, if it exists, is the tragedy of tragedy’s absence. The entire realistic-romantic tradition deals with this, along with Dostoevsky and his Raskolnikov, who imagines that he is a hero, but this is a false opinion – he is no hero at all…

ОE: So you don’t think Raskolnikov is a hero?

АM: Hang on a minute, what sort of hero is he? He is a monomaniac who decides that he is Napoleon, and he murders an old woman. However, thanks to his mistake, Raskolnikov of course acquires a certain significance, and we take an interest in watching what happens to him. And this by and large unheroic man, a man who has fallen into the trap of his own illusions, is shown being liberated from these illusions. And along with him, we might say that we ourselves overcome heroism. That is, in a certain sense the problem is not to find a hero, but to emancipate ourselves from heroism. In what sense? In the sense that modern society is flesh of the flesh of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century society. For us, this is a pivotal time, the time when our civilization, liberal capitalist society, emerged. What sort of society is this? On the one hand, it is a fragmented society; on the other, it is a prosaicized society in which the universal standard of money arises, a standard that quantitatively begins eroding qualitative differences. It is also, of course, a society characterized by the atomization, alienation, and isolation of people, a society in which the modern individual is born. What is curious is that everyone becomes an individual, everyone suffers his own loneliness, but seventeenth-century drama shows this using the examples of kings and tsars. Here is the king: he feels his own loneliness, he experiences his detachment and alienation from the collective; he sees that cannot do anything; he attempts to do something – and suffers his downfall. And although the heroes are kings, it is not a matter of kings, but of the modern individual, who recognizes himself in these heroes. What has changed since then? Well, first of all, kings, who were wretched loners, have vanished altogether. Now everyone is a wretched loner. But at the same time there is likewise no center that everyone could identify with. Let’s put it this way. The theme of tragedy is apparent: each of us is a detached, lonely individual and, as a lonely individual, is prepared for tragedy. Tragedy always has to do with the lonely, detached individual. So we have the theme, but what don’t we have? There is no space for tragedy. In ancient Greece, the tragedy was performed at religious festivities, and in the seventeenth century it also had a completely defined place – the royal court. An understandable place for art, with which we identify ourselves. Contemporary individuals have the same problems, but with whom can I identify? People wanted to identify with Stalin, with Hitler, but it turned out that they were villains. Then with whom? The problem is projection, the single, unifying figure.

NP: Tragedy is always about the lonely, detached individual – that’s very well put. It follows that today the hero shouldn’t be a single person, but a group. For example, you could show the hero deciding to detach himself and leave the group because of personal traumas. Then you show that this is a irreparable mistake on his part, a mistake that leads to tragedy, following the classical schematic. And he ends up identifying with a movie star.

АМ: Yes, there are media stars, but they are rather comic figures: they make no claims on the sublime, on the role of the leader, although they do have this ambivalence to them. Only fifteen-year-old girls think that an actor is a god or hero, but then they change their minds, too.

ОЕ: A hero who lays down his life in order to entertain – now that’s a drama!

АМ: Yes, heroism exists. Every person, especially in adolescence, dreams of being a hero: this is a structural trait of our society, even more of one than in ancient Greek society. But the problem, I repeat, is that this heroism is not worked through publicly – it is repressed. And it seems to me that tragedy today doesn’t consist in Raskolnikov’s wanting to become Napoleon and erring because he lacks hubris, but, on the contrary, in the fact that a potential genius is forced to become a businessman or a clown. Griboyedov, Woe from Wit.

ОЕ: Guys, everything you’re saying is great, but it’s all about the nineteenth century. But what’s happening now? Artiom, you said something to the effect that all the preconditions for tragedy exist, but for some reason it doesn’t exist. This is what I’d like to get to the bottom of.

NP: I don’t know. Maybe I have different ears, but I clearly heard that tragedy exists in the modern world, because the individual is lonely. He cannot find society, and society is also atomized.

ОЕ: Yes, but there are no examples. Or are there?

АМ: I can give an example: Lars von Trier.

NP: You think his works are tragedies?

АМ: Of course they’re tragedies!

NP: What I don’t like about tragedy is there is no hope in it.

АМ: No, you don’t understand. The hope consists precisely in the fact that the hero dies, but society remains.

NP: That is, it is a kind of sacrifice.

АМ: Unfortunately, yes.

NP: But there are big problems with this.

АS: That’s just it. We’ve touched on the subject of parting with myth, but we’ve forgotten the ritual substratum of tragedy – sacrifice. Again, why are the heroes of tragedy sovereigns, kings? Kings are free, and this freedom includes the capacity to violate the course of things by mistake or through malice, but the contemporary individual is not free. We are overdetermined by a heap of circumstances beyond our control.

АM: I don’t agree: modern man in fact thinks that he is free.

АS: This is false consciousness, an illusion. The sovereign is free to transgress divine law and human law. This is the theme of absolute freedom as willfulness, despotism, which lures the hero toward catastrophe. In the absence of a figure embodying absolute freedom, which is fraught with the collapse of the entire socio-cultural order, we can call anything we like tragedy. A teenager goes out and shoots the first person he happens upon in order to grab his wallet and the five rubles in it. Is this a tragedy? Probably it is, but only in a metaphorical sense.

ОЕ: Am I right to understand that tragedy is possible only when we have a king in the role of the hero? But insofar as kings have gone extinct, tragedy is impossible?

АS: This is one of the conditions. That is why I would suggest differentiating tragedy from its modern modification, drama. Drama also possesses a cathartic effect. It contains a residue of tragedy, but this is the tragedy of an areligious era, the era of the one-dimensional man, an era in which transgression of the law in the Greek sense is unthinkable: transgression has become ordinary crime, and crime has become a matter of everyday life. Films about gangsters are the modern ersatz of tragedy. As in bourgeois drama, in these films there is no metaphysical escape beyond the limits of the continuum, the system of social and cultural prohibitions, nor can there be. There is no central character who rises above all the others. In a certain sense, all heroes are equal. They are all hobbled by convention; they are all up to their eyeballs in hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

ОЕ: Fine, so let’s talk about drama. I’d like to understand the differences more clearly.

АS: The model of contemporary drama is Chekhov. In general, there are not so many models of the theater. The first is the Greek tragedy (and the Aristophanean comedy). Then (I omit the medieval mystery plays and the vulgar theater) comes the baroque model: the Elizabethans, Shakespeare, Calderуn, and the German Trauerspiel. Then the classicist reincarnation of tragedy emerges in the work of Racine and Corneille. The last attempt to whip up the whirlwind of catastrophe around a single central hero – an outstanding personality – was made by the Romantics – Schiller, Byron… In the bourgeois era, this model fades away. Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, among other things, deal with this; it is no accident that the action of these plays takes place in the past, in pivotal eras when the old aristocratic values clash with the new mercantile mode. The hour of the petit bourgeois tragedy, musical comedy, and drama arrives. As I’ve already said, Chekhovian drama has a dispersed, decentered structure in which there are no secondary characters and side plots: someone’s strumming a guitar in a garden is no less important than Uncle Vanya’s excruciating over the fact that could have become (but didn’t become) Schopenhauer or Dostoevsky (Chekhov’s works are filled with metaliterary irony). People simply sit drinking tea, but meanwhile life is passing by in vain. In a certain sense, this is more terrifying than Shakespeare’s rivers of blood and mountains of corpses. Next comes the Brechtian model of the epic theater. Moreover, as Artiom has noted so shrewdly in his article, Brecht challenges Aristotle, but in essence he attempts – in different historical conditions, in the midst of the harshest form of class struggle, when the stakes were maximally high, either/or – to revive Greek tragedy.

ОE: And catharsis.

АS: Yes, there is catharsis in Mother Courage and Galileo. As often happens with artists, concepts are elaborated in one way, but in practice something else altogether happens … And the final model is Beckett. After him, there have been all manner of variations, syntheses, and extremes, but nothing fundamentally new has emerged since. Post-Chekhovian dispersion and the action’s marking time characterize Beckett’s work. One and the same thing invariably happens: the parodic return of the identical, skidding, a vicious circle. Drama about the impossibility of drama: everything has already happened before the first phase is uttered. In short, to revive tragedy in the Greek sense today, one would have to bring back the mysteries and the institution of sacrifice, which Artaud dreamt of doing. But this is impossible, especially after the horrors of World War Two, when, as Brodsky put it, the tragedy was that the chorus died, not the hero.

NP: I don’t understand why one has to follow the outline of ancient Greek tragedy. What, we artists will reach out to the ancient Greeks, and then democracy in our country will catch up? Is that the point?

ОЕ: So you think that there is no point in contemporary artists racking their brains and emotions and souls in order to produce tragedies?

АS: It is worth it. I would put it this way: we should seek out the tragical in contemporary life.

ОE: What do you mean by tragical?

АS: The tragical is what we’ve been discussing now, a certain spirit or specter of tragedy. Tragedy as a form is no longer possible, but the tragical persists as a spectral residue, a suspension.

ОЕ: So the form of tragedy is impossible and we should seek out the tragical, okay. Although Artiom is proposing a different concept to us, but I somehow don’t really see…

АS: No, I understand what Artiom means, and I partly agree with him that there is plenty of tragedy all round and that tragedy persists as a structural potential.

ОE: Can you give examples?

NP: I think that what Artiom is saying that when the hero dies, society is transfigured by his death.

АМ: Well, the hero doesn’t always die. And if he does die, then the memory of him persists – the aspect of the hero as a corporeal, objective being that, having gone through the mishap of self-affirmation, serves the rebirth of social connection: people realize that this connection is based not on identification with the hero, but on identification with one another. Or rather, with nothing.

АS: Hold on: the topic of the sacrifice and the sacrificial crisis has come up again, and we need to talk through these things.

АM: Yes, let me say something about sacrifice. Why is a tragedy a play in which, as a rule, something bad happens? Because the dynamic of sacrifice is operative. When you’ve made a sacrifice in the religious sense, you are purified, liberated from something inside you, and you rise above your own carnal aspects. And it’s the same with society: when it makes a sacrifice, it is liberated from the memory of bad actions of some sort. That is how sacrifice worked within the ancient collective. This is not tragedy; this is ritual. As Renй Girard rightly notes, when the ritual ceases to function, this is a kind of crisis situation. Previously, you would go to church: you would be baptized, prayers would be sung, and you would come out renewed. Now you go to church, but you feel nothing. This same thing happened in ancient Greece as well: a certain crisis of religiosity. And that is when tragedy emerges: on the one hand, it is an attempt to return this feeling amidst new conditions; on the other, it is the experience and description of this crisis. All the great Greek tragedies deal with the inability to make the sacrifice. That is, tragedy is the rejection of sacrifice in the form of sacrifice, insofar as the elements of sacrifice are always part of tragedy: someone is always murdered in a tragedy. And this is the reason that many contemporary authors criticized tragedy and art in general, insofar as art, to the degree that it is tragic, is in fact based on sacrifice. But is sacrifice a good thing? Is it good when you kill someone instead of yourself? This is Georges Bataille’s theme. A man takes a goat, kills it, and then says, Oh, I’ve rid myself of my problems! But this, says Bataille, is comedy, not tragedy: substitutes, stand-ins… It’s some kind of three-ring circus! There is a serious underlying comic reality to any ritual, and to any kind of theater, not only comedy. In this sense, according to Bataille, comedy is more fundamental than tragedy: tragedy can be boiled down to comedy. Well, okay, we can do this. We can even say that it’s a good thing that there is no tragedy in contemporary society: we are not under the illusion that we can rid ourselves of our problems by torturing people. But then what should we do? Go on living with this accumulated burden? How can we free ourselves of it without making a sacrifice?

NP: We can’t.

АM: Apparently, art was the sacrifice of sacrifice. Again, the point of Oedipus Rex is that a person watches the drama and then suddenly says, But that’s me! I can’t escape myself – I’m giving up on these endless attempts to get rid of myself! In some sense, this is recognition of oneself in one’s specific human reality, in one’s objective finitude. I think that the alternative to sacrifice lies here.

ОE: Excuse me, but the goat – tragos – is in fact the ersatz, hence the word tragoidia in Greek. But unlike the ancients, this is not the case for the modern person: he cannot shift his problems onto a goat. Hence the form of our sacrifice is situated somewhere inside tragedy itself.

АM: Yes, but we’ve been saying that this has also come to an end… Well, then, we shouldn’t forget one very important thing. Yes, contemporary humanity is disenchanted and melancholic. However, at the same time, this humanity lives in an absolutely aestheticized reality. Aside from money and egotism, where is it that we live? We live in a world where the individual is glued to the TV screen. Note, moreover, that he is an ordinary individual, not an aesthete. The aesthete is also glued to his computer, the Internet, to art house cinema, and so forth. He constantly lives on images of some kind. Marx had it right: do you think that modernity is the disenchantment and egoistic calculation of the commodity’s price? No, modernity is fetishism, a religious attitude to things: things themselves begin to move, and they perform dramas of some sort for us. In our day and age, the most obvious way this happens is through advertising. That is, in our own way we also live in a society based on mysteries, where art takes on the quality of myth. Popular art is analogous to what myth was for the ancient Greeks. Myths aren’t quite the same thing as religion. Religion is ritual, but in addition to this the ancient Greeks had myths, fairytales that they told one another. How does this differ from popular culture? It doesn’t, because popular culture is mythological. It is a kind of objectivized symbolic product that in fact does not manage to reach the individual in his existential aspect. It appeals to him as a typical individual. Therefore, tragedy, as in ancient Greece, aims to fracture and break this symbolic or imagistic universe. What is my essay about? About the fact that tragedy (and good art in general) performs the function of self-critique. It is a critique of religion and, hence, a critique of art as well. The tragedy, which takes place during the course of a religious feast, is simultaneously a critique of this same religion. Therefore tragedy is possible today, in particular, as a liberation of the individual – in his lonely existential aspect and in his infinite potential – from the stereotypical stances that he takes in myth. In myth, he takes the stance of the hero, the superman. Who is Hollywood’s principal hero? The Terminator: an athlete and superman who beats everyone. Clearly this sort of heroics is a fiction, but it is the phantasm that the contemporary individual lives for. To put it crudely, art of this sort, in the guise of liberation, shackles the individual; it bombards him with shock images, showing him again and again the same story about the defeated dragon. In this situation, tragedy should not show us what heroes we are; instead, through a critique of mimesis, through a critique of mythology, it should reach a meta-level, produce meta-images and a meta-mimesis. By dispelling illusion, tragedy confronts us with the truth, not as something beyond the clouds, but as something significant here and now, which is what happens at the end of Oedipus Rex: the horizon opens up, and you see yourself as this tiny island in the midst of an enormous world. That is the effect of genuine tragedy.

NP: It turns out that tragedy is when a person feels insignificant, when he recognizes his own his pettiness, that he is adrift in an enormous ocean… What I wanted to say is that this effect is achieved when you travel: as soon as you leave home you realize how big the world is. If, of course, you travel in a genuine way, not as a tourist.

ОЕ: What Artiom has said is incredibly important: that at the end of a tragedy, a purification of consciousness must happen, the recognition of one’s real place. That is, tragedy has a specific function: to bring us to the truth, which, however nightmarish, is the truth.

NP: When you get close to death, you also feel this.

ОЕ: Doesn’t a similar recognition happen in our film The Tower?

АМ: The Tower is a wonderful film, but it’s a satire, a comedy. If it were a tragedy, the characters would be dynamic. In your film, on the contrary, they are static, because they are types. What, after all, does tragedy do? It shows us how a person has come to such miserable straits, or how he must see the light. In the course of a tragedy, there is a turning point in the action, where it is transformed into its own opposite. In and of itself, melancholy, which you, the artists of the Chto Delat group, display in your work, has tragic potential. But only on the condition that it is dramatized and taken to its logical limit.

ОЕ: Yes, there has to be а flip-flop, a mistake, a reversal. But if, as we’ve been saying, the classical tragedy no longer exists, there are no heroes, no this and no that, then maybe tragedy has to take a different form?

АM: Well, to be honest, what I personally find lacking in your work is the absence of an affirmative element. This is not a criticism, but…

ОE: But that’s impossible, don’t you see? How is it possible to create a positive hero today, albeit in quotation marks?

АS: The hero doesn’t necessarily have to be positive at all. Take the exemplary tragedies – King Lear, Hamlet, the novels of Dostoevsky, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus is in no way a positive hero; Raskolnikov even less so. Ivan Karamazov? No way, of course! But they are tragic heroes in the strict sense of the word: just look at how the poles between which they are torn are positioned and elaborated by the authors of these works. And because this oscillating motion of the pendulum arises, we are capable of identifying with these heroes, because these poles exist within each of us. The desire to raise oneself above everyone else and, at the same time, the desire to grovel; the desire to murder the father and, at the same time, the impossibility of living without a father figure. This is where we should search for the tragical. The task is to find a pendulum structure that would realistically, basing itself on current conditions, represent this powerful amplitude of contradictions, that would show how all of us are torn between these poles.

АМ: I really like that thought. Moreover, insofar as tragedy is narrative, it is not simply limited to swinging the pendulum, because that is still the realm of myth, the notion that there is a chthonic pole and an Olympian pole. Instead, there is development: the hero demonstrates the rupture inside him and moves into some other state. He suffers death or perishes, and you experience this with him. The entire collective suddenly recognizes its own fragmentation and, hence, openness and the necessity to act. This is the zero point where the poles converge. This zero point can be sad, but it can also be optimistic, in the sense that nothing has yet fully come to pass. The play is not over: we can run onto the stage and try to save those who are doomed…

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