< >


 

 

YURI BOREV

AESTHETICS

AESTHETICS: THE AXIOLOGY OF UNIVERSAL HUMAN VALUES
Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Aesthetic Diversity of Life and Art

THE TRAGIC

Tragedy: an Irreplaceable Loss and a Declaration of Immortality

Man is mortal; consequently, the meaning of life, death and immortality are questions which cannot but profoundly concern him and to which he has always given a great deal of thought. The history of mankind abounds in tragic events. In its philosophical interpretation of life, art has a natural leaning towards the tragic. In other words, both the individual, society and art are repeatedly faced with the problem of the tragic.
The 20th century has witnessed major social cataclysms: revolutions, wars, crises and drastic changes which have frequently resulted in complications and tension. Therefore, for our contemporaries, the theoretical analysis of the problem of the tragic is in a sense self-analysis and a way of understanding life. The other side of the condition of the world is the domain of the aesthetic category of the comic. The genius of Charlie Chaplin has found both a comic and a tragic expression. A blend of the two probably gives the best idea of the spirit of our epoch. It is no accident that the works of art which deserve to represent our age to posterity are either comic or tragic. Suffice it to recollect the works of Remain Rolland, Mikhail Sholokhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sergei Eisenstein, Pablo Picasso, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, or Gustav Mahler.
The aesthetic structure of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 can be described by the formula "suffering – death – grief – joy", which is a typical one for tragic art.
The transition from grief to joy is one of the great secrets of the tragic. In his treatise Of Tragedy David Hume pointed out that the tragic emotion has an element of grief, joy, horror and pleasure. To explain the nature of this phenomenon, one should go back to the historical sources of the tragic in art.
The ancient peoples whose economy rested on agriculture created legends about the gods who died and then rose from the dead; Dionysus in Greece, Osiris in Egypt, Adonis in Phoenicia, Attis in Asia Minor, and Marduk in Babylon. During the religious festivals in their honour, the grief caused by their death was succeeded by the joy of their resurrection. These legends arose from observations of a seed which "dies" when buried in the earth and "rises" in the form of a shoot.1 As social contradictions grew more acute, the naturalistic basis of such myths became more involved acquiring a clearly social character: the death and resurrection of the god was linked up to the hope for deliverance from suffering after death and for eternal life (the legends about Christ).
The inevitability of the tragic in the realm of events was expressed in the transition from death to resurrection, and in the realm of emotions – from grief to joy. The tragic emotion – a blend of sorrow and supreme joy – is present in the art of very different peoples. Cases in point are the tragic pageants of the Eskimos, the ancient Korean tale Sim Chen, and the Bantu legend The Seven Heroes and Seven Birds. Ancient Indian aesthetics conveyed this regularity through the notion of samsara, which means the rotation of life and death, reincarnation of the dead into other living beings depending on the sort of life the person had led. The idea of the transmigration of the soul was connected in ancient Indians with the idea of aesthetic improvement, a rise to the more beautiful. The Veda, one of the earliest Indian literary works, asserted the beauty of life after death and the joy of entering the other world. The ancient Mexicans were also convinced that there is life after death, but believed that the fate of the deceased depended not on his morals while still alive but on the manner in which he died.
From the earliest times, man refused to accept the idea of non-being: pondering on death, he always arrived at the idea of immortality; the realm of non-being was the fate of evil, and its departure there was accompanied by laughter. A paradox: death became the domain of satire, not tragedy. Satire proved the mortality of the living and even victorious evil, while tragedy asserted immortality and revealed the beauty and goodness of man which triumphed even if the hero was dead. Tragedy is a mournful song about an irreplaceable loss and a joyous hymn to the immortality of man. The essence of the tragic is shown when sorrow is supplanted by joy, and death by immortality.
In ancient legends, which lie at the sources of the tragic in art, the idea of immortality finds expression in the belief that there is life after death and that the dead hero will rise again. This doctrine has a profound philosophical and aesthetic meaning: immortality does exist on Earth. Man continues to live in the fruit of his work and in the memory and deeds of his people. That is the idea behind the myths about resurrection. A tragic work of art portrays those features of the personality which live on in mankind.

The Universal Philosophical Aspects of the Tragic

Man leaves life forever. Death is the transformation of the living into the non-living. However, the dead continue to live through the living: culture preserves all that has passed, it is mankind's non-genetic memory. Each man is a whole Universe. Heinrich Heine said that each tombstone conceals the history of a whole world which cannot disappear without leaving a trace.
Treating the death of a unique individual as an irreparable destruction of a whole world, tragedy at the same time asserts the stability and infinity of the universe despite the departure from it of a finite being. In this being itself, tragedy finds grains of immortality which link the individual with the universe, the finite with the infinite. Tragedy is a philosophical art which poses and solves metaphysical problems of life, tries to grasp its meaning, and analyses global problems.
Hegel maintained that in a tragedy, death means not merely annihilation but also perpetuation in a modified form of that which is doomed to extinction in a certain form. He contrasted a person weighed down by the instinct of self-preservation to a person who is free from "slave psychology" and is capable of sacrificing his life for a worthy cause. The ability to grasp the idea of infinite evolution was for Hegel an important characteristic of human consciousness. Two extreme positions have been evolved by world art when treating tragic situations: existentialist and Buddhist.
Existentialism regards death as the central problem of philosophy and art. Asserting the independent value of the individual, existentialists end up with a paradox: death of the individual ceases to be a social problem. If the individual is alienated from the rest of the people, what do they care about his death? Face to face with the universe, utterly alone, the individual is horror-stricken at the thought that existence is necessarily finite. Despite all his independent value, he turns out to be an absurd figure whose life is devoid of meaning or value.
Buddhism maintains that after death man becomes another being. While existentialism puts a sign of equality between life and death (life and death are equally absurd), the ideology of Buddhism puts a sign of equality between death and life (dying, the man goes on living; therefore his death does not really change anything). In both cases, the tragic is sublated. The death of the individual is perceived as a tragic event only if man whose independent value is beyond a doubt lives for people and if their interests are the meaning of his life. In that case, on the one hand, there is the uniqueness and value of the individual, but on the other, the dying hero continues to live through the life of his people. His death is therefore perceived as an irreplaceable loss of a unique personality (hence the grief), but at the same time the idea emerges of man's immortality attained in the life of mankind (hence the joy).
The sources of the tragic are certain social contradictions, e.g. the confrontation of the historically inevitable and the temporary impossibility of its realisation. Inadequate knowledge or ignorance are often a source of great tragedies. The tragic has to do with the universal problems of existence and seeks to find a way out for mankind. It deals not merely with individual misfortunes caused by accident but with global disasters and fundamental imperfections of existence which affect the fate of the individual.

The Tragic in Art

Each epoch makes a contribution to the tragic in art, and each concentrates on the aspects which appealed to it most. The tragic hero possesses something which goes beyond the boundaries of individual existence, he is endowed with power, a certain demoniacal force, he is the carrier of a principle. In ancient tragedy, heroes often had the gift of prescience. Prophesies, predictions, dreams and premonitions coming from gods and oracles were a natural element of the tragedy. The Greeks managed to make their tragedies entertaining even in spite of the fact that both the characters and the spectators were either informed of the will of the gods, or the chorus foretold the course of events. Besides, Greek tragedies were usually based on myths which the Greeks knew very well indeed. Greek tragedy thrilled not so much by an unexpected turn of events as by the logic of these events. The message of the whole lay not in the unavoidable and fateful denouement but in the hero's actions. What was happening was important, but how it was happening was more important still. The motive forces of the plot and the results of the hero's actions were laid bare.
In Ancient Greek tragedy, the hero acted within the boundaries of the inevitable. He was powerless to prevent that which was imminent, but he acted all the same, and thus the plot was unfolded. It was not fate which carried the hero to the finale; his tragic destiny was his own doing. Take Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus-Rex. Of his own free will and as a result of a conscious decision, he discovered the causes of the misfortunes which had befallen Thebes. But this "investigation" turned against the "chief investigator": Oedipus himself had brought the disaster about by killing his father and marrying his mother. However, even having almost arrived at the horrible truth, Oedipus did not terminate his investigation but brought it to a conclusion. He was free in his actions even if he realised that his death was inevitable. Oedipus is not a doomed person but a hero who acts independently and is guided by the will of the gods and that which has to be.
Greek tragedy is heroic. Aeschlylus's Prometheus performed a heroic feat giving man fire, and was punished for it. The chorus sings glorifying the heroic in Prometheus:

Your heart is brave, you never will
Give in to grave misfortunes
.

The purpose of Ancient Greek tragedy is catharsis (purgation of the spectator).
In the Middle Ages, tragedy was regarded not as heroism but as martyrdom. It revealed the presence of the supernatural, its purpose was to comfort. Unlike Prometheus, the tragedy of Christ is not that of a hero but that of a martyr. Mediaeval Christian tragedy emphasised suffering. Its central characters are martyrs. It is the tragedy not of purification but of consolation: the idea of catharsis is alien to it. The legend about Tristram and Isolde ends, characteristically, by an appeal to all who have been unhappy in their passion: be consoled for unfaithfulness and injustice, in your disappointments and misfortunes, in all suffering brought o.ri by love. The logic of mediaeval tragedy of consolation says: be consoled, for others have suffered more and were tormented more cruelly even though they deserved it even less than you do. That is the will of god. The tragedy promised: later, in the next world... Consolation in this world (you are not the only one to suffer) is enhanced by the promise of peace in afterlife (there, you will not suffer but will be given your due).
While in Ancient Greek tragedy extraordinary things happen as a matter of course, in mediaeval tragedy a place of importance belongs to the supernatural and the miraculous.
On the border between the Middle Ages and Renaissance rises the the majestic figure of Dante. His interpretation of the tragic is both overshadowed by mediaeval ideas and marked by the light of hope brought by the new era. The mediaeval motive of martyrdom is still strong: Francesca and Paolo are doomed to eternal torture for their illicit love, which shook the moral foundations of their age and the whole existing order of things by trespassing laws both of Earth and the Heavens. But missing in The Divine Comedy is the second cornerstone of the aesthetic system of mediaeval tragedy: the miraculous and the supernatural. It has rather the intrinsic ordinariness of the supernatural and the real quality of unreality (the topography of Hell and the hellish vortex whirling the lovers are real enough) typical of the tragedy of classical antiquity. It is this return to antiquity adapted to an entirely different historical situation that makes Dante one of the first to express the ideas of the Renaissance.
Dante is much more openly compassionate towards Francesca and Paolo than the unknown author of Tristram and Isolde towards his heroes. The latter's sympathy is not really whole-hearted, he is sometimes disapproving or feels the need to justify his sympathy by supernatural reasons (the lovers have unwittingly drunk the love philter). Dante's compassion is devoid of hesitation and comes straight from the poet's heart, although he accepts the fact that the lovers deserve to suffer. The lines

While to me thus one spirit was replying,
The other wept so, that for pitying dread
Faintness came over me as I were dying;
I fell, as falls the body of one dead

show clearly enough that Francesca and Paolo are martyrs, not heroes, and that Dante finds their martyrdom extremely moving.
Mediaeval man explained the world through the divine. Renaissance man sought to explain it and its tragedies through the world itself. In philosophy, the classical expression of this tendency was Spinoza's thesis treating nature as causa sui. Art has reflected this idea even earlier. The world, including the domain of human relations, passions and tragedies, does not require a supernatural explanation; its foundation is neither fate or foreknowledge nor enchantment or witchcraft. To show the world as it really is, to explain everything by the intrinsic qualities of things, to derive everything from its own material nature – that was the spirit of the new realism which found the most complete expression in Shakespeare's tragedies.
The characters of Romeo and Juliet completely account for the circumstances of their lives. Their actions spring from their inner selves. The fateful words, "His name is Romeo, and a Montague, The only son of your great enemy ", do nothing to change Juliet's love. She is not bound by any external reglamentations. The sole measure and motive of her actions is her personality and her love for Romeo.
Renaissance art revealed the social essence of the tragic conflict. Describing the world, tragedy proclaimed man as a free agent and asserted his free will. It would seem that the source of Hamlet's tragedy lies in the things which have happened to him. But Laertes has gone through similar ordeals. Why then is he not perceived as a tragic hero? Laertes is passive, while Hamlet consciously confronts the hostile circumstances. He chooses to oppose a "sea of troubles". The famous monologue is about this choice:

To be, or not to be – that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them – To die – to sleep–
No more....

George Bernard Shaw said once, jokingly, that intelligent people adjust to the world while fools try to adjust the world to themselves; therefore, it is the fools who change the world and create history. In fact, this is a paradoxical way of formulating Hegel's idea of the tragic flaw. A sensible man is guided by common sense and the accepted prejudices of his time. The tragic hero is motivated by the need to fulfil himself no matter what. He is an independent individual who is free to choose the course and object of his actions. And it is his character and his actions that lead him to his ruin. The tragic climax is predetermined by the personality of the hero. External circumstances can only come into conflict with his character traits and lay them bare, but the reason for his actions lies within him. Consequently, he is the cause of his own death.
According to Hegel, everything is the result of the hero's tragic flaw. Chernyshevsky commented, and with good reason, that it is unnatural and rather cruel to regard the dead as the guilty party, and that the blame for the hero's death rests with unfavourable social circumstances which should be altered. However, Hegel's idea has a sound side to it: the tragic hero is an active party, he opposes the circumstances and acts in an attempt to resolve the most complicated problems of existence.
Hegel said that tragedy has a capacity for analysing the condition of the world. In Hamlet, for example, we read: "the time is out of joint"; "Denmark's a prison." – "Then is the world one". – "A goodly one, in which, there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst". There is deep meaning in the idea of the deluge. There are times when history overflows its banks and takes a long time to resume its normal course and flow, now unhurriedly, now rapidly, into the future. Happy is the poet who, living in a tempestuous age, manages to reveal the essence of his time in his writing: he touches history itself, his work necessarily reflects at least some of the major aspects of mankind's historical progress. In such epochs, art becomes the mirror of history. Modern tragedy has continued the Shakespearean tradition of going right to the heart of contemporary events and tackling global problems.
In the Ancient Greek tragedy, the inevitable was realised through the hero's free action. The Middle Ages supplanted the inevitable by the arbitrary rule of Providence. The Renaissance rebelled against both, the inevitable and the arbitrary, asserting emancipation of the individual, and that was bound to lead to the latter's arbitrariness. The Renaissance failed to develop the potential of society through the individual and not despite the individual, and the potential of the individual – for the benefit of society and not to its detriment. But the icy wind of bourgeois individualism nipped the great hopes of Renaissance humanists for a harmoniously developed man. The geniuses like Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare had a premonition of this tragedy.
The Renaissance produced the tragedy of the unrestricted individual. The only law guiding the actions of a Renaissance man was the first and last commandment of the Abbey of Thelema: do what thou will (Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel). But, having shaken off the fetters of mediaeval religious ethics, the personality frequently lost morals, conscience and honour. The advancing age of individualism exhibited a readiness to supplant the Rabelaisian proposition by the one put forward by Hobbes, the war of all against all. Hamlet and Othello are free and unrestricted in their actions, but Jago and Claudius – the powers of evil – are equally free.
The humanists hoped that, having done away with the rigorous laws of Middle Ages, man would not put his newly acquired freedom to evil use, but their hopes were in vain. The Utopia of the strong individual turned into the total regimentation of this individual. In 17th-century France, this was manifested in politics (the absolutist state), in science and philosophy (Descartes' Rules for the Direction of the Mind), and in art (classicism). The tragedy of the Utopian absolute freedom was replaced by the tragedy of the personality which is shaped by absolute norms. The universal principle of man's duty to the state puts a restraint on his behaviour; the restrictions clash with man's free will, passions, desires and strivings. That is the central conflict in the tragedies of Corneille and Racine.
In romantic art (Heinrich Heine, Friedrich Schiller, Lord Byron, Frederick Chopin) the world is perceived through the mood of the individual. Disappointment in the outcome of the bourgeois revolution and doubts as to the possibility of social progress produced Weltschmerz. Romanticism accepted the fact that life may have a diabolical, not divine origin and be the bearer of evil. Byron's dramas (e.g. Cain) claimed that evil and the struggle against it are inevitable and eternal. The embodiment of this universal evil was Lucifer. Cain could not accept any restriction imposed on the freedom and power of human spirit; the meaning of his life is rebellion, active opposition to eternal evil, a desire to change his position in the world by force. Evil is all-powerful, and even the hero's death cannot put an end to it. But this rebellion is not useless for romantic consciousness: at least it can prevent evil from establishing complete domination over the world; it is an oasis of life in the desert where evil reigns supreme.
Critical realism has revealed the tragic conflict between the individual and society. One of the greatest 19th-century tragedies is Pushkin's Boris Godunov. Boris intends to use his power for the good of the people, but to take it, he has to kill an innocent child, Prince Dimitry. A wall of estrangement and later hatred rises between Boris and the people. Pushkin shows that one cannot fight for the people without the people. Active and forceful, Boris in many ways resembles Shakespeare's characters. But there is also a difference. Shakespeare puts the individual in the centre of things, while for Pushkin the destiny of the individual is part of the destiny of the people and for the first time his actions are related to the good of the people. This approach was produced by the new epoch. The people as a whole were made the protagonist of the tragedy and the supreme judge of the hero's actions.
The same is true of Moussorgsky's music. His operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina gave a perfect musical expression to Pushkin's idea that the destiny of the individual was indivisible from the destiny of his people. For the first time in the history of opera, the people were portrayed as a single whole united by their struggle against slavery, violence and despotism. An in-depth portrait of the people sets off the tragedy of conscience of Tsar Boris. Despite the best intentions, he remains alienated from the people and is secretly afraid of them, for he realises that he is blamed for their suffering and misfortunes. Moussorgsky succeeded in finding specifically musical means for conveying the tragic quality of life: dramatic contrasts, clear leitmotives, mournful intonations, somber tonality and dark timbre of the orchestration (e.g. bassoons in the lower register in Boris's monologue "My soul mourns...").
The theme of tragic love was developed by Tchaikovsky in his symphonies Francesca da Rimini and Romeo and Juliet. The philosophical aspect was brilliantly developed by Beethoven in the theme of doom in his Symphony No. 5. It was taken up by Tchaikovsky in Symphonies Nos. 4, 6 and especially 5. In Francesca da Rimini, the doom ruins happiness; the music expresses growing despair. The motive of despair is present also in Symphony No. 4, but there the hero finds support in the eternal life of his people. Symphony No. 6 shows the awakening of the hero's moral and spiritual power. Intently tragic, it expresses the piercing sadness of dying. These symphonies describe, in musical language, the conflict between human desires and the obstacles they encounter, between life and death.
Critical realism of the 19th century (Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol et al.) has made an essentially non-tragic character the protagonist of the tragedy. In life, tragedy became a common occurrence, and its hero-an alienated, private and fractional (according to Hegel) individual. As a result, tragedy as a genre disappeared from art, but as an element, it has penetrated all artistic kinds and genres, expressing the desperate conflict between man and society.
The tragic can cease to be an attribute of the life of society only when society is humanised and brought into harmony with the individual. The desire of man to overcome the discord in life and recover the lost meaning of life-this is the concept of the tragic and the idea behind this theme as developed by critical realism of the 20th century (Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Leonhard Frank, Heinrich Boll, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, George Gershwin, et al.).
Tragic art reveals the social meaning of man's life showing that his immortality is realised through the immortality of his people. A major theme of tragedy is man and history. Making an abstract of Friedrich Theodor Fischer's Aesthetik oder Wissenschaft der Schonen, Karl Marx noted that the true theme of tragedy is revolution. A revolutionary conflict must become the centre Of modern tragedy. Tragic heroes are motivated not by personal whims but by the historical process which raises them on its crest. Soviet tragedies The Doom of the Squadron by Alexander Korneichuk, The Rout by Alexander Fadeyev and An Optimistic Tragedy by Vsevolod Vishnevsky, as well as the painting Death of the Commissar by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin showed the revolution not as a background but as the essence of the epoch; the tragic there is the utmost expression of the heroic. The hero is not merely active, he is a fighter. By his struggle and death he helps make the world a better place. His personal responsibility for his free actions, which is behind Hegel's concept of the tragic flaw, is treated by, for instance, Mikhail Sholokhov, as historical responsibility.
The theme of responsibility of the individual before history found a profound interpretation in Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don. The gigantic scope of events and acceleration of social progress involve every man into this process making him its conscious or involuntary participant. The hero is therefore responsible for choosing his way in life, solving his problems and understanding the meaning of life. Accidents are inevitable, but it is not an accident that tests the tragic hero but history and its laws. Sholokhov's hero is controversial and changeable; sometimes insignificant, at times he is ennobled by suffering and terrible ordeal. But at the same time he is a strong person, and that is why his fate is a tragic one: a fragile birch bends and survives a storm, while an oak which refuses to give in to the elements is uprooted.
In music, the new type of tragic symphony was developed by Dmitry Shostakovich. While in Tchaikovsky's symphonies the doom comes upon the hero from the outside in the form of a powerful, inhuman and hostile force, in Shostakovich's work this sort of conflict occurs only once, when the composer describes the advent of evil which disrupts the normal flow of human life (the theme of intrusion in the first part of Symphony No. 7). In Symphony No. 5, whose theme is the development of personality, the evil is shown as the other side of humaneness. The finale resolves the tragic intensity of the first parts.
In Symphony No. 14, Shostakovich is concerned with the eternal problems of love, life and death. Both the music and the verse are deeply philosophical and tragic. Shown against the image of death, life emerges in all its beauty.

The Essence of the Tragic

Tragedy is a stern word filled with hopelessness. It leaves a shadow of death, its icy breath is immediately perceptible. But similar to the dawn whose light and shadow make objects more expressive, the idea of death makes man acutely conscious of life's beauty, poignancy, joy and complexity. When death is near, the hues of life are all the more bright, its aesthetic wealth, sensuous charm and grandeur of the ordinariness are all the greater, and truth, falsehood, good, evil and the very meaning of human existence are all the more striking.
Tragedy is always optimistic: in it, even death serves life. The tragic, then, shows (1) death or acute suffering of the individual; (2) the inability for the people to replace the loss; (3) the immortal socially valuable features of the Individual and their continuation in the life of mankind; (4) global metaphysical problems of existence and the social meaning of human life; (5) the ability of the tragic hero to act freely in the circumstances; (6) the philosophically interpreted condition of the world; (7) the contradictions which cannot be resolved at a given stage of historical development; (8) expressed in the form of art, the tragic purifies people.
Great art has always welcomed progress, and in its progress it hurried life. Its desire is to attain the ideal as soon as possible. What Hegel called the tragic flaw is in fact an amazing ability not to conform to the imperfect world but to proceed from the ideal of life as it should be. The conflict with the world is fraught with deadly consequences for the individual: the clouds gather, and in the end death strikes like lightning. But it is the individual to conform, who refuses to conform, who makes the world a better place and opens new vistas for humanity by his suffering and death.
The kernel problem of tragic art is expanding the scope of man's action, a break through the historically established boundaries which have become too narrow for the more advanced individuals fired by a desire to attain new ideals. The tragic hero blazes the trail towards the future overstepping the existing limitations; he is always ahead of his time and is therefore destined to carry the heaviest load.
Tragedy presents a concept of life which reveals its social meaning. The essence and purpose of human existence is not to be found either in total egoism or total altruism. The individual should develop not at the expense of society but for the good of society and humanity as a whole. On the other hand, society should progress fighting for man's interests and not despite man and at his expense. This is the highest aesthetic ideal, the way to find a humane solution of the problems of man and mankind, and the most general conclusion attained by world tragic art.

1 Recent research has shown that non-agricultural peoples were also aware of the rotation of life and death in nature since they witnessed the change the seasons: autumn and winter – the death of nature; spring and summer – its resurrection.

next