Tuesday, August 13, 2019


Once, long ago, when I was still a young man, I had the good fortune to study with one of this country's most distinguished literary critics. He taught that farce was the only true expression of tragedy in a world abandoned by the gods--and by the gods he meant any absolute and ultimate truth by which would could explain, even justify, our human predicament to ourselves. We have grown, he argued, even beyond the Enlightenment's belief in reason (and therefore, too, science) as a substitute for God, and the fulcrum of that ultimate truth; and have reached a place where absurdity--I should capitalize that word, Absurdity--is the only force that reigns supreme.

I have myself come to believe otherwise, that we humans can make sense of impermanence, even chaos, by an embrace of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths instead of the search for a final authority in the form of a god; that we can find within ourselves a path to the end of suffering without the need for some ultimate power to provide it for us.

Still, looking around at the culture we have created for ourselves in the contemporary world, particularly, perhaps, in contemporary America, I conclude that my old teacher's theories can provide some insight into our predicament. Chaos seems to have run amok, to be in control everywhere we look. We have, some would argue, a clown for president--a man unmoored from the restraints that temper civilized society. His actions are characterized by spontaneous reaction ("We'll see what happens") and he drives a clown car crowded with others like himself and ready, at any moment, to explode.

The hero of conventional literary tragedy is a leader in authority over others, who through some "fatal flaw"--often raw ambition--brings chaos into a previously stable world. The action of the tragic plot moves toward the removal of that troublesome scourge, that "something rotten in the state of Denmark," and the restoration of peace and order in the realm. All of which is possible, demanded even, in the larger framework of an ultimate order that the gods provide, a world whose stability is guaranteed by their presence.

We are, in this view, living in the grip of farce--of, unfortunately, the nightmarish rather than the funny variety of Absurdity. Useless to apply the usual standards of reasonable expectation to what we are experiencing. It defies reason. I'm just hoping that this current circus act will come to a peaceful end before the clown car explodes.

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