Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reflections: On Tragedy and Comedy

This is the first of a series of parallel writings to complement my "Contemplations in Theology." These "Reflections" will concern issues that aren't really theological, or are only tangentially related, or are unsuited to any particular point in the discussion.
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In my eighth "Contemplation in Theology", I referenced a broad argument from literary theory.

In "Stranger Than Fiction" (a great movie, especially for English majors), one of the characters playing an English professor says tritely: "If it's a tragedy, you die; if it's a comedy, you get hitched."More broadly, tragedy signifies an end; comedy signifies a new beginning.

Dante's Divine Comedy begins and ends with the same tableau: a man alone, wandering in the woods. Through three volumes and 100 cantos, Dante relates the story of his odyssey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He recounts the seven spheres of each, the characters and stories which he finds there, the guides helping him and the angels showing him the path. Yet after a final climactic glimpse of the Presence of God, he returns to the same woods that was his departure point.

If we were to stop at any point in the Comedy, even if it were at the highest level of Heaven or in the midst of glimpsing the Beatific Vision, the odyssey would be incomplete, and the Comedy would be, frankly, tragic. It is only after that glimpse, once that sojourner has gone "There and Back Again," that the entire story dons the mantle of Comedy.

God's experience in the Incarnation was ultimately tragic if viewed from the perspective of His growing ministry and His sudden death. His life can be defined as comedy, broadly construed, if we consider the seeds He planted in his disciples, the rapid growth of the early Church, or (more theologically) the fact that He was resurrected and lives on eternally at the right hand of the Father.

Our lives are tragic is solely taken from the idea that we are mortal, that we will die. The story of civilization is as great a tragedy as ever was writ; for, as Nietzsche writes, by evolution we may reach the pinnacle of human potential, yet one day our sun will dim, the planets melt, and all that will remain is the Twilight of the Gods. There can be no more majestically tragic image that that, the fate of mortal humanity. Yet if man has an immortal soul, then tragedy is transient, and comedy is the fate to which man is called.

Tragedy is essentially defined by ending, by finitude. Comedy is defined by the infinite, the story without end.

Nor is infinite a necessarily progressive idea; Oriental cultures, among others, define infinity not as a straight line without end, but as a circle which doubles back on itself, reinforcing and informing its own past. Memory contains as great a portion of infinity as prophecy; history is as great an adventure as politics; infinity elevates the past, just as much as the future.

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