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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Perfection and Tragedy: Got Catharsis?

Life's Tragedy

by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) 

It may be misery not to sing at all,
And to go silent through the brimming day;
It may be misery never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way.

To sing the perfect song,
And by a half-tone lost the key,
There the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy.

To have come near to the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lies aside its vanity,
And gives, for thy trusting worship, truth. 

This, this indeed is to be accursed,
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by what we have,
But by what kept us from that perfect thing.

Ah, the tragedies we suffer in life! We all face times when calamities slam into our relatively calm lives and test our abilities to deal with harsh reality. Confronted with sudden and unexpected tragic events, we call upon our own will power and the help of others to recover emotional stability. Such disastrous events are commonly viewed as unspeakable losses and grossly unfair disasters.

Still, a human being must learn to "embrace" the unsavory facts of life. When I use the word embrace in the context of dealing with tragedy, I don't mean a person should "lovingly or longingly cling to" morose sadness. I mean, instead, the person must "positively affirm and grasp" the spiritual meanings of such events. 

Perhaps a history of the term tragedy will amplify my meaning. This etymology is deeply rooted in ancient theater.   

In its classical, Greek, dramatic form, tragedy is drama based on human suffering that invokes in its audience an accompanying catharsis (purification and cleansing of emotion) of pleasure in the viewing. This catharsis serves to relieve tension and anxiety while refreshing the spirit.

 (Martin Banham, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. 1998)

While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilization.

In fact, researchers led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University have tentatively found what positive results affect people's spirits when they are subjected to tragedy. In the journal Communication Research, they present evidence that watching tragedy inspires self-reflection, which allows us to re-focus on the people in our lives we might otherwise take for granted. The melancholy emotions these tales arouse ultimately provoke pleasant feelings of gratitude.

“Psychological research suggests that close relationships make people happy and fulfilled,” they write. “Tragedies appear to be an excellent means to reinforcing pro-social values that make these relationships steady and meaningful, as they celebrate enduring love, friendship and compassion even in ultimate agony and suffering.”

Granted, the research deals with watching tragic films, not experiencing real-life tragic events; however, I believe the pro-social values of "celebration of enduring love, friendship, and compassion" is also a product of surviving a tragic, disastrous event.

To quote the research:

"Depending on your interpretation, this is a somewhat different framework than Aristotle’s famous notion of catharsis. This research suggests tragedy’s impact comes not so much from the purging of emotions, but rather from the art form’s ability to unlock feelings that might otherwise go unacknowledged. (On the other hand, if you equate “purging” with bringing repressed emotions into consciousness, the theories are quite compatible.)

“'Why does it take watching a tragedy to feel gratitude for the people and relationships that make our lives worthwhile?' the researchers ask. The most likely answer, they suggest, lies in a basic psychological principle: Negative emotions inspire us to think more seriously about our lives."

(Tom Jacobs, "Sadness Breeds Gratitude: The Value of Tragedy, Pacific Standard, March 15 2012)

I believe that with family and social support, wise people who employ faith not only cope with adversity, but actually find meaning and purpose through it. The person stuck by tragedies must choice whether to become overwhelmed by them or learn from them -- in having such a choice, there is prospective power. Even major setbacks can be temporary, not permanent, hardships.

An important lesson learned from tragedy: 
It is not a question of whether you will encounter difficulties in your life; 
it’s really a question of how you confront them.

 Paul Laurence Dunbar

African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. Born in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, he was the son of ex-slaves and classmate to Orville Wright of aviation fame.

At an early age, Dunbar was inspired to poetry by his widowed mother, Matilda. The family was poor, and she worked as a washerwomen to up bring her children, but even then she always praised art work and she used to inspire her children in reading and writing.

Matilda used to recite poems and stories that she had heard when young and thus she always kept the fire going in poetry and art and this in turn inspired little Dunbar from the age of 6.

Since Dunbar was the only African –American in his school, he was often humiliated for his race. However, he rose to great heights at the high school level itself by becoming the editor of the school paper and president of the school’s literary society.

By 1889, two years before he graduated, he had already published poems in the Dayton Herald and worked as editor of the short-lived Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for blacks published by classmate Orville Wright, who later gained fame with brother Wilbur Wright as inventors of the airplane.

Dunbar decided to publish a book of poems: Oak and Ivy in 1892. Though his book was received well locally, Dunbar still had to work as an elevator operator to help pay off his debt to his publisher. He sold his book for a dollar to people who rode the elevator.

As more people came in contact with his work, however, his reputation spread. In 1893, he was invited to recite at the World's Fair, where he met Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist who rose from slavery to political and literary prominence in America. Douglass called Dunbar "the most promising young colored man in America."

Dunbar's second book that propelled him to national fame. William Dean Howells, a novelist and widely respected literary critic who edited Harper's Weekly, praised Dunbar's book in one of his weekly columns and launched Dunbar's name into the most respected literary circles across the country.

A New York publishing firm, Dodd Mead and Co., combined Dunbar's first two books and published them as Lyrics of a Lowly Life. The book included an introduction written by Howells. In 1897, Dunbar traveled to England to recite his works on the London literary circuit. His national fame had spilled across the Atlantic.

After returning from England, Dunbar married Alice Ruth Moore, a young writer, teacher and proponent of racial and gender equality who had a master's degree from Cornell University. Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  He found the work tiresome, however, and it is believed the library's dust contributed to his worsening case of tuberculosis. He worked there for only a year.

At the end of 1898, his health degenerating still further, Dunbar left the Library of Congress and commenced another reading tour. He published another verse collection, Lyrics of the Hearthside. In the spring of 1899, however, his health lapsed sufficiently to threaten his life. Ill with pneumonia, the already tubercular Dunbar was advised to rest in the mountains. He therefore moved to the Catskills in New York State, but he continued to write while recovering from his ailments.  

In 1902, Dunbar and his wife separated. Depression stemming from the end of his marriage and declining health drove him to a dependence on alcohol, which further damaged his health. He continued to write, however.

The next year, following a nervous breakdown and another bout of pneumonia, Dunbar managed to assemble another verse collection, Lyrics of Love and Laughter, and another short story collection, In Old Plantation Days. With Lyrics of Love and Laughter he confirmed his reputation as America's premier black poet.

He ultimately produced 12 books of poetry, four books of short stories, a play and five novels. His work appeared in Harper's Weekly, the Sunday Evening Post, the Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other magazines and journals. He traveled to Colorado and visited his half-brother in Chicago before returning to his mother in Dayton in 1904. He died there on Feb. 9, 1906, at the young age of 33.

The Poem "Life's Tragedy"

"It may be misery not to sing at all,
And to go silent through the brimming day;
It may be misery never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way."

In this stanza, Dunbar's speaker conveys that it may be misery not being able to express ones thoughts and desires freely, just as it may be miserable "never to be loved." Yet how personally "tragic" would these things be?

After all, how can one who doesn't love or sing know any measure of sorrow in things they have never experienced? The opening of the poem certainly echoes the old question of "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?" Yet the speaker confirms that a "deeper grief" than these infirmities exists in life.

"To sing the perfect song,
And by a half-tone lost the key,
There the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy."

In the second stanza, the speaker confirms that a purist who values perfection while singing finds considerable"sorrow and grief" in something as simple as dropping a simple "half-tone off key." The allusion to a song, a frivolous pleasure, symbolizes that perceived tragedy in life starts with a person's judgment of small, even natural, mistakes or accidents.

Here, as Dunbar employs his speaker to talk of "the pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy," he sarcastically capitalizes the lyrical faux pas. Dunbar uses the proper noun to emphasize the folly of the singer believing he had committed a blotch interpreted as the worst misery that befalls a human.

"To have come near to the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lies aside its vanity,
And gives, for thy trusting worship, truth."

In this stanza, the familiar concept of "perfect love" between humans comes to the table of judgment. With romance in mind, everyone seems to dedicate themselves to a Utopian fantasy of love and to feel obligated to find one immaculate soul mate to provide them unblemished reciprocal ardor. Any lover who is deemed to fall short of this ultimate "trusting worship" is likely conceived to be faulty and "untruthful."

Whether it be the love of the "hot passion of untempered youth" or the mature love "which lies aside its vanity," the focus of the infatuated would be better shifted from perfection to the limited, inexact rewards offered in reality.

The change starts with acknowledging humanness and accepting the best and worst of who we all are. And, any self improvement is a choice, not a mandate. Some things about people will never change and other traits may be altered by life experiences. But, who can judge alteration in another? Isn't the real "truth" of love is that we, the players of the game, are "perfectly imperfect"? To speculate the nearness of a lost encounter with a fantastic concept, be it missing that love by an inch or by a mile, is creating unneeded tragedy.

"This, this indeed is to be accursed,
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by what we have,
But by what kept us from that perfect thing."

Dunbar's speaker finally delineates the effects of tragedy upon survivors. The "joy" left to be experienced after losing fanciful wishes and unattainable goals to tragedies depends upon a person's concept of needs and wants. Some allow tragedy to become permanent grief because they believe hard times have completely "ruined" them -- in truth, they have been predictably overwhelmed in their wanting quests for the perfect life. Others, wise from their tragic encounters, become even happier to "have" what they have still left. All goodness in their lives becomes satisfaction and acceptance of imperfection. Falling, failing, crying, losing -- all of these things do, indeed, lead to catharsis and to gracious self acceptance.

So, we should sing and love and dance and play because the inherent insufficiency of our intended actions is unimportant. Our being grows with both the joy and the tragedy of our simple participation. The drama that results from involvement allows us to cleanse our emotions and to carry on.  

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