Anna K. and the Tragic Emotions

December 26, 2012


Leo Tolstoy, in a 1901 painting by Ilya Repin (from Wikipedia)

After seeing the Joe Wright/Tom Stoppard film version of Anna Karenina a few weeks ago, I was reflecting about the way we approach classic tragedies. The film heaps multiple layers of artificiality on Tolstoy’s master work. It places the tale on a stage set and, even when venturing into the outer world, shatters any semblance of reality with devices like obviously fake snow (worse than you get from a spray can) and movements choreographed to resemble high school dance routines. It’s all very clever, but Anna’s ultimate tragedy failed to affect me, and I was reminded of recent stage adaptations of Cyrano and Romeo and Juliet in which the amped-up comedy worked well and the tragedy fizzled.

It seems that we no longer trust tragedy enough to play it straight. We have to skew it to suit our ironic, sophisticated sensibilities—and the result is that the tragedy itself has no impact.

One recent exception was Inis Nua’s highly artificial stage drama Dublin by Lamplight, which provided a surprising jolt of tragic loss after an evening of gags. In an earlier post I reflected about what made that particular stylization work when so many others fail, and my tepid response to Anna Karenina sent me back to similar musings.

While I was meditating about this aesthetic problem—and whether we should even bother staging, filming, or writing tragedies if we don’t believe in their premise—the gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Twenty young children slaughtered, plus six educators, plus the shooter and his mother. The outpouring of grief and outrage was immediate and nationwide, and my thoughts about literary tragedy seemed insipid and irrelevant.

“There are degrees of tragedy, and this is the highest degree,” said local resident Dan Zimmerman (as quoted by the Associated Press). But technically, in the classical sense, Sandy Hook is not a tragedy; it’s something worse. As Jay Heinrichs argues in his blog about language,

Don’t call it a tragedy. ‘Tragedy’ implies an act of the gods, something terribly sad but inevitable. Instead, call it a massacre. A massacre is the most violent kind of crime, and it implies that more than one person was involved.”

Whatever term we use for Sandy Hook and other mass murders, it’s good to know that our campy culture can still respond with deep emotion. But, after the initial shock passed, I came back to pondering why occasional stories tap this feeling while so many leave us unmoved. The easy answer is that the Sandy Hook bloodbath was real, whereas Anna Karenina and Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are merely characters in stories. But this ignores the fact that all disasters except the ones we experience personally come to us as stories. And there are plenty of reality-based narratives that bounce daily off the shell of our indifference: Fatal expressway crash detailed on the evening news, with the reporter standing by the skid marks—yawn. Assassination of courageous reform leader in Wherezatistan, the last great hope for his nation—yeah, what did you expect from those people?

Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal points out that stories have always been central to human cognition, a primary way we give shape and meaning to our world. Yet, in our current culture, what does it take for a painful story to make an impact?

It does seem that size matters—sheer numbers make us pay attention. Any one of those little kids in Sandy Hook would have made an affecting story, but one or two would not have drawn the visceral response we gave to twenty.

Youth and innocence also count for a lot. If the victims are young and blameless—too pure to have the traditional “tragic flaws” or to be held responsible for their fate—we’re much more likely to care. As for a guilty person like Anna K., well, maybe she had it coming, maybe she didn’t, but evil happens to everyone. Classical tragedy no longer creates enough shock to the system. After what the world has been through in the past century, I suppose this is not surprising.

Further, inexplicability helps. If we can rationalize away a dark incident, we forget it. If it’s inconceivable that such an awful thing could happen, then we’re stirred.

A well-known quote from Donald Barthelme goes like this:

“The loss of experience is a major 20th-century theme. One makes love with The Joy of Sex hanging over one’s head, and so on.…Unmediated experience is hard to come by, is probably reserved, in our time, to as yet undiscovered tribes sweltering in the jungles of Bahuvrihi.” [A thoughtful comment that ends in a joke, since bahuvrihi is not a place but a type of compound word.]

I’d argue that wherever human beings have culture, experience is never unmediated. We interpret in terms of the categories we know. But there’s a difference between a 13th-century peasant whose mediators are confined to parents, other family members, neighbors, and the village priest and us modern hyper-connected techies with cultural referents bombarding us via TV, Internet, movies, music, books, magazines, etc. We have too many stories colliding in our heads. We’re also ultra-aware of possible fakery, from the tricks of Photoshop to the lies of politicians to the distortions of hurried or irresponsible journalists. Only a truly real story breaks through the layers of mediation. And to be counted as real it must be BIG, SHOCKING, SCARY.

Which leads to the question of which is scarier: the fact that we need major catastrophes to register such pain, or that our civilization presents us with these events with such reliable frequency.

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