Letter from the Editor: Tragedy, Masterpieces, Democracy

Christopher Bernard

Christopher Bernard: Tragedy, Masterpieces, Democracy

Not long ago, I saw an unexpectedly powerful movie during a local silent film festival—The Outlaw and His Wife, by the Swedish actor and director Victor Sjöstrom, best known for his role, in his late age, in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Sjöstrom’s film, made almost a century ago, in 1918, is a romantic tragedy set in 18th century Iceland.

A young man is driven to steal to keep his family alive; after being imprisoned, he escapes to another part of the country, falls in love, is discovered and escapes once again, now with his lover, into the mountains, where they live for years, poor but happy, with their child, amid magnificent scenery, the world almost literally at their feet. But they are still unable to escape their past and the ultimate demands, as they have enjoyed the ultimate gifts, of nature. The story, though beautiful, is deeply tragic, and like all great tragedies, both profoundly moving and strangely exhilarating.

The movie is something I would once have called, without embarrassment, a masterpiece. For some reason, I’ve become uncertain about the use of terms like “masterpiece” and “tragedy,” “genius,” “greatness,” even though they strike me as ones I can’t, and don’t wish to, do without—a world without tragedies or masterpieces, genius or greatness, is a world I would not want to have anything to do with, frankly.

Maybe there’s something un-PC about them: they provoke that cosy belief I, and many of us, have in being “nice,” “democratic,” “egalitarian,” the notion that we’re all equal, and fundamentally quite good enough, thank you very much—ideas that the hierarchical notion of a “masterpiece” (to say nothing of “genius” and “greatness”), whose value throws our own frail creations into the shade, and the darker, bleaker idea of “tragedy,” which displays shamelessly the fact we get an intense pleasure from watching the total destruction, often self-destruction, of a human being in a kind of ecstasy of literary schadenfreude, seem to contradict almost painfully.

A democratic soul doesn’t entirely approve of masterpieces or genius, tragedy or greatness. It’s suspicious of them, they smell of the ancien régime, of social hierarchy and inhibition and “class,” of “old Europe” and history and “dead white men” (forgive the phrase’s sexism, racism, and “aliveism”—discrimination against the dead). Democracy is big-hearted, it wants everyone to be “created equal” and “be nice,” every story to have a happy ending, everyone to be positive, let go of the past, and march happily into the future. If you’re successful, it’s largely the result of positive thinking and will power and luck. We want our celebrities to be gifted in ways that don’t pose much threat to our self-esteem, and with nice, big, obvious weaknesses.

It’s hard to argue with that, on the grounds of simple decency. No one decent wants others to suffer, even if just in their vanity; even mediocrity has its rights. A decent human being doesn’t even want the guilty to suffer.

We can learn from the Hellenes, of course: history’s earliest known attempt at creating a civilization based on democratic principles (full of enormous inconsistencies as it was) was the birthplace of tragedy and had no fear of masterpieces—the Greeks sweated to make them; they loved excellence in art, music, literature, sport: the Pantheon and the Olympiad balance one another like the ends of a lance. If only the Greeks had had as much respect for other kinds of greatness: they feared and hated certain kinds of “genius,” gadflies like Socrates or Euripides, and eliminated them through execution or exile when they could.

What Athens, for a brief flowering—and perhaps even more so, republican Rome—did prove was that, by fighting the political temptations of the “aristocracies” of birth, a natural elite (the only one worth having) might, truly, grow. And out of life’s limitations, human hands could create that dark splendor of the mind called tragedy. Aeschylus was the first man to raise a song of despair that gave, against all likelihood, a strangely profound sense of joy the psychologists are still trying to account for—and may they forever fail. Then Sophocles taught the Athenians the bitter sweetness of an honesty that even Socrates didn’t vouchsafe them, and sweetened it just enough so they hardly felt it go down.

Democracy, when mature and self-confident, may learn to embrace the geniuses whose profit-taking is mainly spiritual, learn to admire with a whole heart, forgive nature’s aristocrats, and enjoy a hard truth when it comes in the form of an exhilarating beauty.

Of course, to do that, we first need to have a democracy.

But before we do that, let’s go into the mountains and live for years, poor but happy, amid magnificent scenery, the world at our feet. . . .

— Christopher Bernard

Christopher Bernard is a principal and co-editor of Caveat Lector, and author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins.

Image: Scene from The Outlaw and His Wife.