Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Tragic and the Comic

As a youngster I thought it odd that the most famous Italian poetic work would be called The Divine Comedy. How could the divine be comic? I thought of it as serious. Later I came to understand that “comedy” is one of those words that had one meaning in ancient Greek and Roman times, another in the medieval centuries, and then regained its old classical meaning once more in modern times. You might say that one of the two parts of the word came to dominate the meaning in succession. The two roots are komos, which meant a revel or a carousal and oidos, which meant a singer or a poet. The two were still visible in Greek, komoidia. A revel, an amusing spectacle, carries the “funny” connotation, poetry and song carry the “serious.” In the Middle Ages the word had the latter meaning and was used for poems and stories. The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that its earliest meaning in English was “narrative poem.” Dante’s intention was to signal a serious story but with a happy ending.

Amusingly the word tragedy also contains the root oidos, but the front part of it comes from tragos, meaning a goat. A tragedy is a “goatsong.” The root of this seems to be dramas that depicted satyrs, thus creatures who are half-goat half man. These meanings, again taken from my trusty online source, are in debate—but they please me; they suggest a deeper truth. The unhappy ending associated with this form of drama seems to suggest that the goat-half had its way. To unpack this line of thought a little more, let me return to my youthful wonder. How, indeed, could the divine be comic?

It might help to ponder another word in this context, the thing that we call fate. Its meaning is the course of a person’s life; the word is derived from “decreed” or “spoken” or “ordained,” as by a higher power—thus that which is determined. The word fatal does not come from some ancient tag for death; rather it comes from the fact that death is our unavoidable destination, our destiny. But is it? It is certainly the destination of the body, of the goat. Its meaning includes the idea of “unavoidable necessity.” That we have to live a life in bodies—that is fate. But we also have another part; and that part is free. How we live that necessary life—that’s up to us. If we identify with the immortal spirit, it suggests that, at death, we escape this realm of necessity and…well, enter the divine. The tragic results when we identify with the limited but necessary; the comic when we identify with the free and limitless. People have a fate; I’ve never encountered any reference to the “fate of angels.” Why? They don’t follow a necessary course.

The very core of our nature belongs to the high, the superior, the ultimately free. That nature, caught in this lower dimension, looking around, but still aware of itself, beholding the shenanigans, will simply have to laugh at what it sees. But its ability to rise above, to laugh at all this in light moments, testifies to a high gift which, in more serious moments expresses itself in poetry.

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