The Language of Tragedy
How historically self-conscious should a reading of Greek tragedy be? Our understanding of tragedy is shaped by our literary past, says Mr Goldhill, Sophocles illuminates with irony, dialogue and the chorus, he says. Yes, says Hume, our terror and pain of Verres is soothed and mollified in proportion to the eloquence with which Cicero describes it. The paradox of tragedy. He says: sorrow is converted into beauty by the loveliness of the language and the more passionate the anguish, the more intense the pleasure of the loveliness. The language of tragedy invokes anguish and simultaneously consoles the anguish and the consolation causes a pleasure greater than a life without tragedy. Of course the ghost has an opinion too: the aesthetic response causes us to weep with beauty: the language of tragedy is verse, but the language of joy is tears. Tragedy and beauty moves us. Elation is a parasite feeding on tragedy, interjects Dadlez. Nietzsche opens his eyes: to celebrate the joy of becoming beyond terror and pity, the joy in destruction, he says.
Tragedy as catharsis: pity and terror by proxy, the rehearsal of grief. We suffer and we learn. We will know the future when it comes, says Aeschylus. Oh please, says Plato, catharsis and art separate the soul from the body and remove us from reality and take us to the imaginary realm. This realm may be truer than reality. Cave, remember? Tragedy is unavoidable. Mr Wilde lights another cigarette and drapes himself back over his chair, knocking his elegant walking stick to the floor: it often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us, he says and strokes the hair from his delicate forehead and takes another drag from the cigarette: they give us an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that. Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthrals us, and Oscar smiles smugly with his poetic lips. Yeats snorts and says: being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy. It didn't take tragedy or war to derail a man. It took only a memory, says Ali Shaw quietly from the corner. The ghost says nothing.
The tiny story
I want to leave. I want to leave the light and walk out into the night rain. Get washed clean by the storm and become a blank book to be written anew. I want to be struck by lightning and bathe in the immense light and write a poem about it. I want to walk on the wet black road and transform the reflective white and yellow lines into an artwork that disappears when you look at it. I want to grow small, so tiny that the aggregate in the asphalt becomes boulders and I want to explore this dark and hostile and wet landscape with Alice. Not Alice from the fairground, little Alice from the story. Invisible to the cars that pass over us, rushing and growling like passing worlds. Spaceships coming from myriads of light-years away, still so many to go, containing enough people to seed an empty planet. And I want to walk this wet, shadowy maze, holding Alice's hand and look up at the large lights flashing overhead. Red lights. White lights. Yellow. We would marvel and wonder what they are because we would've forgotten everything we knew. And Alice and I will find things. Things embedded in the tar, lost mementoes. Enormous coins, and flattened bottle tops. Bolts, strong and bulky and hexagonal, the size of houses, their heads level with the macadam, the bodies invisible. A gold ring that we can walk through without touching the sides. [If it wasn't filled with tar, that is.] Fragments of paper. Huge letters on them, handwritten or typed. Bits of pictures, too large to imagine what they depicted.
Sleep in the moonlight and write in the dark. Flee from the light that shows everything. Tiny graffiti spelling inexplicable words. And we would find a thin, flat puddle of black oil between the boulders and we will set it alight. And we wouldn't know what it will look like from above. This minuscule little fire in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night. To us the flames will be fierce and high and orange as we hold our tiny, tiny little hands out to its heat. And we would leave the fire behind us, still burning, and we would sing a song as we walk, holding hands again. And the song would be about a spotted dog making huge, slow leaps on the moon, with puffs of grey dust curling leisurely at its heels after every landing. The song would have a slow stride piano beat and the second verse would switch to a jazz rhythm and the words would be a dada poem about Elissa burning as the fleet of Aeneas leaves the harbour of Carthage. The strong and wild wind blowing sea spray on Aeneas' face where he stands on the bow, the salt burning his eyes. Alice will be surprised when I sing the third verse. The third verse will be very different. A slow canto with Japanese music structures woven into it. About a forest of Pride of India trees. Pink and lavender flowers and small dark green leaves and bone branches. Like driftwood. Nothing grows underneath them, just the soft, dappled shadows on the white sand. As far as you can see. And when I've finished the song, Alice will look at me and say "I didn't know anybody knew about them." And I will say "I was there." And Alice's eyes will grow dark with envy. But I will shake my head and say "It wasn't as nice as it sounds. It was very desolate." And Alice will squeeze my hand and we would walk around a boulder, the fresh and pungent creosote smell around us. And there would be these tiny wrecked and rusted machines. I mean tiny even compared to us. The kind of machines that cut tunnels underneath cities. Chunky compact things with teeth arranged in circles like Remora eel teeth. A strip of fabric tied to one, now frayed and faded. How could you possibly explain this? That there's things even smaller than us. What would use these tiny tunnels, and where are they? We will try to look into these tunnels but our eyes will be too big. Too big to see the eleventh dimension curled up in a corner between the seventh and eighth. And the little tunnels are too dark. We will be very quiet when we walk on. Trying to think about this, but you can't, it's too… colossal. We will find little stairs going down into a culvert. It will be vast and dark and dry. And we will sleep there next to each other and the sun will come up and we won't know, it will still be dark down there.
Hemingway and the twelve caesars
Hemingway is lying with his hand on the Springfield and his back to second mountain Makhonjwa and first bacterium, looking across the thorn trees and imagining he can see Enlembe mountain blue below the blue sky. He cannot, it's too far. Even if it's the highest mountain in Swaziland and Swaziland is only four kilometres away. He can hear the grey hornbill calling, calling, calling in the old mountain behind him though, but he's not paying attention to it. He's digesting his bracket mushrooms and: plants eavesdrop on each other, says Julius, nature! survival of the fittest. We are no different. I promised the goddamn pirates I'll find them and crucify them! Ha-ha, you did too, says Claudius from behind a milkwood bush and peels another yellow fruit and pops it in his mouth. Tastes like dates, he says, better be careful with the mushrooms Hem, and he falls over foaming at the mouth. My God! thinks Hemingway. Don't mind him, says Caligula with the flamingo blood on his white dress, it's just another fit. Fucking limping pansy. Fitzgerald is a fucking pansy too, thinks Hemingway, boxes like a girl. Hah! Did he hide behind a curtain while you were assassinated? One thousand demons to obey the king! says Caligula and scurries around the back of Claudius' milkwood, making strange noises, and falls over unconscious on top of Claudius. You too my child? groans Julius clutching his chest and pretends to fall over dead. Everybody falls about laughing. Except Domitian and Hemingway. Hemingway can't make a noise, he's hunting for God's sake. Domitian is just petulant. Myths and horrors written everywhere, says Nero, Rome was so beautiful and orange, it smelled like laurel and pepper and pears. I haven't got a lyre here but I can sing that poem about the sack of Troy again. No!! shouts everyone. (Except Hemingway, of course.) Bullshit, says Galba, it smelt like burnt feathers. Yeah, Caligula's flamingo feathers, says Vespasian, Julius' pirates must've committed suicide, heh? Everyone cackles again. Hemingway has fallen asleep and continues to listen to them in the dream he's dreaming: Fat lot of good it did him, says Otho, rather sing an aria from Attila, Nero. No!! shouts everybody again. I like how you were going to kill yourself and then decided to sleep one more night. With your dagger underneath your pillow. Good, clean kill when you woke up the next morning, says Hemingway to Otho. Vittellius says nothing. Whiskey and boxing delusions. Bait and ambush. Invent a tax! hoots Vespasian and a grey lourie answers in the thorn thicket and Domitian scowls. Febris help us, he mutters. The flock of louries flies up out of the trees with a flourish of ghost grey feathers. Rather do something from the Mask of Orpheus, Nero, says Vespasian. Everyone still conscious except Nero: No!! Vespasian: Wait. Nero: Harrison Birtwistle! Are you kidding me? You want me to sing Orpheus? No, Nero, do Orpheus the mime. Another round of laughter. Nero flips them the bird. At least women don't have to give birth waiting for N to finish, says Titus. No, darling, says Tiberius, that's too bad. Do Orpheus in the Underworld, Nero. Everybody: Farce!! Yeah! Fuck you all, says Nero and pouts. Ooh! says Tiberius. My daughter was a slut, says Augustus, I thought of executing her in the end. Did you? Says Vittelius. Almost, says Augustus. Should've whipped her, says Tiberius. Shut up T, says Titus. I loved Queen Berenice, he says. Hemingway enters another REM cycle and mumbles: at night you remember the day, a vague memory of the sun. A line of painted gossip stones, emperors should eat their children before they are eaten, ask Cronus. And then you expelled all Berenice's people from Jerusalem, Titus. You twit.
Meanwhile, back at the camp under the hunter green trees: Telesilla, Hemingway's wife: mass planting definitely. Armies of Namaqualand daisies or dahlias or chamomile, so passive aggressive and poetic. Filling whole landscapes, so large that you can wage wars in them and search for days to find the enemy. And when you do, the battles are beautiful.
Leona, Hemingway's girlfriend: rain daisies and moonlight southernwood garden looking like feathers, with syringa, the poisonous Persian lilac, and sweet sweet fragrance like infatuation and delirium. A garden based on pure-land principles, a garden inhabited by many flowers and fruits, and adorned with wish-granting trees where rare birds come to rest in the six realms of existence. And Telesilla picks up the pitcher and pushes Leona's head back against the edge of the canvas bath and pours water over her hair and Leona watches the thorn branch shadows draw on the tent roof and Telesilla washes Leona's body while the wet hair hangs down outside the bath and a firefinch clicks like a fishing reel in the trees. Landscape archaeology and the emerald necklace park system is the new aesthetic, she says and Leona sighs. Green roof design is the new geomorphology. Perhaps an arboretum is simply an analysis of a landscape, she says, are you going to divorce Hem? Yes, says Telesilla, after the safari. Are you going to marry him? Perhaps, says Leona and sighs again, why not? He's taken my fucking rifle again without asking. Do you know how to deal with hunters? says Telesilla. Yes, says Leona and sighs for the third time.
Bwana! Bwana! Bwana! Mxo whispers and Hemingway's eyes snap open and fall onto the dead zebra Thabang tied to the umbrella thorn. On the black mane of the lion lifting his head from it. Hemingway fires and shouts: Faulkner you phony shit! He misses and the lion charges and Mxo fires Tellesilla's Mannlicher and a red brushstroke appears across the lion's shoulder and flank while Hemingway cycles the Springfield's bolt to chamber another round and fires again: Dos Passos you second rate writer snob bastard! Chekhov you amateur! but the lion has veered midstride and vanished into the brush. Ha-ha, good one, Hem, says Caligula, who has since come to. Fucking idiot, says Galba. What's with the Swahili? says Thabang. Trying to sound literary, says Mxo and they titter in their arms. Where is Polonius? says Claudius. Everybody: What?! It's the other Claudius, says Caligula after prodding Claudius Caesar, still unconscious beneath him. Dead. How fares our cousin Hem? says King Claudius. Hemingway turns on his back with the rifle cradled across his chest and looks back at the pale greenstone of life's ground zero and says: the mountains I've been to are dwarfed by the present garbled account. Let's wait, he'll be back. That lion isn't coming back, says Mxo and passes the canteen with the whiskey to Hemingway. Hemingway closes his eyes and Tiberius says: I liked Rhodos. What? says Vespasian, there was enough vice in that small place? You should take Suetonius with a grain of salt. He hated me, says Tiberius. I have wasted a day, says Titus, I could've built another amphitheatre. But no, I got poisoned by my own brother and he glares at Domitian. At least your own wife didn't kill you, says Domitian. I died a spectacular and sudden death, says Julius. You cried on Alexander's grave like a girl, says Otho. He was fourteen and he already ruled the world, for Hercules' sake! shouts Julius. Fifteen, says Titus. Vespasian says nothing. My wife is going to divorce me, says Hemingway and a vervet monkey chitters in the lavender tree above. Churchill said that we're fighting for the arts, says Nero, but the senate didn't know that. I like gladiators, says Caligula. I like bullfights, says Hemingway, let's go to Spain. I like Gertrude, says Claudius. Yes! We'll ask her and Pablo to come too, says Hemingway, and Alice. Pluto help us, says Augustus. And Joyce! he can hold his drink like a real man.
writes [occasionally it is published somewhere (New Contrast Literary Journal
, Gone Lawn
, Museum Life
, Medusa's Laugh Press
, Prick of the Spindle
, The Undertow Review
)], illustrates things [biology mostly], does web design from time to time & so on. She wrote and illustrated a few children's books and is currently writing something which may or may not turn out to be a short, odd novel. She's convinced that reality isn't fit for human consumption and should be avoided at all cost. She believes in orange and pigeons, has an imaginary dog and lives in Pretoria, South Africa.
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