If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story. —Shakespeare, Hamlet
Tragedy in all ages bears witness to the value of suffering and to its captivating beauty. Hamlet dies, and we are uplifted. Camelot is lost, yet something inside us grows. Why do we find tragedy beautiful and yet our own suffering so senseless?
According to Aristotle in his Poetics (cf. ch.13), tragedy is meant to cause a catharsis, or a purification, of our pity and our fear. Aristotle says that tragedy’s beauty lies in its fitting within an order and following specific rules. By learning how to integrate our passions properly, we too can live a life more harmonious with the world and with others.
Aristotle holds tragedy to be more beautiful than life (cf. Poetics, ch.25), but maybe by perceiving order in a tragedy, we should try to piece together our own lives, to find some kind of order, some kind of greater meaning. While disagreeing with Aristotle that tragedy could be more beautiful than our lives, it is definitely easier to understand.
The greatest tragedies are beautiful because they cause a longing to well up within us: “the story” isn’t enough—for the characters or for us. And while its beauty reveals to us a great depth of truth, it insists that there must be something more, something greater, an order in the mystery. Tragedy is beautiful because it paints us a life-picture that resonates: “Yes, that’s exactly how it is,” we say. But the “that” is not only the tragedy itself, but what the tragedy hints at: meaning beyond the story, beyond chaos. We are sorrowful not because “that’s life”, but because we know deep down that it’s NOT life—it shouldn’t be that way. An injustice has been committed.
So the beauty of tragedy is in finding a certain order and meaning, a blueprint that tries makes sense of the senseless in our own lives. Yet where does the meaning, the purpose, the beauty come from? How can beauty be found in sorrow, joy in suffering?
Tolkien tells us that the music of creation, “runs through all the veins of the world in sorrow and in joy; for if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Ch.1, “Of the Beginning of Days”)
Human life overflows with joy and sorrow—it’s part of who we are. And to deny the sorrow or to try and choke it off is to deny our very selves. For if we wish to experience the greatest joys in life, we must accept the greatest sorrows alongside them. Yet we cannot have the one without the other, for both lead to beauty. This was a choice Sheldon Vanauken saw clearly, long before any tragedy entered his life:
…great joy through love always seemed to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought…, the joy would be worth the pain—if indeed they went together. If there were a choice– and he suspected there was– a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths. (S. Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, p.10)
So where’s the great joy necessary for beauty in tragedy (and in our lives): to complete, counter-balance, and redeem the sorrow? “Pure” tragedy is meaningless, an incomplete sentence.
At this stage in our reflection, we can (and should) apply Tolkien’s concept of myth and fairy stories. The key to all tragedy is found in Christian revelation, in the Christian Story which leads to the cross. The tragedy of tragedies: that when God himself took flesh and entered into history (His-Story), we rejected him and crucified him. The greatest, purest, most eloquent figure ever to take center stage is cut off in mid-sentence. Or is he?
Before the wildly desperate questioning of Job, God knew logic wasn’t enough. His answer to Job was no answer but Himself. The answer to suffering, to the tragedy of human existence, is the cross:
The summit, the archetype of beauty manifests itself in the face of the Son of Man crucified on the Cross of sorrows, Revelation of infinite love of God who, in His mercy for His creatures, restores beauty lost with original sin. “Beauty will save the world,” because this beauty is Christ, the only beauty that defies evil, and triumphs over death. By love, the “most beautiful of the children of men” became “the man of sorrows”, “without beauty, without majesty no looks to attract our eyes” (Is, 53, 2) and so he rendered to man, to each and every man the fullness of His beauty, His dignity and His true grandeur. In Christ, and only in Him, our via crucis is transformed into His in the via lucis and the via pulchritudinis. (The Pontifical Council for Culture, Via Pulchritudinis, Conclusion)
This Story shares its truth with all stories, tragedy included. The Cross, silently, speaks with unspeakable words and expresses God’s love for us better than any other miracle or sermon. We find a beauty that lifts us over and above the deepest ugliness. The Christ-story completes and gives meaning to all stories, whether written or lived. “The Christian joy, the Gloria, … it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. … Legend and History have met and fused.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, Conclusion)
In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken tells of his real-life tragedy, when his perfect marriage is first disrupted by their conversion to Christianity, and then shattered by his wife’s premature death from a grueling liver virus. He doesn’t hide the questioning, doesn’t hide the sorrow. Yet he is able to read between the lines of his personal tragedy, given meaning through Christ, and his story becomes one not of despair, but of redemption: for him and for the reader.
“[In Christ’s] Face that is so disfigured, there appears genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes ‘to the very end’; for this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence.” (J. Ratzinger, 2002 Rimini Address) Tragedy receives beauty from the Passion precisely by receiving hope. Hope in grace and in resurrection. Tragedy is transformed into triumph. Its beauty tells us more of who we are and hints at the Answer beyond this valley of tears.
Aristotle, Aristotle’s Poetics, S.H. Butcher (tr.), Hill and Wang, New York 1961.
Carpenter, H., The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1979 (esp. 42-45).
Ratzinger, J., “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”, Rimini 2002.
The Pontifical Council for Culture, Via Pulchritudinis, 2009.
Tolkien, J.R.R., “On Fairy Stories”, in Tree and Leaf, Harper Collins, 2001.
–––––––, The Silmarillion, Ballantine Books, New York 2002.
Vanauken, S., A Severe Mercy, Hodder and Stoughton, London 2011.
Originally published at: https://www.scribd.com/doc/269137829/In-formarse-Junio-2015-n51
Photo Credit: Phil_Shirley