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Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 11:59AM
By "tragedy" I don't mean simply bad things happening, or even bad things happening to good people. I'm thinking of tragedy in the familiar literary sense in which the audience or reader becomes intrigued by a character(s) and his (historically, it's usually a male, but not always) fate. The movement of the story is towards a "catastrophe" -- the moment when the tragic destiny is manifested. The audience or reader is meant to experience a sense of catharsis, of emotional and intellectual relief, and this has, historically, been, I believe, an experience that should have something ennobling about it for the audience or reader; one doesn't feel that one's feelings have simply been manipulated for the sake of the notorious "cheap thrill."

As an example of tragedy in a well-known work of weird fiction, one might suggest Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. I don't believe that the apparitions are hallucinations of the governess. She does indeed see apparitions of the dead. But she is culpably proud; she takes it upon herself to confront the spirits and to save the children, and things go from bad to worse, with the little girl suffering an hysterical breakdown and the little boy dying.

Most weird fiction, I suppose, doesn't aim at tragedy, and I'm not insinuating that it must be dismissed because it doesn't.

On the other hand, do the authors of weird fiction seem to write from a worldview in which the story and characters can never rise to the level of tragedy? The characters in weird fiction are often victims, sufferers. Can their sufferings ever be tragic?

But then, must the sufferings of a character be tragic in order to move us? I'm thinking of Lovecraft's "Colour Out of Space." (1) Can one make a case for the story being a tragedy? Perhaps one can. (2) If one cannot, yet doesn't the reader feel moved by the sufferings of the farm family? The story doesn't, to me, seem like a matter of "cheap thrills"....



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 9 Dec 19 | 12:02PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 01:01PM
Terrific topic!

As usual, I'd like to approach this is somewhat scatter-shot fashion. If something appeals, perhaps we can delved down deeper...

I'm of the opinion that to expose the reader or audience to the sort of catharsis you describe, it's necessary for the audience to significantly attach to a character--and perhaps this must be the central character, or at least a major character.

Further, the attachment must be positive--the character must have admirable qualities, or have qualities that one can easily empathize with. Then, when they meet with their inevitable reversal, and full resolution is subsequently achieved, there can be catharsis.

To this end, calling up from memory, in The Colour Out of Space, the central character, the rude rustic who is described by the POV, is too base to really attach to. I recognize that his deterioration is somewhat like the central character of Flowers for Algernon, I still don't feel that the central character in Colour Out of Space is sufficiently appealing to attach to, so no catharsis--for me, at least.

Diverging a bit, consider Smith's attempt to imbue the sorcerer in The Dark Eidolon, whose name I cannot recall, with sufficient expository to attempt to create perhaps a tragic character, consumed by a desire for revenge, which is his ultimate undoing. Me, I cannot say that I felt any catharsis, but the sense of irony was quite strong and well-developed, in my opinion.

Perhaps he comes closer with the young king in Isle of the Torturers.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. But give a man a boat,
a case of beer, and a few sticks of dynamite..." -- Sawfish

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 01:58PM
Sawfish wrote, "I'm of the opinion that to expose the reader or audience to the sort of catharsis you describe, it's necessary for the audience to significantly attach to a character--and perhaps this must be the central character, or at least a major character.

"Further, the attachment must be positive--the character must have admirable qualities, or have qualities that one can easily empathize with. Then, when they meet with their inevitable reversal, and full resolution is subsequently achieved, there can be catharsis."

This sounds correct... Thinking of Oedipus Rex, I recall that he is understood to be a good king; he wants justice, even if, somehow, itw ere at his own expense... and so on.

But though he is hero, he is certainly victim, too. That word victim is important. In modern usage, it may suggest someone who unluckily "just happened to be there, that's all," when some mentally ill young man decided to go on a shooting spree, or happened to be in a car on the freeway bridge when it collapsed. But its ancient connotation is of something or someone offered to the divine to take away wrath. (The ebbing of this notion is one of the reasons for the popular decline or Christianity in North America and western Europe, I suppose.)



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 9 Dec 19 | 02:30PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 02:26PM
Interleaved, below:

Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Sawfish wrote, "I'm of the opinion that to expose
> the reader or audience to the sort of catharsis
> you describe, it's necessary for the audience to
> significantly attach to a character--and perhaps
> this must be the central character, or at least a
> major character.
>
> "Further, the attachment must be positive--the
> character must have admirable qualities, or have
> qualities that one can easily empathize with.
> Then, when they meet with their inevitable
> reversal, and full resolution is subsequently
> achieved, there can be catharsis."
>
> This sounds correct... Thinking of Oedipus Rex, I
> recall that he is understood to be a good king; he
> wants justice, even if, somehow, itw ere at his
> own expense... and so on.
>
> But though he is hero, he is certainly victim,
> too. That word victim is important. In modern
> usage, it may suggest someone who unluckily "just
> happened to be there, that's all," when some
> mentally ill young man decided to go on a shooting
> spree, or happened to be in a car on the freeway
> bridge when it collapsed. But its ancient
> connotation is of something or someone offered to
> the divine to take away wrath.

I didn't know that and yet on quick examination of my (clouded) memory, this sense of sacrifice seems present as a major facet in Greek tragedy.

Excellent point, Dale.

(The ebbing of
> this notion is one of the reasons for the popular
> decline or Christianity in North America and
> western Europe, I suppose.)

Tremendous observation!

As literature transitioned from a sort of sacrificial victim--one who is to appease divine authority for any mortal offenses--to a victim of blind circumstance (certainly a more modernist/rationalist viewpoint), it seems to track the emergence of secularism in the West.

A related consideration might be whether the erosion of the idea of a sacrificial victim for atonement is a cause, or rather a symptom, of the diminution of traditional Christian ideals.

>
> Now, I'm thinking that weird fantasy typically has
> two types of victims, the hapless folk who "just
> happened to be there, that's all," and the villain
> who got caught in his or her own snare -- e.g. the
> necromancer who called up what he couldn't put
> down, &c. Neither of these types of victims is a
> hero in the usual sense...

Hmmm...

I'm now wondering: would it be possible to have tragedy without a heroic victim?

Nothing is coming to mind. I'm uncertain that I can see any clear instance of such a tragedy in CAS. Would Isildur in Tolkien be a tragic figure, in your view, Dale?

(BTW, I'm sitting here, reading Houellebecq while waiting for replies/responses to various posts I put forth this AM. I am constantly amused!

The 1st person narrator of "Submission" is living/working in contemporary Paris. He's a tenured professor of literature at the University of Paris IV. He is forty-ish and unmarried.

He starts the second chapter with this:

"The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature--it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exits solely to replicate itself, and yet manages to fail more than 95% of the time."

How can anyone not like this? :^) )

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. But give a man a boat,
a case of beer, and a few sticks of dynamite..." -- Sawfish

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 02:36PM
Just picking up from where I left off, before I respond to Sawfish.

I wrote: Now, I'm thinking that weird fantasy typically has two types of victims, the hapless folk who "just happened to be there, that's all," and the villain who got caught in his or her own snare -- e.g. the necromancer who called up what he couldn't put down, &c. Neither of these types of victims is a hero in the usual sense...

...This topic of the victim might be profitable. The thing with Oedipus is that his unknowing patricide and maternal incest mean he must become the victim of the gods. He's not just a guy who accidentally committed a couple of hideously embarrassing blunders. For Sophocles and his audience, and for most readers since, Oedipus becomes, in a sense, holy. He is an ordinary man who, as it turns out, has been set apart by, and for, the gods. He is thus holy. (The association of holiness and goodness is a Jewish and Christian phenomenon, I believe. They are not necessarily always associated elsewhere -- e.g. the ancient Greeks.)

So now I'm wondering if Lovecraft, perhaps without realizing it, was seeking to revive something of that sense of "holiness" in the way his characters may become "set apart" as "victims" of the "gods" Yog-Sothoth, etc.

To the degree that the "gods" in Lovecraft are just powerful aliens, with whom some human may run afoul, the fates of those humans might evoke a transient thrill of horror, e.g. the end of "The Haunter of the Dark." I don't actually find I usually feel such a reaction; the characters have so little reality for me that I hardly care about their demises. My reaction is not "How dreadful! " but, frankly, something more like "Cool!"

But I'm saying that maybe Lovecraft wanted, without quite being ready to say son, to get across some mixture of awe, horror, the sublime, and, yes, [i]the holy[i], such as would be akin to the feeling of the Athenian audience when Oedipus's fate descends at last upon him.

This would mean that Lovecraft wanted an effect that was actually ruled out by his conscious philosophy, I suppose....

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 02:40PM
Sawfish asks, "would it be possible to have tragedy without a heroic victim?"

Ah! That's just it! If we no longer have some sense of the earlier understanding of "victim," must not "tragedy" likewise change its meaning? Is that the reason "tragedy" in ordinary current usage now often suggests something basically inconsequential except to the hapless people immediately involved? Whereas earlier the audience (or reader) of a tragedy could undergo a profound experience?

As for Houellebecq's observation -- happily, it was my experience to have at least two professors -- Brian Bond and Milo Kaufmann -- for whom the study of literature had real stakes. I wrote about them starting on page 40 here:

[efanzines.com]



Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 9 Dec 19 | 02:46PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 02:54PM
Dale:

"To the degree that the "gods" in Lovecraft are just powerful aliens, with whom some human may run afoul, the fates of those humans might evoke a transient thrill of horror, e.g. the end of "The Haunter of the Dark." I don't actually find I usually feel such a reaction; the characters have so little reality for me that I hardly care about their demises."

An interesting thought...

The way you phrased it, you could be describing poorly constructed characters (one dimensional, etc.) or characters well enough constructed, but whose honestly rendered attributes are in no way inspiring to the reader, and hence little or no connection.

This leads me to wonder if for purposes of horror (or tragedy), maybe it's necessary for these characters to be in some way exceptional. I'd bring forth the husband of the apparently narcoleptic young wife in The Charnel God, by Smith. These two characters are mundane--quite normal--and maybe it's because of this that I have a luke-warm feeling about the tale.

But for The Weaver in the Vault, the main character is exceptional in vigor and youthful machismo, and one wonders if this exceptionalism aids in making the story more effective than Charnel God--at least in my estimation.

[ODD ASIDE apropos The Charnel God: I had the feeling that I was reading a covert perversion of the Mary and Joseph story--right from the very first time it read the story. I really liked this aspect, which came at me blindside and weirdly...]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. But give a man a boat,
a case of beer, and a few sticks of dynamite..." -- Sawfish

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 03:46PM
I want to make sure that it doesn't sound like I'm saying the tragic protagonist, like Oedipus, has to be someone developed as a rounded character with whom the reader or audience becomes interested as we become interested in, say, Henry James's governess in The Turn of the Screw. Arthur Machen has good things to say about Oedipus here:


[www.youtube.com]

But mostly Machen isn't thinking of tragedy, I suppose. But when he does, with Oedipus, he would have us observe that we don't "care about" Oedipus as of someone like ourselves. Yet we do identify with him in a way....



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 9 Dec 19 | 03:50PM by Dale Nelson.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: zimriel (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 08:43PM
- Is this post like your other post, that you're defining Weird as Nemesis Fantasy? that Weird has to be tragic? I posted over there that Smith's and Lovecraft's fiction relies on Nemesis, cold logic even if over this world's science.

- As for "Oedipus Tyrannus" by Sophocles: Aristotle pointed to that as a model for how Poetics should work. Aristotle was praising its style. Sophocles drops enough hints throughout, that you know where it is all going to end up, because Oedipus (and, again, offstage) Jocasta had already made their choices before the play even starts.

- The sorceror in "Eidolon" calls himself Namirrha but don't feel bad for not remembering that; Namirrha didn't WANT anyone to remember his real name, when he was yet begging in the streets of Ummaos.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 9 Dec 19 | 09:12PM by zimriel.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: zimriel (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 09:14PM
"If we no longer have some sense of the earlier understanding of "victim," must not "tragedy" likewise change its meaning?"

From the Greek, Tragoedia is the art-form of the Goat. The sacrificial Goat.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Dale Nelson (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 09:15PM
That's an arresting bit of etymology, Zimriel -- thanks.

Re: Tragedy in weird fantasy?
Posted by: Sawfish (IP Logged)
Date: 9 December, 2019 09:53PM
Dale Nelson Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> That's an arresting bit of etymology, Zimriel --
> thanks.


Agreed. Thanks, Zimriel.

Thanks for Namirrah, too.

BTW, it is this sort of knowledge/insight that I find nowhere else that I post. It's why I'm here, basically.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. But give a man a boat,
a case of beer, and a few sticks of dynamite..." -- Sawfish



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