Monday, February 26, 2018

The awakening

In a classical sense, a comedy is half tragedy. Comedies and tragedies have the same starting-point but different end-points. In tragedy there's one turning-point while comedies have two turning-points.

In tragedy, life starts out good, followed by a downturn. And the situation remains worse. It never rebounds. In absolute tragedy (a la George Steiner) the denouement is so bad that the protagonist laments that he was ever born. 

In comedy, there's a second turning-point where, after having gone downhill, there's an upturn. The situation at the end is better than where it began. 

One way to consider the problem of evil is whether the world is a comedy or tragedy. Is it possible for an inside observer to tell which is which? 

Up to a pivotal moment, comedies and tragedies are indistinguishable. If you're inside that story, can you tell what kind of story you find yourself within? 

The Book of Job is a comedy, but up until the end, it reads like a tragedy. The Joseph cycle (Gen 37-50) is a comedy, but early on, Joseph's series of ordeals feel like he's trapped in a  tragedy. 

The wilderness wandering (Exodus-Deuteronomy) is a tragedy for the Exodus-generation, delivered from Egypt, but condemned to die in the desert–but it's a comedy for the next generation, that enters the Promised Land.

The Book of Revelation is a comedy, yet up until the final stage, it could be a tragedy. Progress followed by repeated setbacks. A zigzag plot. 

If the Gospels ended on Good Friday, they'd be tragedies. It's Easter that makes them comedies. That's the turnaround. 

Is Ecclesiastes a comedy or tragedy? Hard to classify. The narrator finds the world bewildering. From his sublunary perspective, existence could either be comedic or tragic. He doesn't have enough evidence to say for sure. That's part of the book's enduring fascination. It retains that off-center viewpoint. There's an element of unresolved suspense. Empirically speaking, life could turn out either way. 

Sometimes, when we watch a movie, we can't tell ahead of time if the plot is tragic or comedic. To take a comparison:

For much of its running time, "L.A. Confidential" seems episodic–one sensational event after another, with no apparent connection...The plot, based on the novel by James Ellroy, can only be described as labyrinthine. For long periods, we're not even sure that it is a plot, and one of the film's pleasures is the way director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland put all the pieces into place before we fully realize they're pieces. How could these people and events possibly be related? We don't much mind, so long as the pieces themselves are so intriguing...And when all of the threads are pulled together at the end, you really have to marvel at the way there was a plot after all, and it all makes sense, and it was all right there waiting for someone to discover it.

Many movies are slipshod. They have plot holes and loose-ends. That makes viewers cynical. Having seen so many poorly crafted movies, if the plot seems to be pointless, it probably is. 

You've seen movies where, when you start, it could go either way. But there comes a point where it's too late for the movie to improve. You were hoping for the best, but you say to yourself, this isn't going to get any better, is it? The movie's a dud. 

The Happening by M. Night Shyamalan has a very thin plot. Barely a plot. An idea rather than a plot. Not a rich enough idea to turn into a good story. It has some promising moments, yet never catches fire. 

But sometimes the viewer is pleasantly surprised. In Past Tense (1994), the plot is initially and deliberately confounding. That's because the viewer sees events through the delirious eyes of a comatose patient. Only the viewer doesn't know that right away. It's only as the patient struggles to regain consciousness that the plot finally falls into place. As the protagonist becomes lucid, the plot becomes lucid. Because the story is shown through the eyes of one character, the viewer is captive to his blinkered outlook.  

Commenting on another film, Ebert says:

The movie is hypnotic; we're drawn along as if one thing leads to another–but nothing leads anywhere…"Mulholland Drive" is all dream. There is nothing that is intended to be a waking moment. Like real dreams, it does not explain, does not complete its sequences, lingers over what it finds fascinating, dismisses unpromising plotlines.

A comedy is like a dream, where you escape by waking up–while a tragedy is like a nightmare, where you never wake up. 

The lives of the saints are comedies while the lives of the damned are tragedies. At a cosmic level, reality is ultimately comedic, but that's not something we can discern within this life, because what happens after makes the difference. 

When we consider the problem of evil, personal experience can't see over the hill. That's the conundrum of Ecclesiastes. Within life, as you go through life, you can't see if existence is comedic or tragic. This side of the grave, the evidence appears to be consistent with either outcome. Only death or revelation settles that question. 

If you wait to die to find out, that may be too late. That's where revelation functions as a tiebreaker. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting take. I agree pretty much with your entire premise. My wife was diagnosed with Parkinson's last May. As the disease progresses and symptoms get ever worsening it becomes a real struggle to keep reminding oneself that the war is already won though this skirmish may not reflect that at all. This is where faith in the one who holds the universe in his hand becomes vital. Daily. A real appreciation of Job becomes a daily rite of passage.
    Thanks for the reminder.