The Tragic Paradox This book, and my Darwin, the Bible, and Tragedy, may be obtained from Amazon.com. For “The Two-way Tussle,” an essay on communication derived from Darwin’s thinking, go to Mossfamilypublications.weebly.com. Your comments are invited: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I would by contraries execute all things,” an “honest old councilor” remarks in The Tempest. Paradox, the conjunction of contraries, may not enable us to execute all things but it does shape serious cultural endeavors. It certainly informs the narratives, images, and rhetorical tactics contrived by skilled dramatists and novelists. Their literary languages depict not only a war between rivals but also simultaneous affirmation and negation voiced by a tragic individual. They reveal the treason, flux, and duplicity brought into play by an unrelenting desire for respect, the convergence of integrity and radical change, of constancy and infidelity. A fanatical drive to fulfill a traditional code of masculine conduct strangely invalidates its own goal. An impulsive response to challenge reaffirms and at the same time deforms an age-old stereotypical identity—the tragic paradox.
Popular fiction, of course, avoids inward contraries. It has always immortalized the monolithic hero—morally impeccable, emotionally coherent, and physically invincible. In contrast, tragic literature takes as its subject, instead, characters whose strengths generate devastating irrationality. “It is as if the souls of men floating on an abyss and in touch with immensity had been set free,” Joseph Conrad writes in Lord Jim, “for any excess of heroism, absurdity, or abomination.”
In Athenian and Shakespearean tragedy, self-righteous male or female aristocrats instigate their own disgrace, shame, and guilt, an unexpected diminishment. They are victimized by a magnificent obsession, a fantasy of unalloyed authority and excellence, a dream of perfect self-sufficiency and inviolable status. They become fixed in incongruity, suspended between glory and humiliation or innocence and brutality. The authors of tragedy revised the concept of nobility to reflect the strange fact that the drive to achieve “grandeur” elicits its own annulment. “Strengths by strengths do fail,” Shakespeare wrote in Coriolanus.
Poets, Plato wrote in the Republic, can devise either elevated speech carrying a single commendable meaning or debased rhetoric carrying multiple meanings that include negations. He rejected the latter mode of speech, as Hegel did, but we find, as Nietzsche did, invalidations as well as affirmations—the transmission of contraries—essential for tragic composition.
Fiction, of course, is not philosophy: I am trying to integrate the disparate arguments offered by several notable theorists with technical procedures fashioned by the Athenian dramatists and recast by Shakespeare and later writers, procedures that embody (rather than explain) the tragic paradox. This study focuses on basic literary mechanisms that project a dilemma envisioned by prominent tragedians in both the ancient and modern worlds.