Tragedy and pathos

by Carl Dyke

By accident the sports page got this right. They described as tragedy the catastrophic injury and euthanasia of Eight Belles, the filly who came in second at the Kentucky Derby this year.

(Actually, it’s entirely possible to purify a definition of tragedy where animals don’t qualify no matter what. Nowadays our community with the other critters of nature is a welcome theme, so I’ll just go ahead and include her in.)

Eight Belles suffered compound fractures to the ankles of both front legs and collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line. There are a couple of amazing things about this. Thoroughbreds are bizarrely inbred speed specialists with incredibly fragile lower legs, but breaking both ankles at once is unusual even so. It’s likely that she broke one, then kept running and broke the other one while compensating for and aggravating the first one. Most critters would stop running after the first injury, and it could well be that her original injury was treatable. So here’s the tragedy part.

It was her own courage and fundamental nobility of spirit that did her in.

Nowadays it has become customary to say something is ‘tragic’ as a way of saying ‘especially sad’. There is a word for that, but it’s not tragic. It’s ‘pathetic’. For something to be tragic, in the classic sense, the bad thing that happens has to be traceable to some active expression of a higher virtue of the critter it happens to. Tragedy does not happen to ordinary critters, only to extraordinary ones. It’s an active, ironic yet enlightening kind of hurt. You can’t just be sitting there and have a meteorite fall on your head and get ennobled by that. You’re just a poor sad schlug there.

Strictly speaking, the only potentially tragic figures in the 9/11 attack were the terrorists on the planes and the rescue workers who lost their lives or health trying to help. They actively chose their fate. Everyone else just had bad stuff happen to them. Very sad. Pathetic, in fact.

In these days when survival is the new excellence this can be hard to get a brain around. As I pointed out in the post on giving offense, everyone wants to claim nobility, for good historical reasons but still kind of missing the point. Everyone could in principle be special, but just being unique won’t get you there. So describing as ‘tragedy’ the little indignities of a life we live as victims is a peculiarly ‘modern’ sort of compliment we pay ourselves. There’s nothing noble about being pathetic, so it offends our vanity; but it really just refers to having bad stuff happen to you that you couldn’t control, which is quite a common refrain. Call me old-fashioned, but I think we should know ourselves better.

Sorry, you can’t be both a victim and noble. Take your pick.

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