Upwards Tragedy 
Sunday, July 30, 2006, 05:30 PM
I’m currently working, with Catherine Silverstone, on an introduction to a collection of essays about tragedy. Generally we think of tragedy as a movement down, a fall or loss. But is there such a thing as “upwards tragedy”? Can rising, in other words, be tragic?

In Arthur C Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End the benevolent alien ‘overlords’ who arrive to nurture and protect earth know that humanity is about to take an evolutionary step forwards, losing their individuality but gaining transcendence. It is a source of sorrow to the overlords that they cannot follow the same path, but to the old style humans their children’s transition from human to posthuman is itself reason for grief rather than rejoicing.

Rather similarly, the narrator of Tennyson’s In Memoriam anticipates his projected elevation to Heaven with poignant regret because he and his friend Hallam will lose their individuality and thus their relationship. ‘Farewell! We lose ourselves in light.’

In another vision, this time of Hell, Dante’s Inferno, we can perhaps locate tragedy in the shift, or ‘rise’, from a Classical to a Christian paradigm. The engaging adulteress Francesca elicits sympathy from both the reader and the narrator ‘Dante’. Although we can identify her sad story as in some way tragic perhaps the real tragedy here is in knowing that we are not allowed to sympathise with her and that to do so is in a sense heretical because she has been damned by God. There is something inhuman though about such perfection. We shrink from it or, in the case of ‘Dante’, faint.

Going back to Childhood’s End it is curious that the novel’s twist reveals that the ‘overlords’ resemble devils. This fact is ascribed to a kind of reverse morphic resonance. Humanity in a sense foretold its own ‘destruction’. It is curious that the novel’s transcendence, which is really closer to Heaven than Hell, should be anticipated by the collective consciousness of humanity with such horror.

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