What Tragedy Teaches Us
During the course of Classical Foundations of Literature, I developed a respect for the ideals behind the class title. In order to acquire this thriving respect as well as understand it, I had to go through my own metamorphosis. Does this sound somewhat familiar? At first I didn’t realize the implications of the class title and I was skeptical whether this would be a worthwhile class for me to take. I didn’t have any idea what to expect until the first lecture, that’s when everything began to change, in pure Ovidian spirit. During the first class, I realized that I was in for an interesting semester. Dr. Sexson effortlessly captured my attention, and the first lecture laid the foundation for the entire class. As the semester progressed my learning did as well, I entered the cocoon stage of my metamorphosis and put my blinders on.
I now look back on that first class as if it was a cornerstone, the very key to the structural rigidity of our learning. “The past always possesses the present,” a sentiment that stuck with me and was essentially burned into each and every student’s mind. When I think of the past possessing the present, I like to interpret it in literal terms as they apply to our lives and not the literary terms we have learned so much about. This is a really interesting concept, when you strip the quote down to its single elements. The past, by my definition, is anything that just happened with everything before that included. So every word you read, slips into the past, basically. In most cases there would be no such thing as the present without the past having come just before it. The present solely depends on the past, if you decide to pour a glass of milk, you better be sure you put a glass on the counter in the past.
The past teaches you what to do and how to act in the present, without that prior obtained knowledge you have nothing. If you don’t have a past, you might have something called amnesia, though even in a case as extreme as that the past is still affecting the present. In contrast, my past was affected by the present while learning about the foundations. Once the connections were made, it became clear that everything I remembered about trivial things, like movies, is plain wrong. I almost felt like the writers and directors were pulling the wool over my eyes in a sense. Now I know that these people were simply using the past to affect the masses in the present, and doing so effectively and covertly.
So how does the concept of the past possessing the present relate to tragedy, while staying within the overall theme of transformation? The real question here is, when is my transformation complete? If I had to pick one word to sum up the entire process and the moral behind it, the word would be: Change. In order for the present to become the past, something has to change, namely time. Publius Ovidius Naso revolved his greatest literary effort around the concept of Change. In his metamorphosis, we encounter various examples of change ranging from serious to comical. Nonetheless, all of the examples include at least some form of tragedy.
Tragedy is well rooted in change, when one encounters tragedy they often see change; likewise, when something changes, that change could be considered tragic to some. As for most cases in Ovid, the change was somewhat tragic, often only to the person involved. Otherwise ‘normal’ gods and goddesses enact strategic changes over people, making them see clearly their error and facilitate the lesson learning process. In a way, Ovid teaches us to learn from our mistakes, but more importantly, to recognize our actions as mistakes before we act. Ovid effectively allows us to avoid tragedy all together, if we play by the rules. In order to arrive at the right choice we must remember our past as if it was the present, because we know that in doing so we recognize the past’s effect on our lives.
We all know that David Malouf’s book, An Imaginary Life, is based on Ovid’s book of metamorphosis. Within the book, the text is broken down into 5 different parts. Each part is especially important, as they reflect an example of how our past does posses our present, and furthermore it explains how people interoperate different fears and anxieties. The novel follows the exile of Ovid and the various supposed happenings all representing something different to Malouf. The final part of the book, leaves Ovid at the end of a stretch of tough times, internal bantering, and a series of successes and failures.
Most importantly Ovid has no more dreams, and he is ‘realized’. At this point, he is at the end, the point teetering on the brink of death and rebirth. In this realized state, the death of his dreams and desires is apparent. So what? What is the importance behind this? How about we ask Wallace Stevens? Dr. Sexson subtly presented a challenge at the end of a recent class, though it seemed no one was looking for that challenge. That challenge came looking for me. Dr. Sexson orated a quote, “death is the mother of beauty.” It made me think, I liked it, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. Why is death the mother of beauty? That was the question; along with explaining and understanding the reason Wallace had said it. A task that Dr. Sexson pointed out would take us nearly 20 years, if memory serves.
“Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams And our desires.” This is the entire line, found in Wallace Steven’s poem “Sunday Morning.” This is what sparked me to realize yet another example of how modern literature is reflective of the past, further exemplifying how the past possesses the present. The meaning of the line can be decided several different ways, depending on what perspective you choose. If you look at the line in the context of the poem itself, Wallace is describing a woman who is trying to understand the meaning of her life, and how it applies to her as a person, but also to her soul. This line suggests that due to religious belief, the realization of dreams and desires is only achieved in death; or heaven in the Christian extension of the meaning.
In a different context, I would like to draw comparison between Ovid and the woman. In the final stage of An Imaginary Life, when Ovid is devoid of dreams and seemingly at the end of his life, he realized that death was the final answer. The woman in this poem is basically thinking the same way as Ovid, as Wallace plays with the interaction of reality and how the power of your mind influences your reality. Perhaps Wallace is paying tribute to the original Ovidian tales, though connecting the two is a stretch. Instead, I believe that it is more probable that while Malouf was writing An Imaginary Life, he simply observed what Wallace and other authors before him have, that literature tends to build intricate foundations. What he observed in Wallace’s poetry (if he did indeed read any of it) is that death is one of the greatest forms of tragedy in existence. That being said, it is also one of the most beautiful; because without it none of our dreams and desires would be realized. This explains the bittersweet mentality about a natural death, from something like old age.
This leads me to believe that without death and tragedy, there would be no way for the past to possess the present and the system would become flawed. The beauty that Wallace speaks of is the realized dreams and desires being accentuated by a death, or in other his words, death birthing beauty. If the system became flawed and the past no longer dictated the present, then my metamorphosis would be put on hold. As I explore more and more examples of how the movies today reflect the stories of the past, I see why the Times should be traded in for the eternities. As the class comes to and end, it leaves me wondering when my metamorphosis will be complete. Now that I have obtained the knowledge of the past and how it affects the present, I have to reevaluate how I view things. Most importantly, it has changed my perception of tragedy for the better, helping me understand and deal with greater ease. The greatest outcome of my ‘change’, was realizing why this course is so important when attempting to understand other literature.