Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tragic Reasoning

There are questions we could not get past if we were not set free from them by our very nature.


Can you know anything other than deception? If ever the deception is annihilated, you must not look in that direction or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

- The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka
The term tragic is used here in its most general existential sense – the tragedy that is the unvarnished human condition. This is a condition of painful self-awareness, should we allow ourselves to view it without guarantees or defenses. For example, in the evolution of human consciousness, death has been and continues to be, the root fear - the lowest common denominator driving human pretensions to happiness and the cause of much suffering.[i] The fear of death is actually the ego’s fear of annihilation, which lead directly to various “immortality projects” that promise to sustain it. In an attempt to transcend the boundaries of reality, the ego creates the illusion that there is a “self” that can sustain itself, and become permanent. In this sense, the human condition may be likened to the role of the tragic hero who sees and understands his unavoidable fate. The hero’s suffering is precisely what gives meaning to a life of inescapable physical and spiritual wounds.[ii]

But this journey through the shadow of the valley, unprotected, is demanding and agonizing in a way that is literally unfathomable. And so it would seem, a complete absence of protection is simply unreasonable. This entails a challenge: how to find one’s balance. How might we understand and accept the tragic without excessively buffering ourselves, thereby creating too much distance from either reality or that which makes us human? The defenses used by the ego are plentiful, but often, our relationship to tragic experience resembles that which Heidegger saw as our relationship to “being” – that is, forgetting. With respect to being we have, according to Heidegger, lost sight of the ontological difference between “being” and beings.[iii] With respect to the tragic, we have suffered what may be an even greater loss: a loss of contact with that within ourselves which opens us to this realm of experience. Often, it seems that we are only willing to give the tragic an audience when a number of guarantees are in place. Foremost among them are the two ideas cribbed from Aristotle that constitute for most people the essence of the tragic: 1) the tragic is the result of a flaw in a particular agent or events, and 2) we accept the painful feelings that tragedy asks us to endure only when we are assured that everything will be comfortably resolved in the end. In this sense, tragedy involves no basic challenge to our identity or our beliefs.

We set down canons of thought and rules of “meaningful” discourse to exclude something else that if acknowledged would have a shattering impact on our understanding of everything. For thought would then revolve on a recognition of its resistance to what may turn out to be the very structure of experience itself. Philosophy sometimes tries to contain the tragic within some other structure. Aristotle remains the clearest and most eloquent example of this; his Poetics is a monument to the effort to impose a non-tragic metaphysics, ethics, and psychology upon the tragic in order to domesticate what would otherwise prove too disruptive.[iv] This line of thought has persisted right through thinkers as different as Hegel and Lacan. The comprehension of experience is determined by the mediation of concepts and categories that are only possible through the repression of a more primary access, one that recovers and sustains the act of existence of the existential subject. Tragic experience enables us to comprehend existence as a structure unlike all others, one that shatters and exceeds the conceptual order, offering us “the knowledge most worth having,” and bringing us face to face with ourselves.

Fear of thinking deeply about the tragic derives from the popular belief that suffering is meaningless and should be avoided entirely. Nothing but pessimism, bitterness, and despair can come of it. If the truth of life is tragic, our duty is to suppress that truth. But what if the opposite is the case? What if the tragic offers us the possibility of the deepest self-reference? To be able to more fully understand what it means to be a subject requires a willingness to engage in the difficult process of tragic reasoning. Tragic reasoning is “the ability to preserve those facts we are reluctant to confront because of the pain they involve and connect them with other facts that escape detection because they would extend and magnify that pain.”[v] Tragic reasoning exposes the fraud of all ideologies and guarantees. It challenges all our ways of knowing and of being. The importance of the tragic is that it gives life one of the very few meanings we can discern when we step outside of our own imposed system of guarantees. The tragic is our point of unity: “the situation that all subjects face insofar as they are subjects.”[vi]

[ii] Campbell J: The Power of Myth.
[v] Davis W: An Evening With JonBenet Ramsey. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2003.
[vi] Davis W: Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9-11. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2006.


  1. I see the tragic as the full splendor of human destiny. We understand that when our beloved ones are dying. Then, we don't say: I don't want to be attached because I don't want to suffer, but I do accept to suffer no matter how much because I do want to love. Only in this tragic attitude humans are brothers of God. The tragic is an ontology.

  2. ...Thus, it is a vital necessity.

    A gift disguised as a decent into hell.