Monday, 11 January 2010
Disaster to tragedy: the Robinsons
No day passes without a disaster somewhere, but relatively few disasters are properly tragedies. The natural recourse here is to The Poetics where Aristotle talks about a hero with a fatal flaw. (Hamartia is the word he uses.)
Tragedies happen to individuals of some prominence, he says, "...since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level..."
There is perhaps also an understanding, at least in the tragedies we regard as tragedies, that as well as being prominent, the tragic heroes and heroines have an active public role.
The most potent and sympathetic of tragic flaws is sexual passion. Prominent people who fall through passion are potentially tragic, especially if their fall brings down not only the edifice of their own lives but of others or of other, larger entities (such as Troy for instance.) Passion and consequence are key factors.
The fall of Tiger Woods, to take a random example of a public fall from grace, is not tragic because of the sheer number of his infidelities. His flaws were lust and opportunism, not passion. Certainly, he was admired and presented as a hero - indeed was a hero to many - but despite his acts being in public, the consequences of his acts were not public. He simply won a lot of money playing golf. Being presented as a good family man was an aspect of his supposed private life. That life is viewable, to some degree, by the public, but it has no public consequence. Being presented as 'an icon' is not enough.
Would we consider JFK a tragic hero? He was certainly prominent and his actions were not only in public but directly consequent upon the public. He was, beside, a handsome youthful ruler, part of a dynasty. But his death was not a tragedy in the dramatic sense. He had flaws associated with infidelity, of course, but these were discovered after his death and were not connected with his assassination. His death was not the result of the flaw. A tragic flaw has to have determining consequences.
But there is somethig about the case of the Robinsons, Peter and Iris, that seems to fit the bill. Not because either of the Robinsons was necessarily great or virtuous, though they were certainly prominent and consequent in the public sphere, but because the cause of their fall is passion. A fifty-nine year old intelligent woman who illegally procures £50,000 for a young man forty years her junior is not having a passing fancy. She is a victim of passion.
That passion is associated with a predicament in which we all share: that of aging. Aging is the most natural of life processes, generally inviting an attitude of noble philosophical resignation. Resisting such resignation however involves vanity of a desperate, vulnerable kind. And we all know what it is to be desperate and vulnerable.
So whatever the politics of Iris Robinson - and they seem pretty unattractive to me - she was, nevertheless, and must have felt herself to be, an attractive, intelligent and vigorous woman of consequence. It is hard to give that up.
Her husband's position is potentially just as tragic, or maybe more so, because his predicament was and is impossible. Either he did know of his suicidal wife's misuse of public money or he didn't know. But what could he do if he did? It is easy to say he should have acted in the public good, but it might have been at the cost of driving his wife to suicide. He himself is an aging man at the cusp of his public, if not necessarily private, powers. And if he falls, what else falls with him? There are potentially large consequences.
From the very beginning this story has played itself out according to classic rules, to the extent that I, who cared little about Peter Robinson and even less about Iris Robinson, am now involved and moved, exactly in the way I might be involved in and moved by any tragedy.
That is partly because the faults are complex yet comprehensible and because they all present universal dilemmas: between love and passion, between private and public obligation, between, as the song goes, the devil and the deep blue sea.
And so, ironically, characters that would not have seemed noble or heroic in other circumstances, now assume the noble and heroic roles that tragedy insists on, since if the flaws are of this kind, suffering so intensely on account of them suggests a fall from some height, the intensity of the suffering and the largeness of consequences all suggestive of scale. People are no longer who they are, but roles. It is the roles that are universal, not the people. And maybe it is precisely because the people are emptied out in the process of becoming the roles that we sense the tragedy in ourselves. If we do, that is.
This post may not be as clear as it should be but I am trying to untangle the story in my own mind.