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.


Desmond Swords said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Poet in Residence said...

Hello George, I don't think this Robinson business is a tragedy at all. The word tragedy like the word hero is much abused.
Best, Gwilym

George S said...

Beg to differ, Gwilym. It is precisely the word tragedy I am exploring above. And I seem to come to the conclusion that it is a tragedy - meaning that, if presented in fictional terms, on stage, the various elements would fit tragic form.

Ruler holding vital office. Wife important woman. Wife's affair costs her her life and sanity and him his job, wrecking him in the process, the whole affair possibly leading to conflict beyond the personal sphere.

It may not cost her her life and sanity in the end but the elements have all emerged and come into play. They are factors.Which is the point.

If everything finishes up as no more than a divorce and a spell out of office then, of course, it is not a tragedy. It's just another day at the office.

Mark Granier said...

I can see what you're saying George. The characters in classical and Shakesperian tragedies are not particularly pleasant people, rather cyphers, archetypes, vessels. As D.H. Lawrence put it:
'When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder
that such trivial people should muse and thunder
in such lovely language.'

Real (or lived) life is more tangled and complex of course, and I am wary of drawing comparisons between Iris's recent mess and literary tragedy.

Iris and Peter had an important role in the current political situation, and Iris's suicidal tendencies are (like any suicidal person's) deserving of sympathy. But I think I agree with Gwilym (and Georgiasam) here. The whole fiasco leans less towards heroic tragedy than farce.

I don't know Iris well enough to declare that her motives were dictated by 'passion' or more mundane appetites, an itch that needed scratching and damn the consequences, a sociopathic disregard for both her young lover and her husband's position (and any disruptions to the political sphere, fallout from this, etc.); in other words, an immense, self-serving stupidity, dullness, a failure of imagination.

Was Iris 'intelligent'? Maybe, theoretically. But I am afraid that she has also revealed herself as a mean-spirited, tiny-minded bigot. As a 'prominent' person, she did damage, long before this story broke. Like DUP's Ian Paisley, Jr., she has publicly attacked homosexuality, comparing it to child abuse. On The Nolan Show in 2008, she declared homosexuality 'an abomination' and urged gays to seek 'conversion', this in relation to a recent assault on a gay man in Newtownabbey. Here's the section of the interview that was reported to police as a hate crime:

Stephen Nolan: Do you think for example that homosexuality is disgusting?

Iris Robinson: Absolutely

Stephen Nolan: Do you think that homosexuality should be loathed?

Iris Robinson: Absolutely

Stephen Nolan: Do you think it is right for people to have a physical disgust towards homosexuality?

Iris Robinson: Absolutely

Stephen Nolan: Does it make you nauseous?

Iris Robinson: Yes

Stephen Nolan: Do you think that it is something that is shamefully wicked and vile?

Iris Robinson: Yes, of course it is, it’s an abomination.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I always thought that the Bible was far clearer in its condemnation of adultery, since it includes it in one of the commandments. However, Iris has now stated that she considers herself forgiven by god. So that's okay then.

Poet in Residence said...

I think in this case one must leave theatrical Tragedy aside (for it is something else entirely) and look at tragedy with a small t.
What is tragic?
Webster says it involves death or calamity; causes suffering; it is fatal; terrible.
Robinson affair is, I'll give you, tragicomedy.

Lucy said...

And in reality Macbeth died old in his bed.

The Robinsons probably are and will remain paltry, ordinary-sized people, but at some time in the future when the facts become unimportant, and the messy, unsympathetic details of the personalities concerned can be forgotten, it would perhaps be possible to make a rip-roaring tragedy out of it in the way you say, if anyone remembers it at all. Fictionalised accounts of lives are always more interesting than straight biography anyway, I reckon.

Oddly, but probably in common with a lot of people, I feel a degree of compassion (not sure if that's the same as sympathy in the dramatic sense) for him, imagining how compromised he must have felt with regard to public duty against his own and his wife's humiliation. Although someone could probably tell me enough unedifying things about him which would wipe that out... I'm afraid I just find her rather loathsome and pathetic - a word deserving of examination in the context too perhaps.

And I do wish we didn't have to keep seeing her kissing him over and over again on camera, I look away, but still...

Isn't there a discussion - or discourse on this in 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', where Stephen explains how the young woman's death in a freak accident which the newspaper describes as tragic wasn't really in the Aristotelian sense?

Was Princess Diana's demise potentially a tragedy in this sense? Yes, she was probably really a rather tiresome and narcissistic person etc, but could the story be made to fit the tragic pattern?

George S said...

Hmm, not sure I agree, Gwilym. The point about theatre is not that it is detached from life, existing in a parallel but never connected world of its own, but that it is, like all art, a shaping, distilling, refining down of life. A mirror, if you would prefer Shakespeare. You don't get the reflection without something being there to reflect. And life can be stranger than theatre.

I am aware of Iris Robinson's views, Mark, and I am in no position to know how the affair came about from her point of view. But even if it were just an itch (and who can tell when an itch becomes a passion) to risk all for it argues an extreme state. And what are we to call this state?

Iris Robinson can be all you say, she may be as loathsome as her attitude to the questions suggests (and, of course, I am entirely opposed to her views), but that does not mean she is not intelligent. She would have needed intelligence to get to and hold the position she does. That is to say she would have had at least the practical intelligence to recognise the dangers of the situation she was getting into. And even if not, isn't hubris a classic tragic condition?

It would, to put it crudely, be no skin off my own estimable nose, if she did commit suicide, or had to be confined for years in some institution. But it would not be farce.I don't think we would be (or, rather, I would be) up to laughing under such circumstances.

You know that last scene in Hamlet where practically everyone on stage is dead? It isn't more than a few centimetres from comic (forgive the pun) overkill. But we don't laugh. Not even when it's Claudius and Gertrude, who are, after all the villains of the piece.

And to emphasise, certainly art is different from life, but I don't think we should ever make the mistake of thinking they are entirely distinct.

My whole point - and I'm not sure why I am having to make it again (I suspect because it is mixed up with dislike of the people involved) - is that there comes a moment in some lives, where their lives stop being theirs and become art. My suggestion, at the end, is that we might recognise that transference, that passing through the wall, through the mirror, as a tragic act; that the passage through might, in fact, lie at the very core of tragedy. The epic act is art and, despite the wall, or rather because of it, life will not be entirely detached from art.

I may pursue this a little further if time allows.

George S said...

Ah, Lucy. Thank you for your comment. It came in just as I finished writing the above.

I suspect we are talking about something that lies very deep beneath the surface - their, ours, both.

All I thought I was saying is that there are tragic patterns and this affair falls into one of them. I didn't think it would be so problematic a proposition. As you say, if you heard enough bad things about the real life Peter Robinson he would forfeit your sympathy, but I wasn't asking for votes for Peter Robinson or Iris Robinson. I was just thinking I recognised some essential dramatic patterns, and what I have been arguing since is that dramatic patterns are not an invention in airy-fairy land where real people never go.

To repeat, I think this runs deep and lies at the core of tragic form and the tragic sense. Yes, of course, it can be farce too as 'real'life is often more likely to be. No one ever wants to accord someone they dislike a tragic role.

More later.

Poet in Residence said...

From a Catalogve of the seuerall comedies, histories, and tragedies contained in this volume.

Merchant of Venice(comedies)
Life & Death Richard II(histories)
Romeo & Juliet (tragedies)

'Peter & Iris' in the tragedy folio?


George S said...

You wouldn't use the same names unless you were a few hundred years on. Tragedy proper is rarely contemporary. (Can I think of an example that is? Can you?) It needs distance. That is one of the reasons we can't see it. We are too close.

So, no I can't see a tragedy titled Peter and Iris, but then I can't see one titled Bob and Aileen, or Rick and Tracy either. We have to distance them.

I'll write a short post expanding on this tonight. If I can manage.

Poet in Residence said...

I think what I'm getting at is the idea that you can't put the scenario into the right box until the final scene has been written.

If the 'hero' (in this case Peter) dies in the final scene of the drama, after all the trials and tribulations that he has gone through, it's certain it's a tragedy. George, I think we agree there.

If the anti-hero (in this case Iris) dies in the final scene it's not a tragedy. Then it's merely a drama. I think that's what I'm getting at.

Would you agree with me now?

George S said...

Our mills are grinding exceedingly small, Gwilym. I Whether it is a tragedy if it involves only (only!) the death of the errant wife will depend on what she brings down with her, but broadly you are right there - probably.

If the husband also dies, or if the husband's life collapses and brings chaos to the kingdom, then I think we are back with tragedy.

But I will say a little (and I mean a little) more in the post tonight, just because it nags at me. There is an unexplored complication.

James O'Fee said...

Of course Iris is intelligent. Big Ian got his wife Eileen a place on Belfast City Council by virtue of his name - but Eileen didn't seek re-election and she faded from public view until raised to the Hose of Lords where, I think it's fair to say, she has failed to make a major impact.

Iris may have got her council seat by virtue of being Peter's wife; but she made a success of that and went on to become an MLA and an MP.

I don't think there was anything illegal by the method she chose to obtain the 50K for Kirk - both Fred Frazer and Ken Campbell were willing donors - although she may have violated coles of conduct, not in themselves criminal matters. And it was a jolly clever ruse.

Iris would probably have got away with everything until Peter insisted that she return the cash to Frazer and Campbell. that's when the s*** hit the fan.