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“But today, with Carus, she’d seen something else. He was nearly as tall and as elegant as Ovid, and she knew the two had roamed the streets together, been gallants at the same parties, rivaled each other in poetry, exchanged sharp criticisms. She had watched Carus striding back and forth across the floor, in and out of the shadows. His sculpted face, his arrogant hands. She’d watched him shrug off something Ovid said, saw him laugh dryly, run a hand through his hair. Yet – though he posed and threw back his head in laughter; though his ambition burned ulcerous right through his cool surface; though, when Ovid looked away, Carus fixed him with a look of hungering envy – all the time, as he recited, dust was falling silently upon him. Soft gray dust, sifting from the sky. It settled upon his cropped dark hair, upon his lashes and the bone of his nose, upon his confident, purple-mantled shoulders. It settled upon his leather boots and clung to his arms and his long, shapely hands; it buried his knees and his thighs, and fixed him there, rising slowly up to his chest. As she stood in the garden, she saw him disappear. Not a word Carus wrote would be remembered.”
– from Jane Alison’s The Love Artist

Here’s the not-quite a propos thing, since Ovid’s tragedy is lost and his comedy has survived. Tragedy, to me, is more memorable. But comedy is more valuable. Does it become more dated more quickly; is it more tied up with the ever-changing times? I would say so. But if it is more fleeting, that just makes it more precious.


  1. The Elusive Scotsman says

    You can say a great many things in a comedy, and people will listen. Shakespeare proved that with his fool characters. You can say a great many things in a tragedy, only to have such things misinterpreted in any number of ways due to the atmosphere of scholastic “freedom.” Freud proved that with Sophocles’ Oedipus.

  2. Well, if this post with its deep philosophical question about the nature of art is any indication, you certainly seem to be moving beyond whatever lack of ambition the previous post implies. 🙂 I hate to oversimplify, but is this another way of asking whether art is escapism (ephemeral comedy) or a window on timeless truth (tragedy)? Always a tough one.

    I’m intrigued that you bring up the idea that comedy is a fleeting mode, because I’ve been having discussions along those lines lately. Why was Steve Martin’s “King Tut” so funny 30 years ago, but not so much today? I bowed to no one in my appreciation of “Seinfeld,” but seeing it in re-runs now, it doesn’t seem as hilarious as it once did, certainly not compared to “Arrested Development” or “Scrubs.” But then, TV examples may be biasing the sample, since TV by its nature is rather of the moment.

    I guess I’m also working on a typical/pedestrian definition of “comedy” there, in the broad sense of something that makes you laugh, rather than in the more literary sense of a drama with a happy ending. Is it the laughter that’s more valuable and precious, or the vision of harmony in the comedy’s conclusion? I think that Auden argued that comedy was the natural mode of a Christian writer, because its harmonious resolution despite conflict is a hint or echo of our ultimate destination through the saving power of Christ. Tragedy, on the other hand, was perfected in classical culture, which knew only death as the final resolution.

    Then there’s Woody Allen’s theory that comedy is the equivalent of not sitting at the grown-ups’ table. Of course, his purely dramatic movies are pretty awful, so his own work argues against him.

    When it comes to Shakespeare, I have to admit that I find the tragedies not only more memorable, but also more profound and insightful. And the romances have their own interest, in veering between what we expect of comedy and tragedy. I’ve read that “The Winter’s Tale” can be quite moving when staged properly, and it’s playing at The Old Globe in San Diego this year….

  3. Anonymous says

    ES: Isn’t it a little rough on Freud to accuse him of abusing Oedipus? I mean, it’s right there, and it also features a fool who dispenses wisdom (OK, a drunk, but close enough for gov’t work). And, even a misinterpretation is enough to spark a great debate. Isn’t that half of the fun of Hamlet? Everyone has a view of him, and everyone sounds just about right.

  4. Darren:

    Right about TV. Postman called TV “the promise of endless novelty.” I still laugh at anything Steve Martin has ever done, and still only half-laugh at Seinfeld; to me, it’s more humiliation than yuks (but I’m sure that’s by design). Love Jerry’s stand-up, though. I think Comedian might be the best thing he’s ever done.

    Thought: Was not MacBeth’s conclusion “harmonious” too? Justice was done, and how. And of course, Christian tragedy like Shakespeare’s differs from the classical in that it is sin, not fate, that dooms the protagonist. Auden’s point is well-taken, though–even as glimpses of order, or of hope of redemption, need not make us laugh.

    ES: Even though tragedy is not necessarily a breeding ground for theory-driven mis-interpretations, I agree that comedy is far more capable of rendering the audience supine before the truth contained therein. We all of us want to laugh (and not at all for superficial reasons–to laugh is to be, for a moment, overwhelmed; Philip Neri was “the laughing saint” not only because of his appreciation of his own folly as a sinner, but also because of his ecstasies!). And so when we laugh, we are glad, we are grateful–and so we attend to the source of our joy.

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