The Art of Tragedy and Madness
How tragic world events have inspired great art
July 10, 2020 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
We’re always seeking stories. We search for the meaning in the assassination of a president, contemplate the divine cause of an economic collapse or interpret the backstory of a terrorism case. Tragedies especially make for good stories. No sooner has one hit the world, than artists are at work finding its secret message, encrypting it into art.
Bob Dylan knows how to make an entrance with the least effort. During the heydays of the COVID-19, the old incarnation of the song-and-dance man sent out a 17-minute song — a postcard from Dallas 1963. With references to over 70 songs, Murder Most Foul is both the ultimate songbook and a political drama. Taking us back to the world of baby boomers and easy riders, Dylan captures the moment of national trauma — the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high / Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die.” Dylan’s Kennedy resembles a cowboy played by John Wayne (another person who could make an entrance). The whole song becomes a search for Kennedy's soul, “But his soul's not there where it was supposed to be at / For the last fifty years they've been searchin' for that.”
A treat for Dylanologists, the honorary citizens of Dallas, and ex-hippies now on Wall Street, Murder Most Foul is an epic to speculate upon and a songbook to study.
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“WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace,” wrote Ambrose Bierce in his satirical The Devil’s Dictionary, addressed to the “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang.” As a Civil War veteran who fought in horrific battles, such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge, he knew all about war and much about wine.
His Civil War story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is touched by the anatomical precision of a journalist and an infliction of shock experienced first hand. In this short story Bierce reflects on the grotesquery of the American Civil War deprived of all romanticism. “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.” Yet it is adorned with a playfulness of time and a sudden shock that Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of. A simple story of a battle, one from the many disparate images of war, just an occurrence.
The Dangerous Vintage
Before he wrote his greatest work of fiction — East of Eden — John Steinbeck was a social novelist, perhaps the best among them. “I’m trying to write history while it is happening, and I don’t want it to be wrong.” The novel was The Grapes of Wrath, the history was the Great Depression of 1929. Had Steinbeck lived in the contemporary world, the novel would be split among threads on Twitter on the ground of being timely. Luckily, his were different times, when publishing the work ten years after the outbreak of the Great Depression was still relevant.
Steinbeck “put a tag of shame” on the tycoons, the bankers, and everyone responsible for the Depression. The biblical wrath poured outward from the farmers of Oklahoma dispossessed of the land, trapped in the Dust Bowl and mortgage crisis. “...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
The Faustian Bargain
“American reality stupefies. . sickens. . infuriates. .The actuality is continually outdoing our talents and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist,” said Philip Roth in Writing American Fiction. One such figure not so much tossed but disgracefully driven out was Richard Nixon after the Faustian Bargain of the Watergate Affair. Roth, naturally, wrapped Nixon up in his political satire — Our Gang — depicting him as a crook and a scapegoat.
Whether Roth’s talent managed to outdo the actuality in Our Gang is up for debate, yet it raised questions of the decay of language, having George Orwell’s famous words as a backbone, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The man who once charmed the public with his “Checkers speech,” — Checker being Nixon’s dog and a smart speech clincher — couldn’t be saved by the black and white spotted American Cocker Spaniel in Roth’s satire.
The Tyranny of the Literal
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth... — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” If Ishmael in Moby Dick could escape to the sea, now people can hardly escape in novels. By no means, it’s the primary purpose of literature but it’s something every excellent reader secretly hopes for and now rarely gets. In the days of media pundits, of the Gulf War, and “the tyranny of the literal”, why bother to write a novel? Jonathan Franzen addresses this in his essay Why Bother?
“Today’s Baudelaires are hip-hop artists,” he isn’t wrong to note. “The organs of mass culture and information are compelled to offer something “new” on a daily, indeed hourly, basis. Although good novelists don’t deliberately seek out trends, many of them feel a responsibility to pay attention to contemporary issues, and they now confront a culture in which almost all the issues are burned out almost all the time.”
Can we outdo the actuality in a culture that tossed up a pandemic? Can we create the perfect stories of COVID-19 while living the COVID-19? The beginnings of that answer are already in view at something called the SelfQuar Experiment, where hundreds of artists from the Dominican Republic to Armenia, are exploring the themes that pandemic art will explore for decades to come.
As artists seek the vile, terrible, perfect stories and give them the decent clothing of words, they just need to remember to “use black ink and quality paper, and avoid sloppy dashes.”
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.