Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically – wrote D.H. Lawrence in 1928. But those were serious, thoughtful times. Much has changed since then. A writer today might write – Ours is essentially a comic age, so we refuse to take it comically.
We are children. We have access to information, so we believe ourselves informed; we take others seriously so that we may be taken seriously in our turn; and we judge our own progress by the progress of our peers. Is the great tragedy of our age that we do not know we live and die clowns?
To answer this question I have called on the help of Booktopia classicist Dr Jonathon Cant PhD, PTO, BA, CSI, MA.
Scene One: Booktopia.
Me:(taps foot vigorously)
Me: (stomp, stomp, stomp, slam! sound of car starting)
Scene Two: Dr Cant’s Residence
Me: Dr Cant! Dr Cant! The door was op… ahhh!
Cant: Dammit man! Can’t you see that I’m in my bath!
Me: Yes! Lord have mercy! Yes! And what I have seen can never be unseen!
Cant: Must you always play the fool!? We are both adults here. Men of the world.
Me: (giggle) Will you be getting out any-time soon? We did have an appointment.
Cant: I will not stir, sir! I am determined to bathe. None shall prevent me my small luxuries.
Me: Then I must interview you here.
Cant: Why must you interview me at all? Why must I be hounded?
Me: You said it yourself last week – The informed must aid the ignorant.
Cant: You will use my own reasoning against me? Alas, it is true – those who live by the sword must die by the sword. Now I must die by the polished edge of my own wit…
Me: Don’t be so dramatic. You have to answer because you’re on the payroll.
Cant: Silly man. (frown) If I do die, I shall be in good company, Socrates was killed by his own reasoning… and… we shall both be better off than you. You face a slow death, my boy. You’ll be crushed by the weight of your own ignorance.
Me: Hey, is that a superfluous third nipple?
Cant: No! it is not! It is a birth mark! Why are you still here?
Me: We’ve an appointment. You are sharing your great knowledge with the masses, today. In previous weeks you have spoken about Homer and Herodotus. And this week you were marked down to speak of… ummm…
Me: No, no, none of those, it was someone from Ancient Greece.
Cant: Blockhead! Are you sure it was not Revolutionary France? I am, as you see, Jean-Paul Marat about to be murdered in my bath by an ignoramus.
Me: Sophocles! That’s who was next on my list!
Cant: The Great Greek Tragedian. Of course! What a fitting subject for two men to discuss at bath time! What is your question this week?
Me: If I were to push this electric heater into your bath, would the outcome be classed as tragic or comic?
Cant: There are no modern tragedies, all is comedy.
Me: You have restated my question. If all is comic, is that not tragic?
Cant: Yes, yes, it might be if we use the word as it is used today. Trampled by the hooves of misuse and folly, the word is a beaten wreck. Now, one may say that any death is a tragedy, that missing a bus is a tragedy, that… that… being interrupted in one’s bath is tragic. A true tragedy, however…
Me: Like Hamlet?
Me: Shakespeare wrote other tragedies.
Cant: Shakespeare wrote thirty something plays. He was a dabbler in the art. Sophocles wrote 123 plays during the course of his life, but sadly only seven have survived in a complete form: Ajax, Antigone, Trachinian Women, Oedipus the King, Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus.
Me: At least I’ve heard of Hamlet.
Cant: Ah! and are we to judge all art by your meagre measure? Hamlet? Green Eggs and Ham is more tragic. A murdered father? Boo hoo! Oedipus the King, there’s a tragedy. Oedipus was doomed from the start. The Gods had determined his fate before he was even born. They said that he would murder his father and couple with his mother! What did his parents do? As soon as he was born they sent him away to be murdered. But the servant tasked with this heavy burden let the child live, unbeknownst to all.
Cant: They all live happily ever after! What do you expect to happen? A tragedy more disturbing and challenging to your soft suburban befuddlement than anything Hollywood could dream up or sanction. Murder, Sex, Incest, Suicide, More Murder, Self-Harm… These plays express our deepest and most feared impulses and desires. (Me: (quietly) Paging Mr Freud!) Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus- The Theban Plays – continue to influence playwrights thousands of years later and are still being put on at theaters around the world today.
Me: Thank you, Dr Cant. Once again you have breathed life into a long dead subject. I’m sure our readers appreciate your efforts.
Cant: In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king. Now, (stands) if you would be so good as to pass me my towel.
Me: (plucks out eyes with pen) What were mine eyes to me, when naught to be seen was good?
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.