Classical tragedy and comedy were born in an age of myth. But so was competence porn. (More)

Our Stories, Our Selves, Part I: Tragedy, Comedy, and Competence Porn

This week Morning Feature looks at the stories we see, hear, and tell and how they shape our sense of our place in the universe. Today we contrast classical tragedy and comedy with modern competence porn. Tomorrow we’ll explore individual heroes and institutional villains. Saturday we’ll conclude with modern superheroes and origin stories.

“You are the first of men both in the experiences of life and in dealing with unseen-powers”

So says the Old Priest in the opening scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. In the backstory, described later in the play, Oedipus killed several men in a roadside dispute. He then saved Thebes from the Sphinx by solving its riddle, was crowned king and married to the dowager Queen Jocasta. Only too late does he learn that among the men he killed was his father, King Laius, that Jocasta is his mother, and that the plague on Thebes is the nemesis or divine punishment for his deeds.

An oracle prophesied all of this to Laius and Jocasta before Oedipus’ birth, and another oracle told Oedipus of the prophecy. Sending the infant Oedipus away to be raised by another family – his parents’ attempt to avoid moirai, their thread of destiny spun by the Fates – set the tragic events in motion. Yet Oedipus was equally doomed by hubris, a stubborn certainty of his innocence, his hamartia or tragic flaw. In the end, the plague is lifted and Thebes saved only after Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself, sacrifices to appease the gods.

“Many a hopeless matter gods arrange”

Themes of moirai, hamartia, and nemesis – fate, tragic flaws, and divine retribution – exist in many Greek tragedies. Such stories, Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, produce catharsis. Scholars still argue what Aristotle meant by that word, but one common view is the evoking and purging of negative emotion to enable purification and renewal.

Gods often appeared as characters in Greek plays. The actors playing them were lowered to the stage on a scaffold, giving rise to the phrase deus ex machina or “god from a machine.” Outraged that her husband has abandoned her to marry a princess, Medea wreaks revenge by murdering their children. In a final twist, the sun god Helios arrives to carry her and the children’s bodies away to Athens:

I do not leave my children’s bodies with thee; I take them with me that I may bury them in Hera’s precinct. And for thee, who didst me all that evil, I prophesy an evil doom.

As the scaffold lifts Helios, Medea, and the dead children away, the chorus is left to ponder the will of the gods:

Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!
Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.
What we expected never came to pass,
What we did not expect the gods brought to bear;
So have things gone, this whole experience through!

“How men see us as rascals”

If Greek tragedy is typically the failure of the most capable man in the city, Greek comedy was typically the success of the least capable man or, even more shocking to patriarchal sensibilities, the success of a woman:

There are a lot of things about us women
That sadden me, considering how men
See us as rascals.

So says the title character at the start of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. The Everywoman character Calonice seems to agree: “As indeed we are.”

Yet Lysistrata and Calonice conspire to the end bloody Peloponnesian War, by convincing the women of Athens and Sparta to deny sex to their husbands. By the play’s end, a Spartan messenger arrives with an erection bulging beneath his tunic, and a similarly-frustrated Athenian agrees to begin peace talks. The two choruses, Old Men and Old Woman, finally dance and sing together … and leave little doubt what else will happen as they scurry offstage.

Later writers such as Menander would add stock characters like the Old Grouch, and shape the classical New Comedy form that we see echoed many sitcoms today. But the two basic structures of fiction had been set: tragedy lamented the failures of the powerful, and comedy celebrated the successes of the ordinary.

“The crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means”

Most fiction followed those patterns well into the 19th century. From Shakespeare to Dickens to Tolstoy to Melville, powerful but flawed protagonists were swept down by events and forces larger than themselves. From Cervantes to Austin to the Bronte sisters, ordinary men and women triumphed by pluck and by luck. All of that fit a world that most people saw as dominated by divine providence.

Then came the Industrial Revolution and its fictional reflection, Edwardian literature. The modern murder mystery emerged in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and his renowned Sherlock Holmes, and that genre bloomed with Agatha Christie and other early 20th century writers. It was an explosion of what has since been dubbed competence porn, featuring brilliant characters whose genius was essential to save the day.

Indeed in 1928, art critic and mystery writer S.S. Van Dine – whose real name was Willard Huntington Wright – had formulated competence porn into “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” including:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
[…]
5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions – not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
[…]
8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
[…]
19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction – in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

Industrial-era fiction banished moirai and nemesis. Characters acted out of free will, and hamartia were reduced to ordinary motives of greed and jealousy. The only deus ex machina permitted is the epiphany – a stray comment or observation that evokes the detective’s Eureka Moment – after which the clues must fall together quickly and in an inescapable syllogism.

The mystery novel is a contest between author and reader. And to perform the genre well, the author must win. The two most damning responses to a mystery novel are “predictable” (the reader solved the mystery before the detective) and “the author cheated” (the reader could never have solved it with the clues provided).

At its heart, competence porn tells us there are no forces beyond human agency and even the most vexing mystery can be solved … but only by Exceptional People. And that is every bit as much a myth as the gods of Olympus.

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Happy Thursday!