Saturday 28 December 2013

I NEED A (working-class tragic) HERO

Does a 'proper' tragic hero need a crown?

Christmas Eve brought an email inviting me to write an essay about tragedy and social class. Why did everyone in Greco-Roman antiquity and into the 19th century think tragic heroes had to ‘fall from high estate’? It was only partly because Aristotle had decreed in his Poetics that heroes should ‘have a big reputation and fortune like Oedipus and Thyestes and distinguished men from families like theirs’ [i.e. royalty].  

Modern Misery amidst Money
I have always thought myself that half the pleasure of tragedy was motored by underlying envy--watching very rich and powerful people have a really bad day offers much the same Schadenfreude to us commoners as we derive from reading about billionaires’ botched Botox and miserable divorces in celebrity-watch magazines today.

But I have a problem with this commission which I hope crowd-sourcing can help. There are a few working-class tragic heroes in the cultural repertoire. Jesus of Nazareth, on a secularist account, was the first. Born to loving parents and general applause, he ended up executed by a repressive establishment because he banged on about the poor: theologians agree that the Gospels show the influence of Greek tragedy in their structure and tone. Theatre historians, on the other hand, will tell you that the breakthrough came in 1837 with Karl Georg B├╝chner’s revolutionary (and unfinished) tragedy Woyzeck, which portrays its soldier-hero’s fall from a very low estate to conviction for murder.

Woyzeck, Deutsches Theater, 2009
In the projected essay I have been asked to discuss media other than theatre, and this is where my problem starts. Fiction is easy—Godwin’s Caleb Williams and Hardy’s Jude—but cinema is giving me problems. The Father Of My Children suggests Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I have been pondering both Trainspotting and Mike Leigh’s Naked. But inspiration is otherwise lacking.

Fall from Low Estate to ECT
If you have an idea, please do comment or send me an email If I use it you will of course be credited by name in the essay although this will certainly not make you rich and famous enough to star in a pre-19th century tragedy or even Hello! magazine. Any proposed artwork will have to fit my own general definition of tragedy: it needs to depict suffering in an aesthetically/emotionally gripping way, without voyeurism, and to enquire into the causes of that suffering. Collateral damage (to innocent people trapped to their cost in the hero’s plot) is, of course, particularly welcome.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Think Like a Druid Week, Anyone?

Druids at Stonehenge Solstice Rite

The winter solstice today means that it is getting ever so slightly less dark from now on. Last week was Think Like a Cynic Week but I am chewing over the idea of a Think Like a Druid week after receiving a lovely invitation.

The Rollright Stones
The tall and articulate woman who works in our village Co-op is a druidical white witch. She told me the local solstice rite, the Gorsedd, will take place after sunset at the nearby stone circle, the Rollright Stones on the Oxfordshire/Gloucestershire border.

I shouldn’t go, because it would be voyeuristic. I am not actually a pagan. My own attraction to the ancient Greeks and Romans is of the 18th-century rationalist/ Enlightenment variety. In fact, it was a terrible shock to me, at the very first class I held in my first real university job, to discover how many people like Classics just because they are witches and wizards.

Jason on the Argo Looking Pale
It was Reading University in October 1990. The class was on the Argonaut epic by Apollonius. The discussion became fixed on the spells which Medea casts in the final two books of the poem. A row erupted over the potion she has concocted from the plant growing from the blood dripping out of Prometheus’ eagle-ravaged flank. Medea had collected the sap from this plant after bathing in seven streams, putting on dark robes, and calling seven times on the Queen of the Dead.

Medea's Salve is now available online
One student said it was black magic. He could be sure because it was a spell he used personally in his capacity as Warlock of Newbury Coven. Another, hilariously called Jason, was furious: no, this was white magic, since Medea was making a protective ointment not a damaging one. He could be sure as Arch-Druid of the Reading Grove. These two youths nearly came to blows, and were only silenced by a mature student, who with righteous wrath announced she was a born-again Christian and that they were Meddling with the Works of Satan. We managed to avoid either a Manichean duel or a witch-burning session, but I was too shaken to see the funny side for weeks.

Druids in Oak Grove
White or Black Magic?
I am just old enough to have avoided compulsory Higher Education Teacher Training, which my younger colleagues now undergo. I am sure they learn useful skills. But no amount of training could ever have prepared me for that terrifying first seminar. I have tried to avoid teaching ancient magic ever since. But the Druidical lady in the Co-op is such an excellent person (she is extraordinarily well-informed on environmental issues and has bullied the whole village into bringing their own reusable shopping bags) that I must admit that the winter solstice 2013 tempts me sorely to Think Like a Druid for a while.

Friday 13 December 2013


Some strange goings-on in my work-world have brought out my cynical side. I identify with Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism, who carried a lantern in the daytime because he found it so difficult to find an honest man. (The Cynics’ lantern has been on my mind since Seamus Heaney died, because he was perhaps thinking of the impossibility of finding honesty in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles when he called his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern).

Statue of Diogenes in his Turkish birthplace
After pretending to be Diogenes for a week. I feel much better, and have improved my relationships with colleagues and my dog. Nobody knows why the Cynics were called ‘canine ones’: it may be because they were thought to behave like dogs, to look and sound like barking dogs when they laughed, to live in the streets with dogs, or because they met in a place in Athens which had the word ‘dog’ in its name—Cynosarges, ‘White-Dog.’ 

Since it is trendy to name weeks after ancient philosophical schools (see my blog on STOIC WEEK last month), I am naming this coming week CYNIC WEEK and would encourage everyone to practise the following 7- step programme to Cynical nirvana: 

1. Ask to be addressed as Diogenes, or Diogeneia, and cultivate a Turkish accent (Diogenes’ native city was Sinope, in the middle of the Turkish Black Sea coast).

2. Locate a large barrel or other vessel in a public place and spend at least twenty minutes a day in it, dressed in rags, looking intense and intelligent.

3. You do not actually need to urinate or play with yourself in public, as Diogenes did, since these are illegal in most jurisdictions. But you do need to discover your Inner Hound, wolf food from off the floor, use your hands as a cup, and scratch yourself a lot instead.

Thomas Christian Wink, 'Alexander and Diogenes'
4. Answer all questions with rude and humorously pithy epigrams which stress that humans are fauna and that wealth, power, conventions, and intellectual pretension are ridiculous.  Here is a Cynic response to emulate: when Plato said that Socrates had defined men as ‘featherless bipeds’, Diogenes ridiculed the notion by taking a plucked chicken into the Academy and announcing ‘Behold! I bring you a Man!’ 

5. Cut down to size  at least one person who prides themselves on being richer or more powerful than you, as Diogenes told Alexander the Great, who was pestering him with idiotic questions, to get out of his sunlight. 

Landseer's Priceless 'Alexander and Diogenes'
6. Cheer yourself up with the best History Painting of all time, Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s  'Alexander and Diogenes' (1848), in which dog breeds replace social classes. The arrogant white Alexander-dog looks like a member of UKIP, while Diogenes resembles Finlay, our own canny canine.

7. Consult the collection of very funny quips in The Cynics’ Word Book (1906), available freely online at Given my current experiences, the very first entry is my favourite:

ABASEMENT, n. A decent and customary mental attitude in the presence of wealth or power. Peculiarly appropriate in an employee when addressing an employer.
Finlay Poynder-Hall