Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Three Visions of the World and the Absolute Point of Infinity

All forms of literature, even poetry, conform to one of three structures: tragic, comic, or tragi-comic. Tragedy begins at a high point and falls to a nadir. That nadir can be something other than death, such as when Oedipus murdered his father, married his mother, lost his kingdom, and gouged out his eyes; nonetheless, he lived. More often tragedy ends in death, as in such tragedies as Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Moby Dick, and Death of a Salesman. The tragic fall derives from the tragic hero's hubris or "overweening pride." Hubris is the tragic hero's resistance, even his hostility, to some antagonistic cosmic force greater than himself. That antagonistic force can be external or internal. Antagonists external to the tragic hero would be natural law, moral law, society, nature, family, fate, the gods, God, etc. Internal antagonists would be something within the tragic hero himself: unrequited love, hate, jealousy, revenge, envy, self-disdain, etc. Whether external or internal, the antagonist says to the tragic hero, "Hell, yes, you will"; the tragic hero says the antagonist, "Hell, no, I won't." The quintessential expression of this hubris occurs in Paradise Lost when Lucifer shouts to the heavens, "non serviam" - "I will not serve" -"Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." The heroism of the tragic protagonist derives from his obduracy, his indomitable will; even though he dies, ironically he "wins" because his will remains defiant and thus he is crowned with the unenviable and withered laurel of death.

As opposed to tragedy that starts at a high point and falls to a nadir, comedy starts high, falls, and then rises again to an even higher apex. This pattern characterizes physical comedy when Charlie Chaplin or Peter Sellers actually falls down and then gets up again. Like the tragic hero, the comic hero faces obstacles but, in the end, antagonistic forces do not destroy the comic protagonist but rather he overcomes them all. The nadir of comedy is a brush with death, but not death actually, only a close call (Chaplin dangling from a highwire). Unlike buffoon comedy, such as Chris Farley or Chevy Chase, who epitomize comedy at its most vulgar level, classical comedy achieves its apex, not by ridiculous cynicism but by splendid wit, not in riotous and revelrous laughter but in emotional and intellectual triumph; therefore, a classical work we consider quite serious and not hilarious at all, such as The Odyssey, Wuthering Heights, or Crime and Punishment is nonetheless truly a comedy because the hero eventually triumphs. Of course the most intellectually elite comedy can also be quite hilarious to the quick of wit, such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, or Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn.

A third kind of literary structure attempts to blend comedy and tragedy: tragi-comedy. Tragi-comedy is also sometimes described as "dark comedy" because in tragi-comedy the hero actually dies; nonetheless, his death accomplishes a marvelous resolution of some complex conflict, such as Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities or Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times. Dickens is the master here.

The Christian literati recognize tragedy, comedy, and tragi-comedy as secular proofs of sacred truths. Tragedy witnesses to human fallenness, depravity, and the inevitable devastation of the iron will; comedy affirms the triumph of life over death; and tragi-comedy attests to the hard truth that human experience is sorely difficult, even deadly, but beauty, truth, goodness, and love win out in the end. Moreover, tragedy, comedy, and tragi-comedy characterize and summarize all human psychology, one's view of the universe; one's understanding of the meaning of life; and one's attitudes, motivations, and behaviors necessarily falling into one of those categories so that he sees the cosmos as tragic, comic, or tragi-comic. The atheist and nihilist must be psychological tragedians, the superficial theist a comedian, and the thinking Christian a tragi-comedian. Thus, unknown to them, Aeschylus, Homer, Sophocles, Melville, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Chekhov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et. al. were objects of common grace and vehicles of general revelation to inscribe ingenious visions of human existence and experience.

The brilliant, Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard recognized and understood tragedy, comedy, and tragi-comedy as legitimate visions of the human condition and cosmic meaning; however, Kierkegaard also recognized the unbreakable constraint that prohibited any literary genius from writing a genuine tragi-comedy. As Kierkegaard rightly observed, tragedy requires the death of the hero, and comedy demands the life of the hero; therefore, one can never really write a genuine tragi-comedy for, to achieve ultimate tragic force, the hero must die; one can speak of the good derived from the hero's death as accomplishing some kind of comic resolution, like a dead hero on a battlefield where his flag now flies, but the hero is no less dead, no matter how efficacious and beneficial his life (and death) may have been for others, he is d-e-a-d; thus, in its ultimate sense, tragi-comedy is impossible, and thus Kierkegaard's famous observation,
Tragedy and Comedy touch one another at the absolute point of infinity, at the extremes of human experience, life and death.
No writer has ever touched, no protagonist ever reached, "the absolute point of infinity" where tragedy and comedy truly converge in both death and life.

None but One.

Though he leaves it for his reader to discover, only a divine protagonist can actually die tragically and rise comedically.

The Bible remains, and ever shall remain, the only piece of literature in the world that synthesizes the realities of tragedy and comedy into a perfectly resolved tragi-comedy.

Jesus Christ remains, and ever shall remain, the Absolute, the Point, the one and only tragi-comic Hero, who synthesized death and life, touching them in that one Infinite Moment of extreme Human (and Divine) experience.

The secular voice ever echoes the Sacred Word, the earthly quill Heaven's Iron Pen.

10 comments:

Shane said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, especially the end as I'm reading some Kierkegaard now. I appreciate the observation regarding tragi-comedies, arguing that to call a work a tragedy and at the same time a comedy is an antinomy.

Incidentally, this post was an encouragement to me after a 14 hour day at the office.

Hippie Fringe said...

"The Bible remains, and ever shall remain, the only piece of literature in the world that synthesizes the realities of tragedy and comedy into a perfectly resolved tragi-comedy.

Jesus Christ remains, and ever shall remain, the Absolute, the Point, the one and only tragi-comic Hero, who synthesized death and life, touching them in that one Infinite Moment of extreme Human (and Divine) experience."

As a mater of faith, I appreciate your statement. However, do you mean that there is no other hero "from a literary perspective" that satisfies these criteria?

Hal Brunson said...

Yes, other dying/rising god-myths exist, documented in Joseph's Campbell's famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (I had the privilege of studying for six weeks in Campbell's very classroom at Sarah Lawrence College).

Analagous dying/rising god-myths exist and are well documented, but . . .

Have you ever stared into the heart of a diamond? If you have, you have seen a point of light at which various radiances converge, and from which various radiances emerge; the point of light is the perfect source and perfect focus of the light. Jesus Christ alone is the perfect source and focal point of divine light.

Other dying/rising god-myths fail to reflect and refract the full splendour of deity; neither is this an ambiguous illustration, for just as the various beams and rays of light witness to necessary components of light, the attributes of God, such as immutability, sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, love, wrath, mercy, judgment, and righteousness witness to one being, Jehovah, Elohim, El Shaddai. Vishnu does not even claim these attributes, Buddha does not possess them, not Dionysius, Zeus, Thor or any other pagan "deity"; pagan deities are more often like mortal man (consider the Greek pantheon) than Almighty God; only one religion, and only one Being, constitute a revelatory prism through which we can see that which Dante called "punta lumina," a point of light, out of which, and into which all the superlative attributes of deity emerge and converge; only by looking into that diamond, so to speak, can me see "the light, the true light."

Moreover, other dying/rising god-myths never conceived of miraculous incarnaton, impeccable humanity, and substitutionary atonement for sin; in fact such ideas are repugnant to their devotees, yet their god's offer them no remedy for sin; a promise of heaven - yes; of immortality - yes; of goodness and love - yes; but a transoforming remedy for their sin - no; this is exclusive to Christianity's dying/rising God.

Seeing light is not enough; the heavens are full of it; I do not deny that some religions have some light; I have read the Bhagva Gita and Koran to profit; but I do deny that seeing light is the same thing as seeing the light.

No other god of any other religion possesses the full splendour of the attributes of deity that reflect and refract from the crowned brow of Jesus Christ. Men who do not believe this have not seen this; men who have not seen this do not believe it.

Hippie Fringe said...

I am fond of Joseph Campbell and admire his work although ultimately I do not agree with many of his conclusions. I believe I have seen the diamond of which you speak and agree with your description. Krishna (although also claimed to radiate immutability, sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, love, wrath, mercy, judgment, and righteousness) does not shine for me and Horus is completely dark. No other book or hero reveals new brilliance to me each time I see them from a slightly different angle. I have read the bible and prayed to Jesus most of my life. I have only casually read the Bhagva Gita, a few Upanishads and have struggled through a hundred pages or so of the Tibetan Book of the Dead over the last couple of years. I have often wondered how differently I would read these sacred texts if I truly believed they were sacred and requisite for my salvation. If I had been raised as a Hindu, would Krishna appear multifaceted to me and evoke the same response that Jesus does from my heart? I will never know because for me everything will always be filtered through the diamond I have seen. Realizing this, I know that others may not see what I see and I certainly can not see what they see in their hero’s. I can not agree that since Jesus is the perfect Hero, there are no others that meet even the literary criteria.

Hal Brunson said...

I see the finesse of your point, "literary criteria," and as I conceded, dying/rising-god myths exist in other cultures and religions and, therefore, one might conclude that those other dying/rising gods meet "the literary criteria." That would be true except for two things: the matter inherent to bodily incarnation and bodily resurrection and, secondly, the material absoluteness of death and life. Our discussion is now beyond mere literary criteria that define tragedy and comedy and into the sphere of their philosophical reality. Kierkegaard's point is that, to touch the absolute point of infinity, the actual extremes of life and death must be objectively, that is, materially experienced. I know of no other religion, including Hinduism, where the dying/rising God experiences material death followed by material (as opposed to transcendental and spiritual) life. For Krishna, death is an illusion, and post-death is the wispy vapor of Nirvana that deprecates matter. Those two philosophical points - death is an illusion, and ultimate reality is immaterially transcendent, disqualify Hinduism, and thus Vishnu, as legitimately tragic or comic since tragedy requires and recognizes death as objevtive reality, and comedy affirms life as a material, not an immaterial reality. Again, the bodily incarnation and the bodily resurrection uniquely fulfill the objective criteria of tragedy and comedy, and Kierkegaard's point as well, that tragedy and comedy actually 'touch" at "the extremes of human experience," real death, real life, material death, material life, and touching there in objective synthesis, thereby touch absolute infinity, materially, actually, and experientially understood. Again, only an incarnate dying God who experiences the material reality of death, and only an incarnate rising God who experiences the material reality of life, can fulfill the "literary criteria" of tragedy and comedy as material realities. Tragedy and comedy know nothing of transcendence; they are all immanence.

Hippie Fringe said...

I concede that could be true if it were not false. LOL! Is that sort of like MP’s “that’s an interesting point (subtext: I could punch you)”?

“That would be true except for two things: the matter inherent to bodily incarnation and bodily resurrection and, secondly, the material absoluteness of death and life.”

In the strictest sense we must allow that deific god/man heroes such as Jesus or Krishna are extraordinary. They are super human, however it is that element of humanity which qualifies them as a hero rather than just a deity. A man such as Lazarus (that lived, died, lived again and then died) may better fit the requirements of tragedy and comedy. To accept Jesus as a perfect tragic-comedic hero you must allow for a few superhuman, supernatural God qualities that defy the laws that govern mater as we understand it. Jesus was born miraculously out of the union of mater and spirit: a human and God but certainly no more “just human” than a human-alien hybrid would be. Jesus had a material body but that body was not subject to the laws of physics as we understand them. He walked on water and transfigured in front of his disciples. Satan tempted Jesus to further demonstrate even more supernatural abilities which He must have obviously possessed.

The nature of the resurrected body of Jesus is also mysterious and transcendental. Obviously it was material; his disciples touched him and He ate food to reassure them of this. However, it was not mater as we understand it. He would not be touched before perfected; His appearance changed so that His disciples did not recognize Him and it was not subject to the laws of time and space: He ascended to heaven.

Given the mystical and supernatural nature of Jesus, it is no wonder that Christian philosophy was and is splintered over who and what He was/is: mater, spirit or both.
Accordingly, His death was inconceivable for some. How can you kill a God whose body is not subject to the same realities ours are, that can transfigure and walk on water, that can touch the blind and make them see and raise the dead simply by calling their name? Others could not conceive that God could have a body made of corrupted matter and believed His body was an illusion. If Jesus meets the literary criteria of matter inherent to bodily incarnation and bodily resurrection and the material absoluteness of death and life, He does so by faith. Krishna meets these same literary criteria by faith as well.

The essence of the gospel is that God joined man in his state (flesh) by becoming flesh, took on the sum of his experience in that state including death and was resurrected redeeming man. Krishna joined man in his state (the allusion of flesh) by becoming that same illusion, took on the sum of his experience in that state including death and was resurrected redeeming man.

Both taught that reality, this world, is an illusion. To say that Krishna is disqualified because (after he was hung on a tree, shot with an arrow and died) he was resurrected and dematerialized where as Jesus is qualified because He (after He was hung on a tree, pierced with a spear and died) He was resurrected and ascended bodily is ultimately an argument over Eastern or Western perceptions of consciousness rather than their heroes fulfillment of and triumph over human experience.

Hal Brunson said...

Do you really think that Christianity/Christ teach that "this world is an illusion"?

Hippie Fringe said...

In the sense that we see through a glass darkly; yes. In the sense that mater is not real; no. All religions teach that our perception is imperfect and therefore our frame of reality is a type of illusion. If man clearly saw the reality rather than the illusion, he would never trade his soul for a temporal morsel when an eternal feast awaits.

Hal Brunson said...

Orthodox Christianity views neither creation as an illusion nor matter as unreal. To the contrary, Christianity and Judaism affirm matter not only as real but even destined to share in the material arrival of Messiah (Romans 8:18). This goes directly to my point that the ultimate tragi-comic hero must be earthy (as opposed to "earthly"), affirming his heroism both in worldly reality and material absoluteness via the objective human experiences of death and life. Like both comedy and tragedy, the bodily Incarnation and the bodily Resurrection affirm matter via real physical death and real physical life. Christianity has nothing in common with religions that deny or denigrate matter; it is part of the redemptive eschaton. That's what made the Incarnation and Resurrection so profoundly mysterious and satisfying for Kierkegaard, both in terms of his faith and in terms of his understanding of tragedy and comedy.

Rather than other dying-rising god-myths being analagous to Jesus Christ as the consummate tragi-comic hero, those myths belong to an inferior canon and remain subservient to His story, especially as they fail to satisfy (1) the attributes of God thoroughly considered and (2) the nature of tragedy and comedy rightly understood, not merely as literary constructs but rather as literary constructs that witness to objective reality, specifically the objective reality of death and life. Religions and gods that deny those objective realities may conform to the literary structure of tragedy and comedy, but they cannot fulfill the philosophical import of tragedy and comedy as death affirming, life affirming realities.

"Reach hither thy finger . . . Reach hither thy hand . . . "

Hippie Fringe said...

(1) the attributes of God thoroughly considered and (2) the nature of tragedy and comedy rightly understood...Made me grin.

Again, I do not believe Christianity teaches that mater is not real! I pointed out the mysterious nature of Christ simply to stress the requirement of faith.

In a world view where matter is real and man is matter, the hero must be matter too. Why? Because unless he was of the same substance as man, he would not fulfill human experience (life and death). It is the god-human connection not the god-matter connection that ultimately legitimizes the human hero. It is the fulfillment and triumph of human experience. By the way, I agree that Krishna is not a cosmic hero.

In a world view where mater is not real, the god-man hero must join man in whatever state man is believed to exist. Again it is a mater of faith. For a Hindu, Krishna is the fulfillment. For me Christ is that fulfillment.