Friday, June 11, 2010

No Tragedy

Two things struck me while I was watching Alex Gibney's documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, thanks to its recent airings on CNBC, one amusingly positive and the other more solidly negative. The positive one involved Gibney's decision to use music from Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach in his soundtrack. Ultimately the Enron scandal was all about the consequences of running a business in which numbers had more "reality" than any "real world observables;" and anyone who knows Glass' score knows exactly the connection the Gibney made. Those who do not know this music can check out the audio sample for "Knee Play 1" on the page for the original recording and will get the point within a matter of seconds!

I am not suggesting that this is the only positive attribute of Gibney's film, but I feel there is one glaring negative. In fairness to Gibney, the source of this negative quality is attributed entirely to Bethany McLean, co-author of the book of the same title that provided most of the source material for the documentary. I realize that mine will probably be a minority opinion; but I found McLean's repeated use of the noun "tragedy" to be as annoying as it was inaccurate. The nature of her inaccuracy has a lot to do with my being in a minority, because it is based on the precept in Aristotle's "Poetics" that tragedy is concerned with noble men, while comedy "is an imitation of baser men." It seems to me that a key element in both the book and the film is that none of the actors are in any way noble, not only in terms of any position in the class system but also in terms of the human values that lie at the heart of Aristotle's conception of what drama is and why it is important. Nevertheless, I recognize that Aristotle is far from the top of many reading lists these days!

Aristotle's position may best be appreciated in the full title that Alexander Pushkin gave to his play about Boris Godunov: A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev. Pushkin's play is ultimately about the baser instincts of the Russian people and only marginally about a few key individuals whose actions are ultimately guided by those instincts. In other words it is all about a chaotic mélange of self interests, none of which are even moderately enlightened. The suggestion that the key "players" in Enron were "the smartest guys" ultimately plays as irony. Theirs is a "comedy of distress" in which the comedy is all the sharper because that distress was entirely of their own making. From a literary point of view, this is a comedy that had been anticipated by David Mamet in his play Glengarry Glen Ross (probably more familiar to most readers than any of Pushkin's texts); but even the Greeks understood the idea that comedy could emerge from distress.

I suppose there are those who would object that the word "comedy" can be applied to the victims of Enron, as well as to the perpetrators. However, I think that this is one of the key points that Pushkin had in mind. "Ordinary people" are not noble. They have enough trouble living from day to day to have time for the more elevated thinking of nobility. What Aristotle may have implied is that only nobles have the resources to both contemplate destiny and try to do something about it (hopefully something based on reason). Everyone else is never anything more than a "victim of circumstances" (to once again draw upon the language of William Schwenck Gilbert). Perhaps the only distinction between victims and perpetrators has to do with who deserves to suffer the consequences that ensue; but this question seems to be beyond the scope of Aristotle's "Poetics" and must be considered by more contemporary minds. However, I suspect even those contemporaries are likely to share my annoyance with McLean's sloppy use of language for the sake of what is basically an unnecessary rhetorical flourish.

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