In the midst of my depression after watching Mao Asada compete at the Olympics and fail to win her desired gold medal, I found myself reflecting on Arthur Miller’s classic essay on tragedy, “Tragedy and the Common Man.”
On tragedy, Miller writes:
“As a general rule, to which there may be exceptions unknown to me, I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing-his sense of personal dignity. From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in his society…Tragedy, then, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.”
“In the sense of having been initiated by the hero himself, the tale always reveals what has been called his ‘tragic flaw,’ a failing that is not peculiar to grand or elevated characters. Nor is it necessarily a weakness. The flaw, or crack in the characters, is really nothing-and need be nothing, but his inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.”
In other words, a story is considered “tragic” when you have a protagonist who will do anything, perhaps even give up his life, in order to defend what he believes in, in order to defend his dignity. The “tragic flaw,” which leads to the protagonist’s downfall, is really a failure to compromise, an absolute belief in one’s self and one’s ideas.
For example, in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” which is based on the Salem witch trials, protagonist John Proctor is executed because he refuses to lie; he refuses to falsely confess to witchcraft even though it would save his life. In Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” the protagonists sacrifice their lives because of their steadfast belief that their love should trump any earthly opposition, any trivial family feud.
In the case of Mao Asada, I see her absolute belief in her programs and her triple axel as her “tragic flaw,” her point of no compromise. After her disastrous showing at the Cup of Russia, everyone urged her to change her programs and her jump layout. Even her coach, Tatiana Tarasova suggested they change her programs. But Mao Asada refused to budge. She steadfastly believed that she could make her programs work, she believed that she could land those triple axels, and she believed that the combination could win her the gold medal. In her mind, if she could successfully accomplish her programs, then her “rightful position” would be Olympic champion.
“Now, if it is true that tragedy is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly, his destruction in the attempt posits a wrong or an evil in his environment. And this is precisely the morality of tragedy and its lesson…The tragic right is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct.”
Tragic heroes meet their downfall not because they are wrong, but because the environment is unfair, corrupt, or evil. It is this environment that prevents the tragic hero from realizing his full potential, his full aims. And this is why tragedy exposes the flaws in the environment, it teaches us what is wrong with the system.
For example, in “The Crucible,” John Proctor is not able to save himself and bring the true culprits to justice because he refuses to adhere to the corrupt, fear-driven justice system. In the end, although he is innocent, he is hung in the gallows. This story shows us the evil side of witch hunts. In “Romeo and Juliet,” the protagonists are not able to live “happily ever after” because of an acrimonious family feud. This story teaches us the wrongness of perpetuating feuds, of asking children to pay for the sins of their parents.
And in the case of Mao Asada, I think the fact she was not rewarded for what she did in the short program and the fact that she probably would have lost by a large margin even if she had skated clean in the free implies that there is something wrong with the judging system.
You may argue that if Mao Asada and her team wanted to win, they should have played more strategically, they should have milked the system. They should have clearly known what the base value of her programs were before the Olympics; they should have known that the judges were not rewarding her jumps with the GOEs they wanted and not rewarding her programs with high PCS.
But that’s not the point. Mao Asada believed she should win with these programs; in their hearts, they believed that the skater with the most difficulty—the one with the triple axel, with the most complex footwork, with the most exhausting program—should be the one who wins. Mao Asada remained committed to these programs not only because she thought she could win with them, but also because she believed they represented what the best in figure skating SHOULD be. But that’s not what the system rewarded. And since I view these result as a tragedy, I see the system as wrong.
There is one more point about Miller’s view on tragedies that I want to discuss.
About the meaning of tragedies, Miller writes:
“There is a misconception of tragedy with which I have been struck in review after review, and in many conversations with writers and readers alike. It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to pessimism. Even the dictionary says nothing more about the word than that it means a story with a sad or unhappy ending. This impression is so firmly fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker’s brightest opinions of the human animal.”
Yes, tragedy may be sad, it may be depressing, but it is not pessimistic. Surprisingly, it is through tragedy that we can glimpse the full potential of humanity and the greatness of the human soul.
“Pathos truly is the mode for the pessimist. But tragedy requires a nicer balance between what is possible and what is impossible. And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief-optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.”
And that is why I will continue to be a Mao fan even if she tragically fails to win. Because in her steadfast will to stand by the programs she wants to do and her desire to challenge the technical barriers, I do feel I am glimpsing “the indestructible will of man” and an attempt to reach perfection.
Even if it doesn’t win her points with the judges, Mao Asada makes me believe that the impossible might just be possible.
And as Miller says, it is those tragic heroes, those tragedies, that we remember, and revere, century after century.