It is evidently possible for some people to hear of a mining disaster, a burned-out family, a broken career or a smash on the road without feeling these events as tragic in the full sense. But the starkness of such a position (which I believe to be sincerely held) is of course at once qualified by the description of such events as accidents which, however painful or regrettable, do not connect with any general meanings. The real key, to the modern separation of tragedy from ‘mere suffering’, is the separation of ethical control and, more critically, human agency, from our understanding of social and political life. The events which are not seen as tragic are deep in the pattern of our own culture: war, famine, work, traffic, politics. To see no ethical content or human agency in such events, or to say that we cannot connect them with general meanings, and especially with permanent and universal meanings, is to admit a strange and particular bankruptcy, which no rhetoric of tragedy can finally hide.
But to see new relations and new laws is also to change the nature of experience, and the whole complex of attitudes and relationships dependent on it. Its most common historical setting is the period preceding the substantial breakdown and transformation of an important culture. Its condition is the real tension between old and new: between received beliefs, embodied in institutions and responses, and newly and vividly experienced contradictions and possibilities. If the received beliefs have widely or wholly collapsed, this tension is obviously absent; to that extent their real presence is necessary. But beliefs can be both active and deeply questioned, not so much by other beliefs as by insistent immediate experience. In such situations, the common process of dramatising and resolving disorder and suffering is intensified to the level which can be most readily recognized as tragedy.
The most common interpretation of tragedy is that it is an action in which the hero is destroyed. This fact is seen as irreparable. At a simple level this is so obviously true that the formula usually gets little further examination. But it is of course still an interpretation, and a partial one. We move away from actual tragedies, and not towards them, when we abstract and generalise the very specific forces that are so variously dramatised. We move away, even more decisively, from a common tragic action, when we interpret tragedy as only the dramatisation and recognition of evil. You see, my business is trying to arouse human pity, There are a few things that’ll move people to pity, a few, but the trouble is, when they’ve been used several times, they no longer work. Human beings have the horrid capacity of being able to make themselves heartless at will. So it happens, for instance, that a man who sees another man on the street corner with only a stump for an arm will be so shocked the first time that he’ll give him sixpence. But the second time it’ll be only a threepenny bit. And if he sees him a third time, he’ll hand him over cold-bloodedly to the police. It’s the same with these spiritual weapons.