Groups of people never stop longing to vomit up their emotions together, however large and incoherent our groups become; it seems to be a thing we do. The ancient Athenians refined this process through drama and called it catharsis. We’ve used the fruits of tens of thousands of years of technological progress to dumb it back down to its primitive roots in what used to be known as scapegoating. But we call it “Twitter.”
High Greek tragedy was an elegantly ornamented safety valve for the ugly insanity that comes of our discomfort in society—which is nothing compared to our discomfort outside of it. Instead of running folks out of town on a virtual rail to get their kicks, they fooled their brains into treating actors on a stage as though they were sacrificial victims.
We sort of remember this, or at least we find it prestigious to pretend we understand it. But over the centuries this controlled descent into and back up from the craziest communal disturbances has devolved—in turn—to Christian passion plays, bourgeois theater, hippie theater, and then the Twitter mob: depending on whether one subscribes to the left team or the right team, we jump on whomever is not—or is too—politically correct at the moment. Hooray! What a poor substitute for the whole virtual village getting catharsis together; no wonder we’re all losing it.
Out of an obscure song and dance ritual in honor of the god Dionysos, the Greeks erected the theatrical conventions of tragedy, conveniently explained to us across the ages by Aristotle. Since their intention was as utilitarian and community-minded as it was religious, the Athenian catharsis was triply sincere.
Most of what we’ve done lately to imitate them has been as insincere as it has been ineffectual. Since writing “for the community” has become the province of either commercial shills (TV), academic navel-gazers (literary fiction), or clickbait-chasers (me, you, and the entire rest of the Internet hellscape), everyone is too busy foraging for either self-expression and fulfillment (litfic) or clicks, rent money, and notoriety (the Internet), to care whether they give anybody real catharsis, or even substantive distraction.
Aside from its beauty, tragedy was the best way to solve the social problem of human feels. The older Greek myths—such as the Zeus Lycaon (wolf-Zeus) myths—speak of a pre-literate, pre-Trojan-War culture in which the group need for sacrifice and purification was indulged through killing people as an offertory to the gods. Eventually somebody noticed this was gross and cruel, and the less, er, personally insulting practice of animal sacrifice became a cultural norm.
Which was far tastier on feast days, but not cathartic enough.
Killing a person is much more delicious than offing a cow, considering all the frustrations of life and their often-human roots. Not to mention the maddeningly unequal distributions of the Fates. But few modern people will volunteer to directly die for their communities, unless it involves a salary and war with another bunch. Gunning down one’s immediate social superiors—and if you’re as young as the infamous wave of school shooters, we’re all each other’s social superiors if you mull over it long enough—is more fulfilling. After all, we don’t experience catharsis with our neighbors anymore. We voice our griefs to like-minded souls on the Internet. It is perfectly feasible to feel community with people thousands of miles away while feeling alienated from the people next door. We can’t hear our Internet friends’ loud music. And they can censor their prejudices against us.
Back when different cultural groups lived a few days’ ride apart, xenophobia could function as a general release valve without any individuals necessarily needing to die… till it was time for war, the agnostic’s only way of dying for a reason. But in empires like America and Rome, where assimilated immigrants from every chunk of the globe live cheek by jowl, “going to war” is just a trip to the liquor store away. Not real useful in keeping the peace domestically.
The Greek catharsis was far from a panacea—Athens went to war very stupidly with Sparta at the height of her dramatic powers—but at least they didn’t have to draw straws over who goes in the wickerman.
Instead of tearing people apart, the Greeks learned to watch the Maenads onstage tear Pentheus to bits. Not quite enough to salve that brutal yearning, but for most people it was enough to hold it off for a while. Instead of killing their own stupid brothers, they watched Seven Against Thebes. Instead of putting their eyes out over the horror of it all, they watched the Oedipus plays and then went back to their own fates.
With gaps for Ostrogoths, this form of public puking worked for a while (in the West as well as the East, about which I know less, but it seems Japanese drama offered similar solutions). And though our ancestors mourned their dead through plagues and droughts and famines, through those disasters they unwittingly avoided a scourge they couldn’t have imagined in their worst fever dreams: a city-state of seven billion, 3.5 billion of which are simultaneously striving to be heard in the hellish chorus of the Internet, where nobody matters for very long.
In this world, connection to the local polis breaks down the moment you stick your head in a screen; as grumpy about the Internet as I am, it has crept up my legs to the point where I know people who live thousands of miles away better than I know my neighbors. Chicago, the city where my IP address can be found, has plenty of great small theater, but the American cultural megaglob notices a peep from it approximately once a decade.
Can you imagine the equivalent of the rise of Sophocles happening here? It sounds like a stand-up bit: imagine every Internet denizen who understands English watching the same meaty video on Youtube at once. Like herding cats! But Greek catharsis didn’t come from something as insipid as a cat GIF, much less a partisan political video about some rhetorical or legal chance at triumph. No, imagine all of us watching a complex drama in which an accursed king of an accursed house puts out his eyes, and everyone watches in cleansing horror without turning away, without heading for their hugbox.
You can’t stop laughing, can you? Catharsis of that sort is too easy to avoid now. And yet we need to dump our hard drives. So we revert to human sacrifice, of the most bloodless kind. Our ritual killings are as half-assed as our catharsis: we run people to ground via social media. And it actually hurts them, which is the saddest part of it all.
I guess I’m too old to feel like I’m genuinely being attacked when people say mean stuff about me online, but apparently the Millennial consciousness is so shaped that online insults feel like being roasted over a fire; and indeed, there is evidence that ostracism in any form hurts your brain just like chewing your own arm off (apparently this happened because evolution couldn’t be bothered to come up with two separate circuits for physical and emotional pain; imagine what history might have been like if it hadn’t been so damn lazy).
Leading the Internet mob is as easy as slapping on a white hat. You don’t need to stick to a locally resonant myth like Oedipus, and in fact you can’t. You must appeal to a bland universal, which comes down to good guy versus bad; yell it self-righteously enough and the international masses will run to dump all of their emotional junk into your victim.
It began with leftist ideologues attacking everyone who looked at them funny, but now even white people have begun to whine about imaginary incidents of racism. Just check out these folks crying to the press because somebody thought they were being sissies about their curry. I sort of understand the desire to get a piece of the whine with your cheese, but cripes, if all the other ethnic groups jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?
Although I love seeing a good Intertube pile-on happen to people I don’t like, so does everyone else; and the problem remains: we always pile on harder than they deserve, because it feels so good. And that would be perfectly fine if we were piling on a fictional character. But we’re piling on actual people. We are too unimaginative for fictional tragedy.
I’ve written tragedies in the modern vein, and so have several schmucks I know; but we will never loom large enough to lead any meaningful group catharsis. Mainstream “literary fiction” is wan, trustfundian, and hatefully dull—you might say this is none of my business, but this crapola is drowning the real thing. It pushes potential readers back toward Candy Crush before they get close to giving our few real tragedies a glance.
So it’s back to cannibalism. Pass me a foot and the salt.