In those days in school, we would be asked, “What is Tragedy?”
This was a reference to Tragedy as one of the major categories of literature in the Western tradition. Most likely, the elements of tragedy occur in all literary traditions. My point of reference, here, however, is the critical discussion of this form of literature as developed in Western scholarship originating in Europe Its possible that there exist other contexts of critical discussion of Tragedy that are not rooted in or or related to the Western exploration of this concept, from Aristotle in ancient Greece to the present, but so far, I am not aware of them.
One response to the question of the nature of tragedy was to state that tragedy occurs when the story ends badly for the central character in the story. Comedy, on the other hand, could be described as when the story ends pleasantly for the central character.
From Aristotle to the present, however, critics have been at pains to point out that tragedy in the specialised sense of a literary form, a particular manner of marshaling or weaving the relationship between motivation and incident in literature, goes well beyond the fact of a sad ending. Aristotle's Poetics is significantly dedicated to exploring this expanded meaning. George Steiner's The Death of Tragedy (1961) argues for the decline of the form on account of the shrinking cosmological imagination of the West as he saw it, from what I understand the book is about. Wole Soyinka examines tragedy in his Myth, Literature and the African World (1976), and a work of his that dramatises the subject splendidly is his semi-epic poem “Idanre”. More recently, Terry Eagleton brought out Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (2002).
Tragedy is sufficiently compelling and sufficiently elusive to command attention across the centuries in critical discourse. It recurs repeatedly in literature of different cultures and civilisations. In spite of the range of approaches it invites, certain threads remain constant. These threads can be understood as summed up in the story of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
My understanding of this unifying thread in tragic literature is the tension between choice and inevitability and the negotiation of this tension in a manner that brings disaster for the central character in the story. As the story unfolds, the stage seems empty of constricting doors. The character can create their own opportunities, or so it seems. Gradually, as the action develops, there begin to be demonstrated the actual scope of available opportunities, the range of choices open to the character, the progressive closing of some doors as others are opened, the opportunities for response and reaction represented by these doors being mutually exclusive, and, eventually, finding oneself forced into a narrow tunnel of responses, with all other doors closed, with soaring ambitions extinguished.
At the end of it all, the intersection between opportunity, choice and the environment of possibility inspires the questions, to what degree was this experience fated, as with Sophocles’ Oedipus whose fate, prophesied at birth, comes to pass through his own self willed actions in spite of all efforts to avoid it? To what degree was it inevitable, to what degree was it an unavoidable machination of social forces, as may be seen as evoked in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman where the insurance salesman is crushed by the contradictions of capitalism, the dream that hard work brings prosperity? To what degree is it the result of one’s own psychological attitudes, as with Soyinka’s Ogun, who is led by battle lust to slaughter his own men? To what degree is it a conjunction of external and psychological factors as with Shakespeare's Macbeth, who is inspired by the prophecy of the witches to embark on a cold blooded run for power which eventually leads to his defeat at the point he learns the witches can not be trusted?
In all examples of tragedy, there are always windows of opportunity, doors of choice, which if taken, the sad end might have been averted.
If Oedipus had not killed the stubborn elderly man at the crossroads, he would not have committed the act prophesied for him at his birth, of killing his father and marrying his mother, that unknown old man being his father who, to avoid that very eventuality prophesied at his son's birth, had caused his son to grow up in exile ; if Macbeth had not allowed the witches' beguiling words to spur him on, he would not have embarked on the path of murder that led to the death of his accomplice, his wife, and himself, and the defeat of his dreams of power; if the salesman had changed to another, more profitable line of work, he might not have been defeated in the end by the failure of his dreams; if Ogun had maintained control of his battle fury, he would not have slaughtered his men. If Gaddafi had not betrayed the egalitarian vision in terms of which he is described as coming to power in 1969, if he had not chosen to fight unarmed protesters with deadly weapons during their protests in 2011, he would not now be facing an almost inevitable forced exit from power after 42 eventful years, after surviving military attack from the US and ostracism from the West, with various opportunities to make good on his promises of egalitarian social revolution and even to manoeuvre in the centre of this shocking storm currently reshaping the Arab world.
The qualities of character that make it difficult or inevitable for the central character to interpret and respond to the potentially catastrophic development of events in a manner that will enable him or her to salvage themselves is known as the tragic flaw.
One example of this flaw was described by the Greeks as hubris-overweening pride. This is related to the Greek proverb that those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. What kind of madness? Various kinds. One kind is is that of seeing the universe as revolving around you. Yes, it does revolve around you, but only from from within your point of view. It does not seem so to others. So you must factor in how they see you and how they will react to you.
What gods? Perhaps the gods represented by history, by the unleashed will of numerous people who have chosen to destroy the social contract unilaterally written by a man who came to power though a coup, like Gaddafi, and has remained in power for more than four decades. The seemingly unstoppable forces released by Mohamed Bouazizi, the nondescript fruit and vegetable seller in Tunisia who set fire to himself in frustration at the crushing of his meagre earning capacity by the state apparatus who confiscated his cart and perhaps physically abused him, a self immolation in the light of which the Arab world is burning, the flames fuelled by the highly inflammable fuel of pent up frustrations of generations of circumscribed and cheated ambitions. “We yearn for freedom” is the slogan from Tunisia to Yemen.
When such forces are unleashed, everybody is baffled by the startling reconfigurations that are forced into being. A quiet stretch of water suddenly becomes tumultuous with deadly, mountainous waves. Those are the waves that have swept away Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, have destroyed the power of Gaddafi which only exists now as the dying end of a burnt out fire, is about to engulf the decades old rulerships of Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen and which have the other Arab rulers, most of then despots, scrambling to work out damage control mechanisms. It is in the face of unanticipated happenings on such a large scale that people have traditionally invoked the concept of gods, of forces whose scope of power and purposes are beyond comprehension by the human mind.
Who knows where this fire will lead? Global revolution?
Gaddafi's advance towards crushing the rebellion was stopped by an international coalition as Gaddafi’s troops were on the road to Benghazi.
Gaddafi's journey on that road brings together his own tragic flaw, his hubris and the tragic verdict of history.
Hold up in Benghazi were hundreds of people, fighters and non-fighters. The fighters in Bengahzi have vowed to fight to the end. The possibility of victory for them was slim in the absence of tanks, air and sea power and artillery possessed and deployed by Gaddafi's forces. The advantage given to Gaddafi's forces by tanks and sea power and air power would be minimised by the fighting in closely narrow streets, so it would come down to hand to hand fighting, house by house perhaps. Even then carefully selected bombing from the air may have proven significant. In the long run, sheer weight of numbers, superior military prowess and superior weaponry could have proved decisive on Gaddafi's behalf. The death toll and the level of ferocity of the fighting could have been very high since capture for the rebels in the face of Gaddafi's regaining full control of the country is not a fate that is enviable.
What was the best option for Gaddafi in relation to the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi? Declare an amnesty if the fighters agreed to give themselves up? But they are insisting that he must step down as leader of Libya. That would imply the unravelling of plans and visions cultivated for decades, the disruption of a ruling dynasty and of an entrenched network of power. Anita McNaught who interviewed his son Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi on behalf of Al Jazeera argued that Gaddafi was attacking his own people. The question that was not broached was- at what point does internal criticism cross the line to become treason? Will any state allow itself to be co-opted by force from within without a struggle?
Clearly, the strategic mistake Gaddafi made was to respond with violence to non-violent demonstrations. But how was he to ensure that the demonstrations did not destroy his hold on power as they did to Ben Ali in Tunisia and to Mubarak in Egypt, who, after sending out tanks against unarmed people, his army disobeyed the order to quell the protests? Should Gaddafi have acknowledged that the end of his reign had arrived and made a graceful exit? Can he conceive of a life apart from being Muammar Gaddafi, absolute ruler? It appears he cannot. That inability to imagine a life different from that of maximum ruler is the demonstration of his tragic flaw. He sees himself as Libya. The rebels do not think so. Those Arab and Western governments who are now fighting him on behalf of the rebels do not think so.