[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama
Edappel8 at cs.com
Tue May 6 12:47:42 EDT 2008
No other subscriber has yet replied to Greg's insightful explication
of his Greek/Nietzschean model for tragic drama, as opposed to Burke's
"Christian," "soteriological" model. I'll try to pick up the thread with this
offering. Let me say at the outset that Greg's book on melodrama, in my view, is
exceedingly impressive, as are, likewise, the two posts here forwarded.
First, let me say that I don't think Burke is tied to a "Christian"
view of drama in general, or a "Christian" view of tragic drama in particular.
I hold to the stance of Tompkins and Cheney (in a QJS forum piece), to wit,
that Burke is using cultural materials at hand to illustrate what he calls the
"Iron Law of History," based on an understanding of human nature that predates
Christian faith. The Christian drama of salvation serves as a readily
understandable paradigm of dramatic action, worked out to "the end of the line," for
denizens of Western culture. Note the various "purgation" ceremonies Burke
briefly cites as exemplary in his section on "Recommending by Tragedy" in P&C
(pp. 195-97). Eastern religions, as well as Eastern cultures, are not devoid of
drama in this view. Some may lean more toward Burkean comedy than toward
Burkean tragedy, but they are still expressive of some form of the "Iron Law of
I certainly support the point Greg makes in his QJS essay on Nietzsche
and Burke to the effect that, in general, Burke ties the notion of "tragedy"
to the entelechial binaries of "good" vs. "evil," and the perfected scapegoat
mechanism that resolves such heightened conflict, temporarily within time,
permanently in the purview of "negative theology." Of course, such tragic drama,
as Burke would tend to call it, is Burke's bete noir, the symbol-user's
"rottenness" writ perfectly large. In the sense of "attitude" toward those
extremes of drama, Burke would no doubt, I submit, have seconded Desilet's repugnace,
and did so again and again.
Note, though, that Burke and Desilet, by way of Aristotle and
Nietzsche, are defining "tragedy" in different ways. For Burke, tragedy, as we have
indicated, goes with "entelechy," "perfectionism," and "end of the line"
schematization of all the moments of the drama (see Rueckert, Human Relations, pp.
210, 212). Desilet's notion of tragedy is not so schematized. Referring to
Greg's book here, a "basic inner conflict," "meaningful identification with both
sides (or all sides) of a conflict," "nonpartisan catharsis," and
"mistaken[ness]" go with tragedy (pp. 77, 120, 121, 160). For Burke, they go with
comedy, not tragedy (ATH, pp. 39-44, 166-175). There's a loose-endedness, an
ambiguity, to the notion of tragedy in the Aristotelian frame.
The question I have as a rhetorician is, which approach is more
serviceable for application to practical discourse in the public square? I in no
way take issue with the Aristotelian definition in respect to the "imitation of
an action" for artistic, entertainment, interpretive, appreciative, perhaps
also instructional purposes. That's the seat in life for theatrical and
literary drama. However, what about the rhetoric that addresses, in Bitzer's term,
the "exigence" that engenders conflict in the political and social realms? It
is founded on the assumption that the audience has the ability to act and act
forecefully, if not presently, at least eventually. It assumes an inherent
freedom to so act. And, when the exigence is compelling, it militates against
complexity of presentation. What is an enthememe for?
Anyway, scores of interpreters and users of Burke, including such top
scholars as Rueckert, Griffin, Burmmett, and Crusius, have employed the
language of "tragedy" to label the "perfected" drama of Hitler-style rhetors. To
them, it hasn't been mere "melodrama."
More important, the hokiness of connotation in the term "melodrama"
does not prepare us, I don't believe, for the tragic dangers inherent in,
implied by way of, the categorical expressions of guilt and victimage the Hitlers of
the world recommend as incentives to their listeners. As Burke has said,
"Spontaneous speech is not a naming at all, but [rather] a system of attitudes,
of implicit exhortations" (P&C, p. 177). Burke might be exaggerating a bit
here, but his point is still well taken. The tag "melodrama" for the ultimates
of "crisis rhetoric" in the political arena lulls us into a false sense of
security, I do believe. Don't worry your pretty little head over this bloviation,
it seems to say. It's only "melodrama."
Most important, on the public, rhetorical side of things, tragedy's
disappearing as a taxonomic label altogether makes the relatively innocuous
binaries of a Robert La Follette (see Burgchardt, QJS, 1985) and a Tom Delay (two
paradigmatic melodramatists in my view) indistingishable from what I would
call the "tragic" oratory of a Hitler or a Falwell. Hitler called for the
extirpation of the Jews as early as April, 1922, in a speech at the Burgerbraukeller
in Munich. We all know what that appeal led to a couple of decades later.
Falwell, a Fundamentalist Evangelical Christian, has sent his enemies to hell,
where they will burn forever in excuciating torment in a resurrected body.
Likewise, Pope Benedict has warned non-Catholics of their unlikely prospect of
salvation outside the Catholic Church. Hell is real, he says, not a myth. In
the current Catholic catechism, hell is described a "a place of fire." Do you
note a significant disparity between the routine scapegoating of party
conflict in a democracy, and the fatal inducements and threats in revolutionary, or
What do the La Follettes and Delays call for, in respect to the
scapegoat mechanism? Totally reject the disfavored ideology. Defeat our opponents
at the polls. Do not send them to the far corners of the earth forever and a
day, much less kill them or torment them in perpetuity.
Agent and purpose are likewise sharply moderated in the what I would
call the "melodrama," or "tragedy-lite," of a Delay or La Follette. Hitler
compared himself to the Lord in his fight against the Jews, in his 1922 adress.
Falwell presented himself as so dedicated and energetic a champion of his
cause, even his son Jerry, Jr., coudn't keep up with him. He got his program and
plans for the Thomas Road ministries and Liberty University directly from God,
Hitler's redemptive vision was, as we all know, a Thousand-Year Reich.
Falwell's earthly outcome was a 50,000-member church, a Fundamentalist
Harvard, all sorts of national extensions of various Thomas Road ministries, and a
missionary outreach from the hub in Lynchburg that would win the world for
Christ in our generation. Add to that vision the Millennium and eternal bliss
Are we to make no generic distinction between the "melodrama" of a
Delay and a La Follette, and the putative and deeply-threatening "melodrama" of a
Hitler or a Falwell, with their visions of redemptive fulfillment grandiose
beyond human measure? Let's just reign in the corporate malefactors (La
Follette), or cut taxes and get government out of our lives (Delay). What a
I have trouble with conflating these two levels or intensities of
dramatic appeal. The gulf between them is wide, indeed. What are we to call that
mode of discourse that so very frequently begets tragedy in the physical and
That's enough for now. I hope some other Burkophiles chime in on this
matter. Greg, I'm sure, would appreciate it.
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