[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Wed May 7 19:24:27 EDT 2008

>From Greg Desilet:

Hi Ed,
Thanks very much for your comments. You raise important questions and I will 
attempt to answer them by inserting comments directly between your remarks. 
I'll put my responses in bold but I don't know how well this will transfer to 
the online discussion--hopefully it will be clear to all who's "speaking."

> 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.
> You're very kind! Thank you. 
> 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).
> Okay. I'm willing to give up the Christian association although I think I 
> could make a case for it (but going down that trail may sidetrack us from the 
> more important issue). 
> 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 History."
> Yes, I strongly agree with you here about the applicability to Eastern 
> cultures (and I also say something along these lines in my book). However, when it 
> comes to Burke's "Iron Law of History". . . It may well be that it appears 
> as an Iron Law when we look at the historical record, but the substance of 
> much of my disagreement with Burke rests on the notion that this "Iron Law of 
> History" is NOT an "Iron Law of Human Nature." Actually, I would argue that it 
> has not even been an "Iron Law of History" insofar as the Greek experience 
> (as evident in Greek tragic drama) indicates a different orientation toward 
> conflict and deadly violence. Now, I understand this is a possible point of 
> contention, so more on this below.
> 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.
> Yes, we're in agreement here.
> 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.
> As for Burke and I defining tragedy differently, on the whole I think I have 
> to agree with you. However, in Chapter 11 of my book "Catharsis 
> Reconsidered" I draw extensively on Burke in the process of presenting an interpretation 
> of Greek tragic drama that seems, by Burke's own allowance, to defy the "Iron 
> Law of History." I draw on Burke's essay "On Catharsis, or Resolution" from 
> Kenyon Review, 1959. Here Burke discusses Greek tragic drama (specifically 
> Antigone) as providing "a charitable interpretation of dramatic catharsis by 
> victimage." Burke explains how such a possibility points to a principle that 
> "could arise outside the motive usually stressed by psychoanalysts: the 
> 'projection' of one's own ills upon a scapegoat" (Burke, p. 361). Burke argues 
> further that "Tragedy can also become partisan by not going beyond such [emotion] 
> as arouses moral indignation. For instance, had Sophocles' Creon not 
> retracted, the audience would have felt pity only for Antigone, and that pity would 
> have made them gloat vindictively at Creon's 'well-deserved' misfortunes" 
> (Burke, p. 362). 
> Burke describes Antigone as a drama achieving a "nonpartisan catharsis," a 
> "civic" and emotional catharsis that produces a lessening of divisive tensions 
> in the "body politic" while heightening appreciation of the complexity of 
> conflict. So it would seem here that Burke distinguishes between tragic drama 
> that remains "partisan" by not going beyond emotions that arouse polarized 
> "moral indignation" and "nonpartisan" tragic drama (such as Antigone) where 
> catharsis and emotional alignments spread to (or derive from) both sides of the 
> conflict. In another text I believe Burke speaks of "factional" and 
> "universal" tragedy (I can't remember the citation right now).
> So, while on the whole I think Burke employs the sense of tragic drama as 
> partisan and factional, which is the sense that would correspond to melodrama, 
> Burke would appear to acknowledge the difference in Greek tragic drama, much 
> as Nietzsche (and I) have argued. Greek tragic drama is a different "animal" 
> and approaches the experience of and response to conflict in a way 
> significantly different from partisan tragedy or melodrama. But while this may 
> complicate the understanding of Burke (he's amazingly multi-perspectival!), this does 
> not yet address Ed's next issue. 
> 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?
> "And, when the exigence is compelling, it militates against complexity of 
> presentation." Here's where I get a little nervous. When, for the sake of 
> expeditious action, are we "authorized" to simplify the presentation of differing 
> points of view or conflict to the structure of melodrama? Could the rhetoric 
> that launched the Iraq War have been a little too geared for exigence and not 
> sufficiently geared for complexity? The consequences suggest the possibility 
> that the "axis of evil" rhetoric and the rush to military action may have 
> proceeded on the basis of insufficient examination of the situation and 
> insufficient appreciation of the complexity of the factions in Iraq. And, for the 
> sake of fair and full disclosure this "Monday quarterbacking" comes from 
> someone (yes, me) who supported the vote for war in Iraq (demonize and scapegoat me 
> if you like---just kidding!). I had my reasons, which I won't go into here, 
> and a part of me still supports the notion of intervention in Iraq as I 
> supported intervention in Kosovo. But these situations only go to show us how 
> complicated conflict in the real world is and how complicated it is to 
> "intervene" (and how life can make us all look pretty stupid at times!). 
> 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."
> Okay, perhaps, following Burke, we can call it "factional tragedy." But I 
> think "melodrama" has more common currency and a case can be made for the 
> appropriateness of the term. For example, the "melo" in melodrama could be taken 
> to mean that the substantial "tragic" element of the drama has been removed, 
> replaced, or whitewashed with a "superficial" view of conflict that distorts 
> reality beyond the necessity of the usual "reflection and deflection" of 
> reality Burke rightly ascribes to all "terminological screens." Insofar as 
> "melodrama" offers an overly reductionistic view of conflict, it may serve to point 
> toward the simplification of conflict rather than a less tragic view of the 
> potentially violent outcome of conflict. In this sense, Hitler may be seen as 
> offering us a "melodramatization" of conflict, an outrageous simplification 
> of conflict, that masks its complexity. 
> And, according to Aristotle, tragic dramas need not end badly (with death). 
> Similarly, melodramas need not be seen as ending "lite"ly (that is, without 
> violence). Furthermore, many melodramas end with the death of a villain that 
> is portrayed as cause for celebration (Lord of the Rings, for example). When 
> we are persuaded to "celebrate" the demise of certain villains, I have trouble 
> seeing that as a properly "tragic" portrayal. George Gerbner calls this 
> "happy violence," which is fairly consistent with the ring of "melodrama." 
> Hitler's actions, understood as within the frame of melodrama, are only 
> viewed as "tragic" by someone not in that frame but in the larger frame that sees 
> the blindness of his actions. We are brought to see the "tragic drama" 
> behind the "melodrama" (happy cleansing violence) only when we come to see the 
> melodramatic structuring of the conflict as a terrible delusion (as per what I 
> call "reflexive melodrama"-- which is a close cousin of tragic drama). Burke 
> sometimes wants to see this human "blindness" or "mistakenness" as evidence of 
> a "comic" frame, but when it results in deadly violence and genocide it's 
> hard to align this with a "comic" frame. This is similar to the problem Ed has 
> with "melodrama" but I have even more of a problem with Burke's "comic" 
> framing.
> 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 
> redemptive-expressive, discourse?
> 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.
> Yes, but in Chapter 15 of my book "The Melodramatization of American 
> Culture" I try to make the case that the rhetoric of melodrama, the simplification 
> and polarization of conflict, helps to institute and attitude toward any given 
> conflict, and, as Burke notes, attitudes are predispositions to act. If I 
> overly "demonize" an opponent I prepare myself and others toward actions that 
> could create a level of disrespect that would dehumanize persons to a degree 
> that facilitates grossly manipulative behaviors that lead potentially to 
> violence (think here of the abortion clinic bomber) or degrading behaviors (hate 
> crimes). Meeting every opponent in a conflict with a polarizing "pen" could 
> very easily lead to the "sword" at the crossroads. Like Oedipus, can we be so 
> certain of who we encounter at the crossroads? Didn't the Greeks have 
> something to say about that kind of certainty?
> 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, he 
> said.
> 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 in 
> Heaven.
> 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 difference.
> Yes, but as I argue above this is a difference that can easily evaporate as 
> the conflict heats up. Do we really want to be fanning the flames of 
> polarization in the hope that the underlying attitude (and polarizing structure) will 
> not explode into something worse? There's a downside here just as there may 
> be a downside to seeing every conflict through the lens of great complexity 
> (i.e., tragic drama). However, I believe that seeing EVERY conflict through 
> some degree of the lens of tragic drama can promote a greater overall benefit 
> to humanity. Some conflicts appear simple and some persons actions appear as 
> flat-out wrong. But even here we can learn something about people by seeing 
> more deeply and attempting to understand why they behave as they do. Bill 
> O'Reilly notwithstanding, I don't think this need lead us into paralysis nor a 
> situation where people are not held accountable. For example, we need to be 
> tough on crime but at the same time we do not need to treat the criminal as an 
> insect (and here I don't mean to suggest that anyone here would). The more we 
> appreciate why people do as they do the more we can achieve better culture 
> whereby fewer people become criminals. Here I'm thinking not so much of 
> rehabilitation (though not excluding it) as education (from infancy on). And I 
> realize that's no easy thing. But will structuring any conflict melodramatically 
> make human relations any easier or better? I don't think so. It will only serve 
> to incline us to more easily overlook something important. 
> 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 
> material sense?
> As I suggest, following Burke, "factional tragedy" may prove useful here, 
> but I still like "melodrama." I think "tragedy-lite" is a little too much of an 
> oxymoron to do the job.
> I will have to respond to your other post later, as I'm running out of time. 
> I appreciate the discussion.
> Greg
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