[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama
Edappel8 at cs.com
Fri May 9 10:57:42 EDT 2008
Look, I think this whole debate boils down to the what Burke calls the
entelechial motive, versus a metaperspective on the entelechial motive. As
we follow the main thread of his treatment of tragedy, Burke attaches it
directly to entelechy, perfection. "We might almost lay it down as a rule of
thumb," Burke says: "Where someone is straining to do something, look for evidence
of the tragic mechanism" (P&C, p. 195). The "tragic mechanism" here referenced
is, for Burke, the symbolic slaying of self and/or other, the partial or
representative slaying of self and/or other, or the actual slaying of self and/or
other. Death, or its symbolic or partial representation, is a perfected
sacrifice for violation of the rules that keep social hierarchies in place. In the
main, other moments of the drama are likewise elevated to such grandiose
heights in Burke's explication of tragedy. I won't bore you with copious
There are exceptions to this general pattern in Burke, to be sure.
Greg cited the 1959 article in the Kenyon Review. I cited a few sentences in a
footnote in ATH. In these passages, Burke seems to work from an Aristotelian
frame in his analysis of tragedy. There's a bit more evidence still to credit
the "melodrama" argument Greg makes that I elucidate in my article. I won't
go into it here. It's ancillary, not central to Burke's dealings with the
Remember this: More than one Burke reader and/or critic has noted
Burke's tendency to create his own vocabulary. Like a character out of Alice in
Wonderland, words mean for Burke what Burke says they mean. And Burke by and
large links "tragedy" with the "theological motive of perfection." That's why
he says in P&C that "every full religious expression touches upon tragedy" (p.
Now, the metaperspective on the entelechial extremes we find way too
much of in the symbol-users' actions, as manifested in real-life human striving
and in talk about that striving, or inducement to that striving, Burke, of
course, puts front and center in his program. He attaches it to "comedy,"
however, not to "tragedy." For Burke, "tragedy" breeds "euphemism," the sharply
blinkered take on reality Greg is finding in "melodrama." "Burlesque" goes with
"debunkiing," harsh and cruel ridicule of everything the target groups or
orientations stand for. "Comedy" is the locus of the "ambivalence" that sees the
folly both sides or all sides in a conflict are guilty of (ATH). That's the
genre of human attitude and symbolic action that fosters what Greg calls, in
his book, a "synagonistic," as opposed to an "antagonistic," conception of
wrongdoing and blameworthiness in a conflict.
My point is, a multitude of scholars and critics have followed Burke
down this generic path. They have read Burke correctly, in my view. They have
labeled entelechial discourse and orientations to life, "tragic frame." Now
these interpreters are being told, by a chorus that has, I think, reached
critical mass, that they are wrong. The stuff they've been calling---I've been
calling---"tragedy" is "melodrama." I have attempted to anatomize the
contradiction, if not conflict, in generic assessment, and offer some reasons for
crediting the Burkean take on the extremes of "crisis rhetoric" that has gone
before. I in no way assume I'll have the last word on this matter. My calling
attention to this critical "exigence," as I tag it, is meant to inaugurate a
conversation. That's fundamentally Burkean enough right there.
A quick look back once more at Moby Dick, that Les has reintroduced.
You may recall that David Langston suggested that Melville's novel gave
expression to many different genres of literature or discourse, including comedy.
Greg has called the novel a "reflexive melodrama." I think that, despite the
death and mayhem that is central to Melville's saga, a comic ambivalence, as I
think Burke might label it, surfaces at the conclusion.
See ya' gals and guys.
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