[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com 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 
references here.

       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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