[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Mon May 12 18:41:54 EDT 2008

>From Greg Desilet, 5/12/08:

Hi Ed, 

Good points and good questions!


Ed: First, a point on interpretation of Burke where he talks about the 
difference between "factional" and "universal" tragedy (ATH, pp. 188-90 n): I get 
the feeling you see Burke's distinction as one between what I, after Burke, am 
calling "tragedy," and what you, Aristotle, and Nietzsche call "tragedy." I 
don't think that's an accurate reading (if I am "reading" you correctly).


Yes, I agree this wouldn’t be an accurate reading of Burke. As for reading me 
on my use of “factional” and “universal” you’re correct to point out the 
possible confusion. 

Ed: In using the term "universal," Burke is still, I offer, operating within 
the Christian soteriological frame, as you call it. At the outset, Burke says, 
"In universal tragedy, the stylistically dignified scapegoat represents 
everyman [sic]. In his offence, he takes upon himself the guilt of all---and HIS 
punishment is MANKIND'S [sic] chastening." The scapegoat mechanism is front and 
center in this subgenre of Burkean tragedy, as it is also in the factional.


When I said in my last post I “took a cue from Burke” on the use of these 
two terms I slid over the possible confusion too quickly. My use of the term 
takes its cue from Burke by indicating a more non-partisan orientation to 
conflict but differs from Burke in that, as you say, the scapegoat mechanism is no 
longer “front and center.” The term “non-partisan” as Burke uses it won’t work 
here either in that, as I argue in “Nietzsche Contra Burke,” the quality of 
conflict referred to when he uses “non-partisan” remains the same only the “
scapegoat” moves from an external target (another person or group) to an 
internal target (a “guilty” aspect of the self, e.g., pride). So while the conflict 
is non-partisan between actors (as seen from the dramatic irony point of 
view) it remains partisan with respect to an unacceptable or guilty part of the 
self. To avoid this confusion in my last post I should have used another term, 
but nothing very good came to mind at that moment (I’m still working on finding 
one—“synagonistic” is quite a mouthful, but it may work better than “
universal” by avoiding the confusion with Burke’s use). 

Ed: The questions for me are---and I think these are Burke's questions---what 
does our terminology prepare us for (P&C, and LASA, "What Are the Signs of 
What?), and how do we best divide up the field, serviceably, in terms of 
"friendly" and "unfriendly" forces and inclinations that confront us\ (ATH)? Now, I 
don't doubt that your terminology has its connotative virtues, as you have 
argued. I just think that mine---Burke's and that of most of Burke's 
interpreters---has more useful connotative and taxonomic value. And I don't think I need to 
go over that territory again.

Yes, you may be right here regarding the connotative and taxonomic value of 
your terminology. I guess the issue boils down to which or what definition of “
tragedy” ought to prevail in, say, academic circles (for the sake of reducing 
confusion and sharpening orientations). Certainly the word “tragedy” does 
not, for most people, automatically evoke something like a “positive” 
orientation to conflict or life (as indicated in Nietzsche’s interpretation). 

I could argue that since the Greeks offered the earliest tragic dramatic 
forms and gave us the word “tragedy,” their use of the term and orientation to 
tragic drama should be given priority. The problem here, however, is: What did 
the Greeks mean by tragedy? What was tragic drama to them? Aeschylus, 
Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle all offer us differing perspectives. Then there 
are commentators who offer us a take on the Greek take, such as Nietzsche, 
Burke, Kitto, and many others. Most commentators agree that Greek tragic drama, 
through dramatic “irony,” promotes a multi-perspectival view of conflict and 
the characters caught up in it. However, it can be hard to argue with Burke’s 
emphasis on “guilt,” “pollution,” and “scapegoating,” (whether the “goat” 
is some other or an aspect of the self) especially when recalling that the word 
“tragedy” means “song of the goat.” 

Nevertheless, the Greek understanding of “goat” should not be equated with 
the Judeo-Christian notion and the term “scapegoat” (the “goat that escapes” 
or is sent out into the wilderness to die loaded with the sins of the 
community). And Nietzsche argues that a crucial difference exists between the 
sacrifice of Dionysus “the goat god” and Christ as the “scapegoat” for the sins of 
mankind. Back and forth and around it goes. And, as you have already noted in a 
previous post citing Morris Weitz, fundamental disagreements among theorists 
put into serious question any round consensus on the “nature of tragedy.” 

So the discussion of how the term “tragedy” should be used does in fact 
become a bit academic, although not for that reason trivial. It is a point of 
scholarship, hermeneutics, history, context, and other factors. Pay your money, 
take your choice, and make your case. 

Nevertheless, I do believe that the distinctions between the two different 
views of tragic drama you and I have presented and the implications of those 
views for understanding different ways of organizing, structuring, and responding 
to conflict (including especially rhetorical responses) are significant 
distinctions in themselves, apart from the issue of how to define “tragedy.” 

In my book “Our Faith in Evil” I have argued for the merits of dramatic 
conflict structured along the lines of the “tragic vision” (as I define it) and 
for the drawbacks of dramatic conflict in classic melodramatic form. And, by 
extension, I’ve argued for the merits of structuring rhetorical responses to 
conflict similarly for reasons in keeping with Burke’s views about the ways in 
which naming shapes attitudes and attitudes shape actions. Here, for example, 
too much faith in the notion of “evil” (in its doctrinal and melodramatic 
application) can put us on the road to hell in human relations and keep us within 
cycles of the Iron Law of History and the scapegoating practices Burke has 
insightfully detailed. 

My complaint with Burke involves a metaphysical shift from the way in which 
he fundamentally conceives of conflict, oppositional tensions, and the 
implications of “order”—a shift from what I call a metaphysics of “monistic 
antagonism” to “holistic synagonism.” But postings such as this are not the place for 
making the full case for such an interpretation of Burke or for the merits of 
the alternative I propose. Here I can only be suggestive and outline the 
basic contours of the positions. 

Ed: I think your proposed classification scheme has much to recommend it. I 
will reflect on it further. I will interprete "universal" the way you wish it 
to be read.


Thanks Ed. I appreciate your openness for reflecting on all angles of these 
issues. I think you really engage Burke’s “Iron Law of History” and give it 
the kind of importance and attention that he gave it and that it truly deserves. 
I’m sure you also understand from our exchanges that, while offering 
something of a “critique” of certain aspects of Burke, I retain high regard for him 
and his views and by no means assume I’ve “gotten it right” in my thinking 
about him or conflict. So I try to approach these issues with the same spirit of 

Ed: I might question at the outset your notion of "factional comedy 
(satire)," assuming you mean Burkean comedy. I question that satire is closer to 
Burkean comedy than it is to burlesque. I question, also, that Burkean comedy is 
"factional." Hugh Duncan makes a nice gloss on Burke and comedy by saying it may 
involve "social distance" for a limited period of time, but not exclusion.


Yes, you are right to have some questions here. In my listing of “factional 
comedy” with one possible example being the genre of satire, I did not mean to 
suggest it as the sense in which Burke uses comedy (as when describing human 
relations as best viewed from the “comic frame’). Here the problems with my 
hasty choice of the term “universal” muddy the waters. Perhaps I can clarify 
things (or perhaps even muddy them further!) by suggesting this taxonomy:






Factional= featuring an antagonistic, exclusionary (my opponent is absolutely 
or essentially “other” and thereby worthy of exclusion from the “ecology” 
of world or being) relation to an external opponent or enemy


Universal= featuring an antagonistic, exclusionary relation only to an 
internal opponent or enemy (aspect of self); thus in this respect “non-partisan” in 
relation to other persons or groups


Synagonistic= featuring a non-exclusionary (my opponent is not absolutely or 
essentially “other” and thereby still an essential part of the “ecology” of 
world and being) but competitive/combative relation to an external or internal 


These adjectives could then be applied to:







In this taxonomy the Burkean view as the “comic frame” would best correspond 
to “universal comedy.” And Burke’s repair for the self-scapegoating or “
mortification” still implicit in this view is to recommend the use of symbolic 
victims instead of real victims in the process of “cleansing,” i.e., the use of 
literature and drama for self-cleansing rather than, say, forms of actual 
self-mutilation or even martyrdom. Of course, Burke recommends the use of 
symbolic victims as opposed to real victims in all cases where the scapegoating 
impulse must be indulged to complete the “natural” (in his view) process of 


All for now,





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