[KB] Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama

Edappel8@cs.com Edappel8 at cs.com
Fri May 16 11:46:06 EDT 2008

I'm resending Greg Desilet's response from his regular e-mail address, which 
is cited above.  That's the primary addess at which to get in touch with him.



I have to compliment you on your ability to grasp and summarize others' 
views. You’ve given me a very fair reading and I thank you for that. It really 
helps in the process of debate like this because it serves to move us more quickly 
toward the "pressure points," the points of genuine difference in our 

And I think you hit these points of difference as well as possible in a brief 
space in your last post. 

I only want to add a little about "outrage." I don't know that it's possible 
(or even desirable) for people to exert such control over emotions as to 
eliminate outrage from the repertoire of responses. However, I do believe that if 
people adopt the view I am recommending, over time that view will tend to 
influence emotional response in such a way that outrage may be the first response 
but one soon followed by the grief implicit in the “tragic” emotions of “awe” 
and “ruth.” These reflect a “wonder,” “dread,” and “compassion” toward 
the ways in which life can bring us to disaster as well as the ways in which 
colossal “blindness” can unwittingly facilitate such disaster. This emotional 
response should rightfully trigger, not a rhetoric of resignation and fear, but 
a rhetoric of resolve in confronting the complexity of life alongside the need 
for as just and expedient a response as human wisdom can devise.


We can’t see all the reasons why people do as they do, but to adopt as a base 
assumption that humans are inherently flawed or corrupt (as part of their 
nature) promotes a poor self-image. I detect within Burke’s dramatism a secular 
version of the “original sin” hypothesis about human nature. Better to suppose 
that humans operate within “limits” (as do all living things) and that these 
limits need to be valued as well as understood and continually reassessed.


So I do not want to “strike outrage from the repertoire” but rather place a 
check on allowing it alone (or primarily) to govern our response to human 
tragic deeds. Outrage and the rhetoric that goes with it do help to promote “
action,” but I would argue that action promoted under these influences will, more 
likely than not, serve only to advance the agenda of the Iron Law of History 
and its scapegoating mechanism. Certainly the history of the Middle East lends 
support to this conclusion. 

In fairness, though, I acknowledge to Ed that I may be wrong here. The “
attitude” toward conflict and tragedy that I’m suggesting may, if broadly adopted 
and contrary to what I claim, serve only to promote cultural depression and 
forms of resignation that will undermine appropriate “action” altogether. Or, 
as Ed suggests, this attitude may be “unrealistic” in being too idealistic and 
impossible of broad attainment because it inadequately conceives of human 
nature and our human (as Nietzsche would say, “our all too human) “equipment for 


Ed also suggests that the view I propose, along with Aristotle/Nietzsche, 
will eliminate the “drama of human life.” I’d counter with the notion that we 
wouldn’t be “eliminating” the drama so much as just changing the drama. I don’
t think we can take the “drama” (and for that matter the “tragedy”) out of 
life any more than we can take difference and conflict and competition out of 
life. What we can do is try to theorize the conflict and tragic elements of 
life in ways that may promote “better” life (more constructive, less deadly and 
unnecessary conflict). 

So, at this point, I can only say to Ed: You have given me (and Burke as 
well, in my opinion) a fair reading and you remain unpersuaded. That’s all I could 
ask, except that you also be persuaded! But that’s the beauty of rhetoric: it’
s non-coercive! You side with Burke and offer excellent extensions of his 
thinking. And that’s sufficient to make me want to continue re-examining my views 
in the light of this discussion. Thanks again for your contributions. All for 




> ----- Original Message ----- 
> From: Edappel8 at cs.com 
> To: kb at purdue.edu 
> Cc: info at gregorydesilet.com 
> Sent: Thursday, May 15, 2008 10:52 AM
>  Subject: Desilet, Moby Dick, and Melodrama
> Trying to get at the crux of what separates Greg and me in this 
> debate---"Burke over here," Herb Simons once said in reference to me in a class of his at 
> Temple---we must keep coming back to Burke's comic frame. Is it, or is it 
> not, a problematic orientation, or a universally serviceable one, toward 
> conflict in this world of super-charged symbolizers?
> Herb has famously asked the question, where's room for "warranted outrage" 
> in Burke's approach to life and rhetoric? No matter what the enormity we're 
> confronted with, Burke seems to enjoin that we just "let it ride," as he once 
> put it.
> Yet, outrage as an attitude, or "incipient act," will likely find expression 
> in the "vituperative" discourse that Burke labels an attenuated form of 
> tragic scapegoating (PLF, p. 39; LASA, pp. 91-94). In this view, Burkean comedy 
> cannot, it would seem, function for us as a global means of confronting the 
> vissisitudes of life.
> Greg, as I read him, has a problem with Burkean comedy as the sole approach 
> to effecting transcendence of destructive and debilitating conflict, of 
> generating the needed metaperspective, or dramatic irony, required to confront 
> human reality in its fullness. Person and groups that kill others, for example, 
> are not satisfactorily characterized as "clowns" or "fools." They may, 
> indeed, be "mistaken," a Burkean comedic descriptive Greg employs in this context 
> in Our Faith in Evil. But they are hardly mere klutzes or bumblers. It's not 
> that Burkean comedy precludes "warranted outrage"; that's not the problem for 
> Greg, because such outrage is never warranted. (Do I have that right?) It's 
> that transcendence of evil can only be achieved well and effectively if we 
> look evil directly in the face, call it what it is by way of 
> Aristotelian/Nietzschean "tragedy," and proceed from that transcendent and "synagonistic" means 
> of identifying human brokenness to a more harmonious level of human 
> relationship. Burkean comedy is seen as synagonistic, yes, but not sufficiently 
> realistic.
> Herb wants to make room for outrage. Greg wants to strike it from our 
> repertoire of response in our quotidian and exceptional conflicts, personal, 
> social, political, international.
> How am I doing so far by way of interpretation?
> Greg makes an adjustment in his proposed taxonomy of human dramas. He offers 
> "Factional/Universal/Synagonistic" as the means of modifying our conceptions 
> of "Tragedy, Burlesque, Melodrama, and Comedy," or at least my scheme of 
> classification for the same. What he seems to advocate is the extirpation not 
> only of conflict with the "other" (by way of the factional), but also conflict 
> with the "self" (by way of a purely and categroically "synagonistic" approach 
> to life in all its dimensions).
> I ask: Who's being unrealistic here? Simons, Burke, Desilet, or all three?
> I share with Herb and Greg the feeling that Burkean comedy may not be a 
> satisfactory orientation to human relationships in all its vagaries. But I sense 
> that what Greg is ultimately proposing is the elimination of drama from human 
> life, and I don't think that's possible. I feel a lot like Ernest Becker (in 
> his Pulitzer Prize winner The Denial of Death), who said of Normon O. 
> Brown's book, Life Against Death, that Brown spent 18 chapters demonstrating how 
> humans cannot escape repression, then in the last chapter, "The Way Out," 
> offered as resolution, the elimination of repression.
> I believe the conflict within that can lead to a "universal" tragic way of 
> coping, can be, in most cases, tamped down to a comic means of accommodation. 
> (Not very easily in all persons, of course. Burke does speak of "tragic" 
> personality types in RM, pp. 15-16.) Truly, I think, that's where Burkean 
> "equipment for living" begins. I don't regard it as realistic, however, to expect 
> that humankind is capable of such pristine "purification of war" as Greg seems 
> to me to be envisioning.
> Your ubiquitous, and no doubt flawed, reader and interpreter of "what are 
> the signs of what,"
> Ed 
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