Tragedy and accident

Ejaz Haider

In postulating his theory on whether tragedy is possible in the modern period, Raymond Williams worked his way through various stages of reasoning, one of which, under the heading of Order and Accident, is very interesting. “The argument that there is no significant tragic meaning in ‘everyday tragedies’ seems to rest on two related beliefs: that the event itself is not tragedy, but only becomes so through shaped response with the implication that tragedy is a matter of art, where such responses are embodied, rather than of life where they are not; and that significant response depends on the capacity to connect the event with some more general body of facts so that it is not mere accident but is capable of bearing a general meaning”.

Williams doesn’t agree with this argument, of course, because he wrote his turgid book to free the concept of tragedy from its classical (and bourgeois) roots: “We can distinguish between tragedy and accident if we have some conception of a law or an order to which certain events are accidental and in which certain other events are significant.” The implied ‘alienation’ in this order of things is unacceptable.

This isn’t a criticism of Williams’; nor do I want to suggest, as many critics have done, that he mounted an elitist argument to prove that tragedy can be non-elitist. But it is a fact that in trying to rationalise certain phenomena or happenings, one is likely to lose the ‘shaped response’ that art demands to evoke powerful feelings in the reader or the viewer. Within the artistic parameters of “A Farewell to Arms”, Catherine Barkley’s post-Caesarean section death is indeed tragic — especially, when seen through the eyes of Frederic who has lost everything. But put a rational construct on it, e.g., that Catherine had narrow hips and the doctors should have anticipated the problem, and the sense of ‘tragedy’ is lost.

The thought struck me as I read last Monday a moving piece by colleague Ataul Musawwir (“Too soon to say too late?”) about pinning responsibility in the wake of a young boy’s death — the implied point related to its being ‘avoidable’. ‘Avoidable’ not only presumes such a death to be unnecessary, which is obvious, but suggests that responsibility can be pinned through linking the various dots and reconstructing the events up to the point where someone has lost his life unnaturally.

Accident is a modern idea, for sure, and is essentially system-oriented. (There is a great discussion of the concepts of accident, incident, system, component-failure accident and system failure in Charles Perrow’s “Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies” but I am not entirely following that route.) I use the term ‘system’ here merely as a mechanism against which an aberration can be judged: dots can only be linked and responsibility pinned if we have such a mechanism. Was the driver driving in the right lane; did he jump the signal; was someone over-speeding; was a biker wearing a crash helmet; was there proper lighting on the road; were the road signs clearly marked and visible and so on. These are, in a manner of speaking, the ESFs (engineered safety features) meant to reduce the possibility of a road accident.

None of these ESFs, however, can work in the absence of a culture of safety. Sure, there is enforcement through the law and the implementation mechanism (police force), but the culture of safety relates more to self- than imposed-discipline. Nancy Leveson postulated the concept of flawed safety culture (“Safeware: System Safety and Computers”) which has been flogged to explain accidents, e.g., in relation to NASA (the prime example being the 1986 Shuttle disaster after takeoff). She says that accidents will always happen in organisations (we can also say societies) which put a low premium on safety, though the reasons for such a flawed culture can be multiple and varying. In the case of the 1986 disaster as well as the recent 2003 blow-up, investigations have found that NASA is bogged down by launch-schedule pressures which translate into low priority for safety and flawed resolution of conflicting goals. This is one of the reasons for top managers’ disregard for warnings of failure in both cases from experts within NASA.

Perrow proved through his work that High Reliability Theory (when organisations “enforce safety goals, learn from mistakes, have good training and experienced personnel”) works better with linear, loosely coupled systems where the chances of one failure do not translate, through tight coupling, into a chain of failures.

But the point in all this goes back to Williams’ attempt to define modern tragedy. Art or literature is not about technicalities, especially when a technical discussion can lead to a concrete determination of facts. The unknown, the mysterious, the willing suspension of disbelief, even Forster’s ‘faking technique’ in the case of Marabar Caves are some of the ingredients that leave the reader or the viewer awed. Imagine a technical determination of Godot’s identity or for that matter reconstructing what happened at the Marabar Caves! (David Lean failed quite remarkably at that, incidentally.) The effect would surely be lost.

For my evening of ‘tragedy’ as opposed to tragedy (I am indebted to Williams for this distinction though he didn’t approve of it), therefore, I’d sooner settle for classical Aristotle than the Marxist Williams.

Ejaz Haider is News Editor of The Friday Times and Foreign Editor of Daily Times

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