Discover more from Kitchen Counter
One way of understanding tragedy is not merely as an event that brings about suffering, but as the contest of competing, irreconcilable values. This, at least, has been a standard modern reading of the Greeks. Antigone wants to bury the body of her brother, but Creon, the ruler of Thebes, has declared that the body must rot in public shame. She is caught between her obligations to her family and her obligations to the state. Oedipus, hoping to avoid the Delphic Oracle’s prophecy that he will ‘mate with [his] own mother, and shed/ With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire,’ embarks on a journey in which his own virtues – his intelligence, his bravery, his honour – bring about exactly that. The things that make him a great man are the same things that destroy him.
Thanks for reading Kitchen Counter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
As the philosopher (and my former housemate) Andrew Cooper put it in a 2016 article in Metaphilosophy, ‘The suffering presented by the tragedies was not simply of any kind but resulted from the collision between the normative demands of society, represented by the ancient myths of Athens, and human ambitions, represented by the tragic heroes.’ That is to say that the tragedies featured unavoidable moral conflict. The tragic hero is dealt an unwinnable hand. She is not doomed by accident but by her own attempts to be good: it is a feature of the world, the tragedies insist, that some goods are mutually-exclusive.
This may be part of why Plato thought of tragedy as philosophy’s greatest rival. ‘In the Republic,’ wrote Cooper, ‘Plato divided philosophy and tragedy by identifying an “ancient” quarrel between the two, and diagnosed the prominence of tragedy over philosophy as the sickness responsible for the demise of Athens. To establish the superiority of philosophy, he argued that the techne of the tragic poets is three times removed from the truth, disparaging tragedy’s preoccupation with appearance in favor of philosophy’s attention to eternal form.’ Tragedy’s form, Plato thought, put it farther from the truth than philosophy.
But its orientation to the world, too, stood opposed to philosophy’s. Where philosophy promised to get to the heart of knowledge, systematise morality, and perceive reality, tragedy suggested that such perfection was beyond human grasp. The world is not necessarily coherent, reality may not be attainable, and our moral obligations may not necessarily be fulfillable. To be alive is to encounter philosophy’s failures in the flesh, says tragedy. The world is finite. Things are lost. Sometimes we are forced to choose.
This insistence on dilemma is the truth in tragedy. Many thinkers simply deny that there is anything truthful here. Tragedy does not exist in utilitarianism, for example – ethics is thought to be an internally coherent and fully real system in which there is always a right thing to do. By this way of thinking there are no dilemmas – the trolly problem, for example, actually does have a right answer. Should Oppenheimer have built the bomb? Should the Americans have dropped it? There’s an answer for that, too. But the sticking point for a guy like me is that without a sense for tragedy, we have no specific ethical reason to mourn or regret the loss of one life if it saves two, and we have provided ourselves no reason to account for the fact, let alone care, that dilemma is the defining affective experience of all of our lives.
In Past Lives, Nora (Greta Lee) emigrates to North America from Korea, leaving behind a girlhood crush, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Twelve years later, she is living in New York when Hae Sung finds her on the internet. They connect over Skype, speaking regularly, and love quietly reignites between them. Nora brings the calls to an end when she acknowledges the tyranny of distance. Twelve more years pass. In that time Nora marries a Jewish man named Arthur (John Magaro), Hae Sung has his own relationship. Then, when Hae Sung’s relationship ends and he decides to fly to New York to see Nora, his love for her undiminished and her love for him reawakened, the three of them are faced with unavoidable moral conflict. They are forced to choose.
On the internet there’s a ridiculous video of Jeremy Strong, made by GQ, called 10 Things Jeremy Strong Can’t Do Without. I like the video because I like Jeremy Strong and I like Jeremy Strong because he is over-serious and I think that is good and we need more of it. In the video, 1 of Strong’s 10 things is, uh, a whole crate of books, and one of those books is The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. ‘He talks about the pain in every choice,’ Strong tells us. ‘When we’re younger, we’re in this life of infinite possibility. But, I think, to become an adult is to collapse choices, to make choices, and to lose that sense of infinite possibility.’ It is a book about the most ubiquitous form of tragedy of all.
And, of course, we can recall the famous passage from The Bell Jar, in which Plath confronts her tragic finitude head on:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
I think it is uncontroversial to say, in this vein, that Past Lives is not so much about past lives as it is about alternate lives. Nora is thrown into the subjunctive. Hae Sung presents to her as what could have been, both as the competing great love of her life, yes, but also as the embodiment of one side of her dual identity. In Hae Sung she is able to access and express parts of herself Arthur can only clumsily, if sincerely, fumble towards. This is not presented as Arthur’s failing – his beginner’s Korean is an endearing if doomed attempt. But Nora comes to experience Hae Sung as synecdoche for a life she might have lived, a person she might have been, had she stayed in Korea. In one terrific scene, a giddy Nora, brushing her teeth, recounts just how Korean Hae Sung is to her particularly non-Korean husband. ‘He’s really masculine,’ she lets slip, ‘in this really Korean way.’ She says the word Korean nearly 20 times in this scene.
Hae Sung’s reappearance confronts Nora with a true dilemma, and for this reason Past Lives is a tragedy. Both love her, both are deserving of her love. If Hae Sung reveals Arthur’s insufficiencies, Arthur maintains his dignity throughout. The same is true in reverse, and this symmetry is crucial. If Hae Sung and Arthur did not represent a true dilemma for Nora - if, for example, Arthur were revealed to be unfaithful or evil or dying or otherwise incapacitated, the dilemma would dissolve and we would have not tragedy but comedy, the classic marriage plot.
When this does not happen, when the dilemma does not dissolve, Past Lives commits itself to the tragic form – to the genre of unavoidable moral conflict. Why then doesn’t the film feel like a tragedy is supposed to?
The romantic tragedy is, of course, itself a well-worn subgenre (think of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, and Anna Karenina). The traditional formulation has two lovers doomed by society, or family, or a pre-existing marriage. In The Last Lover, Lionel Trilling’s essay about Lolita, Trilling argues that in the romantic canon, these relationships necessarily end in disaster.
In his reading, Nabokov introduces us to Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia not to shock us but to give us a story about love. Love – passionate love, that is – must exist, in literature, outside of society’s sanction: ‘The essential condition of this kind of love,’ wrote Trilling, ‘was that it had nothing to do with marriage and could not possibly exist in marriage.’ It is exactly its transgressive nature, its doomedness, that, in the Western romance tradition, defines the passionate love.
My point in enlisting Trilling here – and there is much more one could say when applying his idea to Past Lives – is to make clear the way Past Lives is not of the sort he is describing. Instead, the film refuses to align itself with the canon of romance tragedy. It does something new. It is tragedy, yes – but not of the sort that insists on loss, on disaster. Rather I like to think of it as a story in which the fact of tragedy facilitates triumph.
To get to this point let me approach it from another angle. Aristotle, for his part, thought that the value in tragedy was that it presented the audience with catharsis. The dilemma does not dissolve and the hero cannot reconcile herself to that fact. Doom comes to all, and the audience experiences a decimation of hope. The emphasis is on loss. This is where our common definition of “tragedy” comes from: Oedipus is so perturbed by his fate that he gouges out his own eyes; Humbert Humbert commits murder and is imprisoned, Lolita dies of childbirth, still a teenager. No good comes of any of it.
Thanks for reading Kitchen Counter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
But Nora does not gouge out her eyes. Instead she looks squarely at, accepts, refuses to look away from, her fate. The innovation of Past Lives is here, in the way its characters – each of them, in fact, Nora, Hae Sung, and perhaps especially Arthur – respond to the fact of tragedy in their lives with equanimity and acceptance. I consider this an adult, modern turn, and a welcome twist on the genre. We have a rare thing indeed, a story in which the tragic hero triumphs. Each of Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur is reconciled to the tragic – that is, dilemmatic – nature of human life. In the final scene, as Hae Sung departs, he shares with Nora one last long look, a non-verbal exchange in which so much is communicated, before he gets in his Uber, never to be seen again. Nora turns, walks back to waiting, loving husband, and falls into his arms. May we all achieve such grace.
Few of us will kill our father and marry our mother; few of us must betray the state by providing our fallen brother burial rights. But avoiding specific instances does not help us escape the general tragedy of human life: all of us are forced to choose. All of us find ourselves in the crotch a fig tree. All of us discover, too late, perhaps, that to be an adult is to collapse choices, to let some fruit wither and die. We find ourself pursuing love, or friendship, or health, or any other virtue, and discover the hard way that doing so forecloses other loves, other friends, other goals, other virtues. The recognition of this fact, that tragedy is our constant, necessary companion, is part of what it means to become a person.
On my view, it is only once we have accepted the truth of tragedy – that the world forces us to choose between goods, that there are no costless choices, that none of us get out alive – that we can begin to see ourselves clear. To understand tragedy of this form as fundamental to and constitutive of being alive is to take the first step towards reconciling ourself to it. We are already fallen. We had better learn to love our fate.