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The Glass Divide: Tragedy From a Distance

Because tragedy, to be felt as such, requires a temporary exemption from daily life, a compassionate leave…

— John Berger

Hamlet never took himself to be tragic, there was no time, since even his actions were most often smothered by dark thoughts. Lear raged along with the storm — his nimbus crown of crowns — but self-pity and despair drowned the time. Juliet might have had a fleeting moment of recognizing the tragedy of her tale, but only after she sees the corpse of Romeo beside her, before she follows. Mercutio spoke of the tragedy of life, but only through the tale of Queen Mab, one that his friends saw as a kind of clowning madness, nothing more. Impending death and ‘madness’ are the only moments when these characters point at the tragedy of themselves, through the inky hearts that bleed within, but far too late for the snake of tragedy not to eat its own tail and choke out the timeless tales. Tragedy always takes place under the reflective gaze of History, even if some of those histories are only a stanza old, only a few bated breaths before death, or in the grips of a dream recalled, those sovereign moments in a little world experienced by one, alone. The rest of the world carries on.

So short was time

That between morning and evening

There was no noon

And already on the old familiar ground

Stood mountains of concrete.

— Bertolt Brecht

Stories are often taken in like the city through a taxi’s window, with the ebb and flow of conjunctions and dead ends, the ever-present sirens of foreshadowing and the faces that remind the passenger of someone, somewhere, while the cab presses on, eating away at time and seeming to be closing in, even if it’s not the quickest route. Countless people in the windows and streets hold secrets, while the art of jaywalking slows down the ride like an entire chapter written in stream of consciousness. Tragedy comes when a biker is doored, causing a multi-car pileup that closes down a whole city block, diverting traffic and what seemed like a foreseeable end. What had been a rather clear destination becomes grim uncertainty. From the contained world of the cab, the tragedy outside exists, but not for the ones on the other side of it, since a relatively different Time and Space exists within this cab, just as it does for the cab with the horn blaring, just behind. For the ones outside the window, the tragedy will only be tragic in a removed retrospect, not unlike feeling wet after getting out of the water. For the biker, a sense of tragedy might come much later, after the wounds have healed and there’s time for reflection, maybe even a walk. For the rest involved, the sense of tragedy will come, or it won’t, just as the reader of tragedy can carry on, or not. Sometimes the old familiar ground Brecht wrote about is instantly covered in the mountains of concrete tragedy, or it might take longer, but there’s never enough time and the noon that divides the truncated day is as illusory as a non-tragic life. Nothing can divide what’s never whole, not even the sun.

It is through its windows that a city speaks…

— John Berger

Windows allow the one behind it to see with a sense of anonymity, through a glass darkly, even if the ones outside that glass can see in. Windows strike life into many metaphors, from a glimpse into an imagined future, to Orwell’s sage advice to write as if looking through one. Tragedy never comes without a cost, not even for the anonymous one behind the window. Fleet-footed mortality flies amongst anyone sensing tragedy, on the page or in-flux, like an omnipresent Puck causing existential mischief, the kind of mischief specific to each person. Whether it’s the window from the penthouse, or the grime-dappled one of the subway, these windows are material reminders of the distinct Time that each and every person exists within, clear barriers that allow us to be. Voyeurism aside, the prospect of witnessing tragedies in the city — both High Tragedy and Low, but mostly in-between — is always a latent possibility, one that can be crippling in its constant nearness. Perhaps the highest of tragedies are ones no window could ever divide, the tragedy of a self-contained storm, when some anonymous person realizes the tragedy within, the kind that can never be seen.

Hayden Moore

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