Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Tragic Sense of Life

Miguel de Unamuno 
At 71, I am starting to grasp what might be meant by a “tragic sense of life.”   The phrase has puzzled me ever since college, when I looked at the book by Miguel de Unamuno with that title.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  For me, tragedy was something to be avoided, not cultivated or brooded over.  Armed with youth, good looks and education, I hoped to leap over the pitfalls of life, and let others come to grief.  

In literature class we learned about the tragic hero.  This was said to be a great man undone by a flaw in his nature, unwittingly brought down by a catastrophe that was, in some way, of his own making.  I found it interesting but not that relevant, since I didn’t have any major flaws.  I did have an inkling of something universal in the stories of Oedipus and Lear, a cold wind blowing through all of existence.  My goal was to stay out of its way.  

Fast-forward fifteen years and find me undone, in the ruins of an early, supremely self-confident marriage.  I began to understand that I did have hidden flaws, and they did cause me to suffer.  But I thought they could be fixed, the damage repaired, and a tragic end averted after all.  To some degree I was able to improve myself; I learned to listen and consider another person’s feelings, so my second marriage succeeded where the first had failed.  Still, I was left with my original tragic flaw, which ran much deeper than the ones I had supposedly fixed.   

I was left with my original tragic flaw because in every way it appeared to me to be a virtue.  It was, and is, an excessive, irrational mixture of optimism and joy, a craving for life that picks me up out of bed every morning and propels me out the door to explore the known world and the unknown, that fills my head with music and makes me want to dance.  Starting at about age 55, my tragic flaw began to harm me.   

Bored with my job, and inspired by all the stories of elderly people who succeed in new ventures or go back to their first loves, I decided to go back to ballet class.   I had studied ballet on the side for a few years in my twenties, and got just far enough to feel the intense pleasure of disciplining the body into an instrument, and the ecstatic sense of taking it into the air.   

I told my colleagues I was coming in late one day, and took a beginner-level ballet class at nine a.m.   I came out laughing like a man suddenly released from prison.  I could still do it!  I was rusty but my body had not forgotten, the teacher even complimented me on my knowledge.  And the class ended with leaps across the room, two by two.  It was ecstasy to keep pace with the pretty girl dancing next to me.    

I had planned to take one class a week, but this was so much fun that I went back two days later.  This time I came down from a leap and felt a pain as if I had been shot in the leg.   I hobbled off the floor -- someone asked me if I was all right.  Oh yes, I gasped, it’s just a cramp.  It turned out to be a torn calf muscle that took six weeks to heal.   

As soon as it healed, I went back to ballet class. This was the first of a series of injuries that dogged me for the next ten years.   My wife told me I shouldn’t be jumping.  My response: “jumping is my life.”    

My first ballet class was the beginning of the end of my working career.  Three years later my employer declined to renew my contract, and the boss said he didn’t think my heart was in it any more.  He was right.  My heart was in ballet class, where I continued to jump, and come down in pain, until I finally gave up in my mid-sixties.  Do I regret going back to ballet, with all the pain and loss it caused?  On the contrary, I feel it saved my life.  The body-memory of a releve at age 60 with arms fully raised, back straight, and every muscle and bone engaged in soaring higher, will be my inspiration until I die.   It was my tragic flaw in action.  What makes it tragic is that it can't be fixed,  it’s in my DNA, both my joy and my downfall.    

Once I sat with a delirious man dying in a hospital.  He was stretching his body upward the same way I did in that releve, babbling nonsense, reaching for heaven.  He looked beautiful -- his arms balletic, his face angelic.  The nurse came in and yelled at him.  “If you don’t stop that, I’m gonna restrain you!”  

The world takes it as a duty to restrain people from acting out their tragic flaws, but it is mostly a hopeless task.  If you visit the School of American Ballet in New York, you will see some teachers crippled for life by their dancing days, leading eager children down the same path.  The dancer will dance, the actor will act, the lover will love, the glutton will feast, the saint will give, the tyrant will oppress and the courtier will curry favor, until they expire.  We can give up many things for our health and well-being, but we can’t give up life.  And we die from having lived.   

--   Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

1 comment:

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