Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tragedian Unmasked

Life lessons come fast and hard on the Road to Dotage.   Last month I defined my fundamental problem as a Tragic Flaw:  “an irrational craving for life that picks me up out of bed every morning and propels me out the door to explore the known and unknown world, that fills my head with music and makes me want to dance.”  This flaw, I supposed, was the force behind my latest dancing injury, which turned out to be a herniated disc, requiring surgery.  “The dancer will dance, the actor will act, the lover will love, the tyrant will oppress and the courtier will curry favor until they expire,” I wisely wrote.   

My thesis was that even thought this flaw had got me into big trouble and would eventually kill me, it was simply a fact of life, in the DNA, unalterable, a categorical imperative.    

Cool facts about a Tragic Flaw: 
1.  Since it is unalterable, you don’t need to work on it.  You’re off the hook.
2.  It puts you in a class with Kings!  Remember the college definition of tragedy – a great man undone by a flaw in his nature.  A tragic flaw confers nothing less than greatness on its bearer.   

Lest you all run out and look for one, let me offer this urgent update.  At some point a doubt may appear in the tragic hero’s aura of self-satisfied suffering.  Could it be that his flaw is something less than the curse of greatness?  Suppose, just suppose that it were no more than a stupid, babyish arrogance that should have been shed long ago, and in fact could still be shucked off.  Ever since I wrote about my Tragic Flaw I’d been thinking:  Do I really need this?   

As fate would have it, I was presented with a test.  Two weeks ago when my herniated disc was hurting out of control and I still didn’t know what it was, I had reduced my daily outing to a 50-yard walk, to the corner of my block, where I could stand in the sun for ten minutes and watch a parade of Upper West Siders go by.  It was my last direct contact with the great world outside, and I didn’t want to give it up.  One day, the pain was especially intense and unpredictable, but the sun was shining and the world beckoned.  I grabbed my crutches, unsteadily, and told my wife I was going out for my little walk.   

She eyed me.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”   

“Yes,” I said in a defiant tone.  And off I went.  I wobbled to the corner and stood in the sun, but it made me feel sick and dizzy.  A few people wandered by, but I got no kick out of them.  I decided to walk back.  Turning for home, I dropped one crutch and had to stand holding an iron fence until a woman came and picked it up for me. 

I made it back to the front stoop and mounted the ramp, but felt too weak to open the heavy front door of the building.  So I leaned against the wall, waiting for a neighbor to come along.  The next thing I knew, two guys were hauling me into a sitting position on the ramp.  I had passed out, grazing my head on the iron railing as I fell, and was bleeding slightly from the scalp.   

For the next three minutes, I had to fight my rescuers and talk them out of calling an ambulance, which would carry me to a squalid emergency room where I would be held for hours, checked for a concussion, stuffed into an MRI machine, and held up for inflated fees.  “Just buzz my wife,” I begged, and she rescued me.

The test itself came two weeks later.  Feeling a little better, I craved some afternoon sun on a beautiful October day.  The day was getting late, but I begged my wife to walk with me to the corner.  When we got outside, we could see that the sun had already sunk behind the buildings opposite ours, and had crossed Amsterdam Avenue, where it still shone on the sculpture garden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.   

It was about 75 yards to the garden.   

I could make it, I was sure, and told Debra so.   

“Yes, but will you make it back?”   

I couldn’t swear to it, but I thought so.  Besides, she was with me.   

“If you fall down, I’m gonna call an ambulance,” she warned. 

That put me in a pickle.  I couldn’t afford another collapse and a trip to the ER.  But my Tragic Flaw craved the sun and the city.  To deny its wishes would be to abandon my own beloved irresponsibility, my own cherished greatness.   

I caved.  All right, I said sheepishly.  I would wait and go out the next morning when the sun was on the stoop.   

Thus my tragic flaw began to come undone.  As I had secretly suspected, there was nothing noble about it.  It was no more than a babyish arrogance, a flight from reason toward objects of desire, however passing and trivial.  I could still compare myself with King Lear, but I had to look past his royal robes and see him too for what he was:  a foolish old man who knew himself only slenderly, a poor decision maker, deluded by flattery that had turned into grandiosity. 

A few years ago, in my Shakespearean acting period, I wrote on a futile audition form:  “King Lear, c’est moi.”   


A very dear friend of mine describes herself as a “ridiculous person,” and she means it.  Irrationally neurotic, compulsive and fearful, she is nevertheless probably happier than I, because she is at home in her ridiculousness. She doesn’t try to justify or glorify it, it is what it is, and so is she. 

But could I, at this age, make the leap from pseudo-tragic to authentically ridiculous? 

Some would say I’m already there. 

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips


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