Nihilistic Tragedy/ Ironic Comedy: Kathleen Graber’s Book Five (The Eternal City)

I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realise, it’s a comedy.”

— Joker

Prerequisite to tragedy is the belief that the universe cares about the lives of human beings. There must be a faith that some superior order exists, and that man will be punished if he transgresses against it. It matters little whether this principle takes the form of fate, the gods, or impersonal moral law, for all are symbols of the world’s interest in human actions and evidence that the welfare of all creation somehow depends upon what humans do… There must be abstract ideas and values which are worth dying and suffering for, otherwise the hero’s painful quest for spiritual purity and enlightenment becomes absurd.”

—Joseph W. Meeker, The Comic Mode

To people disposed in favour of heroism and idealistic ethics, comedy may seem trivial in its insistence that the commonplace is worth maintaining. The comic point of view is that man’s high moral ideals and glorified heroic poses are themselves largely based upon fantasy and are likely to lead to misery or death for those who hold them. In the world as revealed by comedy, the most important thing is to live and encourage life even though it is probably meaningless to do so. If the survival of our species is trivial, then so is comedy.”

—Joseph W. Meeker, The Comic Mode

Kathleen Graber’s “Book Five”, from The Eternal City, is part 5 of a series of 12 poems, brilliantly consecutive in that the end of each poem begins the next.

The series is an attempt at meaning-making, a celebration of life and a grappling to let go of old weights. Each poem opens with an epigraph, all of which are quotes from Marcus Aurelius.

Book Five’s epigraph teaches ironically about prayer—instead of the grand anthropocentrism prayer usually comprises, Aurelius teaches a comic sort of prayer : “Rain, rain, O, dear Zeus… In truth we ought not to pray at all, or we ought to pray in this simple and noble fashion”. A cry to the heavens but a wish to simply survive.

“Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse. By this we are reminded that we are born into our dying. And this is what the priest said, too, on Monday, at the funeral of a 24-year-old girl. And, of course, we know only by baptism—for who hasn’t been inside a church?—are we born into the Resurrection. May our sister slumber in the earth’s embroidered robe. May she wake at the feet of the Lord.” The poem then ponders: if life is to be but about mere survival, perhaps, then, death—or rather, the afterlife—is its main goal. Perhaps a hero’s tragedy is to endure life only to flourish in death. While considering this possibility, however, the speaker’s tone is carefully neutral, yet mildly challenging: “for who hasn’t been inside a church?”. This tragic narrative is ‘legitimate’ only because of custom; because it almost cannot be challenged. The subversive “of course” this rhetorical question follows is a subtle reminder: the elevation of death through a manmade narrative is a pathetic attempt at remedying the futility of our lives—a fact this poem continually reminds us of. All such self-aggrandising attempts are, at their core, meaningless, none more effective or more important than another, as the sacrilegious and casual juxtaposition of Greek gods with the Christian Christ attests to. “It matters little whether this principle takes the form of fate, the gods, or impersonal moral law, for all are symbols of the world’s interest in human actions and evidence that the welfare of all creation somehow depends upon what humans do.” (Meeker)

“Men died each day, Aurelius, because you worshipped Rome, died so that she might be rendered what is hers.” Another possible solution: perhaps nationalistic heroism can fill in the gaps left in the wake of failed religious heroism.

“Because nothing can arise from nothing, nothing can be lost”. All this ostentatious nobility is, in the end, an unnecessarily dramatic display of nihilism.

Nevertheless, the physical body remains: “What is stranger than sacrifice? What is more heavenly than flesh?” Between the birth and the dying is a life, and with it, a body, reminding us daily of the burden of being alive. What do we do with this strange, fleshy weight? Do we flay and crucify it for the glorification of another under the heady influence of our fantasies—in effect, going against all natural animal instinct for self-preservation? Because, no matter the narratives we decorate our existences with, we are but animals, with the base desire to survive and procreate—making it more than fitting, that should we ever raise our eyes to the imaginary heavens, we should but beg for rain, which gives us food which gives us life. “What is stranger than sacrifice? What is more heavenly than flesh?”

The poem is peppered with themes that are discrete juxtapositionally, but interconnected throughout. The helpless, prematurely-aged infant picks up where the dead 24-year-old girl leaves off. The birthday celebration another ironic gesture celebrating a comical life. Book Five, then, mimics the web-like fabric of our lives: when held up to the light, the gaps between the spindly strands tying each nihilistic action or ideal stare back at us.

This poem ends with an auditory reminder of life’s passing: the sound of a birthday song. This is followed by “the patter of applause”, as if invoking the gods—it sounds like ‘the patter of rain’. Perhaps a birthday song is its own sort of absurd and empty prayer, like the incomprehensible babbling of an infant: a thanksgiving, and a plea for yet another year.

Another year—for what? “that I may live so long as to discover what, perhaps, only a Caesar can know: that all of this has been for nothing”.

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