A horse is a horse, of course But when a horse dies, is it really a tragedy?

Richard Rabicoff

December 18, 1990|By Richard Rabicoff


"Oh, My God," thought I, immediately imagining the worst.

Had a grandstand collapsed, with thousands plunging to their deaths? Had a tornado swept the arena, or a fire? Perhaps a jockey had tumbled to the turf, trampled by 20 thundering hooves. Or some disgruntled bettor had gone berserk and opened fire on spectators. Maybe Iraqi terrorists had blown up the place.

When I hear the word tragedy, I instinctively think the worst.

Then I saw the nature of the "tragedy": a 2-year-old filly, a champion, had fallen and broken her ankle; another horse had suffered a heart attack and died; yet a third had fallen and faced destruction. The camera, with eager rapacity, caught an owner's stunned disbelief.

Yet I sighed with relief, not that poor animals had died, but that humanity had been spared. I'm deeply sorry for the owners of Go For Wand, Mr. Nickerson, and Shaker Knit. But a horse is a horse, of course, of course. And the death of a horse -- even Black Beauty or National Velvet or Mr. Ed -- is not a tragedy.

Which raises the question: What does pass for tragedy these days?

Victims of cancer, psoriasis, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, bulimia. Richard Nixon, Pete Rose, Kitty Dukakis, Marion Barry. The homeless, the jobless. Children of alcoholics, women who keep loving the wrong men. The Central Park jogger. Three equine casualties at the Belmont race track. They're all entitled to tragic stature, if you can believe what you hear and read.

To be sure, each of these sufferings and sufferers merits our compassion, in greater or lesser degree. But surely there's no paucity of epithets -- far more fitting than "tragic" -- to describe the bulk of human misfortunes. Is there a thesaurus in the house? Sad, heart-breaking, catastrophic, disastrous, excruciating, pathetic, a crying shame.

If everything is tragic, nothing is tragic. A once-noble concept has become debased, like the German currency of 1923. It would take a million of our putative tragedies to add up to one genuine one.

Tragedy used to mean something very specific. For one thing, it was a form of drama that flourished in classical antiquity, and shone brilliantly in Elizabethan England. It featured a hero of magnitude -- Oedipus, Antigone, Macbeth, King Lear -- who, through some terrible combination of flawed character and inexorable circumstances, met a dreadful fate.

Most important was the impact tragedy had on the audience. Pity, awe and exaltation, as Edith Hamilton described it -- a cleansing of the emotions that left you limp, hung you emotionally out to dry, yet at the same time spiritually revivified you, suffused you with hope.

There is something admirably American in our impulse to make tragedy democratic. Once you elevate common folk to greatness, almost everybody has the potential to achieve tragic stature. The failure or perversion of the American Dream, our grandest ideal, can thus seem like the ultimate tragedy. Dreiser's "American Tragedy" makes this point, as does the classic stage tragedy, "Death of a Salesman."

It's proper that tragic experience should be accessible to all. But it does not necessarily follow that every terrible experience is on a tragic scale.

Rather, tragedy requires a certain magnitude, in the people or situation involved. The worst possible thing happening to the greatest possible person; the news of which inspires not just pity or shock, but wonder, grandeur, hope against hope.

Pete Rose? Marion Barry? A horse with a heart attack?

That tragedy has become trivial is symptomatic of the current bankrupt state of our language, and beyond that -- a cheapening of our emotional make-up. Advertising has taught us well: "Tragedy," like "new and improved," expresses a value totally out of proportion to reality. By invoking the word "tragedy" we fabricate a need for monumental grief -- which we can't possibly feel. How else (not to beat a dead horse) can we explain the tragic exaltation accorded to the casualties of the Breeder's Cup?

There are tragedies enough in our time, that defy understanding: the Holocaust, the gulags, Hiroshima, the perpetual sorrows of black Americans. The smallest war is an immense tragedy. There's no need to fetch so far or stoop so low, to appease our appetite for tragic grandeur.

I grant you, it's hardly tragic, what's happened to tragedy. But it is a crying shame.

Richard Rabicoff writes from Baltimore.

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