The Comic, Romantic, Tragic and Ironic Sense of Life

four-seasons

The literary critic Harold Bloom suggests four casts of mind that influence different kinds of writers. He calls these the Comic, Romantic, Tragic, and Ironic sense of life. For Bloom these are irreducibly pluralistic ways of looking at life, different lenses through which different writers and artists may view the world. I don’t doubt that there can be found among the great literati “pure types” of these four ontological and aesthetic sensibilities. Indeed, it is the “pure types” who have the hardest time understanding and appreciating how any “rational and sane” individual could possibly see the world any differently than they do.

At the same time it must be said that there are plenty of thoughtful and sensitive souls among the first ranks of poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, artists, historians, philosophers and scientists who prefer to hold the comic, romantic, tragic and ironic sensibilities in a kind of dialectical tension, to practice Keat’s “negative capability” without allowing any of these four moods to be given the final word.

It is tempting to draw a direct correlation between these four temperamental casts of mind and the four major worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism, with agnostic pluralistic pragmatism functioning as the “all-and-none-of-the-above” function.  The problem with this correlation is that it does not work. The reason it does not work is because one can find theists, deists, pantheists, panentheists, polytheists, materialists, gnostics and esotericists who are alternately comic, romantic, tragic and ironic in their alternating moods and sensibilities.

My own view is that a more fully human life will be well acquainted with the experiences of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony, and that life as performance contains all four, whatever our worldview and belief system happens to be. These four moods of the soul are more primal than the particular worldviews we use to rationalize  the particular moods that capture us and become our dominate states of normative balance.

When I listen to a great symphony by Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, I don’t particularly care about the composer’s belief system and worldview. What I do care about is the composer’s ability to translate the various moods and movements of life into diverse and profound musical experience. There is no doubt that great composers, artists and poets do indeed have worldviews and that their worldviews are expressed through their artistic achievements. But one need not buy into their worldview assumptions in order to be enchanted and inspired by their creative works. Worldviews matter, but only as a form of secondary language. The primal language is one of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony.

Harold Gloom has a second paradigm for charting the great works of literature. It is the historical paradigm of Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic cultural zeitgeists. Here too there will be purists who identify exclusively with one historical epoch and cast of mind. But there will be others who can appreciate great literature that spans all four of these symbolic rubrics without taking any of them literally or as the absolute and exclusive truth. We can imagine what it is like to view the world through each of these sensibilities, and enrich our experience through widening our range of empathic perspectives. In so far as “nothing human is alien to us,” we can appreciate all the ages of humanity on their own terms rather than judging them entirely through the assumptions of our age.

What matters most to me is not a person’s particular worldview and belief system, whether dualist, idealist, materialist, panpsychist or agnostic, but rather the capacity of the individual to encompass life, knowledge, wisdom and experience in all its rich and complex diversity. That includes a “category X” for encounters with mystery, ambiguity, plurality and paradox. Not everything is Black or White.

An Encompassing Perspective will seek to cultivate the whole person — to care for the body, soul, heart, mind, will and spirit. It will seek to tend to the totality of life — including our relationships with family and friends, work and leisure, culture and society, the visible and the invisible. It will explore all the vital domains of cultural literacy and civil society–including philosophy and religion, history and literature, arts and sciences, economics and politics.

And in all of these it will see the continual interplay between the moods and movements of Comedy, Romance, Tragedy and Irony. Childhood is the season of comedy, whimsy, and ludic play. Youth and young adulthood is the season of Romance, Passion and Intimacy. Mid-life is the season of Tragedy, Challenge, and Courage. Elderhood is the Season of Irony, Reversal and Paradox. May we strive to become “men and women for all seasons.”

 

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