Category Archives: arts

Forget the title

I have, on occasion, gotten responses to my articles published on commercial sites (Slate, The Week, BBC) that have focused on the titles.

Here’s the TL;DR of what follows:

Paid authors on commercial sites don’t write the titles. Forget the titles.

Seriously: When you read an article, the title is probably what drew you into it. Yay for the headline writer. They did their job. Now you’re reading the article. The person who wrote the article is a different person from the person who wrote the title. The article was written first. The title is an ad for the article.

Most people who read articles don’t actually have a clear idea of how articles are made, it turns out. A sparkling example of this came in a comment on one of my articles that was republished on Slate’s Lexicon Valley. The reader clearly assumed that I had written it following the same process he had probably used writing his last essay, which was probably for grade 9 Social Studies:

1) Come up with a topic; make it the title.

2) Start looking things up. Write as you go.

3) Stop when you run out of things.

This, as it happens, is pretty much the opposite of how real professional writers actually write their articles. Here is the sequence I typically go through:

1) Think of an interesting topic for an article. (Occasionally a publication or site that you’ve worked with will suggest a topic and see if you want to write on it. Your answer is probably YES! Writing is a drug that sometimes pays rather than costing.)

2) Do some research to see whether it’s feasible and which way it will actually go.

3) Pitch the topic to the site you want to publish it. (If you’re writing for your own blog, skip this. If you’re writing for a group blog, check with the other contributors to make sure you’re not eating someone else’s lunch.)

4) If they OK it, research the topic. Make notes.

5) Think about how to structure the article.

6) Write the article. Do a draft, revise, feel disgusted, revise thoroughly, restructure, revise, realize you can’t view it with any objectivity anymore, be done. Maybe. Put a provisional title at the top when you start. Change it when you finish, if not before.

7) Send the article to the publication. (If it’s your own blog or one you’re a joint contributor to, you will go with your last title and just publish it. And then maybe look it over in the morning and fix a few things.)

8) The publication’s editor will go over it and tighten it up and change things. If you are wise, you will assume they are right (except where they have accidentally changed the sense, in which case you obviously didn’t write it clearly, so you negotiate a revision if you can). You lack objectivity at this point. Also, they’re paying you, so that counts for something. If they’re not paying you, well, they still have a fresh perspective; how much do you respect them? Anyway, they usually run the changes past you before publishing. Not always.

9) Someone – your editor, perhaps, or some mystical nameless other – will come up with a grabby title for the article. You may or may not get to see it before it is published. (I know one person, exactly ONE person, who gets to write his own titles and they’re used as is. Hi, Dad!)

10) Someone may add theme images with or without captions. You will see them no sooner than any other reader of the publication (website). If they’re really problematic, you can always ask if they can be adjusted, but you would be wise to be quick about it.

So there it is. If you’re reading an article, you may have gotten to it because of the title, sure, but the title is an ad for the article, almost certainly written by someone else. Once you’ve started reading the article, forget the title.


I was listening to The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham this evening, and it reminded me of a review I read of it when it came out back in 1996. The reviewer praised it for its honesty.

But how did the reviewer know?

Honest is a term of high praise for a performer. It basically means “He/she is doing or saying things that I, or most people, would hesitate to do because they would show me, or them, in a bad light or make me, or them, unwontedly vulnerable.”

Here, have a look at an example: “The Ten Most Brutally Honest Songwriters.” These songwriters are disclosing personal details, talking about things one simply doesn’t normally talk about.

Well, heck. One doesn’t normally sing, either.

I don’t doubt that many songwriters who are praised for honesty really are being truthful about details of their lives and feelings. But, in general, how do we know? How do we know that they’re telling the truth and not just making up things for better effect? They’re performers, and the point of performance is not what you feel, it’s what your audience feels.

Which is why the saying goes, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Actually, there are many different versions of the saying; Quote Investigator has traced its origins back to actors Celeste Holm and Ed Nelson.) If people could always tell when someone was being honest, life would be different. So different.

There are cases where we can evaluate more surely whether they’re honest. I don’t mean instances where a performer is singing “honestly” about something that can be documented not possibly to have happened. I mean the even more nebulous kind of “honesty,” a kind that was very popular 15 years ago and still shows up: the band sound like they’re recording it in a public washroom while their lead singer unloads a vicious case of diarrhea (and is also suffering from a Biblical bout of catarrh). So true! So like real life! So bare and raw and unprocessed! So unlike, say, Madonna, who is clearly heavily produced in a million-dollar studio!

Except that the Folding Bowels Band (or whoever) is also in a million-dollar studio, processed and produced, but pretending not to be. And, incidentally, is it more honest to expect people to pay for a technically highly competent performance or for one that your neighbour’s shaky adolescent squawks out in the shower? I think you’re making a more honest living – delivering expected quality for money paid – in the former case, though I must admit that if people really (for whatever reason) prefer the trans-tracheal evisceration sound, then yes indeedy, it is more honest to give it to them. De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

But what, exactly, do we even mean by honest, really? A lot of time it’s in the line of “Dude was on. Dude was onner than anyone else. Dude was onnest!” Id est, it’s a plain term of approbation for a virtuous character or performance. We say it to honour someone. And why not? Honour (or, rather, honor, the Latin original without that dishonest pseudo-classical intrusive u that I, as a Canadian, refuse to relinquish) is the etymon; its derivative honestus (which came to us by way of Middle French) means ‘deserving honour; honourable; fine; top rank; doubleplusgood; meritorious of utmost respect’.

It just happens that we esteem highly – and (whether justifiably or not) associate with people of high station – truthfulness: a correspondence between what the person appears to intend and what the person actually turns out to intend. But we used the word honest as a more general approbation for nearly a century (in the 1300s) before starting to use it specifically to mean ‘truthful; not cheating’, and we still use it sometimes in more general sense to mean ‘respectable’ without specifically referring to lack of deceit.

But here is where we run into an issue with using it for performers – actors, singers, painters (a painting is a performance too, though the movement has stopped before you get to see it), so on. We turn to aesthetic performances in order to connect with things that expand our experience without actually involving us in real-world consequences. We want a vicarious experience, a fantasy. Even if it’s not a fantasy for the performers (as in a documentary), it is one for us, our reflexive responses no more imminently significant than the refreshing fear we feel standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower. We may want to have a sense that what we are seeing truly expands our grasp of the world in some way and doesn’t just comfort us – that it’s honest and not escapist – but our experience of it is not more honest, in the sense we think of today, than a roller coaster is an honest experience of a car crash.

We want well-faked honesty. We want not honest but Heston, a great thundering Moses leading us across the gap in a rearing Red Sea between our enslavement in reality and the promised land of truer (but non-damaging) understanding and experience. We want a performance that is honest only in that it delivers to us what we are paying for: a stirring deception.

A rant on censorship

A bit over a year ago I went on a Twitter rant about censorship. Then I made an image of the entire text so I had it in one place and tweeted that. Today Daniel Trujillo asked me about it. I found I hadn’t ever posted it here. So I dug it up. Here it is; you may have to click on the link to see the image. Maybe later I’ll convert it to real text rather than an image.

After Colville

The title of this exhibition of new works, “After Colville,” refers both to the fact that the photos were taken by the artist immediately after viewing an exhibition of works by Alex Colville and to the evident influence of Colville on the works themselves: in their mood and composition, they may be seen as a sort of homage to Colville’s work – “After Alex Colville,” as a museum placard would say. The title is also a reference to Tom Stoppard’s play After Magritte, an absurd and comical piece of theatre that avails itself of the same ambiguity. The artist himself performed in a production of the Stoppard play when he was a university student. The photographs and their commentary are also intended to raise questions of the interface between viewer and art and of the very place of art in modern life and the role of the gallery as an institution in an era when artistic production is a widespread recreational activity and the technology of small portable cameras supplants for many the essential quiddity of the carefully crafted artistic object, and they also form a critique of the verbal framing of art by placards in galleries.


This first image presents us with a simple yet timeless ritual: the consumption of a small cup of perfect coffee in an artistic surrounding. The artist chose to represent the stimulation of viewing Colville’s art through the consumption of a stimulating chemical, caffeine. This image brings to mind previous similar photographs he took on earlier visits, with other cups and tables. The composition deliberately echoes the tight geometry of Colville’s careful paintings. The human figure that dominates each of Colville’s paintings is nearly absent here, however, represented only by one barely visible shoe (the artist’s own). The artist presents himself simply as a foot walking through the gallery, and an eye (that of the camera, echoed by the coffee cup). We are challenged by the erasure of the true human element: Colville’s paintings are of and by a human, but this photograph is from an era of electronics and objects when our very humanity is always already in erasure through overexposure via its hyperreal hyper-representation in “selfies.”

This photograph, like all the images in this exhibit, is named with a modified version of the image file name. The name format is a standard one and suggests to the viewer that the photograph was taken with an iPhone, that ubiquitous chronicler of modern anomie and narcissism. The artist, in this choice of medium, parallels the flaw in the edge of the table, suggesting a crack in the pristine surface of modern aesthetic life and the ultimate disposability of our images and experiences, just as the table itself is sure to end up in a landfill and probably sooner than later. The added “a” on each image name is a personalization and may stand for “altered” or “after” or perhaps, as with highway names (such as the Highway 1A that ran through the artist’s youth), “alternate.” The artist notes disingenuously that “I took the photos with an iPhone because it’s what I had with me,” reminding us that the logic of aesthetic preference is, like the coffee cup, inevitably circular.



This photograph was taken through a window in the “tower” section of the Art Gallery of Ontario, on the fourth floor, where modern art is exhibited. The artist notes, “In the past half year the art exhibits up there haven’t changed any more than the view has.” The image presents the viewer with a juxtaposition of curves and straight lines, old and new; the angle of the window reminds us of perspective, which is not only a key element in representational art and mathematically important in Colville’s work but is also essential to the art viewing experience itself in that every viewer brings his or her own perspective. Colville’s work often presents an interface or conflict between the traditional and modern, and is tightly composed and cut off at the edges. This image would never feature in a Colville work, however; it is much too busy and it lacks a human presence. We see windows here, which present openings, but there are no people visible; the artist engages us with the perennial modern question: “Where is everybody?”



The tilting and slight curvature of straight lines in this image make the viewer feel disoriented and slightly queasy. The artist has not corrected the barrel distortion present in the very-wide-angle iPhone images, and the slight tilt suggests haste, unsureness, or carelessness. The two figures in this photograph are presented only as legs, again as though the role of the viewer in an art gallery is only an ambulatory one: the seeing and thinking part of the person is erased, eclipsed. This is reinforced by the sign on the wall, “Walker Court.” The swath of wood across the front is the top of the containing wall of a curving staircase on which the artist was standing while he took this picture. The viewer is invited to consider the possibility of climbing over it and falling to the unseen floor below: the ultimate death for art. And yet the two unidentified artworks perceptible in this image look on as dispassionately as the sun and the moon.



This photograph presents an encounter, but we do not know its nature. Is it a chance passing, a conversation, a confrontation? Arrangements of two figures are common in Colville’s work, sometimes with the face of one of them not visible, leaving us to follow the unseen gaze and reflect on questions of mortality and morbidity.


In this photograph, we are both charmed and saddened by the mother-and-child pair. The child clings to the glass, for protection or with the aim of escape; meanwhile, the face of the mother is partially obliterated by her gesturing hand, pointing to questions of the effacement of the human person of a parent by the role of instructor. We cannot see what she is gesturing to, so we are invited to bring ourselves into the picture and view from her angle. The pink-jacketed person from IMG_2002_a is present again in this image; she may be museum staff, but she is looking away. In the doorway below the pair, we dimly glimpse a male body entering the frame: he is headless as of yet, a disembodied pair of legs representing the oncoming masculine dominance of the spectator-as-headless-ambulator to override the thoughtful feminine role. The daughter will soon have her eyes obliterated as the mother’s are, and ultimately will become a decapitated denizen of the institution of art as the pink-jacketed person is. This photograph was taken from the same position as IMG_2002_a, so we know, given the fixed focal length of an iPhone lens, that it has been cropped. The cropping of the top of the arch recalls the cropping-off of architectural elements in Colville’s work and the decapitation of the institutional bodies in this picture.


This image is one of only two horizontal images in this exhibit. Horizontal images, once the default for photographs, have become the exception in images taken by mobile phones due to the standard orientation in which one holds them and the tendency to use them to take pictures of people. The sensuous curves in this image belong to the same staircase as is hinted in IMG_2002_a, a staircase designed by Frank Gehry for the museum’s expansion several years earlier. The photograph thus becomes an appropriate of the architect’s work into the photographer’s oeuvre, reminding us that architecture is not considered by many to be a fine art and inviting us to take part in its “legitimization” through re-presentation. At first, this image appears to be devoid of human figures, but the dark dome in the lower left quadrant, in front of the railing, on closer inspection is revealed as someone’s head. In this way we are shown how enveloping and containing the high walls of the staircase are, a preventative against hurling oneself over and into the void, but at the same time the person is headed towards a void: the forbidding dark archway on the right. The eyes are again invisible, calling into question the legitimacy of the act of viewing and also telling us that the person could not see that he or she was being photographed. The artist notes that “unlike a regular camera, an iPhone has the bonus of being silent when it takes a picture, so it’s possible to be entirely surreptitious and not disturb people or alert them to the fact that they are being photographed, which could affect their behaviour.” In this way he again implicates us in the scopophilia of the gallery, where humans become stalkers of the aesthetic image and of each other.


This image swirls with curves interplaying with straight lines in perspective. Some of the curves are from the arches in the old architecture of the building, and some are from the newer curving staircase, which is the staircase on which the artist was standing when taking pictures IMIG_2002_a through IMG_2007_a. The careful and cropped composition echoes the compositions of Colville’s paintings. In a Colville painting, however, we might see a figure in the foreground, and perhaps a gun on the wooden surface; here, we see only a distant figure carefully placed on the left side of an archway, looking upward as he walks. On the right side, a sign is cut off at the letter P. Is this for Presence, or Perspective, or Photography? Or is it the beginning of the word Please, as in (perhaps) “Please do not place handguns on the ledge”?


This image presents more cropped curves, a consistent theme in this exhibition. It is much more human than the others, however: it shows three women in full figure, one gesturing forward, one holding her hands to her eyes, the third just entering the frame. The cropped-off foot of the bottom figure repeats the theme of cropping present throughout this exhibit, and may be a repudiation of, or answer to, the disembodied foot seen in the first photograph of the exhibit. It is answered by the bust in the centre of the photograph (a bust of a pope, identified in recent years as a Bernini and consequently moved to a place of pride), which has very the top of its head cut off by the door frame. The triangular composition of the three women is reminiscent of the careful geometry of figures in Colville’s paintings. The artist invites us to join these women to enter and explore the gallery – but is the incipient decapitation of an old paternal religious figure a portent of what will become of them?


This photograph was taken in the Art Gallery of Ontario shop. It prominently features kitchenware and other housewares, which may seem out of place in the store of an art establishment; it asks us to consider whether there is a true dividing line between the aesthetics of houseware design and that of paintings and sculptures, two realms that may be joined in the middle by the ostentatiously aesthetic yet functional architecture of the Art Gallery of Ontario edifice itself as seen in the previous pictures. The colours have had their saturation enhanced, as though the world of functional objects is more vivid than the etiolated and withering sphere of the pure aesthetic object. The image features a strong single figure, as in many Colville paintings; he is facing away from the camera and apparently unaware of his role in the aesthetic production, simply a faceless mute personage, deafened to the world by his headphones, who might as easily have wandered into a housewares department and looked up to find himself in an art gallery, wondering what the difference was. The human figure partially conceals a mannequin bust, which brings to mind the first painting that Colville felt was truly successful, showing his wife looking out an attic window while a mannequin bust dominates the foreground. The glow at the top of the picture invites us to the heaven of consumerism while at the same time reminding us that we are in the world of the real and dirty – we may assume it is present due to smudging on the lens of the phone, which is heavily handled.


In the last image of the exhibit, we find ourselves entirely away from the gallery and into the real world that the art supposedly represents. This is St. Patrick station on the Toronto subway, the closest station to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The photo of an oncoming subway train taken from the platform is one of the great clichés of Toronto urban photography, but at the same time it too recalls Colville: the obvious and perfect perspective, the pensive figure in the foreground, a hint perhaps of the horse and train from Colville’s most famous painting (which appears in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). We are unsettled by the anomie and the faint suggestion of suicide. At the same time, there are people in the background, a normalizing presence reminding us that a person walking around with a cell phone cannot always control all elements of the composition; as pure as it might have been not have had them there, the photographer could not exactly shoo them away, and he did not wish to digitally alter the photographs – other than adjusting the colours and levels, which leaves us to ask ourselves whether those privileged silent alterations are less altering than the erasure of other details.

An overall note about the exhibition 

The presentation of the text in the captions for the artworks contains many sections in strikethrough, a style that preserves legibility while at the same time signifying deletion. This presentation imbues the work with a chill of censorship and a suggestion of the evanescence of the written word, and it begs questions not only of the “legibility” of artworks themselves but of the erasure of the critical voice, the disappearance of the reflective approach to artwork in a time when so much is dictated from “above” and the the curator’s presence is not only obsolescent but in fact always already self-erasing at the moment of utterance through the perpetual requestioning of thought. It can also be seen as an expression of the artist’s view that “there is a lot of onanistic bullshit written on gallery placards that doesn’t enhance the understanding or appreciation of the artwork for anyone other than the people who write it, and possibly not them either. Interpretation of artwork is an enjoyable sport, but it’s a game that each viewer should get to play for him or herself over and over. Some placards are like fully-played gameboards lacquered into place: the critic has had his fun and you don’t get to. I’d prefer to know details of the context and material and the work’s place in the artist’s oeuvre, things that help me understand it better, and maybe get a few thoughts on the content presented as simple suggestions, and not be told what I’m looking at or how I’m reacting to it. Also, sometimes they just use too many words.


I went to an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend: “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918.” It’s a period of art that I happen to find quite engaging. Many things were changing, and many artists were changing and growing even in that brief period (only as long as the concert career of The Beatles). You can go and play “spot the Picasso” – which painting that looks totally unlike the Picasso in the last room is the Picasso in this room? But even better is “spot the Mondrian.”

If you know the work of Piet Mondrian, you probably know his most famous works, painted mainly in the 1930s. An example is Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue. These paintings are white fields with rectilinear black lines dividing them into rectangles of various sizes, and rectangles of primary colours in some of the spaces between them. It seems pure abstraction, but in it Mondrian aimed to create a “direct expression of universal beauty”: not something unreal but in fact a new realism engaging the underlying universal, as opposed to the particular individual experience presented by “the aesthetic expression of oneself” – i.e., “of that which one thinks one experiences,” but which unavoidably “veils the pure representation of beauty.”

But before Mondrian arrived at this, he moved through phases starting with figurative representation in flat colours, through increased abstraction and via cubism to what might seem a gradual disintegration of form but to him was a stripping away of limiting particularities. You must watch this video, simply a chronological morphing of his paintings one into the next, or you really won’t see:

What has this to do with language? What has this to do with the word Mondrian?

Let us begin with the meandering of the name Mondrian over time. An ancestor of Pieter Cornelis (Piet) Mondrian was Christian Dirkzoon Monderyan. Mondrian himself was born Mondriaan. Consider the metamorphosis of the back half of that name, deryan to driaan to drian, where the tongue has simplified the wave pattern of articulation into a simpler single lap, and then – under French influence, likely – the artist has trimmed the spelling further, which also means a change of sound in the Dutch pronunciation.

Now think of those sounds, of the bits they are made of, how they could be composed further. The consonants are like lines, the vowels like coloured areas. Imagine the lines crossing, spreading, compressing, the colours shifting around: Mondrian, marinade, moderate reminder, ruminate, endure, endear, determine, maunder, meander in dunes of Midian midday until you summon damnation’s andirons or innumerable numinous noumens.

No. Those are all words, words of our modern language, words that have particular pictures and meanings. They are shapes that have been arrived at by the erosion of time and the deliberate simplifications and complications of scribes and lexicographers, but they are figures, and figures in the comparatively complex phonetic repertoire of English. Languages may have simpler vowel sets. Many have five; the simplest have three, and those three are close to the three in Mondrian, with only the rounded back one higher: u i a. The primary colours of vowels. Let us strip the consonants down to a basic set as well: m p n d l s k y w. Now use those to produce phonetic patterns. Sing them in an animated monody of modernity: music is abstracted speech tones, after all. Produce the most basic of phonotactic patterns, the canonic syllable, consonant-vowel. Here is your new universal language:

mu na di li ya nu ka la si mu la ku wi na da pi li sa ku ka ma su ta ya na ya lu si la pu li ka yu da ni ya la sa na pi ya lu ma ka ki ti su ni la ma ti na pi la da ka su la pi ka su mi wa na du pu la pi ta mu nu da li ya nu

Signifying? Ah, but where is the signification? Why? Signification is individual. Significance is individual. Meaning comes at the interface of the person and the form. These patterns, these sounds, will not tell you to close a door, to kiss a face, to bake a loaf of bread. But they may yet bring echoes of patterns of sounds that have meant something to you; they may give a feeling from the arrangements of highs and lows, of stops and nasals, of soft and hard and smooth and spiky. It will be a feeling you know from how you were made, but it will be a feeling you know by what you have come to be. Beauty is an individual experience, infinitely multifarious, an expression of change and variety, no sameness, each individual in each moment in each place creating a new universe from a singularity that as instantly becomes another. What is universal is individuality in its infinite increments of difference.

Mondrian’s paintings, too, are Mondrian’s paintings. The style is individual, instantly recognizable: the aesthetic expression of Mondrian’s self, of who he was, when he was, the world of art and philosophy and politics that he came through, the person he was, even the a he excised from his name. The course of his paintings’ development is like the watercourse of language rolling over the pebble-bed of a billion tongues and itself being smoothed but enriched in the process. And then things happen, a waterfall, rapids, shallows or shoals or trees’ twigs, a sunburst on the surface: a glittering riffle. The man who began with dunes and trees before reaching for the purity of the basic forms at last burst forth with a vibrant explosion, Broadway Boogie-Woogie, lines but with blood or ants thrumming through them, and the incomplete yet deathless Victory Boogie-Woogie, for a war that he would not live to see the end of. Mondrian was mortal but his mind’s meanders are enduring, and in his separation from the body he has made his name.


What is a scribble? And indescribable scribal dribbling, perhaps: linear babbling. If calligraphy is architecture, a scribble is rubble. The word itself is made to be scribbled: all those loops, with a few lines and a dot; it could look like the cloud of dust surrounding Pigpen from Peanuts.

It comes from the Latin scribillare, diminutive form of scribere ‘write’ – inferior writing. A scribbler is a poetaster, a hack, a prosaic disaster.

But scribbles can also be part of art. Sure, sure, you might say they’re squiggles, or strokes of some other description, but I say things that look like scribbling can be called scribbles, and Oxford agrees with me. I thought of this word when I was looking at some drawings I did for an art class back in my first year of university. I liked putting writing and scribbling into my drawings, and my writing looked like scribbling anyway. So here: art by the 16-year-old me. You be the judge. What, in your semantic ambit of ‘scribble’, is a scribble and what is not?



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tragic, tragedy

I have a challenge for you: listen to your local TV news and see if you can get through it once – even just once – without hearing tragic, tragedy, or both.

I just heard it again myself: “It appears to have been a tragic accident.” If you know how newsreaders say these things, when I tell you it was a concluding statement you probably have the intonation contour in your head already: roughly A AD D D DC [pause] A CC BAA (“it aPPEARS TO HAVE BEEn [pause] a tragic accident”).

What is tragic? What is tragedy? Well, the words have a certain feel that’s worth a look. They have the paired tongue-tip affricates of, for instance, judge, but with that rolling-in /r/ you get in /gr/ and /kr/ words such as great, grief, crap, Christ, grip, and gross. It has a bit of a different feel with the /t/ or /d/ (which become like “j” and “ch” before the /r/) – think of the feel of traffic tragedy on the train tracks – perhaps lacking the sense of base or depth you get from the back of the tongue, but there’s that straining-forward constriction: say tragedy emphatically and see how your lips thrust forward like an African mask. So the word has a good feel and shape for the effect.

But is the effect appropriate? Are these words well used? Ah, there’s something of a debate about that. This is where the newer usage of these words really gets some people’s goats. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus weighed in on it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

—Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.

—Repeat, said Lynch.

Stephen repeated the definitions slowly.

—A girl got into a hansom a few days ago, he went on, in London. She was on her way to meet her mother whom she had not seen for many years. At the corner of a street the shaft of a lorry shivered the window of the hansom in the shape of a star. A long fine needle of the shivered glass pierced her heart. She died on the instant. The reporter called it a tragic death. It is not. It is remote from terror and pity according to the terms of my definitions.

More often the dissent is on the basis of the Aristotelian idea, in which a hero capable of great acts falls to disaster (catastrophe) in a sudden reversal (peripeteia) through a flaw of character (hamartia), an overreaching (hubris). The audience (and perhaps one or more characters) experiences emotional cleansing (catharsis) through this.

But Aristotle’s idea was just Aristotle’s analysis. He didn’t write any plays himself – he described them a century after the heyday of Athenian drama – and the plays of the classical Greek theatre did not universally follow the pattern he described.

So what was a tragedy, originally? A goat song, it seems, if the usual etymology of  τράγος tragos “goat” and ᾠδή oidé “song” is to be believed. But no one’s entirely sure exactly how that came to be the name of the serious drama of Greece. Perhaps it was related to the satyr play that originally formed the fourth piece after a trilogy of serious works.

What we do know is that Greek tragedies involved a small number of actors and a fair-sized all-singing, all-dancing chorus; that they focused on mythical subjects; that the actors wore masks; that the writing was poetic; and that they didn’t always end, um, tragically. Sometimes the ending was happy. Even when it was sad, the hero didn’t necessarily die – Oedipus, for instance, just blinded himself and went into exile.

Obviously the sense of the word has shifted somewhat in non-theatrical usage. In the world of the people who write and read the news you get, a tragedy is not something that happens over a period of time with a playing out of any sort of plot at all. It is not schematized with duration. If someone on TV or in the paper says that, for instance, some ongoing bit of mismanagement is a tragedy, you know you’re listening to commentary. When it’s news qua news, a tragedy is “an instance of a bad (usually deadly) thing happening”.

If, say, a good kid makes a number of stupid mistakes and has a terrible accident in which at least one person dies (whether or not it’s the kid who made the mistakes), it is the accident itself that is referred to as the tragedy. To refer to the whole story as a tragedy would be evaluative in a way that is reserved for commentary.

And it’s all in little hits. The news is full of not three-act or even one-act plays but rather something that is to a drama what a shooter is to a glass of wine, or what a one-bite snack is to a restaurant meal. Tragedy has lost its masks, its chorus, its traffic of the stage; there is no peripeteia, no hamartia, no hubris. Just the anti-orgasm of fatal catastrophe.

And tragic? Ah, tragic, now, that’s even better. It’s like unfortunately. It doesn’t add any more information about what happened. Rather, it adds information about the attitude and character of the person speaking it – the person wants you to know that they know that it is a bad thing, and they want you to feel that it is a bad thing too.

To say of an incident in which someone at a party in a park died “It appears to have been an accident” might seem somehow to dismiss or diminish it. There are accidents all the time, after all. No, no, this is not some simple traffic accident. We must make it clear we are at not ff but full-on g. In order to show that you appreciate how bad it was, and to give that emotional clench that newscasters tend to love, it is necessary to state the obvious just so that no one thinks “Isn’t it obvious to you?” – and so the viewers can feel the punch a little more.

And what’s the effect of that punch, by the way? The viewers probably don’t know or have any connection to the person. Consider: If a friend of yours dies and another friend tells you about it, do they say “It appears to have been a tragic accident”? Likely not. You’d think “Do you think I don’t know it was bad? Do you think I don’t know you know?” Among friends it would be just “It appears to have been an accident” – or “They think it was an accident.” No, the tragic is part of the aesthetic experience of the news.

Yes, indeedy. You may or may not hold to the theory of catharsis, or to the theory of rasadhvani, or to any other particular theory of aesthetic perception, but we know that our response to fiction – movies – has a metacognitive value. We are getting experience, in a way, because we are receiving stimuli highly resemblant to real-life stimuli, and so we have similar reactions. But the lack of immediate consequences for us allows us to experience these things in an at least slightly different way. We can swirl them in the glass, sniff them, roll them on the tongue.

And that’s what much of the news is for most viewers and readers. It has no direct effect on us. It may have happened in reality, but we are not experiencing actual consequences from a stranger’s death or house fire or whatnot, or from some star’s divorce. I know, no one is an island when all is said and Donne, but unless the “tragedy” involves something we have a direct connection to, it’s more like entertainment. We see it, we are shocked, we can process the shock aesthetically; we feel bad, and we feel good about ourselves for feeling bad.

And so you know, when you hear tragic – when you are listening to the goat-song bleatings of some drudge who has dredged up a bleeder to lead with – that you are being invited not just to know, not just to experience, but to know the knowing and experience the experiencing. To feel the terror and the pity, and come away ennobled in your humanity. And all in one act.