A MOMENT ago you were chatting and joking, interested and amused by all sorts of things. Now you are staring at the ground; you wish you could pray, but you do not know for what or to whom. Dispirited, tired, and indifferent, you find it strange that you could have been amused at anything a few minutes back, and still stranger that you will have to get up to-morrow and go about your business. And worst of all your throat feels constricted and you seem to have a load on your back and your eyes are like lead, so that you can hardly raise them from the ground.
What has happened to you? Nothing, nothing really. Just one or two trifling mishaps. Something hindered me on the way, but it’s hardly worth mentioning — something I was n’t expecting; something hurt me a little, I can’t get it out of my mind; it’s nothing, really, when you take it all together; if I were to add it all up it would not amount to even one decent reason for grief. It’s nothing; but it’s too much altogether, altogether — it’s not worth mentioning, really; but, you know, life is a terrible business.
I am pretty sure that on the day when King Solomon wrote the creed of all the pessimists — when he wrote, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ — that on that day nothing special had happened to him; his kingdom was not tottering, his favorite wife had not died, he had not felt the touch of death in his ailing body. It was nothing — nothing serious. In truth, nothing had happened to King Solomon that day: only, perhaps, he had read folly and guile in the eyes of his favorite wife, indifference in his friend, baseness in his body servant; something had slipped out of his hands, perhaps something unimportant; some enterprise of his failed, something had disappointed him; he saw things in just a slightly uglier light than usual, folk just a trifle more tiresome, life a little more difficult. Nothing, if you take it all together. But King Solomon on that day broke down under the weight of that nothing and shuddered; weary unto death, he set down in his book the vanity of things.
For, look you, it is possible to be a hero in the face of the great blows of fate. Death, ruin, shipwreck, can be borne with a head unbowed, as they say; in the last resort one can struggle and perish. Cut it is not possible to be a hero in the face of pinpricks. You can really overlook the pricking a couple of times; and then you can pretend a few times more that you did not notice it; but when it comes to the tenth or fifteenth prick, all your heroism leaves you. Man is powerless against small pains. He can feel a kind of pride in having broken his leg, but he can feel none in breaking a finger nail. He can bear the death of his wife with fortitude, but he cannot bear it heroically when she is stupidly mean to him. He has a certain catastrophic consolation if his house falls down, but he has no consolation if his house is hopelessly ugly.
Melancholy, the severest grief of life, is a suffering from small causes. It is the severest because it does not give way before heroism; there are no heroic victims of melancholy. It is in any case a weakness, or rather a defenselessness in the face of petty ills.
I might almost say that there is no modern tragedy. Take Ibsen: his modern tragedies (even including Ghosts) are really melancholy comedies; the tragedy of their heroes lies in the fact that they are pathetic creatures who inevitably put themselves in the wrong, and so are essentially ridiculous. Your classical hero broke himself against the divine order of things, which is tragic; your modern hero breaks himself against the human order of things, which is slightly comic, but mainly sad. Shakespeare’s heroes always die; that saves them from unwilling absurdity. Modern heroes usually live on, which is both laughable and pathetic. If Othello had not stabbed himself, but had been found guilty of manslaughter with extenuating circumstances and spent his old age as a retired general on half pay, he would have been a modern hero — that is to say, a melancholy semi-hero. That is why anyone who wants to write a real tragedy must end his play with a wholesale massacre. It is not that death is in itself tragic and sublime, but that after that your hero can do nothing to disfigure his heroism.
To survive suffering is a melancholy thing. And if there is such a thing as modern heroism, then it must be not heroic death but heroic optimism. But modern drama has not yet got so far.