Harriet Walker: Even Sophocles couldn't have imagined idiots this tragic

Share
Related Topics

Somebody needs to tell the playwrights about an important new twist in modern-day poetics: there is no such thing as a tragic hero any more.

In these days of sexting and dirty direct messaging, he is no longer the totem he once was. The tragic hero was the man we felt a desperate, tugging pain for when he toppled himself unwittingly from a position of honour and nobility. But these days, he fits more easily within the role of the fool – the hamartia, that fatal flaw, and hubris that once resulted in our heartstrings bristling with empathy, now only raises a smirk or gets our backs up. We're exasperated with men who throw away what they have because they are stupid or, worse, careless.

The ritual shaming of men who can't keep their private lives or parts to themselves has become a fact of latter-day existence, as much as muesli or four-wheel-drives. Anthony Weiner's eponymous slip-up, Strauss-Kahn's alleged fumbles with housekeeping, even John Galliano's booze-fuelled rants. These ignoble falls from grace all occurred at the very pinnacle of Fortune's wheel, when these men were either at the top of their game or poised very shortly to reach it. All head-shakingly ridiculous or odious in their own specific ways, all men who were either sparklingly talented or impressively promising. Careers crash down, reputations are besmirched, families are shamed and upset – it isn't far off the ancient tanglings of Oedipus, say, or Titus. Except nobody's eaten their children yet, thank goodness – imagine the PR clear-up from that.

Of course, the foremost characteristic of a tragic hero is a certain bull-headed conviction of one's own righteousness, but the Greeks didn't have to worry about camera phones or clicking the wrong "send" button. If only Oedipus had been on Facebook, that whole sorry mess could have been avoided. Instead of gouging out her eyes, Jocasta might have got away with just making her profile private.

In a digital age where leaders of men are positively encouraged to have feet of clay – we want to see Obama at a ballgame, Cameron at a cookout – a crucial distance, one that commands our respect and deference, is lost. These men are lulled into a false security, supposing that in fact we do want to know the intricacies of their lives, before a lazy mistake singles them out as zeitgeist-ligging bozos with only a tangible greed for followers, be they nubile interns or mere potential voters. But our era's tragic heroes are not king-killers or god-defiers; they are, for want of a more eloquent term, idiots.

Their flaws range from libido to loutishness, and their modus operandi is not flawed so much as fudged. They expect, for some reason, to get away with it, but – and I speak from a practical point of view rather than a moral one (what happens behind the arras is not our concern, after all) – it's even harder to recover from accidental over-sharing than it is to deviate from a blind soothsayer's prophecy.

There is a general consensus that the likes of Anthony Weiner and Galliano are now unfit to do the jobs they had. Undoubtedly they have done wrong, but theirs are not crimes that compromise the way they cut a pattern or run a company. These unpleasantries are peccadilloes and ones that would not have affected their public personae had the details not emerged. Their tragedy is they happened to get caught, or that they got themselves caught, in fact. Instead of Machiavellian tacticians we have blundering Malvolios: people in power have begun to think they are above discovery.

But they are just as fallible as we are when they're logging in to the same social media sites. And, while not tragedy on a Sophoclean scale, it follows the same inevitable but avoidable arc. "Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through the dark," declares Jocasta, before the truth comes out. "Better to live at random, best we can." Good advice, and superbly tweet-able, as it comes in under 140 characters. Those Greeks were a prescient bunch.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Howard Jacobson
A pill for obesity is a step closer, with two separate studies showing that it may be possible to influence the body’s tendency to build up damaging fat deposits beneath the skin  

Being fat is the last social taboo. It is the actual elephant in the room

Rosie Millard
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all