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

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker