A Real Tragedy

Some terrible things happened at the end of last week. Chief among them in the news were two events, each apparently caused by a single troubled individual.

On Friday morning in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik bombed a building in Oslo and went on a shooting rampage on Otoya Island. According to the latest numbers, Anders Behring Breivik killed 93 people and wounded 97. (Since he has confessed, I’m not bothering to say “allegedly”.)

People around the world struggled—and continue to struggle—to make sense of this horrific attack. Because people need to make sense of terrible things. There is a whole branch of theology around it.

And thanks to the Internet, millions of people are instantly aware of and can communicate with each other about every terrible thing that occurs within its range.

On Friday afternoon in London, 27-year-old singer Amy Winehouse died at her flat. People around the world had no trouble whatsoever making sense of her death. It fit right into an existing pattern, the 27 Club, which comprises famous musicians who died at age 27.

In response to these events, Twitter abounded with expressions of grief, outrage, and the usual gallows humor—much more of the latter in the case of Amy Winehouse. Leaving aside questions of taste, some jokes were clever and most reiterated that she should have gone to rehab after all.

“Tragedy!” was the popular outcry.

Like a leery next-door neighbor, the Internet leaps at a chance to impugn. So, by the weekend, chastisers were taking the opportunity to chastise anyone bemoaning the death of a single singer in the face of a nation’s grief, and particularly for applying so strong a word to the inferior misfortune.

theshaeman: What does it say about us when “Amy Winehouse” is trending but the 93 lives lost in Norway aren’t so much? Tragedy is tragedy.

twentymajor: Just to clarify, what happened to Amy Winehouse is a shame. It is not a tragedy. Please see Norway for correct use of that word.

mezzoblue: I’m rather appalled at the number of people I follow who are tweeting about her, but haven’t mentioned yesterday. One is actually a tragedy.

Yes, one is “actually a tragedy.” But I would argue, it’s actually the untimely death of a talented singer.

Referring to the origins, a tragedy is drama in which the protagonist meets with disaster through a personal fault. It’s from the Greek, literally “goat song” ( tragos “goat” + oide “song”), for reasons that are not entirely clear. A tragedy is a performance, a simulated terrible experience meant to be experienced communally by an audience. The story of Amy Winehouse’s life is a perfect tragedy, all the more so because it seemed inevitable to those who watched it unfold like a story. (I’ll set aside the question of the extent to which popular media exacerbate the suffering of the famous.)

And of course, over time, the definition of tragedy came to extend to real-world events, but it is rooted in public performance.

The seventh proposition of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus is:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence.

Those who aren’t philosophers of language might say instead:

Words fail me.

Momentous, terrible, or painful events are frequently honored with a moment of silence. In the dialect of community blog Metafilter, respectful silence is indicated by a comment containing only a single period.


Without the context afforded by unified community standards, this expression is virtually impossible to convey in text. So, anyone left speechless by the enormity of unfolding events has no choice but to remain silent. And the public reaction to an accessible tragedy rushes to fills the void, making for an easy interpretation that base and shallow feelings dominate, rather than the opposite.

The greater the misfortune, the less there is to say.

To you, the reader, it might seem offensively trivializing to parse the language used to comment on human suffering by those who are so far removed from that suffering. But this is our condition, each of us is affected in a way we cannot name because we are part of an ever-increasing community that experiences devastating events together in the most reductive way possible. And, feeling moved to participate, we do in just a few words.

So, before you criticize anyone for using the wrong word, consider the burden of remaining silent when no right word exists. No mot juste in an unjust world.

5 comments so far

  1. Brave, wise words. Thank you.

  2. Shatteredtruth

    Like most things it’s all about how you look at it.
    For me the bigger the scope the less tragic everything seems.

  3. It’s fascinating to see how these two events are linked, in such a beautifully written piece. Thank you!

  4. Nice piece of link bait.

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