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Tragedy: A Short Story

Tragedy“The tragedy of contemporary life,” Tyler said, with just the right tone of self-aware irony in his voice, “is that contemporary life is not, in fact, a tragedy.”

Gordie sniffed at the effervescence of his freshly poured beer, as classic rock blared from the speakers above the bar, backfilling the wake left by Tyler’s apparent profundity. After a long pull from his pint, Gordie stopped staring at the table of cute undergrads, and said, "OK. You got me. Explain."

Tyler took a long pull off his own pint, before continuing.

"Take us, for example. By all accounts, we've made it. Not just at the personal level, but from the perspective of the species.” From the wax papered basket in front of him, Tyler picked one of the larger chicken wings, and tore a piece of spicy flesh off of it. “We've got good, comfortable, government jobs, bullet proof pensions, trendy but tasteful downtown condos. Sure, we’re single and haven’t reproduced, but that’s by choice rather than necessity.” He licked the fingers of his left hand clean, took hold of his pint, and took another long pull. “We eat when we want. We drink when we want. In principle, we could fuck when we want. We've got shelter. We have everything a human primate could ever possibly want, with little effort and no struggle. We have achieved what the species has been struggling for ever since it first emerged from the primordial ooze. We're living in human primate nirvana.”

“So?” Gordie took another long pull from his pint. “What's the problem with that?”

“That's just it,” Tyler exclaimed, brandishing a picked clean bone. “There is no problem. Nothing is wrong. Life is pretty good. It's not great, it’s a little boring at times, but it’s always pleasant enough that we can't really complain, but not so exciting to be, well, exciting.”

“Why is that a tragedy?” Gordie’s eyes drifted up to one of the TVs above the bar, which silently displayed one man’s struggle to determine if his opponent had been drawing to the flush that was now on the board.

“It's textbook tragedy, Gordie.” Tyler took a long pull off his beer. “Humanity's tragic flaw, it's primary drive and motivation throughout its history, is its desire for a life of ease and comfort. Everything that has ever happened has happened ultimately because of our longing for a life much like the one you and I are living right now, and, now that we have achieved that life, we've discovered that it's not anything to be particularly excited about or particularly disappointed by.”

“Why's that bad?” Gordie topped up Tyler’s glass from the pitcher before topping up his own.  “It’s not a tragedy, if the flaw doesn't lead to some kind of horrible outcome.”

“That is a horrible outcome! We’re living the worst of both worlds." Tyler expressed his horror with an extra long pull from his pint. "It makes me want to pull my eyes out sometimes."

"How’s it horrible?" Gordie looked to the TV again, and noted that the struggling man had lost a lot of chips. He was now making a scene to compensate for the loss. "Two seconds ago, you said it was nirvana. We've achieved what the species has always wanted. No problem. Nothing to see here. Ergo, no tragedy."

"And that’s exactly why it’s a tragedy," Tyler tossed another clean bone into his basket. "We've achieved what we've always wanted, and it’s so indifferently pleasant that I can’t even feel bad about its banality."

Gordie burped before responding. "Why is it banal, and not simply pleasant?"

"Because in our drive for comfort, we've, out of necessity, developed a taste for greatness, for achievement, for overcoming." Tyler paused to chew some cartilage off the end of a bone. "We're here precisely because others have achieved great things, but now that there is nothing left to achieve, we still have this appetite for greatness, but no need for it, no opportunity for it." He pulled another wing from his basket. “It's like eating vanilla cake, when you really want chocolate. You want chocolate, but you can't really complain because you still have cake." He tore into the wing.

"Seriously, Tyler, the tragic outcome of the human species is the fact that we're eating vanilla cake when we really want chocolate." Gordie took a long pull from his pint and shook his head. "Seriously?"

"Tragic, isn't it?" Tyler held the remains of the wing near his lips, smiling with just the right hint of irony. "Don't you think?"

"Not really."

"Exactly!"

Helen intervened, filling the pregnant pause of Gordie's incredulity. "Do you guys want another pitcher?"

Gordie answered, while Tyler finished his wing. "Yes, please!"

"How are the wings?"

Tyler answered, while Gordie took another pull from his beer. "Great!"

Helen cleared the empty pitcher and Gordie's basket of bones. Tyler tore into another wing.

"Tyler, I think you're overlooking a rather obvious point. Your life, my life, is not representative of the general state of the species. Your life isn't even representative of the general state of people living in this city.” Gordie took a small sip from his beer, nursing what he had left in his glass. “There are plenty of people in this city who are suffering and plenty of people who are living great, even ecstatic lives!"

"Bah," Tyler tossed another naked bone into his basket. "Exceptions that prove the rule. Outliers. You and I are the median, the norm, the creamy middle of the curve."

"No, we're the outliers." Gordie leaned back in his chair and peeked again at the table of cute undergraduates. "You and I, we are a privileged minority, in a privileged city, in a privileged country, in a privileged moment in history. We’re in no way representative of the general experience of the species. We’re the exception that proves the rule, the actual rule."

"Oh yeah," Tyler drained his glass. "What rule is that?

"Here you go, guys." Helen placed the pitcher between them on the bar. "You want some more wings, Gordie?"

"No, I'm good." Gordie grabbed the pitcher and filled Tyler's glass before filling his own.

"How about you, Tyler," she asked. "Are you still working on those wings."

"Tcha, of course."

"You clean those bones like no one else."

"Leave no flesh behind!"

Helen smiled, before moving to the other end of the bar.

Tyler started to chew on a new wing, and, through its flesh, he asked, "so, you were saying?"

Gordie looked away from the girls, and took a long pull from his glass. "Right. The fact of the matter is that you and I are the exceptions that prove the rule that the vast majority of people are still struggling to survive, forced to do great things because they have no other choice. Moreover, you're also overlooking the fact that our wealth and comfort is an illusion of unaccounted for externalities. Our way of life is bleeding the world dry.”

"Tragic, isn't it?” Tyler slurped at his beer, to add emphasis.

"Sure, but your initial claim was that life isn't tragic! I'm saying it is well and truly tragic. We've achieved what we we've always wanted -- well, a small minority has -- but only at the cost of destroying the grounds, the very possibility of that which we want.”

“And in the meantime, our life is pretty good, right? Free of tragedy.” Tyler tossed one last well-cleaned bone into his basket. “And, isn't that the real tragedy, Gordie?” He tore open a moist towelette, and started to wipe down his fingers.

“You can't do that!” Gordie slammed his glass on the bar in disgust. “That wasn’t your point. You were making some vaguely Nietzschean observation about the banality of the herd utopia.”

“They’re two sides of the same coin,” Tyler tossed the soiled towelette on top of the bones, and started to dry his fingers with a napkin. “The personal is the political.”

“They are not. They are two totally different points.” Gordie took a long pull from his pint. “And don’t try to muddy the waters with references to feminism.”

Tyler tossed the crumpled napkin into the basket of bones along with the moist towelette. “The real irony of the situation is that you can’t even tell when I’m being ironic.”

“That’s not irony either!”

Helen intervened again, clearing Tyler’s basket of flesh-free bones. “You guys crack me up. Are you sure you’re single by choice?”

“What do you mean?” Gordie asked, as Tyler topped up their glasses from the pitcher.

Helen motioned to the empty table, where the cute undergraduates had been sitting. She tried to communicate something with her eyes, but Gordie didn’t understand, so he shrugged his shoulders and took a long pull from his pint.

Helen laughed. “I can’t wait until you guys are drunk. I love it when you slur your words.”

Later, when Tyler and Gordie were thinking about leaving, Helen bought them a round, so she could hear them slur their words a little longer, and to make sure they were good and drunk for the short walk home to their trendy but tasteful condos.

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