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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Romeo and Juliet - thinking about tragedy

I'm not much of a tragedy lover. First, tragedy upsets me. It even kind of scares me. And second, I'm always thinking about how there was a way out. How it didn't have to end up a tragedy. Of course I'm not talking about disaster tragedies or innocent victim tragedies. No, I mean classic tragedies. Like Romeo and Juliet. Where the mix of circumstances and character has an outcome that feels like fate.

The great majority of us - the really great majority of us - are survivors. We might become bitter, emotionally limited, survivors - but, still, we don't go under. We live out our lives and we want them to be long.

Romeo and Juliet could have made different choices. They could have practiced patience, they could have plotted more deviously, they could have taken the risk of telling the truth. Romeo could have decided not to kill Tybalt despite all his provocation. Juliet could have told her parents, "I can't marry Paris, I'm already married. Call the holy Father, he will confirm it." And if they threw her out on the street, she could have found sanctuary somewhere in the large clan of Capulets or with a friend of Romeo's or even with the holy Father himself until, between her love and herself, enough money had been raised for her to travel to Mantua and join him in his exile.

The point is, of course, they didn't do any of these things. Their minds were full of love and death. Their mantra was: if I am not with you, I will die. If I can't be with you, I will kill myself. Life apart from you is excruciating, unbearable, intolerable, and I refuse to live it. They were extremists. Complete extremists. In the most gorgeous way possible.

But perhaps that is one of the defining characteristics of youth. Gorgeous, romantic extremism. Which we must get over -- or perish. The world is a deadly place for that kind of romantic longing. The daily life pretty much conspires against it. Romeo and Juliet had a host of obstacles in life -- but even if they had parents saying, 'Um.. she's only thirteen. How about you date a while and maybe not get married the day after you meet her at a dance, hmm?" Would they have felt that was an unbearable reality as well, impossible to reconcile with love?

Older people hold young people back. All the time. The daily round wears down extreme devotion, takes the knife edge off romance, cools down obsession - and if it doesn't, then the lightning strikes. We must give up our overwhelming longing, our romantic singlemindedness, our refusal to compromise... or tragedy lurks in the wings, waiting for its moment.

And what of the other tragedy? The death of our youthful purity and devotion? The creation of rationality, compromise, patience, the muting of our desires? Is this not also something we weep for?

And so perhaps it is not possible to reconcile ourselves to the death of these young lovers. We cannot dismiss them even if we privately know that their beauty is mixed with foolishness. Because we also know that every time Romeo and Juliet die, the world becomes a bit smaller.

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