Some of my favorite books, stories, films, and histories are about tragic people. You know those individuals whose stars shine so brightly and flashes across the sky so quickly, it either burns out or comes to an abrupt halt? Well, I loved reading novels like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Virgin Suicides, etc. I still do. These characters were recognized for their peculiarity, shows of defiance, rebel hearts, moodiness, brilliant ideas, and supreme radiance. This combination of traits typically leads these people towards extinguishment. They burn too hot and so they either put themselves out or someone or a series of events does it for them. Therein lies the tragedy and it’s extremely alluring. I’m not necessarily just rooting for them. Yes, they’re the protagonist, but there are elements to their personalities and choices that defy common sense. As appealing as they can be, they’re off-putting as well. Emma Bovary, for example, while a great romantic, was extremely narcissistic, materialistic and histrionic. You kind of love to hate her. Especially, if you can relate to her.
Much like in these novels, I’ve been drawn to historical figures that also claim a dramatic rise and fall motif to their lives. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, has been an obsession for a long time, but I also have biographies on Napoleon, Mao Zedong, and Alexander Hamilton on my bookshelf. What these people have in common is the fact that their incredible personal agency, drive, and Machiavellian mode of networking allowed them to achieve rapid success. They went all the way in reaching their goals, often without considering anyone else and even at the detriment of many people. They had blinders on; you have to give them so much credit for the power they wielded, regardless of the destruction it may have caused. They were polarizing to their peers; loved or hated, revered or despised, exalted or executed. As swiftly as they brought the world to its knees, they were brought down to their own. That is fodder for a great story and a very intriguing legacy.
It could be that I have a diluted touch of a histrionic personality myself; (I can hear you gasping in shock!). As a young child and teenager, I always created much more internal fantasy around my life to make it more interesting. I think this is an innate quality; not something that can or should be learned. This internalized tendency towards drama has definitely ebbed as I’ve gotten older, thank goodness, but I believe my fascination with interesting, divisive people will never go away.
As Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Think about Oscar Wilde, himself! I believe it was not just his wit, but the fact that his life ended in tragedy, that makes him one of the most quoted icons of his generation. There were insidious rumors about his lifestyle, both real and imagined. Much of them were propagated by himself. After being incarcerated for sodomy and gross indecency, his bright light was forever snuffed out and he died not too long after at the young age of 46. His shocking behavior in Victorian era England both launched and destroyed him. That said, he will assuredly never be forgotten.
So that begs the question: is it better to live fast and die young/in disgrace, as a true legend? Or is it best to be “steady eddy”, not make waves, and leave behind no palpable legacy? I wish I could know what some of these people felt in the moments of their greatest achievements and greatest failures. For Anne Bolyen, what was it like to be crowned Queen of England against all odds while serving as the unofficial helm of an entirely new religion? What was it like when she was imprisoned in the Tower awaiting execution? It’s people like her, or Alexander Hamilton that continue to capture modern minds, whether in a book, musical, movie, or television series. Game of Thrones is a perfect example of tragic characters on crack and so it’s one of the most popular tevelision series of all time.
I believe dipping our toes in this kind of drama allows us to escape and explore the fantasies of our lives. At the same time, we’re able to turn off, shut, or walk away from experiencing this heightened stress whenever we feel like we’ve had enough. Still, don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to be in The Room Where It Happens?
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