When faced with another’s suffering, some like to comment “Well, at least …” Kate Bowler calls them minimizers: people who want a sufferer to somehow deserve their compassion, once one’s level of suffering has been accurately compared. She found herself worn out by their “tyranny of prescriptive joy.” It’s clear that people are uncomfortable with suffering, so better to give it a value.
Words attempt to measure and weigh, somewhere between “precise weighing and valid imagining … that pause to weigh incompatibles” in John Beer’s wondrous essay (20). Beer proceeds to evaluate writers and their sense of weighing and imagining, such as Dickens’ Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, with its manager who assays the words themselves, weighing them for profit and genuineness. He finds Wordsworth to be especially concerned with weight, imagination, and loss, and his images can have an earthiness, a measurability. There is an evocative turn, as when unbalanced incompatibles are held in a sublime and irrational unity: Wordsworth’s “that uncertain heaven, received/ Into the bosom of the steady lake” (so like the shift from “the heavens declare the glory of God“ to “the law of the Lord is perfect” in Psalm 19). Adrian Poole notes that tragedy tries to find the register for the words, but sometimes it’s only a stammering, the “oh” and “ah” so common in dramas (Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction, 92-96). How can these be represented onstage, are they stage directions or dialogue? The words may devolve into more primal sounds, the howl and the scream, more an animalistic non-speech.
Tragedy often slips into economic words, terms for valuing, cost, comparison, these goods versus those. What is true greatness? How do the obscure challenge the mighty, the worthless versus the worldly worthy? Can any great thing come out of Nazareth? In Simone Weil’s translation of the Iliad book 21, “Patroclus was worth much more than you.”