Just a Quick Thought on Tragic Heroism

As a singer-songwriter born in the 60s and raised in the 70s and 80s, I suppose there are two major shadows under which I labor: I refer to the long shadows cast by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I am influenced by both, in different ways — but that’s the subject of another tale.

Listening recently to a Springsteen collection, I was struck by a notion. That is that both Bruce and Bob deal primarily with sketchings of tragic heroes. Now, we can very simply define a hero (non-tragic) as someone who responds to extraordinary circumstances and in the process, becomes extraordinary, if only for a brief moment in time. The tragic hero, on the other hand, is someone who is not changed from their basic state of ordinary or extraordinary by the nature of these circumstances.

For Dylan, the tragic hero is an extraordinary individual who is forced to reconcile themselves with ordinary times. For Springsteen, on the other hand, the tragic hero is the ordinary individual who is embroiled in an extraordinary life. The tragedy for both writers is that in both cases, their heroes fail. Dylan’s extraordinary hero does not improve their ordinary situation. Springsteen’s ordinary hero does not rise above their state to absorb the extraordinariness of their time. Both seem trapped, not so much by the mundane nature of either their surroundings, or their personal outlook, but rather by a sense that what really matters is somehow beyond their grasp — and almost beyond their imagination to reach.

A further significant difference is that often, Bob Dylan is the tragic hero himself, as opposed to Bruce Springsteen, who merely assumes the mantle of the hero for the purposes of illustration — at least in the later works of both. There is cross-over in their early years, both ways.

Lastly, it is important to note that the immersion in this world of the ordinary, for Dylan its events, and for Springsteen, its people, has marked each writer in different ways.

Dylan, it seems to me, tends to reach out to the extraordinary that he is sure exists in all humankind. Springsteen, on the other hand, tends to try to communicate with people at their most ordinary, believing that once they acknowledge their shared ordinariness, that acknowledgment itself will result in the development of extraordinary people.

A slight difference, perhaps, but I think very important. The difference between extraordinary ordinariness, and ordinary extraordinariness. Or to put it another way, the magical mundane versus the mundane magical.

What truly defines the subjects of both writers’ songs as tragic heroes, however, is something even more sublime — and that is this: without being immortalized in song, their stories would not even command a moment of our collective attention. This world, that focuses so much on attaining some level of control, no matter how much it costs to acquire the temporary rights to that illusion, does not take kindly to reminders of those who have either lost control, or willingly given it up; reminders that you never really have control, and what control you may think you have isn’t really of much use in the greater scheme of things. Unless, of course, those reminders have a good beat and you can dance to them.

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