In The Comedy of Survival, Joseph Meeker argues that much of Western civilization is modeled after the “tragic mode.” You’ll recognize that mode from the Greek and Renaissance tragedies you read in primary school. In the tragic mode, a larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image. He succeeds, in part, by mutilating and murdering and generally dragging a swath of blood behind him. But his success is also his undoing, and at the end of the play, his head is carried off the stage. A eulogy praises his bravery while also issuing a caution against those who would follow in his path.
But Meeker proposes an alternative: the comic mode. As you might suspect, the comic mode takes its cues not from the great tragedies but from comedies. Whereas tragedies follow men who are determined to remake the world to suit them, comic characters remake themselves to fit the world. They are flexible and adaptable; they use their wits to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, rather than using their sword to make such opportunities appear.
Where tragedies end in funerals, comedies end in weddings — less blood, more drink.
The tragic mode is the one we slip into when we talk about men who’ve had an outsized impact on the world. We speak of the many things they’ve accomplished, the obstacles they overcame, their ambition, their disruption. We scoff at the companies or people left in their wake. If they fail, we praise their effort and courage. If they succeed, we eventually conspire to get at their throat, and the cycle begins anew.
But what of the comic mode? The comic mode eschews heroic acts. The comic mode pokes fun at ambition and celebrates leisure. The comic mode trades late nights for weekends off, empty savings accounts for day jobs, bravado for brains.
The comic mode lives beyond the curtain fall.
Less blood. More drink.