Stupidity is measured in only two ways:
Not doing enough.
Doing too much.
Since all literature is concerned with dramatic human activity, and all dramatic human activity (as opposed to engineering, etc) involves stupidity, what we are about to say is absolutely true for all literature.
Our radical thesis is blandly true, yet radical: Stupidity is understood in literature only in terms of the ancient tropes, comedy and tragedy, and perceptually, popularly, in no other way.
Comedy (Stupidity’s victory) is ‘too little being enough.’
For instance: A blind fool succeeds.
Tragedy (Stupidity’s defeat) is about ‘too little not being enough.’
For instance: O! Had we only done more to save him/her/them!
‘Too much not being enough’ is the sub-tragedy within Comedy and the sub-comedy within Tragedy.
The variable term is ‘enough,’ and the overarching constant is Stupidity.
On either side of ‘enough’ is comedy and tragedy.
Comedy is so easy to explain that it’s funny. In Comedy, in all forms of humor, “enough” is reached very quickly. This is what we mean by a “quick wit.”
In Tragedy, the audience sees the “enough” beyond the reach of the tragic (overly complex) participants.
A melancholy disposition is akin to tragedy because it has a certain duration: like tragedy, and unlike comedy, melancholy is slow; it has a lastingness. One can never be melancholy for a moment; only humor is momentary.
Comedy does not—or only in those representations which formally mimic tragedy for a comic end (happy resolution).
The denoument of tragedy belongs to the quick, but this quickness is only a “catching-up” from the prior slow development of the tragedy itself, in which “too much” vainly seeks to be “enough.”
Tragedy, which belongs to slow reflective menace, ends suddenly with a sudden death. Enough is “found” at last in death.
Comedy, which belongs to quick wit, never staying to reflect, ends with marriage, which takes long preparation. Enough is “lost” in open ended, happily-ever-after, revelry.
Detective fiction, the most popular type of fiction in existence, explains a tragedy with a prose patience. Detective fiction is simply where the “critic,” not the “poet,” is the hero. In detective fiction, poetry (tragedy) is explained. Instead of ending with a tragic death after the unfolding tragedy, detective fiction begins with the tragic death and works backwards to reveal the hidden aspects of the crime.
This is why criticism which praises betrays literature and is boring. It is for the simple reason that criticism is like the detective story and a detective story involves folly, stupidity or folly covered up—a crime, a wrong.
This is why cheerleading for literature never works.
Literature requires the wrong (or stupidity) of either comedy or tragedy.
Prose reveals plainly.
Poetry hides beautifully.
Prose is the detective. Poetry is the crime, the tragedy, the ‘too much’ which is not enough, the beauty which is pleasure and would continue forever, precisely because it is pleasurable and beautiful.
The criminal is simply the one who, not obeying society, inappropriately seeks an “Eden,” a paradise of ‘not-having-to-work.’ This lazy and real desire, this attempt creates tragedy, poetry, and the need for detectives and critics.
And now we return to “enough,” for work deals with enough—we have now worked enough, we have now done enough—but not working, paradise (similar, we notice, to parasites) is ideally never-ending, for pleasure is never “enough.”
There is always enough sorrow (stupidity).
There is never enough happiness or pleasure.
Comedy—which is, and which is not, happiness—quickly finds “enough” happiness (superficially) again and again.
Tragedy—which has not, but which seeks, happiness—presents profoundly the profound desire and elusiveness of never-ending happiness.
Enough—perceived superficially is comedy.
Enough—perceived elusively is tragedy.
Enough, in its more substantial form, simply because of its elusiveness, which takes time to find, belongs more to poetry/tragedy. This is the chief reason tragedy gets more respect than comedy.
Above, we wrote, “Poetry hides beautifully.” Poetry/tragedy is a beautiful hiding.
The “hiding” activity of the poet/criminal (which the prose critic/detective/reader is called on to reveal) requires a formalist, material definition, since we need precise measurement to hide X inside of Y. This is the chief reason why great literature is formalist to a remarkable degree: it has to do with the precise hiding principle.
Comedy is when something isn’t hidden, or hidden badly.
Tragedy is when something is hidden well.
Comedy is when low stupidity understands.
Tragedy is when high intelligence does not.
When it comes to popular entertainment, today’s audiences choose what they want to watch by those ancient labels: comedy and tragedy (or murder mystery, the major genre Poe added).
Contemporary literature—literary fiction and contemporary poetry—abandon, out of sophistication, these “labels” for something vaguely realistic or ethical.
We might call this a scientific, experimental maneuver based on wisdom and intelligence.
But here’s the rub.
The realistic and the ethical have no sense of “enough,” precisely because they seek (unconsciously) to be unmoored from the “labels,” comedy and tragedy.
Explanatory science (sans “labels”) has no limit—has no “enough.” No tragedy, or comedy, or stupidity.
Poets and writers of literary fiction today are more than a little exasperated and puzzled by a public they’ve come to despise, a public which devours popular brands of shallow literature and entertainment, but turns its back on the insight, subtlety and beauty of literary fiction and contemporary poetry.
It would be one thing if the public didn’t read anything; but it is more insulting to contemporary poetry and literary fiction authors that the public spends a great deal of time reading popular, formulaic works.
Stupid people—they read too much (genre) and gain nothing (remain stupid), or don’t read at all, and remain stupid.
But what if comedy and tragedy are not mere “labels?”
What if comedy and tragedy contain a truth more fundamental to reality (the stupidity of enough) than moral or newsy or journalistic or “realistic” nuance literature?
What if the whole notion of what is “enough”—in terms of the duration of a work, what a work is going for, and audience expectation, depends on whether a work is “enough” based on “stupidity?”
Because, really, what is contemporary poetry? (No names, no fame, no cluster of readers, no true influence.)
Isn’t contemporary poetry something not defined as “comedy”or “tragedy?”
And therefore, isn’t it essentially something not really defined at all?
If stupidity is defined by “enough,” and no sense of “enough” exists where contemporary poetry is concerned—on any level whatsoever—how can it even exist in the public’s mind?
No wonder it doesn’t sell.
Comedy and tragedy (as genres) both participate not in reality perhaps—but stupidity, and by that very participation are usefully connected to the whole notion of “enough,” a definition which contemporary poetry completely lacks.
If one wishes to convey the realistic, the overtly ethical, the journalistic, there is, of course, a wide field for that.
It’s called non-fiction.
When Poe invented the new genre of detective fiction, he temporarily dipped into realism; he described an actual crime in New York. (“Marie Roget”)
Of course “real life” informs comedy and tragedy. But these literary genres are what informs, for better or for worse, literature itself, not—flying in the face of common sense—real life.
This is the shocking truth, which is obviously difficult for the sophisticated to understand, and which we now in this essay boldly and sadly declaim.
Tragedy, comedy, and detective fiction—which is really nothing more than tragedy done backwards—are immersed in “real depictions.” Yes. But Realism versus Idealism is not the issue at all; it’s a false trail.
All fiction and poetry (dramatic human activity of the stupid) belong to the idealism of what is “enough.”
In the non-fiction field, stupidity, too, is a major consideration.
Stupidity is at the core of human society. All feel this more acutely as we mature.
All feelings, from and about stupidity, must be either comic or tragic.
Oscar Wilde was basically correct, then, when he said there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book—a book is either badly or well-written. But what does it mean to say a book is “well-written?”
The comic and the tragic are not labels.
They have an intrinsic reality deeper than “reality” itself, in terms of all artful expression.
They are simply what literature (to any accessible, popular degree) is.
If your poetry is not aimed at the stupid, it will never have a public. And this is not because the public is stupid! (To assume this would be a grave error.) But for the reasons we have outline above.
In as much as your poetry is not defined immediately in people’s minds as either clearly comic, or clearly tragic, it will never have a public—but the reasons for this must be understood; it is not just a case of “my poetry is happy, or my poetry is sad.” The “enough” factor must be used and understood.