Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 8, 2010

Aristotelian Holiday Gloss

Let down your guard: it’s over. What we are experiencing are emotions rooted deep in thousands of years of acculturation. There is tragedy, crisis, catharsis, and resolution, and, finally, resolution is here. Subsequent to the orgy of consumerism that threatened to crush us during the Shopping Season, we now are free.

Tragedy, Aristotle told us, is the depiction of action that arouses pity and fear. According to that noble gent, a successful drama will effect the catharsis of those same emotions. Once you’ve tried it, you know that the catharsis in a drama by Aristophanes, Ibsen or O’Neil, doesn’t bring us much joy, nor will films by Kurosawa or Bergman: sick people sometimes die; not all lovers are reunited; and, though the village may have been saved, most of the Samurai defending it were killed. When the resolution delivers death or defeat or disappointment, there is tragedy. Pity and fear, indeed.

To take a classic example, we can assume that for years uncounted after the death of Dido following Aeneas’ departure, the Carthaginians regarded her death as a tragedy. Little did they know. Much worse was to come. Ages later, the Romans returned, conquered the city, tore down its walls and salted the earth so that nothing ever would grow there. As Aristotle foretold, their story, as do those in Ibsen, O’Neill and that crowd provides plenty o’ pity and fear.

Well, if there’s anything that inspires pity and fear and, therefore by inference, tragedy, it has to be the holiday consuming season. With overmuch food and drink, spending in malls and online and all the other hoo-hah that we endure, our lives are pitched past the ultimate pitch of grief. So it was that at the peak of the frenzy this year, I was in the women’s petites section of a certain major department store. I’d already endured (with a resolutely positive attitude, I might add) the chaos of the parking lot and the din of the oppressive versions of “Little Drummer Boy” in the mall. Ultimately, the endless barrage of the holiday crush took its toll. Expecting to find the familiar, powerful brands, I entered the fray. But, beaten down as I was, succumbing to that peculiar je ne sais quois pas of Holiday Malaise, the lights seemed dimmer than usual and the Muzak carols had inexplicably shifted from a major to a minor key. Even those familiar, high-power labels on the racks — Kenneth Cole Reaction, DKNY, Calvin Klein and Nine West — had undergone a subtle, nefarious shift and now read: Kenneth Cole Abreaction, DOA.NY, Calvin Keine, and, most intimidating of all, Nein West. This was bad. I needed some sort of attitude adjustment. I went home.

There, of course, the customary order reigned. Order, that is, only if one is accustomed to the disorder that has become the New Order at Rancho Retro during the four months of the current remodeling project. The kitchen has been replaced with a hot plate, a microwave and the outdoor barbecue. The refrigerator and sink are in the garage, and most of our worldly goods are packed in boxes in spare rooms. What I think worth noting here is that we become accustomed to the most incredible disruption in our lives. The extraordinary becomes ordinary and even unnoticed. There are those few, those happy few, who embrace the holiday season, who determine their gifts and purchase them in October, and schedule their delivery in perfect synchronization just in time for the season. For the rest of us, well, it’s pity and fear: pity for ourselves, and fear of the unknown terrors that lurk in the parking garage, in those hostile acres of the mall, or in the endless search for our Amazon login. Aristotle may have applied word more like bathos, rather than tragedy, but this year’s holiday taught me a valuable lesson that I am finding echoed in my reading of Proust: it is habit that both blesses and curses us. We become accustomed to the most egregious disruptions in our daily lives if we are willing. We can also become accustomed — even at ease — with conditions that we once would have considered extraordinary. I bless those happy few who embrace the holiday season and welcome the yearly disruption. They are the true, rightful owners of habit. I regret that I will never know the real joy they experience in clicking the last “purchase this item” button in October. I’m always there at the last possible moment, wondering if I should request the “select express shipping for $22 to arrive before 12/24.”

If you didn’t get your present or your card, it’s somewhere in the morass packed in the hallway bedroom. That’s the new normal here. I still wish you a happy new year, with joys far beyond the dudgeon of 2009.



  1. Sounds like you had quite a happy holiday season there. Probably glad that you can go at it again. 🙂

    I totally agree on you about people bathing in an orgy like spending spree.
    During the holiday season (which starts the last week of November over here ) I am always fascinated about the way that people wait in line like sheep to the slaughter and how otherwise so decent people turn into a primal form of man.

    Tumbling over that last pair of shoes or fighting over that one specific loaf of bread because it so happens to be the last one in it’s kind. Fascinated an depressed that is.

    As a fireman I often see people turn into there primal forms for in crisis and dangerous situations most people react purely to satisfy their survival instincts.

    I yet have to find the connection between those 2 the holiday season and clear and present danger. If I ever figure it out I’ll let you know.


  2. Here in the USA, it does seem to be a very predictable chain reaction. Call it nuclear fission shopping. Self-imposed shopping procrastination causes the self-inflicted emergency to get that last gift before it’s gone, which in turn results in the clear and present danger (coupled with chaos and its counterpart, stress) of having no gift to send or exchange when you get one. Hence, crowd paranoia and a return of ordinary, normal humans to the sub-animal kingdom.

    Particularly with the advent and availability of on-line shopping, I have no real explanation for this holiday shopping mall procrastination. (Brad, is it proper English usage to string four nowns together as I just did in my attempt to use some of them as adjectives?)

    Perhaps there is a certain excitement in participating in the energy and frenzy of thousands. A sort of modern day Roman Circus. Most people seem to do what everyone one else does, whether or not it makes any sense if you stop to think about it. I don’t know. I stay away from it all. I seek serenity where I can find it.


    • One of the great things about English is its generative power to use nouns as adjectives (and almost any other part of speech). Our loose approach to sentence structure lets us just line ’em up in any quantity we want. Probably Mrs. Drake would’ve had some “rule” about how many one should use, but there aren’t really any Rules inherent in the language.


      • Good. As I am sure you have noticed in my few replies, I’m pretty casual about my English usage. I’m not what you’d call a “strict constructionist.” This I am sure would be somewhat disappointing to my 4th grade teacher Miss Johnson, who taught us all very well about sentence structure (and even how to “diagram” a sentence and all of its parts). Ah, well, the years have taken their toll, and I have lost a few things along the way.


      • I can still diagram pretty well. I’ve actually tried to diagram some of Proust’s sentences. Recently, I found one that either was mistranslated or was not a real sentence in the original (Proust was his own editor, and not a very good one).


      • Wonderful! You have identified the only thing that I am ever likely to have in common with a world-renowned writer like (excuse the incorrect usage again — “like” for “as”) Proust: not being a good editor or proofreader of one’s own writing.

        I am sure the readers of your blog will be happy to know that I do little writing, and do not have my own blog (so as to avoid polluting the blogosphere any more than I do by writing these little replies). Hence, my tiny contribution to helping the environment.


      • Probably everyone is printing copies of your comments, faxing them to distant friends. Heck, you may be cutting down trees at an alarming rate! And just because Proust was a lousy editor doesn’t mean everyone can get away with it!


      • As anyone who has read my little epistles is aware, clearly I not only can get away with it, but am, getting away with it! And if anyone is actually doing that printing and faxing exercise of our blog replies, that would be most unfortunate, and would be a dubious distinction to have pinned on one of your commenters, to be sure.

        For the environmental record, however, just this weekend I went to the local Household Hazardous Waste Dumpsite, and therein turned over an old computer monitor (instead of simply dumping it my garbage can). I do my little part, where I can.


      • Don’t mind me.

        I learned English by watching Cartoons like Transformers, GI-JOE and He-Man. Watching the only commercial channel we had in those days Sky Channel broad casted straight from the UK. I was about 6 years of age if I recall correctly.
        Then because I liked tabletop war-games when I was a bit older. I was forced to learn because There was no Dutch rulebook in existence. Reading the rules with a dictionary on the side. (Somehow I memorized it as great fun)
        It was quite a few years later before I learned anything about English grammar. Unfortunately, by then most of the damage was done.


  3. Diagraming Proust’s sentences and reading wargame rules in a foreign language; you guys are scaring the kids. Merely continuing the struggle with four and five letter words in my native language here, a practice I decided to continue in Jr High after complaining out loud to brother Brad about the seemingly superfluous need to study English in school, to which he calmy replied, “Thank you for communicating that thought in Swahili.”

    Ah, just need to have the way lit for me now and then.


  4. Environmental mumbo jumbo.(Yes, I’m a sceptic) Didn’ t you guys hear the latest? There is an new mini ice-age coming lasting for about 30 years.
    Then again I still think it’s a good idea to be more careful about our Gaia’s natural recourses and be more of a caretaker, of the world we have made ourselves master of. Taken this into account. Good job Bill, and good job to all that read from screen rather than print and read.

    The discussion about cleaner and more efficient ways to live is right. The reasons why we should according to the powers that be is wrong if you ask me. But that’s almost a political statement which we should avoid at all costs. 🙂

    To back up my story there are various studies about solar flare activity in relation to earth’s climate.
    Furthermore Ice drilling in the polar regions suggest that after each great ice-age temperature has risen until a certain point in time. After this global temperature declines again until the next large ice age. Models display that such an ice age happen each few 100.000 years. on a short term(centuries) basis temperature seems to drop and rise, but on a larger scale there is consistency in temperature variations.

    Did I just write this ? :O
    Anyway Good job on the recycling/waste disposal thing. Anyone should do that.


    • Niels, thanks for bringing this to my attention. I believe my last “ice flo” (i.e., blog reply) may have started to drift dangerously into the prohibited gray seas of socio-politico commentary. As I understand the instructions from our Blog Master here, that’s not where we’re supposed to travel.


      • Well, I kinda let myself go there 🙂
        Sorry for that Brad, Bill, Readers and all.
        I usually try not do that. But sometimes my fingers just type what my mind needs to get rid of and before I actually realize what I just did Send is already pressed submit. And reading your reply in combination with local Dutch turmoil sort if triggered me there. I usually try to be more distinct in what I put down on paper. It’s just my sharpness combined with your average dutch bluntness which got the better of me here.
        No more politics here 🙂 (had enough of that today already)

        What is fascinating though, is how we got from the original blog entry to environmental issues.


      • You guys are worrying too much. I appreciate your being careful not to be political, but a little fun about the environment is hardly over the line. Thanks.


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