In the tragic vision, barbarism is always waiting in the wings and civilization is simply "a thin crust over a volcano." This vision has few solutions to offer and many painful trade-offs to ponder... This constrained vision is thus a tragic vision-- not in the sense of believing that life must always be sad and gloomy, for much happiness and fulfillment are possible within a constrained world, but tragic in limitations that cannot be overcome merely by compassion, commitment, or other virtues [such as Rand's "reason"] which those with [utopian visions] attribute to themselves.I suspect that Rand herself, if she had been confronted with Sowell's tragic vision, would have merely conflated it with her malevolent universe premise, which would have given her a convenient rationalization for dismissing it out of hand. In any case, Rand's view of human nature and human cognition are incompatible with the tragic vision. And when Rand complains about certain works of art expressing a "malevolent sense of life," what she is often complaining about is merely that they express Sowell's tragic vision. She did not like art that expresses this vision for the simple reason that she did not share it. According to Rand's "benevolent universe premise","pain, suffering, failure do not have metaphysical significance—they do not reveal the nature of reality." [Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism, Lecture 8] As one of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged puts it:
We do not think that tragedy is our natural state. We do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it, and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering, that we consider unnatural. It is not success but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.The tragic vision holds a more nuanced view. While it does not embrace the opposite conclusion (i.e., that only suffering has metaphysical significance), it recognizes the existence and importance of suffering, tragedy, and death. Moreover, by recognizing the significance of tragedy in life it encourages taking the precautions necessary to mitigate the sufferings and travails implicated in existence. Rand, with her benevolent universe premise, seems to err on the side of over-optimism, rather than prudence and caution.
Yet this Rand's tendency toward over-optimism is not the worst of it. At bottom, Rand's benevolent-malevolent dichotomy ignores one of the most important functions of serious art: namely, its ability to sublimate and generate wisdom concerning the difficult aspects of existence. Serious art does not focus or dwell on tragedy because it regards human beings as essentially doomed; no, it tackles these subjects to help individuals come to grips with them. By sublimating tragedy, it makes it more bearable. The fact is, the Objectivist view of suffering as "metaphysically insignificant" is egregiously superficial. Tragedy touches everyone. It is omnipresent in the form of human mortality, which implicates all of us. Tragedy, as a source of pain and suffering, forms as an essential part of the human experience as does happiness and success. To declare suffering and tragedy as being metaphysically insignificant is to mischaracterize the human experience.
Aristotle claimed that the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles served as a "purge." That's part of the effect. In experiencing tragic art, one enters into the same emotional world of those afflicted with tragedy without experiencing the full horror of it. Rand might question, Why would anyone want to do such a thing? To which I would respond: It's part of the maturation process involved in becoming a thoroughly civilized human being. By transforming tragedy into an aesthetic experience, the artist makes the inevitable suffering of life easier to bear. It's all about reconciliation to the inevitable rather than glorification of "malevolence." Rand experienced tragedy and suffering in her own life when she broke with Nathaniel Branden. How did she respond to that? Did she behave as a dignified, civilized human being? Or as a vindictive, emotionally distraught, unhinged, malevolent harridan? Rand's inability to face suffering in art is mirrored by the immaturity with which she faced it in her own life.
The composer Josef Suk provides a particularly eloquent and moving example of tragic art in his Asrael Symphony. Suk originally planned the work as a memorial to his teacher and father-in-law, the famous composer Antonin Dvorak. But while composing the symphony, Suk's wife died. While struggling with intense depression, Suk completed the work. The conclusion of the symphony coincides with Suk's acceptance of his wife's death, and his subsequent emergence from depression. He portrays this, musically, by transforming the tragic theme of the last movement into the major scale, thus embuing the closing pages of the work into a paen of acceptance and even affirmation; proving, once again, that tragic art is not the indulgence in malevolent fatalism that Rand would make of it. Tragic art is not pessimistic or fatalistic, but simply realistic. It attempts, as Milton attempted in Paradise Lost, "to justify the ways of God [or reality] to men;" and by doing so, to make those ways more bearable. In accepting the difficult aspects of existence, it demonstrates its essential affirmative stance. Affirmation of human existence is not achieved by evading the unpleasant bits. True affirmation accepts human existence in its entirety, including the inevitable tragedy and suffering. It does not dwell or exalt in these things, but by sublimating them, reconciles the individual to them.