The destruction of Amy: a proper Greek tragedy

You have to go back to Aristotle to find a book that deals properly with Amy Winehouse’s death

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:23 ON Wed 27 Jul 2011

This week a man in north London concluded his eulogy at his 27-year-old daughter's funeral with the words: "Goodnight, my angel. Sleep tight. Mummy and Daddy love you ever so much."

Trite words. Cheap words, said millions of times each day by parents over their children, tucked up safe. In this case, cheap words bought at an unfathomable price, and if they didn't put a brief pause, maybe only a second or two, into your life, or bring a prickle of tears to your eyes, you might consider whether you are human.

They were the words of Amy Winehouse's father Mitch, and nor was she tucked up safe, but for ever.  They played Carole King's So Far Away and so she was.

There's something about Amy Winehouse's death that strikes a more solemn and universal note than simply that of someone dying young. And to find the book that properly deals with that, we can't look at the last week or month or even year. We have to wind the clock back to something published two and a half thousand years ago: the Poetics of Aristotle.

The Athens of the fifth century BC was one of the strangest places there has ever been. Built on the labour of slaves in a harsh climate, sustained against constant attack by constant warring, they measured and planned and theorised and debated. They invented a new way of governing themselves which they called "democracy": literally, government by the people.

And they were the first society to think about thinking: what it was, and what it could do, and how you should go about it.

One of the things they thought up was an entirely new art form: the tragedy. Nobody knows where the word came from – the commonest answer is it means "goat-song", for reasons which remain obscure and endlessly argued-over – but the dramatic art produced by its three greatest writers, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, changed storytelling forever, and have never been supplanted as the way of telling ourselves tales of dreadful and incomprehensible things.

In his Poetics, Aristotle attempted to make sense, not necessarily of the "why?" but of the "how?" of tragedy. God knows, he'd seen enough of them, every year at the City Dionysia, a festival of the god Dionysos where the whole city turned out to watch the tragedies played, and where the winner – specifically, the choregos, the man who financed the Chorus – was lauded and commemorated.

What Aristotle came up with was breathtakingly simple. Behind the story of Oedipus (who blinded himself so that he would never have to look upon what he had done in error), of Medea, who killed her children to save them from their fate, of Hippolytus who was destroyed by Aphrodite, the love-goddess, because he was interested not in love but in horse-racing... behind all the tragedies, was a simple five-part trajectory.

The tragic protagonist (literally "first actor") was someone we could admire. He or she had a hubris – not so much pride as a misunderstanding of her place in the scheme of things. As a direct result of this hubris, she made a mistake: hamartia, a term originating in archery and which simply meant a missing of the target.

Hamartia led to peripeteia, a "turning-around". Not so much events turning against her, but the current she thought was drifting her gently downstream which turned out to be taking her over a weir. And anagnorisis: the recognition that that was the case.

Finally, nemesis. The punishment of the gods (in whom nobody quite believed) or of Fate (which nobody quite understood) or of dike, a sort of justice which nobody could quite codify.

The result was utter destruction. Of the individual, of the family, of the whole small world of the protagonist. At the core of it, as the poet Ruth Padel argues in her book Whom Gods Destroy, lay the same idea of nostos - of return, of the safe haven, of at last sleeping tight – that governed Homer's Odyssey: a story of someone trying to go home.

Amy Winehouse's story was in the proper sense a tragedy. And maybe that's why it strikes so many chords. The heart of tragedy is disproportionate ruin: and her parents, who loved her ever so much, could tell you about that, having undoubtedly lived for so long with the knowledge that if she died, they would die too, and now it's happened.

The worst thing is that we saw it all, onstage. The glory of the voice, the hubris, the hamartia, the peripeteia as the weir came closer, and the terrible anagnorisis in Belgrade. Aristotle codified the process; all we can do, as spectators, is invoke Hamlet's "flights of angels" or remember the Greek poet Pindar: "What are we? What are we not? We are just the shadow of a dream."

The Poetics by Aristotle, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0140446364 ·