Here’s a word we often hear. But do you know what it means? Most people would say something really bad, and they’d be right, but like most definitions, there is more to it than that. It has another meaning rich with history and today we will explore that to help us understand what a catastrophe is when we write, and how it can be both a positive and negative thing.
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This is a rather difficult topic to discuss, as the word in modern usage is something negative, though once upon a time, it could easily mean something positive and negative. Funny how words evolve over time.
As a literary term, catastrophe (also known as complex catastrophe) is something that proceeds the climax of a story. It originates in use of epic poems of tragedies of classical antiquity, but could be used in comedies as well. While this seems specific on performance arts such as plays, it is still something we can apply to modern literature.
In the original definition of the word, when it came to tragedies, a catastrophe ended on a negative note, often be the death of one or more main characters. Whereas comedies, catastrophe was used to denote something positive, such as the marriage of two main characters.
It should also be noted that a story can end on just the catastrophe, making it the last scene of a story. So how does the Catastrophe compare with the Climax, Resolution, and Dénouement?
First off, any story can end on just a climax without showing us any falling action or a dénouement. In this case, the end of the climax is the resolution to the story.
Prime example would be The Truman Show. The climax of the story is centered around him leaving the dome, and the climax is between Truman and the Creator. The story ends with the completion of the climax by him leaving with nothing else being said of the story. We don’t find out if he ever meets the woman of his past.
Borrowing The Truman Show, we can learn something about catastrophe. Catastrophe is simply the result of climax, but not necessarily the resolution of the story. Which means it can end at the catastrophe if we choose, though it can end before the Catastrophe as is the case of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as we don’t see the result of the climax (but we can assume they died).
The thing is for the catastrophe, is that it must be in direct relation to the overall conflict seen in the story, and not any personal conflicts that the characters might have. More than that, it has to wrap up the conflict itself. While there might be other conflicts going on, the one directly guiding the story must come to an end, which often involves a major character dying, or finding a peaceful solution. After this scene, the conflict is no more.
Perhaps the perfect example of that is Matrix Revolutions. At the conclusion of the fight between Neo and Smith, Neo basically gives up to allow Smith to overwrite the code that makes up Neo, turning him into an uber uber Smith. The Machines connected to Neo, use this access to destroy the Smith’s code. Neo, having done his part and keeping up his end of the bargain, has given peace to the Machines and Zion. The death of Neo and Smith is therefore a catastrophe. While bad for Neo, as he died, it was good for everyone else, so both a positive and a negative… all depends on your perspective.
Because catastrophe has to resolve the overall conflict of the story that it is featured in (not necessarily of the entire series), that would then mean that not all climaxes result into a catastrophe. In this case, while the climax has occurred, nothing gets resolved. What needed to happen in the story didn’t happen.
Such as the case for DS9 episode The Reckoning. In this episode, a battle between the Profits and Pah Wraiths, in the form of Kira and Jake (respectively), are battling for control over Bajor. However, this is cut short by Kai Winn, likely out of jealousy and fear. Had this battle had a proper conclusion, the result would have been a catastrophe.
So we have our climax, the confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist centered around the central conflict. Then we have the catastrophe, the result of said conflict, that can either be good or bad. Then the falling action leading to the resolution, and possibly having the dénouement to finish the story.
However, looking at the modern usage of the word catastrophe, it is difficult to look at catastrophe as anything positive. Such as the One Ring being throw in the fires that once forged it, as Frodo finally letting go of the ring was the conflict of the entire Lord of the Rings, to which he failed. Well, leave it to JRR Tolkien to find a resolution to this conundrum.
Tolken created a term called Eucastrophie. Essentially, Eucastrophie is a positive catastrophe. This way, we can separate the positive and the negative and maintain that catastrophe is something bad.
Because of the nature of Catastrophe and Eucatastrophie; often these come as a surprise or a shot out of left field. As any death of a character or some sudden reveal should do, it must be a surprise that it happen or resulted this way. While it can be telegraphed, it is best when it is not a result we expected.
A good example of this is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. Looking at it now, it is not so much a surprise, but consider those back in the 80’s who saw it for the first time, having been fans of the show in the 60’s. Spock’s death was a shock to so many. Especially considering there was no talks of a sequel (unlike today, that a sequel is often planned before a movie is out). His death was a victory for the Enterprise, as Kahn only wanted Kirk and crew dead. Had they died, despite his own death, Kahn would have won. Yet, in order for it to be accomplished, a major character had to die.
I urge you to watch this again, forgetting that you know there is a sequel. Much love to Leonard Nimoy, I do this in your honour and your great acting.
What we learn from Star Trek II (unlike Into Darkness) is that a catastrophe can both be very positive and very negative, and perhaps that is when it is best. To this degree, while bad that Spock died, I count it as a Eucatastrophe as all other characters survived. Also, with the death of Kahn, the conflict of the story had been resolved.
I am aware that I have deviated a bit from the original meaning and how it has been used over the years. In fact, I have changed how I used it from the original article I wrote. As mentioned, the original term was used for epic poems to read aloud or for plays. As our language and understanding of narrative structure has changes, especially in the modern age, so too do some definitions of words change. However, it is important with any words that evolve, to understand where they came from and how they were once used.