Thursday, March 13, 2008

Now Leaving Baltimore, Realm of the Living


The Wire's Omar Little

Lyfe Jennings - Stick-Up Kid

WKNDPRNS mash-up: Stick-Up Kid/Seelenluft "Manila" (Ewan Pearson Remix)

One of the more decisive moments of the closing end of The Wire's fifth season has to be the gunning down of Omar, who over the course of the show had become a beloved, Billy the Kid-type of outlaw, whose murderous actions were governed by a moral code, which forbid him from taking a victim outside of the drug game, and from using profanity. All things considered, this event, in episode 58, cannot have come as a surprise to any viewer familiar with the show's refusal to spare any of its characters, sympathetic or otherwise, from a chance at the wrong end of a street weapon.
In a recent interview with The Onion, the show's creator, David Simon, the conversation repeatedly revolves around the dramatic significance of Omar's death, at the hands not belonging to one of his several major nemeses, but a young insolent camp, carried out not in the heat of a desperate struggle, but in the midst of Omar buying Newports.

I have to disagree here with Simon's understanding of the difference between classic Greek tragedy and its modern form. Why? Because although Simon does affirm that what his show is doing involves updating Greek tragedy for contemporary urban America, he doesn't mark what's really at stake in this transformation, which doesn't at all involve adopting wholesale the classic, for example, Sophoclean, framework. Here's Simon:

"We didn't kill Omar because viewers liked Omar. Neither did we let him live because viewers liked Omar. It was beyond petition. We weren't being nasty to viewers, and we weren't being solicitous of viewers. We were serving the story. I don't know what else to say. If people didn't realize after this many seasons of The Wire that they were watching a Greek tragedy, writ across a modern American city… And if they thought that there were going to be redemptions and [awarding] of the Fates, they need to get up with their Medea and Antigone and their Oedipus. I don't know what else to say."

The difference which Simon is eliding here, between the ancient and modern tragic, is most succinctly expressed by the German poet Friedrich Hoelderlin, in an 1801 letter to a close friend. Here is what he writes about the specifically modern form of tragedy:

"For this is the tragic for us: that, packed into some simple box, we very quietly move away from the realm of the living, and not that-consumed in flames-we expiate the flames which we could not tame."

Germany's Friedrich Hölderlin

Being consumed in flames, achieving a Phoenix or Oedipus-like intensity, in which one brings about one's own cataclysmic annihilation, is the Greek tragic. This is not how Omar goes. Gunned down in the convenience store, Omar doesn't go up in flames, he lies down in the street. In theological terms, the Greek tragic hero couples with the gods, and is destroyed in their fire. The modern tragic hero, if he's still a hero at all, operates in the space traced out by the absence of the gods, not, as in ancient Greece, their unbearable overproximity.

Lyfe Jennings

In honor of Omar, you'll find links above to Lyfe Jenning's 'Stick-Up Kid' (sent to us by Braja) which is a pretty solid Usher-R. Kelly-type smooth jam, except for chorus, which is 'I be robbin these niggas...I'm a stick-up kid, that's how I live, I admit it..' In other words it's a smooth criminal ballad. The WKNDPRNS mash-up stitches Jenning's jam on top of elements from Ewan Pearson's remix of 'Manila', which has a great goofy-weird vocal about a dance party breaking out during an ominous airplane flight.

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