Heidegger and tragedy, by michael gelven


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Heidegger and tragedy, by michael gelven

  1. 1. Heidegger and TragedyAuthor(s): Michael GelvenReviewed work(s):Source: boundary 2, Vol. 4, No. 2, Martin Heidegger and Literature (Winter, 1976), pp. 554-568Published by: Duke University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/302153 .Accessed: 23/09/2012 12:16Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.. Duke University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to boundary 2.http://www.jstor.org
  2. 2. Heideggerand Tragedy Michael Gelven Neither in his specific analyses of the particular arts nor in hisontological inquiries into human existence does Martin Heideggeranywhere develop what might be called a "theory" of tragedy. To be sure,he quotes from tragedy, and in the case of his interpretation of the Chorusin Antigone, which we find in his Introduction to Metaphysics, he goes farto show us how to read the tragic passage. Yet on the meaning of tragedyas such, Heidegger is strangely silent. His thinking, however, both in termsof his existential ontology and of his works on the nature of the arts, ispeculiarly well suited for examining tragedy as an art form, and even more,of throwing light on that mysterious paradox of tragedy - why we thrillto the grim failures of great men. But it is not only that Heidegger can throw light on tragedy, buttragedy can throw light on our understanding of Heideggers philosophy.For it is the peculiar characteristic of tragic genius to teach us how to seeworth - and hence meaning - in noble existence without relying uponfortuitous circumstances or even moral excellence to prompt our approval.Just as Heidegger struggles to show us how to think about what it meansto bel without reference to substances or even moral judgments, so do the 555
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  4. 4. great tragedians teach us to respect the being of the hero even as he suffersand brings about misfortune through his actions. Both Heidegger and the tragedians struggle with a similarproblem: how to focus our attention on being rather than things; how tounderstand the meaning of existence and not merely our actions and theirconsequences. What is not so obvious, however, is that the philosophicalinquiry which Heidegger carries out on the problems of existenceconstitutes a rich response to the paradox of tragedy; and the insights intothe nature of the tragic art in turn provides us with a profoundunderstanding of the chief tenets of Heideggers philosophy. In this articleI intend to think through the paradox and the nature of tragedy under theinfluence and inspiration of Heideggers teachings - but in addition Iintend to show how our native grasp of the meaning of tragedy reveals inconcreto some of the more spectacular elements of Heideggers thought.Furthermore, I shall show how this analysis of tragedy provides the bestexample possible of how one can understand that remarkable doctrine ofHeidegger aesthetics: that art, particularly poetic art, speaks the truth.2For tragedy is not just another instance of an "art form"; its emphasisupon the ritual of being characterizes it as an elemental way of thinking. Itis not by accident that tragedy, above all other arts, has fascinated thegreat philosophers. The interrogation of tragedy must always proceed from aprofound realization of the paradox inherent in our obvious appreciationof what should seemingly be censured and rejected: the suffering of anoble person. How is it possible to be so uplifted and so inspired togreatness at our witnessing the madness of Lear, the death of Hamlet, thedamnation of Faustus, the desperate dilemma of Antigone? In order toshow what this paradox means, we must avoid every attempt to dissolvethe paradox by treating the suffering as morally deserved (Antigone oughtnot to have irritated Creon; Hamlet was too weak to avenge his father,hence he should have been killed; Desdemona was just too stupid, henceshe deserved to be killed; etc.). For our experience of tragedy is not thatof moral satisfaction - but on the contrary, there is a sense of greatnessand boldness, if you will, purchased at the price of moral dissatisfaction. Itis precisely because Desdemona does not deserve to die that we are deeplydisturbed and enthralled at our acceptance of her murder as a part of thatexperience which satisfies on a different and indeed transmoral level. In order to show how carefully the great tragedians remove fromus our moral sentiments in interpreting the play, a close look at a particular tragedy may help to show the true nature of that strange"affirmation" which is the result of all truly great tragedy. Only in theactual working-out of a concrete instance of the tragedians art can theiremphasis upon the meaning of being (Sinn von Sein) be fully realized. Few scenes in the repertoire of tragedy have greater dramaticforce or power to provoke a truly tragic response than the three scenes in 556
  5. 5. Othello which show the painful development of the Moors accusationagainst his innocent wife. A consideration of these three scenes (II1, 4; IV,1; IV, 2) in light of their emphasis upon the question of being will showthe point better than any purely abstract arguments. The three scenesreveal the rapidly intensifying passion with which Othello confrontsDesdemona with her "guilt." The first of these scenes describes his famousrequest for the handkerchief; the second provides the indecent sight ofOthello striking his wife in public; the third shows us, almost with relief,Othello finally accusing her of infidelity, thus changing her terribleconfusion to an even more terrible injury. Our perception of theseevents is almost unbearable, and we are usually grateful that most actorsbotch them rather badly with over-frenzied theatricality, for their effectdone well might be beyond our capacity. There are several reasons whythese scenes are so compelling. In the first place, Shakespeare has made usrather fond of both lovers, and this fondness is due in part to theirrespective weaknesses. We love Desdemona for her innocence and femininesweetness, even though this is precisely what we curse in her, since theseattributes become rather foolish and inadequate in terms of the enormityof her danger. A little less trusting, a little less innocent in the ways of theworld, and Desdemona could easily have avoided her fate. Her innocence isat times almost startling, for she is quite serious when she asks: Dost thou in conscience, think, tell me, Emilia, That there be women do abuse their husbands In such gross kind?and we are most relieved by Emilias earthy response. The same can be saidfor Othellos noble but irritating sense of honor. We understand it quitewell. It is that about him which attracts us to him even as it is that whichbrings him to disaster. For he is not boasting when he says: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul Shall manifest me rightly.And it is Othello himself who recognizes that this characteristic is thecause of his downfall. His famous line, then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely but too well,does not tell us that his love was too passionate, but too honorable. ForOthello, to love well just means to love with honor, and his virtue in sodoing has become his vice. In addition to these vicious virtues or virtuousvices which constitute the lovers characters, there is the problem ofjustice. We know Desdemona is innocent, we also know that Othello 557
  6. 6. firmly believes he is just in thinking her guilty, and we have a naturalconcern for justice. We do not want to see injustice triumph, and so theapproach of such injustice grips us as we desperately hope that thewrongdoing can be avoided. If there can be such a thing as a hopelesshope, it is ours as we find ourselves caring so intensely for justice to occurwhen we know that it will not. We find ourselves, too, confused as to whosuffers more, who deserves our greater sympathy; and in spite of the factthat it is Desdemona who suffers unjustly, it is Othellos agonies which, Ithink, touch us the more deeply. Shakespeares skill in developing the three-stage intensity of thesegruesome confrontations between suspicious husband and injured wife issimply magnificent. In the first of these scenes, the absence of thehandkerchief is unsettling; we see it as part of lagos planning, an incidentwhich could easily be rectified by disclosure of certain facts. Thus,although it makes us anxious, its alleviation is so palpable that ourresponse is chiefly one of frustration. Our sentiments are, at this earlystage, with Desdemonas simple and uncomplicated worry: Sure, theres some wonder in this handkerchief; I am most unhappy at the loss of it.Unhappy, indeed! But in the second of these three scenes, Othellosphysical savagery is unforgiveable. We are no longer dealing with asituation which can be rectified by proper information. His fury and angerare blinding him and hurting both himself and his wife. Our reaction to hisactions, unlike the mere frustration in the previous scene, is now one ofmoral censure. We are led to wonder with Lodovico: Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate Call all-in-all sufficient? Is this the nature Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue The shot of accident nor dart of chance Could neither graze nor pierce?In short, we are overwhelmed with outrage. But Shakespeare has not yetreached the zenith of his development of this confrontation. In the thirdof these dreadful encounters, we find her protestations of innocencetotally inadequate. His sense of outraged honor and her sense of outragedinnocence can compe! no longer our sympathy but our shock. We are nolonger compassionate or even outraged, but aghast. We tremble as he says: But there, where I have garnered up my heart, Where either I must live or bear no life, The fountain from the which my current runs558
  7. 7. Or else dries up; to be discarded thence! Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads To knot and gender in!As we hear this, we know it is too late. We are now prepared to watch instunned horror at the inevitable destruction of these two whom we have learned to love far too dearly. When he kills her, he protests that her word"murder" is inaccurate: he calls it "sacrifice"! Now what is the nature of this series of responses on the part ofthe audience? Our sense of concern for those we admire, our sense ofjustice, our sympathy with suffering, our outrage, even our own vicarioussuffering - what is the nature of these responses? And what does it mean togo beyond them? We can identify these feelings loosely as moral, for theyall belong to our sensitivity to human need. These responses constitute ourmoral level, and on these responses alone the play Othello warrants ourappreciation. For if we find ourselves experiencing such emotions theymay well increase our moral sensitivity, and as such be beneficial. Thecharacter of these responses can be called moral because they consist ofour spiritual identification with the hero. We see his character in its flawedstate, but we realize how genuinely he suffers, and we share with him hisagonies. This attests to the worth of such suffering and to our naturalhatred of misery. Because we feel with the hero we know how much he ishurt, and so our protest of his situation ennobles our sensitivity. Thesefeelings identify us with the human condition, and as such they are moral. But if we were to interrupt our participation in any of thesescenes with a request for our true response, would it indeed be one of sympathy for the suffering we are witnessing? If that were so, our basic impulse would be to stop what is going on. Moral responses necessitate action. If we could, we would shout to Othello that it was lago who stolethe handkerchief; we would rush to tell Desdemona not to press her suiton Cassios behalf; we would urge Emilia not to leave her mistress on thatfateful night. Now to be sure, these instincts are present when we watchthe play. But if our watching were interrupted, would our first response beto lament, How sad? How unfortunate? Is not rather our primary responseto such scenes the revealing utterance, How beautiful! And with thisutterance, is not the whole complexion of our experience radicallyaltered? "How beautiful!" we say, as we watch Othellos noble characterunravel into violent jealousy; "How beautiful!" we say, as their mutualloves lead husband and wife to their fateful undoing; "How beautiful!" wesay, as we watch Shakespeare so develop the scenes that our moralresponses are totally exhausted, and we are purged of any and all moralcensure or sentiment. And what does this utterance signify? It does notsignify our willingness to act, as does the moral instinct, but to let thething go on, to thrill to its unfolding. The moral impulse would put us on 559
  8. 8. the stage to keep injustice from conquering, it binds us to the sharing ofthose all-too-human griefs; but our exclamation, "How beautiful!" keepsus in our seats, absolves us from lamentation, and emphasizes not ourhumanity but that thin and insecure participation in a kind of Dionysiandivinity. For in a perspective which is almost wicked from the humanpoint of view, we find ourselves affirming the steady march toward doomwhich our beloved heroes on the stage must inevitably take. Thisperspective cannot be justified by the moral order, for it violates thatorder; but it is justified by the single word: beauty. Thus, in tragedy, it is the triumph of our love of beauty over ourconcern for the good that thrills us. The essence of tragedy mighttherefore be identified as the triumph of eros over ethos: our appreciationof beauty is actually enhanced when all other forms of support andaffirmation are removed. By the careful work of the tragedian we are ledto abandon our purely moral perspective of what is going on, so that ourappreciation of its beauty will stand alone. We need to have our moralsense offended lest we make the otherwise inevitable error of justifyingbeauty on moral grounds. But many great philosophers have assured usthat beauty is precisely that form of affirmation which is autonomous -that, as Kant says: the beautiful is that which we appreciate withoutinterest. 3 But if our love is of the beautiful, and if beauty is withoutinterest or benefit or even moral approval, what is beauty about? What is itthat I affirm in the love of the beautiful even when all other forms ofsupport are removed? The answer is: existence. A beautiful woman is shewho is appreciated not for what she does but simply for what she is. Reverence for beauty therefore is the ancient and classical way of gettingat the meaning of being. When an architect makes beautiful a house, what he has donethrough his art is to show us what it means to dwell - and he has done soby showing that "dwelling" is precisely that dimension to our going andstaying in buildings which is not necessary. A warm and dry hovel whichprotects us from the elements provides us with the basic necessities - it iswhy we build the house in the first place. But once this basic aspect isprovided for, whatever else we do, whether it is to taper the supportingposts and thus make them pillars, or arch a doorway so that what is a mereaperture in a wall becomes an entranceway; whatever is in addition to theneeds is of the order of beauty, i.e., that from which we learn meaning.The architect teaches us, through his art, what it means to dwell. Thus wesee how beauty reveals meaning.4 Now, in tragedy, the artists skill, by doing violence to the basic needs and instincts (comfort and morals) forces our attention solely to the realization of the worth of our existence. The nobility of the hero (whichis an aesthetic, and not a moral virtue) becomes emphasized when I cannotfind any other source to affirm what I see.560
  9. 9. Tragedy began as a part of the Dionysian festival. Its etymology (literally: the song of the goat) suggests the close connection between the plays and the celebration of beauty for its own sake - for Dionysius is that god whose riggish indifference to moral restraint deifies our love (eros) for things beautiful. Upon analysis we see that beauty teaches us themeaning (rather than the use or the cause) of a thing. What a dwellingmeans is accomplished by the architect making the building beautiful. Hence, even as early as the ancients, beauty was seen as that by which the mere existence of a thing is appreciated on its own. This is precisely what Heidegger teaches in his existential ontology. What Heidegger argues is that our existence as such is open to rational inquiry, and is hence meaningful in and of itself. But furthermore, Heideggers analyses show us that what makes our existence meaningful is:first, that the modes or ways in which we exist are either authentic or inauthentic; and second, that the basis for authenticity and inauthenticity is our capacity to fail at being, or to be as the basis of nullity in guilt. Thismeans that ones being guilty is the basis by which ones existence can bethought about. (Since whatever is thought about is thereby meaningful, to be able to be guilty is the basis of our existence being meaningful.) Beingguilty - and the reticent projection of this guilt toward our ownpossibilities, which is the meaning of authenticity - is not a moralpredicate which reveals the worth of action, but is an ontological termwhich reveals the meaning of being as such. Thus without this profoundsense of being the basis of my own failure (and the resolute acceptance ofthis being guilty in authenticity), my existence could not be thoughtabout, and as such, could not be meaningful. But the question is, How can I think about my being? Must not I first determine the question ofsubstance (by asking, What kind of thing am I?) or at least must I not firstdetermine the principles by which I can make moral judgments? Heideggerhas shown, however, that I can think about being, prior to andindependently of these questions, and indeed, by realizing thefundamental and irreducible capacity to fail at existing. But since this verycapacity to be negatively is the principle by which meaning is possible, Ilearn to affirm, to accept, indeed, to celebrate my being precisely in thelight of this capacity to fail. However, this is surely the same thing whichKing Lear provides for the sensitive audience. By carefully expurgating any possibility of moral satisfaction orapproval, the only thing left we have to approve is the worth of Learsbeing. (And in so doing, we approve too of our own being.) His suffering,madness, and even his death repudiate meaninglessness because we seethese things which are done beautifully, as dimensions which matter. Lear,though he falls, does so in such splendid terms that we realize there ismeaning to his very existence which all his agony and misery can nevererase. Both Heideggers thinking and the tragedians art are intensely 561
  10. 10. affirmative in this singular sense - they both refute nihilism. In spite ofStanley Rosens miserable and petty misinterpretation,5 Heideggers worksteach us how to confront the nihilist - by showing that the meaning ofexistence can indeed be thought about. For the nihilist need not join witheither the sceptic or the relativist: he could accept the claims of certainknowledge, and even admit there are certain duties which one should do;but the nihilist simply adds that the validity of such reasoning does notmatter. He says this for a simple reason: there is no way, he claims, inwhich my existence can be rationally thought about. Both Heidegger andthe tragedian show the nihilists position to be untenable. Heidegger doesso by actually developing successfully a thematic analysis of the ways inwhich we exist and grounding them in the reality of our being. Thetragedian counfounds the nihilist by showing our affirmation of thenobility of being, even when all other sources of affirmation, such aspleasure, well-being, utility, and even moral approval, are violated. The mutual confrontation with nihilism by Heidegger and thetragedian manifests a similarity in their ultimate attitudes toward thereality of being. The ability to-be-guilty, our ultimate and non-transferablepower to be the basis of our own success and failure, is celebrated by bothphilosopher and artist. Whether the burden of being guilty is due to ourown moral weakness (Macbeth) or to the circumstances of our fate(Antigone), what is affirmed is the meaning of existence as such. AlthoughAntigone may not be as directly responsible for her misery as Macbeth, itis still her own existence which is made meaningful by her dilemma, adilemma which is due to who she is. A slightly different nomenclature from more classical timesevokes a similar response. Of the great trinity of being - the true, thegood, and the beautiful - it could be said that truth is that through whichwe can think and ground facts and actuality: i.e., truth tells us about theworld. Goodness is that through which we think and ground our acts andour duties: i.e., goodness tells us what we ought to do. But beauty is thatthrough which we think and ground meaning: i.e., to see a thing asbeautiful is to see what it means, or to see it in the light of its meaning.The classical emphasis upon the beautiful as that which reveals meaningaccounts for Heideggers "shift" from doing existential analyses to his"later" concern for the arts. For one who truly understands Heidegger andclassical views toward beauty, however, this "shift" is as natural, indeed asinevitable as thought itself. For beauty speaks of the meaning of being -which is precisely the concern of Heideggers early Being and Time.Perhaps the "turning" from ontology to poetry is simply the result of thecourageous recognition of the importance of beauty in revealingphilosophical meaning. In the above analysis of the three scenes from Othello, we seehow our responses are very carefully manipulated so that we go throughvarious stages: first our sense of frustration, then moral outrage, and 562
  11. 11. finally shock. Our interests, then, shift from a concern for mere physicalconditions (the location of the handkerchief) to moral judgments (thecensure of Othellos anger) to the aesthetic response of numbed but deeplythrilling acceptability of the inevitable. By forcing us through these stages,Shakespeare succeeds as a tragedian, and leaves us with a profound senseof reverence for our being. Heidegger, on the other hand, in articulating inhis existential analysis how true being is grasped in authenticity, carefullyleads us through a similar journey. We are first led through the rejection ofthe Cartesian world and subject - i.e., rejection of substance as the basisof being. Then, by showing that moral actions presuppose the existentialsituation - i.e., that one must first be able to be guilty before one can beheld responsible for an action - he removes us from establishing moraljudgments as the basis of meaning. Both Shakespeares development ofOthellos grand but guilty existence and Heideggers insistence upon thefundamental priority of guilt as the basis for reasoning about humanmeaning succeed in showing us how we stand in thrall of our own being.Unless such an awareness of being were possible, as seen either through thetragedians art or through Heideggers philosophy, the nihilist, in hisdenying the thinkability of existence, would ultimately be right. Heideggers analysis of guilt is especially helpful in seeing thispoint. For his analysis shows that guilt is not something we can understandas a mere feeling or as a response to action, but is rather that essentialmode of being which makes us the basis of that nullity which is necessaryfor a rational understanding of being. He writes: When human existence understandingly lets itself be called forth to the possibility of guilt, this includes its becoming free for the call. In understanding the call, human existence is in thrall to its ownmost possibility of existence.6Thus, only by being fundamentally guilty is the human person capable ofbeing aware of the meaning of existence, for only then does this existencematter. Tragedy makes the same point. Why are we so thrilled anduplifted (or, Why are we put "in thrall to our ownmost possibility ofexistence") by the grim suffering and abject failure of King Lear? Becausethe tragedy shows us that such ultimate guilt is the basis of our meaning -that Lears greatness and nobility, in spite of his other losses, saves him(and hence, us) from meaninglessness. Such salvation can only be thesource of the deepest kind of joy, the profoundest kind of affirmation.For all the pleasantness, justice, and well-being in the world can turn sourfor us if we sense the basis of our meaning slip away - just as there is nosuffering too great, not even death itself, that can ultimately conquer thetragic triumph of beauty over mere fortuity and happiness. It is not by 563
  12. 12. accident that tragedy flourishes in eras and epochs charged with greatfervor and enormity of the affirmative spirit: Periclean Athens,Elizabethean England, and nineteenth century Germany. Far from beingmorbid times, they are periods of affirmation, for tragedy shows us thateven if all else is lost, the dignity and grandeur of our existence as such canbe loved as beautiful. If Heidegger does nothing else but show (1) that it is possible toinquire into the meaning of existence as such and (2) that death and guiltprovide the basis for an understanding of such meaning, his thought wouldgreatly illuminate the paradox of tragedy. But Heideggers careful andprofound analysis of the nature of art as truth does even more in throwinglight upon the meaning of tragedy. For Heidegger, truth is not a matter ofpropositions, but rather should be seen as that by which the meaning ofbeing is manifest. (And surely, such a definition of truth does representwhat we normally mean when we use the word.) Now art, particularly thepoets art, makes us aware of what it means to be (through language) andhence, the poet literally speaks the truth. This is a truly amazing thing tosay; indeed, as a principle of aesthetics it can almost be called spectacular.Rather than seeing art as that which makes something pleasant to look ator to otherwise sense, art is seen as concerned with truth itself. Accordingto this remarkable theory, poets can be said to speak the truth, notbecause their attractively designed propositions refer to facts whichhappen to be the case, but because their language reveals what it means tobe. The impressive if somewhat startling advantage of this theory ofaesthetics is that it breaks through the time-stiffened distinction betweenwhat is said and how it is said. This dubious distinction has often led oneto believe that the inelegant vernacular could speak the same truth asbrilliant poetry but without the fancy "externals." This has led manyEnglish teachers to urge their students to disregard the meaning of a poemand note rather the mere felicity of how nicely something, no matterwhat, is said. According to Heidegger, however, beautifully spokenlanguage reveals more meaning than nonpoetic speech, and hence, is moretrue. In fact, what makes the speech of the poet beautiful is that it revealsgreater truth. How I say something, therefore, becomes a part of what Isay. The great poet can thus reveal certain truths which cannot be revealedoutside his art. If such a point can be made, then the nature of language isnot essentially that of reference: language does not refer to facts; rather,language articulates meaning. Referring to facts is only one (and indeed aderived) way of articulating meaning. But can we believe such a theory? As much as we might like toaccept Heideggers development of language, in which poetry speaks atruth unattainable through prose, how are we to understand such a claim?What is it about poetry (and the arts in general) that provides it with the special qualities for uncovering the meaning of being? It is only when we564
  13. 13. realize that tragedy is a ritual, and that tragic language or poetry performsa rite, that the full significance of this theory for our understanding oftragedy can be seen. The purpose of tragic poetry is not to reveal the facts, but toestablish respect for the meaning of human existence. It takes just threewords to inform someone that Romeo loves Juliet, but the knowledge ofsuch a fact is not the purpose of Shakespeares art. Through his art heestablishes the meaning of such a love. His language is true, not because itis accurate, but because it is performative. That is to say, we attend thetheatre, not to find out what is going to happen, but to celebrate itsmeaning. The very formality and structure of metered lines, for example,gives a stately atmosphere of pomp and ritual. Through such solemnity oflanguage our attention is drawn by the power of language to establishmeaning. In tragedy, language does not reveal what is the case, itestablishes an order of meaning, for its nature is performative. This needsfurther comment. Let us take an example of a non-dramatic instance ofperformative language. The philosophers tell us that uses of language suchas the making of promises, the taking of oaths, or the utterance ofmarriage vows are special kinds of language which are not about the worldbut become an important part of the world. Thus when I utter sayingssuch as "I hereby take thee as wife," or "I hereby promise that ...," oneunderstands that a certain order or structure of meaning is established bythe language. In the same way, religious ceremonies are performative; theydo not merely remind us of certain beliefs, they establish such beliefs byofficial ceremony. The breaking of bread, the baptizing of an infant, theincantations at burial, exorcisms, all establish a reality by means ofperformative language. Reality itself is altered by the utterance.Performative language makes real certain objects of meaning. For languageto be able to do this, it must have certain characteristics: it must, forexample, be extraordinary; it must inspire our respect; it must be statelyand formal since it itself establishes a form and a state; it must presentitself with the authority necessary to establish binding influence on themind. In tragedy, such performative language establishes the triumph of"eros over ethos"7; i.e., it celebrates our understanding of what it meansto be over our mere knowledge of facts: it establishes meaning toexistence. A rite is the symbolic but concrete performance of an actionwhich gives meaning and evokes the sentiments of reverence, awe, andfear. Because a rite is performative and not descriptive, it establishesmeaning rather than merely refers to it. Often rites have legal significance,as in the case of oaths and the rites of marriage; but even when they donot, they possess a kind of authority which cannot be found in purelysymbolic acts or in sentiments of nostalgia. It is sometimes said that acertain act is a "mere ritual"; i.e., that someone has done something 565
  14. 14. merely out of concern for etiquette or habit. The phrase sometimes evenmeans that someone has done something without thinking. Such uses ofthe term are inaccurate and manifest a profound misunderstanding of theetymology and tradition behind rites. A rite, rather than being somethingless than real, is actually that which determines reality. Its etymology(Latin ritus) shows the close connection between a rite and a religiousceremony. In fact, even in modern usage there is often the suggestion ofreligiosity about a rite. Ritual provokes the sentiments of reverence, awe, and fear. Fear,because the power of that which validates the rite - i.e., the godhead, thestate, or an institution - with authority, is greater than those who performthe rite. Rites put us in the presence of forces greater than ourselves, or atleast provoke dimensions in ourselves (such as the moral law) whichoutrank our individual desires. To have ritualistically promised somethingis to put ones commitment beyond the influence of mere desire and theconcern for pleasure. Hence, the rite produces fear, for the forcesunleashed by the rite can destroy our tranquility or even our lives. Itproduces reverence for the same reason: we are in the presence of a realitywhich demands our respect and prompts our humility. And it evokes awebecause a rite orients our consciousness towards dimensions of greatness.A rite prompts a kind of thinking which reveals the enormity of our beingin the world. The sentiments of reverence, awe, and fear are properresponses to rites, for the performative language of a rite establishes anorder to reality which binds us to the meaning of our existence aswhatever it is the rite suggests. To what extent, then, can we understand tragedy as theperformance of a rite? As we have seen, tragedy is the triumph of eros overethos; but this triumph is accomplished as a ritual. The plays of Sophoclesand Shakespeare are rites performed in the temple of Dionysius - thetheatre - where we participate in the affirmation of the autonomousworth of the beautiful, of the meaning of being as such. Such anaffirmation must be established by the performative power of a rite, sinceno basis for affirmation can be found in a mere description or experienceof the world. When we leave the performance of a successful tragedy, wesense that our own reality has been formally sanctioned by the persuasivepower of greatness. This is because the audience in a tragedy is not a group of mereobservers looking on, but participants in the ritual. It is we the audience,and not the dramatis personae, who thrill to the grim violation of our moral instincts for the sake of participating in the worship of theautonomous worth of beauty. When Romeo first sees Juliet, the beauty of his language evokes in us an affirmation: we do not merely hear Romeo and thus become informed of his love, rather the poetry provokes in us our performance of the rite by which we sanction Romeos commitment to Juliet:566
  15. 15. If I profane with my unworthiest hand This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this; My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand To smooth that rough touch with a gentle kiss.But within just a few lines of this, our ritualistic approval of their younglove is checked by our discovery (through Juliets lines) that their love -and hence our sanction - is cursed: My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me, That I must love a loathed enemy.But, rather than merely lamenting the situation, we thrill to it, we affirmit, indeed, we participate in this frustration of happiness and thus celebratethe triumph of eros over ethos - we perform the rite by which weestablish our meaning as higher than our happiness. Thus tragic poetryshows us how the poet can speak the truth. Heideggers seeminglyoutrageous claim is here seen to be valid. A final word should be said about the roots of tragedy in theDionysian festival and the significance this has for Heideggers philosophy.In celebrating eros over ethos, or the meaning of existence over a concernfor the world, the Dionysians praise three things which simply confoundmost other thinkers. In tragedy we have seen how the Dionysians teach usto understand human suffering and even death. But suffering is not theonly enigma: there is also foolishness. This they celebrate in Comedy (thesong of the Fool). Comedy teaches us how to affirm our own foolishness. But the third enigma which the Dionysian teaches us to accept is perhapsthe greatest of all: ignorance. Philosophy teaches us to celebrate our own ignorance. For the true philosopher, like Socrates, is he who realizes that his wisdom lies in the recognition of ignorance. Ignorance for aphilosopher is that from which one can inquire (for knowledge ends inquiry: if I know, I have no need to inquire further). Thus the Dionysiancelebration of ignorance is the philosophical realization of finitude.Socrates learns that he does not possess wisdom but that he loves it, and itis thus his self-realized ignorance that leads him to inquire and whichvalidates the oracles claim that he is the "wisest" of men. These three enigmas - suffering, foolishness, and ignorance - arecelebrated by the three worshippers of Dionysius: the tragedian, thecomedian, and the philosopher. Martin Heidegger is a true philosopher inthis special and exalted sense. Northern Illinois University 567
  16. 16. NOTES1 I translate Heideggers phrase "Die Frage nach dem Sinn vom Sein" by "The question of what it means to be." For a defense and discussion of this translation, see my A Commentary on Heideggers "Being and Time" (New York: Harper& Row, 1970), p. 18.2 See "The Origin of the Art-work" by Heidegger, finely translated by Prof. Albert Hofstadter in Poetry, Language and Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).3 See Kant, I, Critique of Judgment.4 For a further discussion of how beauty is the rational basis for thinking about meaning, see my Winter, Friendship and Guilt (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).5 S. Rosen, Nihilism, a Philosophical Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).6 Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 334.7 For a further discussion of the definition of tragedy as "eros over ethos" see my forthcoming book, Eros and Tragedy.568