Tragedy and the moderns, by russell amos kirk


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Tragedy and the moderns, by russell amos kirk

  1. 1. Tragedy and the ModernsAuthor(s): Russell Amos KirkReviewed work(s):Source: College English, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Jan., 1940), pp. 344-353Published by: National Council of Teachers of EnglishStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2012 12:13Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . 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 National Council of Teachers of English is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to College English.
  2. 2. 344 COLLEGE ENGLISHsixty-five) a little cottage surroundedby flower gardenswhere shecould continuecollectingstamps and listening to good music." Having completed reading and grading sixty-five term paperswith correctlywritten analyticaloutlines, bibliographies, footnotes,etc., I questioned: "Wasthe experimentworth the time and effort?"That depends in some measureon the students carryingover intoother fieldsthe masteryof the tools of research. But, over and abovelearningwritingskills, I believe that the co-operativeresearchmeth-od awakenednew interest in at least two currentsocial problems-problemsthat in the very near future will be the students to takeaction on. Even though time may revise the ideas and thoughts ofthe sixty-five, the experiencethat they have had in enmeshingthem-selves in problemsof great social consequences will help them to bemore intelligent citizens of tomorrow. TRAGEDY AND THE MODERNS RUSSELL AMOS KIRKI Perhaps every age has weighed the qualities of its men againstthe virtues of men of other ages and has thought the worth of theliving less than the worth of the dead. In this vein it is the assertionof certain critics of our day, among them Joseph Wood Krutch,that we moderns cannot write and cannot appreciate tragedies.Ours is too materialistican age, too deeply affectedby a new psy-chology and a new philosophy, for understandingor recordingordoing noble deeds. A real tragedy must show some purposein life,some pattern to the eternal struggle, it is said; our attempts attragedy lack such elements. Tragedy must picture the losing fightof a noble characteragainst elemental forces; we neither possessthe noble charactersnor believe in the elementalforces. The classictragedy is as lost as the culture that called forth its heroes. But do adherents to these views hold the right concept of theessentials of tragedy and of the natureof our world? Are they not Mr. Kirk, who is instructor in history at Michigan State College, has for the lastseven years been making a hobby of the study of Abyssinia.
  3. 3. TRAGEDYAND THE MODERNS 345attempting to mournover the corpseof a tragic spirit which has notperished but has only changed its sombergarments? Are they notconfoundingthe mediumsthe classic tragediansused to expressthetragic spirit with that spirit itself? The world has changed sinceSophocles day and since Shakespearesday, but the world stillturns; tragedy has changedsince those times, but tragedy survives.We maintain the essentials of the Aristoteliandefinitionof tragedy: An imitationof someactionthat is important,entire,andof a proper magni-tude-by language, and embellished rendered but pleasurable, by differentmeansin different parts-in the way,not of narration, of action-effectingthrough butpity and terrorthe correction refinement suchpassions. and ofAnd that statement is, in its simplicity, the best definitionof a spiritthat endureswhile philosophieswhirl. Our writers, it is pointed out, show in their tragedies no patternfor existence,no purposein lifes struggles;they cannot,for material-ist thinkers have convinced them that this is the be-all and end-alland that mans noblenessesare meaningless. But is a complacentexplanation of the mysteries of life essential to tragedy? Do weknow, and did the classic tragediansknow, and did their charactersknow, all lifes secrets? Were they able to discern why they struggledand why they lost? A noble action may end in the bitterest fashion,and yet we may discern no divine reason for that conclusion,nosatisfying reason. It would seem that a great lost struggle againstoverpowering forces, whetheror not we know what those forces areand why they operate, constitutes tragedy. Defeat must comethroughhumanweakness,but it need not result from a conflictwithsome immutable scheme. A definition attempting to limit it tonarrower bounds would be, in some degree, unnatural. The strugglemust have significance or magnitude, but it need not have purpose.The introductionof destiny, omnipresentin Greek drama, was anaturaldevelopmentfromthe formsof Greekthought-though oftenit is overemphasized our writers-but it is not apparentwhy our bymodern tragedies must contain invariably the same suggestion ofan inexorablefate-a fate of a mystic order, that is. If there mustbe Fate, need it be a supernatural Nemesis? Cannotit be the naturalconsequence of the ways of man to man?
  4. 4. 346 COLLEGE ENGLISH It is true we no longer believe in elemental forces, elementalvir-tues and vices, as such; we have given them other names. We callthem "social forces," "psychologicalforces," and "moral forces."Is a struggleany less heroic,any less disastrous,becauseit is wagedagainst the powers of society rather than against abstract might? "AAs Krutchhimselfadmittedin TheModernTemper, tragicwriterdoes not have to believe in God, but he must believe in man." Andour Darwins and our Pavlovs have not yet convincedus that thereis no nobility in man, no difference between pettiness and grandeur. Only a society simpler and less sophisticated than ours couldunderstandthe tragedy, it is asserted;we are too skepticalof manspowers,too settled and peacefula folk to graspthe immensityof theemotions of great souls. Today there are some few who appreciatetragedy, and the rest give it lip service. But has it not been so al-ways? Only those who have within them some shadow of capacityfor tragically noble actions can understandtragedy; the great ma-jority can speak of it but never can comprehendfully its power.It was so with the turbulent Atheniansof Sophoclesday; it was sowith the coarselyhearty English of Shakespeares day; and it is sowith us. Tragedy can be appreciatedas much now as then. If, onreadingSophoclesor Shakespeare, do not feel the emotionalsurge weour cultural ancestors experienced, this apathy probably resultsfrom our inability to surmountcompletelyall the barriersraisedbythe languageand the style of other ages, not from any lack of sensi-bility on our part. We are not so sophisticatedthat we cannot feelsomethingwhen confrontedby tragedysmight. And if our modernphilosophy and our modern psychology have given us a new andpossibly a clearerview of man, this knowledgeshould enable us toappreciateeven more the nobility of which he is capabledespite theburdenshe carries. We do not believe that all life is noble, nor thatall of any mans life is great; neither did the Greeksand the Eliza-bethans. We do not contend that all existence has a tragic signifi-cance; neither did the classic tragedians. But we do hold, as theydid, that sometimes there arise among us men great in spirit whostrugglein vain againstthe bondsof this earth, and that theirfailuresare mans mightiesttriumphs,and that our emotionsare purged,ourthoughts ennobled, and our ideals vindicated by their defeats. We
  5. 5. TRAGEDY AND THE MODERNS 347know that certain qualities in man are grand throughouttime andspace,whetherthey be displayedby a Learin the stormor a Chinesesoldierin a rice field. Yes, our age is gross, materialistic,mechanized;and brutal orunfeelingforces often stranglethe grandeurin man. But it has beenso always. A bullet may stop the hero in mid-career;formerly itwas the tile in Argos. The world has changedlittle. Considerthe materialthe tragedianhas at hand in this era. Havematerialisticphilosophyand materialisticpsychologywholly alteredmens natures? Are therenot as many noble actionsin the twentiethcentury after Christas there were in the fifth century before Christor the sixteenthafter Christ? It is said that we can find no grandersubjects for our tragic dramas than the lives of the petty or weakindividualsIbsen portrays-more pathos than tragedy. But look atthe worldabout us, and see what possibilitiesit holds for a modernSophoclesor a modernShakespeare. We cannot deny that tragedy has cast off the Greekmask. Aris-tocracy of birth has faded out of the world, and with its disappear-ance the heroesof tragedy have turned into aristocratsof mind andaction, not of inheritance. And a more fundamental change hascome: there is little attempt to make tragedy disclose the purposeof existence. We are not, indeed, so sure what its purpose is. Butwe have a sense of the tragic, and a tragic world is ours. If we havenot produced a mighty author of tragedies, it is because no suchgenius has chanced to develop in our society, not because he lacksa field. The complexity, the frustration that all too often characterizemodernlife, might be a suitable theme. Imagine a potentially greatindividual crushedby adversity, crushedby it all his life, with nohope of throwingit off, his imagination,his powers of action over-whelmedby the inertiaof a static society. Are there not possibilitiesfor tragedy here? But perhaps this is only pathos, and it may beasserted that in our society really great men yet have opportunityto climb to the heights, and that such a situation could not be con-sidered peculiar to our epoch. Accept these criticisms, then, andthink of other possibilities. For one, what of our American Dust Bowl? Is not this theme
  6. 6. 348 COLLEGE ENGLISHepic enough? Is therenot a struggleagainstirresistibleforces here-a struggle by a hardy folk against a doom brought down by theirown lack of foresight? And the political and social strugglesof our day provide a thou-sand subjects. RememberMajor Fey, who rose, in the turmoil thatwas Austriasafter the WorldWar, from an obscurearmy post to bevice-chancellorand, for a time, virtual ruler of the state; who sawDollfussmurderedby the Nazis; who, in the two years that followed,was a leading figure in the tortuous diplomacyof that buffer-coun-try; whose police held in check Socialists,Nazis, and Fascists; whofell from power a year before his ancient fatherlandwas to vanishin the dust sent up by marchingGermaninfantry. And rememberthat day in March, 1938,when he saw foreigntroopsin Vienna,and,with a depth of despairwe can only surmise,shot his wife and chil-dren and then pressed the revolver against his own temple. Theambitions of Fey, his jealousies, his crafty courses, had betrayedhim, had left him impotent at the last. Yet it may be said that a hero of tragedy, a man of real strength,would have made greaterresistance,would have struck at least oneblow for liberty. Accept the charge; there are a thousand similarcases in this modernworldto which it does not apply. And a certainone of these, were there a writer of power sufficient to deal ade-quately with it, could be as grand a tragedy as any of Shakespearesor Sophocles. Let me crudely sketch a plot for our unborn trage-dian. The true tragic hero must fail because of some fault of his own,some flaw, as Aristotle, with his usual brilliantinsight, pointed out;and so it was with this man. He lost from a weaknesswithin him,and that weaknesswas itself admirableand pitiable: he trusted inmankind too readily, trusted in his people and his lieutenants andhis allies and even his enemies. Sophocleswrote of an Oedipus,legendaryruler of a petty state,who was ruined by forces of destiny which led him to unnaturalcrimes;of an Antigone, destroyedby devotion, forbiddendevotion,to brother and family. Shakespeare wrote of a Lear, aged and im-potent monarch; of a Richard II, incapableand unregrettedking;of a RichardIII, murderous usurper;of a Romeo and a Juliet, love-
  7. 7. TRAGEDY AND THE MODERNS 349mad childrenof Verona;of a Macbeth,unnervedby his crimes;of aHamlet, too just for his age. Brutus and Othello are in some waysmore truly tragic. But our world could supply a characteras tragicas those of the classic tragedies,a man of mighty qualities,the lordof an ancient empire, a soldier and a statesman, a reformer, adreamer, a ruler, a hero. And he has lost everything he valued-friends,power,people,country,hope-has seen them all swept awayby an artillerybarrage,has beheld the nation to which he had de-voted all his talents pressedinto slavery. He did not yield weakly,like RichardII and Lear;he fought when there was hope and whenthere was no hope; he put his soul into that struggle, and he lost.Truly, this dramawould show no pattern to existence, no ultimaterightnessin life; it would not leave ones heart content that it wasso. But to most of us it would be not the less tragic for that, for,like Lear, like Oedipus, the man shows his greatness even in hisdespair;he proves that man is right though the world be wrong. His skin is black, like Othellos,and his title is "King of Kings":Haile Selassie, emperorof Ethiopia. Picturehim alone in wild Abyssinia;alone, balked by inefficiencyin government and ignorance in the people, living in a labyrinthof intrigue, threatenedby the great barons, of whose ranks he hadonce been a member. See him amid the wretchedness life in East ofAfricaand see how, in spite of it all, he was mercifuland irresistible.See him at the head of his followers,putting down the revolts of themighty chiefs. Long years of struggle against the poverty and bar-barity and corruptionof Abyssinia, working like the most task-burdened slave in his dominions, contending against a thousandyears of decline. And all the while playing off England againstFrance and France against Italy and the League against all three,while the troops of the Fascists gathered on the borders of Tigreand the Danakil and the Ogaden. Those years of faith in the League,those years of hoping against hope that war would not come untilhe had transformed Ethiopia. Finally, in October,1935, the Italianinvasion. See him morealone than ever, though aroundhim throngedchief-tains from jungle and mountainand desert, sword-flourishing veter-ans of Adowa and the days of Menelik. Behold him, disobeyed by
  8. 8. 350 COLLEGE ENGLISH inhis commanders the field, betrayed by more than one of them, defeated through their ignorance. Witness him appealing desper-ately to the League and to the pledges of Albion, and pleading invain. Rememberthe crushingof the courage of his levies by thelegions of Rome. See him viewing the downfallof all he loved; andsee the man in his greatness, undaunted, scorning submission,ad-vancing in person to the northern front. He was needed there.During February and March the Italians smashed the armies ofRas Moulougeta,Ras Seyoum, Ras Kassa, and Ras Imru. One force still barred their way to the imperialhighway leadingto Addis Ababa-the troops under Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah,awaiting the Italian onslaught north of Lake Ashangi. Here is thescene and here is the protagonist our moderntragedian. for Their emperor was with his Abyssinians; many of them werearmedwith modernrifles,and they had machine-guns, some few andfieldpieces;they wereforty or fifty thousandstrong;they had beatenthe Italians in the days of Augustusand the days of Baratieri;theyhad kept all East Africa in terrorfor centuries. With all their de-feats of the past months, they dared not lose now. The subjectnations had desertedthem, the Gallalevies had vanishedlike smokewhen they saw their overlordsdefeated for the first time, and theforeign advisers had taken the train for Djbouti, fearing Italianfiring squads or shifta knives. No matter; these Amharas of oldAbyssinia could fight alone the troops of Europe and could win. Haile Selassie,Negus Negusti, stood on a ridge just south of thefire-ruinedvillage of Mai Chio, looking across the valley to theItalian positionsof the opposite heights, his sorrowful eyes catchingthe gleam of artilleryamong the rocks and cacti. It was March 31.He knew he could not delay the attack; the honor of his forces wasinvolved. Perhaps he alone of all the Africanhost knew what thatnext day would mean: liberty or slavery, pride or shame, life ordeath. Another Hastings, another Pharsalia. He knew himself thechampionof Africa; and he knew that, if he failed, he would havebeen happier had he died years before, when the rebel Sidamotroops came up from the southernjungles. In the evening he sent a last message to the Empress Menen,
  9. 9. TRAGEDY AND THE MODERNS 351notifying her and the council of ministersof his intention to pressthe assault. "The defeat of my army will be the end of all for me,"he told his White Russian adviser. The two dark-hidden armiesremainedin positionuntil about fivein the morning;then the emperorgave the desperatesignal for thecharge. Rockets shot up into the darkness. That day black men died Spartan-likebefore the planes and theguns, and the driftingmustard gas settled about their corpses. And see the emperorwhen the last grains of sand had run out,when, goblin-like,the broken hosts poured past him, when chiefsand slaves stumbled insensate through the gorges in their retreat,stung by traitor Galla bullets. See the ruin-dazedKing of Kings,the machine-gun had firedin that strickenplainleft behind,riding hesouthward with that blood-covered rabble. Look into his half-numbedbrain, and find there, amid the ruins of all his dreams,theresolution that, while he lived, the hopeless struggle should notcease. Find there nobility uncrushed.Like Hamlet, he had failedbecausehe was too noble for his time, too trustful of the European,too proudto compromise with evil. See him now, stripped by the League even of his title, barelytoleratedby England,his kinsmenslaughteredin Ethiopia. See himnow, beggingfor aid for his bands, half-forgottenby a callousworld,sinking into poverty and despair. See his very name fading, to beassociated in history with that of a savage sultan of Zanzibaror adegradedrajah of Oudh. Look at him now and realizethat here isone who, in another age, might have been one of the greatest ofmen. And in his ruineddignity he is great still. If one must ascribeto an eternalforcethe blamefor his fall, makethat force Time, most eternal of all influences. Time, which hadpassed Ethiopia by and left her defenselessbeforethe steel and theschemes of modern states. Here, indeed, is reason for pity andterror,and their purging. What could not a modern Shakespearedo with such a subject?Perhapssome day will come the man who can clothe with majestythis naked plot we can only delineate. And in what manneris he toinvest his theme with grandeur?Is it possible for modernsto write
  10. 10. 352 COLLEGE ENGLISH in a style equal to the dignity that is tragedys? Would Shake- spearespoetic phrasesor Marlowesmighty line be bombast in us? Perhaps;each age has formsof expressionpeculiarto it, and drama in verse findslittle favor today, despite our T. S. Eliots. A dignifiedand moving narration,be it in prose or poetry, still could convey tragedys depth, for tragedy is far more a matter of spirit than ofstyle. One of the greatest obstacles to a moderninvocation of thetragic muse has been the confoundingof the vehicles of expressionused by the masters with the emotions which they described. Andperhaps not; when the excesses of realism and naturalismdiminishbefore the resurgenceof taste, it may be that the modern publiconce more will understandthe old truth that literatureis an inter-pretation of human forces, an epitomizing of life, and that it issomething more than a photographin words, and that there is aplace for sonorousand stirringphrasesand styles. Though the dreams and the lives of noble men are falling allabout us, it is assertedthat the modernworld does not producethetragic spirit. Man is all the nobler if he has arisen from the slime and will gobut into the dust, and yet can struggle so. Materialist critics andphilosophersand psychologistshave woven about themselves a netof dismaying elaborations so thick they cannot see through itsstifling strands to the realities of life. For in the world men stillfight for the things they always have fought for, and often fightin vain-for their honor and for a defense of others. There is littledifferencebetween heroically defying mighty natural, social forcesand heroicallydefying mystic, moral forces; the materialiststhem-selves proclaimthat the moral forces of old were, in the beginning,merely an unconsciousallegorizationof the social good. And if thisbe so, the distinctionbetween the old tragedy and the new is that ayesterdaytragedychampioned disguisedindividualgood and socialgood, while today it drawsits blade for good unveiled. The tragic dramais incarnatein desperateChina, in vanquishedBohemia, in ruined Spain, in blindly rushing America, in thepuzzledminds of men and in their unreasoning hearts. Perhapsit isonly becauseour tragediesare so vast that we have failed to recog-
  11. 11. TRAGEDYAND THE MODERNS 353nize them fully; perhapswe have, as yet, no great tragic dramatistonly because the complexity of our world makes more difficulttheunderstandingof fundamentals.Yet this intricacy, this abundanceof knowledge and of action, should at last bring forth writerswhowill be able, in the greatnessof their comprehension, make tragedy tothe moreimpressiveby the contrastof its simplicitywith the normalcomplicationof existence. It may be that some factors in this agedo not promote the developmentof a talented writer of tragedies,but the bulk of the blame must be laid to chance,that old evildoer.For chanceis as great an influenceas are the times in developingtheman of genius. The greatness of a writer comes through the coin-ciding of a numberof factors during one period of time; this bluemoon has not shone of late. And men not only are made by theirepochs, but sometimesmake them. Can the mere absence of greatwriters be consideredproof of the sterility of the age itself, whenthe great tragedians can be counted on ones fingers? We shouldnot expect to find genius around every corner;if we did, we wouldhave little use for it. True, it is, that enlightenedpublics and noblenational impulsesencouragetalent, but they neither create nor de-stroy it. A sinking Rome had its Longinus, and a rising Englandhad its literary panders. It may be that modern psychology and modern philosophy arenot in fullest harmonywith the classic conceptof tragedy. So muchthe worse for them; they disregardthe obvious. Human nature stillis with us, and oursis a tragic era. Men still pit their lives and theirsouls against fate. When our Shakespeare our Sophoclesis born, orhe will find a theme for his new Hamlet or his new Oedipus.