Tragedy reconsidered, by george steiner


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Tragedy reconsidered, by george steiner

  1. 1. "Tragedy," ReconsideredAuthor(s): George SteinerReviewed work(s):Source: New Literary History, Vol. 35, No. 1, Rethinking Tragedy (Winter, 2004), pp. 1-15Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2012 12:11Your 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 The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to New Literary History.
  2. 2. "Tragedy," Reconsidered George SteinerThe semantic field of the noun "tragedy" and of the adjective "tragic" remains as indeterminate as its idiom origin. Colloquial, atic usage attaches to mental or material, "tragic" experiences, which range from triviality?"the cake has burned in the oven"?to ultimate disaster and sorrow. The intentional focus can be narrow and as in "a accident," or as in the specific, tragic undefinably spacious, "a sense of life." The numerous intermediate shopworn phrase tragic hybrids under the rubric of "tragi-comedy" or even "optimistic tragedy," a tag publicized in Soviet parlance, further blur linguistic and existential demarcations. "Tragedy" in reference to western literature is itself an elusive branch of tangled ramifications. If its roots are to be found in drama, in the scenic enactment of those cherished "goat-songs" by nineteenth-century philologists and ethnographers, its application to other genres may well have been as ancient. The ascription of tragic sentiments to episodes in the Homeric epics appears to have been current. Whether the epithet characterized lyric poetry is not known; but it will pertain habitually to narratives of grief and of death in Ovid or Virgil. As our literatures evolve, the concept of tragedy extends far beyond the dramatic genre. It serves for poetry and prose fiction?for dAubign?s Tragiques as for Dreisers An American In turn, osmosis as it were, it permeates Tragedy. by the descriptions of ballet, of film. such as Beethoven, Composers Berlioz, Brahms the in their incorporate marking "tragic" compositions. Throughout this seemingly unbounded and mobile spectrum, "tragedy" and "tragic" can lose their sometime specificity. They come to enhance conceivable nuance of sadness, or loss. rites any misfortune, Dionysian of heroic sacrifice?if that iswhat they were?have all but receded from definition. At least one classical moreover, that we do not at usage, suggests know, some elemental level, what it is we are talking about. It occurs in Laws 7.817b. The context is that of Platos notorious of mundane repudiation letters, notably drama (the young Plato having himself hoped to be a tragedian). The Athenian informs Clinias that there is no need for New Literary History, 2004, 35: 1-15
  3. 3. 2 NEW LITERARY HISTORYwriters of tragedy, though they "may be men of genius," in the projectedpolis: visitors, we are ourselves authors of a and that the finest andRespected tragedy, the best we know how to make. In fact, our whole has been constructed as politya dramatization of a noble and life; that is what weYvold in truth to be the perfectmost real of tragedies.Even allowing for A. E. Taylors "forcing" rendition of mimesis as "dramatization," the passage remains How can the profoundly puzzling.edification of a "noble and perfect life" in Platos luminous if Spartancommonwealth be construed as "the most real of In what tragedies"? respect are the architects and legislators of this polity tragic authorsbeyond the claims of any poet? Is there some ineluctable component of tragedy, which is to say of failure and self-deception in the politicalprocess itself even here, especially where the latter comes nearest to the ideal? Or is that a modern, illegitimately "psychological" reading? Nocommentary of which I know is of help. Yet the centrality of the crux inPlatos idiom and sensibility is undeniable. Dante is lucidly helpful whendefining commedia for us, when giving us to understand why even hisInferno is part of a "comedy." Plato leaves us helpless. Such radical indeterminacies make and sterile the innumer arbitraryable formal definitions of "tragedy" offered since Aristotle. At best, each is a more or less local classification, a more or less ad hoc only ruling towards moral, aesthetic, or ends. Poloniuss of political catalogue modes the of normative There tragical captures fatuity categorizations.are those, Kafka perhaps, Beckett, who have been inclined to dispensewith the term altogether. Consequently, I prefer not to work with any formulaic, legislativedefinition of "tragedy" as it is used to label a literary genre. All suchdefinitions, moreover, tend to be variants on Aristotles Poetics, a textwhich raises problems far more than it solves. What I aim for is agenerative nucleus of supposition, of reasoned intuition, a minimal but indispensable core shared by "tragedies" in literature and extending, by related to other modes.analogy, by metaphor, expressive This nucleus (Ur-grund) is that of "original sin." Because of that fall or in the and sense, the human condi "dis-grace," emphatic etymological tion is tragic. It is ontologically tragic, which is to say in essence. Fallenman is made an unwelcome of life or, at best, a threatened guest on this hostile or indifferent earthstranger (Sophocles damning word,dwelt on by Heidegger, is apolis). Thus the necessary and sufficientpremise, the axiomatic constant in tragedy is that of ontologicalhomelessness?witness this motif in Beckett, in Pinter?of alienation or
  4. 4. "tragedy," reconsidered 3ostracism from the safeguard of licensed being. There is no welcome tothe self. This is what tragedy is about. Different faiths, different mythologies, different scenarios of secularanthropology and psychology, of political theory, provide programmaticnarratives of, explanations of, the imperative of primordial guilt. Theyare as prevalent in modern as they were in archaic hypoth positivismeses. The Judeo-Christian and Pauline fable of Adamic disobedienceand inherited guilt has darkened the human prospect virtually to ourday. It has modulated with intriguing ease into secular and profanemodels. Marxs 1844 a in human relations in manuscripts postulate stagewhich the primal exchange of trust for trust, of love for love, becamefatally one of property and of money, dooming our species to the treadmill of labor and class conflict. Marxs prophetic rhetoric providesno account of how or when this fall from innocence came to pass.Freuds evasive as to time and place, is one of original legend, equallyparricide, of the murder of the father by the horde of his sexuallydeprived sons, an act which thereafter determined the fulcrum ofneurosis and repressed culpability in the human psyche. The mytho ofL?vi-Strauss, continuous on that of Rousseau, locates our fall in logique the transition, violent, from an at-homeness in the natural presumably and animal world to an status in "culture." As in the estranged, singularPromethean it is mans mastery of fire, his from paradigm, transgression the raw to the cooked, which has a condition at once generated sovereign and irremediably polemic, at once privileged and accursed. In each of these foundational narratives, the Adamic blueprint, however secularized, is unmistakable. Some distant, dread crime or error, the tension between these two crucial to (hamar categories being tragedy tia), has sentenced man to the ever-renewed of frustration, of cycle individual and collective self-destruction. An original sin, howeverdefined, has brought torment and (absurd) death into our naked world. So far as we can tell, this topos of original sin and of a legacy of guiltdoes not figure as such in early Greek mythology. It is the "backgroundnoise," to borrow a term, in of human rebellion, of cosmological mythsfierce conflict between mortals and immortals. It is the coercive context to the tales of Prometheus, of Tantalus, of Sisyphus. We can make out its lineaments in the sad fable of Pandoras box. If H?lderlin s gloss is correct, human ruin is inwoven in mans search for ineluctably agonisticproximity to the gods. But we do not find the motif in any pure orabstract form. I suspect a missing link. What is certain is the archaic insight, already current in the sixthcentury bc (Theognis?) that "it is best never to have been born; that it isnext best to die young; that ripeness and longevity are a cruel maledic tion." It is this axiom, with the consequences which precisely together
  5. 5. 4 NEW LITERARY HISTORYderive from it, which engender the internal logic of tragedy. It is this credowhich constitutes a "tragic sense of life"paradoxical together with the articulate and demonstration of that sense. voicing performativeWithout the logic of estrangement from life, of mans ontological fall from there can be no authentic grace, "tragedy" When writing The Death of Tragedy in the 1950s, I had inferred this categorical imperative but had not underlined it adequately. Where the axiom of human of survival itself as somewhat scandal estrangement,ous, is attenuated, where it is blurred by concepts of redemption, of social melioration (an home for Lear), where messianic inter old-agevention is harnessed, we may indeed have serious drama, didactic allegory of the loftiest sort, lament and melancholy (the Trauerspielanalyzed by Walter Benjamin). But we do not have tragedy in anyabsolute sense. We have contamination sale as Sartre by hope?le espoir,memorably put it. Absolute tragedy, whether in Euripides Bacchae orKafkas parable of the Law, is immune to hope. "Not to have been born is best." The rest is, very much in Dantes sense of commedia, "tragic however bleak. comedy," Thus a core of underwrites authentic It dynamic negativity tragedy.entails a and, more a dimension. metaphysical particularly, theologicalHence the perennial engagement of philosophy with tragic drama, anengagement more persistent and searching than that with any otheraesthetic From Plato and Aristotle to and phenomenology. HegelKierkegaard, Kierkegaardfrom to Nietzsche, Freud, and Benjamin,philosophic analysis has argued the legitimacy of tragedy, the paradox ofpleasure derived from the tragic. Beyond any other genre outside thephilosophic dialogue itself, as we find it in Plato or Hume, tragedy hasbeen the meeting point between the metaphysical and the poetic. dramatizes this congruence when he asserts that westernHeidegger has turned on a choral ode in thought Sophocles Antigone. What needs to be precisely understood are the connotations of the metaphysical and the theological in this context. The proposition that human existence is alien to innocent being, thatmen and women are unwelcome errant?note the of guests presence "error" in that word?on the earth, a comports metaphysical implica tion. It presumes that there are nonhuman hostile or at best agencieswholly indifferent to intrusive man. It posits, as current idiom has it, the "Other." Social and economic at the outset, in Rousseau and Marx theconcept of alienation has acquired a specific gravity, an ontological illustrated by absolute or pureweight tragedy. A legacy of guilt, theparadoxical, unpardonable guilt of being alive, of attaching rights and to that condition, condemns the human to frustraaspirations species tion and suffering, to being tied to "awheel of fire." Our existence is not
  6. 6. "tragedy," reconsidered 5 so much a "tale told by an idiot" as it is a chastisement from which earlydeath is the only logical deliverance. In Adamic and Calvinist monothe ism, emanates from an offended, In classical punishment vengeful deity.mythology, jealous gods exercise their blind or malign cruelties even on their worshippers (this outrage obsesses Euripides). The daemonic, thedevilish, is loosed on the as a whole or on Faustuss city midnight. Philosophically problematic, yet none the less terrifying is the notion,personified in the Roman pantheon, of "ill luck," of inexplicable, or accident (the tile falls off the roof witharbitrary bad fortunehistorical results) which can eradicate human hopes and endeavors.Aristotle classified contingent disaster as a lesser mode; he saw itsmelodramatic rather than tenor. In common how tragic experience,ever, it is the most compelling reminder of the abyss, of that in our worksand days which seems to offend forces, be they anarchic, surpassing ourown, mocking our foresight. These forces lie in ambush around the next corner or where three roads meet. the monstrous: had Triviality triggers the messenger reached Cordelias executioners half a minute earlier. . . . To cite such as the daemonic, the "Other," or Poes of presences "imp the to envision them as retribution or misfortune perverse," personified, is to speak theologically. It is to postulate as inherent to tragedy and thetragic the apparatus of theological assumptions and values. Tragedians,from Aeschylus to Beckett, have been "doctors of divinity," even where their stance is antinomian or in denial. This is demonstrated, at a level, their enlistment of the ordramaturgical by super- preternatural.The role of the deities in Greek and Roman tragic theater is of theessence. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth, the Ghost in Hamlet, the swarmout of hell proclaimed on the heath in Lear, are no conventional or technical flourishes. They manifest the intrusion of mortal men andwomen into a web of nonhuman, and spiders superhuman agents watchers whose exact and be invoyeuristic legitimacy powers mayquestion, but whose appalling proximity to fallen mankind is palpable.We call on and ministers of to defend us, even where the "Angels grace" of our own status press on us. The summit ofambiguities theological tragedy in English literature is Faustuss intuition, via Marlowes specula tive and philosophic genius, that a deity capable of forgiving Faustuswould be a false god. The entire reticulation of thought and feeling, of language and gesture compacted in such a moment or in Hamletsmeditation on self-slaughter, on theo depends strictly and necessarily logical prerequisites. Though in some degree internalized and astutely "off-stage," these are operative in the crystalline clarities of Racine. Thehorrors of Hippolytes death at the hands of Neptune are narrated; this accentuates the of the inhuman.only proximity The ebbing of this cardinal dimension and its historical recession from immediacies of and of reference are a acceptance complicated
  7. 7. 6 NEW LITERARY HISTORY story. Calvinist predestination, the seemingly inexplicable lottery of damnation, is a late variant on ancient fatalism. As thisprogrammedreading of fallen humanitys condition decays into libertarian enlightenment, into the politics of hope expounded by secular messianism (socialism, the American promise), so does tragic drama in any stringent sense. The redemptive, profoundly sentimental coda to Goethes Faust IImay conveniently the abstention from, the repudiation date of themetaphysics and theology of tragedy as these had been articulated and "bodied forth" since the fall of Troy. With few exceptions, "tragedy" afterGoethe perpetuates itself in prose fiction, in opera, in film, in reportage.The dissemination of pressure takes us from a Gr?nwald Crucifixion, steeped in the heresy of despair, to a mythological spectacle by, say,Tiepolo, whose aesthetics are already brilliantly and reassuringly cinematic. This raises the difficult question whether atheist tragedy is possible. one needs to discriminate. masters, atheists,Again, Among past professed such as Leopardi or Shelley, are exceedingly rare. Social constraints and religious despotism made public atheism precarious if not suicidal. But the for a and of the divine in western art, grounds presence presentmentmusic, and literature lie much deeper. Ifwestern painting and sculpture, if western music are, as it were, "saturated" occasions and by religiousmotifs, the reason is that of a fundamental dialectic. The aesthetic act ofcreation (I have tried to show this in Grammars of Creation) is experienced either as a mimesis, an imitation of the divine fiat or as a challenge to it. These two imitation and are often impulses, challenge, insepa rable. For Tolstoi, at the pitch of creativity God is the jealous bearwaiting to wrestle with him in the forest. To Picasso, he is the rival master in the next room. The music of Bach, that of is God Schoenberg, for countless artists, writers, thinkerspossessed. Wittgenstein spokewhen he said that had he been "have dedicated to God" able to he wouldhis Philosophical Investigations. What other true critic and completereader have we? asked Coleridge and Gerard Manley Hopkins after him.D. H. Lawrence spoke of being consumed in Gods fire when writing. Engagements with the eventuality of God can generate reflexes and intonations of the most diverse kind: rage, ecstasy, irony despair, self surrender. The plays of Euripides ironize divine intervention, arguing the malignity or even impotence of deities whose ethical perceptions,whose intellectual insights, have begun to lag behind those of homo sapiens. Leamot only states the likelihood that the gods (God) treat menand women with infantile sadism?"like wanton boys they kill us for their sport"?but that the justified questioning of human beings in innocent agony (Job)?"Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life? And thou no breath at all?"?is doomed to remain unanswered. Blasphemy,
  8. 8. "tragedy," reconsidered 7a fundamentally religious mode, characterizes key motions in Jacobeandrama that inherit the art of Marlowe. Blasphemy is spelt out in the long-suppressed exchange between Moli?re sDon Juan and the beggar.Kleists Amphytrion achieves a rare, delicate equilibrium between fury divine guile and capriciousness on the one hand and a deepagainstapprehension of supernatural mystery on the other. Shelleys Prometheusand Cenci claims of human of of reason press justice, compassion,against the arbitrary tyranny of the gods and the hypocritical despotismof institutions. The Cenci, in come closest in our religious particular, literature to being what Tourneur had entitled An Atheists Tragedy: "Beatrice shall, if there be skill in hate / Die in despair, blaspheming."Yet however bitter the dramatists dissent from faith, however flagranthis refusal of grace, be it in Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes, in ByronsManfred, or in Artaud s reprise of Shelley, the matrix of meaning and ofreferences is theistic. The proximity, the (malevolent) relevance of thedivine ismanifestly inferred. So let me ask is an atheist in any strict sense, a again: tragedy tragicvision of the world from which the possibility of God (or the gods) hasbeen excised, feasible? There is so very little to go on. Where the question of God is anarchaic irrelevance, the cardinal axiom of human from at estrangementhomeness in this world, the dialectic of enmity between human fate andsome enigma of culpability at the outset, loses hold. Conflict, whether or social, whether public or familial, ideological persists. It can be of theutmost violence and sorrow. Domestic hatred howls in Strindbergsdramas, in the dynastic and biblical collisions in Racine. Victimizationand massacre smolder in the backdrop to Brechts didactic allegories.But where the issues are secular, where or social meliora psychological tion and are conceivable, the fundamental construct, however therapy is that of "melodrama." Verdis over his Othello? anguishing, perplexities in certain a more coherent, work than respects persuasive Shakespeares?make the The at the core of "motiveless" point. agnosticism Iagos sadism struck him as factitious. Verdi and Boitos compositionHence of Iagos credo, of the shattering homage to an evil deity. in Shakespeare, whether on stage or Repeatedly by clear inferenceand invocation, the fifth act borders on redemption, on a recuperativedawn after the tragic night. Scotland will blossom after Macbeths death,Cassios r?gime will benefit Cyprus, Fortinbras looks to be a sounderruler than Hamlet would have been. Goethes errant Faust is gloriouslyabsolved. Are there, then, any secular, located in a world plays totallywholly immanent, yet "tragic" in some essential regard? B?chners is a of It in a world of Woyzeck singularity genius. transpireswhich God, if ever He was, is unaware. There is not, as in much great
  9. 9. 8 NEW LITERARY HISTORY literature, the intimation of a deus absconditus, of the "God-abandoned." Such absence a potent negative theology itself metaphoric of the yields tragic. The zero-world in which Woyzeck totters to extinction, in whichhis deranged tormentors strut, in which children play in a raucousemptiness, is end-stopped at every point. It is an aggregate of suffocationmade the more hermetic by the macabre superstitions to which its are B?chners that even matter is agents prey, by suggestion inorganic hostile to man. Thus the does not and cannot arise. Yet "God-question" the logic of tragic annihilation, of the blank guilt of existence, iscoherent and formidably moving. When "God" is invoked at the close of Yeatss bleak miniature,Purgatory, this invocation ismade a perfunctory clich?. The irrelevanceof God to the dramatic action is complete. It is Yeatss art to adumbrate the supernatural possibilities trapped inside nature, to infer a ghostliness the more maddening because it is altogether psychological: The falls upon the path, moonlight The shadow of a cloud upon the house. And thats study that tree, symbolical; What is it like?To which the sole answer is "no matter what its like." Symbolism refusesany validation beyond itself. Analogy is, as in the asceticism of Tractatus, evasion. It is these two rhetoricalWittgensteins preciselymoves, the and the which which are re symbolic analogous, postulate, insured transcendence. In Yeats, as in B?chner, immanence is by, the reflex of outward, reference. vengeful, deriding vulgar solacing Every facet of the question of whether rigorously secular tragedy is of whether is in strict sense, to an possible, "tragedy" applicable, any action purged of God, is set out in the plays and parables of and context Beckett. His language (s) is permeated by scriptural and liturgical reminiscences {Endgame turns on the hammer and nails of the Crucifix ion) .The theological recedes from Becketts world as does light from a dying star. But the ground-bass, if one can put it that way, is in almost every instance the posing of our question. Beckett asks whether serious drama, whether signifying dialogue (with whom, with what?) is feasible after God. This posterity is at once more diffuse and more ironic than that of Nietzsches trope. Beckett intimates that He may never have been, and that this refusal to be is "He doesnt exist, irreparably tragic. the bastard." The phrasing is incomparable in its laconic duplicity. The "bastard" does not exist; or, in that nonexistence, words, malign beyond lies the evil and ostracism of mans condition. Waiting for Godot could not, I believe, have been written without Its intonations, and crowded on Purgatory. setting, emptiness expand
  10. 10. "tragedy," reconsidered 9Yeatss nightmare. With time, it may well be that Becketts plays (experiments), from Godot to the scream of nullity and closing silence of the last will be as the transition into parables, recognized post-metaphysical, post-metaphoric modes. Once Vladimir and Estragon haverung hollow changes on the keywords "illusion" and "hallucination,"tragedy, as we have known it since Aeschylus, is of the past. Absolute or "high" tragedy and its manifold approximations evolved in an ideological and social context. However dissociated from thecontingencies and mercies of common daylight, tragedy is never politi value-free. Its decline was concomitant with the democratization ofcallywestern ideals, with the eclipse of imperative destiny in the powerrelations between mortals and the between men and supernatural,women the state. From Aeschylus and to Shakespeare, from Sophocles to Racine, high tragedy engages the (mis)fortunes of the privileged, of the princely, of a dynastic elite. The very rubric "tragedy" in its Senecanand medieval demarcation is that of "the fall of illustrious men." Tragedy an of an excellence of Theargues aristocracy suffering, pain. pointneeds to be made accurately. It has nothing to do with social snobbery,with hazard, with fortuitous circumstances of priestly or regal or titled as chatter would have it. The motives are ofpatronage, pseudo-Marxist the essence. In its Attic matrix, the seminal myths which underlie tragic drama,notably the Homeric substratum and that of other epic cycles, arepeopled by gods and semi-gods, by monarchs, by princely heroes. Theirsare the foundational narratives and So are exemplary catastrophes. theyin Shakespearean tragedy and in the courtly sphere of French neoclassi are informedcism. These dark happenings by the intuition, moreradical than any political prejudice or fastidiousness of spirit, that fate? the an oracular or ancestral malediction, ambition, gods, overreachingmadness in a major key?selects for its victims personae of condign stature. As Ren? Char majestically put it: "midnight is not in everymansreach." Obviously all human beings, however humble their condition,however helpless their social milieu, are subject to terror, to injustice, to inexplicable agony. Nothing is louder, if unheard, throughout history than the howl, so often gagged or violently silenced, of the oppressed.Even salesmen undergo heart-rending deaths. The discrimination liesdeeper. In classical mythology, in Renaissance scenarios of history, eminenceand the temptations to which it is prone are to the gods, to daemonicagencies on the heath, as is the scent of blood to a shark. As men andwomen draw closer to the divine, in H?lderlins that very reading,proximity engenders unbearable tensions, jealousies which have theunforgiving wildness of love. Eminent human beings, says H?lderlin,
  11. 11. 10 NEW LITERARY HISTORY stand out like lightning rods whom Olympian bolts both irradiate and scorch. When exercise dominion over matters of state, when they they seek to bend history to their will, as do Shakespeares or Sophoclesprotagonists, that in life itself which is envious of man "answers back,"fatally. The Promethean impulse in us is at once ineradicable anddoomed. Thus Hades itself attends on the self-destruction of RacinesPh?dre, and the universe momentarily holds its breath at the desolationof B?r?nice. Pace the claims of egalitarianism, of "political correctness" (whichLenin would termed an "infantile disorder"), have the perception of themetaphysical, of the agonistic relation to being as these are madeexplicit and functional in tragedy, is not given to everyman. Nest pasminuit qui veut (Char). Tragic experience is a menacing vocation, dying in the tragic vein, as Sylvia Plath proudly confessed, an art. It is not only that the tragic agent enacts his or her vulnerability to the inhuman, toforces his or her control and He internal transcending understanding. izes this paradoxical privilege, making of it a conceptual, self-divisive He or she is actor and aprocess. simultaneously spectator, duality speltout in the conceit, ancient as drama itself, of human existence as tragic theatre. Rightly or wrongly, this pitch of self-awareness, of introspectivedramatization within an arena of forces, came to be metaphysicalascribed to to Cassandra, to Orestes, towering, exceptional personages, to to Hamlet the Dane?to "literate" in the root-sense, Ajax, spiritsdifficult to of of consciousness. Social status, a paraphrase, literacy role in the in ancient Greece, inrepresentative community being,Elizabethan-Jacobean England, in the Europe of the ancient r?gime, a self-evident, unexamined correlative.virtually This literacy generates the idiom, dare one say "idiolect," particular to The resort to meta-musical verse forms and a modi tragedy. complex,fied epic vocabulary in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is no technical accident or auxiliary. It is primary. The discourse of gods andfuries, of and heroes, is that of a and cadence under sovereigns grammarextreme upward pressure. elevation, Its formal its prodigal economy, itsmetaphoric reach tell of a conflictual world, of an often fatal dialectic (dialogue) removed from the waste motions, from the hybrid tonalities,from the hit-and-miss of the There are rare, unbending vulgate. though inspired, patches of prose inmidst Shakespearean tragic drama; there is the ominous moment of prose in Goethes Faust I. But the Elizabethannorm is that of the iambic and its variants. Racines pentameteralexandrines, the incisive symmetry of his (and Corneilles) couplets,constitute a of reasoned enclosure and a of metaphysic theory historyand society. The almost incredible sparsity of Racines lexical means? amount to one tenth of a rheto they roughly Shakespeares?empower
  12. 12. "tragedy," reconsidered 11rie of understatement, the Tacitean litote, which edge tragedy to thecalculated threshold of silence. The tragic counterstatement to Christian of remission and salvation, as we hear it in the guarantees Jansenismof Pascal and Racine, looks to silence. In all these cases, loftiness, concentration of define a vision, a face-to-facecomplexity, speech tragicencounter with the than man" whose as in a "cast" of "greater "casting"characters, is, again, socially hierarchic. It will not be until Woyzeck that lower-class that articulates the terror and the of speech, inarticulacy, pity B?chner makes emotions so as to declare a world, a tragedy. prosaichuman circumstance, of God. Wherever literature to empty attemptsresuscitate high tragedy, in Ibsens Brand, in the orientalizing formalitiesof Yeats, in T. S. Eliots Murder in the Cathedral and Family Reunion, the instrument is that of verse. This is not how common men and womenexpress themselves. discourse characterizes the few: Senecas Tragic tarnen.pauci, aliqui Given these enabling constraints, absolute or high tragedy, as I havesought to define it, is rare. Moreover, consider the psychological cost, the taxation of Here is a statement of mans sensibility. performativeunhousedness in the world of an elemental, (apolis), non-negotiableenmity between being and existence. Here is an exposition of the belief that it is best not to be born. Absolute tragedy presents men and womenwhom the gods torture and kill "for their sport," for whom there is no intercession with compensatory justice (whereas Jobs flocks are doubledafter his trial). Negation is paramount, the "never" in Lear beingreiterated five times. Nothing but suffering and injustice comes ofnothing. In high tragedy, nullity devours as does a black hole. If thecruel visitation of life is inflicted on us, the logic of deliverance can onlybe that of suicide. How is one to endure this let alone proposition,derive from it aesthetic satisfaction? (Thinkers from Aristotle to Freudhave looked for an answer, to contravene Platos of trying prohibitiontragic drama. But their hypotheses remain tentative.) It is not surprising,therefore, that there are few absolute tragedies. What is surprising is thatthey have been composed and performed at all and that they containsome of the finest poetry and most acute philosophic, psychological insights accessible to the human mind. The Greek precedent is at once paradigmatic and opaque. Only onetrilogy, Aeschylus Oresteia, has come down to us. This makes anyevaluation of the intent and impact of all other tragedies hazardous. Wesimply do not know whether the missing plays would have mitigated oramended the presentment of catastrophe (indeed, did most trilogiesdramatize the same mythical ensemble?). In the absence, furthermore,of the satyr plays which served as epilogue to the tragic triad, we cannotjudge whether some parodistic counterpoint brought cathartic relief
  13. 13. 12 NEW LITERARY HISTORYand laughter. With what feelings and vision of things did the audience leave the theater of It is, in on a Dionysus? consequence, provisionalbasis that one can assign certain titles to the catalogue of absolute tragedy. Among these are Aeschylus Seven Against Thebes; Sophocles A/?x with itsmeditation on suicide and his Antigone with its descent into live burial (amotif which both Hegel and Kierkegaard regarded as emblematic oftragedy). Aristotle and Goethe took Euripides to be "the most tragic oftragedians," the most despairing. Euripides dwells on divine malignity,on the sadism which daemonic and godly forces unleash upon human when these are, rational moral estimate, not at fault orbeings by anyonly partly so. Hence the horrors perpetrated inMedea, inHecuba, in TheTrojan, in Hippolytus, in Heracles, and the possibly fragmented PhoenicianWomen. Hence, above all, the dark miracle, both theatrically andpoetically, of the Bacchae. Had we nothing but that play, perhaps the last in the Attic repertoire, we would know of absolute tragedy. Somewhateerily, the closing scene has survived only in mutilated form. Points ofdetail are blurred by lacunae. But the commanding motion is clear:confronted by human claims to justice, by human pleas for compassion,the incensed deity is bereft of argument. He retreats from one petulantresponse to the next. The atrocities, the injustice inflicted on the polisand its inhabitants are arbitrary, madly disproportionate. They emanatefrom inexplicable, blind destiny. The gods and the fabric of the worldlash out man and deride his claims to against rationality: "Long ago, myfather Zeus ordained these Or as a said to an things." guard reportedlyinmate dying of thirst in one of the death camps: "Why do you ask for areason? There is no here." why As Dr. Johnson reminds us, tragedy is not natural to Shakespeare. The weave of our world, its refusal to be one at onetragic-comic only thingtime, possessed his panoptic genius. His immensity is as pluralistic as ishuman experience itself. Shakespeare knew that there is a revel in thebasement or house at the moment when monarchs mur neighboringder, that a child is being born in the hour of Hamlets death. No lessthan Goethe, Shakespeare flinches from simplifications, from the monotone of the absolutely tragic. I have pointed to the political upbeat whichconcludes Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet. Even in Lear, the finale is enigmatically ambiguous. One need not impose a Christian gloss to detect thehints of redemption or repair. So far as I can make out, we have one text, almost only Shakespeareancertainly written in collaboration with Thomas Middle ton, which isuncompromisingly tragic: it is that erratic, volcanic bloc, Timon ofAthens.Here the universe itself is made pestilential; the sun breeds infection; is a curse out of diseased sex. Murder and aregeneration arising betrayal
  14. 14. "tragedy," reconsidered 13wasteful anticipations of suicide. Life is "a long sickness" cured solely bydeath. The decisive move comes at the close. Timon will see to it that his sea. Of all minds of which weepitaph ismade oblivion by the wash of thehave record, was the most saturated words, all Shakespeares by by Now Timon let end." Which,encompassing syntax. proclaims: "languagefor is to say, and to say this one time "let the cosmos Shakespeare, only, in mute it did in the Bacchae when human areend despair." As beings transformed into beasts. speechless Christianity made total tragedy implausible. Whatever the sorrow ortransient injustice, there is, as Milton put it, "no time for lamentationnow." The fall of man, pivotal to absolute tragedy, is a felix culpa, anecessary prologue to salvation. Goethes Faust II ends by celebratingthe Christian contract with hope, its in absolution. Goethes investmentis a reply to Marlowes Faustus, one of the very few tragedies to defyChristological optimism. Marlowes tremendous intuition that a God a God whom a freecapable of pardoning Faustus is not spirit can takeseriously, let alone worship, leads to hell and everlasting torment. Thereasoned blackness of Marlowes dramaturgy, its philosophic dialectic,are skates the profoundly non-Shakespearean. Shakespeare abyss;Marlowe enters it. As does God-denying Shelley in The Cenci, an indictment of religious hypocrisy, a mapping of gratuitous horror the ironic of whose end?Beatrices "Well, tis very well"?comes near paths to unbearable. Here, indeed, was "a to make some being light apparentof the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart." Two underwrote Racines construction of pure grim conjectures in what was, after all, an of The tragedy age post-Cartesian rationality.first was the doubt as to the comforts and Jansenist therapeutic promisesof orthodox Catholicism, the apprehension, voiced by Pascal, that "Christ would be in agony until the end of time." The second was the men and women, guilty, damned prior implacable hypothesis whereby to the coming of Christ into our world (a temporality which remainsunfathomably "unfair"), would suffer eternity in hell. This suppositionascribed to the personae of classic mythology their exceptional doom:Ph?dre bears witness: dans la nuit infernale. Fuyons Mais que dis-je? Mon p?re y tient lurne fatale; Le sort, dit-on, la mise en ses s?v?res mains: Minos aux enfers tous les pales humains. juge [Let us flee into hellish night. What am I saying? My father holds the fatal urn; Fate, say, has placed it in his severe hands; they Minos in Hades all humans.] judges pallid
  15. 15. 14 NEW LITERARY HISTORY It is an abstention from all outward violence which makes of B?r?nicewhat may well be the apex of high tragedy. In this miraculously both senses of the word?and adult drama, there is no "composed"?in thunder on the heath, there are no or supernatural apparitions bloody alarms. The is that of silence: Rome se tait. underlying pulse-beat LorsqueThe tranquil door to despair, to unendurable and irremediable hurt, isthat of valediction. Of the parting from each other and forever of twohuman beings in overwhelming love. The enforcement of this adieu?this word, of course, has "God" embedded in it?banishes life fromfurther meaning. Claudel will make us re-experience the immensity ofsuch farewell in Le Partage de Midi. One wonders whether it is the of understatement, in some kindred to codes arrogance ways Japaneseof ceremonial suffering, which has made English-language access toRacine so fitful. Even in Othello, there is a clown. Few absolute after Racine and B?chner. Or variations on tragedies themes, as in Pinters fierce readings of Lear in Homecoming, inpreviousONeills and Sartres reversions to Oresteia, or in Athol Fugards "Antigone" (The Island). The enormity of history after 1914 is self-evident. Historians put athundreds of millions the sum of those done to death in wars, political and racial famines, concentration camps. There slaughter, deportation, are no certain as to the tens of millions murdered by Leninism figures and their derivatives. between Stalinism, by Maoism, Anywhere thirty and fifty-thousand human beings were incinerated in one night in thefire-raids on Dresden, on Nuclear and Hamburg, Tokyo. bacteriological have been used. Across the torture is endemic andweapons planet,officially sanctioned. Arguably the threshold of our humanity, of thatwhich elevated us above the bestial, has been irreparably lowered. The arts have done their best to Painters and sporadic respond. have striven to remember via Picassos Guernica or sculptors effectively:Giacomettis figures of the living dead. Shostakovitchs quartets and bear witness. can cite Paul Celan, can symphonies grave Poetry prosepoint to Primo Levi and Chalamovs tales of the Kolyma death-world.With the discretion of the oblique, a number of novels have attempted to imagine the unimaginable, although none has matched Kafkasprevisions. Of available media, it is film, both fictive and documentary,which has come nearest. The graphic immediacy of the camera, its freeplay with time, the resources of montage and collage, relate to theotherwise inconceivable and as does no other executive form pulverized (cf. Shoah). Whether the tidal wave of sadistic pornography, of pedo now engulfs our visual media reflects a newphilic images, whichnumbing of sensibility, whether it is the voyeuristic satyr play after the "killing fields," is an unnerving question. What Quine would call
  16. 16. "tragedy," reconsidered 15"blameless intuition" does suggest that this is so. But what would beconclusive evidence? It is virtually indecent to envisage high tragedy engaging recent andcurrent events as Greek the Persian wars or the tragedy engagedmassacre at Miletus. We distrust the truths of eloquence. Who nowshares T. S. Eliots conviction that verse drama is the natural, melancholy legitimate format of conflict and concentrated sensibility? The aesthet ics of art, the semen on the bedsheet, the creed of the conceptual of Merz or the ready-made?reflecting as they do thehappening,collapse of agreed values and developing the parodistic genius ofSurrealism?are antithetical to high tragedy. Our immediacies are thoseof derision, of black farce, of the multimedia circus. At some momentsof political social crisis, tragedy in its classical mask still provides ashorthand: as the Trojan Women did during the Vietnam war, as theBacchae served during the turmoil of the drug-culture and flowerchildren. But these are loans from the museum. Our our sense, as ever but immanent and anguish, deep psycholo of a "otherness" in the world, of our togized, threatening exposure irrational, malevolent misfortune, will persist. But it will find new forms as have, out of out ofexpressive growing, they already Woyzeck,Godot and the theater of the absurd. Desiderated: an adequate theory of of the riddles of to man, in the merriment ofcomedy, grief, singularTwelfth Night or of Mozarts Cos? fan tutte. There the finales are hintstowards such an understanding at the midnight hour of Platos Symposium. As is, I see not persuasive grounds on which to retract the case put inThe Death of Tragedy, 1961 (now, if Imay be forgiven for saying so, in its seventeenth language). University of Cambridge