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Monday, February 03, 2003

Book Reviews

Tragedy, Politically

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic by Terry Eagleton. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, xvii and 328 pages, $59.95.

If one should propose to assemble a small shelf of recent books that consider, in various ways, the intersection of philosophy and tragedy, such a collection might profitably include Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy (1968), Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness (revised edition 2001), and Philosophy and Tragedy edited by Miguel de Beistegui and Simon Sparks (2000). To this list, one may certainly now add Terry Eagleton’s new book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic. Those who relish Eagleton’s perceptive investigations and piquant style will not be disappointed; he is, on both counts, in rare form here. The first sentence of the book — “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject these days, which is one good reason for writing about it” — is perhaps more clever than strictly true: in my field alone (classics), the articles and books produced annually on tragedy, and (for that matter) just on Greek tragedy, are almost more numerous than even specialists can keep track of. But Eagleton’s second sentence — “There is an ontological depth and high seriousness about the genre which grates on the postmodern sensibility, with its unbearable lightness of being” — is decidedly true. As Eagleton goes on to explain, it becomes clear that he is, understandably enough, thinking primarily here of the political and esthetic predilections of academics in the modern literatures, cultural studies, and so forth. Indeed, he defines his work as a political study of tragedy (p. x). He devotes a substantial portion of his introduction to an examination of the shortcomings of historicism as a critical approach, and to distancing his own project from it.

Chapters 1-3 survey the terrain of tragic theory (and, to a certain extent, practice) in thematic rather than chronological fashion. Eagleton begins his study in a manner that would not have seemed odd to Plato, namely, the search for a definition of the phenomenon under examination. As soon as this project is initiated, the questions begin to swarm like mosquitoes. How does “tragic” differ from “very sad” (or even “very very sad”)? Why is it so difficult to find any synonym for “tragic”? How do educated and uneducated intuitions of the meaning of “tragedy” differ? What are the connections between sorrow, loss, and valuation? Can an event (or story) be sad but not moving? What is the relationship of tragedy to sublimity? And, most central for the project of definition, can the category of “the tragic” be said to have an essence?

As I have already mentioned, Eagleton’s engaging and sometimes inflammatory style is indulged to the fullest extent in this book. If Schadenfreude is your game, there is something to suit every taste here: Eagleton is an equal-opportunity spanker, and the drubbings begin right away in the first chapter, administered with equal aplomb throughout the text to just about everyone who has published an opinion about the tragic (and some who have not): Paul Ricoeur, C. S. Lewis, William Butler Yeats, Miguel de Unamuno, John Jones, R. P. Draper, Eric Dodds, Jonathan Lear, Leo Aylen, Aristotle (yes, that Aristotle), A. C. Bradley, H. D. F. Kitto, F. L. Lucas, Martha Nussbaum, George Bernard Shaw, Michel Foucault, and — I am not making this up — Jesus. (Historical Christianity is itself severely excoriated on p. xvii, although Eagleton stresses that religion is a crucial aspect of the tragic.)

In the first chapter, “A Theory in Ruins,” Eagleton does a remarkable job of surveying the critical landscape. In the course of these pages, we get a sense of the major issues at stake in attempting to define tragedy: sad events; a serious, non-trivializing approach; philosophical interest; anagnorisis or “recognition” of some sort; spiritual conflict; suffering; peripeteia or “reversal of fortune”; human failure leading to disaster; human freedom; destiny; death or ruin. Eagleton wants to distinguish three meanings (or levels) of tragedy: works of art, real-life events, and world-views or structures of feeling (p. 9). Furthermore, he makes the provocative assertion that, for most people today, “tragedy means an actual occurrence, not a work of art” (p. 14). All of this, if true, goes a long way toward explaining why theorists find it so difficult to agree on a simple definition of the tragic.

Chapter 2, “The Value of Agony,” explores tragedy’s connection with human suffering, and the curious questions — posed at least since Plato — of how and why we find esthetic pleasure in tragedy as art-form. From here, of course, it is only a short step to the question of what the “purpose” of tragic art is (Aristotle would call this its telos or “final cause”), and thence to the vexed question of “catharsis.” Just what do we, the audience, “get” out of reading or watching tragedy? What, if anything, does it tell us about the world around us? What good is it supposed to afford us, in terms of pleasure and/or edification? These are some of the questions that motivate Eagleton’s second chapter, which ends (in a surprising twist) by focusing all of these implications on Marxism and Christianity, and finding them both “considerably more sombre than liberal idealism” (p. 40).

In Chapter 3, “From Hegel to Beckett,” Eagleton continues to explore the development of the tragic idea. As in the previous chapters, he does not distinguish categorically between what some might call “creative” and “scholarly” works, and his promiscuous approach is basically successful. Hegel’s views have been tremendously influential on modern conceptions of the tragic, of course, and are the more interesting for us in that he privileges classical Greek models — above all the Antigone — in his formulation of a paradigm. Eagleton elaborates the paradox that, for Hegel, while “philosophy itself is the result of a tragic condition,” tragic art is “supremely affirmative” (p. 42). Eagleton discusses a Hegelian lineage, descending to the likes of T. S. Eliot, for whom “tragedy represents a privileged mode of cognition, a spiritual experience reserved for the metaphysically minded few” (p. 46). Hegel and Nietzsche, according to Eagleton, are polar opposites: the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment philosophers of tragedy, respectively. Eagleton may find fault with Nietzsche, whose slap on the wrist (one cannot really call it a spanking) comes on p. 57, but when he does, it is with Nietzsche’s formulation of the notion of “humanity,” not tragedy as such. Indeed Eagleton dwells at unusual length on Nietzsche’s famous dyad of the Dionysiac and Apollonian, giving its implications one of the most eloquent summaries I have ever seen (pp. 55-56), not excluding that of Nietzsche himself. It is at times like this, when Eagleton really flexes his muscles, that we get a sense of how deeply he has thought about these ideas.

Chapter 4 focuses on a crucial element of tragedy, the tragic character or “hero.” Both Aristotle and his twentieth-century epigone, Elder Olson, come in for spankings here, and Eagleton discusses the topic we would, given his politics, inevitably expect him to address: The relation between heroic stature (if we find it necessary even to think in such terms) and socioeconomic class? Just as inevitably, Death of a Salesman comes under discussion at this point.

Chapter 5 turns to an equally significant (and, if anything, even more puzzling) nexus of questions: Is there such a thing as fate, especially the “tragic fate” that leads the tragic figure to disaster or downfall? If so — if we can properly refer to it as “fate” or “destiny” — then does it really make sense to speak of human will or volition as an authentic, unpredetermined internal motivation? This series of troublesome questions continues: Is there such a thing as a divine power or entity that we might term “God”? If so, is this entity originary and omnipotent, and thus volitionally connected to what we call “fate”? (The latter word actually comes from the Latin fatum, i.e., “what is spoken” or decreed — presumably by some divine power[s].) Once all these issues are raised, the penny is ready to drop: What are we to make of all the bad things that happen to good people?

The philosophical quandaries attendant upon this nexus of questions were already a pressing issue to the ancient Greeks — one reason, perhaps, that their playwrights felt the powerful impulse to compose tragedies. Sophocles, for example, writes in his Antigone:

The power of fate is a wonder,
dark, terrible wonder —
neither wealth nor armies
towered walls nor ships
black hulls lashed by the salt
can save us from that force.
(951-954, translated by Robert Fagles)

And yet Antigone, like her father Oedipus before her, must suffer the consequences of her decisions and actions, precisely as if she had made real decisions of her own will, and acted accordingly. Despite the attempts of many, especially certain theologians, to tip the scales in one direction or the other, privileging either free will or destiny, what makes this quandary so insoluble — and so delicious — is the very fact that most of us do feel the cogency of both sides of the debate. It is frequently difficult to escape the feeling that this or that event was ordained by the stars, especially when it entails extraordinary joy or woe. But we also bridle at any insinuation that we are not sovereign (or at least autonomous) agents who make genuine choices and authentically initiate our own actions. It is the seesaw of this paradox that provides the fascination of such plays as Oedipus Tyrannus.

Of course, once one enters into this dialogue, questions only proliferate. If there is a divine entity in the universe, one that can properly be termed omnipotent, can we sensibly think of it as just? A fundamental difference between the tragedian and the philosopher is that the former works in a mimetic or narrative (rather than discursive) medium. A Rousseau or a Schopenhauer is in the business of giving answers, with which we may immediately or eventually disagree; a Euripides or a Flaubert is, instead, in the business of asking questions, which their play or novel may well leave unanswered, but which will provoke, stimulate, and move us, often long after we put the book down or leave the theater. We may feel constrained to form a response to their questions — in which case we become, in small measure at least, theorists ourselves — or we may simply shudder with pity and fear, relishing the experience, taking pleasure in our very sorrow (as Plato observed in Philebus 48a). But it is the very posing of the questions that places a tragedy so vitally in dialogue with its reader/audience.

Chapter 6, “Pity, Fear and Pleasure,” attempts to deal in 24 pages with a complex matter on which many thousands of pages have already been written: What is the emotional experience of the tragic audience? Is it pleasurable; if so, how and why? Is this pleasure also good; if so, in what way? Obviously in such small scope, Eagleton is unable to do much more than mark the compass points for us and express his own opinions. The casual reader should be warned that the situation is far more complicated than Eagleton might seem to suggest. This imbroglio is one of the most enduring (and endlessly entertaining) in all of esthetic theory, and to have raised it in the first place is one of the major achievements of Greek thought. Indeed, the writings of Plato and Aristotle-two of the earliest scrappers in this fray-have been as obsessively interrogated on this issue as any fictional work, and now may justly be considered primary texts. What we do not see in Eagleton’s chapter is that the spectrum of interpretations for each of these philosophers is just as broad as for Sophocles or Shakespeare. With these caveats, however, the chapter is extraordinarily useful for the dazzling handfuls of ideas that are scattered on each page. Once again, it is clear that Eagleton is not shy about giving a hard look at hard questions, such as “What is pity?”

Chapter 7, “Tragedy and the Novel,” focuses explicitly on an issue that was already implicit in previous chapters-namely, the resurfacing of the tragic in a genre other than the drama in which it was originally manifested. Again, as one might have forecast, the triumph of the novel over classical tragedy-or the fusion of the two-moves in parallel with the evolution of Western class structure, and is organically linked by Eagleton to the vicissitudes of the middle class. There are perceptive pages here on Bakhtin, George Bernard Shaw, Joyce, Clarissa, and Franco Moretti.

Eagleton would not be Eagleton if he did not provide Chapter 8, “Tragedy and Modernity,” which passes via Pascal, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and Sade to Nietzsche, Horkheimer and Adorno, Sartre, Isaiah Berlin, and Jacques Lacan. A fair amount of this chapter will be opaque to those unfamiliar with late-twentieth-century discussions of modernity and post-modernity, the province preeminently of literary theorists and continental philosophers, but there are insightful comments on the character and choices of Antigone, on Chekhov’s plays, and on Jude the Obscure.

While the groundwork is laid in Chapter 8, Eagleton waits until Chapter 9, “Demons,” to devote his full attention to Marxist thought, which he declares is the only contemporary theory to insist “that modernity has been a revolutionary advance in human welfare, and, with equal passion, that it has been one long nightmare of butchery and exploitation” (p. 241). Appropriately to the title, this is a Faustian chapter, looking at both Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s versions of the Faust legend for what they can tell us about modernism, which for Eagleton is an “inhuman” form; because, Eagleton says, it is “extremist, fetishizing technique, obsessive about correspondences, cruelly disciplined and empty of interiority,” the result is that “art, that acme of the humane, comes to have an unnervingly demonic quality about it” (p. 252). From here, Eagleton moves provocatively to an interrogation of what he calls “autotelic” evil, evil that has its cause and goal in itself. Could it be, for example, that the Holocaust was (because autotelic) fundamentally meaningless, even in its motivations? In the course of this ambitious chapter, Eagleton will attempt to define hell, the demonic, and evil itself. The latter, for Eagleton, finds its specular opposite in Creation, which he sees as equally autotelic. Likewise, Eagleton opposes the demonic to the angelic; this would seem obvious and unsurprising were he not to go on to identify both angelic and demonic camps of academic leftism (Raymond Williams and Habermas in the former, Foucault and Derrida in the latter) — and to pronounce both deficient.

Eagleton reserves for his final chapter a topic with which a more conventional writer might have commenced the book: the origins of tragedy in ancient Greece. He sets aside etiologies such as those of the Cambridge Ritualists in order to focus on the fascinating figure of the scapegoat, a topic of interest not only to Eric Dodds but also to French theorists such as Derrida and René Girard. Eagleton’s observation that Oedipus and Antigone are scapegoat figures is not novel, but his comments on the phenomenon are acute. His identification of Christ as “one of many tragic scapegoats thrust beyond the city and sacrificially dismembered, reduced to a piece of butcher’s meat in a savage parody of kingship” (p. 283), has likewise been made before now, although neither Girard nor any other scholar known to me expresses the notion in language quite as pungent as Eagleton goes on to use.

An all-round spanking is awarded to postmodernism generally, which (Eagleton opines) represses the “difficult duality” between nature and culture. “You must not ethicize, politicize and historicize to the point where you forget about humanity’s roots in a recalcitrant otherness which we share with stoats and asteroids” (p. 287). This doubleness is epitomized by the scapegoat, but is also reminiscent of the binocular vision that Eagleton earlier attributed to Marxist theory, and now attributes to the Oresteia of Aeschylus, expressed above all in the “incorporation of the holy, horrible Furies into the democratic settlement” (p. 287).

The final spanking in the book is reserved for those whose academic theories are disengaged from a real politics: “What may work in philosophy departments proves rather less persuasive when Western capitalism is asked why it is busy poisoning the planet, breeding poverty and preparing once more for nuclear showdown” (p. 296). One need not sympathize with Eagleton’s (in this book largely unargued) Marxist ideals to derive tremendous benefit from his vigorous and encyclopedic sweep of the field of tragic theory, or his insights into some of the great literary works from antiquity to the present.

For a classicist-indeed for anyone to whom the Greek heritage is important-the idea of the tragic cannot fail to loom large. As Eagleton himself observes, “…there is no word for tragedy in any language other than ancient Greek” (p. 13), which should point up the significance of the Hellenic tradition here. Eagleton is perhaps a bit breezier than a classical scholar would be about the fact that, historically, the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides pretty much define the category for us. In view of that, their works might reasonably be expected to play a decisive role in sketching the contours of the genre.

What I mean to say is that while drama in a general sense is an ancient and worldwide phenomenon, without these Athenian dramatists and the audiences for whom they wrote, we would simply not have the concept of the tragic as such. In view of that, it does not seem too extreme to suggest that their extant plays and fragments, along with the fragments of other tragedians of the period, plus whatever other information we can glean from ancient verbal and visual sources, be definitive of the genre of “tragedy,” with “the tragic” reasonably identified as whatever is the most fundamental characteristic thereof. (It is probably no coincidence that this idea comes not from Eagleton, who is not a classicist, but from me, who am one.) One result of such a stipulative definition would be to rehabilitate substantially the stature of Aristotle as testimony to the nature of the genre; another would be that we would be much slower and more cautious about including some of Eagleton’s post-classical fictional examples. The whole question of whether a novel or a short story can be considered an example of tragedy might be worth examining more cautiously and extensively.

But this is to sketch plans for the book that a classicist might write on the idea of the tragic, not to castigate or rewrite the book that Eagleton has in fact written. Two things are certain: first, that anyone working on this topic from now on will ignore Eagleton’s book at his or her peril; and second, that they will have to produce an extraordinary work indeed to be half as lively, erudite, sophisticated, or useful as Sweet Violence. This is a book that I expect to dip into again and again.

John T. Kirby is professor of classics and comparative literature at Purdue University.
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