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Review of “Nietzsche and Tragedy” – Porter

pages 68-87 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

James I. Porter is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His research areas are in literature, aesthetics, and intellectual history. He is the author of Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2000) and The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy (2000), and editor of Construction of the Classical Body (1999) and Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (2006). His book, The Origins of Aesthetic Inquiry in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation and Experience is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. His next projects include a study of the idea of Homer from antiquity to the present and another on ancient literary aesthetics after Aristotle.

I’ve Met Porter (a brief brush with fame)!

This is a fun review to write. I met Porter in 2004 when touring prospective grad schools. At that time, he was at the University of Michigan. We had a chance to chat at length. Not only is Porter a Nietzsche scholar, he also studies the reception of the Classics, a fascinating newer field that looks at how the idea of the classical world is constantly being reshaped with each passing generation.

Porter talks thoughtfully. There’re pregnant pauses in the conversation when he mulls responses over before speaking. He also has a scholarly sense of humour. When I mentioned I had also read Dennis J. Schmidt’s On Germans and Other Greeks (another book on reception studies), he had a good chuckle. They must have a sort of scholarly disagreement. He never told me what exactly his thoughts were about Schmidt’s book. From his chuckle, I think he was expecting that I would know just from reading it. I didn’t though. I wished I had asked him, as this question has lingered in my mind for a surprisingly long time.

In 2002 I read Porter’s provocatively titled Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (not the subject of this review). Porter talks about how, in Nietzsche’s time, philology–or Classics as it’s called today–was at a crossroads. Nietzsche wanted philology to be more speculative. His rival, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, wanted philology to be more concrete, more scientific. They were both young guns at this time and they both would later regret their childish spat. During their spat, Wilamowitz wrote a pamphlet ridiculing Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, by calling it Zukunftsphilologie! (the philology of the future!), a sarcastic allusion to Richard Wagner’s concept Zukunftsmusik (the music of the future). Nietzsche’s champion Erwin Rohde defended Nietzsche by writing a pamphlet against Wilamowitz and deriding Wilamowitz’ tactics as Afterphilologie (German “after” also refers to “the rear,” so this could be translated into something like “asshole-philology”). Nietzsche also got in on it, referring to Wilamowitz as “Wilamops” or “moppish-Wilamowitz.” Ah, if only the academics of today could be so lively!

Little did they know that Wilamowitz would go on to become the most recognized classicist in the 19th and perhaps 20th century, and Nietzsche would go on to become a philosopher and cultural icon. Later, Wilamowitz would concede that he hadn’t quite grasped the scale at which Nietzsche was trying to operate: the ancient world to Nietzsche wasn’t an end in and of itself, but a springboard into the larger cultural and aesthetic questions of their day. To Wilamowitz, Classics was and end in and of itself that could be re-experienced and mentally recreated, given sufficient learning and understanding.

Nietzsche grounded his standpoint by arguing that the essence of the classical world could never be recaptured once its time was past. Classics can only mean to moderns what modernity sees. There was never any “classical world.” It’s like Heraclitus’ stream: once it flows by it’s never the same. In this way, our views of classical antiquity shift with every age and are subjective. Because the interpretation of antiquity shifts, we can gauge the shifting tides of modernity by looking at how our reception of the classical world differs from age to age, from how the Renaissance saw it to how the German idealists saw it and so on. There is only interpretation, and, since there is only interpretation, you might as well make speculative interpretations that encompass culture, religion, and aesthetics. Modernity can compare itself to any other age by comparing its interpretation of the classical world against the interpretations of other ages. To ask a question such as: “What would it have felt like to be a Greek?” or “What did a Roman feel when worshipping the gods?” is nonsensical. The study of the Classics creates an illusion that we can understand the ancients when their way of thinking is really, on a second examination, completely alien to ours.

Wilamowitz, on the other hand, took a more objective view of the classical world. To him, the classical world existed, and could be recreated by the science of philology. I think this is the pun in the title of Schmidt’s book: On Germans and Other Greeks. The pun is that the German professors, with their science of philology, could be even more Greek than the ancient Greeks. To Wilamowitz, a classicist could be more Greek than the ancient Greeks, as the classicist would be able to understand where their prayers originated, would understand the allusions in the words, would grasp the symbolic meanings of the ritual, and so on.

To Wilamowitz, it was a matter of being familiar enough with the texts to be able to think and feel as the ancient Greeks did. And yes, it was sort of a science. Where the text was corrupt or missing, the task of the philologist would be to supply a conjecture. Since they were digging up new papyri all the time, these conjectures would be testable, like hypotheses. If you got the conjecture right, it was proof that philology was working, that you had a “feel” or “grasp” of the past. But this was hard work and involved copious amounts of learning which all had to be properly documented. So, when Wilamowitz saw Nietzsche making sweeping generalizations, saying that metaphysical powers represented by Apollo and Dionysus were duking it out on the stage of tragedy (a fact not attested anywhere except in Nietzsche), he naturally freaked out.

If my memory serves me, I seem to remember that despite his colourful and outlandish claims, Nietzsche was a pretty good philologist in the traditional sense as well. As part of their spat, Wilamowitz had attacked one of Nietzsche’s proposed textual conjectures as being “crazy and impossible.” Years later, I think a papyrus surfaced which proved Nietzsche to be correct. But enough of this digression, you’re here to read about Porter’s article “Nietzsche and Tragedy” in Rebecca Bushnell’s volume A Companion to Tragedy.

“Nietzsche and Tragedy”

Porter begins his essay on a point that’s so obvious that it’s never remembered: it was Nietzsche that elevated the art form of tragedy into the utmost of human achievements. Nietzsche turned tragedy into a benchmark to judge cultures, mentalities, and historical patterns. There could be tragic cultures (nineteenth century Europe), tragic metaphysics (Dionysus versus Apollo), tragic ages (the Presocratics), and the tragic vision (a way of looking at the world). Tragedy was everywhere, and to understand contemporary culture and existence, one had to measure its understanding of tragedy–the highest art form possible–against the classical past:

Tragedy was no longer a dry article of history but a sign of possibilities hitherto untapped. It was a sign and symbol of life . . . Tragedy for Nietzsche is the single pivot around which antiquity, indeed world history, turns.

Nietzsche’s elevation of tragedy into the highest of arts inspired thinkers such as Miguel de Unamuno, Karl Jaspers, J.G. Frazer (The Golden Bough), and Raymond Williams to explore the meaning of tragedy.

Unfortunately, writes Porter, Nietzsche refers so frequently to “tragedy” and “the tragic” in The Birth of Tragedy and his later writings that it is difficult for critics to construct a unified and contradiction free view of what Nietzsche meant by these terms:

Nietzsche bequeathed to posterity not a clear view of tragedy but a series of urgent problems and questions: Did the Greeks experience a tragic age? Can modernity experience tragedy again and attain the vanished heights of the classical period? Is there such a thing as a tragic view of the world, and is that view valid today? Is Nietzsche himself possibly a tragic thinker?

The Birth of Tragedy

The traditional way of looking at The Birth of Tragedy, writes Porter, is that it occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between Nietzsche’s career as a professor of Classics and his later task as a cultural philosopher. As a series of letters between him and Rhode attest, with Birth Nietzsche was breaking free:

When one classical scholar later asked him for a bit of “proof, just a single piece of evidence, that in reality the strange images on the skene [stage] were mirrored back from the magical dream of the ecstatic Dionysian chorus,” Nietzsche soberly replied, as he only could, “Just how, then, should the evidence approximately read? . . . Now the honorable reader demands that the whole problem should be disposed of with an attestation, probably out of the mouth of Apollo himself: or would a passage from Athenaeus do just as well?”

Porter finds, however, that the traditional way of looking at Birth may be misguided. Nietzsche was never interested in presenting abstract philosophical truths, but rather was interested in illuminating the all-too-human nature of humanity. “What else is man” questions Nietzsche, if not the collection of internal dissonances? In this light, Birth fits in with the rest of Nietzsche’s writings both before and after 1872 (the year it appeared): it is an exploration of the gap in our natures. We are at one and the same time both Apollo and Dionysus.

At all times in Nietzsche’s career, he would point out mankind’s marvelous and criticizable dissonances. This dissonance, writes Porter, lies at the heart of the antagonistic pair of gods, Dionysus and Apollo:

At the heart of The Birth of Tragedy lies the opposition between the two Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus, who in turn stand for two antagonistic aesthetic principles that are nonetheless complementary and equally vital to the production of the highest art. Apollo and his abstraction the Apollonian represent the realm of clear and luminous appearances, plastic images, dreams, harmless deception, and traits that are typically Hellenic and classical, at least to the modern imagination (simplicity, harmony, cheerfulness, tranquility, and so on), while Dionysus and the Dionysian represent hidden metaphysical depths, disturbing realities, intoxication, and traits that are typically exotic and unclassical (ecstasy, disorderliness, dance, orgy). The history of Greek art is the history of the relation between these two principles.

The antagonism between Apollo and Dionysus symbolizes the contradiction or dissonance in the human experience, and by pointing out the contradiction of a bifurcated reality, Nietzsche begins his exploration of the paradoxes in culture, religion, politics, and life that he called the “all-too-human.” What is interesting is that in having Apollo and Dionysus symbolize different aspects of the human experience, Nietzsche projects human values onto the gods. That is, to me, a signal feature of Hellenic theodicy: the gods are very much like us. And, in being like us, they raise the human bar: the spark of the gods is within us–the Greek gods were made in our image. This is the sort of theodicy I like. It is human. The monotheist religions have it backwards when they said that man is made in God’s image.

Tragedy is Nothing without the Spectator

While Nietzsche’s thesis that the Golden Age of tragedy under Aeschylus and Sophocles degenerated under Euripides due to the rise of dialectic of Socratic philosophy owed much to the German school of thought, Nietzsche did break away from his predecessors by viewing tragedy from the perspective of the audience:

Consider how membership in the satyr chorus of Dionysian revelers, the original form of tragedy and “the dramatic proto-phenomenon,” involves a complex chain of assignments: “the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and as a satyr, in turn, he sees the god.”

Tragedy involves a doubling and trebling of consciousness. The individual audience member, viewing the chorus, sees himself as a member of the chorus. And the chorus member, seeing the action on the stage, sees the vision of god. In this doubling and trebling of consciousness, the veil of reality is lifted away. Revelation occurs when the audience witnesses god on the stage. This revelation is the aesthetic phenomenon of tragedy, and this aesthetic phenomenon of tragedy was very different than how Nietzsche’s predecessors, the German idealists, described tragedy.

Nietzsche’s predecessors in the German idealists tradition–Schelling, Hegel, Vischer, and Schopenhauer–came up with essentializing theories of tragedy, writes Porter. Essentializing means they distil the tragic into an objective event. No audience or observer is required. For example, Schelling essentializes tragedy by saying: “The essence of tragedy is an actual conflict between the freedom of the subject and objective necessity.” The idealists reduce tragedy to an archetype from which all tragedies spring. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the opposite. The tragic experience is for the spectator to enter into the consciousness of the chorus to see god revealed on stage. Tragedy is revelation.

Problems with Nietzsche’s “Tragic Age”

Tragedy and the promise of a tragic age recurs throughout Nietzsche’s writings from his debut work The Birth of Tragedy to his ultimate work Ecce Homo (“behold the man,” the words with which Pontius Pilate presents Christ crowned with thorns to a hostile crowd):

I promise a tragic age: the supreme art in the affirmation of life, tragedy, will be reborn when mankind has behind it the consciousness of the harshest but most necessary wars without suffering from it. (from Ecce Homo)

But, Porter asks, what does Nietzsche mean by a coming tragic age? And what does this tragic age have to do with tragedy? For Nietzsche, the tragic age of the Greeks was in the sixth century, in the times of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Pythagoras, a full century before Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. To add to this confusion, sometimes Nietzsche speaks in his own day of a coming tragic age and sometimes of living in a tragic age.

To make matters worse, sometimes Nietzsche also speaks of a coming comic age which will wipe out the tragic mood. Laughter is the other face of Dionysus, who is the patron god of both comedy and tragedy:

For the present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself. For the present, we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions.

And the final problem with Nietzsche is that it’s not entirely clear what “the tragic” actually is. Is it that all meaning is in vain? Or is it that the hero has to die to affirm life in a moment of “regenerative extinction,” as Porter puts it? Or is it the mood that happens when the Dionysian man exults in the destruction of meaning? Nietzsche, according to Porter, shifts between these definitions in his long exploration of tragedy between his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, and his last, Ecce Homo.

Risk Theatre in Relation to Nietzsche’s Theory of Tragedy

When I was sixteen, I drank Nietzsche’s Kool-Aid. After reading The Birth of Tragedy, I learned and believed that tragedy was the highest human achievement (“the greatest show on earth,” as I would later call it). The highest human labour was to write a theory of tragedy. Nietzsche’s style convinced me–I had little idea what satyrs and choruses were then. My only encounter with tragedy was through English class, and tragedy up to that point had appeared to be far from the highest human achievement. But Nietzsche talked about tragedy with such conviction, I was convinced. It’s like when you’re a kid and all you’ve heard is top 40 radio and then one day someone gives you a tape of Pink Floyd The Wall and says, “Listen to this, it will blow your mind.”

Nietzsche is a great stylist, the greatest in my mind. He also considered himself, along with the German poet Heinrich Heine, the greatest German stylists. He was never one to be humble: “the greatness of his task in the face of the smallness of man,” he would write. Urgency, a call to arms, psychological depth, seeming effortlessness when discussing the most profound topics, ideas raining down, intellectual lucidity, hyperbole in the extreme, irreverence for convention, and the ability to compact massive ideas into most compact forms (he would have been great on Twitter): these are the hallmarks of the Nietzsche style. Take this passage. Who, honestly, can write like this?–

The psychology of the orgy as an overflowing feeling of life and energy within which even pain acts as a stimulus provided me with the key to the concept of the tragic feeling, which was misunderstood as much by Aristotle as it was by our pessimists . . . Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types–that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet . . . And with that I again return to the place from which I set out–the Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values: with that I again plant myself in the soil out of which I draw all that I will and can–I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus–I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence. (from Twilight of the Idols)

For comparison, here’s my favourite “purple passage” (so-called because it was expensive to make purple dye in the ancient world–tens of thousands of shells were required for one garment) from The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy:

Beneath tragedy’s surface simplicity–the rueful choruses, ghosts clamouring for revenge, and choleric tyrants–lies its deep structure, which, although hidden from plain sight, nevertheless leaves telltale signs. Just as lifeguards can infer the presence of an undertow by watching swimmers being swept out to sea, theatregoers who watch heroes being swept out into the void–heroes who enjoyed every advantage–can infer that, beneath tragedy’s surface simplicity lies a great dark power inimical to heroes’ best-laid plans which contrives that, the least expected outcome happens every time, whether it be a thousand to one or a million to one against.

Nietzsche is ever-present in his passage. He is correcting: he has to address the problem that was “misunderstood by Aristotle.” He is coming out with new terms, his thoughts are so radical: “that is what I called Dionysian.” He exists and with grave purpose: “I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.” In my passage, I am ever-distant. The only trace of my personality is in the strange image of the inattentive lifeguard, or the lifeguard too much in awe of watching the great dark inimical power to pay attention to the swimmer-heroes. Nietzsche’s presence gives him power. Standing in his pulpit, he looms over the reader. My lack of presence takes away from the urgency of my argument.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to emulate Nietzsche’s style. Truth be told, it’s not easy to do without sounding pretentious or over-the-top or just plain silly. And you have to have the inner conviction to do it. For Nietzsche, writing is a declaration of war. With every word, he’s fighting the world, revaluating all values. I too believe I am declaring revolution with risk theatre. It is an excellent idea, worth fighting for, worth going all-in on. If I hadn’t of come up with the idea, someone else would have. Today, risk is in the air. But perhaps it was a question of self-esteem. I lacked the perfect belief in myself; there was a gap in my nature that prevented me from climbing up the lofty heights of the pulpit. I hid the “I” because I believed that I was the weakest link in the argument. I thought: “If people didn’t know that I wrote it, they would take it up. But if they didn’t know it was me, they would believe my words.” In all honesty, who will read my book?  The classicists won’t read it because it talks too much about creative writing. The playwrights won’t read it because the work contains too much philosophy. And the philosophers won’t read it because it’s a playwriting book. And all artists will hate it because it speaks to art in the language of economics: risk, opportunity cost, chance, and probability.

But I wrote it anyway. My book solves for myself some of my questions on Nietzsche’s view of tragedy, which as Porter notes, are all over the place. Take Nietzsche’s view of tragedy being the most life-affirming of arts, quoted above: “Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types–that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet.” I had often puzzled over how tragedy could affirm life. The risk theatre model comes up with a clear and succinct mechanism to demonstrate how tragedy affirms life. In doing so, my book follows Nietzsche and goes beyond Nietzsche, jenseits von Nietzsche, to use one of my favourite German prepositions.

Risk theatre argues that heroes make wagers. In a wager, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. In Doctor Faustus, Faustus stakes his soul for world domination. Notice, because it’s a wager, you can change things up. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson stakes his soul to play guitar. Vivaldi, the red priest, stakes his soul to play the fiddle. Because you can formulate the wager however you like, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human qualities, values, and attributes. Tragedy affirms life because the wager demonstrates how much life is worth. If you make a crappy bet, your soul is worth a mere four seasons. But if you make the right bet, your soul if worth the entire cosmos. In this way, risk theatre provides a mechanism by which tragedy affirms life and revaluates all values. Tragedy affirms life and works the revaluation of all values through the hero’s wager. My theory of risk theatre validates Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche, tragedy was revelation. It allowed you to see behind the “dissonance that is man.” It allowed you to see the unification of Dionysus and Apollo. There is a strong metaphysical bent to The Birth of Tragedy: gods, illusions, and the subconscious lurk behind every word. Despite my enormous debt to Nietzsche, risk theatre hardly contains any metaphysics. What is more, risk theatre is closer to the German idealists in that it is an essentializing theory of tragedy. Risk theatre posits that each dramatic act is a gambling act. In the gambling act, there is a choice. To attain the object of desire, the hero must ante up something of equal worth. To get the Scottish crown, Macbeth must stake the milk of human kindness. Or, in other words, to get what one wants, one must give up the next best thing. This is called opportunity cost, and opportunity cost is what risk theatre dramatizes. Risk theatre is essentializing in that it posits that there is one Ur-drama, one dramatic archetype behind all tragedy. All subsequent dramas are images of the original gambling act.

Because risk theatre sees opportunity cost at the heart of the wager, if there’s any deeper meaning to risk theatre, it’s that there’s no free lunch. Opportunity cost, free lunch, low-probability, high-consequence events, and even the term risk itself are not philosophy or art terms but rather economics terms. Risk theatre combines art and economics. Risk theatre is a model of art based on economics. It is a daring combination. And this is something too that I learned from Nietzsche. He was the one who dared to break down all Hellenic art into Dionysian and Apollonian forms. If what he did seems tame, it’s only because over a century has passed. Perhaps in the future, risk and opportunity cost will too be seen as standard run-of-the-mill art terms. Nothing that is worthwhile in life, business, and art is achieved without sacrifice. I could have stayed away from the economics world when analyzing tragedy and stayed within the box of art. But what fun would that have been? And if I had come up with something new, it would have been more a step than a leap. But by thinking outside the box, risk theatre achieves a jump. I am ridiculed for my ideas. But that is the cost of thinking outside the box. They will hate. Let them hate.

Before signing off, one last comment about comedy and tragedy. Nietzsche argued that there were comic and tragic ages. Sometimes he spoke of a coming tragic age, one in which life would be affirmed in the fullest. But sometimes he would say that he lives in a tragic age, an age full of religion and morality. To Nietzsche, both tragedy and comedy were Dionysian arts. While risk theatre lacks metaphysical roots, it likewise finds that both tragedy and comedy revolve around a common centre: risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. The hero’s bet is good. 99 times out of a 100 it should succeed. But an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event derails the hero’s best-laid plans. Comedy, on the other hand, dramatizes upside risk. The hero’s bet is poor. 99 times out of a 100, it should fail. But an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event makes everyone happy. In risk theatre, both comedy and tragedy are risk arts. Two sides to the same coin.

In the end, no model or theory of tragedy is perfect. But if the model or theory gives you a higher understanding of the action, then it is worthwhile. And I think that both Nietzsche and risk theatre achieve this. Without Nietzsche, we would not have Strindberg and O’Neill. And who knows, perhaps the playwrights of the future will create ever more powerful plays by taking up the risk theatre model of tragedy? Yes, yes, yes!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of THE CONSCIOUSNESS INSTINCT: UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY OF HOW THE BRAIN MAKES THE MIND – Gazzaniga

2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pages

Book Blurb

How do neurons turn into minds? How does physical “stuff”–atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells–create the vivid and various world inside our heads? The problem of consciousness has gnawed at us for millennia. In the last century, massive breakthroughs have rewritten the science of the brain, yet the puzzles faced by the ancient Greeks remain. In The Consciousness Instinct, the neuroscience pioneer Michael S. Gazzaniga weaves together the latest research and the history of human thinking about the mind, giving a big-picture view of what science has revealed about consciousness.

The idea of the brain as a machine, first proposed centuries ago, has led to assumptions about the relationship between mind and brain that dog scientists and philosophers to this day. Gazzaniga asserts that this model has it backward: brains make machines, but they cannot be reduced to one. New research suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together. Understanding how consciousness could emanate from such an organization will help define the future of brain science and artificial intelligence, and close the gap between brain and mind.

Captivating and approachable, with insights drawn from a lifetime at the forefront of the field, The Consciousness Instinct sets the course for the neuroscience of tomorrow.

Michael S. Gazzaniga

is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, the founding director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. He is author of many popular science books, including Tales from Both Sides of the Brain.

The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind

Contrasting Viewpoints on Consciousness

Gazzaniga starts by outlining the major theories on consciousness. There are the reductionists and materialists (e.g. Freud and Galen) that believe that mental states and consciousness arise from material interactions between neurons, atoms, and molecules. The reductionist and materialists are deterministic in outlook. Determinists believe that the future follows rigidly or is “determined” by the past. Behaviorists, such as Skinner, form a subset of this worldview.

Then, thanks to Descartes, there are the dualists. To the dualists, mental states, the mind, and the soul are separate from the material body and brain. Dualism, according to Gazzaniga, set back science two thousand years: Aristotle, while he believed in a soul, also believed that the soul dies with the body. According to Descartes, the soul was immortal and immaterial, and being an “essence,” was not subject to scientific scrutiny.

Then, there is a third theory called mentalism. Mentalists such as Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga himself believe that “emergent mental powers must logically exert downward causal control over electrophysiological events in brain activity.” In other words, mental states, the “I,” and consciousness can impact and alter the physical brain. In the 1970s, the mentalist camp was a small minority. Most scientists were materialists.

The New Paradigm

In The Consciousness Instinct, Gazzaniga offers a new paradigm to break free from the old debate between materialists, dualists, and mentalists. His new paradigm of consciousness is based on the latest breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works and also his observations of how people with broken brains function. According to Gazzaniga:

Today we have at our fingertips a vast amount of rapidly accruing new information, and with a little luck, it affords new perspective on how the brain does its magic. The ideas of Descartes and other past thinkers that the mind is somehow floating atop the brain, and the ideas of the new mechanists that consciousness is a monolithic thing generated by a single mechanism or network, are simply wrong. I will argue that consciousness is not a thing. “Consciousness” is the word we use to describe the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism. That is why “consciousness” is a proxy word for how a complex living organism operates. And, to understand how complex organisms work, we need to know how brains’ parts are organized to deliver conscious experience as we know it.

Descartes believed that consciousness arose from the pineal gland in the brain. Gazzaniga and other neuroscientists understand otherwise. It’s always easier to see how something works by looking at how broken specimens function, and the brain is no different. By looking at people with broken brains, we now know that the brain is a modular organ, built up from many discrete modules, each with its own function and history in the evolution of the species. When one module, or multiple modules are damaged, consciousness remains. What this tells us is that consciousness does not reside in a specific area of the brain. Consciousness is a phenomenon or epiphenomenon that arises from the feedback between the different modules of the brain. It is a deep-rooted function which is incredibly hard to stamp out, even in the most damaged brains.

Split-brain patients offer the strongest testimony to how consciousness is not tied to a specific neural network:

Disconnecting the two half brains instantly creates a second, also independent conscious system. The right brain now purrs along carefree from the left, with its own capacities, desires, goals, insights, and feelings. One network, split into two, becomes two conscious systems.

They used to–and perhaps they still do–perform split-brain surgery to cure epilepsy. The surgery works, and after the nerves between the two cerebral hemispheres are cut, consciousness is also cloven. Here’s an interesting story Gazzaniga shares of Case W.J. After his split-brain surgery, Gazzaniga had tested him to see the results of the surgery:

More crazy yet, in the early months after surgery, before the two hemispheres get used to sharing a single body, one can observe them in a tug-of-war. For example, there is a simple task in which one must arrange a small set of colored blocks to match a pattern sown on a card. The right hemisphere contains visuomotor specializations that make this task a walk in the park for the left hand. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is incompetent for such a task. When a patient whose brain has recently been split attempts the task, the left hand immediately solves the puzzle; but when the right hand tries to attempt the task, the left hand starts to mess up the right hand’s work, trying to horn in and complete the task. In one such test, we had to have the patient sit on his bossy left hand to allow the right to attempt the task, which it never could accomplish!

If consciousness does not arise from a specific area of the brain, and the dualists and reductionists are mistaken, then from where does it arise? Gazzaniga’s calls his solution complementarity. It’s sort of an awkward word, but I see how he came up with it: the word is a bold rejection of Descartes’ term duality, or the mind – brain split.

Complementarity

The physicists posit that there are two worlds. There is the world of classical physics. This is Newton’s world. The world of objective observers. Processes are deterministic and predictable. Objects in the classical world can be waves or particles, but not waves and particles simultaneously. There is a spooky force over distance (e.g. gravity), but they got over this centuries ago. Classical physics explains the macro world (larger than an atom) quite well. Then there is the world of quantum mechanics. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and others came up with this model to explain the subatomic world. This is the world where there are no objective observers. Observers, by observing, alter the system. Processes are probabilistic and unpredictable. Reality is spooky as objects in the quantum world exist as a blur, as both particles and waves simultaneously. It is only the law of large numbers that levels out the blur so that material objects appear concrete. Complementarity describes how subatomic objects exist as both particles and waves simultaneously.

The observer plays a crucial role in the quantum world. By observing quantum processes, the observer collapses the complementary reality of the subatomic object into either a wave or a particle. Choose one experiment, light acts like a particle. But choose another experiment, light acts as a wave. Physicists refer to the inescapable separation of a subject (the measurer) from the object (the measured) die Schnitt. It seemed that human consciousness played a role in collapsing quantum wave functions.

But was human consciousness required in breaking down quantum wave functions. Theoretical biologist came up with an amazing breakthrough when he argued that lower levels of consciousness was able to do this. How low?

Pattee proposes that the gap resulted from a process equivalent to quantum measurement that began with self-replication at the origin of life with the cell as the simplest agent. The epistemic cut, the subject/object cut, the mind/matter cut, all are rooted to that original cut at the origin of life. The gap between subjective feeling and objective neural firings didn’t come about with the appearance of brains, it was already there when the first cell started living. Two complementary modes of behavior, two levels of description are inherent in life itself, were present at the origin of life, have been conserved by evolution, and continue to be necessary for differentiating subjective experience from the even itself.

What Pattee claims is that quantum measurements do not require the physicist-observer. Quantum measurements can take place even on a cellular level. For example, enzymes such as DNA polymerases perform quantum measurement during cell replication.

DNA, Materialism, Symbols, and Life

Materialists say that DNA, being made of chains of atoms, must obey the laws of nature. But, according to Pattee, the materialists don’t see that DNA is also a symbol: it contains the description of the organism. And while DNA contains the description of the organism, it is not the organism in itself. To turn DNA into the organism, two separate steps are required: translation and construction. RNA and other proteins and enzymes “read” the DNA to translate DNA and construct the organism. If the physicist-observer is the highest level of consciousness, the simplest level of consciousness, according to Gazzaniga and Pattee, is the RNA reading the DNA. Like how the physicist-observer observes subatomic particles, so too, the RNA observes the DNA sequence. At the very beginning of life, there was observation. And this observation was carried up to higher and higher levels of consciousness by evolution so that, to continue the analogy, the DNA is likened to the physical brain and the RNA likened to the subjective experience of “I.” This is an exceedingly bold claim.

From Whence Consciousness?

So, “consciousness” began with the beginning of life from when RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazed” onto the DNA template or blueprint. This gaze between RNA and DNA eventually became human consciousness. But where does our consciousness arise? Gazzaniga uses a soda water analogy to illustrate consciousness. Each module of the brain produces conceptual bubbles that rise to the surface. The “I” is what lies at the surface, and whatever bubble happens to have surfaced constitutes the “I.”

The History of Ideas

For those of you interested in the history of ideas, there’s a story on thermodynamics that Gazzaniga relates that reminds me of a question the astrophysicists are tackling today:

Still, even though Newton’s view of things took some getting used to, his laws seemed to describe most observations of the physical world well, and they became entrenched over the next two hundred years. But soon there was a new challenge to Newtonian physics that had to do with a new invention: the steam engine. The first commercial one was patented by Thomas Savery, a military engineer, in 1698 to pump water out of flooded coal mines. Even as the engines’ design improved, one problem continued to plague them: the amount of work they produced was minuscule compared to the amount of wood that had to be burned to produce it.

The early engines were all super inefficient because way too much energy was dissipated or lost. In the wholly determined world that Newton envisioned, this didn’t make much sense, so the theoretical physicists were forced to confront the puzzle of the seemingly lost energy. Soon a new field of study emerged, thermodynamics, and with it a change in theory about the nature of the world.

Does the story of the missing energy remind anyone of the astrophysicists’ search for dark matter? For galaxies to spin and move through galactic superclusters, they would have to contain much, much more matter than that which we can see. It’s been argued that up to 85% of the mass of the universe has not been discovered. Just as the physicists created thermodynamics to explore and find where all the missing energy in engines was going, perhaps we’re on the verge of a new branch of physics that will discover new laws and properties of matter heretofore unknown. What I’m saying is that the history of ideas seems to recur.

The Chicago School

I had known about the Chicago School of economics. I didn’t know there was a Chicago school of biology as well. Gazzaniga relates how the Chicago School of biology is, at bottom, anti-reductionist:

As Rosen, his [Rashevsky, one of the founders of the Chicago School] student describes, “He had asked himself the basic question: “What is life?” and approached it from a viewpoint tacitly as reductionistic as any of today’s molecular biologists. The trouble was that, by dealing with individual functions of organisms, and capturing these aspects in separate models and formalisms, he had somehow lost the organisms themselves and could not get them back.” He came to the realization that “no collection of separate descriptions (i.e. models) of organisms, however comprehensive, could be pasted together to capture the organism itself…Some new principle was needed if this purpose was to be accomplished.” Rashevsky dubbed that pursuit of the new principle relational biology.

Closing Thoughts

Gazzaniga talks about how patients who have undergone split-brain surgery develop two separate consciousnesses. Presumably, if you tied back the nerves between the two hemispheres of split-brain patients, consciousness would merge back into one. Now, what if you were to wire together separate brains. On the split-brain analogy, if you wired together multiple brains, they should form into one consciousness (you could do experiments wiring left and right hemispheres in series or parallel as well). Would brains wired in series or parallel access to more computing horsepower or a higher consciousness? And, if yes, would this brain cluster still be human? Or, what if you hooked up an Intel processor to the brain. You’d think from reading the news they’re getting close to being able to do this. Yes, this would also be an interesting thought experiment for the ethical philosophers.

Gazzaniga also talks about how evolution added more and advanced modules to the brain. It would have been interesting to read his speculations on where evolution is going to take us next. In another two or three hundred thousand years, will we have acquired additional “modules?” And what will these modules give us? Easier access to abstract mathematics? Higher IQ? Nirvana? Or?

And finally, if, as Gazzaniga postulates, the act of RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazing on” or “interpreting” DNA constitutes the first act of life and consciousness, then another question arises. Was life accidental, or will Nature bring life into being whenever it can? Is consciousness part of the natural order of things? Does consciousness arise as a natural phenomenon like how gravity will coalesce matter together into stars, clusters, and the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy?

Until next time I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of “The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy” – Roche

pages 51-67 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Mark W. Roche is the Joyce Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. He is the author of six books, including Tragedy and Comedy: A Systemic Study and a Critique of Hegel (1998) and Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004).

“The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy”

Roche’s essay is chapter 4 in A Companion to Tragedy, edited by Rebecca Bushnell.

According to Roche, Hegel’s theory of tragedy is, after Aristotle’s, the most studied and quoted. Unlike Nietzsche, Hegel never formulated his theory in one book. Hegel’s thoughts are scattered through his writings. For English readers, Anne and Henry Paolucci have collected all Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy (mainly from Phenomenology of Mind and Lectures on the Philosophy of History) in their useful book: Hegel on TragedyWhat did Hegel have to say on tragedy?

Tragedy arises, according to Hegel, when a hero courageously asserts a substantial and just position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and likewise just position and so falls prey to one-sidedness that is defined at one and the same time by greatness and by guilt.

Hegel’s position on tragedy, is, unsurprisingly, based on the famous Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. His thoughts on tragedy are really an extension of this theory of knowledge:

Each category or thesis reveals its one-sidedness and passes over into its antithesis, which is likewise recognized as one-sided, eventually giving way to synthesis, which both negates and preserves the earlier terms; the synthesis itself becomes absorbed in a larger process in which it, too, is recognized as partial, though at a higher and more complex level. This continual progression, whereby partial categories give way to their own internal contradictions, leads to an ever greater realization of reason, self-consciousness, and freedom.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Great?

  1. Most theories of tragedy focus on tragedy’s effect on the emotions. Only a handful focus on the structure of tragedy. Hegel, along with Hölderlin, Schelling, and Peter Szondi, examine the structure of tragedy, and explore how the hero’s flaw is intertwined with the hero’s greatness. Of course, Hegel’s theory also considers the emotional effect of tragedy, but as a secondary element of the exploration. According to Hegel, we feel not pity, but sympathy with the hero since, despite the fall, the hero is justified.
  2. Hegel’s emphasis on collision emphasizes how “it is the honour of these great characters to be culpable.” harmartia denotes a character flaw in Aristotle’s theory. Hegel’s “error mechanism” is more complex, as now the hero’s greatness and flaw are one and the same thing: “in fulfilling the good, the hero violates the good.”
  3. The focus on collision is inherently dramatic. Hegel’s theory invites critics to focus on the most dramatic moments in tragedy. This is what we want, since tragedy is naturally a dramatic art. Drama is to tragedy what sound is to music. Hegel’s theory is especially applicable to Goethe’s Faust (the collision between Faust and Mephistopheles) and other works which contain collisions such as Euripides’ Bacchae, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan.
  4. There are external collisions (e.g. Antigone versus Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone). But there can also be internal collisions where the same individual is aware of irreconcilable and just conditions within himself. Hamlet is such an example. Roche writes: “To elevate to tragic status Hamlet’s lack of will as a simple inability to act, the common view among Hegel’s contemporaries, is to transform tragedy into mere suffering. For Hegel the apparent weakness of Hamlet derives, rather, from the energy of his thought, which recognizes a conflict between the emotional need to act in the face of corruption and indecency and insight into the immoral nature of the contemplated action.”
  5. The collision of opposite forces–both justified–inspires philosophical reflection on the good. By presenting two alternatives, Hegel invites the spectator to weight the totality of the duties and obligations contained in either claim.
  6. Hegel’s theory draws attention to tragedy’s treatment of paradigm shifts in history. Collisions frequently dramatize tradition conflicting with innovation: case in point is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where Athena represents the democratic process of trial by jury while the Furies represent the archaic system of “an eye for an eye” retributive justice. Hegel’s theory gave rise to the historical drama of Friedrich Hebbel which dramatizes one norm being pushed aside to make way for the new norm.

While Hegel doesn’t offer a theory of comedy, he “recognizes a shift from tragedy to comedy when what is substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Limited?

  1. While Hegel considers that the opposing forces in the tragic collision are equally justified, that is seldom the case. For example, even in Antigone, Hegel sympathizes more with Antigone’s “right.” That’s an interesting point, as there’ve been a few articles by classicists (who specialize in the ancient world) arguing that Sophocles and his audience would have gravitated more towards Creon. In their reading, Antigone goes too far in her obdurate persistence. The takeaway from this limitation is that there are very few pure Hegelian tragedies where both sides counterbalance equally in their claims.
  2. Hegel does not distinguish between external (e.g. Antigone versus Creon) and internal collisions (e.g. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). Roche points out, however, that this is less a criticism than an expansion of Hegel’s theory. Roche breaks down internal collisions into a two major types: the tragedy of self-sacrifice where the hero does good knowing that suffering will be involved (Miller’s Crucible or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) and the tragedy of stubbornness where the hero will not yield (Sophocles’ Ajax). The tragedy of stubbornness is similar to what has been understood as a tragedy of character where the hero has too much of one virtue and not enough of another (e.g. in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann has too much honesty and fearlessness but a lack of prudence).
  3. Hegel’s critics dislike his insistence on an element of harmony in the resolution of tragedy. To moderns such as Marcuse, “The absolute tragic essence of the tragic tragedy is suffering without meaning.” If this is modernity, I am allergic to modernity. For me, the purpose of art is to instil meaning onto “unmeaning” reality; reality, as a concatenation of random events, lacks intrinsic meaning. Art puts reality into human terms. A good third to one-half of ancient tragedies end in reconciliation. Would Marcuse and moderns consider Aeschylus’ masterpiece The Oresteia (where the Furies are reconciled with the new order of Olympian gods) to be something other than a tragedy? Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, where Augustus is reconciled with the conspirators is another excellent example of a successful “resolution” play. Hegel is certainly right to insist on an element of resolution in tragedy. If I want suffering without meaning, I don’t need the theatre, I’d just watch the news.
  4. Roche finds a fourth criticism in Hegel’s failure to articulate clearly between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation. This is made more complicated in that the line between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation are blurred: Goethe’s Iphigenia and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, can be considered to be tragedies, dramas of reconciliation, or both. At times Hegel seems to prefer a tragedy where the reconciliation comes organically (e.g. through the plot) and at other times Hegel disparages dramas of reconciliation.
  5. Critics such as Otto Pöggeler find fault with Hegel’s long run optimistic worldview: it is incompatible with the gravity of tragedy.
  6. Critics such as Johannes Volkelt finds fault with tragedy for portraying individuals rather than metaphysical ideals. Not sure why Roche would list this as a fault or limit of Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
  7. Last criticism is that Hegel’s theory applies only to a handful of plays: “Hegel’s typology of tragedy, brilliant though it is, appears to exclude all but a dozen or so world tragedies.” There you have it: Hegel’s theory is the one-trick pony of literary theory.

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Let’s take Roche’s comments on Hegel’s theory and apply them to my theory of tragedy, called “risk theatre.” Risk theatre argues that risk (rather than a collision) is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out February 2019, so risk theatre is, compared to Hegel, an upstart contender.

The first thing Roche likes about Hegel’s theory is that it prioritizes investigating the structure of tragedy before it looks at tragedy’s emotional affect. So too risk theatre examines the structure of tragedy. In risk theatre, the central element of the structure is not a collision, but risk. Heroes, by taking on inordinate risk, trigger cataclysmic low-probability, high-consequence events. Tragedy dramatizes risk gone awry. In risk theatre, each dramatic act is also a gambling act.

Roche appreciates how Hegel weaves together the hero’s greatness and the hero’s flaw together. It is an advance on Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, or the tragic flaw. Risk theatre does away with the flaw altogether. In risk theatre, the hero’s bet is good. The odds are with the hero. Heroes are clever, after all. They play to win. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the hero will prevail. Tragedy, however, dramatizes the one time out of a hundred where the best-laid plan fails. Risk makes tragedy exciting. In risk theatre, instead of a flaw, an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event brings the hero down. In risk theatre Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The “flaw” in risk theatre is chance: more things have happened than what the hero thought would happen.

Roche has high praise for Hegel’s theory of tragedy because collisions are inherently dramatic. Risk theatre would argue that risk is as inherently as dramatic as collisions. Richard Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler, two novels which use the gambling analogy as a visual analogy of risk illustrate the dramatic qualities inherent in risk (both were also made into memorable movies with high powered casts including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). Risk theatre and Hegel’s theory enjoy a similar advantage in that their focal points are both inherently dramatic.

Risk theatre, like Hegel’s theory of tragedy, delineates a theory of comedy. For Hegel, tragedy shifts to comedy when the substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal. Risk theatre, predictably, looks at the relation between tragedy and comedy in terms of risk. Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. The difference? Tragedy dramatizes downside risk and comedy dramatizes upside risk.

In one way, risk theatre and Hegel’s theory have quite different limitations. While Roche identifies the limited applicability of Hegel’s theory as a drawback, risk theatre casts almost too wide a net by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy.” The saving grace is that risk theatre is interested in a specific type of risk: the all-in wager. To trigger the low-probability, high-consequence event, the hero has to go all-in.

With regard to an element or resolution or harmony in tragedy versus unmitigated suffering, risk theatre is agnostic. Risk theatre is built on the idea of opportunity cost. By pursuing one option, the next best option is foregone. Risk theatre is happy so long as the price is paid. If, after the price is paid, there is a resolution, that neither adds nor detracts from the tragedy. In Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Augustus sacrifices his authority to maintain law and order. Do they try to assassinate you?—reward the conspirators with consulships and join them together in powerful marriages. Augustus has paid the cost of preserving the Empire by showing clemency to the conspirators. The play ends in a group hug. Risk theatre, however, finds it a perfectly acceptable tragedy, as the resolution came at a high price. What risk theatre cannot stomach is a resolution that comes without paying the price: that is the stuff of comedy.

As to Hegel’s optimism, risk theatre is likewise optimistic. While Hegel sees progress through the dialectical process, risk theatre sees progress because the audience, having seen how unexpected low-probability events can have the highest consequences, leaves the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. Theatre dramatizes risk acts gone awry on the stage so that off the stage we learn to become more robust. After seeing tragedy, the audience learns off stage to have a plan B, learns to keep some powder dry, learns of the dangers of too concentrated a position.

Roche finds that a drawback of Hegel’s theory is its limited applicability to the great tragedies. Hegel’s theory works on a dozen or so plays. Risk theatre does not share this drawback. As long as you can construct the hero’s actions as a wager and something happens out of left field to upset this wager, risk theatre works. In some plays, it’s obvious. Macbeth is risk theatre’s paradigm play: Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown but all is lost when Birnam Wood unexpectedly comes to high Dunsinane Hill. Some plays, such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman, require a little more imagination, but, in hindsight, work quite well through a risk theatre read. According to risk theatre, Loman wagers his dignity on the American Dream. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when, contrary to expectation, Loman realizes his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. And some plays, such as King Lear, require a great deal of imagination, but reward you with a new take on an old play. According to risk theatre, Lear bets the well-being of the kingdom on his capacity to rule. It is a good bet: he has ruled wisely and made good decisions for many years. The unexpected event which derails his bet happens when senility overtakes him; he had not been counting on that. Risk theatre, unlike Hegel, is an infinitely plastic theory of drama, bounded only by the reader’s imagination.

There you have it: round one of a ten round battle royal: risk theatre versus the mighty Hegel!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

REVIEW – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values – Harris

2011, Free Press, 320 pages

“Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of Science!”–Edwin Wong

Book Blurb

Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people–from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists–agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.

In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false–and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

Author Blurb

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian NationThe Moral LandscapeFree Will, and LyingThe End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at samharris.org.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The book catalogs so many fails in religion that it might have been called, The Immoral Landscape: How Religion Fails to Determine Human Values. Agreed, religion has failed on many counts. But, perhaps it has worked some good as well? Did faith not inspire artists–Bach, Michelangelo, the poet of the Song of Songs–to create awesome works of art? Was Christianity not instrumental in improving conditions for slaves in the Roman world? Does religion not give something for the people to believe in? Many other examples are possible.

Harris’ presentation lacks balance. This lack of balance is deliberate. He cites one after another in an endless litany the fails of religion and neglects to mention any good that it has done. People who applaud Harris will love it. The lack of balance, however, may be off-putting for moderates. And religious folk may find the presentation distasteful. Even Nietzsche, who wrote works such as The Antichrist, attacked the church in a way that religious people could, if not agree with, see the point of view. Nietzsche’s pronouncement, for example, that “the very word Christianity is a misunderstanding–at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” for example rings true to many Christians who see a wide gulf between the teachings of Jesus, the original Christian, and Saint Paul, who founded organized Christianity a generation later. This seems to be a valid point: Christianity is misguided from the bottom, as the God of Paul and the God of Jesus are fundamentally different in the same way as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the Jesus. To attack religion as Harris does by saying it causes war, incites hatred, and gives rise to abhorrent practises is beside the point. If, as Harris argues, there are no gods, then is religion responsible or would it be more accurate to say human nature is responsible?

Harris’ argument that science and reason inform human values rests on a debatable premise. The premise is that the greatest good for the greatest number should be the greatest good. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but that’s what I gathered. He comes from a utilitarian school of thought. He could have just as easily have said that science and reason support eugenics or something like that, and then come up with supporting arguments. Of course, he doesn’t say that but instead says that we should use science to advance the happiness of the human race. If this is the case, I would have a few questions for him. Say I agree, for the moment, that there are no gods. What if, however, science could demonstrate (through some brain scan or through looking at actuary tables) that the belief in religion or the gods makes people healthier, more fulfilled, and longer lived? It would be a sort of placebo effect. And what if science could scientifically demonstrate that, if you took this placebo away from these people that their lives would be made less rewarding. Would you still, in the name of reason, strip these people of their god?

Because religion is a barbaric relic, Harris elevates science and reason over us as the new arbiter of human value. Science and reason will teach us ethics and morals. My spider-sense tingles here. At least under the old gods, one could say: I respect your practise, but seeing that I am not Catholic (or a Buddhist or a Protestant or a Muslim, etc.,), I do not subscribe to your practise. I am free to choose. But if science and reason can, as Harris argues, tell us how to comport ourselves, where is there to hide? Can one, in the same way, say, “I respect your practise, but seeing that I don’t believe in reason, I do not subscribe to your practise.” Whoever controls science and reason becomes a new god. And woe to the heretics who doubt the new gospel! My spider-sense tells me that if Project Reason gets its way, there will be a new Inquisition, one in which the freedom to dissent will be crucified on the cross of Science.

If you’re going to base human well-being on something, it might as well be science, right? Religion has made so many mistakes, after all. So many mistakes it can’t be trusted. But I remember they used to have this thing called margarine. “Natural animal fats are bad for the heart,” the scientists said, “have this science butter instead.” But today I think most people would say butter is healthier than margarine. It may prove true in the future for the current rage for this “healthy” meat substitutes such as “Beyond Meat.” The point is that science makes mistakes too. And when science makes mistakes, the repercussions are big, since you had put your trust in science. Here’s a secret: it’s when you’re most confident that, paradoxically, you’re in the gravest danger. Science tends towards innovations with short term track records. But since it has the backing of science, we tend to trust it. And this brings us to an interesting point: is tradition, which has been honed through history and time superior, or is science, the product of continual innovation and experimentation better?

One thing tradition has going for it is that it stands the test of time. It is robust. It grows stronger through time. If a custom has been around for a hundred years, chances are it will last for another hundred years. If a custom has been around for two hundred years, chances are it will last another two hundred years. And so on. One advantage of religion is that it embraces tradition. In embracing tradition, its precepts are tested through the persistence of time. Science is the opposite. It destroys tradition. And it shoots forward into the future at a breakneck pace. As Harris himself writes, “The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.” Take diet, for instance. There’s a lot of things we would consider odd with a diet prescribed by religion, whether kosher, halal, or a Buddhism. But, if your goal is health and longevity, would you try that, or one of the latest fad diets prescribed by science?–the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet, margarine, beyond meat, etc.,? In my mind, the answer is simple: if you’re not sure, go with tradition. Tradition doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Harris argues that you shouldn’t trust religion because it’s done a lot of bad things. And then he brings up the notable examples. Let’s take a look at our judicial system of trial by jury. I’d say it works pretty well, most of the time. And I would suggest most people agree. But sometimes the trial by jury system makes big blunders. If I were to cite these blunders, would it be a good argument to get rid of it. I would say no. But maybe you say, “If it makes many blunders, let’s get rid of it on the condition that there’s something better to replace it with.” Okay. Harris has something better to replace religion with: he has this thing called science. But then, on a closer examination, is science completely pure, only working good? Science has never done evil, never come up with nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, and designer drugs?

Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of science.

Science, through the mediator of art, will arbitrate human values. Case in point: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities)

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato – Mike Tyson (Sloman)

2017, Penguin, 465 pages

Book Blurb

When Cus D’Amato first saw thirteen-year-old Mike Tyson spar in the ring, he proclaimed, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.” D’Amato, a boxing legend who had previously managed the careers of world champions Floyd Patterson and José Torres, would go on to train the young boxer and raise him as a son. D’Amato died a year before Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

In Tyson’s bestselling memoir Undisputed Truth, he recounted the role D’Amato played in his formulative years, adopting him at age sixteen after his mother died and shaping him both physically and mentally after Tyson had spent years living in fear and poverty. In Iron Ambition, Tyson elaborates on the life lessons that D’Amato passed down to him and reflects on how the trainer’s words of wisdom continue to resonate with him outside the ring. The book also chronicles D’Amato’s courageous fight against the mobsters who controlled boxing, revealing more than we’ve ever known about this singular cultural figure.

Author Blurb

Mike Tyson is the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and the first boxer ever to hold the three biggest belts in prizefighting–the WBC, WBA, and IBF world heavyweight titles-simultaneously. Tysons’ enduring appeal has launched him into a career in entertainment: he was a standout in the films The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, and recently he has earned tremendous acclaim for his one-man show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. Tyson has launched a clothing company, Roots of Fights, and Tyrrhanic Productions, which currently has several film projects in development. In 2011 he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Kiki, and their children.

Larry “Ratso” Sloman is best known as Howard Stern’s collaborator on Private Parts and Miss America. Sloman’s recent collaborations include Mysterious Stranger, with magician David Blaine; Scar Tissue, the memoir of Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis; and Undisputed Truth with Mike Tyson. His biography The Secret Life of Houdini is soon to be a major motion picture for Lionsgate.

Iron Ambition

This book inspires. The book talks about boxing. Talks a lot about boxing. Talks a lot about D’Amato’s all-in fight against the corrupt mobsters who ran the IBC. But it’s not a boxing book. It’s a self-help book. And it’s the kind of self-help book people who don’t like self-help books will like. It’s about an old guy whose developed a specialized martial art: the peekaboo style. He’s got one goal: train world champions. The fundamentals of his peekaboo style aren’t physical, they’re mental. He believes in character. Character makes the difference in the ring. His training techniques are unorthodox. He would put his fighters under hypnosis, and whisper to them, “When you hit, hit with bad intentions.” He would have his fighters recite, twenty times, at morning and at night, a simple mantra daily: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” He would tell his fighters that they were God’s most ferocious creations. He would tell his fighters that the memory of the boxing idols of that day would all be forgotten in the future, unless one of his fighters would say, in the future, “I learned this punch from Jack Dempsey or so and so.” He would take in street kids with absolutely no confidence, and instil in them the self-confidence of the gods. He was Cus D’Amato, and his protege was Iron Mike Tyson.

My mind is divided on self-help. Obviously it works. That I don’t doubt. The problem is the people who invest themselves into self-help seem to become themselves self-help coaches. They’re like tinker toys, each winding one another up. They don’t seem to do things other than train one another. But this book is awesome in that D’Amato is into self-help and he does things. He produced three champs: Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and Mike Tyson. He took fighters with low self-confidence–especially Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, who had no self-confidence–and convinced them they could be world champions. In the book, Tyson spends pages marvelling how D’Amato’s techniques raised his confidence so high that he thought he was a god. To this day, Tyson struggles because D’Amato raised his self-esteem too high. If that’s not testimonial to D’Amato’s system of character building, then I don’t know what is.

The book is filled with examples of D’Amato and his “mind over matter” philosophy. I’m not much into hocus-pocus, but if it helps you succeed, then it is good. Here’s a short passage that gave me the chills. I wonder if everyone gets these moments or these moments only come to the happy few?

Cus was a believer in destiny. Even as a young boy, he felt that he’d be famous someday; he always had a feeling that “there was something different” about him. I had the same exact feeling. So it felt right that I would move in with Cus and Camille. Cus was so happy. I couldn’t understand why this white man was so happy about me. He would look at me and laugh hysterically. Then he’d get on the phone and tell people, “Lightning has struck me twice. I have another heavyweight champion. He’s only thirteen.”

One of the first nights that I stayed over at the house on one of the home visits, Cus took me into the living room, where we could talk alone. “You know I’ve been waiting for you,” he told me. “I’ve been thinking about you since 1969. If you meditate long enough on something, you get a picture. And the picture told me that I would make another champion. I conjured you up with my mind and now you’re finally here.”

D’Amato reminds me of a character in an Ibsen play, Solness in The Master Builder. He too, practised this visualization technique to become the master builder. So, there are others out there who feel the pull of destiny. A curious, driving call full of power and powerlessness at the same time. The fire burns into you, but at the same time you are thrall and a pawn to this destiny that looms over you.

Why do we do this, the endless hours of training? Cus too, has an answer. We do it for immortality, to be remembered in a song for the future generations. I feel sometimes D’Amato should have been an ancient Greek, living in the times of Homer. The ancients also recognized this justification. They built pyramids so that they would be remembered. They fought the Trojan War for ten years so that it could be a song for the future generations to epic singers to sing. Today, if you want to be remembered, there’s something wrong with you. You need to be humble. You need to blend in. Don’t go for a home run when you can get away with a hit. D’Amato sets today’s values on their head. Aim for one thing with all your being, he says:

I used to ask Cus, “What does it mean being the greatest fighter of all time? Most of those guys are all dead.” “Listen, they’re dead, but we’re talking about them now, this is all about immortality.” That fucked me up. It changed the whole game. I just thought it would be about riches, the big cars, the big mansions he used to point out to me. But now he was taking it to a whole other level. He got me hooked with the riches, but now he suddenly said, “You’re going to be a god.” This was the real deal, and the real deal fucked me up real good. Then he said, “Forget the money.” Once he told me that shit, it blew my mind. He was talking immortality and I’m figuring out what that is.

And here’s D’Amato on having a purpose in life. People today, I think, value living for the sake of living. But D’Amato offers another view: it’s not about life, but about life’s purpose. Purpose is so concentrated a force that when it’s not met, the dead will come back:

Then Cus told me that he was dying from pneumonia. I started getting angry. We had so much together. I’m a little street kid with this old guy who’s in exile and we’d talk about these grandiose dreams and making money and buying mansions and how there was nobody in the world who could touch us. They couldn’t do anything but gawk at us. We were the most magnificent gift boxing had ever witnessed. And now it was over before we had reached our ultimate mission. I couldn’t go on with it without Cus.

“If you die, I’m not going to fight anymore,” I said, sobbing. Cus looked angry. “Now listen, if you quit fighting, then you’re going to find out if people can come back from the dead, because I will come back and I will haunt you for the rest of your life. You have to fight.”

On the way to the goal, fighters encounter obstacles. Life gets in the way. Injuries get in the way. Doubt gets in the way. Fatigue gets in the way. D’Amato had a solution. If you don’t go all the way, you’ll never know how close you were. To keep his fighters focused, he had this John Greanleaf Whittier poem posted in the very spot where he would work the fighters the hardest:

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,

When the funds are low and the debts are high,

And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit,

Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns,

And many a failure turns about,

When he might have won had he stuck it out;

Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–

You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than,

It seems to a faint and faltering man,

Often the struggler has given up,

When he might have captured the victor’s cup,

And he learned too late when the night slipped down,

How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out–

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,

And you never can tell how close you are,

It may be near when it seems so far,

So stick to the fight when you’re the hardest hit–

It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

Iron Ambition is a fantastic and rich read for a variety of reasons. If you’re a fan of Tyson, you’ll want to learn about his trainer and manager. If you’re a fan of boxing history, you’ll want to read about D’Amato’s dangerous fight against the corrupt IBC. If you’re driven and laser-focused on goals, you’ll want the secrets of D’Amato’s techniques which gave his fighters the psychological edge. From Cus D’Amato you will learn that it is okay to want it all. It is okay to spend your life in dogged pursuit of one purpose. It is okay to sacrifice everything that stands in your way. It is not a crime to want glory and immortality.

Cus D’Amato was born in the 20th century, but he was really born out of his time. His values and beliefs resonate more closely with the ancient Greek and Romans who believed that it is not our peers who will judge us. It is eternity who will judge us. Why is it that way? It is that way because we have the spark to be great, to be the greatest. And when you have the spark to be the greatest, you comport yourself and live life as though eternity were watching every step you take. This book teaches you that greatness is not a crime and dares you to be more.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky

1880 (trans. 1990), Alfred A. Knopf, 976 pages

Book Blurb

Dostoevsky’s towering reputation as one of the handful of thinkers who forged the modern sensibility has sometimes obscured the purely novelistic virtues–brilliant characterizations, flair for suspense and melodrama, instinctive theatricality–that made his work so immensely popular in nineteenth-century Russia. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest novel, published just before his death in 1881, chronicles the bitter love-hate struggle between the outsized Fyodor Karamazov and his three very different sons. It is above all the story of a murder, told with hair-raising intellectual clarity and a feeling for the human condition unsurpassed in world literature.

Translator Blurb

This award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky–the definitive version in English–magnificently captures the rich and subtle energies of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece.

The Brothers Karamazov

High school friend HT invited me to join her book club five months ago and Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece came up for discussion at our session last Sunday. I’ve read this book years ago and was happy to revisit it. Dostoyevsky, because of his pioneering work drawing attention to our subconscious motivations, is one of my favourite authors. Nietzsche was also a Dostoyevsky fan. You could draw a line tracing Dostoyevsky to Nietzsche and from Nietzsche to Freud. In other words, no Nietzsche and Freud without Dostoyevsky.

This is a big book. Instead of our usual month-and-a-half between book clubs, we allotted two months for The Brothers Karamazov, or ‘BK’ as fans call it. And then it got extended another week, since I was in Denver to collect a book award for my recently published book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. But even this extra week wasn’t enough. Over half our book club didn’t make it through. Despite everyone’s valiant efforts, the states of completion ranged from halfway to the tens of pages from the ending. That’s telling of how tastes change.

Here’s a little bit about our book club. More women then men. Career wise we are all successful, having reached probably the top decile of our respective professions which are: interior designer, RMT, engineer, psychiatrist, and project manager. I’m not sure what one fellow does, but he recently did the Camino in Spain, and he was able to follow work with a laptop and an internet connection, so perhaps he’s a consultant of sorts?

The general complaint was that the book starts off slowly. I could see that. The religious issues that dominate the first half–the erosion of religion, the rise of free-thinking principles, the role of ‘elders’ in the church, the role of monasteries in society–have passed us by. They are no longer the burning issues they were in the mid-nineteenth century. Ivan’s tale of ‘the Grand Inquisitor’ caught people’s attention, but the problem was you had to read through so much to get to it. BK is not unlike a Wagner opera: you get ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ once in awhile, but you have to listen to a lot of other things in between. The mid- to late nineteenth century, in music and literature, was a time of epic constructions. Today we are more into Twitter, 140 characters or less, please.

While dramatic tension was slow in the building, the general consensus was the trial scene in the last third of the book is riveting. If only there were not the first two-thirds of the book to get in the way! The other observation echoed by book clubbers was that the female characters, notably Katerina and Grushenka, were cardboard cutouts more closely resembling drama queens than real individuals. I would have to agree, but I would add that everyone in the novel is a drama queen and that they are all drama queens (e.g. every conversation is “Please forgive me,” or “You’ve insulted my dignity,” or “My pride is wounded,” or “I’m all out of cash”) because no one has a job. If only Dmitri had to work our 40 hour week he would have less time to spend cavorting around with gypsies!

My burning question that I wanted to ask the book club was whether Ivan’s conjecture that “everything will be permitted” once Christianity gives way to free-thinking has come to pass. It seems in the century-and-a-half since BK came out freethinking has had a coming of age, especially out here on the westcoast, where the masses have raged into atheism. The book club consensus was that, today, in Russia, yes, Dostoyevsky was prescient. The anarchy and crime prevalent on the streets of Russia is a sign that “everything is permitted.”

I’m not so sure though. It seems to me that while Orthodoxism and religion were strong in Russia, lawlessness could also prevail. Look at how Dmitri drags around the retired captain Snegiryov by the beard. Or how Smerdyakov murders his father. I think human nature is the constant. We project human nature onto culture and society. To me, culture and society can change, but only so much as the elasticity of human nature allows. There is a bit of a moral decay theme in BK that change is always going for the worse (e.g. “Oh, if we were just in the good old days things would be better.”) I don’t find that necessarily true. From a technological point, things seem to be getting better (e.g. antibiotics, vaccinations, indoor heating, fridge, stove, and other appliances, cars, planes, etc.,). But from a moral perspective I can’t see how things can be that much different. Others will disagree. Vehemently.

The next book club read happens to be Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It will be most interesting to see if science can encroach on morality and ethics, religion’s final strongholds. Maybe science will have the final word against Ivan’s prediction that, when religion falls, “everything is permitted.” Maybe Science will be our new god?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – Manson

2016, HarperCollins, 206 pages

Book Blurb

In this generation-defining self-help guide, a superstar blogger shows us that the key to being stronger, happier people is to handle adversity better and stop trying to be “positive” all the time.

For the past few years, Mark Manson–via his wildly popular blog–has been working on correcting our delusional expectations for ourselves and for the world. He now brings his hard-fought wisdom to this groundbreaking book.

Manson makes the argument that human beings are flawed and limited. As he writes, “not everybody can be extraordinary–there are winners and losers in society, and some of it is not fair or your fault.” Manson advises us to get to know our limitations and accept them–this, he says, is the real source of empowerment. Once we embrace our fears, faults, and uncertainties–once we stop running from and avoiding, and start confronting, painful truths–we can begin to find courage and confidence we desperately seek.

“In life, we have a limited amount of fucks to give. So you must choose your fucks wisely.” Manson brings a much-needed grab-you-by-the-shoulders-and-look-you-in-the-eyes moment of real-talk, filled with entertaining stories and profane, ruthless humor. This manifesto is a refreshing slap in the face for all of us, so that we can start to lead more contented, grounded lives.

Author Blurb

Mark Manson is a star blogger with more than two million readers. He lives in New York City. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is his first book.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

It was a peculiar series of coincidences that brought me to this book with the loud title. My friend SM had read it half a year ago. She thought it was a little over-the-top bold but liked it enough to bring it up in conversation and also to recommend it to her son. At this point, I had no plans of reading it. But the loud title stuck in my head. Then I started seeing it everywhere. You can spot it a mile away. It has a Halloween orange cover and it announces its title with a bold, black font. That got me interested. But still, no plans of reading it. Then I met a fascinating and charming lady on match.com. She’s into business books. Of course, she was reading this book. We talked about the book. She wasn’t the most impressed with it, but impressed enough to keep listening to the audiobook. For me, still no plans of reading it. But I was getting more intrigued. Maybe I could get some brownie points with her if I read it?

Then, last Friday, I was at stopped over at the Calgary Airport. On the way to Denver to collect what I would later find out was the 2nd Prize in the Arts category of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association CIPA EVVY Awards. More on this exciting event and the new friends I made in a future blog. It was very early in the morning still, I had just sent my charming lady-friend an email. Then I ran off to the gate, where they were boarding the Denver flight. Well, I was waiting there for some time while all the ‘cool’ zones were boarding. I was in zone 3, the ‘loser’ zone. So, I was standing there a long time. Right in front of the book store. Right in front of the book. I bought it. How could I not? I think a lot of things in life must be like that. The stimulus has to present itself so many times before something happens.

At 206 pages, the book is a super quick read. The arguments and language are vivid and straightforward. Manson titles his chapters: “You are Not Special,” “Happiness is a Problem,” “Don’t Try,” and other equally provocative names.

The back blurb sums up the book well. Though Mr. Rogers told us we were special, we’re not all that special. We have to know our strengths and weaknesses. And we have to be prepared to put in the effort (i.e. go from failure to failure) to find success.

The one takeaway from the book was Manson’s focus on responsibility. To be successful, argues Manson, we have to take responsibility for our whole life. That means that we have to be responsible for things that we have no control over. His example is a judge. Even though the judge isn’t responsible for the crime, the judge still has to take responsibility for the crime, to make sure the procedure goes through all the appropriate steps:

Judges don’t get to choose their cases. When a case goes to court, the judge assigned to it did not commit the crime, was not a witness to the crime, and was not affected by the crime, but he or she is still responsible for the crime. The judge must then choose the consequences; he or she must identify the metric against which the crime will be measured and make sure that the chosen metric is carried out. We are responsible for experiences that aren’t our fault all the time. This is part of life.

Manson tells the reader how, to get over a bad experience where his girlfriend cheated on him and dumped him, he had to take responsibility for the situation. Taking responsibility means that he had to understand his own role in the relationship and question why he let it go on. When he was able to do this, he was able to grow into a more balanced individual.

The relationship story wasn’t the most interesting part about responsibility to me, though. The most interesting part is how he dovetails that story with one of my favourite quotes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Many years ago, Manson, who started off as a blogger, wrote that quote and attributed it to “a great philosopher.” His followers were quick to call him on that: the quote is actually from Uncle Ben in the movie Spider-Man. Manson tells that story in the book. And then he adds that, although the quote isn’t that profound, if you switch it around, it is the profoundest thing: “With great responsibility comes great power.”

The switched around quote is actually very interesting. What Manson’s saying is that power doesn’t come first. We think it comes first, and then we have to use it responsibly. But that’s a myth. To create power, you have to take responsibility for your dreams, desires, and goals in the first place. Once you accept or take responsibility for all the suffering to get to your dreams, desire, and goals, the power follows.

I applied this to my own situation, and I liked it. A lot of times, people ask me about my book and the playwright competition. I never really know how to answer. I say, “The book’s about theatre and playwriting. I’m trying to get people to reimagine tragedy as a theatre of risk.” Or something like that. What I’m going to say next time when someone asks what I’m doing with the book is: “I’m responsible for the largest playwriting contest in the world for the writing of tragedy. In this competition, we invite dramatists to make risk the fulcrum of the action.” By saying “responsible for,” I hold myself accountable for the success or failure of my enterprise. In all honesty though, the success or failure of my enterprise is only partially dependent on me. Like me buying Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, for my enterprise to be successful, many coincidental events have to occur which I have no control over. But, by taking responsibility for events I have no control over, I am putting skin in the game. And, by putting skin in the game, the odds of success go up. Dramatically. I will take responsibility, and all that responsibility entails.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

“Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction” – Eden

pages 41-49 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

After two chapters on the political and cultic roots of Greek tragedy, A Companion to Tragedy turns to tragedy as literature in chapter three with Kathy Eden’s piece “Aristotle’s Poetics: A Defense of Tragic Fiction.” Here’s her author blurb from the beginning of the book:

Kathy Eden is Chavkin Family Professor of English and Professor of Classics at Columbia University. She is the author of Poetic and Legal Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition (1986), Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition: Chapters in the Ancient Legacy and Its Humanist Reception (1997), and Friends Hold All Things in Common: Tradition, Intellectual Property and the “Adages” of Erasmus (2001).

Aristotle’s Poetics (written between 360-320 BC) has had an immense, twofold contribution to western thought. Not only does it dissect the inner workings of tragedy, it also created an entirely new genre called the philosophy of tragedy. As a guidebook on the history and social function of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of literature. As a groundbreaking work in the new genre of the philosophy of tragedy, it contributes to our understanding of philosophy, particularly of aesthetics. It does so because it answers the question: “Why do we find the art of tragedy endearing when the action of tragedy is full of strife and sorrow?”

Because the contributions of the Poetics have been immense, philosophers, creative writers, playwrights, and students of drama continue to read it to this day. Most of the time, they read the Poetics as a standalone work. But it is not a standalone work. Aristotle wrote the Poetics as a rebuttal to his teacher Plato. And it is when readers understand that Plato is the secret unspoken antagonist lurking in the Poetics that the Poetics begin to make sense. Or so this is Eden’s argument in her chapter.

The Origins of Aristotle’s Poetics

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, did not like mimetic arts or fiction. To Plato, the shortcoming of mimetic arts is that they copy reality, and, as copies, are imperfect and corrupt representations. The psychagogic power of fiction–as false copies of reality–lead the soul astray. Tragedy, as fiction and drama, is a mimetic art. Because it stirs the emotions, it is dangerous, something that Plato bans from his ideal state.

Take Homer’s Iliad as an example. It is a mimetic art of fiction. It represents war–a few days in the Trojan War, to be specific. But if you want to be a general, would you learn about war by reading (or listening) to the Iliad or by finding a general who is actually an expert in warfare? Although the Iliad has stories of generals and their tactics, it is not the real thing. It would be dangerous to read the Iliad and then go off into battle. True knowledge comes from doing. Or philosophizing, which is to understand the causes of why and what something is. Mimetic and fictional arts such as epic and drama are, to Plato, not serious, a form of ‘child’s play’ (paidia).

Plato also values truth because it is consistent. Fiction and the mimetic arts, however, portray change. They portray changes in the tragic agent in the face of misfortune. And dramatic change is based on probability. Change, being based on probability, is not truth. The truth to Plato is unchanging. Art which represents change based on plausibility and probability to Plato is dangerous, an attack on immutable truth.

All these things Plato taught Aristotle. But Aristotle wasn’t so sure. That’s why he wrote the Poetics, argues Eden. The Poetics is Aristotle’s rebuttal of Plato. It is Aristotle’s attempt to rehabilitate fiction and the mimetic arts as something worthwhile and wholesome.

How Aristotle Rehabilitates Tragedy in the Poetics

While agreeing with Plato that drama is an imitating or mimetic art, Aristotle disagrees that it is ‘child’s play’. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not paidia but a ‘serious’ (spoudaia) representation. And, as a serious representation, it is worthwhile. Thus, when we wonder why Aristotle insists that tragedy is a serious representation, to understand that, we have to recall that he is rebuking Plato for calling the mimetic arts ‘child’s play’.

Now, how is tragedy a ‘serious’ representation? Although based on probability (here student and teacher agree), the tragedian ‘must understand the causes of human action in the ethical and intellectual qualities of the agents’. Tragedy is serious in that the tragic poet must convincingly weave together character and intention into the structure of the events. No small feat.

And what about the danger Plato identifies of tragedy influencing the emotions to lead the soul astray? Aristotle agrees with Plato that art has a great power over the emotions. But, instead of rejecting these emotions, Aristotle would rather harness them for a greater good. The purpose of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to arouse pity and fear. Why pity and fear? ‘Pity and fear’ writes Eden, ‘are instrument in judging action . . . In the Poetics (ch. 13) we pity those agents who suffer unfairly, while we fear for those who are like us’. So, because tragedy elicits pity and fear, it performs a function in that it sharpens our ability to judge human action. And, because it sharpens our ability to judge human action, tragedy performs a useful social function. It is thereby rehabilitated. Or so Eden interprets Aristotle.

Risk Theatre and Aristotelian Theory

In my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I’ve developed a bold new 21st century model of tragedy. The feedback from the playwriting world has been fantastic. In the academic world, however, some critics wanted to see some more engagement with the existing body of tragic theory. This blog is a good place to respond. I could have done this in the book as well, but a decision was made at the time of writing to make the book accessible to as wide an audience as possible. The goal of the book is to start a 21st century art movement by reimagining the tragedy as a stage where risk is dramatized. Incorporating theoretical arguments would have detracted from the book’s main drive. So, what are the primary differences between risk theatre and Aristotle?

According to Aristotle, tragedy is ‘an imitation of human action that is serious’. According to risk theatre, tragedy is an imitation of a gambling act. The protagonist is tempted. The protagonist wagers a human asset (honour, the milk of human kindness, faith, the soul, etc.,) for the object of ambition (a crown, the opportunity to revenge, success, etc.,). And then the protagonist goes past the point of no return with a metaphorical roll of the dice.

According to Aristotle, there is a change (metabolē)–usually for the worse–in the hero’s fortune. This change is the result of hamartia, or an error. According to risk theatre, there is also a change, which is, again, usually for the worse. But this change is not due to error. The protagonist’s wager and course of action is reasonable. There is no mistake. The degree of success is high. What upsets the protagonist is an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event that comes out of left field.

According to Aristotle, the elements of the plot follow the rules of probability. There is, as Eden says, a ‘causal connection between events’. According to risk theatre, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability. In risk theatre, the unlikeliest outcome takes place: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill (e.g. Macbeth) or it turns out that the man searching for the patricide happens himself to be the patricide (e.g. Oedipus). Risk theatre can generate the unlikeliest outcome because of a truism with risk: the more risk we take on, the more we expose ourselves to unintended consequences. In other words, risk theatre is exciting because, in taking on too much risk, the protagonist breaks the causal connection between events.

According to Aristotle, the emotions tragedy generates are pity and fear. According to risk theatre, the emotions tragedy generates are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero’s best-laid plans will be upset by some black swan event.

According to Aristotle (and Eden’s interpretation of Aristotle), tragedy ‘sharpens its audience’s ability to judge human action’. According to risk theatre, tragedy sharpens its audience’s realization that low-probability, high-consequence events can defy the best-laid plans to shape life in unexpected ways. Tragedy, by dramatizing risk acts, warns us not to bite off more than we can chew. In this modern world where we go forwards in ever larger leaps and bounds, do we not need a risk theatre model of tragedy more than ever? By watching a cascading series of unintended consequences play out on stage, perhaps we will learn the wisdom of the old folk adage: ‘Keep some powder dry’.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

“Tragedy and Dionysus” – Seaford

pages 25-38 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Two articles into A Companion to Tragedy and both argue for a ritual basis for ancient Greek tragedy. Surprising. You’d think a reference work such as this would provide more balance. The ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’ school of thought gets short shrift in this edition. Although Dionysus is the patron god of tragedy, so few tragedies feature Dionysus that a school of thought has arisen declaring that ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’. In this article, Seaford argues that, although most of the stories from Athenian tragedy do not feature Dionysus, the art of tragedy is ‘Dionysiac’. Seaford frames the central question in this way: ‘Can it make sense to call a narrative or drama Dionysiac if Dionysus himself plays no part in it?’

Seaford argues that Athenian tragedy is Dionysiac, as drama originated from the cult of Dionysus. Specifically, drama came into being when the chorus leader broke apart from the chorus to address the chorus. When the chorus responded in a refrain, drama was born. In addition, even if many of the surviving plays don’t feature Dionysus, the tragedy festival itself indubitably belonged to the cult of Dionysus: at the beginning of the festival, the image of Dionysus was brought into the city and a ‘sacred marriage’ took place between the image and the wife of a magistrate called the ‘King Archon’.

Another prominent ritual in Dionysus’ cult is, of course, booze! Seaford postulates that the social elements of drinking naturally led to gatherings, festivals, and other occasions fertile for the development of drama. From the Anthesteria, a minor and ancient spring festival of Dionysus sprang the City or the Great Dionysia, the major festival where tragedy took centre-stage (this is where Oedipus rexThe Oresteia, Hippolytus, and other plays were first performed). According to Seaford, the Great Dionysia arose in the 6th century BC to serve a political end:

Suffice it here to say that whereas the ancient festival of the Anthesteria had long centered around a key moment in the agricultural year, the opening of the new wine, the new Dionysia was largely designed to serve a political end: the display of the strength and magnificence of Athens–to itself and to others. We should also note that the organization and coordination of the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money: the universal power of money, deployed at a single center or even by a single individual, is especially good at coordinating a complex new initiative, and tends in our period to replace the less flexible power of barter and traditional observance.

Now, this is interesting: “the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money.” Am I hearing this right–money had something to do with the birth of tragedy? In my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I argued that tragedy arose as a backlash to the introduction of money in Attica (or Athens, as I call it). Money made it possible to buy, sell, and exchange human life and values like bacon bits and deer skins at the market. As such, money degraded life and human value by turning it into an object of financial exchange. A counter-monetary spirit arose. It sought form and expression and found its voice in the new art form of tragedy. In the risk theatre interpretation, tragedy rails against money by routing exchanges involving life and human value through the shadow market instead of the conventional money market. For example, one can buy a title or a degree with money in the conventional market. In tragedy, however, the use of money is strictly forbidden. To acquire a title in tragedy–such as Solness acquiring the title ‘master builder’ in Ibsen’s play–one has to pay in flesh and blood. Solness, to become master builder, pays with his happiness, and the happiness of those around him. Happiness for becoming the master builder: this is the sort of existential transaction that takes place in what I call the ‘shadow market’.

By routing exchanges through the shadow market, tragedy railed against the monetization of life and human value. In this way, tragedy shows how some things cannot be brought with money. In this way, tragedy revolts against the monetization of life and value. Now, in my book, I turned the story of how tragedy arose as a counter-monetary art into a myth. I didn’t feel that my position could be academically defended, so I mythologized the process by weaving it into existing stories about Croesus (the tragic ruler of Lydia who invented money), Solon (one of the wise men), and the tale of Diomedes and Glaucus’ meeting (out of Homer’s Iliad). But from what Seaford is saying, it seems that this strange and bold view that tragedy arose as a reaction to the invention of money could find an academic footing. This to me is most interesting. At the time I wrote The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I would not have, in my wildest dreams, thought this possible.

But, it is possible. I checked the bibliography to Seaford’s article, and he does have a full length book on this topic: Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge University Press). It wasn’t available at my local public library (they can’t even get it interlibrary loan!). But I had to read it, and luckily there was a used copy available on Amazon. What a find! I’ll be reading and reviewing this book very soon, here’s the blurb:

How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage. By transforming social relations, monetization contributed to the concepts of the universe as an impersonal system (fundamental to Presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods, as found in tragedy.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy – Wong

378 pages, Friesen Press, 2019

Attempt at a Self-Criticism (or, an autoreview)

1

Everyone knows the word ‘autobiography’, from the Greek prefix autos ‘self’ and biography, also  a combination of Greek terms: bios ‘life’ and graphia ‘writing’. Less well known is the term ‘autoreview’ or a review of one’s own book. Some would deny it is even a term. But the idea of an autoreview would be most interesting. Should authors review and rate their own works? Could this be the rise of a new genre, or would the autoreview lack critical distance?

On Goodreads, a site for book reviews, there’s an author discussion group devoted to the autoreview idea. It’s called ‘Should You Rate Your Own Book‘. The consensus overwhelmingly discourages the autoreview. For example, here’s what Chris had to say on the thread:

The other day I downloaded an indie author’s book with intent to read and review, because it sounded really interesting. When I visited their page here on goodreads and saw that they’d rated & reviewed it themselves, I deleted it on the spot. It just seemed tacky to me. I could no longer take the author seriously.

And here’s what Christine had to say:

It really speaks to the unprofessional attitude of the author and is usually associated with ego-driven, self-published authors. It may be permitted here on GR, but readers do not appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, there is at least one great autoreview that I know of. Nietzsche published his youthful masterpiece The Birth of Tragedy in 1872 when he was twenty-seven. In the 1886 edition, he added a new preface, called ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’. This new preface was an autoreview of his own work. He gave his book no quarter, writing:

To say it once more: today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof, a book for initiates, ‘music’ for those dedicated to music, those who are closely related to begin with on the basis of common and rare aesthetic experiences, ‘music’ meant as a sign of recognition for close relatives in artibus–an arrogant and rhapsodic book that sought to exclude the right from the beginning the profanum vulgus of ‘the educated’ even more than ‘the mass’ or ‘folk’. (trans. Kaufmann)

Today, his autoreview or ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is considered one of his finest and most perceptive pieces of writing, not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but of his entire corpus. Not bad for an autoreview.

While not technically an autoreview, there is also Stephen King’s On Writing, that I reviewed here. Using many examples from his own works, King gives examples of how to write well. Since  he is using examples from his own books to teach others how to write well, his book can be seen as a ‘pat on the back’. King’s book, like Nietzsche’s ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is also regarded highly and considered to be quite perceptive. I find that it is one of the best books on writing available. That King uses examples from his own work is a plus, a fascinating insight he gives fans into the mechanics of his art. A look into the master’s workshop, if you will.

So, if writers can resist the urge to give themselves five stars and full accolades and write perceptively of their writing, the genre of autoreview could be viable, even something very interesting and useful for writers and readers (as an aside, King recommends to cut out every ‘very’ from the text). After all, the task of writers is to write. As professionals who write, we should be able to write on our own work. Composers, after all, are able to review their own works (Beethoven considered the Missa Solemnis to be his finest statement). Artists are also able to do the same (see for example, the fascinating book Rodin on Art and Artists, where Rodin compares himself to the old masters). Interesting writers ought to be able to write interesting comments on their own work, and from a perspective unavailable to other commentators. I find the scarcity of the autoreview surprising. Let me do my part to address this by commenting on my own book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

2

A primary argument in the book is that life has become too monetized. We express ourselves in terms of ‘net worth’. Life insurance policies quantify life in dollar terms. Power is measured in terms of capital or stock holdings. To rehabilitate the monetization of life, an art had to rise up in revolt to show how the things that mean the most cannot be purchased. That art was tragedy. Tragedy taught us that wagers are involved in obtaining our most dear desires. But not money wagers. Existential wagers such as dignity for the American dream. Or compassion for a crown. These sort of wagers, according to risk theatre, take place in the shadow market, an alternate exchange to the stock markets and bourses of the world. To rehabilitate life, tragedy countermonetizes the mechanics of exchange. The fault of this argument: in revolting against money, it talks too much about money. It is as though money had already poisoned my mind, and the book represented my last ditch attempt to rehabilitate myself.

The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as Marxism is suspicious. Marx, for someone who is against capital, sure spends a long time talking about capital. Too much time, in fact. To him, capital is magic. With enough capital, you can enslave the working classes and rule the earth. I think that Marx is, in some way, a closet capitalist.

The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Many of these bands proclaimed that they were liberated from the Christian shackles. Bands like Venom, Black Sabbath, and Bathory. But in their lyrics, they sang of scaling the golden wall of heaven, serving the dark lord, or fighting the angels. In fact, they talked more about religion than someone would, if they were truly liberated from religion. I always thought that, in some way, they were closet Christians: they were way too opposed to Christianity to be liberated from it.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is suspicious in the same way as Marx is suspicious and 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Just as Marx talks too much about capital and 80s metal bands spent too much energy claiming they had gone beyond Christianity, my questionable book spends too much energy countermonetizing human exchange. The book betrays a key foible within my own schema. We all monetize existence (for example, if we work for $10 and hour, we are exchanging existence for greenback dollars). But, what the book reveals is that this monetization in my own schema was more so than the average individual. It had reached such a pitch that I had to spend thirteen years writing a book to overcome it. The writer, says the book, has monetized his existence through and through. “He tries,” says the book, “to go against himself, but all is lost.”

3

The book has a dogmatic and argumentative style. Very formulaic. Repetitive. For example, when it introduces new terms describing the structure of risk theatre, it does so with curt and matter-of-fact efficiency. It brings up the term. Then it provides a number of examples. Many examples.  But the description of these examples is at a bare minimum. There is hardly any comments on the significance of these examples to the author. The author is distant, far from the text. But for many readers, the most interesting part of the text will be the author’s personality. It is a dry book. It is as though the author distances himself from the text to give the text more authority. But, in doing so, it betrays a certain lack of self-confidence in the author. The book carries the marks of an author who wants to be believed, believes himself, but has a problem believing that others can believe him.

4

Now, I hope that I can be forgiven if I don’t spend this whole autoreview panning myself. Or, oops, I meant my book. I confuse the two sometimes. Whether the idea of risk theatre catches on, nobody can say. I’ve gone all-in that it will. The initial reviews have been good. Better than good. Great. But many others have gone all-in and have lost all. You see it at the casinos every day. But there is one advantage of the book that sticks, no matter if the book is successful or not. Only by writing a book can you experience the feeling of reading your own book. Reading your own book is that feeling, the feelings amongst. Out of a thousand people, maybe five or six have have experienced its highs and lows.

The lows come when I spot a line that doesn’t flow. Here’s one: “Ferdinand wants to become a great figure of state like his father, the peerless Duke of Alba.” The word “great” should have been omitted. “Figure of state” already conveys that the Duke of Alba is great. And, if anyone missed that the Duke of Alba was great, he is also described in the same sentence as being “peerless.” Too many descriptive words mar the sentence. Reading it pains me. But it is a most exquisite pain, as it arose out of my own weakness as a writer.

The joys of reading your own book are many. The book contains an archaeological trove of memories that are unearthed by the act of reading. Here’s a line from the book “Fools go for a home run when they can get by with a hit.” That was written one night I was listening to Springsteen’s song “My best was never good enough.” His lyric fell straight into the book. Athaliah’s “secret heart” came from Feist’s song “Secret Heart.” Rich’s “obsequious and arrogant” soul came from Motorhead’s song “Orgasmatron.” There are many more, and not only music. Reading the book brings back a flood of memories, bits of life that have happened during the thirteen years of writing, bits of life that would have been forgotten forever. An author reads his book like no other reader. To have experienced reading your own book is a bucket list item.

5

Truly fascinating is a comparison of what the author believes readers should take away from the work, and what readers actually take away from the work. The most celebrated example is Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Although written as a diatribe against capitalism, it propelled greed to new heights. Wall Street traders adopted the principal character, Gordon Gekko, as their new saint, and created a new code of conduct around his words, ‘Greed is good’. Before the movie, traders did not wear contrast collars (e.g. white collar on a blue shirt) or suspenders. But, the villain so impressed Wall Street that it gave Wall Street a new dress code: contrast collars and suspenders. The movie became a cultural phenomenon. Everyone wanted to emulate Gordon Gekko, patron saint of capitalism. Somewhere Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas hung their heads in their hands.

While not on a level even approaching Wall Street, there is a slight divergence between my hopes (as an author) and what readers have reported. To me, the most devastating realization the book offers is that the art of tragedy is actually a thermodynamic process governed by the Second Law of thermodynamics. To quote one of my favourite passages:

Tragedy may be viewed of as a fiery engine that consumes ambition, purpose, and desire. Into the maw of its furnace, heroes are cast like lumps of flashing coal. They set afire tragedy’s engine for a moment and then are no more. Tragedy, as if it were a closed thermodynamic system, ends up in a lower state of potential, whether by the death of a Tamburlaine or a Caesar, the exile of Oedipus, or the loss of a Joan of Arc or a master builder. Fuel, once spent, loses its potential; likewise, the energy of human will, purpose, endeavour, and the fire of the human imagination go cold. Time, in tragedy, measures the rising entropy, or disorder, of the dramatic world. By an immutable law, as it were, as the minutes give way to hours, and the hours give way to days, kingdoms collapse, heroes perish, and order gives way to disorder.

Thus far, reviewers have focussed on the main theme: risk. No reviewer has yet commented on the final chapters of the book–the strongest chapters, in my opinion. Why was that? To me, this is a great mystery. If a reviewer would be able to comment on these last chapters, I would be most grateful. Here’s what reviewers have written up to today:

“The author’s passion for his subject comes across in nearly every statement . . . An ambitious, though-provoking critique of tragedy in the 21st century.”—Kirkus Reviews

*****I have just finished reading Edwin Wong’s ‘The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy’ and, although I was initially skeptical of his bold claim of an original theory of tragic drama, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading about this classicist’s main belief. As I turned the pages his theory grew on me and I found myself both convinced and gripped by this new perspective on tragedy. His low- probability, high-consequence outcome theory does indeed resonate with the risk takers of today and I thoroughly recommend this scholarly work to anyone interested in both theatrical and real life tragedy based on risk. As the author himself writes, ‘A working model of tragedy that is both original and rooted in tradition.’

A remarkable book in every way. A must for every serious dramatist to read, ponder over and act upon.

David Duncan – Goodreads

*****IF YOU EVER PLAN TO WRITE, READ OR ACT IN A TRAGEDY THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU! The author writes that “after two and a half millennia, tragedy is still a term in search of a definition.” He interestingly describes how each age creates its own model. The ancients “assigned the unexpected outcome to the will of the gods” while the Elizabethans established “the first great age of tragedy in the era of probability”. Mr. Wong provides a model for our highly technological time where “the possibility of doing great good or evil has increased” where “the unexpected always prevails”. He makes a very convincing case that the study of tragedy enhances our understanding of life and its value. As did I, readers of this highly stimulating book will undoubtedly ask themselves what they would be willing to wager in their lives and for what. As an actor who has performed in tragedies, and a playwright who has attempted to write one, I know that this is a book to which I will often refer.
PS: Be sure to read the footnotes which are chock full of good stuff from Wild Bill Hickok anecdotes to the link between tragedy and goats! Tragedy will rise again!!

Alan Thurston – Barnes & Noble

*****INNOVATIVE, ENGAGING, & VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING! Wong’s insightful and excellently-sourced treatise on “risk theatre” reframes our understanding of tragedy in terms of how hero’s (often flawed) analysis of risks and rewards prompts them to make decisions that set actions in motion leading to their tragic outcomes. He organizes information so effectively, providing relevant examples from classical and modern drama. You are never bogged down in the philosophy- rather, you are encouraged to expand how this new framework will inspire NEW content. Wong is hopeful in his desire to push the bounds of what modern tragedy will look like, and readers of this text and playwrights inspired by it are better for it!

Emily McClain – Amazon

****Anyone who has taken a story writing or screenplay class in America has likely come across The Hero With a Thousand Faces at some point. If not the exact book itself, then another author has often either borrowed quotes or elements of Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Some teachers consider it inseparable to modern cinema and media; it’s just about everywhere.

But if Campbell’s ideas cause resistance—which is becoming a trend nowadays, in my personal experience at least—Wong’s smooth model may be a wiser introduction. Campbell’s form may get learners lost in the message, the process, and the terminology for understanding a work. Wong’s methodology encourages a focused structure for a character’s thought processes throughout the story. It’s through establishing their personal risks and the consequences of their actions that there can be a real momentum. For me, and I’m sure others, that is the best-if-felt heart. Makes a story beat and dance with life.

Sure, Wong arranges his processes for the tragedy genre in mind, so there are certain constraints that may not apply. Like a fateful mishap tripping the heroes’ supposed victory and leading to a death may not be appropriate for a children’s book. But I believe most of Wong’s proposed techniques can be used for anything that has a story. I’d recommend this for anyone who wants to write or needs a refresher on character building, not just in the theater world too. Useful framing device if you’re feeling stuck.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a nimble read. If I were to criticize the writing, it’s close to a dry textbook with cohesive examples. Depending on the type of reader you are, that might mean a fascinating analysis or a snore fest. Several popular Shakespearean examples too, so that might not be up your alley to reread if you’ve already read so much of Shakespeare.

For me though, I enjoyed the overall experience and I learned something. If I lived in LA, I’d be up to seeing it in person too. Maybe someday, eh?

I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.

Cavak – Goodreads

*****VERY INTERESTING READ Interesting review of risk as related to everyday life.

Gordjohn – Amazon

*****AN IMPORTANT WORK ON A FASCINATING TOPIC I loved this book! The author is a fan of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and even quotes one of my favorite passages from LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, where James O’Neill laments sacrificing his career for money, and wonders what is was he wanted.
The book itself is an entertaining and insightful reimagining of a model for modern tragedy – Risk Theater – into today’s world of technology and global risk. I think this is an interesting premise, as the modern tragic heroes are not kings but hedge fund managers and tech moguls, playing games of chance that risk the lives of people around the world.
The author has a deep knowledge of the classics which he utilizes to build a guidebook for how playwrights can use the concepts of existential gambles, unexpected events, and “the price you pay.” I particularly liked his theory or counter monetization, a welcome answer to a society that too often worships money at the expense of deeper values, and how that relates to a modern way of looking at tragedy.
The Risk Theater Model of Tragedy offers a fresh perspective not only of the classical theater but more importantly how we can restructure the old paradigms in a way that speaks to modern audiences. It’s an important work, and will hopefully inspire playwrights everywhere to reimagine classical themes in a dynamic and exciting ways.

Mike – Amazon

*****A POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS As an emerging playwright challenged to write high stakes drama that often has tragic consequences, I am grateful to Edwin Wong for his book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. It gives me a powerful tool and template to write modern tragedy. It belongs on every playwright’s desk.

Marc Littman, playwright – Amazon

*****Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Stunning! I had to re-read the “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy” by Edwin Wong. It was too good. It is a delight to recreate the possible scenarios exposed by the author in a very original thematic treatment of theater that invites further discussion and analysis. It is also a compendium of high academic and cogent discourse, a complete high level ‘theory’ on how to model and perform stage plays. He couples it with almost a ‘how-to’ reference guide on how to produce compelling theater by presenting the reader with an exhaustive analysis and classification of different facets of prior stage productions, from the Greek classics to modern times’ productions. The book is chock’full of insights and intriguing revelations. Edwin draws a narrative comparing and contrasting different elements of risk and relates these to modern audiences. The author’s vast breadth of knowledge, drawing upon his years of experience as a theatre critic and forward thinker in the performing arts world has crafted together a robust tome with incredible completeness and complexity – which should be on every aspiring playwright’s desk. I can anticipate a wave of theater academics referencing this book in their class syllabus.

Conchita – Amazon

*****If you haven’t read a scholarly book in a while and you feel that your brains are getting rusty, I recommend THE RISK MODEL of TRAGEDY. It manages to be highbrow but lucid, free of the cant of so much modern critical theory. The theatrical genre of tragedy was deemed to be needed along with comedy in ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and should be re-invented in the USA today, if we truly want to be great. What are we afraid of?

Daniel Curzon – Barnes & Noble

“A fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times . . . A nearly bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.”—Editor, Friesen Press

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am doing Melpomene’s work by writing this autoreview.