Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic – Eagleton (Part 1 of 3)

2003 Blackwell Publishers, 328 pages

Back Blurb:

In this dazzling book, Terry Eagleton provides a comprehensive study of tragedy, all the way from Aeschylus to Edward Albee, dealing with both theory and practice, and moving between ideas of tragedy and analyses of particular works and authors. This amazing tour de force steps out beyond the stage to reflect not only on tragic art but also on real-life tragedy. It explores the idea of the tragic in the novel, examining such writers as Melville, Hawthorne, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Manzoni, Goethe and Mann, as well as English novelists.

With his characteristic brilliance and inventiveness of mind, Eagleton weaves together literature, philosophy, ethics, theology, and political theory. In so doing he makes a major political—philosophical statement drawn from a startling range of Western thought, in the writings of Plato, St Paul, St Augustine, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre and others.

This book takes serious issue with the idea of ‘the death of tragedy’, and gives a comprehensive survey of definitions of tragedy itself, arguing a radical and controversial case.

An ambitious all-encompassing political-philosophical approach. It covers under the umbrella of tragedy all the way from the dramatic form of tragedy, real life tragedy, tragedy in novels, and the philosophy of tragedy, otherwise called the tragic. First question: why doesn’t the back blurb say one or two words on Eagleton’s ‘radical and controversial case’? Will Sweet Violence be similar to Raymond Williams’ 1966 Modern Tragedy, which was also a rebuke of George Steiner’s 1961 title The Death of Tragedy?

My Reaction to the Back Blurb

My title, Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected maintains a narrower scope: the art form of tragedy and the philosophy of tragedy. It leaves out real life tragedy (except for a brief discussion at the end) and tragic novels. It never occurred to me to include studies of real life tragedies such as AIDS, Chernobyl, the Challenger explosion, and others. If I had talked about the Challenger or the Fukushima tragedies, from my risk theatre model, I’d have to say that they could be similar to the art form of tragedy if they could be framed in such a way: the planner or engineer entrusted with the design and build of the space shuttle or nuclear power plant does his best to make it safe. He plans for the contingencies that he thinks will be likely to happen. He does his best to make it safe. He plans enough safeties so that the project can withstand a one in a hundred year event. He knows that, should a one in a thousand year event happen, lives will be endangered. He also knows if the project doesn’t go ahead bad things will happen. Maybe the Soviets will get ahead in the space race. Maybe people won’t have power. He weighs the opportunity costs of building the project, and decides to go ahead. After the project is built, a one in a thousand year event happens and all is ruined. So my idea of risk theatre could be extended to real life. But it’s hard. One of the things I talk about in my book is that tragedy is an ex-ante art: heroes base their decisions on forecasts. They don’t know what’s going to happen. In real life, you don’t know about the disaster until after it’s happened and you see the disaster from an ex-post, after the fact perspective. When that happens, people will usually form a committee to examine the accident and point fingers. That’s when tragedy gets ruined. I think that’s what Nietzsche was getting at when he said that Euripides and Socrates wrecked tragedy: their rationalist and enlightened interpretations of reality chase out that last little vestige of uncertainty in reality. To the rationalists, everything can be known in advance. And if it could have been foreseen, then it’s not tragedy, as it could have been avoided. The point of tragedy is that it couldn’t have been avoided. Each time Othello will strangle Desdemona. Each time Polyneices will be waiting for Eteocles at the seventh gate. Over and over.


Summary of Eagleton’s arguments: tragedy’s too serious for postmodernists, too fatalistic for leftists, and too macho for feminists. Sweet Violence is not a historical study. Historicist and culturalist approaches to suffering place suffering in a historical or cultural setting. Historicist and culturalist approaches avoid tragedy because tragedy places suffering in a transhistorical context: remember historicism by definition states that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history. The ‘state of suffering’ that tragedy believes in, or seems to dramatize, is anathema to the historicist and culturalist purview. But this is wrong: ‘tragic art highlights what is perishable, contracted, fragile and slow-moving about us, as a rebuke to culturalist or historicist hubris’. The political left is silent about religion. Next thesis statement: ‘there are also theological ideas which can be politically illuminating, and this book is among other things and exploration of them’. Sweet Violence is Eagleton’s attempt to reconcile tragedy with the political left. It is a political study of tragedy.

My Reaction to the Introduction:

I buy his argument that tragedy is too full of fate and macho heroes for modern sensibilities. But aren’t some of our modern sensibilities shaped by the political left? I’m thinking of the Marxist playwright Arthur Miller. Or the anticapitalist Henrik Ibsen. So leftist critics don’t like tragedy but leftist dramatists do? And I would have thought tragedy would have been a happy hunting ground from feminists: from the beginning up to the present day, from Clytemnestra to Hedda Gabler, tragedy presents a veritable roll call of powerful female leads. In fact, I can only think of one tragedy that has no woman: and that would be Seneca’s over-the-top Thyestes. How does my title Risk Theatre fit in ? Well, the idea of heroes as high stakes gamblers gambling with values, beliefs, emotions should be politically agnostic. So risk theatre is not leftist, rightist, or feminist. You could say its postmodern in that it rejects modern theatre, e.g. epic theatre, metatheatre, theatre of the absurd, and the like. But risk theatre isn’t going back to Aristotle’s Poetics either. The argument that theatre dramatizes risk, the impact of the unexpected, and that heroes are high stakes gamblers isn’t going back to any specific theory. You could say it touches on Boethius’ conception of tragedy as involving fortune, but he didn’t include all the ludic aspects. Maybe risk theatre is a ludic theory of tragedy?—though ludic sounds too innocuous. I called risk theatre a neoclassical model in the book not because it was going back to classical models but because, from the beginning to the present day I find images of gambling in tragedy.

Chapter 1 A Theory in Ruins

Summary of Eagleton’s arguments: An overview of different definitions of tragedy from Aristotle to the present day. Why they are all wrong. The best ‘comprehensive’ definition of tragedy is ‘very sad’. But some sad events, such as Auschwitz, although it is ‘very sad’, is not understood to be tragedy. Plus, why are we enthralled by its sadness? Difference between term ‘tragic’ and similar, almost interchangeable terms such as ’misfortune’, ‘sad’, ‘shocking’. Formulaic rebuttals. Eagleton quotes the critic, and offers a riposte. For example: ‘As FL Lucas puts it: tragedy for the ancients means serious drama, for the middle ages a story with an unhappy ending, and for moderns a drama with an unhappy ending. It is hard to get more imprecise than that’. Or ‘Kenneth Burke’s definition of tragedy involves an essential moment of tragic recognition or anagnorisis, but while this may be true of Oedipus, it hold only doubtfully for Othello and hardly at all for Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. In the case of Phaedra, no such recognition is needed. Tragic art for conservative theorists is a supremely affirmative affair. Conservative theorists such as Franco Moretti therefore deny the tragic exists in real life, saving themselves from wishing for a cataclysmic affair to happen in actual life to justify life. Eagleton provides the following example: ‘all-out nuclear warfare would not be tragic, but a certain way of representing it in art might well be. Behind this apparently lunatic notion, which only the remarkably well-educated could conceivably have hatched, lie [sic] a series of false assumptions: that real life is shapeless, and art alone is orderly; that only in art can the value released by destruction be revealed; that real-life suffering is passive, ugly and undignified, whereas affliction in art has a heroic splendour of resistance; that art has a gratifying inevitability lacking in life’. If tragedy matters to modernity, it is as much as a theodicy, a metaphysical humanism, a critique of Enlightenment. The left rejects tragedy and the right endorses it.

My Response to Chapter 1

How profitable is this division between left and right? Didn’t both the left (freedom fighters) and the right (Nazis guards) applaud Anouihl’s Antigone in 1944 occupied Paris? I like the idea of tragedy as an antidote for Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophy taught us that we could know everything (e.g. Laplace’s demon who could work out the infinite past and future by studying the present and working causality forwards and backwards); tragedy teaches us that we know less that what we think. Some of Eagleton’s criticisms of other’s definitions don’t seem all that fair. For example, he calls out FL Lucas, but how far out is Lucas’ definition of tragedy from Henry Ansgar Kelly’s conclusions in Ideas and Forms of Tragedy whom Eagleton gives kudos to in his footnotes? As to Burke’s definition involving recognition, Eagleton cites Othello, Loman, and Phaedra as counterexamples. But doesn’t Othello have a recognition scene: he recognizes after he kills Desdemona that he’s been played by ‘honest’ Iago. Doesn’t Loman have a big recognition scene: the moment that he realizes that, because he has insurance, he’s worth more dead than alive?  Doesn’t Phaedra have a recognition scene: the moment that she realizes the Nurse has let her down? As for Auschwitz, I don’t think someone could make a tragic play out of that (does anyone consider Hochhuth’s The Deputy to be a tragedy?). Auschwitz is a tragedy in the sense that it’s a horrible event, but it’d be hard to dramatize. Risk theatre understands that tragedy involves a wager that’s gone awry. And the hero has to put up at stake something that belongs to himself that he considers valuable. Maybe a play could be made about a hero who wagers life and livelihood in order to put a stop to Auschwitz? As for an all-out nuclear war: I guess risk theatre could make that into a play if the all-out war involved some kind of miscalculation in the game of brinkmanship between the generals that neither of them originally wanted. Eagleton puts me on hard ground by saying theories of tragedy have to be valid for what is tragic in life and what is tragic on the stage. To me, they’re different things, different perspectives. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don’t.

I would like to know how Eagleton knows that it is a false assumption that real life is shapeless and art alone is orderly. Lots of things in real life are shapeless: Brownian motion, the day to day movement of the stock market is a random walk (Fama won the 2013 Nobel for this discovery), Meursault’s life in Camus’ The Outsider. Risk theatre would find that ‘only in art can the value released by destruction be revealed’ because it is only when we see the hero’s reaction to loss that we can understand that the loss of what the hero staked is real. For example, I would argue that in his ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’ soliloquy, Macbeth makes it absolutely clear the worth of what he has lost because of how much it hurts. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone, runs the old saw. And that saw applies to tragedy: heroes have to lose because you don’t know the value of what you have until it’s irrevocably wrenched away.

Chapter 2 The Value of Agony

Summary of Eagleton’s arguments: Hegel, Racine, Milton and others think tragic art is best thing since sliced bread. But their opinion is not shared by publishers and publicity agents. Public does not like tragic plays and novels where all hope is lost. Yeats and other writes, however, find that tragedy is more about ecstasy than agony. Tragedy, according to the artists (D. D. Raphael, Nietzsche, Eugene O’Neill, Richard Wagner), is just the thing that lifts one spirits after bankruptcy or bereavement. For Murray Gilbert, tragedy attests the triumph of the human soul over triumph and disaster. Eagleton agrees tragedy needs meaning and value if only to violate them. Franco Moretti quote: ‘It is as though it were argued that by strangling Desdemona, Othello paid tribute to her importance’. F. L. Lucas quote: ‘Tragedy portrays life so that its tears become a joy forever’. Eagleton says this is sadism. Kaufmann quote: “Kaufmann, rather extraordinarily, seems to think that there is solace in the thought that suffering is general, not just peculiar to oneself. It might be the thought os someone else being decapitated is usually comforting, but this is not much consolation when one is trying to come to terms with bereavement’. Disagrees with Steiner that tragedy is incompatible with Christian and Marxist worldviews. T. R. Henn quote with Eagleton’s reaction: “‘there is implicit, not only the possibility of redemption, but the spiritual assertion that man is splendid in his ashes, and can transcend his nature’. It is hard to see that the victims of Bosnia or Cambodia are particularly splendid in their ashes; and if Henn is reserving the triumph for art rather than life, then it is difficult to see its relevance to the latter.”

My Response to Chapter 2

Tragedy’s popularity among writers and its lack of popularity among the public reminds me of certain music bands who are more popular with other music bands than with the general public, bands like Velvet Underground, Rush (though Rush are pretty big), and Robert Johnson. Leonard Cohen probably falls into this category: for decades I had heard his covers (e.g. Everybody Knows covered by Concrete Blonde) thinking that they were original songs by the covering bands. Sometimes I would think, ‘Wow, all of a sudden their lyrics have become more profound!’ It wasn’t until hearing the song that concluded the movie Winterschlafer that I found out about Cohen. And then when I looked up with discography, I recognized about half the songs through covers! Obviously the bands had been listening to him more than the radio has been playing him. To me, tragedy is like the Velvets or Cohen, who sing about unhappy things. But wouldn’t you say their songs elevate the worth of life by portraying hurt?

Speaking of music, they did a recent study of what music people grew up listening to, and how successful they were later in life. And the winner?—heavy metal, believe it or not. And the loser, or least successful?—those who listened to pop music. The researchers came to the conclusion that heavy metal, by depicting the world as a hard, dog-eat-dog place, instilled the values of endurance and perseverance in young listeners. Conversely, pop music, by depicting an easy go lucky world, disillusioned listeners, who as they grew up and moved out into the real world, found that things aren’t that easy. There is a value to agony. And it is art’s job to inculcate its audiences with the right values. What are the right values? Well, that depends on what sort of world it is out there!

One thing my risk theatre model does is it asserts that there is solace in that suffering is general, and not specific. In ancient times, a commonplace of consolation was to say to the sufferer, ‘this is not to you alone, many others have suffered what you suffer’. This commonplace of consolation appears frequently in ancient tragedy, where it is voiced by the chorus. So when Theseus loses his wife in Hippolytus, the chorus, to assuage him, says ‘you are not the first to lose a wife, many others have as well’. It may sound grating on modern ears, but writers such as Cicero, Plutarch, and pseudo-Seneca have all written about the commonplace of consolation as being effective. Now, as to how victims of political injustice probably don’t take comfort in being splendid in their ashes, well it is true…in real life. Tragedy furnishes examples that can defend Henn’s position: consider Goethe’s Egmont. In that play, Freedom personified comes to visit Egmont, who is glumly awaiting execution. Learning that his death will kickstart the revolts that will eventually restore liberty to the Low Countries, he dies in an exalted state. Now it’s true that the victims of Bosnia and Cambodia are hardly splendid in their ashes, as Eagleton says. But what about those who died at Tianamen Square? Are they ‘splendid’ or ‘wasted’ ashes? On Eagleton’s comments that art transforming sorrow into joy, I recall Homer’s lines in the Iliad where Helen says to Priam that Zeus has given them sorrows so that their stories can be a story for the future singers to sing.

I take it that Eagleton wants to draw a sort of equal sign between actual tragedy and tragedy in drama. He wants them to be the same. Risk theatre differentiates itself from Eagleton’s views in that it posits that art and life are not the same. Risk theatre says that tragedy in drama is a high-stakes gambling act gone awry. Real life tragedies can be material for tragic drama only if they are presented as a gambling act gone awry.

Chapter 3 From Hegel to Beckett

Summary of Eagleton’s arguments: this chapter is on various tragic theories from Hegel to Beckett. For instance: ‘Far from being a catastrophe, tragic art for Hegel is supremely affirmative. It is the finest working model we have of how Spirit, once pitched into contention with itself, restores its own unity through negation … The world is rational, even if, curiously, it is through violent destruction that we come to appreciate the fact’. Eagleton comments on commentator’s favourite tragedies: ‘As far as Marlowe goes, it is true that Hegel has in mind ancient rather than modern tragedy. But even here his reflections are far too conditioned by Antigone, as Aristotle’s are by King Oedipus. It is remarkable how many general theories of tragedy have been spun out of a mere two or three texts. Eagleton on how for modern thinkers tragedy has become an ersatz religion. Nice purple passage from Jean-Francois Lyotard: ‘a narrow complicity is established between the sinner and the confessor, the witch and the exorcist, sex and sainthood’. Eagleton fills in Lyotard’s quote with Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, an atheist who writes articles on theology. Nice analysis of T. S. Eliot’s Family Reunion and Murder in the Cathedral: ‘What matters in Eliot is not action, and not even the consciousness of it, which is invariably false consciousness, but those meanings which act themselves out on a different stage altogether, that of the spirit or the unconscious’. Kierkegaard also covered, for whom ‘the tragic is the finite that comes into conflict with the infinite’. Nietzsche the counter-Enlightenment philosopher is contrasted with Hegel, the Enlightenment philosopher who tried to incorporate reason with tragedy. Some lines from Eagleton that have the klang of risk theatre: ‘Tragedy can be an index of the outrageous price we have sometimes to pay for truth and justice, not of their illusoriness … suffering is a measure of how catastrophic things are with us that change must be bought at so steep a cost’. Eagleton sees tragedy as revolution with Williams. ‘In ancient cults of sacrifice, value stemmed from the expiatory potential of death’. Nice Melville Moby Dick quote (which I recently read): even the highest earthly felicities ever have a certain unsignifying pettiness lurking in them’. It goes well with the Lyotard quote, above.

My Response to Chapter 3

With the brilliant Melville and Lyotard quotes, I wonder if Eagleton is a closet gnostic?–you know, those who believe that God contain in himself both good and evil. Of course, from Eagleton’s comments on religion, I would have to guess that, if he is a closet gnostic, he would be a closet atheist-gnostic, if such a thing were possible. I think he uses the Lyotard quote is perfect since, for someone who spends so much time remonstrating Christianity, he is very well versed in its workings. The book has lots and lots of quotes, which Eagleton sometimes hides his true beliefs behind. His technique goes something like this: writers x, y, and z are wrong. But it’s hard to see what he himself actually believes. So far I gather that he likes Williams and doesn’t like Steiner and Krook. He grudgingly accepts Hegel and Nietzsche, or at least refrains from showering them with invective. He also enjoys Kaufmann, a writer I also enjoy. I presume in the later chapters his political theory of tragedy as a sweet, violent, and revolution inducing art will become clearer. Nice to see some lines that look at tragedy as an index of the cost of the price the hero pays. This jives well with risk theatre, my economic study of tragedy based on the principle of opportunity cost. There is a fundamental difference between our interpretations of cost, however. For Eagleton, what the hero sacrifices is lesser in value than what he hopes to gain (he uses the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac). According to risk theatre, the value of  what is staked is exactly equal to the value of what is at stake.

to be continued…

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’ve been doing Melpomene’s work by reading Eagleton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic.