Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic – Eagleton (Part 2 of 3)

2003 Blackwell Publishers, 328 pages (continued from part 1)

Chapter 4: Heroes

Summary: Eagleton deconstruct Dorothea Krook’s traditionalist interpretation of tragedy as presented in Elements of Tragedy. To Krook and other traditionalists, tragedy involves a strong-willed, active hero who represents humanity. He atones for guilt or sin through conscious suffering. Though he suffers, his sufferings reaffirms the supremacy of the moral order and the dignity of the human spirit. Through courage and endurance the hero converts the mystery of suffering into something intelligible. Eagleton finds this view unpleasant and sadistic. First criticism: Aristotle, John Jones say that tragedy is about an action, not a hero. Krook’s term ‘tragic hero’ is unknown to the ancients, who said ‘tragic protagonist’. Second criticism: not all tragic heroes have tragic flaws: Oedipus, Agamemnon, Orestes, Antigone, Iphigenia, Hieronimo, Tamburlaine, Desdemona, and Macbeth don’t. Also, not all tragic heroes are attractive: Faust and Hedda Gabler are not likeable. Fourth criticism: many tragedies end well, proving that tragic practice is more of a mixed affair than the gloom of tragic theory. Fifth criticism: not all heroes are of patrician stature. Raymond Williams says he, as an ordinary man, has seen tragedy in a dead father, a divided city, and world war. Schopenhauer ‘thinks even so that the powerful make the best protagonists—not because they are necessarily noble-spirited, but because their more extravagant plunges from grace render the tragedy more grippingly terrible for the spectators’. The duke out between Aeschylus and Euripides in Aristophanes’ Frogs shows that bourgeois tragedy was already possible long ago. Arden of Feversham shows bourgeois roots of tragedy in Renaissance.

Reaction: Risk theatre would say that patricians star in tragedies because they make the drama exciting. Now, if you were going to the casino to watch gamblers, would you watch them gamble at the nickel and dimes tables or would you watch the action at the no-limit table? I agree with Schopenhauer here: sure bourgeois tragedy is possible. But would it be entertaining?

You know, a long time ago in Homeric scholarship, they had this thing called the ‘Homeric question’: was the Iliad and the Odyssey written by one or many hands? The analysts said ‘many hands’: these epics were the product of an oral tradition going back hundreds of years. The unitarians said ‘one hand’: ‘Homer’ was a real poet who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. Well, I think, in truth, the analysts won out. Maybe ‘Homer’ sang a version of these epics, but the epics themselves are a product of an oral tradition. But despite this, you know, I always liked the Unitarians. There is something beautiful in the image of the blind bard Homer composing these two cornerstones of literature. The unitarians defended the tradition, the beautiful tradition. I appreciated them for that. So here’s my point. Yeah, of course Eagleton is right in deconstructing Krook’s traditionalist approach. But what does he offer us to take its place? That’s the difference between a good and a great theorist. Good theorists can deconstruct. But great theorists deconstruct and build something in its place. That’s one thing I liked about Nietzsche. He tore down conventional morality (which is difficult, but not super difficult). But what he did was he built back an alternative morality based on the ‘superman’, the ‘eternal recurrence’, and the ‘will to power’. Six more chapters to go, ball’s in your court, Eagleton! I know these other theories don’t work, but you gotta have skin in the game if you’re going to bash these other folks: throw your ‘better’ theory out there!

Chapter 5: Freedom, Fate and Justice

Summary: There is no discussion of fate or the determining sway of the gods in Aristotle’s Poetics (nor of Dionysus, I might add). Friedrich Holderlin writes to a friend that tragedy is the strictest of all poetic forms, starkly unornamented and denying all accident. Chorus in Anouihl’s Antigone: ‘The machine is in perfect order, it has been oiled since time began, and it runs without friction [ed. then why would it need oil?] … Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless .. Death, in a melodrama is really horrible because it is never inevitable. In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquillity … Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped’. Tragedy is not supposed to be a matter of luck; but is it not more tragic to be struck down by an illness which afflicts only one in a million than to die of old age? On how tragedy and irony (end state completely contrary to what was expected) are bound together: ‘if life-forms are intricately but not organically bound up with each another you can never calculate exact outcomes, any more than you can in the market-place. Action taken at one spot in this great web will resonate throughout the whole tangled skein, breeding noxious effects where one least expects them. Extended discussion of nature of freedom and fate. As is Eagleton’s custom, he quotes a one-liner from all the usual suspects (Lacan, Nietzsche, Kant, Hegel, etc.,). For example: ‘As Fredric Jameson puts it, historiography shows us why what happened had to happen the way it did. Freedom, once narrativized, reads like necessity. Writes also on didactic function of tragedy. But takes an anti-didactic view: if tragedy is predestined, how can it warn? And if tragedy lacks justice, how can it teach integrity?

Reaction: Aristotle is still the benchmark and starting point of the discussion. I find this surprising. How often do you pick up a modern book on mathematics and find the discussion centred around Euclid and Pythagoras? Or when was the last time you picked up a modern book on astronomy to find the discussions revolving around Ptolemy’s theories? Or a book on physics to find extended discussion on Democritus’ atomic model? You could argue, and with success, that art doesn’t progress with cumulative achievements like science. But I’d argue differently: maybe Pheidias and Rodin are on the same level, but do we venerate the Stone Age equivalent of Pheidias and Rodin? Art (and criticism) does advance. Once day, Bach and Beethoven will be forgotten. Heresy? Well, name a musician prior to Bach?–you know, they had great musicians before Bach. Maybe you would say Buxtehude, or Frescobaldi. Maybe you can go back to Hildegard von Bingen or Pope Gregory of Gregorian chant fame. But you see what I mean: nothing lasts forever. Why is Aristotle the last word on tragedy today? Someone help me here.

It strikes me in this massive (this is a long chapter) discussion on fate and freedom that Eagleton wants all tragedy to demonstrate either fate or free will. If a critic says that tragedy is about fate, Eagleton cites tragedies where the hero is free; if another critic says that tragedy demonstrates freedom, he cites tragedies of fate in rebuttal. Couldn’t there be some tragedies of fate and other tragedies of free will? The more I read this book, the more it seems like it’s open season on ‘traditionalist’ and ‘conservative’ critics such as Krooks and Steiner. They do evil in the sight of Eagleton. On the other hand, Williams only does good in the sight of Eagleton, only gentle rebukes here, and those are rare. Eagleton is of two minds on Nietzsche. He doesn’t like the aristocrat in him but values his contributions. His relationship with Kaufmann is peculiar. When Kaufmann expresses divergent opinions, he seems genuinely surprised. His little body blows to religion get tiring: e.g. Christ, provided that he wasn’t insane, and we have no reason to think he was crazy … Geez, was that necessary? Of course he doesn’t question Nietzsche’s sanity…

With regard to tragedy’s didactic function, risk theatre dissents from Eagleton. Risk theatre argues that audiences’ awareness of risk increases when they see how low-probability, high-consequence events cast heroes down, heroes who had every expectation of success. In today’s age of technological and manufactured risks (nuclear power, GMOs, mutual assured destruction ideologies, and AI), it befits us to be aware of what risk is and of what happens when our expectations go awry: ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry’ runs the old saw, and it is true today more than ever. Scientists, engineers, and Wall Street tycoons are today’s masters of the universe, they are the modern day Macbeths and Oedipuses, playing with fire.

Chapter 6: Pity, Fear, and Pleasure

Summary: Philosophy is the antidote to the tragic, writes Plato. Aristotle introduces his catharsis doctrine to rehabilitate tragedy from Plato. Summary of Mandel, Lessing, Milton, and others on tragedy’s effects on our emotions. Pity is a spectator sport. Discussion of incest in tragedy, of how alterity is (in the normal world) grounds for intimacy. Why does tragedy give pleasure is among the hoariest of philosophical questions. Answers: 1) purges excess emotions, 2) pleasure in mimesis, 3) shapes suffering into pattern, 4) puts petty troubles in chastening perspective, 5) enjoy watching others suffer, 6) enjoy pitying others, 7) enjoy seeing balance of cosmic justice restored, 8) always pleasant to witness an evil from which you yourself are exempt, 9) fulfilment of poetic justice, and 10) sado-masochistic pleasure. Chapter concludes with Eagleton’s eagerly awaited conclusions: ‘Few artistic forms display such impressive erotic economy, and perhaps none caters so cunningly to our sadism, masochism and moral conscience all at the same time. Few, also, reveal such a close mirroring between the transactions on stage and the transactions between stage and spectators.

Reaction: I like Eagleton’s different strokes for different folks approach: soft-hearts, hard-noses, and psychopaths will react differently to the same show. How does my theory of risk theatre explain the pleasure of tragedy? It’s simple! Since heroes are gamblers, theatre is a casino, and the stage is like a high limit room, theatregoers, according to the risk theatre model of tragedy, experience the same pleasure spectators watching high stakes poker tournaments. There is the hubbub of the event, the ‘Oh hey there’s so and so’. Or ‘Who’s all here?’. Then there’s the wagers: ‘Oh! Should Mary really bet her kid’s college fund on this hand’, ‘Oh! Should Bob really be lay down his diamond wedding ring?—Sue looks pretty confident!’, or ‘Oh man, Macbeth is putting down the milk of human kindness for the crown? What if he loses it?’. So there’s adrenalin going through the audience first of all. And second of all, the audience feels apprehension, apprehension over the priceless human values and beliefs the heroes are wagering in risk theatre. Then there’s the thrill of suspense. You see enough tragedies, and you know something unexpected is going to happen—for good or bad. I just read Jennifer Wise’s article on the prevalence of ‘happy ending’ tragedies in 5th century Athens and yeah it’s true: there’s lots of ‘happy ending’ tragedies in Attic tragedy and after. Well, when these heroes ante up everything and leverage themselves up 100:1, there’s a certain thrill because you know something unexpected and out of left field is going to happen. Maybe we’ll call the pleasure of tragedy ‘apprehension and anticipation’.

Okay, that’s it for today. I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by reading tragic theory. Stay tuned for a writeup on chapters 7-10 of Eagleton’s book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic.