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

2003 Blackwell Publishers, 328 pages (continued from part 2)

Chapter 7: Tragedy and the Novel

Summary: Tragic novels began with Hardy, James, and Conrad. Some near misses in Dickens’ late works. Of course there is also Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Mention of Moby-Dick. This must be one of Eagleton’s faves, as there have been a consistent string of Moby-Dick quotes (and good ones) through the whole book. Fewer precipices and hairpin turns in novels compared with drama. Aldous Huxley argues that novel, in contrast to tragedy, tries to ‘tell the whole truth’ and dilutes the elemental drive of tragedy. Quotes John Orr saying that late nineteenth-century tragedy springs from peripheries: Scandinavia, Russia, Ireland, and Spain: ‘Tragic art could not have sprung from the major epicentres of European capitalism at the time, nor chosen its tragic protagonists from the urban bourgeoisie of the major nations’. To see the novel as an antidote to tragedy is to view it as an intrinsically liberal form, decentred, dialogical, and open-ended, a champion of growth, change and provisionality as anti-tragic modes. The wisdom of the folk is resolutely anti-tragic. The stage does indeed generally demand more swashbuckling moments. Goethe comments in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship that things in drama hurry on apace and the active hero carries all before him, whereas the typical hero of the novel is more passive. Indeed, the relations between the two genres can be seen as an allegory of the relations between the middle class and aristocracy—the middle class needing to hijack for its own political ends something of the grandiloquence and ceremonial forms of its superiors, while feeling these forms to be too shackling and simplistic for its own psychologically intricate life-world. Wilhelm Meister begins by elevating the Muse of Tragedy over the figure of Commerce, but by the end of the novel, having met with no particular success on stage, he will acknowledge commerce as the true form of nobility.

Reaction: I think tragedy is more like a polar bear swim: that’s the New Years ritual where swimmers jump into the icy water and then back out again just as quickly. Tragedy is like a 100 metre dash. Novels, on the other hand, are like a 10k run, others are like a marathon. So there’s the one difference in, what shall we call it, ‘pace’ perhaps. And the other big difference is that you read a novel at home while you go out to see a tragedy. Or at least, tragedy was meant to be performed rather than read from the armchair: public vs. private. The difference between the two is like going out to see Bruckner’s Ninth at the symphony hall or listening to it at home on a hi-fi system.

It would be interesting to do a study of tragic novels made into movies, i.e. Moby-Dick. You can see how the movie makes everything more direct: the introspective chapters on different types of whales, whale anatomy, the history of the whaling trade, the examination of the harpoon and the towing mechanism, etc., have all been excised. Even the Fedallah character (Ahab’s mysterious double) and his prophecies have been removed. It’s cut bare bones to the ‘man vs. whale’ theme. And it’s a good movie.

Eagleton’s comment on folk wisdom being resolutely anti-tragic resonated with me. Folk wisdom, being from the school of hard knocks, instinctively avoids big risks. Places like Wall Street rewards big risks: a well placed bet can double or triple what is staked. My personal best was Apple. Bought at $27 (Cdn) a share. Taking into account the 2-for-1 stock split in 2005 and the 7-for-1 split in 2014, it’s worth, $2734 (Cdn) today. Of course, I only bought one share. What happened was it was Christmas, and I found this neat site called oneshare.com. They would send you a framed stock certificate of your favourite stock . I got mom and dad a share of Coke, my son a share of Walt-Disney, and my sister a share of Apple. This was pre-iPhone or iPod Apple. Steve Jobs had just come back and he’d introduced the candy coloured iMacs. Well, after getting the family framed stock certificates, I thought I would get myself, for old times’ sakes, a share as well. Anyway, I digress. But folk wisdom doesn’t originate from Wall Street. Folk wisdom is tied to the land, agricultural in its origins. You can bet on growing this crop or that crop, but whatever crop you bet on, the price per bushel isn’t going to go from $27/bushel to $2734/bushel in any time soon. And if you bet too big and bet wrong, you and your family are going to starve. So yeah, risk theatre would agree with Eagleton here: folk wisdom is anti-tragic. But the reason risk theatre finds folk wisdom anti-tragic differs from Eagleton. Risk theatre finds that folk wisdom is anti-tragic because folk wisdom preaches a low risk approach. Risk theatre demands high risk to make the show exciting.

Chapter 8: Tragedy and Modernity

Summary: Spinoza foreign to the spirit of tragedy: according to Spinoza, all things, including nature, proceed from the mind of God and the human mind can grasp this procession, since it too is part of God’s intellect. In Spinoza’s universe, nothing happens by chance. Spinoza’s rationalistic, scientistic, totalizing approach disliked by modernity. Eagleton finds that there is irony in the proposal that the idea of tragedy is a full-blooded critique of modernity. As usual, he quotes Steiner, who is, surprise surprise, mistaken: ‘Tragic drama tells us that the sphere of reason, order, and justice are terribly limited and that no progress in our science or technical resources will enlarge their relevance’. Eagleton finds that there are more real-life tragedies now than any other point in history. Eagleton believes that tragedy does not so much die in the twentieth century so much as it mutates into modernity. In modernity, according to Eagleton, Eros is sublimated into building banks and opera halls, depleting Eros’ internal reserves and leaving it open to Thanatos. In this view, the more civilized we are, the more we open ourselves to guilt and self-aggression. So there is something tragic at the heart of civilization: the irony of idealism. Nice Lukacs quote: ‘In tragedy God must leave the stage but must remain a spectator’. Eagleton writes: ‘The human has replaced the divine as the locus of absolute value; yet if God is dead, then as Nietzsche saw there is not vantage-point outside the human from which a judgement of its value could logically be made. The death of God, whatever Feuerbach may have thought, thus threatens to drag humanism down in its wake’.

‘For this current of late modernity’, writes Eagleton, ‘from Strindberg onwards, relationship is now tragic in itself. To exercise your freedom is to damage someone else … The price of freedom, then, is an incompatibility of persons or goods; and to this extent tragedy would seem built into a pluralist or individualist culture … Max Weber maintains that there are some fundamental, intractable conflicts of value that simply must be confronted .. Rosalind Hursthouse argues likewise, that virtue ethics accepts that there are situations in which you may act well but can still emerge with dirty hands … set exponent of this quasi-tragic moral theory is Isaiah Berlin, who maintains that the world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced by choices equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably mean the sacrifice of others … Nussbaum sees that any good worth pursuing is because it is bounded off from other things and potentially at odds with them’. Hey, this sounds like opportunity cost! And what is at the bottom of risk theatre: it’s the idea of opportunity cost.

Reaction: It seems like it is in this chapter that Eagleton finally starts revealing his own stand on tragedy. Why didn’t the book begin here? For all this talk about ‘God knows everything’ or ‘Because God knows all there cannot be tragedy’ or ‘If the world were deterministic tragedy is not possible’ what if I presented you another case? Why would it matter if the world was random or deterministic? Let’s say, a spectator believed—with Spinoza (for whom tragedy is not possible)—that the universe is deterministic. What would prevent this spectator, however, from enjoying a tragedy that portrayed a random world, you know, a world such as the one in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra? In that play, things happen quite by chance. For example, Lavinia walks into Christine’s bedroom to witness her father’s murder quite by happenstance. I can see Eagleton’s point with ever greater clarity: he wants to unify real-life tragedy and theatrical tragedy under one term: the ‘tragic’. Theatrical tragedy and real-life tragedy should be interchangeable, according to Eagleton. But why is art beholden to represent actual reality? And if tragedy is not possible in real life (because the universe if deterministic) why wouldn’t it be possible in art (where the universe can be deterministic, free, up, down, yellow, blue, or whatever you please)? My beef with Eagleton is that actual tragedy and theatrical tragedy are two different beasts. The ancient Greek did not call a real life tragedy a tragedy, they called a real life tragedy a sumphora. The ancient Romans were the same. To them, a real life tragedy was never a tragedy, it was a clades. It has only been since the sixteenth century that the term tragedy in English usage could denote either actual disaster or the art form of tragedy; it is a relatively new usage. In my book Risk Theatre, I talk about how theatre is an ex ante art: the stream of action proceeds on forecasts, projections, and best guesses. When we see tragedy or disaster in real life, we see it ex post, or after the fact. To me, the sense of the tragic from theatre revolves around the emotions of anticipation and apprehension over what will happen. Because we understand real life tragedy ex post, the feelings real life tragedy evokes are entirely different. First of all, there is no anticipation and apprehension because the event has already happened. I’m going to think about this some more, the question Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic raises in my mind more and more is: why does Eagleton want to unify real life tragedy and the art form of tragedy? What does he have to gain from this bold move? After all, for thousands of years (until the 1500s according to the Oxford English Dictionary), there were separate words for real life tragedy and the art form of tragedy. That is to say, the art form of tragedy existed a long time without having had anything to do at all with actual tragedy.

Eagleton’s argument (following Nietzsche) that the death of God robs humanity of a vantage-point outside the human form from which a judgement of its value could be made only appears half true. Nietzsche, it will be remembered, also argued that human existence could and must be judged as an aesthetic phenomenon. That is to say, art justifies and gives value to life. And, I think it could be argued that the inspiration of art comes to us—like prophecy and revelation—from beyond us; art can stand as a (somewhat) external judge of human value. Take my idea of risk theatre, which is built around the idea that heroes are gamblers who wager human beliefs and values. They wager these human ideals in the aesthetic realm of theatre; risk theatre is tragedy and tragedy is art. Now, when these hero-gamblers wager the soul for world dominion (e.g. Faust), they assign value to the all-too-human. Faust, after all, could have wagered his soul for some pork chops instead. Or, like Richard Rich in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, he could have wagered his soul to become attorney-general for Wales. From this perspective, art acts as an arbiter of human values. Human value is not absolute, but elastic, bound only the hero-gambler’s imagination when concocting the hero’s wager. Art, I believe, stands outside of man. Oedipus at Colonus, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Master Builder: they are made by human hands, but as works of art, stand outside of humanity, forever judging its makers. Hmmm. This is an interesting argument: will artificial intelligence or AI someday rise to judge human value?—we just watched 2010 A Space Odyssey the other night. What a fantastic flick. Unbelievable that it was put together in 1968.

Chapter 9: Demons

Summary: Chapter gets to a good start; I feel Eagleton is starting to construct his theory of tragedy in earnest now. Discussion of tragedy as an inherent contradiction of situation. His example is capitalism, which rounds up and exploits the previously scattered proles, thereby enabling them to rise up, destroy capitalism, and create a society free from class warfare. According to Eagleton, only Marxism, of modern theories, holds that civilization has advanced in the scale of its comforts and its brutalities [ed. couldn’t someone argue capitalism holds the same?]. Capitalist modernity is a fall; it is like Faust, says Eagleton. The pact with Mephistopheles is the price we pay for progress. The doctrine of the Fall is thus a tragic one—not because its outcome may not prove to be benign but because even if it does, it will have involved unimaginable waste and suffering. Some good passages on the pros and cons of colonialism and imperialism. Associates hamartia or ‘missing the mark’ with desire. Desire for Eagleton sets off the tragic fall. Defines ‘demonic’ as the annihilating desire, the desire that ‘hollows out the sensuous and surges onto the next’. The ‘demonic’ drive can only be fulfilled in the ‘death drive’, which Eagleton refers to as Thanatos. The opposite of the Thanatos drive is Eros, which attempts to put the death drive to use for its own purposes, but in vain. The Eros and Thanatos drives can be combined by contracting syphilis (the case of Leverkuhn in Mann’s Doctor Faustus) where proximity to death heightens the creative potential. Mann’s Doctor Faustus is allegory of greatest modern tragedy. But Eagleton believes it misses a solution to its tragedy: socialism [ed. but what about the character Naphta, Mann’s caricature of Lukacs]. Eagleton points out that socialism/communism had a hand in ridding the world of ‘Dionysian dementia’ (i.e. Nazi Germany). Tragic for Eagleton is ‘hope beyond hopelessness’ exemplified by the last note of Leverkuhn’s cello cantata. The ultimate example of the ‘demonic’ is the Holocaust. The demonic is associated with waste and motiveless malignity. Demonic is a kind of cosmic sulking. Those who planned the death camps were demonic. Cites three works which illustrate the quarrel between Eros and Thanatos: The Magic Mountain, Women in Love (Lawrence) and Salome (Wilde). ‘In his great epiphany in the snow, Hans Castorp encounters a form of sublimity from which he learns the fearful pleasure of playing with forces so great that to approach them nearly is destruction. One could find worse accounts of the disposition of the audience of a tragedy’.

Reaction: If modern capitalism, is a Fall, what is it a fall from?—the medieval trade guilds that Marx and Engels write of, ancient Sparta, Renaissance England, or? In the biblical Fall, they fell from the Garden of Eden. Modern capitalism seems to me less of a Fall than an advance, and a sustainable one at that. When I was growing up, you know, most mass market items were made in Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan we used to call ‘the shoe factory of the world’. Wages were cheap, and the sweat shops of these countries powered capitalism. This was the dark side of capitalism. But, in time, the people there saved, tooled up, and became first world countries. Case in point: they don’t make sneakers in Taiwan anymore. They make world class electronics. And in the 90s and the early 2000s, China took over the role of providing sweat labour. But look on your tags for mass market items. As China emerges from a third world country to a first world country, less and less stuff is made there now. More and more I see things are made in Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, and so on. So it’s not immediately clear to me that capitalism is unsustainable. I would say, yeah, for sure, if 99% of people are proles who don’t own property, than yeah, you can get revolution. But the landed middle class probably doesn’t want revolution. So long as there’s a large middle class, I’d bet things stay stable. It’d be interesting to get stats on Marxist supporters. Are there more Marxists in the top 5% of wage earners or the bottom 5%? I’d be willing to bet that there’s more Marxists in the top 5%. Maybe Marx’ observation that capitalism sows its own destruction is especially applicable to the intellectual classes?

It almost seems like Eagleton is arguing (and perhaps he is) that the spirit of tragedy in the twentieth century found a new home, not one in drama, but one in the novel. Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus exemplify contradiction, spiritual waste, and this conflict between Eros and Thanatos better than any modern drama. I’ll agree with Eagleton that The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus are damn fine novels. It hit me like a freight train when I read it in the winter of 2005. Wow. But for me, Doctor Faustus illustrates how the horrors of fascist Germany arose, quite naturally, from German culture. Fascist Germany, in my reading of The Magic Mountain, is the logical culmination of centuries of German culture, beginning in the fifteenth century with Albrecht Durer. The critical point that Mann makes is that the death camps and the madness is not the product of one or two sick individuals, but rather represents the madness of an entire nation. And, the scary thing is, it could happen again. Eagleton’s view that the death camps and the Holocaust are an aberration, illogical, and an example of the demonic sounds stalwart and proper, but to me seems the more dangerous view. If we believe that the perpetrators of those heinous crimes are demonic and so far removed from us, it would not occur to us that we are capable of doing the same thing. Mann’s view, in my reading of The Magic Mountain, seems the safer view: by looking at the enemy as a human being, and a cultured human being backed by centuries of high culture and art raises our awareness that we must be careful of what we do, lest we fall into the same madness. You know, it’s a similar situation with drugs and alcohol. You can look at addicts and alcoholics as ‘dope fiends’. Not human anymore. ’That’s not me’, you say. But I wonder how many of us are a prescription away from wandering around as a junky on the street? It’s actually pretty easy, one of my friends was a high school teacher. Doing really well. One day she fell and broke her jaw. The doctor gave her an opioid for the pain. You know what happens next.

Chapter 10: Thomas Mann’s Hedgehog

Summary: With some notable exceptions such as George Thomson (Aeschylus and Athens) and Eva Figes (Tragedy and Social Evolution), left wing critics suspect the association between cult and tragedy. Sacrifice leaves a bad taste in the mouth of radical critics. Eagleton believes that the political left should not, however, surrender a notion to its opponents. While sacrifice may be repugnant, sometimes, says Eagleton, something must be dismembered to be renewed. Walter Benjamin sees double use in sacrifice: 1) atonement of expiation, and 2) new contents of the life of a people announce themselves. Most theory of tragedy is a hangover from the old days of cult, a version of antique ritual updated for modern consumption. Rather than finding the value of tragic sacrifice in ethical terms, it sees such destruction as valuable in itself, thus regressing to notions of the fertilizing power released by the mutilated god. In this sense, it undoes the ethical reinterpretation of the natural which is central to the Judaic tradition. Discussion of pharmakos, an unclean prisoner who would be ritually expelled from the city to ward off the anger of the gods. The scapegoat would elicit both pity and fear, Tragedy breaks down the barrier between gods, humans and beasts. The great pharmakos of ancient tragedy are Oedipus, Antigone, and Philoctetes. These pharmakos type figures from Oedipus to Lear inaugurate an revolutionary ethics by championing a truth the system has to suppress in order to function [was that the thesis statement for the ‘radical and controversial case’ the back book blurb promised?]. The pharmakos is revolutionary because it sees value in non-being. Tragedy shows both value and futility of life (look at Oedipus), the purpose and purposelessness of existence. Modern day left-historicists deaf to humanity’s roots in an ancient otherness: tragedies like those of Oedipus and Lear remind of the archaic aspects of humanity we drag as a kind of ballast through the modern world. No postmodern tragedy because postmodernism believes culture goes all the way down, repressing the duality of civilization and barbarism. Thomas Mann’s hedgehog is the holy sinner Gregorius, who filled with shame for doing the things Oedipus did and then some more, withdraws from society as a pharmakos and chains himself to a rock for 17 years. In that time, he grows to resemble a hedgehog. At the end, he becomes Pope Gregory the Great.

‘Art itself’, writes Eagleton, ‘is a for of sacrifice [like tragedy], a priestly self-abnegation, as the writer pays out with his paucity of life for the prodigal fullness of his art. Modern day pharmakos include Melville’s Ahab and Billy Budd. Such pharmakos disquiet historicists because, in a way, Ahab and Budd form a transhistorical bridge linking the distant past to the present day. Eagleton finds the discussion usually focusses on negative side of the pharmakos. He points out the pharmakos can initiate change. For example, in the old day, when the pharmakos is expelled, he could found a new settlement. So, for Eagleton, there is something revolutionary about the pharmakos and, for this reason, the left should embrace the pharmakos, as the pharmakos can smash apart evil and greedy transnational corporations and create political revolution and a better, more just world for everyone.

Reaction: Wow, the back blurb got it bang on. That the tragic holds the key to political revolution is indeed ‘a radical and controversial case’. Capitalism has created a majority class of pharmakos type outcasts, who will rise up in revolt. Very good. I would have liked Eagleton to say some more about what he would replace capitalism with. If its socialism, would a revolution be necessary? And who are the pharmakos? Are they North American plumbers? Are they the hands and fingers assembling iPhones in China? Are they coffee farmers in Ethiopia? Is this world revolution? Presumably the revolution will smash the evil and greedy transnational corporations. What then happens to public pension plans, such as the Canada Pension Plan, who fund future payouts by investing in transnational corporations? What happens to the mom and pop investors who have invested in the transnational corporations? What will tragedy give us to replace the economic, social, and political power structures that are in place? I guess the final questions for Eagleton are: 1) how many pharmakos are there in the real world, 2) can they achieve critical mass to ignite the revolution, and 3) do they perceive no means of advancing beyond the class of pharmakos or is the current world system a caste system with no hope of betterment?

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

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