Tag Archives: A Companion to Tragedy

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and City” – Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub

pages 109-127 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author(s) Blurb

Deborah Boedeker is Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek religion, poetry, historiography, and especially the confluences among these areas. Recent publications include essays on Euripides, Herodotus, Simonides, and Sappho, as well as a number of edited volumes, including Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (1998, with Kurt A. Raaflaub) and The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (2001, with David Sider).

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History, and Director of the Program in Ancient Studies at Brown University. His main areas of interests are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and the Roman Republic. His most recent publications include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004), an edited volume of War and Peace in the Ancient World (2007), with Josiah Ober and Robert Wallace. He is currently working on a history of early Greek political thought in its Mediterranean context.

“Tragedy and City”

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, political interpretations of Greek tragedy were the rage. Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (from 462 BC and set in Argos) says something, scholars argued, about Athens’ political ties with Argos. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus rex (set during a plague in Thebes) says something, scholars argued, about the plague of 430 BC in Athens “The character Oedipus,” they said, “is based on the Athenian statesman Pericles.” Some scholars went so far as to claim that tragedians would advocate specific political policies through their plays.

In this article, Boedeker and Raaflaub argue that these political interpretations derive their authority from the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ 405 BC hit Frogs. In Frogs, the god Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a tragic poet to save the city: “I came down here for a poet … so that the city may survive and keep presenting its choral festivals. So whichever of you is going to give the city some good advice, that’s the one I think I will bring back.” By “whichever of you,” Dionysus refers to Aeschylus and Euripides, who proceed to argue over who benefitted Athens more (Sophocles is also in Hades at this point, but the competition is beneath his dignity). Scholars cite this duel as evidence of tragedy’s political function.

While allowing that tragedy has a civic function, Boedeker and Raaflaub suggest a middle ground in this article:

We maintain [that] the plays generally were not created to support or oppose a specific person, policy, or decision. Whatever he may have thought personally about such issues, in our judgment Aeschylus’ purpose in Eumenides was not primarily to recommend a treaty with Argos [in Suppliants] or the restoration of the Areopagus Council’s powers [in Eumenides].

Plays would explore political themes, but would stop short of advocating one standpoint over another. A good example Boedeker and Raaflaub cite is Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians. The tragedy dramatizes the aftereffects of the Battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective: it is a grievous loss. The cause of the loss is Xerxes’ hubris in bridging the Hellespont to join Asia and Europe, two land masses nature had ordained in her unwritten laws to keep apart. While the play is conventionally read as a patriotic piece celebrating Athens’ victory, Boedeker and Raaflaub ask: does the play have a tacit political purpose? In 472 BC, Athens was trespassing in the other direction into Asia, attempting to take control of the Anatolian coast. The play, while not advocating foreign policy, asks the Athenians to consider their actions in light of Xerxes’ trespass in a subtle, unspoken manner.

The Process of Artistic Creation

Classicists are gifted in analysis. They come up with their conclusions and support their arguments after long and careful deliberation. They pick their words carefully and precisely. When they see artists use political terms or language in their works, classicists ascribe to the artists this same level of analysis and precision. If a poet, for example, writes about a political decree, the poet must have a position on what it takes to formulate decrees. If the poet writes about decrees, the poet has thought about decrees the same way a classicist would have, were the classicist to have published an article on decrees. Nothing is chance. Innuendoes in the text are deliberate. But is this the case?

What Boedeker and Raaflaub argue, and I think that it is an excellent point, is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why? The answer is simple: poets and creative writers are not classicists. In fact, poets and creative writers are quite the opposite. They write under inspiration from the Muses. Some of the time, the idea comes to the artists so quick that they can’t jot it down fast enough, and what they’ve left unwritten is forgotten. Inspiration is like that dream you had this morning when you said: “That was so vivid, I will never forget it.”

But then, why do the writers and poets so frequently talk about politics or contemporary events? The reason is that it’s in the air. As they work on their creations, the things they hear on the streets, in the barbershops, and at the markets get incorporated into their works. In addition to asking classicists and philosophers what works of art mean, we can also ask the artists how they create. This gives us a valuable second opinion. In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, artist Bob Dylan talks about how he incorporates everyday experiences into his works:

You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you.

Are tragedians writing plays with hidden political meanings for future classicists to examine? Dylan also offers scholars a word of warning in his 2016 Nobel Prize speech:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

This goes to show, if you ask a classicist whether a play has a political dimension, the classicist will answer as though the playwright were a classicist. But if you ask an artist if a play has a political dimension, the playwright might answer different.

The moral of this story is that we measure others with the same scales we measure ourselves. This works if “We” is equal to “Them.” But if it is “Us” and “Them,” then, when we measure them as if they were us, misunderstandings arise. Perhaps what we really need is a classicist who is also an artist.

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

PS this has been a fun review to write: I was a student of both Boedeker and Raaflaub (a husband and wife team), and, additionally had a chance to help TA one of Raaflaub’s Roman History classes. What an amazing experience those Brown years were. The glory days where I stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants. Sometimes I have to shake my head to believe I was actually there, it was so much like a dream.

Review of “Tragedy and Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan” – Julia Reinhard Lupton

pages 88-105 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she has taught since 1989. She is the co-author of After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (with Kenneth Reinhard, 1992) and the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology, and Renaissance Literature (1996) and Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005). She is the founding director of Humanities Out There, a nationally recognized educational partnership between the University of California, Irvine and local schools.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

I remember a funny moment in a third-year drama class Professor Laurel Bowman was teaching. She was talking about Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and she listed on a PowerPoint slide the things she wanted to cover: comparing Oedipus to the Athenian statesman Pericles, comparing the plague in the play to the plague in Athens, narratological approaches to interpreting the play, and so on. The next slide had the heading: “What we will not be talking about,” and under the heading, with a big cross through it, were the words “Freud and psychoanalysis.” This drew a laugh from the students. Freud and psychoanalysis, in vogue for so much of the twentieth century, have fallen out of favour.

Psychoanalysis entered the mainstream in 1899 when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. In this work, he grounded the phenomenon of the unconscious mind that writers such as Dostoyevsky and Hamsun and philosophers such as Nietzsche had begun exploring on a scientific and medical basis. Though psychoanalysis was developed to treat mental disorders, because Freud used literary texts–primarily Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet–to introduce his ideas on the unconscious, repression, fantasy, and neurosis, psychoanalysis also became a vehicle to interpret literature. “Putting the character on the couch,” as Lupton calls it.

The Basis of Psychoanalyzing Literary Persons

Lupton identifies four directions in psychoanalytic literary criticism that Freud launched with his comments on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are: character analysis, hermeneutics, narrative structure, and the dynamics of the psychoanalytic situation (how the unconscious brings about catharsis).
Character analysis is the act of putting the character on the couch. It is, as Lupton describes, what “unfolds between the poles of brute personification or impersonation.” In English that means pretending that the character is a real person you could psychoanalyze. Of course, the character is not a real person, but hey we can look over this small detail, right? In the old day before psychoanalysis, character analysis would be a study of a character’s conscious motives and intentions. In psychoanalytic criticism, character analysis consists of looking at the unconscious or repressed neuroses that influence action.

Hermeneutics is the study of hidden meanings. Psychoanalytic interpretation, according to Lupton, “follows the operations by which meanings are transformed and redistributed in their passage between conscious and unconscious planes, replacing the search for latent contents with the dynamism of rhetorical transformations.” In English that means proposing that each thought and action in drama plays out on a dual stage: the conscious stage and the unconscious stage. For example, when Lady Macbeth says:

Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty

She could be wishing for more power and capacity. Or, there could be a hidden, hermeneutic meaning underlying her words. Perhaps her language breaks out as an ejaculation of repressed desires. In the old day before psychoanalysis, the study of hidden meaning consisted of looking at allusions to other works, the significance of metaphors and images of light, darkness, or colours, repetition, allusion, and other literary devices. In the old day, the study of hidden meanings was grounded to the text and its relation to other texts. Psychoanalysis freed up interpretation and looked for hidden meaning between the text and Freud’s discoveries in the unconscious realms of dreams and inhibitions.

Lupton’s third point of discussion–narrative structure–consists of mapping milestone events in the medical practise of psychoanalysis onto dramatic milestones in the plot. It was Freud himself who provided future critics the initial cue when he wrote: “The action of the play is nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement–a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis–that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, but further he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta.”

One of the theorists who took Freud up on the psychoanalytical approach to narrative structure was Jacques Lacan. Lacan turns to Sophocles’ play Antigone and, using psychoanalysis on the plot, traces how all of Antigone’s actions return to one defining moment: her troubling declaration of her single-minded devotion to her brother:

Antigone: Had I had children or their father dead,

I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen

In such a case to cross the states’ decree.

What is the law that lies behind these words?

One husband gone, I might have found another,

Or a child from a new man in first child’s place,

But with my parents hid away in death,

No brother, ever, could spring up for me.

Here, Antigone says that she would have risked all for her brother. But not for her children or husband.  In Lacan’s analysis, Antigone’s subsequent actions can all be traced back to this one shocking pronouncement. What is more, in this announcement, Antigone reveals how she is the living personification of the incestuous union between Oedipus and Jocasta.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, structural interpretations consisted of looking at elements of the plot and comparing them with other plots in the same genre and with how plots unfold in different genres. The difference in psychoanalytic structural readings is that, in a psychoanalytic structural reading, the structure of the text is compared with the medical process of psychoanalysis.

The fourth and final direction psychoanalytic criticism has taken, according to Lupton, is to demonstrate how drama brings about Aristotle’s catharsis–the purging of pity and fear through pity and fear–in the audience. In this way, Freudian thought is an extension, and not a replacement of Aristotle’s Poetics.

If the narratological or structural approach of psychoanalysis identifies the root cause for a character’s behaviour, the fourth direction of psychoanalytic criticism called “transference” shows how the structure of tragedy has a social function: to cure the audience of pity and fear. Lupton here turns to the work of Lacan again. On Antigone’s terrifying decision to honour her brother, but not her children or husband (were she to have children and a husband), Lacan writes:

Through the intervention of pity and fear . . . we are purged of everything of that order. And that order, we can now immediately recognize, is properly speaking the order of the imaginary. And we are purged of it through the intervention of one image among others.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, we had all heard about Aristotle’s theory that tragedy purges the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. This was not new. It was never, however, entirely clear what Aristotle meant by the process of catharsis. The contribution of psychoanalysis is that it provides us with a mechanism of tragedy brings about catharsis. It is brought about by transference:

Transference in its imaginary function encourages us to identify with characters at the level of ethos or character–the function of pity as com-passion or sym-pathy that forms one strand of catharsis in Aristotle’s famous formula. Transference in its symbolic and real dimensions, however, locates us in contradictory places within the mythos of the drama, and the mythos of our lives, corresponding to the fear or terror that wrenches us out of imaginary identification with a character and forces us into contact with the unconscious plot and repressed words that shape our desire.

Hermeneutics, narrative structure, the dynamics of the psychoanalytic position, and catharsis: Lupton has identified these four areas as the major points of psychoanalytic criticism.

Psychoanalysis and Citizenship

Lupton ends her essay with a surprising discussion bringing together psychoanalysis and the question of citizenship. Politics and citizenship are thought, generally, to lie outside the realm of psychoanalysis, which examines not the state, but the interior workings of an individual’s unconscious. That Lupton’s question occurs, however, is less surprising if we consider the political aim of this Blackwell companion to tragedy. Here’s how the back cover blurb reads:

The companion is based on the premise that the genre of tragedy is inseparable from history, insofar as it was born in the Greek city-state, and its life has been intertwined with the fate of dynasties, revolutions, and crises of social change.

Since tragedy dramatizes the emergence of democratic sensibilities, the triumph of citizens, and the institution of citizenship over monarchs, tyrants, and despotic rule, then there should be overlap between the unfolding political and psychological action. A psychoanalysis of the dissolving kinship ties holding together monarchies and tyrannies is possible, argues Lupton, where the political and psychological action overlaps.

Psychologically, argues Lupton, both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Aeschylus’ Oresteia move from pre-Oedipal to Oedipal formations. In the beginning of both plays, the father figure character–Agamemnon in the Oresteia and King Hamlet in Hamlet–perishes. The son–Orestes in the Oresteia and Hamlet in Hamlet–must assume a new relation to the phallus.

In Hamlet, Hamlet assumes a new relation with the phallus and finds a new sense of citizenship in his friendship with Horatio. And in the Oresteia, Orestes assumes a new relation with the phallus by bringing about the trial that transfers the adjudication of murder from the family to the state. In Lupton’s reading, the singular force of repressed and hidden neuroses in an individual can explode onto a national level.

The Future of the Psychoanalysis of Literary Persons

Have you ever read Freud? He is a beautiful stylist. He writes deliberately with clarity and focus. Take this passage. It is beautiful to read:

If that is the case, the gripping power of Oedipus rex, in spite of all the rational objections to the inexorable fate that the story presupposes, becomes intelligible . . . The Greek myth seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he has felt traces of it in himself. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy, and this dream-fulfillment played out in reality causes everyone to recoil in horror.

His writing makes me want to believe him, to believe his story. Now compare Freud with one of his followers, Lacan:

[Antigone invokes] a right that emerges in the language of the ineffaceable character of what is–ineffaceable, that is, from the moment when the emergent signifier freezes it like a fixed object in spite of the flood of possible transformations. What is, is, and it is to this, to this surface, that the unshakeable, unyielding position of Antigone is fixed . . . To put it in the terms of Lévi-Strauss–and I am certain that I am not mistaken in evoking him here, since I was instrumental in having had him reread Antigone and he expressed himself to me in such terms–Antigone with relation to Creon finds herself in the position of synchrony in opposition to diachrony.

While Freud was the soul of concision, Lacan is anything but. Here is what I think Lacan is saying:

In burying her brother, Antigone invokes an immutable and unique right. While the world changes around her, the right she invokes is timeless and knows no change. By anchoring herself to the timeless, immutable, and unique right, Antigone herself becomes timeless. To put this in the terms of one of the gods of my field, by this act of invocation Antigone freezes the ever-flowing stream of language while Creon is swept away by the changes. I know Lévi-Strauss is correct in saying this because it is I, Lacan, myself who encouraged him to reread Antigone. Without me, he probably would have overlooked this important finding.

The way Lacan presents himself makes me want to disbelieve him and, what is more, run away as fast as I can.

Lacan, and many of these other practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism remind me of the quants on Wall Street who, from time to time, trigger flash crashes with their financial alchemy. They take an idea, even a viable idea, and dress it up in the finery of mathematics. They flash their equations and formulas to the doubters to silence them. They’re dangerous, because their equations and formulas, even though dependent on many unproven assumptions, have the seeming of certainty. So too the language of the psychoanalytic critics after Freud reminds of the mathematical models and algorithms of the quants. Dense language raises suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I think, if psychoanalytic criticism is going to revive in the future, its practitioners will have to rediscover Freud’s gifts as a stylist. Freud’s followers liked reading Freud, but would Freud have loved reading his followers?

Freud’s Error

Psychoanalysis rests on two emotions: love and jealousy. In a letter to his friend Fliess, Freud lays down the emotional basis of psychoanalysis: “I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood.” Tragedy became useful to Freud when he saw in Oedipus rex an unmistakable reference to this belief:

In the very text of Sophocles’ tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Oedipus legend originates in an extremely old dream material, which consists of the painful disturbance of the relation towards one’s parents by means of the first impulses of sexuality. Jocasta comforts Oedipus–who is not yet enlightened, but who has become worried on account of the oracle–by mentioning to him the dream which is dreamt by so many people, though she attaches no significance to it–

“For it hath already been the lot of many men in dreams to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed. But he passes most easily through life to whom these circumstances are trifles” (Act iv. sc. 3).

Jocasta’s words seem to anticipate Freud and psychoanalysis. But do they?

Let’s consider the entire passage. The Corinthian messenger has arrived, and tells Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne: his father has died. Since he’s left Corinth a long time ago, Oedipus begins to question the prophecy that he would kill his father. But he still fears the other half of the prophecy that said he would sleep with his mother:

Oedipus: But my mother’s bed, surely I must fear–

Jocasta: Fear?

What should a man fear? It’s all chance,

chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth

can see a day ahead, groping through the dark.

Better to live at random, best we can.

And as for this marriage with your mother–

have no fear. Many a man before you,

in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed

Take such things for shadows, nothing at all–

Live, Oedipus,

as if there’s no tomorrow!

Oedipus: Brave words,

and you’d persuade me if mother weren’t alive.

But mother lives, so for all your reassurances

I live in fear, I must.

As Freud notes, Jocasta is attempting to comfort Oedipus, who has becoming increasingly agitated. Characters in tragedy use a stock device to comfort one another. Tragedy’s stock consolation is formulaic, taking this form: “Not to you alone has this suffering come. Many others have also suffered this.” In antiquity, the consolation was such a commonplace it was called the non tibi hoc soli “not to you alone” consolation. It was popular enough for Cicero to write about it (an effective consolation, though some spit it out) and for Timocles to base a theory of tragedy around it.

The non tibi hoc soli consolation is a commonplace of consolation in tragedy. Examine the chorus’ consolation to Theseus, who has discovered his wife has committed suicide:

Theseus: What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless man that I am, the greatest of woes! O fate, how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, an unperceived blight sent upon me by some avenging power! Nay more, it is the very destruction of life!

Chorus: My lord, it is not upon you alone that these ills have come: you have lost a trusty wife, but so have many others.

Consider as well Danaus’ consolation to his daughters when they feel the heartbreak of exile: “Pure Apollo, too, who, though a god, was exiled once from heaven.” The pang of exile has not come to the Danaids alone: even the gods felt it. And, for a more recent example, turn to Claudius’ consolation to Hamlet on the death of his father:

Claudius: ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father;

But you must know, your father lost a father;

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.

Again, note the formulaic “not to you alone” expression of consolation. Hamlet should feel consoled, once he realizes that he’s not the only one who has lost a father. The consolation works by diluting grief by the pain of others. When the sufferer suffers, there is something in their suffering that wants to exalt itself as the greatest burden that has ever been experienced. The sufferer, with this weight of burden, wants to be the king of pain, wants to take this pain as a proof against existence, wants to cry out: “Look on me, and see what wrongs I have suffered!” The commonplace of consolation brings the sufferer back to the ground. “Your sufferings,” it says, “are not at all unique. Bear it with the others.”

Now, let’s return to the scene where Jocasta is consoling Oedipus. Oedipus is worried that the prophecy that he would sleep with his mother may be fulfilled. If Jocasta were to console Oedipus with the stock non tibi hoc soli (“not to you alone”) consolation of tragedy, it would come out something like this: “You’re not the only one, Oedipus, who’s slept with his mother. Many others have slept with their mothers.” Can you see the problem here?

The first problem of using the stock consolation is that Oedipus hasn’t slept with his mother–at least that’s what Jocasta and Oedipus both believe at this point. Unlike the other sufferers in tragedy who have lost a wife or a father, Oedipus is worried about something conjectural. And the second problem of using the stock consolation is that it just sounds bad. It’s completely inappropriate, as Oedipus doesn’t want to sleep with his mother. What Sophocles has to do is to alter the stock consolation to fit the action. And so he adds a twist. The consolation, like Oedipus’ fear, has to become conjectural. To make the consolation conjectural, Sophocles places it into the realm of dreams, rendering it thus: “Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.”

Freud thought that Jocasta’s consolation was an universal acknowledgement of a son’s jealousy of his father and love of his mother. Far from it. That would have been the last thing Jocasta would have wanted to convey to Oedipus at this critical moment. Her consolation, in my analysis, takes the form that it does because Sophocles takes the commonplace of consolation the audience expects to see and gives it a little twist to make it work in his play. That’s all. It isn’t some gnostic and universal declaration of the Oedipus complex. It’s taking and adapting the commonplace of consolation so that it makes sense. There’s nothing really complicated or profound in her consolation at all. Freud has overanalyzed the line, and beautifully, I might add.

We often take literature to be more profound than it actually is. Most of the time, if you ask artists, they’re not thinking about universal truths, hidden meanings, or creating a legacy to persevere through time. They’re just trying to make things fit. I think Milman Parry showed us this when he analyzed the oral tradition behind Homeric epic. He argued that Homer and the bards in the epic tradition composed on the fly. They drew on formulaic groups of words to fit the metre in which they were reciting their poems. So, when they used these formulas–such as “Rosy-fingered Dawn” or “Cow-eyed Hera”–that doesn’t mean that they thought Dawn was rosy-fingered or that Hera was cow-eyed or that the sea was wine-dark or that Achilles was swift-footed or that Menelaus was loud. They were just looking for a way to finish the line in the correct metre. We can see this in the instances where Achilles is said to be “swift-footed” even when he’s sleeping.

So too, Jocasta’s consolation to Oedipus is like one of these Homeric epithets–with one exception. Sophocles, unlike the Homeric rhapsode, isn’t composing on the fly. Sophocles has time to adapt. Here’s what happens: Oedipus is upset. The audience is expecting Jocasta to console him. Tragedy uses a stock “not to you alone consolation.” But the stock consolation doesn’t work. So, Sophocles adds a line “in his dreams” to make it work.

There you have it. Was Freud correct in that Jocasta’s line anticipates psychoanalysis? Or am I correct in thinking Sophocles has modified the commonplace of consolation? A good test for Occam’s razor.

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

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 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.

“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.

“Greek Tragedy and Ritual” – Sourvinou-Inwood

pages 7-24 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell, 2009

While moderns enjoy tragedies such as Euripides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone as drama, the ancients looked at tragedy as ritual. In other words, by simulating interactions between mortals and immortals on the tragic stage, the ancients constructed religious dogma. Today, bishops and popes construct religious dogma in councils and chairs. Yesterday, the ancients constructed religious dogma on the stage of the tragic theatre. Lack of knowledge of this distinction makes moderns susceptible to misinterpreting ancient tragedy. Or so Sourvinou-Inwood argues.

Sourvinou-Inwood presents evidence of the ritual basis behind Greek tragedy. Tragedy consists of a series of prayers and rites. Oracles play a central role. Celebrations to gods outside theatre often involve choral activity; the chorus forms a central fixture on the tragic stage. As the City Dionysia began (the festival where tragedies were staged), the statue of Dionysus was brought from the sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus to Athens. And so on. The evidence Sourvinou-Inwood presents is incontrovertible. Greek tragedy has a ritual foundation.

Next, Sourvinou-Inwood presents cases where the modern lack of knowledge of the ritual basis of ancient theatre has created misunderstandings. With an understanding of the ritual basis of tragedy, we should not, for example, in Sophocles’ Antigone take Antigone’s side. Antigone’s claim that it is her religious duty to bury her brother (a traitor in the civil war) is not backed by any extant religious law. We should, however, take Creon’s side, who passes a law forbidding burial to traitors (one of whom is Antigone’s brother) in the interests of national unity. In her ritual reading of this tragedy, it is only when Creon keeps Polyneices’ corpse in the upper world too long that the cosmic order is upset, as, according to Greek religion, the corpse really belongs in the nether world. Sophocles’ Antigone explores, therefore, not the collision between two equally justified ethical forces (as Hegel and other moderns saw it), but how the religion of the Greek city-state may sometimes get it wrong. In this reading, Creon does it all right, yet, because the will of the gods is beyond human comprehension, gets it all wrong. The purpose of tragedy, in Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, is to explore religion. Greek tragedies are not timeless, but for a specific time and purpose.

If fifth century tragedy is a  ritual of Greek religion, nobody gave Plato and Aristotle the memo. Both of them discuss tragedy extensively, and they don’t consider tragedy to be part of their liturgy. Instead of religion, they focus on the emotional affect tragedy has on audiences. For Plato, tragedy corrupts the audience’s emotions because it is a cheap imitation of life. If–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–tragedy is a sacred rite, it is unclear why Plato would view it as an imitation or mimesis of life. Aristotle, of course, came to a different conclusion than his teacher. To him, tragedy rehabilitates the emotions through catharsis, a purging of pity and fear through pity and fear. But he was of the same mind as his teacher insofar as tragedy is drama, not ritual.

Mind you, Aristotle (fourth century BC) comes a little late to the game, after the heyday of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the so-called ‘big three’. Plato, however, was a contemporary of Sophocles and Euripides. One way to reconcile the discrepancy between Sourvinou-Inwood and Plato/Aristotle would be to argue that tragedy began as ritual (in the sixth century), and then gradually became secularized until the fourth century, where it was completely secular and had “nothing to do with Dionysus.”

My beef with the Sourvinou-Inwood reading is that I believe that Greek tragedy is for all time. Her ritual interpretation reduces tragedy to be a work for one time: tragedy, to her, is timely, not timeless. And by the way, I don’t care if I’m wrong. Gosh darn it, at least by arguing for tragedy’s timelessness, I’m arguing from the perspective of art, arguing from the good guy side! Here are my objections to the ritual interpretation of tragedy. But before beginning, I don’t deny there are ritual aspects behind Greek tragedy. Just like there are religious rituals and artifacts to Easter and Christmas celebrations. But to me, Greek tragedy ought to be interpreted as art before it is interpreted as ritual. Why should the interpretation of one audience in the fifth century (who may have understood tragedy to be ritual) be privileged over all the interpretations of subsequent audiences (who see tragedies as drama)?

First criticism: the ritual interpretation of tragedy results in less inspiring and somewhat limited conclusions. If I’m going to accept any interpretation of tragedy, I want it to make my experience more, not less! Take the discussion of Antigone. In Hegel’s interpretation of the work as drama, Creon and Antigone are ethical equals on a collision path. She represents the right of religion in wanting to bury her brother. He represents the civic right of the polis in denying burial to traitors, one of whom is Antigone’s brother. Anouilh, in his 1944 adaptation of Antigone, also recognized that the genius of the play lies in how both Creon and Antigone have an ethical foundation: in the same audience, the Nazis applauded the portrayal of Creon (with whom they sided) while the Free French applauded the portrayal of Antigone (with whom they sided). That would have been an interesting show to see! Just imagine the tension in the air… In Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, however, Antigone is wrong and Creon is (mostly) right. Part of the play’s greatness is lost. Am I to believe that Sophocles’ audience missed this dramatic masterstroke which subsequent audiences grasped with ease? The ritual interpretation would be like arguing that the original audience of, say Bach’s Mass in B minor couldn’t hear the same genius modern and secular ears can hear because they were too focused on the religious aspects of Bach’s music. I don’t buy this. The inner core of a work’s genius should be available to keen interpreters of every generation.

Part of Sourvinou-Inwood’s argument is that, while there isn’t ethical parity between Antigone and Creon, her interpretation of the play is actually richer because it focuses on the unpredictability of the divine in the face of mortal understanding: although Creon plays his hand (mostly) correctly, he still goes down in the end. I agree that how the gods engineer unexpected outcomes is part of the play’s appeal (Euripides says so in the coda to many of his plays). This can be part of a ‘dramatic’ interpretation of the play. The ‘dramatic’ reading can also include the ethical parity between Antigone and Creon. But the ritual interpretation cannot accept the ethical parity. In this respect, it is limiting. In interpretation, ambiguity is often fruitful.

Second criticism: Sourvinou-Inwood argues that the Greeks conducted religious ritual on the stage of tragedy because Greek religion “did not have a canonical body of belief, no divine revelation nor scriptural texts.” Are myths not canonical bodies of belief? Did competing cities–the Hera cult in Argos, the Athena cult in Athens, and the Dionysus cult in Thebes–not compete for the right to shape canon in much the same as Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians claim primacy for their point of views? Do oracles, visions of Pan and his satyrs in the woods, and the taking of auspices not count as divine revelation? And what were the works of Homer and Hesiod if not scriptural text? Even setting this aside, why should Christianity be compared to Greek tragedy? Okay, so Christianity has a canonical body of belief, divine revelation, and scriptural texts. So would the conclusion be that Christianity does not need to dramatize religion on stage? If that was the case, then why do we have plays such as Hochhuth’s The Deputy or oratorios such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (which I saw a week and a half ago conducted by Butterfield at UVic)? Whether or not Greek religion had a canonical body of belief should not have any bearing on their need to dramatize religion on the stage.

Third criticism: I would have liked to have read more about whether Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were aware that their works for one time, and not for all time. Some of their texts survive down to the present day, so someone would have been recording them, writing them down. And if they were disposable works, works for one time–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–why would there be need to preserve them?

All in all, Sourvinou-Inwood is right in positing a ritual basis of tragedy. But perhaps her argument would have been stronger had she not pressed her case so far? Drama and ritual is perhaps more a both / and rather than an either / or proposition.

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