Tag Archives: Eagleton

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

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

Chapter 7: Tragedy and the Novel

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8: Tragedy and Modernity

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9: Demons

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

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

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

Chapter 10: Thomas Mann’s Hedgehog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4: Heroes

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

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

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

Chapter 5: Freedom, Fate and Justice

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6: Pity, Fear, and Pleasure

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

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

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

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

2003 Blackwell Publishers, 328 pages

Back Blurb:

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

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

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

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

My Reaction to the Back Blurb

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


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

My Reaction to the Introduction:

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

Chapter 1 A Theory in Ruins

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

My Response to Chapter 1

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

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

Chapter 2 The Value of Agony

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

My Response to Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3 From Hegel to Beckett

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

My Response to Chapter 3

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

to be continued…

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