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Review of ON RISK – Mark Kingwell

2020, Biblioasis, 154 pages

In May 2021, Canadian Cycling magazine interviewed University of Toronto philosophy professor and cyclist Mark Kingwell. Kingwell’s book On Risk, Or, If You Play You Pay: The Politics of Chance in a Plague Year had recently come out. In the book, Kingwell draws on popular culture and personal anecdotes–including a close call where his bicycle was struck by a car and crushed–to illuminate the hidden workings of risk and chance. As a cyclist who also writes on risk, I was intrigued. In fact, I read the article at a newsstand during a break on my 122-kilometre cycling trek that day–my longest day in the saddle so far. I resolved to remember the title and read it at the first opportunity. Risk was in the news daily. Covid was in the air. A new book by a philosopher-cyclist explaining what risk means to us today: what could be a more fascinating read? Or so I thought.

On Risk is a small book. Fast readers can finish it in one sitting. The book is divided into four chapters: “The Game of Risk,” “Luck,” “Politics,” “Death and Taxes.” They can be read individually as discrete essays, but, read together, they build up to Kingwell’s progressive vision of government stepping in to equalize risk and reward for the haves and the have-nots. The slender volume has no index. Here is my summary, beginning with the preface.

Preface: The Plague Years

The coronavirus distributes risks across North American societies asymmetrically, with greater risks to Indigenous, Black, Latino, aged, and poor populations. This asymmetrical distribution of risk is further exacerbated by the poor choices of conservatives and conservative politicians who downplay the dangers of the pandemic. Risk is political because risk is the expression of who lives, who dies, and who decides.

Chapter 1: The Game of Risk

The board game Risk, card games, dicing, roulette, betting, poker, and other games of chance illustrate how difficult it is for people to understand risk: many bets are simply illogical. Risk is hard to understand because risk is for all time, eternal, and hardly possible for short-lived mortals to model. In fact, our reality may be part of a multiverse where many types of risk exist which we may not even be aware of: if the nuclear force (one of the fundamental forces of nature) were stronger, life would not exist. But even though risk is so multi-faceted and our knowledge so limited, it is good to try to understand the odds and play the game of life.

Chapter 2: Luck

Kingwell uses luck as a springboard to talk about gambling and risk. That conversation shifts into Einstein’s comment that “God does not play dice” which leads into a conversation about fate and free will with some obligatory comments on Oedipus. A discussion of how poorly people evaluate and understand risk follows (this is a recurring theme). For society as a whole to benefit, the “greed is good” mantra of capitalism must be overcome; in an egalitarian society risk and reward must be shared. Many examples of how people misunderstand risk (or chance). A discussion of insurance, individual, and communal risks with the conclusion that risk, in the final examination, is societal and political.

Chapter 3: Politics

Risk is always political. Three examples of political risk: order-one risk, order-two risk, and order-three risk. Order-one risk is living in impoverished areas without access to clean water and food. Order-two risk is also known as birthright risk, or the idea that some win the lottery in terms of whether they are born in a rich or poor country to rich or poor parents (this seems to me to also be true of order-one risk, not sure why Kingwell classifies them in separate categories). Order-three risk is one’s penchant for taking risks, which may be biological rather than due to free will. Society tends to reward (or bail out) risk takers, so this is unfair to those who do not take risks. Government should get involved to even out the “bonuses” that big risk takers get from making big bets. This involves increasing the inheritance tax and making loans available to poor people.

Chapter 4: Death and Taxes

In the universe, or even in all the multiverses, “The horizon of all risk is death,” says Kingwell. Death is the final risk event. There is personal death. Then, there may be death for whole peoples. At the far end, there is the possibility of an extinction event for the sapiens. Risks that happen are metaphysically different than near misses that almost happened. Statistics, sadly, do not incorporate the data from near misses, skewing our perception of risk. But despite all the existential and collective risks, we still must play the game. In playing the game, we benefit as a species by balancing the possibility of risk and reward for all the players: many players in the game are disadvantaged. We can balance the game by reforming the tax system to make the rich pay more, introducing a guaranteed basic income, and ending corporate bailouts.

A More Concentrated Focus, Please

I wish this book were more concentrated. It is diffuse. In two paragraphs, Kingwell covers the question of suffering. Then, in a few pages, he blazes through fate, free will, and risk. Another couple of paragraphs, and his critique of neoliberal economics is concluded. Each of these topics, by itself, could have been a book. I almost fell out of my chair at one point when I read: “Marketing and advertising follow in wake of these [e.g. actuarial science and economics], but I lack the space to address them.” Really? If you could cover Foucault in one paragraph, couldn’t you cover marketing and advertising in a few sentences?

I felt that Kingwell attempted to cram too much into this slender volume. I had a hard time following his train of thought as he jumped from Homer Simpson to the question of suffering to theodicy to Covid to politics and so on. The Kirkus review speaks kindly when it says that On Risk is “sometimes meandering.”

Who is the Audience?

The back cover (quoted below) presents this book as a primer for all the people who want to learn more about risk because the pandemic has made risk the “it” word. While much of the book is conversational, parts of it I found hard to follow. Take this explanation of consciousness in the multiverse:

To be precise [Daniel] Dennett holds to a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, without a central homuncular observer in the “Cartesian theatre” notion of singular consciousness. This view makes room, therefore, for modular distribution of mindedness.

I felt that, for me to have a chance of understanding any of this, these three sentences would have needed to be expanded into three pages (or more!) of concise writing. It is the same with the Kolmogorov zero-or-one law of probability theory. Kingwell mentions the law that seems to imply there are no odds in between zero (impossible) and one (absolute certainty) but before he explains how it works, he is already onto the next topic. I would have been fascinated to learn more about the Kolmogorov law.

Chance or Risk?

I was confused about how he uses the term risk. Much of the time, when Kingwell refers to risk, I thought he ought to be talking about chance. Take this example. At one point he says that “Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent.” Is risk neutral and indifferent? If you take a risk, say, by taking a corner at 100kph instead of 40kph or by standing up to a bully, it is not going to be “neutral and indifferent”–something will happen, either in your favour or not. If he had said “Chance is theoretically neutral and indifferent” I would have understood better. Many of his anecdotes I’ve found in books on chance and probability, where they’re classified under chance. Certainly chance and risk overlap, but I found myself thinking “chance” many times when he wrote “risk.” Despite several pages on etymology, I found myself wishing that Kingwell would have clearly defined what he meant by “risk,” a word that can mean many things including danger, the exposure to danger, fate, destiny, and more.

I Learned More About Kingwell than I did on Risk

Reading this book, I learned more about Kingwell’s likes and dislikes than I did on risk. Kingwell likes: Gillian Anderson, liberal thought, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Paul Krugman, and Stanley Kubrick. Kingwell does not like: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Kenny Rogers, Napoleon, neo-liberal capitalism, and Midwestern voters. If your tastes line up with his, you may find this book enjoyable. Some of his vitriolic struck me as unnecessary sidetracks that detracted from the points he was making. Take this comment on one of his colleagues at the University of Toronto: “This [e.g. that the university is a privileged environment] is one of the few points on which I agree with the world view of my polemical and lately deranged University of Toronto colleague, Jordan Peterson, who made this very point during a panel discussion on student mental health on which we both appeared.” Kingwell, I thought, could have made his point quite equally well without bringing up Peterson. Elsewhere, Kingwell celebrates “four hundred-plus years of liberal thought” that “has been about creating community through the inclusion of the Other.” In word he celebrates the inclusion of the Other but, in deed, he calls out his colleague for being “deranged” at a symposium on mental health?

If you’re looking for a primer of risk, there are others out there. One of my favourites is Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. Bernstein goes into depth and he is a great storyteller. A lighter read on risk would be Chances Are… Adventures in Probability by Michael and Ellen Kaplan. On risk and catastrophe, there is Mark Buchanan’s enjoyable Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. On simulating risk on the stage of theatre, there is my own The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Kingwell’s book, despite its title, really isn’t a primer on risk. It could have been more usefully called On Risk and Social Justice or something along those lines.

Finally, there was, to me, a contradiction within the book. One of Kingwell’s strategies to equalize opportunity in society is by implementing higher taxes, in particular, the estate or inheritance tax. That position itself is not controversial. But on every other page of his book, he lambasts the government. The response of the American government, for example, to the Covid crisis was like flying an airliner straight into the side of a mountain face in plain sight. Presidents of the United States are corrupt, lying, war-mongers. The electorate cannot tell up from down, voting for policies that harm everyone. Government relief programs are inefficient and nepotistic. The question I asked myself as I read his book was: if government is as bad as he claims, how could giving them more money help society?

Book Blurb

“Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent,” writes Mark Kingwell, “an exercise of pure randomness. But as the 2020 pandemic has shown us, when natural forces meet social and cultural conditions, risk can get redistributed very fast.” With the new Covid-era focus on the risks of even leaving the safety of our homes, now is the time for deeper consideration. How should a society manage and distribute risk? If it can never be eliminated, can it be controlled? At the heart of these questions–which govern everything from waking up each day to the abstract mathematics of actuarial science–lie philosophical issues of life, death, and personal safety. Mortality is the event-horizon of daily risk. How should we conceive of it?

Arthur Blurb

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and has written for publications ranging from Adbusters and the New York Times to the Journal of Philosophy and Auto Racing Digest. Among his twenty books of political and cultural theory are the national best-sellers Better LivingThe World We Want, and Glenn Gould. In order to secure financing for their continued indulgence he has written about his various hobbies, including fishing, baseball, cocktails, and contemporary art. His most recent book is Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), which won the 2020 Erving Goffman Award for scholarship in media ecology.

– – –

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil


The road to book two is underway. Half a year ago, I approached six publishers. Nary a word came back from my proposals: one wrote back quickly with a polite decline and nothing, nada, nix from the others. Some of these proposals are quite intensive!–read similar books in their back catalog, comment on how your book fits in an essay comprising thousands of words, submit chapters, etc., It would have been nice to at least get a reply. But hey, that’s life. I’m sure they are inundated with proposals–during the pandemic, everyone has probably become a writer. If the gatekeepers lock you out of the mansion on the hill, find a back way in.

My first book was published by FriesenPress, the self-publishing arm of the Friesen Corporation,  an international publishing giant. They did a wonderful job and the book went on to sell thousands of copies, which is, for a book on dramatic tragic literary theory, nothing short of amazing. I’ve teamed up with Friesen again for my second book. Self-publishing is the back way in. When the gates are locked and the gatekeepers to the mansion on the hill are nowhere to be seen, one must get creative.

My second back, provocatively titled: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays is, as the title suggests, a collection of plays and essays. The plays consist of prize-winning plays from my Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition: Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, and Emily McClain’s Children of Combs & Watch Chains. The essays consist of six pieces I’ve written that have appeared in various Critical Insights volumes published by Salem Press. Each essay looks at a major play from the perspective of risk, chance, and the unexpected. One of the essays even brings my risk theatre theory of drama to the novel. Things are starting to get interesting right around now.

As part of the path to production, each author’s manuscript gets reviewed by an anonymous editor at Friesen. This is, in a way, the book’s first review. The editor’s review just came back to me a few days ago, and I’m excited to share it with you here. It makes me very happy to be able to say that I think the editor liked it very much. Judge for yourself. PDF of review attached for your reading pleasure.

– – –

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

Editor's Manuscript Evaluation - When Life Gives You Risk Make Risk Theatre


From the Winter 2019 issue of literary journal Island Writer (Vol. 17 No.2). Thank you to Joy Huebert for reviewing.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

by Edwin Wong Friesen Press, 2019, available at Munro’s Books, Bolen Books and online Reviewed by Joy Huebert

Risk Theatre has won many awards, including the 2019 Readers’ Favourite Book Contest, previously won by comedian Jim Carey, Star Trek actor/director Jonathan Frakes, wrestler Diana Hart and New York Times bestselling authors Daniel Silva and Judith Ann Jance. Wong will be attending a gala in Miami this November at the Miami Book Festival where the organizers will be selling and displaying the book. It has also won previously in the CIPA EVVY awards and the National Indie Excellence Awards. 

Wong’s lengthy (270 pages) book can look intimidating, appearing to be one of those intellectual academic tomes that one always wishes to read but can’t quite make the effort to wade through. Instead, I was delighted to find an engaging look at tragic theatre, filled with interesting ideas and unique insights. As a person without much expertise who enjoys theatre, the book was a captivating voyage through all kinds of plays, including works of Shakespeare, the Greek classics, and modern works such as those by Eugene O’Neill. 

Wong presents an original theory of tragedy that resonates with our modern age. The tragic hero is a gambler in a high risk, high stakes situation, a troika of the stake, the cast and the outcome, as in this quotation: 

The hero stakes life itself to play the game, stakes intangible and all- too-human things, such as the soul, the milk of human kindness, happiness, honour, love, family friendship, faith, reputation, and duty….by making the wager, the heroes of risk theatre reveal life’s hidden value. 

Wong’s book offers short, tempting chapters such as “The Poetics of Chaos,” “The Myth of the Price you Pay,” and “The Debt to Nature.” He explains features of tragic theatre that include: the proud hero, the minor meddlers and (un)helpful advisors, Kings and Queens, supernatural elements, passions running white hot, consolations gone wrong, and dangerous and uncertain times. All ideas are nicely illustrated by excerpts from plays, and by lively commentary. 

A quibble: Wong knows a wealth of information about his topic, but the chapter that addresses “Tragedy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics” is a little obscure and for me, was a little less readable than the rest of the text.
Wong concludes with a heartfelt position that tragic theatre 

addresses our modern difficulties. If done well, risk theatre is the place where audiences go to see how much honour is worth, what the price of friendship is, and how much they will pay for power and glory. 

Wong ends on a strong note: Tragedy, because it adds to our understanding. . . has a claim of being the greatest show on earth.

Joy Huebert has published stories, poems and creative non-fiction in many Canadian literary magazines. She has won first place in the Short Grain postcard story competition, the Victoria Writers’ Society Fiction competition and the Victoria School of Writing Postcard story competition. Joy is the editor of Pathways Not Posted, and author of My Brother’s Basement, both published by Quadra Books. Joy has participated for over 20 years in writing collectives in Edmonton, Rossland and Victoria that have organized conferences and workshops, presented literary events and published chapbooks. Joy was a Librarian for 37 years, most recently at the Oak Bay Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library where she enjoyed working with readers and writers in a culture of literacy. 


27th Annual Writer’s Digest Book Award – Juror Comments

Great feedback from Judge 68 at the Writer’s Digest Book Award Competition. It’s rewarding to read a review from someone who enjoyed the book. The observation that the book would have benefitted from further engagement with recognized theatre authorities rings true. A number of reviewers have also commented on this shortcoming. To address it, I’ve begun a series of blogs that compare and contrast risk theatre with other movements and theories of drama. If you’re thinking about entering a book competition, consider the Writer’s Digest contest. Maybe you’ll get a critique from eagle-eyed Judge 68. Onwards!

Shout out to editors Carla DeSantis and Damian Tarnopolsky and proofreader Mark Grill for 5 out of 5 on spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

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

Entry Title: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected     Author: Edwin Wong
Judge Number: 68
Entry Category: Nonfiction/Reference Books

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 4/5

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5/5

Production Quality and Cover Design: 5/5

Voice and Writing Style: 4/5

Judge’s Commentary:

The author contends, with interesting arguments, how the profound change in world events and developments calls for a new model of tragedy that conforms to a modern pattern of risks. Moreover, he argues how these risks can lead to often unexpected and unintended consequences, all highly dramatic in scope. An influx of the sheer gamble involved in actions taken in today’s turbulent world and then dramatized is implicit in this provocative theory, which the author then supports with absorbing details that mirror the myriad functions of today’s global connections.

The many implications of this theory are explained by the author, though the central thesis can be more specifically explored in its various manifestations. However, readers will gain a strong spread of knowledge about the current and past theatrical worlds. In this vein, the author-to bolster his theory- reinterprets classical tragedies from the ancient Greeks to contemporary playwrights. Many insights into what composes a drama, in the past and now, flow from the author’s remarks. However, more comments by other authorities in the theater world would strengthen the book’s content and appeal and give it more balance. The first section covers the philosophy and poetry of tragedy and its structure, including the element of risk, tempo, and such issues as the politics of chaos and from chaos to command. Forms of tragedy encompass standalone, parallel motion, and perpetual motion works. The second section goes into major issues that have been the fulcrum of plays, both past and present, with an in-depth analysis of such subjects as trade and money. Examples, including stretches of dialogue, buttress the points made. The third section discusses how to write risk theatre, including such aspects as divine interference, the limits of knowledge, and errors of induction.

The writing is incisive, but some long paragraphs need to be broken up. It’s more difficult for readers to absorb, let alone enjoy, long paragraphs that take up all or most of a page. Chapter breaks help in absorbing the interesting breakdowns of the modern theater world and the author’s fascinating expectations of what the future might bring.

A glossary of dramatic terms would be a worthwhile addition. Insertion of some photos of scenes from famous plays would create a solid pictorial dimension and help break up the text.
The title and subtitle cite the contents well. The cover image would be more effective if the card-holding hand was of someone on a stage.

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.


2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pages

Book Blurb

How do neurons turn into minds? How does physical “stuff”–atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells–create the vivid and various world inside our heads? The problem of consciousness has gnawed at us for millennia. In the last century, massive breakthroughs have rewritten the science of the brain, yet the puzzles faced by the ancient Greeks remain. In The Consciousness Instinct, the neuroscience pioneer Michael S. Gazzaniga weaves together the latest research and the history of human thinking about the mind, giving a big-picture view of what science has revealed about consciousness.

The idea of the brain as a machine, first proposed centuries ago, has led to assumptions about the relationship between mind and brain that dog scientists and philosophers to this day. Gazzaniga asserts that this model has it backward: brains make machines, but they cannot be reduced to one. New research suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together. Understanding how consciousness could emanate from such an organization will help define the future of brain science and artificial intelligence, and close the gap between brain and mind.

Captivating and approachable, with insights drawn from a lifetime at the forefront of the field, The Consciousness Instinct sets the course for the neuroscience of tomorrow.

Michael S. Gazzaniga

is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, the founding director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. He is author of many popular science books, including Tales from Both Sides of the Brain.

The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind

Contrasting Viewpoints on Consciousness

Gazzaniga starts by outlining the major theories on consciousness. There are the reductionists and materialists (e.g. Freud and Galen) that believe that mental states and consciousness arise from material interactions between neurons, atoms, and molecules. The reductionist and materialists are deterministic in outlook. Determinists believe that the future follows rigidly or is “determined” by the past. Behaviorists, such as Skinner, form a subset of this worldview.

Then, thanks to Descartes, there are the dualists. To the dualists, mental states, the mind, and the soul are separate from the material body and brain. Dualism, according to Gazzaniga, set back science two thousand years: Aristotle, while he believed in a soul, also believed that the soul dies with the body. According to Descartes, the soul was immortal and immaterial, and being an “essence,” was not subject to scientific scrutiny.

Then, there is a third theory called mentalism. Mentalists such as Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga himself believe that “emergent mental powers must logically exert downward causal control over electrophysiological events in brain activity.” In other words, mental states, the “I,” and consciousness can impact and alter the physical brain. In the 1970s, the mentalist camp was a small minority. Most scientists were materialists.

The New Paradigm

In The Consciousness Instinct, Gazzaniga offers a new paradigm to break free from the old debate between materialists, dualists, and mentalists. His new paradigm of consciousness is based on the latest breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works and also his observations of how people with broken brains function. According to Gazzaniga:

Today we have at our fingertips a vast amount of rapidly accruing new information, and with a little luck, it affords new perspective on how the brain does its magic. The ideas of Descartes and other past thinkers that the mind is somehow floating atop the brain, and the ideas of the new mechanists that consciousness is a monolithic thing generated by a single mechanism or network, are simply wrong. I will argue that consciousness is not a thing. “Consciousness” is the word we use to describe the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism. That is why “consciousness” is a proxy word for how a complex living organism operates. And, to understand how complex organisms work, we need to know how brains’ parts are organized to deliver conscious experience as we know it.

Descartes believed that consciousness arose from the pineal gland in the brain. Gazzaniga and other neuroscientists understand otherwise. It’s always easier to see how something works by looking at how broken specimens function, and the brain is no different. By looking at people with broken brains, we now know that the brain is a modular organ, built up from many discrete modules, each with its own function and history in the evolution of the species. When one module, or multiple modules are damaged, consciousness remains. What this tells us is that consciousness does not reside in a specific area of the brain. Consciousness is a phenomenon or epiphenomenon that arises from the feedback between the different modules of the brain. It is a deep-rooted function which is incredibly hard to stamp out, even in the most damaged brains.

Split-brain patients offer the strongest testimony to how consciousness is not tied to a specific neural network:

Disconnecting the two half brains instantly creates a second, also independent conscious system. The right brain now purrs along carefree from the left, with its own capacities, desires, goals, insights, and feelings. One network, split into two, becomes two conscious systems.

They used to–and perhaps they still do–perform split-brain surgery to cure epilepsy. The surgery works, and after the nerves between the two cerebral hemispheres are cut, consciousness is also cloven. Here’s an interesting story Gazzaniga shares of Case W.J. After his split-brain surgery, Gazzaniga had tested him to see the results of the surgery:

More crazy yet, in the early months after surgery, before the two hemispheres get used to sharing a single body, one can observe them in a tug-of-war. For example, there is a simple task in which one must arrange a small set of colored blocks to match a pattern sown on a card. The right hemisphere contains visuomotor specializations that make this task a walk in the park for the left hand. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is incompetent for such a task. When a patient whose brain has recently been split attempts the task, the left hand immediately solves the puzzle; but when the right hand tries to attempt the task, the left hand starts to mess up the right hand’s work, trying to horn in and complete the task. In one such test, we had to have the patient sit on his bossy left hand to allow the right to attempt the task, which it never could accomplish!

If consciousness does not arise from a specific area of the brain, and the dualists and reductionists are mistaken, then from where does it arise? Gazzaniga’s calls his solution complementarity. It’s sort of an awkward word, but I see how he came up with it: the word is a bold rejection of Descartes’ term duality, or the mind – brain split.


The physicists posit that there are two worlds. There is the world of classical physics. This is Newton’s world. The world of objective observers. Processes are deterministic and predictable. Objects in the classical world can be waves or particles, but not waves and particles simultaneously. There is a spooky force over distance (e.g. gravity), but they got over this centuries ago. Classical physics explains the macro world (larger than an atom) quite well. Then there is the world of quantum mechanics. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and others came up with this model to explain the subatomic world. This is the world where there are no objective observers. Observers, by observing, alter the system. Processes are probabilistic and unpredictable. Reality is spooky as objects in the quantum world exist as a blur, as both particles and waves simultaneously. It is only the law of large numbers that levels out the blur so that material objects appear concrete. Complementarity describes how subatomic objects exist as both particles and waves simultaneously.

The observer plays a crucial role in the quantum world. By observing quantum processes, the observer collapses the complementary reality of the subatomic object into either a wave or a particle. Choose one experiment, light acts like a particle. But choose another experiment, light acts as a wave. Physicists refer to the inescapable separation of a subject (the measurer) from the object (the measured) die Schnitt. It seemed that human consciousness played a role in collapsing quantum wave functions.

But was human consciousness required in breaking down quantum wave functions. Theoretical biologist came up with an amazing breakthrough when he argued that lower levels of consciousness was able to do this. How low?

Pattee proposes that the gap resulted from a process equivalent to quantum measurement that began with self-replication at the origin of life with the cell as the simplest agent. The epistemic cut, the subject/object cut, the mind/matter cut, all are rooted to that original cut at the origin of life. The gap between subjective feeling and objective neural firings didn’t come about with the appearance of brains, it was already there when the first cell started living. Two complementary modes of behavior, two levels of description are inherent in life itself, were present at the origin of life, have been conserved by evolution, and continue to be necessary for differentiating subjective experience from the even itself.

What Pattee claims is that quantum measurements do not require the physicist-observer. Quantum measurements can take place even on a cellular level. For example, enzymes such as DNA polymerases perform quantum measurement during cell replication.

DNA, Materialism, Symbols, and Life

Materialists say that DNA, being made of chains of atoms, must obey the laws of nature. But, according to Pattee, the materialists don’t see that DNA is also a symbol: it contains the description of the organism. And while DNA contains the description of the organism, it is not the organism in itself. To turn DNA into the organism, two separate steps are required: translation and construction. RNA and other proteins and enzymes “read” the DNA to translate DNA and construct the organism. If the physicist-observer is the highest level of consciousness, the simplest level of consciousness, according to Gazzaniga and Pattee, is the RNA reading the DNA. Like how the physicist-observer observes subatomic particles, so too, the RNA observes the DNA sequence. At the very beginning of life, there was observation. And this observation was carried up to higher and higher levels of consciousness by evolution so that, to continue the analogy, the DNA is likened to the physical brain and the RNA likened to the subjective experience of “I.” This is an exceedingly bold claim.

From Whence Consciousness?

So, “consciousness” began with the beginning of life from when RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazed” onto the DNA template or blueprint. This gaze between RNA and DNA eventually became human consciousness. But where does our consciousness arise? Gazzaniga uses a soda water analogy to illustrate consciousness. Each module of the brain produces conceptual bubbles that rise to the surface. The “I” is what lies at the surface, and whatever bubble happens to have surfaced constitutes the “I.”

The History of Ideas

For those of you interested in the history of ideas, there’s a story on thermodynamics that Gazzaniga relates that reminds me of a question the astrophysicists are tackling today:

Still, even though Newton’s view of things took some getting used to, his laws seemed to describe most observations of the physical world well, and they became entrenched over the next two hundred years. But soon there was a new challenge to Newtonian physics that had to do with a new invention: the steam engine. The first commercial one was patented by Thomas Savery, a military engineer, in 1698 to pump water out of flooded coal mines. Even as the engines’ design improved, one problem continued to plague them: the amount of work they produced was minuscule compared to the amount of wood that had to be burned to produce it.

The early engines were all super inefficient because way too much energy was dissipated or lost. In the wholly determined world that Newton envisioned, this didn’t make much sense, so the theoretical physicists were forced to confront the puzzle of the seemingly lost energy. Soon a new field of study emerged, thermodynamics, and with it a change in theory about the nature of the world.

Does the story of the missing energy remind anyone of the astrophysicists’ search for dark matter? For galaxies to spin and move through galactic superclusters, they would have to contain much, much more matter than that which we can see. It’s been argued that up to 85% of the mass of the universe has not been discovered. Just as the physicists created thermodynamics to explore and find where all the missing energy in engines was going, perhaps we’re on the verge of a new branch of physics that will discover new laws and properties of matter heretofore unknown. What I’m saying is that the history of ideas seems to recur.

The Chicago School

I had known about the Chicago School of economics. I didn’t know there was a Chicago school of biology as well. Gazzaniga relates how the Chicago School of biology is, at bottom, anti-reductionist:

As Rosen, his [Rashevsky, one of the founders of the Chicago School] student describes, “He had asked himself the basic question: “What is life?” and approached it from a viewpoint tacitly as reductionistic as any of today’s molecular biologists. The trouble was that, by dealing with individual functions of organisms, and capturing these aspects in separate models and formalisms, he had somehow lost the organisms themselves and could not get them back.” He came to the realization that “no collection of separate descriptions (i.e. models) of organisms, however comprehensive, could be pasted together to capture the organism itself…Some new principle was needed if this purpose was to be accomplished.” Rashevsky dubbed that pursuit of the new principle relational biology.

Closing Thoughts

Gazzaniga talks about how patients who have undergone split-brain surgery develop two separate consciousnesses. Presumably, if you tied back the nerves between the two hemispheres of split-brain patients, consciousness would merge back into one. Now, what if you were to wire together separate brains. On the split-brain analogy, if you wired together multiple brains, they should form into one consciousness (you could do experiments wiring left and right hemispheres in series or parallel as well). Would brains wired in series or parallel access to more computing horsepower or a higher consciousness? And, if yes, would this brain cluster still be human? Or, what if you hooked up an Intel processor to the brain. You’d think from reading the news they’re getting close to being able to do this. Yes, this would also be an interesting thought experiment for the ethical philosophers.

Gazzaniga also talks about how evolution added more and advanced modules to the brain. It would have been interesting to read his speculations on where evolution is going to take us next. In another two or three hundred thousand years, will we have acquired additional “modules?” And what will these modules give us? Easier access to abstract mathematics? Higher IQ? Nirvana? Or?

And finally, if, as Gazzaniga postulates, the act of RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazing on” or “interpreting” DNA constitutes the first act of life and consciousness, then another question arises. Was life accidental, or will Nature bring life into being whenever it can? Is consciousness part of the natural order of things? Does consciousness arise as a natural phenomenon like how gravity will coalesce matter together into stars, clusters, and the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy?

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.


Wong’s hardy debut book of literary criticism succeeds in presenting a challenge to the famous playwrights of yesteryear while providing a compelling framework for today’s storytellers. Inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and drawing on examples from Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ovid, and several other venerated writers, Wong depicts risk—not sorrow or regret—as the peak point of all tragic stories, arguing that setting up one’s own downfall through a misjudged gamble is, in fact, the greatest tragedy of all. Much of the book is devoted to retellings of classic stories, leading to the redefinition of the tragic theater art form. Wong goes beyond considering characters’ risk-taking to examine factors such as meddling from outside forces, external authorities, passion, and the supernatural.

The book’s appeal lies in its novel premise and attention to detail. Readers opening it in hopes of a quick explanation of tragedy in drama may find it initially slow going, but they will be satisfied by Wong’s complete and thorough explanation of a new perspective from which one can view the masterworks of tragic theater. Wong concludes by challenging modern playwriting, viewing it both as a form of art and as a way that playwrights themselves take risks.

Tragedy has long been seen as essential to literature and drama, and much ink has been spilled about what makes it work; the idea of conscious risk-taking being the real source of tragic emotion feels genuinely new and exciting. Though the language is dry, dense, and highly technical—leavened only by the occasional humorous quotation—this is nonetheless an excellent compilation of arguments that will stimulate creative minds.

Takeaway: Playwrights and philosophers will completely devour this deep dive into the idea that tragedy stems from the misjudged gamble.

Great for fans of Eric Bentley, Simon Shepherd, Neil Verma.

Production grades

Cover: B

Design and typography: A

Illustrations: –

Editing: A

Marketing copy: A+

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

REVIEW – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values – Harris

2011, Free Press, 320 pages

“Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of Science!”–Edwin Wong

Book Blurb

Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people–from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists–agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.

In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false–and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

Author Blurb

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian NationThe Moral LandscapeFree Will, and LyingThe End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at samharris.org.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The book catalogs so many fails in religion that it might have been called, The Immoral Landscape: How Religion Fails to Determine Human Values. Agreed, religion has failed on many counts. But, perhaps it has worked some good as well? Did faith not inspire artists–Bach, Michelangelo, the poet of the Song of Songs–to create awesome works of art? Was Christianity not instrumental in improving conditions for slaves in the Roman world? Does religion not give something for the people to believe in? Many other examples are possible.

Harris’ presentation lacks balance. This lack of balance is deliberate. He cites one after another in an endless litany the fails of religion and neglects to mention any good that it has done. People who applaud Harris will love it. The lack of balance, however, may be off-putting for moderates. And religious folk may find the presentation distasteful. Even Nietzsche, who wrote works such as The Antichrist, attacked the church in a way that religious people could, if not agree with, see the point of view. Nietzsche’s pronouncement, for example, that “the very word Christianity is a misunderstanding–at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” for example rings true to many Christians who see a wide gulf between the teachings of Jesus, the original Christian, and Saint Paul, who founded organized Christianity a generation later. This seems to be a valid point: Christianity is misguided from the bottom, as the God of Paul and the God of Jesus are fundamentally different in the same way as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the Jesus. To attack religion as Harris does by saying it causes war, incites hatred, and gives rise to abhorrent practises is beside the point. If, as Harris argues, there are no gods, then is religion responsible or would it be more accurate to say human nature is responsible?

Harris’ argument that science and reason inform human values rests on a debatable premise. The premise is that the greatest good for the greatest number should be the greatest good. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but that’s what I gathered. He comes from a utilitarian school of thought. He could have just as easily have said that science and reason support eugenics or something like that, and then come up with supporting arguments. Of course, he doesn’t say that but instead says that we should use science to advance the happiness of the human race. If this is the case, I would have a few questions for him. Say I agree, for the moment, that there are no gods. What if, however, science could demonstrate (through some brain scan or through looking at actuary tables) that the belief in religion or the gods makes people healthier, more fulfilled, and longer lived? It would be a sort of placebo effect. And what if science could scientifically demonstrate that, if you took this placebo away from these people that their lives would be made less rewarding. Would you still, in the name of reason, strip these people of their god?

Because religion is a barbaric relic, Harris elevates science and reason over us as the new arbiter of human value. Science and reason will teach us ethics and morals. My spider-sense tingles here. At least under the old gods, one could say: I respect your practise, but seeing that I am not Catholic (or a Buddhist or a Protestant or a Muslim, etc.,), I do not subscribe to your practise. I am free to choose. But if science and reason can, as Harris argues, tell us how to comport ourselves, where is there to hide? Can one, in the same way, say, “I respect your practise, but seeing that I don’t believe in reason, I do not subscribe to your practise.” Whoever controls science and reason becomes a new god. And woe to the heretics who doubt the new gospel! My spider-sense tells me that if Project Reason gets its way, there will be a new Inquisition, one in which the freedom to dissent will be crucified on the cross of Science.

If you’re going to base human well-being on something, it might as well be science, right? Religion has made so many mistakes, after all. So many mistakes it can’t be trusted. But I remember they used to have this thing called margarine. “Natural animal fats are bad for the heart,” the scientists said, “have this science butter instead.” But today I think most people would say butter is healthier than margarine. It may prove true in the future for the current rage for this “healthy” meat substitutes such as “Beyond Meat.” The point is that science makes mistakes too. And when science makes mistakes, the repercussions are big, since you had put your trust in science. Here’s a secret: it’s when you’re most confident that, paradoxically, you’re in the gravest danger. Science tends towards innovations with short term track records. But since it has the backing of science, we tend to trust it. And this brings us to an interesting point: is tradition, which has been honed through history and time superior, or is science, the product of continual innovation and experimentation better?

One thing tradition has going for it is that it stands the test of time. It is robust. It grows stronger through time. If a custom has been around for a hundred years, chances are it will last for another hundred years. If a custom has been around for two hundred years, chances are it will last another two hundred years. And so on. One advantage of religion is that it embraces tradition. In embracing tradition, its precepts are tested through the persistence of time. Science is the opposite. It destroys tradition. And it shoots forward into the future at a breakneck pace. As Harris himself writes, “The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.” Take diet, for instance. There’s a lot of things we would consider odd with a diet prescribed by religion, whether kosher, halal, or a Buddhism. But, if your goal is health and longevity, would you try that, or one of the latest fad diets prescribed by science?–the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet, margarine, beyond meat, etc.,? In my mind, the answer is simple: if you’re not sure, go with tradition. Tradition doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Harris argues that you shouldn’t trust religion because it’s done a lot of bad things. And then he brings up the notable examples. Let’s take a look at our judicial system of trial by jury. I’d say it works pretty well, most of the time. And I would suggest most people agree. But sometimes the trial by jury system makes big blunders. If I were to cite these blunders, would it be a good argument to get rid of it. I would say no. But maybe you say, “If it makes many blunders, let’s get rid of it on the condition that there’s something better to replace it with.” Okay. Harris has something better to replace religion with: he has this thing called science. But then, on a closer examination, is science completely pure, only working good? Science has never done evil, never come up with nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, and designer drugs?

Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of science.

Science, through the mediator of art, will arbitrate human values. Case in point: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities)

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

Foreword Clarion Review – The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

A big thank you to reviewer Ho Lin and the team at Foreword Clarion for a happy four-star review of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. While many reviews have written about my book’s focus on gambling acts and risk, this is the first review to mention that tragedy is–in the risk theatre interpretation–a thermodynamic process that plays out the Second Law of thermodynamics on the stage. The stage of tragedy starts off in a state of high potential and ends up (as the heroes perish) in a state of lower potential. Fuel is converted into heat. After the death of a Faustus, Macbeth, or Oedipus, the world seems an emptier place, a place with less potential. In addition, I like how Lin touches on the book’s many detours into topics such as the Maginot Line, the heliocentric theory of the cosmos, and so on. If I may be allowed to ‘review the reviewer’, I find this an extremely well-rounded review. If I didn’t know the book, this is the review I’d like to have read to help make up my mind whether this was the right book for me.

Here’s a link to the Foreword Clarion review, which is also reprinted below. The Foreword Clarion review is almost good enough to make me forget about the much more lukewarm review from Blue Ink which found that my scholarly analysis is “sometimes wildly off the mark.” But hey, you can’t win them all. The best you can do is to go all-in and hope for the best. Like Faust, we strive,  we err, and we continue.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

Edwin Wong

Friesen Press (Feb 4, 2019) (332pp)

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.

Defining the nature of theatrical tragedy is a formidable task; everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche has taken a crack at it. In his stimulating The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, Edwin Wong posits a fresh approach based upon the modern ups and downs of the stock market.

Tragedy, the book argues, can be seen as the ultimate in risk theory. Overconfident or desperate heroes make calculated gambles, resulting in unexpected, high-consequence results. In this wide-ranging treatise, Wong analyzes dozens of examples, from Oedipus Rex to Death of a Salesman, to find compelling evidence that explains why certain tragedies have more lasting power than others.

The study focuses on the structure, philosophy, and poetics of tragedy. This risk theory is at its most convincing when it comes to structure, noting that the genre is characterized by three movements: the protagonist encountering temptation; a wager on a favorable outcome (most often involving life and limb); and a metaphorical cast of the dice, in which the protagonist makes his gamble and endures the subsequent results. In modeling this, supporting references and plot points are pinpointed from classic tragedies. The book further delineates different approaches, from “frontloaded” variants (which begin with a bang and end with introspection) to “backloaded” versions (in which cataclysmic outcomes are saved for the climax).

Tragedies are further segmented by their scope (involving a single hero and “risk event,” or a series of unfortunate events ensnaring numerous characters). Fascinating side topics, including the invention of the concept of money and how it led to tragedies being boiled down to the price of life itself, are covered, and the book invites consideration of the commonplaces of tragedy, from the supporting characters who influence protagonists’ decisions to the influence of the supernatural. This work moves toward a final comparison of tragedy with other major genres and disciplines that demonstrates how they also reflect the human condition.

Such analyses run the risk of being dry, but this is engaging work. It pulls passages from classic plays in a generous way and serves as a fun primer on tragedies in general, as well as a bracing presentation of its theories. Ranging musings tap into heliocentric theories of the universe, historic disasters such as the French Maginot Line in World War II, and how the action in a tragedy mirrors the second law of thermodynamics. These heady detours don’t always cohere with the book’s grand theories, but their multidimensional approaches are lively and thought-provoking.

Making the case for risk theory as a new definition for tragic theater, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.

HO LIN (May 28, 2019)

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