On the sweet pain of a hot poker

Sweet Violence
March 21, 2003

Richard Parish gets to grips with that most elusive of genres - tragedy.

"Such is the high justice of these gods: they lead our steps onto the very threshold of crimes; they have us commit them, yet do not forgive us. Do they take pleasure in making people guilty, just to make illustrious wretches out of them?" So asks Jocasta in Racine's early tragedy La Thébaide , and so, tacitly or explicitly, do all the protagonists, writers, theorists, critics and indeed the author himself in Terry Eagleton's horizon-stretching account of the tragic idea. One way of talking about tragedy is to take the donnish, aesthetic line and insist that it is all about literary forms and conventions. At the other pole is the populist, tabloid approach, which can extend its meaning to include a bus crash. To say that Eagleton's definitions of tragedy both embrace and transcend such options would be to parody the immense scope and humane erudition of this remarkable study.

Unsurprisingly for those who know his writing, the early chapters are often brilliantly ironic, albeit in a slightly formulaic way, and are devoted to the graveyard of what are, in Eagleton's view, the variously unsatisfactory attempts by critics accurately to define their elusive term. Requiescant in pace whole shelves full of "high-minded platitudes", put to death in many cases with a lethal dose of acerbity.

Thus, of Hegel's assertion that "the necessity of all that particular individuals experience is able (in tragedy) to appear in complete concord with reason", Eagleton comments: "It is unlikely that Marlowe's Edward the Second, who dies with a red-hot poker thrust up his anus, would rush to endorse that view."

One problem is that tragedy is an experimental, evolving genre, as often as not defined more by writerly practice in a range of media than by generic theory. Tragedians have often grandly declared that tragedy is this or that (helped or, more frequently, hindered by Aristotle) only, in some cases, to go on to write tragic plays that directly contradict their tightly wrought formulae. The only definitions that survive are the minimal ones, and one happy upshot of Eagleton's global survey should be (but, of course, may not be) the acknowledgment that the term's essentially polysemic value can in future be taken for granted.

Yet this is far from being simply an iconoclastic book, and if he is impatient with academia, it is because Eagleton is concerned to relate the idea of the tragic to the political and the metaphysical, in contrast with the simply formal, and to promote its central importance to an understanding of the human condition.

Eagleton comes at the problem from the humanitarian left, laced with Christian theology, but while working effortlessly with many often-incompatible ideologies, he refuses to be constrained by them, and the whole exercise is marked by its integrity and inclusivity. His arguments engage with a prodigious line of authorities, from Augustine and Pascal, through Hegel and Nietzsche to Luk cs and Lacan, yet no single angle dominates, and his conclusions are, in Jean-Francois Revel's memorable formulation, conceived "[ sans ] Marx ni Jésus ". Neither history nor redemption, for Eagleton, can write tragedy out of the picture.

Among the many fertile dimensions to his book, Eagleton explores the inconsistently noble figure of the tragic hero, the self-defining nihilism of the demonic, the question of why tragedy gives pleasure, and the tensions between tragedy and modernity. He is particularly fascinating on the question of the tragic potential of the novel, introducing as it does in a literary form the domain of what he terms "tragic ordinariness", but also, by its aspiration to comprehensiveness, inevitably resistant to a single set of affective responses. All humans, he claims, are capable of tragic status, as the historical democratisation of the concept has demonstrated. And indeed it is the eponymous protagonist of Thomas Mann's Holy Sinner that affords him the material for a magisterial concluding chapter, devoted to the figure of the scapegoat.

Eagleton's definition is progressive and contextual, with local flashes of an often-sententious clarity illuminating his intricate and circumspect exploration of facets of his term. Tragedy has to embrace myth and modernity, culture and barbarity, fate and freedom, pity and terror, Eros and Thanatos and, in what is perhaps his governing cohabitation, Dionysus and Apollo. It can define a moment of recognition or anagnorisis , and it can provoke catharsis, which Eagleton interprets as a kind of theatrical homeopathy.

In addition, any coherent view of the term has, for him, to start from degradation and ruin but not to propose any facile remedy for their transcendence. It entails "a tension between taking the full measure of despair, and refusing to acknowledge it as quite the last word". As he goes on to say of Oedipus, "when humanity reaches its nadir it becomes a symbol of everything that cries out for transformation"; and yet, now glossing this from King Lear , "it is not a good in itself, and it is tragic that it should be necessary".

Anyone reading this book will be bound to think of more examples that either support or counter Eagleton's line since, self-evidently, he cannot in turn escape the vigorous engagement with the concept that he has initiated in the reader (and in his closing pages he refreshingly accepts that there will be exceptions to his own synthesis). Thus, to take one example, he is relatively thin on opera, especially Wagner, let alone on non-narrative musical forms (why is Brahms' Tragic Overture tragic, for example?). But perhaps what the portrayal of the tragic condition most persuasively conveys - at the risk of adding another minimal definition to the anthology of unsatisfactory single-liners - is glimpsed in Robert Lowell's evocation of Racine's Phèdre as a play resonant with "the glory of [its] hard, electric rage". That just about sums up what I, at least, thought the tragic might still have to offer.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic

Author - Terry Eagleton
ISBN - 0 631 23359 8 and 23360 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
Pages - 328

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