Tragic Modernities, by Miriam Leonard

Barbara Graziosi on an ambitious and well-researched study

August 20, 2015
Book review: Tragic Modernities, by Miriam Leonard

Revolution, according to Hannah Arendt, defines modernity. Classicist Miriam Leonard takes her cue from Arendt and begins this monograph with a discussion of tragedy and revolution, focusing on the rather startling appearance of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus at the end of Arendt’s book On Revolution; moving on to Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; and finally considering Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy (1966), where the ancient art form is affirmed as a modern reality, not only because factories and coal mines have tragic alienation “built into them”, but because the violence of post-revolutionary societies creates new tragic experiences. As this short outline of Leonard’s first chapter already suggests, she considers varied and even disparate texts, in order to illuminate, in the first instance, the connections between ancient tragedy and modern political theory.

In dialogue with Schelling, Hegel and Nietzsche, Leonard then explores the relationship between freedom and necessity, between acting in the world and being a pawn of destiny (an issue that interested many in the wake of the French Revolution, whether or not in connection with tragedy). That relationship surfaces again, in a different guise, when considering tragedy and history: Carl Schmidt argues against the autonomy of art, and insists that specific historical conditions are necessary for its production; Hölderlin fails to write a tragedy in an era when, in his view, “the prerequisites for tragedy are missing”; and Hegel uses tragedy to explain, for example, the history of the Jews (which turns out not to be tragic, because it does not involve the fall of beautiful characters). Freud’s debt to Hegel’s universalist and humanist reading of tragedy is clearly articulated, even while the differences between these two thinkers are acknowledged: whereas for Hegel Oedipus’ self-knowledge defines him as a man, for Freud it is unconscious desire and therefore the limitations of self-knowledge that turn Oedipus into a universal figure. Feminist critics also use tragedy, in several different ways, in order to expose the male-centred universalism of Freud. A crucial discussion of subjectivity concludes the book: Leonard begins with Simon Goldhill’s observation that modern readers focus on the individual subject and therefore sideline the chorus, but then resists his conclusion that they therefore also sideline politics.

This is an ambitious and well-researched book, which has important things to say about both tragedy and modernity. It also raises issues of method that seem relevant not only to the particular topics addressed, but also to the study of classical reception more generally. Some of the thinkers Leonard discusses have a deep investment in tragedy; others, however, refer to tragedy (or drama) only in passing, as a culturally competent gesture en route to making a point about something else. Leonard scrupulously acknowledges how tangential tragedy sometimes seems: “Arendt refrains from explicitly characterizing the drama as tragedy”; “there seems to be something at least contingently ‘tragic’ about this document”; “Heidegger addressed no single work to the topic of tragedy and never formulated a theory of the tragic”.

At the same time, Leonard makes large claims about the importance of tragedy in modern intellectual history: for example, while Heidegger may never have devoted a work to tragedy, “it would not be difficult to characterize his philosophical outlook as tragic”. This raises the question of Leonard’s own aims: just as the thinkers she discusses lionise tragedy en route to their own ends, so Leonard focuses on their engagements with tragedy (such as they are), in order to make a point of her own: the political power of tragedy does not reside in its original context of performance alone, it also – and fundamentally – shapes modernity.

Barbara Graziosi is professor of Classics, Durham University, and director, for the arts and humanities, of the Institute of Advanced Study.

Tragic Modernities
By Miriam Leonard
Harvard University Press, 224pp, £29.95
ISBN 9780674743939
Published 5 June 2015

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