Getting Even

Adam Phillips

  • Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon by John Kerrigan
    Oxford, 404 pp, £40.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 19 812186 5
  • Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? by A.D. Nuttall
    Oxford, 110 pp, £20.00, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 818371 2

We wouldn’t think of anything as a tragedy if we did not have a deeply ingrained sense of order already there to be affronted. Tragedy in life, and as art, exposes by violation our mostly unconscious assumptions about how the world should be; and how often we take for granted that it is as it should be – a world in which, say, no one ever takes revenge, or dies. ‘If we were all wicked,’ A.D. Nuttall writes, ‘there would, perhaps, be no problem.’ But the ‘perhaps’, as he knows, points to the problem. There is – the title of his shrewd and learned book acknowledges it – an unnerving, and not quite so easily explained, disparity between our profound fascination with tragic art and absolute horror of real tragedy. It is a difference calculated to expose our more unsettling assumptions about the value of art, and about what we might be doing when we are enjoying something that appals us.

At its most minimal, tragedy shows us that a death matters, reminds us – were we to need reminding – that a death has meaning. ‘Tragedy, which might be noble,’ John Kerrigan remarks, ‘always, just the same, means waste’; as though some imagined economy has gone awry. Either there’s an anomaly in the system, or there’s no system. What happened at Dunblane is called a tragedy because we take it for granted that adults don’t (randomly) kill children. But why do we believe this? Partly because these events occur so rarely, but also because we wouldn’t know how to live if we saw them as daily possibilities – which they are. Everything that happens becomes part of our sense of what can happen. Clearly, we protect children so much because we know how little we can protect them from.

Very often, faced with real-life tragedies like the Dunblane massacre, no sense – certainly no consoling sense – can be made of what has happened. In one way nothing has gone wrong when things go wrong, except our wishes (‘this couldn’t happen,’ meaning: ‘I really don’t want it to’). The question that both life-tragedies and art-tragedies confront us with is: is this the way it is in spite of us, or because of us? If we think of our personal tragedies as punishments then at least we confirm our belief that we are living in a coherent moral system; if we think of them as in some way educative they turn our lives into intelligible projects, if only retrospectively. Either way the news is good, even when it’s very bad. (It may not be Christianity or atheism that makes tragic drama impossible, but chaos theory.) So Oedipus’ ultimate self-recognition is numinous and reassuring. Whereas, at the end of Lear, Nuttall suggests, Shakespeare ‘offers no such clinching final insight’, and this is part of the play’s power and, more enigmatically, of the pleasure we get from it. ‘Instead,’ Nuttall writes, ‘he teaches us the harder lesson that sufferers may die without knowing why they have suffered.’ Sophocles, in Nuttall’s reading, gives us something that could make it all seem worthwhile, encourages us to believe that Oedipus could even be impressed by what he has done. He had a terrible time, but his project looks like it hangs together. (Sophocles, in Kerrigan’s complementary words, ‘confuses the coherent with the complete’.) Shakespeare’s sufferers are left with less than nothing; one reason, perhaps, why ‘nothing’ is such a key word in the play.

And yet when things don’t go according to plan – when accidents or illnesses occur, or when the fictional Great fall through their plots – we tend not to give up on the whole notion of making plans, of wanting things one way rather than another. It is striking how resilient our wishing is: how much our wants mean to us or how much we can make them mean (mourning and revenge are both ways of making loss significant). We seem able to get pleasure – some version of Nietzsche’s ‘more life’ – out of terrible things, as if part of the pleasure of tragedy is that we can be undaunted by it, that we more than survive it. People won’t stop having children after Dunblane any more than they do after seeing King Lear. Both these scholarly and moving books – an increasingly rare combination – are about what we’ve got to set against what Kerrigan calls the ‘arbitrariness of destruction’.

Tragedy questions our capacity – our wish – to make meaning: revenge pre-empts the question. The revenger is purpose incarnate. Unless he is Hamlet he knows both that something can be done, and what to do. The idea of revenge makes Hamlet wonder whether his life is worth living. But the average revenger, once he has been injured, knows what his life is for. For him, a wound is like a pure gift of meaning, a vocation almost. The only question is how. A terrible optimist, he believes in justice: in both its possibility and its value. Because he (now) knows what he wants, he knows what his life means. Revenge, in other words, makes us complicated by simplifying us. By solving a lot of problems it raises a lot of questions.

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