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It’s not about cheering us upDavid Simpson

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Vol. 25 No. 7 · 3 April 2003

It’s not about cheering us up

David Simpson

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic 
by Terry Eagleton.
Blackwell, 328 pp., £55, August 2002, 0 631 23359 8
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In the age of Sophocles or of Shakespeare, tragic drama concerned the deaths of nobles and notables, individuals whose lives were closely entwined with the health of the state. In the 19th century, on the other hand, both the drama and the novel found moral and aesthetic gravity in the deaths of ordinary people. In our own apparently democratised First World there are few kings and princes who need to be reminded not to be tyrants, and the occasional exposure of corrupt corporate moguls presents the spectacle merely of cheap greed brought to some sort of justice without convincing anyone that the body politic is thereby purged of its ills. Many critics have claimed that modern life has no place for exemplary transgression or suffering. We don’t attribute Bill Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky to the vengeful interventions of Aphrodite; nor do we imagine that the gods decided who went to work in the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. The fall of Presidents (to say nothing of Cabinet ministers) and the deaths of ordinary people have not accumulated a rhetoric of tragedy: the dead of 9/11 are presumably too numerous and too much alike for the traditionally rigorous individuation of tragic fate. Indeed, in the United States the word has hardly been used about 9/11: we hear about evil, not tragedy. At the same time, however, tragedy is trivially everywhere. To take some recent instances: the ‘tragedy’ of a college president caught committing plagiarism; of a fellowship candidate’s failure to produce a proposal that does him justice; and of Roy Keane’s inability to keep his mouth shut. There is no serious life left in this language, one might think.

Terry Eagleton thinks, or wishes, otherwise. The elitist view of tragedy is for him the work of literary critics, not of writers, who are entirely persuasive about the moral dignity and social significance of suffering and death in ordinary lives. It is the critics who have disdained modern life’s suitability for the tragic mode, and have made an aesthetic virtue out of suffering in the past, persuading themselves that what was horrible then can be metaphysically pleasing now and that present-day suffering is undignified and uninteresting. Past pain is thus sanitised while that of the present is dismissed as beneath attention – a useful strategy, Eagleton supposes, for those who have lived through the bloodiest century in human history and would prefer not to look at it too closely. This wilful ignorance is aggravated by the common use of the word ‘tragedy’ in contexts ranging from accidental or unexpected deaths to simple setbacks or nuisances. Many died ‘tragically’ in the Bali nightclub bombing, which was also declared ‘tragic’ for the tourist industry. Must this second usage not trivialise the first, robbing the word of any serious meaning and insulting the memory of the dead? Can an inanimate abstraction such as the tourist industry experience tragedy?

There are two things to be said about this. First, many of the deaths in Bali probably happened instantly, whereas tragedy has traditionally been thought to involve an extended consciousness of one’s fate and the ability to articulate it for others. So tragedy may seem, to some of the critics Eagleton takes to task, the wrong word for the experience of those who died. But this must surely be false. While some will have died instantly others must have had time for conscious reflection. Certainly, most of those in the World Trade Center had time to think about what was happening: time to make phone calls, to attempt escape and realise the futility of the attempt, to talk to others facing imminent death, to experience their last moments as just that. The same is true of those on the planes, the captives and their hijackers. The assumption that in modern disasters people die instantly is often, in other words, a fantasy, the sources of which repay analysis. It is part wish-fulfilment (no one wants to linger, to know violent death), partly a reflection of the ideology of automatisation, partly a denial of the task of explanation.

Second, is it true that a tourist industry cannot experience tragedy? Of course it can’t, in the simplest and most obvious sense. But the industry is made up of people on whom other people depend, people in need of food and lodging, whose minimal subsistence has been threatened by losing their jobs, whose psychological wellbeing may have been shattered by what they saw. All this can be imagined as contributing to outcomes that we might view as traditionally tragic, including the extended consciousness of decline and death.

In both these ways, the dissemination of the term in the common language indicates not, or not only, the shallowness of modern life, but a traceable connection between the high seriousness of an inherited art form and the kinds and degrees of suffering and death that we are still compelled to experience and think about. This is evidence for Eagleton’s case that we should trust the writers and the facts of life and language, not the critics who tell us about them.

Not that his book avoids generating tedium as it lists, learnedly but compulsively, all the benighted theorists of tragedy who have either got it wrong (in these cases he cites the rule and then gleefully points out the exceptions) or, more commonly, espoused the ideology of tragedy as a strategy for refusing modernity and disdaining democracy. However, Eagleton does return with approval to the arguments of Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy (1966). There, Williams (whom Eagleton once notoriously deemed a ‘left Leavisite’) told us that most theories of tragedy have been little more than ideology, that tragedy does indeed occur in the lives of ordinary people, that modern life is by no means devoid of exemplary suffering and death, and that the real tragedy of tragedy is that it could often have been avoided. Eagleton endorses all these arguments and directs them at a generation he regards as either besotted with a belief in self-fashioning, a ‘dogmatic American voluntarism’ for which the world is ‘perpetually open’, or marked by a dialectically opposite sense of gloom and inertia deriving from a ‘culturalist or historicist hubris’ secure in the belief that nothing endures or matters more than anything else, a belief that results in the disavowal of any ‘idea of social progress’. Both symptoms are on show in the academy, where they are roughly identified with the liberals and the Left, respectively. Taken together, they are broadly reflective of a contemporary process whereby people are presented with incommensurable discourses for self-ascription: everything is possible, nothing can be done.

How, then, can we reintroduce the ‘idea of social progress’ without resorting to the old pieties that Eagleton himself has done more than most to discredit? There is a notable return to absolutes and proto-universals on the liberal wing of the contemporary academy. We have a return to aesthetics (beauty), to ethics (the good), to values and to forms of interpersonal behaviour deemed capable of resolving social problems and conditions in a culture obsessed with personal adequacy and sincerity. There has also been a revived interest in the idea of the emotions as hard-wired evolutionary mechanisms that are effectively foundational to what we call human nature. Tragedy could easily find a place here, where it has in any case long resided in the view of many of the theorists Eagleton criticises. They include the critics and philosophers (from Hegel to Eliot) for whom tragedy was ‘all about cheering us up’, who scorned the incomprehension of the ‘dimwitted populace’ and made suffering (the suffering of others) into a metaphysically charged ‘spiritual experience’. For them, the extinction of a human life shows humanity at its finest: the tearing of an innocent ‘limb from limb’ becomes ‘the highest expression of human value’.

At least two elements contribute to this long-standing consensus. The first, for which Eagleton has a sharp eye, is ideological in the secular sense. Representative suffering imagined in the lives of an elite exposes the modern world as lacking in dignity (thus sponsoring nostalgia) and at the same time legitimates other, grubbier elites that are very much in evidence and can only profit from identification with the heroes of past ages. The second element is, depending on your view of things, either ideological or theological. Eagleton’s ground is a bit less secure here, since he wants to reintroduce the possibility that ‘theological ideas’ might be politically rejuvenating from within a tradition where the theological has seldom appeared other than hopelessly reactionary. It is all very well to berate Hegel, for example, as the arch-proponent of tragedy as celebrative and affirmative, but this notion derives from a Christianity according to which the spirit cannot wait to escape from its bodily form and participate in the intense incorporeal world beyond. Eagleton seems reluctant to get into this theological territory. Oddly, he has already done so, over thirty years ago, in his little read (and to my knowledge never reprinted) book The Body as Language: Outline of a ‘New Left’ Theology (1970). Here he took on the task of approximating Christianity to Marxism, seeing both as engaged in an effort at ‘genuine communal liberation’, and both as preoccupied with the discordant relation between the body and the immaterial world (of which ‘language’ is the type). This argument is explicitly Hegelian in its acceptance of mankind’s urge to ‘transcend animal-sensuous limit’ by way of the testing fires of alienation, a process both embodied and triumphant in the life of Christ and the experience of the Eucharist.

And, sure enough, the matter of tragedy came up in that book, in a critique of Raymond Williams’s endorsement of two apparently incompatible claims: that tragedy is ordinary and everywhere, and that it can be rendered unnecessary by social revolution. If tragedy is ordinary, Eagleton claimed, then no redistribution of resources could possibly remove it from our lives: common ownership of the means of transport would not preclude dying in a road accident. Tragedy is ordinary, he agreed, and should indeed be applied to the description of ‘all irreparable violation of human being, regardless of its historical centrality’. But then it cannot, in a secular-material world made up of vulnerable bodies, ever be fully displaced. One might choose to handle this seeming contradiction in Williams’s position by describing it as a utopian incentive: the task of revolution is to minimise tragedy, not overcome death. And one might interpret death as much less ‘tragic’ in a society in which redistribution has undone excess and lives have been made more worth living. Eagleton, however, was more interested in making an opening for a Christian motif which ‘reaches to a depth within and beyond the projects of revolutionary socialism’. Only in the life of Jesus and its legacy does the either/or Eagleton derives from Williams become a both/and; only here does the suffering body become the very principle of the transcendence of history. We need the ‘kingdom of heaven’ to solve the conundrum.

In this new book Eagleton is oddly silent about his earlier rehearsal of exactly the topic that preoccupies him here. Now it is Marxism alone that can understand the antinomic nature of modernity as both emancipatory and unspeakably violent. Christianity is relatively unexplored, but the legacy of the earlier argument is apparent: he still supposes that human life is marked by non-negotiable limits of frailty and death. He is also still committed to the idea that tragedy is ordinary. But too much of his energy goes into upbraiding those who have thought that it isn’t, and too little into an extended analysis of the consequences of accepting that it is. Since 1970 we have had Sebastiano Timpanaro’s views (which Eagleton alludes to) on the long duration of feelings and passions, which he supposed must change very slowly or minimally over time. We have also more recently had evolutionary psychologists telling us that most of our primary emotions and responses were formed during the Pleistocene, and proposing to use this insight to explain the dynamics of culture and society as being essentially consistent rather than subject to the fine tunings of short-term ‘history’. We may think we are formed by the conditions of modernity, but we are really still evincing the residual habits which enabled us to succeed as hunters and gatherers in the age of the mastodons.

Eagleton doesn’t take up these questions in any detail. He wants to hang on to the idea of a ‘species-being’ that cannot be wished away, but he is never clear on how long any particular trait might endure. Instead, he proposes a common humanity that will chastise the aesthetically fastidious for their indifference to the sufferings of ordinary lives. This can only be welcomed: a politics can be anchored in vulnerability, and tragedy can, I suppose, be deployed to remind us of that. Socialism and materialism should be ‘earth-bound and realistic’. He argues – against those he calls historicists – that there are aspects of our being which are ‘passive, constrained and inert’: human nature cannot be completely remade. At the same time he is committed to the idea that tragedy can be avoided, and would be better avoided: conflict-free lives may be uninteresting to academics but ‘they are at least lives, as opposed to those products of conflicts known as corpses.’ Eagleton uses the thesis that species-being doesn’t change, or ‘change much’, to reinforce the case for finding dignity in ordinary suffering, but that thesis also accords with the theological leanings of the earlier Eagleton, who is still visible in this book pointing to our ‘recalcitrant otherness’ as animals who ‘straddle two domains’, one open to modification and the other presumably not so, an enduring expression of ‘finitude and frailty’. This residual theology, if that is what it is, rubs uncomfortably against the reformist or revolutionary belief that the world would and could be a better place if it created fewer tragedies, and that discouraging us from fetishising suffering by way of an aesthetic theory is a small contribution to that end. Is there a common quantum of suffering that can be posited as the foundation of a common humanity? And if there is, can tragedy make us feel it?

This is the point at which the argument could get really interesting, but Eagleton doesn’t take us there. It’s true that in our risk society, vulnerability might be understood as more generally diffused than it was in the era of high confidence in modernisation. No one now should feel safe from sudden annihilation, no one should believe that the shield of technology will always work for them. At the same time, because of the increasing economic and spatial distancing of the rich from the poor, massively more options are open to the lucky few than ever before. The cyborg subject, with its pacemakers, drug regimes and artificial limbs, is usually also the First World middle to upper-class economic subject with a conscious incentive to preserve life for as long as possible under the best possible conditions. Of course, death must come, and tragedy could work as a reminder of that. But it is at least arguable that the norm of a species-being has dissolved – that the affluent cyborg subject is no longer likely to think of itself as belonging to the same species as the impoverished person – notwithstanding their common end in death. Death itself may look different. The 20th century may well have seen more violent deaths than any previous time, but towards its end they happened disproportionally outside the affluent world. Since 1945 the so-called First World has not been attacked by adversaries with anywhere near equal resources. Hence the shock of 9/11, and the troubling assumption that ‘we’ have now suffered as much as anyone else.

Eagleton is liable to confuse his distaste for what he calls American ‘self-fashioning’ and its ‘cracker-barrel pioneer ideology’ with a historical condition that he cannot wish away however much he’d like to. He thinks that seeing the world as a place for self-gratification is wrong: I agree. He knows, too, that the world we have is an unjust and violent one, but that might well make it all the more unlikely to respond to his case that ‘polluted kings and ancient fertility cults’ are more relevant to our time than ‘the politics of most present day left-historicists’. If the gulf between the prosperous and the deprived continues to widen, art may not be powerful enough to cross it even if there is still plenty of raw material for the making of tragedy. As I’ve said, in the United States the language of tragedy was not invoked in describing 9/11: the word was probably deemed too common to describe its enormity (a mistake); or perhaps it was thought that its use would give rather too much airspace to Islamic martyr-terrorists loyal to gods we would prefer not to take seriously. Instead, we have the language of evil, which Williams in 1966 memorably called a ‘deeply complacent idea’. The language of evil interpellates the existence of the good: them and us. The complacency seems so profound that we have to wonder whether any experience of art can trouble the ideology of the privileged sector. Tragedy in particular might come to seem even more of an anachronism than before. At the same time, 9/11 was a world event, and there may yet be places where the dynamics of tragedy can be explored.

The academic left-historicists Eagleton targets are said to be in place ‘from Sydney to San Diego’, and are cast almost as moral derelicts. Here, his understanding of Postmodernism simply as nihilism, and of historicism as mere relativism, tells us something true, but not the whole truth, or even a very useful one. Those who are engaged in some kind of activism – environmentalism, minority or gender politics, the anti-war movement – will find the characterisation insulting. But it is also analytically impoverishing in not acknowledging that the question of a justifiable and productive praxis is far too pervasive and complex to be solved by a mere act of will, as the debates about Hardt and Negri’s Empire have made clear. Eagleton offers Marxism, boldly enough, as the alternative to ‘patrician nostalgia’ on the one hand, and ‘crass progressivism’ (or ‘Postmodern amnesia’) on the other. But it sometimes seems as if the transgression he cares about here is theological after all, a sin of ambition, a Faustian denial of our given limits as human beings (everything is possible), or an equally improper Faustian despair (nothing can be done). His argument seems to reach its limit at just the point one wants it to expand. The case for the political power of a tragic art that encompasses ordinary life is a serious one, made in clear good faith. His case on behalf of art against ideology is also important. But it should call for a better left-historicism (we could call it Marxism), not a dismissal of it.

In the meantime, perhaps students of tragedy should be asked to consider the idea, common in the 18th century, that the Shakespearean stage is a monument to barbarism rather than (or as well as) to the high tragic muse, while thanking Terry Eagleton for thinking up, after all these years, a new and engaging question that is more than academic. Would that it might also generate some new answers.

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Vol. 25 No. 10 · 22 May 2003

Martin Harries’s websmanship is duly acknowledged (Letters, 8 May): about 853,000 websites linking ‘tragedy’ to 11 September! I’ll wager that few if any of them propose a serious definition or theory of tragedy, first because so many of the dead are deemed to have been ordinary, hence those New York Times obituaries; and then because the ‘foreknowledge of death’ clause applies so unignorably to the hijackers themselves – the other side – whose claims to empathic understanding are unlikely to be pursued in English, although they could be, at least in the cause of comprehension. This does not mean that the deaths of 9/11 do not ‘deserve’ consideration as tragic (in the sense of more than just ‘terrible’), but that they are unlikely to get it. Of course it would be hubris indeed (in both of its usual senses) to claim that I am going to check all those sites, or that I could not be wrong.

David Simpson
University of California, Davis

Vol. 25 No. 9 · 8 May 2003

In his review of Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence, David Simpson (LRB, 3 April) twice insists that ‘in the United States the language of tragedy was not invoked in describing 9/11.’ A Google search reveals about 853,000 websites linking the term ‘tragedy’ to ‘September 11’, and a large number of these sites must originate in the US. Do all of them illustrate merely that tragedy is, as Simpson puts it, ‘trivially everywhere’? Part of the interest of his review is that it complicates precisely the confidence that we can at a glance recognise trivial uses of ‘tragedy’.

Martin Harries
New York University

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