A Cultural History of Tragedy: Vols I-VI 
edited by Rebecca Bushnell.
Bloomsbury Academic, 1302 pp., £395, November 2019, 978 1 4742 8814 9
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When​ we were students, a friend of mine discovered that he could trump anything anybody else said by using the word ‘tragic’. If someone said he needed a new pair of glasses or was thinking of joining the civil service, the two terse, dismissive syllables were enough to bring the conversation to a halt. ‘Tragic’ is a powerful, semi-sacred word, and the artform it names, like all sacred phenomena, is hedged about with prohibitions. Traditionally, tragedy mustn’t come about as the result of an accident, but must involve fate or providence, which may in turn require the presence of numinous powers. W.B. Yeats could see nothing tragic about a car crash. Pure contingency – falling drunkenly from a fifth-floor window, for example – lacks the grandeur of the tragic. The protagonist must be of high social rank, partly because the lives of ordinary people aren’t valuable enough for their destruction to be worth weeping over, and partly because those who fall from a lofty height make a greater splash. The death of a princess has complex consequences in society as a whole; the death of a chauffeur does not. In a democratic age, by contrast, the ranks of potential tragic protagonists have swollen immeasurably. Anybody plucked from the street and put in an intolerably tight spot is a plausible candidate. But he or she can’t be a villain, since, as Aristotle points out, we don’t grieve over scoundrels.

In the traditional view, tragic events must not be reparable. Lear’s problems could not be solved by parking him in an old people’s home, and marriage counselling would do nothing for Anna Karenina. Anything that can be rectified by social reform or a spot of psychotherapy lacks the sublimity tragedy demands. Surprisingly, however, it’s not necessary for tragedies to end badly; in fact, Euripides’ contemporaries seem to have thought he came up with too many gloomy endings. Some tragic art simply portrays the precariousness and fragility of human lives, not their culmination in calamity.

As Emily Wilson points out in the first volume of this ambitious history of the form, tragedy in ancient times was confined to the theatre. You couldn’t have a tragic novel or a tragic view of the world. Nor could you have a tragic famine or case of heart failure. Using the word to mean a real-life catastrophe, as we do today, is a case of life imitating art. It follows from this that Aeschylus is tragic but Auschwitz is not. Although sorrow and despair constitute a lingua franca among human beings, tragic art tends to flourish only in highly specific circumstances. Tragedy is an act of collective mourning, remembrance and meditation, an attempt to find some meaning or even value in suffering, not simply an image of wretchedness in the raw. The ceremonies that take place on Remembrance Day are in this sense closer to the ancient sense of tragedy than the carnage they commemorate is. Besides, as both Theodor Adorno and Slavoj Žižek have argued, to describe the inmates of the Nazi camps as tragic is a moral obscenity. It is as though the use of the terms ascribes a meaning, or even a value, to something that resists all intelligibility. Tragedy aestheticises the intolerable.

Against this, one can argue that to invest such suffering with a shape by transforming it into art is not necessarily to rationalise it away. But this is a deeply dangerous aesthetic. How is it not simply a matter of gentrifying the unspeakable? From Schelling to Nietzsche, tragedy not only seeks meaning in human affliction, but portrays it in a way that leaves its audience edified and exalted. In wrestling with whatever brings him to ruin, either refusing to succumb to it or defiantly embracing it, the tragic protagonist rises above his defeat at the moment of death. Elated by the triumph of the indomitable human spirit, we leave the theatre chastened and consoled rather than ready to jump off a cliff. Nothing, it seems, is more life-affirming than watching a bunch of our fellow humans being torn apart. This is another reason Auschwitz, it’s claimed, has nothing to do with tragedy.

There is a seed of truth in this: watching tragic drama is life-enhancing in the sense that it recalls us to the preciousness of what we see perish. The tragic is a measure of what we value most deeply, which is why we wouldn’t use the term to describe swatting a fly or the suicide of Hermann Goering. Indeed, for a current of thought from Schlegel and Nietzsche to Heidegger and the early Lukács, it is supreme among artforms. Yet this view overlooks the sadomasochism it involves. Why do we reap pleasure from representations of what would horrify us in reality? Is it because we can indulge the death drive vicariously, seeing others brought low while knowing ourselves to be invulnerable? This version of the tragic is also too casual about the existence of human torment, which is portrayed as a price worth paying for moral victory. Tragedy for the German Romantics and Idealists thus becomes a secular equivalent of what is technically known as theodicy, namely the justification of evil. In this sense it is a profoundly un-Christian form, since for the New Testament pain and hardship are to be combated as adversaries, not celebrated as character-building. On this issue, Jesus is clearly at odds with the Duke of Edinburgh.

It’s unlikely that any of the contributors to these six volumes see tragedy in this old-style way. On the contrary, this is in one sense a highly contemporary work, alert to politics, social theory and sexuality. Each volume, from the first, on antiquity, to the sixth, on the ‘modern age’, is divided into eight parts, dealing respectively with forms and media, sites of performance and circulation, communities of production and consumption, philosophy and social theory, religion, ritual and myth, the politics of city and nation, society and family, and gender and sexuality. It is a more imaginative way of organising the material than leaping from the works of one canonical name to another, though the second and third categories are slightly too close for comfort, as are the last two. In any case, while families are certainly central to some types of tragedy, they are rather less conspicuous in 20th-century theatre, and there are other subjects which are at least as important – martyrdom, for example.

All art has a political dimension, but tragedy actually began life in fifth-century Athens as a political institution, locked into the structures of the state. The authorities appointed an official to train and pay the Chorus, the city preserved play scripts in its archives, and there was a state fund which poor Athenians could draw on for the entry fee. Tragedy was a form of ethico-political education for the city state as a whole, not just a night out for the toffs. As Karen Sullivan notes in the first v0lume, it was also a form in which women figured prominently. During the festival of Dionysus, at which tragic drama was first performed, the city turned itself into a theatre, as the citizens who had learned to assess complex issues in the law courts and the democratic assembly brought their forensic powers to bear on Medea and Agamemnon. As Naomi Weiss points out, plays were a multimedia, multisensory experience, with music, dance, costumes and special effects – more like a rock concert than the Royal Court. Isabelle Torrance insists on tragic drama’s deep religious roots. The word tragedy means ‘goat song’, and although we don’t know exactly why, it probably alludes to the drama’s ritual, even sacrificial origins. Robert Cowan remarks that tragedy ‘was born under tyranny but flowered under democracy’, though Mitchell Greenberg notes that in the 17th century tragic theatre enjoyed a golden period in an age of political absolutism. It is also worth asking why the decline of tragedy coincided with the waning of such power.

The scholars who write in the volume on medieval tragedy are in the unenviable position of those who argue for the existence of the yeti. Such tragedy has long been thought not to exist, partly because the Christian faith which informs the period is considered incompatible with absolute breakdown. The medievalists have to be nippy on their feet to refute the case that the phrase ‘medieval tragedy’ is an oxymoron; and although they are largely successful there is occasionally the faint sound of barrel-scraping. No such noise emanates from the volume on early modern tragedy, even if the reader who expects in-depth analysis of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Calderón and their colleagues is in for a disappointment. Instead, we learn that the use of perspective in stage scenery reached its apogee in Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza in March 1585, and that Daniel Casper von Lohenstein’s Sophonisbe was the last Silesian tragedy. In a similar scholarly spirit, the volume on the age of Enlightenment supplies us with graphs of the number of tragedies produced by Molière’s theatre company in certain venues, without a word being said about the artistic significance of the plays performed. At times, it is a case not only of Hamlet without the prince but Hamlet without the play. In most of the volumes little attention is paid to the artistry of the drama, ideas quite often take a back seat to historical information, and critical judgments are sparse. Some of the obscure plays dealt with are probably pretty dreadful, but nobody seems to want to say so.

These are not defects. This is a cultural history, not a critical one, in which for most of the time the art itself plays second fiddle to its social history. When it comes to the character of Coriolanus or the idea of honour in Lope de Vega, we can always go elsewhere. Sprinkled with allusions to Marx and Lacan, Foucault and Agamben, A Cultural History of Tragedy is intent on being up to date, and when it arrives at the modern age becomes more critical and adventurous than staid and scholarly. Yet if we ignore its left-leaning array of topics, the work is a familiar enough example of traditional literary scholarship. In a work dominated by American academics, surprisingly few of the essays are couched in clunky jargon, though we do learn that ‘Oedipus’ de-oculation concedes violability in the face of external impingements.’

For George Steiner, one reason for the supposed death of tragedy in the modern era is the fact that the two ideologies which shaped the period most deeply, Marxism and Christianity, are both anti-tragic doctrines. But this is to define tragedy as a narrative which ends badly, rather than as the belief that any redemption worth the name involves a radical breaking and remaking. Tragedy need not mean that everything finally collapses into chaos, but that a painful self-dispossession is the condition of any enduring achievement; and in this sense both Marxism and Christianity qualify for the title. Crucifixion may issue in resurrection, but is not annulled by it, any more than the horrors of class society are wiped clean by socialism.

It’s hard to raise epochal issues in a study containing essays as fine-grained as the ones here. It’s a cliché of tragic theory, for example, that tragic art flourishes most profusely in periods of historical transition – in the tension between the Greece of heroic mythology and enlightened, democratic Athens, for example, or (as in Ibsen) in the struggle of liberal modernity to crawl out from under the dead weight of an oppressive past. Nowhere is the tragedy of historical transition more striking than in the age of Shakespeare, yet the volume devoted to that era has next to nothing to say about it.

The other general issue this history takes largely for granted is what we mean by tragedy in the first place. What is it that Sophocles and Sarah Kane have in common? You can go nominalist and claim that their work has nothing in common but a name; but like all nominalism this raises the question of why we give it the same name in the first place. More plausibly, you can argue that tragedy is a ‘family resemblance’ term à la Wittgenstein, meaning a set of phenomena with no single feature in common but with a number of overlapping aspects. Or you can go essentialist and argue that there is indeed a stable core of attributes all the way from Aeschylus to Arthur Miller – some kind of affliction or distress. But this is such a soft essentialism that it doesn’t get us very far, and as Shylock and Malvolio might testify, there is affliction in comedy as well.

If tragedy is an unstable word, then the issue of whether or not it has died becomes irresolvable, since we can’t identify what it is that has perished or survived. Hegel thought that the most eminent kind of tragedy had run its course, while for Nietzsche the art had died in its infancy, strangled in its cradle by the sceptical Euripides and the cerebral Socrates. Freud regards the idea of fate as vital to the form and doubts that there can be a modern equivalent, while for Steiner tragedy expired somewhere in the wake of Racine. Who wielded the assassin’s knife is debatable. For some commentators it is Christianity, while for others it is science, secularism, democracy, the death of God or the Holocaust. Susan Sontag thought the whole subject scarcely worth discussing, since in her view tragedy had never been central to Western theatre. Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy maintains that all the obituary notices are premature.

The essays here on modern drama seem to prove his point. Tragedy, far from withering, has proliferated beyond all measure. It involves what Ramona Mosse calls an ‘intermedial mashup’, stretching from film, jazz and photography to the novel, performance art, science fiction and a whole galaxy of other media. We encounter it all the way from Taxi Driver and Mulholland Drive to The Diary of Anne Frank and Amy Winehouse, from the classical hubris of O.J. Simpson to the collective hubris of ecological disaster. With Freud and the existentialists, tragedy continues to colonise philosophy, as David Kornhaber points out. In a fluid, fragmented culture hostile to boundaries, the tragic is a question of hybridised modes, recycled spaces, meta-theatre, and performances where Antigone sits on your knee, stifling inside a sack, if you have the misfortune to be in the front row. All this is exciting stuff; but in uncritically affirming the marginal, multiple, subversive and transgressive, the volume hardly deviates from a strict postmodern orthodoxy, and thus risks undermining its own arguments.

All this artistic experiment is seen against the backdrop of the Somme, Buchenwald, the Khmer Rouge, Ground Zero and melting ice caps. Tragedy began as a form of art, but – in spite of the traditional definition – it is now a way of life. As Michael Gamer and Diego Saglia remark of the 19th century, tragedy moves away from the stage and into the world. The modern demand for visceral, in-your-face versions of the art is partly a response to a public sensibility at risk of being calloused by the sheer, dreary normality of torture and genocide. The unbearable and unspeakable are part of the texture of global politics. They always were, of course, but the media of today make this universally visible, as it wasn’t at the time of the Thirty Years’ War. Ordinary life was once the adversary of this most aristocratic of artforms; nowadays it is where it makes its home, so that tragic art has either to transform itself in the light of this fact, or face the demise that has been so often ascribed to it.

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