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.

As Kerrigan demonstrates in his brilliant and subtly inclusive book, revenge is one way of making the world, or one’s life, make sense. It shows us the extent to which meaning is complicit with the possibility of redress, with a belief that losses can be made good (revenge as savagely optimistic mourning). As every legal system is there to prove, revenge is one way of putting order – patterns of reassuring or inspiring meaning – back into the world, of restoring intelligibility. Justice is our revenge on the arbitrary. Our notions of justice formulate what we want to protect and how we want to go about doing it, and one of the main things we want to protect is the viability of law itself. As Jacobean revenge tragedies often suggest, the law is there to blow its own trumpet: to assure and persuade us that there is something called law and order, and that it works. (‘Retribution,’ Kerrigan remarks à propos of Sade, ‘gives violence definition. It identifies a judge and a victim.’) Codes of punishment may be a pre-emptive strike against the unbearable – no one can be unmurdered – but the threat of punishment reassures us beforehand that something can be done; that it is possible to redeem things at the very moment we are most prone to doubt it. The question after the tragedy, for both spectators and participants, is: what shall we do now? Comedy makes us feel better by making the answer obvious, or irrelevant. Tragedy in life puts the future in doubt: tragedy in art makes the future possible by putting fictitious futures in doubt. Because tragedy always threatens to baffle the possibility of action, revenge keeps hope alive. Hamlet, Kerrigan suggests in one of many such striking remarks, ‘revolves around the question: what might action be?’

Tragedy gives us pleasure, in Nuttall’s view, because it prepares us for the ultimate inaction of our own deaths. Of all literary genres, tragedies – which for his purposes ‘depict the destruction of great persons (that is, most of them)’ – ‘lay the heaviest emphasis on ending, and the ending as a mimesis of a death’. The subtlety of Nuttall’s apparently unstartling notion is that it avoids the more familiar answers to the question his title asks, which are to do with mastery and sadism. In a lucid reconstruction and rehearsal of the old answers he shows the limits of their appeal. For Aristotle, tragedy pleases us because we know it isn’t real, and the artist’s formal control of his material reinforces our own sense of control, what Nuttall calls ‘our secure sovereignty’. Against Aristotle’s formal account Nuttall sets what he calls the ‘substantive’ stories of Nietzsche and Freud, both of whom answer the question with an account of human nature; a story of what we are like which shows us to be the kinds of creature who inevitably love the nightmare that is tragedy. In tragedy we recognise our hidden worship of Dionysus in conflict with our Apollonian aspirations; or we relish, in the distance and disguise of art, our gloatingly vicious selves, the darkest versions of our lives come to light. Both these post-Romantic accounts depend, as Nuttall makes very clear, on myths of origin: tragedy, that is, allows us to see what we once were, and so really are.

Myths of origin and accounts of human nature are, at the very least, contestable, informed as they are by vested interest and historical contingency. And our – or the artist’s–putative mastery of tragic events through art is a (necessary) illusion. You might think, for example, that the author’s control of his material would merely terrorise us and him by exposing how little we are actually in charge of terrible events. Leaving the theatre would not be like waking up from a bad dream: we would have to acknowledge that we are not in a play. Nuttall doesn’t want to dispense with these accounts: by exposing their complexity he shows how interesting they are within their quite different historical contexts. But what he opts for is a plausible, and recognisably contemporary, mix of Aristotle and Popper – ‘I think the cleverest thing Sir Karl Popper ever said was his remark that our hypotheses “die in our stead”.’ Because when we are in the theatre enjoying a tragedy we are involved in a ‘thought-experiment’, hypothesising, practising for our own future crisis, Nuttall wants to retain part of Aristotle’s formal definition of tragedy. In Nuttall’s words, the situation presented must be ‘hypothetical rather than categorical’ but it should ‘nevertheless involve a probable relation to real danger’. Tragedy has to be as plausible as our own future deaths. But the pleasure is not in the mastery or the coming to terms with one’s death – what could the terms be? – nor, exactly, in our reconnection with a primal source. The pleasure is all in the training, the warming-up. Tragedy is like a dress rehearsal of a play that doesn’t exist, what Nuttall calls, in a felicitous phrase, ‘a death-game’,

a game in which the muscles of psychic response, fear and pity, are exercised and made ready, through a facing of the worst, which is not yet the real worst ... Tragedy as an exercise in understanding in advance the real horrors we may meet and the psychic violence they may cause.

Like Montaigne’s notion of philosophy, tragedy here is part of the project of learning how to die. But it is possible that death may be something that one cannot learn to do. After all, how can one prepare for something one knows nothing about? Witnessing people dying, on stage or in real life, may tell us nothing about our own death (which may be why we like it). Indeed, it is the terror or fascination of one’s own death that it is radically unprecedented: there are no examples. Nuttall makes very vivid in this book something that he forecloses too quickly, which is the possibility that what he is proposing is simply the instrumentalising of art, tragedy as a how-to book. Part of the value of art, that is to say, may not be that it is another form of understanding, but that it revolves around the question: what might understanding be?

Kerrigan’s book makes clear the extent to which Jacobean revenge tragedies are about the apparent omniscience of revengers. The revenge hero or heroine often has a kind of magical understanding of his/her own life, and the lives of those around them and revenge tragedies are partly about what it would be like to understand one’s life. Suddenly everything has an aura of meaning about it, all action seems plotted; there is a reassuring inevitability about things. And the revenger is the one whose wound has tuned him in, the one who knows; he no longer obeys the rules, he is the rules. And like the law itself, he has a potentially terrifying, quasi-magical relationship to time. The future becomes a fait accompli. History is full of horrifying promise, because time has become, for him, redemptive. Time heals, because in time you can get your own back.

The revenger is a skilled (and deranged) epistemologist; he deals in evidence and prediction. His heyday in Renaissance tragedy parallels, as Kerrigan notes, the emergence of empirical science. And he is also, one might say, a very ‘connected’ person: revenge always has to do with affiliation and loyalty to both the living and the dead. Committed to knowledge, continuity and justice, the revenger, with what Kerrigan calls ‘memory’s vindictive dramaturgy’, is one of our character ideals – though that isn’t something we are likely to notice. As Kerrigan only intimates, our potential for humiliation is the root of morality. Neither of these books explores the extent to which both tragedy and revenge are reactive to humiliation, to profound, shameful insult. It is curious how impressed we are by being diminished. Nothing exposes more clearly the impossibility of being amoral – our embeddedness in a moral world – than our capacity to be humiliated. That we can feel humiliated reveals how much what matters to us matters to us. It is around the experience of humiliation that we organise our moral lives; and by the same token, as it were, our stories about the past. At its worst, humiliation over-organises memory, and rigidifies morality: it narrows the plot. The advantage of a literary study of revenge is that it can show how literature can elaborate what humiliation often forecloses. Like revenge, literature can be a restorative, if only of the fact that our moral reflexes have a history. All of ‘us’ may not agree with Kerrigan that ‘to understand our rages, we should read Shakespeare and Milton’: but a good book about revenge would have to be an interesting book about recuperation.

Revenge is both a ‘retrieval of the past’, as Kerrigan says, and a renovation through action. In this it resembles the law. If the law cannot actually reverse time – bring us back to the good time before the bad event – it tries to make us believe in a future worth wanting; or a future that will be even better. Because tragedy, like death, is a continual threat to ideas of progress, revenge as ‘wild justice’ (in Bacon’s phrase), or as the seemingly tame justice that is the law, can turn rather too easily into a form of redemption – a redeeming feature. ‘There is,’ Kerrigan writes,

a dangerous complicity between tragedy and apocalyptic. It lies in their fascination with endings which destructively, yet too redemptively, offer the prospect of a fresh start, for a remnant. Revenge compounds the risk because it promises to undo, to reprise, to absolve, in a crisis of tragic violence. What the world must not forget is that, in Act VI of the nuclear drama, when Adam begins life again, he will ride into a sunrise swathed in radioactive dust, through fields where sheep may not safely graze.

In Kerrigan’s paradise relost there will be no then. The language of nuclear deterrence –‘the fig-leaf of revenge’ – reveals the ways in which revenge, with its own bizarre logic, re-creates, in excess, the problem it is trying to solve. The ultimate revenge of a nuclear attack could only leave us with a world and selves we didn’t want. What the extremes of revenge seem to confront us with is how thoroughly ambiguous are our ideas of justice and the good. There are always at least two points of view, and one is usually a mockery of the other. A world without revenge would be a world without justice and a world without humiliation.

Revenge is so paradoxical in its assumptions and consequences – what Kerrigan calls ‘the paradoxes which follow from any injured person taking up the injurer’s methods’ – that it seems to take us to the heart, or some turbulent centre, of virtually everything that might seem important. In both its benign and malign aspects, which are not easy to disentangle as Kerrigan disentangles them in his incisive, unsardonic prose, revenge seems integral to all our moral values, as though we wouldn’t know what to do with them without the idea of revenge. There must, after all, be a reason, as Kerrigan says, why so much great and mediocre Western art, most comedy, and so much popular contemporary fiction and tabloid journalism, is devoted to revenge. And also why so much of what we think of as tragedy is vengeful in essence. ‘Vengeance,’ Kerrigan writes, ‘formatively structures the founding narratives of the West.’ Revenge Tragedy shows how odd people can become in trying to get even.

One way revengers become both estranged from themselves and, by the same token, merely exemplary of what it is to be a person, is by having identities foisted on them by the past. Once a wrong has been done to family or friend, Hamlet, or Kyd’s Hieronimo, or Orestes lives, rather starkly, on other people’s behalf. Each has been set a necessary task; and it is part of his pathos to be so caught up in it; Kerrigan refers to ‘that sense which revengers have of being characters in others’ plots’. They are like children in their seemingly irresistible assumption of roles; and like actors, as Kerrigan makes much of, in their self-consciousness about this. ‘The revenger reflects upon what has been done,’ Kerrigan writes, ‘in order to reflect what has been done.’ Revenge is theatrical by nature and suited to soliloquy. And the revenger attracts the dramatist, Kerrigan suggests, in a wonderful chapter on Jacobean revenge tragedy, ‘because the revenger is a surrogate artist ... He must be, in the play, an image of its author, transmuting creative ambition into narrative and stage action.’ In Kerrigan’s pregnant formulations revenge is essentially aesthetic: it has to be composed, staged and performed. For the plot to ‘work’, it has to be thought out, and so it entails both deferring gratification and a certain conscientiousness. And all this makes it a disturbing commentary on – or parody of – many of our most cherished values. We may all be artists in our dreams, but we are more ‘committed’ artists in our revenge fantasies. It is possibly reassuring, given how much of our mental life is about getting back at people, one way or another, that the very idea of crude revenge may be a contradiction in terms.

It was, of course, the God of the Old Testament who made revenge respectable for Christians and Jews. Indeed, the moral complexity of revenge becomes evident once we try to imagine a God who is not vengeful – what would he or she be doing with their time? But the preposterous boast ‘Vengeance is mine’ created, as Kerrigan makes very clear, a perplexing moral dilemma. Either God alone can take revenge; and we just have to be on the lookout for his punishments, inferring our crimes retrospectively in times of misfortune. Or, as Kerrigan writes, the words restore ‘some validity to human revenge, since retributing wrong becomes consistent with a divine promise to see vengeance exacted, and an avenger can regard himself as God’s agent.’ We can wait guiltily, or we can behave like megalomaniacs, like people possessed. But whoever owns the right to revenge has already won. If I worship a god who claims vengeance as his own then I am as vengeful as he is. It is the complicity, the mutual endorsement, of this that is rife with disturbing implication.

On the other hand, why would anyone want to worship – or even admire – a God who took pride in his punishments? What is authority if it is constituted by a freedom to punish? In a chapter entitled ‘Killing Time: Nietzsche, Job and Repetition’, Kerrigan interprets Nietzsche’s clarity and cunning around and about these questions: God is right because he punishes, not the other way round; God says you’ve got to be cruel to be kind when, in fact, you’ve only got to be cruel to be cruel, and so on. Being a law unto himself – one version of the Will to Power – is every revenger’s necessary self-description. Revengers only want to speak to their accomplices: difference makes them falter (they are not democrats). So revengers fascinate us, perhaps above all, because they look like they know what they’re doing; indeed, they are prepared to die for their ideas. States of conviction, Kerrigan implies, may all be vengeful. And this has implications as much for our pleasure in Sherlock Holmes as in our belief in inductive logic and causality. It is the connections Kerrigan uses his theme to make, and makes so convincingly, and the fact that he consistently reads afresh writers and works swamped by commentary that makes Revenge Tragedy such an extraordinary book.

In his continually suggestive treatment of the theme revenge becomes the key to our understanding of reciprocity; or rather, it exposes the muddled and often spurious reassurances that our hallowed languages of mutuality and equality are used to conceal: one of the many marvellous quotations in this book is Michael Walzer’s remark that ‘the purpose of soldiers is to escape reciprocity.’ Among what Kerrigan refers to as ‘the ironies of exchange’ – broadly speaking, we give two kinds of things to each other, not always easy to tell apart, gifts and injuries – he refers to the East African tribe, the Gisu, for whom the family of a murdered man are expected to wait until the son of the murderer is exactly the age of that man, and then kill him. This is the stark logic of sameness that revenge often depends on, the ‘ethical deadlock’ that is both a resolution and a replication of the problem. There is no such thing as the same thing, but we need to believe in something like sameness for justice to work.

It is Kerrigan’s sympathetic dismay that makes Hamlet the hero of his book, because Hamlet has seen through revenge to its precarious alternative. Hamlet, Kerrigan writes, ‘cannot overcome his radical sense of its pointlessness ... Revenge cannot bring back what has been lost. Only memory, with all its limitations, can do that.’ Kerrigan’s book cannot overcome the possibility that memory is revenge. And the possibility that our most cherished belief – the belief that holds everything else together – is that time is reversible.