Is Tragedy Dialectical?

Simon Critchley, Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us

Vintage, 336pp, $16.95, ISBN 9780525564645

reviewed by Joel White

Notions of what dialectics mean abound. Are they a philosophical method invented by Plato that attempts, through refutation, to elicit the truth of what something is without resort to the particular thing itself: a method that sorts nature into kinds so as to rid us of epistemological doubts? Or, are dialectics the movement of the concept as it actualises itself into actuality? To what extent does this second, more Hegelian notion of dialectics, as that which cannot catch its breath to speak or write, necessitate the march of linear progression, cyclical infinitude or teleological finality? Are dialectics open or closed? Will the historical culmination of the mediation of contradictions finally reach the point where contradiction no longer appears as the mediator of itself? Are dialectics, as Schelling asked, anything other than the retrospective reconciliation and ordering of history after the fact? And, if this last proposition were true, instead of being a philosophical method, are dialectics nothing but a rhetorical form, a sophistical narrative of thought’s illusory appearance throughout history. Moreover, what becomes of that which does not fit into this method: of monsters, tetroi as Plato called them in the Cratylus, that are indivisible; of conflicts that cannot be resolved; of moments in history that are out of joint and resist the strict ordering of narrative? Are they simply forgotten, or do they rot the very structure of dialectics itself?

What is at stake in Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us is precisely the problem of what dialectics mean and to what extent Greek tragedy offers us, as moderns, a philosophy that does not fit into its often-all-consuming logic. Instead of proposing a philosophy of tragedy, one that more often than not resembles dialectics of a Hegelian kind, Critchley encourages us to ask what is tragedy’s philosophy, what do the 31 Greek tragedies let us, as spectators, philosophers or not, understand about ourselves?

Critchley’s book represents not only a rigorous laying out the multitude of answers to these questions but also explores his own philosophical journey in relation to them. As the acknowledgment makes clear, Critchley’s turn to tragedy and the ethical problems and philosophical questions it poses have been frequent. This recurrent turn to tragedy can be evidenced not only by the courses and seminars that Critchley has given on the subject over the years but also by the fact that the publication of Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us appears shortly after his and Jamison Webster’s Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (2013), a book on Shakespeare’s Hamlet that offers similar points of reference, most notably, Peter Szondi’s important An Essay on the Tragic (1978). Like the earlier work, Critchley is insistent that we ought to return to tragedy and its enduring legacy. Altering the phrase written on the back sleeve of the recent book, which no doubt comes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Critchley contends that ‘we might think we are through with tragedy; tragedy is not through with us.’

If tragedy is not through with us, if its problems (the injustices of war, the displacement of peoples, blind hope and pride, revenge and the disequilibria of power) are not easily sublated into knowable wholes, this is because at heart tragedy is itself monstrous, conflictual and resistant to what could be understand conceptually and definitely as the tragic. This, in agreement with Szondi, is Critchley’s claim; even the classical distinction between tragedy and comedy may be overturned due to their formal indeterminacy and their concomitant task of undermining what Critchley calls, after Nietzsche, the will-to-truth. The concluding chapters on Aristotle’s lost treaty on comedy are particularly insightful in this regard.

This claim of equivocality and indeterminacy, however, does not stop Critchley from outwardly declaring throughout the book that tragedy is a ‘dialectical mode of experience’, and that it is dialectical because it offers, through its content, a form of destructive experience for the spectator. In the chapter that deals explicitly with this question, Critchley goes so far as to state that ‘tragedy is an object lesson in dialectical thinking’. Indeed, it is because of its dialectical nature that both Hegel and Hölderlin ‘had such a profound’ grasp of it. Although Critchley writes this of both Hegel and Hölderlin, the dialectics that he seems to be championing are mostly likely not of a Hegelian kind. And, as I will show, it is Hölderlin that offers Critchley a means to explore the dialectical nature of tragedy without forgetting its monstrous nature.

As Foucault argued in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France (1970), whether it is via epistemology, Marx or Nietzsche, the task of this era is to escape from Hegel, to be disloyal to the Hegelian logos and its march toward absolute knowledge. For Foucault, this meant abandoning dialectics as the privileged philosophical method. If tragedy, as Critchley appears to be arguing, offers such an escape from the will-to-truth, where, as Gorgias (one of the heroes of Critchley’s book) argues ‘tragedy is a deception that leaves the deceived wiser than the non-deceived’, then what is dialectical about tragedy? I wonder, here, what dialectics Critchley is referring to? If we are left in unresolved conflict at the end of tragedies, and if tragedy is a destructive experience for the spectator, then what remains dialectical in it?

Though Critchley does not state this, the acts of redemption depicted in Greek tragedy could be called dialectical. The injustices provoked by the cycles of war, grief and rage do, in some instances, partially resolve. Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the only existent complete tragedy, is a case in point. Here, the cycle of grief and rage, initiated by the filicide of Agamemnon, hell-bent on winning war, momentarily ceases. While Agamemnon’s murder of his daughter incites a series of vengeful assassinations committed by Clytemnestra and Orestes, the two opposing injustices — the death of a husband and father and the death of a wife and mother — are overcome, sublated by a justice decreed from the courtroom. In the Oresteia, furious injustice becomes inverted. Vengeful violence, represented by the Furies, turns into the protectorate of the city.

But Critchley goes beyond this thought of dialectics as sublation and as cathartic. As he writes, citing correspondence with Anne Carson, tragedy is far more ‘devastating’ than whatever catharsis might mean for Aristotle or us moderns. It would thus seem odd that the affirmation of a cathartic or redemptive conclusion is Critchley’s thesis about the tragic. Regarding the Oresteia, one may ask the question: to what extant does the courtroom depicted at its conclusion and the legality of its sanctioned judgment actually portray justice? Athena sides with Orestes after a vote that ends in parity. He is a male, and she too was born from the head of her father Zeus, a male. What justice is there in siding with one party over the other because of the simple fact that Orestes is endowed with the male sex, very little. Indeed, our everyday experience of the law and its executive guardians tell us all we need know about the difference between law and justice. As Critchley argues, different to philosophy’s task (as set out by Plato), tragedy represents to the spectator, via an imitation of events more than characters, that which is most complicated about taking action and claiming justice.

As is the case in many of Critchley’s books, there are several heroes throughout Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us. If Gorgias is one, whose inverted truth undermines Plato’s desire for clarity and the will-to-truth, then Euripides and his monstrous excessiveness and blatant disregard for Aristotle’s rules of unity, is another. As Critchley argues, the plays of Euripides are tragedies ‘of disintegration, disunity, and incoherence’, which for him is a ‘virtue rather than a vice’. Similar to Plato, Aristotle appears to dislike that which cannot fit into the safety of ontological clarity or unity. In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that ‘those dramatists who use spectacle to generate’ what he calls ‘to teratodes,’ monstrosities, ‘have nothing in common with tragedy’. But this seems at odds will that has seemingly been said of tragedy, indeed, as Hölderlin writes in ‘Remarks on Oedipus’ from 1803, the essence of tragedy is ‘das Ungeheure’, the monstrous. And as Critchley reminds us, Vernant and Vidal-Naquet argue that Oedipus himself is a ‘kind of monster’, the kind that poisons the moral and political life of Thebes with a sickening hubris that only masks his complicity with fate. As Critchley argues, Oedipus’s tragic actions are not entirely predestined. If Oedipus is told that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother, then why does he kill a man that bears an uncanny resemblance to himself. Maybe there is a touch of unconscious or maybe even conscious masochism to Oedipus’s maddened display of ignorance.

One of the most important claims of Critchley’s book is that the lesson of tragedy is not that some unfortunate shroud of catastrophe may befall us at any moment, but that we are somehow always haunted by our own tragic possibilities, ones we ourselves have created. Tragedy’s truth is that we, in our messy relation to freedom, are complicit with the tragedies of our lives. There is always an ironic agency to our downfall. We in some way actualise the possibilities of our own misfortune

If the above is the case, that tragedy portrays moral, ethical and political conflicts of monstrous proportions that do not sublate neatly into unified wholes, where justice is never incontestably secured and where destruction and dissolution appear as the only true means to unity — fusion through fission — then what is precisely dialectical about tragedy? In a recent correspondence with Critchley, I was told that Hölderlin may hold the answer. And it is true that Hölderlin, in distinction to Hegel, did not dream of actualisable, state-sanctioned harmony. For Hölderlin, as for the other German Romantics, the Absolute cannot be reached. In our search for the unconditioned we are merely presented again and again with the stubborn particularity of particulars. Hölderlin’s dialectics, if they are to be called that, are purely negative. And if the Death of Empedocles is to be taken seriously, Hölderlin’s unfinished tragedy, then union with the Absolute can be achieved only through the suicidal fires of Etna. For the one tragic certainty for all living things is that it is through the entropic desire for and of life that death is assured. The presence of life necessitates its death. We are all, in our own way, Empedocles staring at the molten volcanic rock bellow us. For as Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound teaches us, it is blind hope that sickens the soul of man. And if death is assured, then it is up to us, and here I am citing Critchley, to learn how to die. If this is philosophy’s task, that is, different to Plato and Aristotle, who wish to learn how to live the good life, then tragedy points the way toward how to die a good death.

In the conclusion to Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us, Critchley rather earnestly writes that ‘in acting thoughtlessly or in rage and hurt, we are acted upon, not quite causally, and not quite volitionally [. . .] In rage, in anger, we act freely, but something acts through us, some kind of curse.’ It would not be fitting to finish this review by arguing that tragedy offers us some kind of moral lesson in how not to be a monster to our loved ones. For, in truth, tragedy is no panacea. Instead, it might be possible to conclude that what tragedy demonstrates is the fact that the monstrous cannot be escaped. We are monstrous, and necessarily so. Perhaps, it is through a reflection on our monstrosity that we may come to accept the untruth of purity and the dangers of those who champion it.

Joel White is a Lecteur de langue étrangère at the University of Aix-Marseille.