7 June, 2019 • • 40.5ClassicsLiterary CriticismLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

Extreme Contemporaries

Xavier Buxton

Simon Critchley 
Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Profile Books






Between poetry and philosophy, Socrates tells us, there is an ancient quarrel. Poets lie: they say that gods kill their fathers, disguise themselves, and chase girls. Homer has the great Achilles weep and roll around in the dust; he celebrates the delights of a well-spread table and conjures dispiriting visions of gloomy Hades. These stories are false and dangerous: philosophy wants men to prefer wisdom to pleasure, death to disgrace. Worst of all are the tragedians, who make upstanding citizens dress as women and bawl their eyes out. The virtuous man is not manifold; he does not play different roles. He is devoted to Truth and the world of the Forms, not some sentimental schlock about Electra and her mum. Where there are poets, neither law nor reason will rule, but pleasure and pain. And so, Socrates argues, poetry must be excluded from the ideal city – until she, or one of her prosaic advocates, can “show that she is not only delightful but beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man”.

Simon Critchley’s new book, Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us offers a belated answer to this challenge. For this Hertfordshire punk turned New York philosopher, the modern world is defined by accelerating information, relentless consumption, and technological idolatry; we are speeding into ‘stupefaction’, ‘endless narcissistic self-justification’, ‘vapidly hopeful idealism’. “Tragedy is a way of applying the emergency brake.”  Although these sketches of our contemporary malaise are never coloured in, moments of ferocity occasionally peep through – Athenian actors were combat veterans, we are told, not “flimsy thespians who had majored in performance studies with an abstract interest in social engagement”. Critchley is impatient, too, with “modern theological shibboleths like faith in progress”, while he bemoans a “cynical minestrone of cosmology, neuroscience and American Buddhism”.

But the tawdry hypocrisies of modern life are not really Critchley’s target. His sights are trained instead on the whole canon of Western philosophy that has followed on from Plato – the post-Socratics, one might say – from Aristotle to Alain Badiou. This tradition is “premised upon an exclusion of tragedy and … [tragic] experience”, in pursuit of ‘psychical integration’ and an ‘intense regulation of affect’. Tragedy, on the other hand, “gives voice to what is contradictory, … what is limited in us … what suffers in us and in others’; “in a world [of] disaster, tragedy shows our complicity”.

‘Tragedy’ does a lot of selfless work in these introductory chapters, ‘giving voice’ four times in as many pages, before it gets an opportunity to speak for itself. Aeschylus’ Persians has a walk-on role, and Oedipus is paraphrased to illustrate the ‘merciless irony’ of fate, but no play is quoted until chapter six, where we are rather clumsily told what “Aeschylus says in Prometheus Bound“. While the prose is direct and jargon-free – Critchley edits a New York Times philosophy column, and is a regular contributor himself – there is a looming threat of waffle, only partially offset by bitesize chapters and gestures of brevitas (‘or whatever’ crops up every few pages). ‘Serious’ scholars may be put off by this breezy style: early on, Critchley informs us that “most of the plays are not even that long, which is one of the reasons why [he] like[s] plays”. There are marks of carelessness, too: different dates are given for the same tragedy, and Bernard Williams, announced in the first chapter, waits in vain for his promised introduction in the next.

The reader’s patience is rewarded, however. When Williams is finally recalled in chapter fourteen, he is treated handsomely: Critchley quotes from Shame and Necessity at length to undermine the historical ‘specificity’ of Greek tragedy, as advanced by the French School of Vernant and Vidal-Naquet; he is particularly taken with the English philosopher’s assertion that “we are, in our ethical situation, more like human beings in antiquity than any Western people have been in the meantime”. With nimble erudition, Critchley then seeks out versions of ancient fate in Napoleon, Ibsen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman; Nietzsche is damned for his primitivism, Hegel for his progressivism; the shade splashes onto Aquinas, Spinoza, Kant, Marx, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. The ancient Greeks do not belong to the childhood of Man, or to some golden age of intellectual clarity. Instead, they share our “gnawing moral and political uncertainty”, and our ambivalence about progress; they understand that our relation to the world “is a marriage of convenience … made neither in heaven nor in nature, but on the slaughter bench of history”. In all this and more, “we are their extreme contemporaries”.

Who does Critchley mean by this ‘we’ – and indeed the ‘us’ of his title? The question has haunted classics in recent decades, as universities come under increasing pressure to diversify and decolonise their curricula. Scholars have laboured (not without controversy) to excavate the Asian and African roots of Greek culture, and to explore its modern reception in the postcolonial world; others have sought a reckoning with the racist and misogynist appropriations of Greece and Rome that have recently proliferated online. Critchley’s response, mediated by Raymond Guess, is more abstract: the ‘we’ of tragedy is ‘invitational’, called simultaneously into existence and into question by tragedy itself – “an invitation to visit another sense of who we are and who we might become”. This approach lends a dialectical edge to the old universalist justification, that Homer, Sophocles and the rest of the gang speak directly to the ‘human’ in us. There is no self-recognition in reading Greek tragedy, only self-estrangement.

But if the Critchley invitation is ostensibly an open one, it’s worth looking at the guest list: Bernard Williams is joined by his namesake Raymond, and his Oxford contemporary, Stuart Hampshire; Judith Butler puts in an early appearance; Simon Goldhill mixes the drinks throughout. Yet the life and soul of this party is unquestionably Anne Carson, the Canadian Sappho, whose vivid pronouncements are quoted like oracular truths. When Critchley first sets out tragedy’s opposition to Plato’s ideal of a ‘non-contradictory psychic life’, it is to Carson that he turns for back-up: tragedy is about the “hot bacon smell of pure contradiction”. Later, after a long and rather difficult discussion of Aristotle’s katharsis, Critchley recalls Carson’s frank admission in an interview that she’s never really understood the concept; pressed on how she understood the effect of the genre, she replies, simply, ‘More devastating’. “It is towards this more devastating view”, Critchley humbly declares, “that I would like to make my way in what follows”.

This episode sets up a series of chapters in which Critchley explores the inadequacies of Aristotle through the capacious irony of Sophocles and Euripides. In Euripides’ Orestes, the eponymous protagonist fails to flee Argos after killing his mother; abandoned by his uncle Menelaus and convicted by an angry mob, he goes rogue, killing his aunt, Helen, and taking her daughter, Hermione, hostage. The final scene of the play sees Orestes, his sister Electra, and his companion Pylades gathered on the palace roof, “looking like The Clash in 1977″, swapping insults with Menelaus down below. They threaten to torch not only the House of Atreus but the whole mythical framework from which they take their life. Suddenly, deus ex machina, Apollo appears, with a sequence of prophetic instructions. Orestes will marry Hermione, and Pylades, Electra; Menelaus is sent home to Sparta; Apollo will appease the Argives. Helen, meanwhile, is transfigured into a star, and will guide sailors through the night.

Ancient critics recognised this ending as ‘comic’, but Critchley goes further: for him, this ‘fake denouement’ is a ‘mechanical prebuttal’ of Aristotle, who will demand, fifty years later, that there should be nothing ‘irrational’ in a tragic plot. Euripides’ artificial resolutions are designed to ‘expose the fraudulence’ of our desires for a ‘rational tidying up’: “fake reconciliation here functions as a deconstructive dismantling of the very idea of reconciliation”. A discussion of Euripides’ Electra follows a similar argument. Electra is a “nasty piece of work”, wholly devoid of her Aeschylean stature; compared this time to Nick Cave, her violent determination is melodramatic, her self-pity ‘pathetic’. Yet, for Critchley, the absence of a ‘moral purpose’ is a strength, not a weakness: “if our moral expectations of tragedy are warped by Euripides, then this might lead us to question those expectations”. In Sophocles’ play of the same name, “action is sidelined by language, redemption is subtracted, and justice seems a massive irrelevance”. We hardly need to be told that ‘there is no question of catharsis’.

While these more extended readings are persuasive and welcome after the précis and paraphrase of earlier chapters, there is little that is new here: Euripides was rehabilitated as a sophisticated innovator in the 1970s, and his postmodern irony has enjoyed detailed analysis in recent years. The essay on Sophocles’ Electra is perhaps more controversial, but the best lines are drawn from Woolf and Carson (“Actionless, … [Electra] feeds on her own negativity”). Critchley’s own attempt at Carsonian intensity feels awkward and overwrought: “Electra is a talking ball, a speaking wound in a world of fake trash locked in an urn of language and lament”.

More troubling is Critchley’s total commitment to ‘openness’ and ‘deconstruction’, an approach ironically accompanied by the exclusion of any alternative. In Orestes, for example, Apollo’s entrance is arguably prepared for by the Oresteia, and by constant allusions to his absence; Helen has a mythical habit of disappearing; and the shotgun marriages are already part of the tradition. There is certainly nothing ‘irrational’ in Apollo’s logic, or in the heroes’ response. Who is to say the audience were not wholly satisfied by this final reversion to the ‘normal’ narrative? Why should they be ‘frustrated’ by the just dispensations of a god?

In fact, although Critchley wants to use tragedy as a means of attacking philosophy – to become, like Nietzsche, a ‘tragic philosopher’ – he is at his best when securely on philosophical ground. Fortunately, this is the bulk of the book, with three sections on the sophists, Plato, and Aristotle. The first of these is the most exciting. The pre-Socratic sophists, Critchley argues, have been the victims of prejudice: these travelling teachers, compared to prostitutes by Xenophon, were no different from modern philosophy graduates, hopping from gig to ill-paid gig. Little of their work survives, but Critchley skilfully stitches together the fragments of Protagoras and Gorgias into a coherent body of thought.

From Protagoras, we hear that ‘man is the measure of all things’, and that everything can be contradicted. Gorgias writes a piece called ‘The Not-Being’, an ingenious proof that nothing exists. The more famous ‘Encomium of Helen’, in which the adulteress is absolved of all responsibility, is succinctly treated. Another fragment observes that tragedy is a ‘deception, in which the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived’. Together these texts present a critique of (absolutist) ontology in the name of (relativist) logology – a mode of thought recently christened by Barbara Cassin. This ‘unassimilable heterodoxy’ is sustained in the tragic poets, where the “dramatic conflict will circle around the opposed meanings of the same word”. What is justice? What is law? What is power?

In tragic drama, as in the sophists, these questions are unsolvable: ‘tragedy is the experience of transcendental opacity’. For Plato, however, they can be, and moreover must be answered. Critchley takes us through the Republic at a fair clip, slowing only to discuss key passages on education, democracy, self-control, and mimesis. Still he finds time to appreciate the liminal setting of the dialogue at Piraeus, “officially within Athens but at some distance from the centre”, as well as the ‘vertiginous possibilities’ of Platonic irony. And while Critchley’s hostile bent is clear throughout (e.g. “Do we not glimpse here the cold obsessional core of the philosophic personality?”), he is generous in his attempt to integrate the aesthetic and political content of the Republic in new and interesting ways.

Aristotle’s Poetics is often considered a response to Plato, an acceptance of Socrates’ invitation to appeal against the deportation of the poets. This empirical analysis presents a theory of tragedy replete with examples, broken down into questions of plot, character, diction, etc. While Aristotle makes no reference to the arguments of the Republic, he covers much of the same ground, without any note of disapproval. The activity of imitation is not a threat to self-mastery, but a peculiar facility of mankind that enables us to learn from one another; the enjoyment of mimetic art derives from a similar appetite for knowledge. Most important, perhaps, is Aristotle’s rehabilitation of the tragic emotions, pity and fear. Where Plato had prescribed what Critchley calls “an education in desiccation”, a rigid disciplining of the passions, Aristotle blithely recommends the means by which they can be most effectively aroused.

Yet in Aristotle’s ten-thousand word treatise – much the longest critical text from classical Athens, though incomplete – only one word is suggestive of any moral benefit to the citizen. Aristotle infamously declares that ‘through pity and fear [tragedy] effects a katharsis of these and similar emotions.’ This ‘purgation’ has been interpreted as a ritual cleansing, or a ‘theatrical detox’; an intellectual ‘clarification’, or a moral recalibration of feeling. Critchley, however, prefers the ‘minimalist’ reading of Jonathan Lear, who observes that the term is regularly used of urination, defecation and menstruation. “Perhaps,” Critchley muses, “going to the theatre is more like going to the toilet than some sort of religious ritual or moral edification”.

But in fact Critchley has no more patience with Aristotle’s mild discourse than he does with Plato’s savage denunciations. He is “so fair, so confident, so reasonable, so measured, so virtuous, so gently but insistently opinionated, that it sometimes makes you want to scream”. The problem with Aristotle, Critchley thinks, is that “the battle between philosophy and poetry has already been won”. Like Hegel – memorably described as a ‘benevolent philosophical steamroller’ – Aristotle is “neither perturbed nor disturbed by art”.

Here Critchley lines up with Plato and Nietzsche, strange bedfellows, as thinkers “profoundly pained by what they are fighting against”. Dull objectivity is itself dangerous, lulling our critical faculties, so that we accept his premises without question. Aristotle rejects ‘the monstrous’, for example, as being fundamentally untragic: but the monstrous hybrid is a useful concept (as Hölderlin argues) for understanding the godlike hubris of Oedipus, the maternal fury of Medea, the bestial madness of Ajax. Kant recognised the monstrous as one step beyond the sublime, from ‘almost too much’ to ‘absolutely too much’; Critchley interestingly suggests that such excess might produce a reaction of disgust, rather than pity or fear. Liberated from Aristotle, a continuity is discovered between ancient drama and twentieth-century theatre of the avant-garde: Artaud, Mueller, Kane. Tragedy is larger than Aristotle pretends.

Chapters like this one make the book worth reading. In a few short pages, Critchley can map two and a half millennia of philosophical thought. Writing with clarity and authority, he rearranges the chess pieces at will, forging surprising new allegiances between sworn enemies, and turning disciples against their masters. Critchley is not a classicist, but he must be read by classicists. His philosophy shares the invitational quality invoked by Guess, and in his thought the ancient Greeks, like us, may “visit another sense of who they are”.

Xavier Buxton is writing a doctorate on the cultivation of fear in ancient Athens.