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© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

What is tragedy, indeed? — A rejoinder
17 Sep 2018

Tyler Cowen, in response to a reader’s query, recently addressed the question: ‘What is tragedy?’. I reproduce his response and his six comments below, with observations (some of them sceptical) of my own interpolated. The original post has already attracted a good many responses (my apologies to any readers with the urge to debate the question further: this site is not at present set up to receive comments).

My own references are to W. H. Fyfe’s translation of the Poetics of 1932 in the Perseus Digital Library. The Loeb Classical Library has since published an edition with a new translation and introduction by Stephen Halliwell. I make reference here and there also to Jean Racine’s Athalie, first published in 1691, and translated into English by William Duncombe in 1726.

Tyler Cowen’s begins by referring to his interlocutor’s mention of Aristotle.

“A work is a tragedy, Aristotle tells us, only if it arouses pity and fear. Why does he single out these two passions?” That seems wrong to me. For one thing, it is overly subjectivist. Why start with the passions of the audience? What do they know?

Aristotle’s mention of pity and fear is not exclusive: he cites these among ‘similar emotions’ and the characterization is descriptive (Poetics, 1449b). Note that he does not cite anger as a response that a tragedy might produce, though he does elsewhere justify ‘the observance of the mean’ in this as an appropriate emotional response to injustice (Nicomachean Ethics, book 2, chapter 7). Under these conditions, the absence of anger can be mere ‘spiritlessness’. The point about responses like pity and fear is that they can be the basis of warranted moral emotions in the face of the extreme experiences that tragedy represents.

Even so, tragedy tends towards indirect, rather than direct, representation of extremes. Thus, pity and fear, or the comparable emotions that a tragedy may provoke, have gradations. Racine writes that ‘ce n’est point une nécessité qu’il y ait du sang et des morts dans une Tragédie’ (it is by no means that necessary that there should be bloodshed and death in a Tragedy; Bérénice, ‘Préface’), going on to add that the genre does characteristically represent a ‘high’ action that excites the passions, so substantiating the claim that it is through the latter that we grasp the significance of the former.

The paradox of tragedy as a literary, or in Aristotle’s time a dramatic, genre is that the pain that it represents is a source of pleasure. Where his account converges with Tyler Cowen’s apparent purpose in his blog is in its aim of establishing the utility of the genre.

1. The downfall represents some kind of principle.

Yes, though the end of a tragedy is by no means always a source of reassurance. A sense of enduring fear can project us beyond the apparent resolution of the plot into the perpetuation of the evils that it represents. Thus Racine’s Athalie, in which the child king, against all the odds, rightfully recovers his throne from his murderous aunt. But we know from the Old Testament that he will prove to be just as treacherous. Tragedy brings us to the brink of the fearfully unintelligible, where we are led to anticipate excesses even beyond those that we seem to have put behind us at the play’s end.

2. Some aspects of the downfall are, in advance, quite expected in the objective sense.

Thus Aristotle’s definition of tragedy on the basis of plot rather than character: ‘Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude’ (Poetics, 1449b).

And yet, as Tyler Cowen states, the audience’s foreknowledge of the action is by no means complete. Racine’s audience knew the Bible and knew books in which Athalie’s history was recounted.

Source: Guillaume Rouillé, Promptuaire des medalles, commençant à la Natiuité de nostre Sauueur Jesus Christ, & continuant jusques au treschrestien roy de France Henri II. du nom, à present eureusement regnant. (Lyon: Chez Guillaume Rouillé, 1553)

But the margin of innovation in the plot can make the anticipated ending equivocal. In Athalie, Racine introduces an invented element, namely the high priest Joad’s prophecy at the end of act III, in which he foresees Joas’s turn to betrayal and violence, in other words, a tragic future of which the characters have little or no sense at this point.

3. The actual story combines both inevitability and surprise in a somewhat contradictory manner. (I reintroduce the subjective ever so slightly here.)

Yes, though even this is more complex than it appears. A tragedy is often resolved through dramatic reversal, or catastrophe (Poetics, 1452a). At the end of Athalie, the seemingly invulnerable queen is annihilated and the vulnerable boy king restored. Yet this inversion only points ahead to the future in which he too will undergo the same transformation. The contradictions are the substance and the emotional responses and are not necessarily purely subjective: they mobilize the audience’s existing knowledge of the plot and prompt them to think about its significance in unanticipated ways. The action of Athalie spans only a few hours before dawn on the Jewish feast commemorating the appearance of God before Moses on Mount Sinai; but, because the survival of Joas secures the line of King David, the play embraces the whole period from the rule of David to the birth of Christ and beyond — a scope that seems to extend beyond merely historical experience, and where retribution is represented as a force that is beyond human understanding.

4. The villain probably should have some sympathetic and/or charismatic qualities.

Is the protagonist a villain? More in melodrama than in tragedy.

5. There should be a quite particular logic to how the actual events unfold, as they might be related to the above-mentioned principles in #1.

Agreed; see also no. 2 above, though the appeal to ‘principle’ may again take us in the direction of melodrama rather than tragedy.

6. A confluence of aesthetic and metaphysical and personality-linked forces should “conspire” to bring about the final outcome. There should be a melding and a consilience to the evolution of the story.

Agreed up to a point, but consilience seems an overstatement: the aesthetic and metaphysical (or moral) forces can pull in different directions.

Some near-perfect tragedies are Don Giovanni, The Empire Strikes Back, The Sopranos (evokes nostalgia in me rather than fear or pity), and King Lear, among other works of Shakespeare. Don’t forget Homer, Melville, and the Bible.

Arguably, only one of these — King Lear — is a tragedy as such. What is tragedy, indeed? Perhaps better, then, in the light of precisely the examples cited to ask the question: what are we to understand by the term tragic today? At all events, I am grateful to Tyler Cowen for the prompt to think again about these matters.

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