Monday, July 14, 2014

Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic

Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic

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This is a complex and subtle book that deals with consistent intelligence on the importance of tragedy. It also shows what is simultaneously Eagleton's great virtue and great vice, an obsessive and all-powering love of paradox. In small doses Eagleton's constant emphasis on irony is stimulating and properly dialectical. Over three hundred pages, the length of this book, it can be repetitive and overly mechanical. There is something a bit predictable in Eagleton's constant desire to be original and stimulating. And yet it is worth it to work their way through this book. Eagleton starts off by dealing with two common ideas of what is tragic. The first is that tragedy is something that is very sad. This is considered by many academics to be trite, and they present the second, more pernicious view that tragedy is something of great import that happens to sufficiently great people and in doing show vindicates the justice and morality of the natural order.
Eagleton is properly critical of this and much of the book is an acute critique of those tragic theorists who seek to resolve the cruelty and horror of life into convenient didactic messages. Noting C.S. Lewis' passing reference to the fundamentally untragic quality of everyday life and ordinary people, the "uncouth mixture of agony and littleness" Eagleton notes that Lewis' own writings on his wife's premature death "do not seem to view the event as dull and uninteresting, though other people's real lives are perhaps much more uncouth than one's own." Commenting on Martha's Nussbaum's argument that Antigone shows the sterility of a conflict-free life Eagleton notes that is akin to arguing that "the lesson of the Illiad is that the ancient world needed a United Nations Organization." A.C. Bradley, George Steiner and Karl Jaspers are also rebuked for rhapsodizing Tragedy. Throughout the book Eagleton constantly swerves through a panopoly of Scyllas and Charibdeses. On the one hand we must beware those who conservatively and callously invoke reactionary assumptions of a "human nature." On the other hand we must not accept those shallow post-modernists who assume that all change is good, and that one should be hostile to whatever is permanent, unalterable or historical. On the one hand it is callous to assume that suffering is ennobling and tragedy great for that purpose, since most people are clearly not redeemed that way. On the other hand one must not be so sceptical as to reject hope altogether or simply assume that is naive to possess it. Eagleton notes Franco Moretti's provocative comment that the modern world prefers unhappiness, because assuming the worst is likely to occur makes it easier for bourgeois society to forgive itself for not providing the best or the adequate. On the one hand the didactic and teleological aspects of Kant appear crude, while on the other hand the primitivist and simple-minded valorization of "life" itself in Nietzsche and Lawrence are callous and cruel in their indifference to others.

After discussing the weakness of tragic theory, Eagleton goes on to discuss the value of agony. He then goes on to discuss tragic theory from Hegel to Beckett, and then discusses the problem of heroes in tragedy. There then follows a long discussion of freedom, fate and justice which includes, not always productively, a discussion of the problems of determinism. Yet Eagleton points out that tragedy, which supposedly vindicates the moral order undermines it by showing so much gratuitous injustice and cruelty, a problem much tragic theory cannot really grasp. There is then a chapter on pity, fear and pleasure, which includes a passage on incest and also raises the question of whether are pity is a scarcely concealed sadism at the fate of others. There are then a chapter on tragedy in the novel and the interesting relationship between tragedy and modernity. Tragedy can be dismissed as archaic, yet arguably the experience of modernity is itself tragic. Although critical of Lukacs and of the pessimism of much Western Marxism, Eagleton praises it for recognizing the essential truth of modernity, that is both a "revolutionary advance" and "one light nightmare of butchery and exploitation." There is then a chapter on the nature of evil and the emptiness of the demonic. In this chapter and in the concluding one about sacrifice and Thomas Mann one occasionally feels that Eagleton is pushing the logic of official rites not only farther than the officials want, but also farther than anyone would normally like to push it. Eagleton is a former Catholic and often notes the similarity of Marxism and Christianity in the way they can combine deep pessimism with a sense of ultimate hope. As a Jew myself, I don't find this comparison entirely kosher, but this unpromising theme repeats itself through the book. It is perhaps appropriate then that Eagleton concludes his work by arguing the Left must go beyond the rhetoric and pragmatism and culturalism. Instead of a Catholic or a Protestant, Eagleton quotes Kafka and his final metaphor is the last thing Joseph K sees before he dies.

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