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What the Ancient Greeks teach us

The value of Athenian tragedy in an age of anxiety. 

 

Simon Critchley’s latest book ends with an anecdote about a public conversation he had with the actor Isabelle Huppert. “Of course, what theatre is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness,” she told him. “That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas.” The remark left him “internally stopped” at the insight that theatre is indeed an “experience of sensory and cognitive intensity” that is “impossible to express purely in concepts”. The story explains the genesis of Critchley’s book: it articulates a struggle by a person trained as a philosopher, dedicated to the study of concepts, to explain his fascination with theatre in general, and ancient Athenian tragedy in particular.

Critchley has a longstanding interest in the relationship of literature and philosophy: as an undergraduate at the University of Essex, he began a degree in the former before switching to the latter. A philosopher of an eclectic kind, he is interested in continental thinkers such as Heidegger and Levinas, but has also published on football, suicide, subjectivity, David Bowie, Wallace Stevens and humour. Critchley’s central goal in his new book is to suggest a way of doing philosophy that acknowledges and somehow participates in the “aliveness” of theatre. At the same time, he offers a vibrant introductory ramble through Athenian tragedy and its reception in Plato and Aristotle.

Almost all extant works of ancient Greek tragedy were composed in Athens in the fifth century BCE, to be performed in the big open air Theatre of Dionysus, at a huge city-wide civic and religious festival, the Great Dionysia. The multi-day event included three days of theatrical competition, in which three playwright-director-producers each put on a tetralogy consisting of three tragedies followed by a satyr play – where the hapless, hard-drinking, horny, hairy followers of the god Dionysus got up to their goatish antics. Tragedy typically featured elite households from the mythical past; mythical characters – usually human, often female – grapple with their relationships within the family and within the wider community.

Athenian tragedies were composed in metrical verse, with elaborate music and dancing to accompany the lyrical choral passages. All were created and performed entirely by men. The actors wore masks to indicate their gender and role in the play. The audience consisted largely, perhaps exclusively, of men: mostly Athenian citizens, and some visitors from other Greek-speaking communities. We do not know if slaves were present at any time.

As scholars of the genre often emphasise, tragedy was one of the most important cultural products through which the Athenians defined their own civic identity both for other Greek-speaking cities and for themselves. Tragedy explored the cultural and ideological fault-lines that ran through the city, such as tensions between the elite households and the wider community, or between the old social structures – of tyrants and powerful aristocratic households – and democracy, which had been implemented relatively recently. The mythic wars of Troy and Thebes, set on the tragic stage, gave Athenians a language to meditate on the traumas and triumphs of their own wars against Persia and Sparta.

The off-stage violence and on-stage debates of tragedy provided a complex mirror for real violence, real law courts and real political disagreements. The assertive, articulate, passionate female characters of the tragic stage, who kill or save or grieve or lust after their children, husbands and parents, gave Athenian men a reminder of the humanity and agency of their wives and daughters, as well as providing emotional justification for keeping them safely shut inside, deprived of voting rights and a voice in the Assembly. Much of the academic work done on ancient tragedy involves tracing out the ways that these plays about ostensibly universal subjects, such as justice, family, pain, recognition and reversals of fortune, are embedded in their own distinctive, long-gone cultural contexts.

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By contrast, in Critchley’s book, the peculiar genre of fifth-century-BCE Athenian tragedy is often treated as if it stood in for all theatre, or even all literature. Unlike most introductions to ancient Greek literature, Tragedy, the Greeks and Us is written by somebody who is not a specialist in the field. Critchley is neither a professional classicist nor an ancient philosophy scholar. In the acknowledgments, he notes his own failed attempts to learn ancient Greek properly, although he has enough to include quite a lot of transliterated Greek terms; he glosses them sensibly and clearly and there are thoughtful discussions of central concepts such as mimesis and catharsis.

For non-specialist readers hoping for an overview, the book offers substantial introductory material on tragedy and ancient philosophy; it is energetic, engaging and thought-provoking without too much abstraction and with just enough detail to add flavour. But Critchley does not offer a literary reading of the plays; for that purpose, readers would be better served by an introduction such as Greek Tragedy: Suffering Under the Sun (2010) by Edith Hall.

Critchley has taught a long-running course at the New School in New York on which the current book seems to be based. It has something of the chatty vigour of a successful seminar discussion, while the bitty structure – 61 tiny chapters in a book of only 322 pages – evokes class-notes more than sustained argument. His book is certainly not a complete survey of extant Athenian tragedy. Most plays in the canon are not discussed or even mentioned. Critchley examines just a few, supposedly representative works – Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, (also known by its Latin name, Oedipus Rex) and Euripides’ Suppliants and Trojan Women.

His account of the genre might have changed had he chosen other texts. For example, his opening discussion of how “tragedy” is about “complicity” would read differently if his example were not Sophocles’ Oedipus, but one of Euripides’ clever, sneaky, escaping heroines in plays such as Helen, Iphigenia (at Tauris) and Medea.

Critchley shows no deep interest in the relationship of tragedy to other contemporary Athenian theatrical genres, such as satyr plays and comedy, let alone contemporary non-theatrical genres from which tragedy draws, such as historiography, oratory, medical writing, lament and lyric. Topics that would be central to a normal survey class on Athenian tragedy – such as dramaturgy, language, genre, characterisation, cultural contexts, politics, gender and slavery – are mostly beyond the remit of this book. Critchley emphasises that tragedy is about war, and that Athenian tragedy was composed by, acted by, and performed for combat veterans; but he has almost nothing to say about the specifics of any particular wars, nor the particular civic ideology of Athens.

But to complain about these absences would be to wish for an entirely different, and more conventional, book. Critchley uses Athenian tragedy as his primary exhibit for a critique in two different directions. The first is against the presentism, short attention spans and solipsism of the modern world, which Critchley describes as a state of “amnesia”, a world of “endlessly narcissistic self-justification, adding Facebook updates and posting on Instagram”. He reads, especially, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, the play that frames the book, as an invitation to acknowledge “our” blindness and complicity, “our” failure to think of our mortality, “our” political and social responsibility, and “our” origins. “We” are never precisely defined: are “we” all wealthy people in the Western world? Or everybody, regardless of whether or not we own a smartphone?

The psychological and political effects of social media are quite different issues from the moral problem of war, and different again from the troubles of Sophocles’ Oedipus; but Critchley zooms from one to the other. He is not able to stick to Sophocles for more than two pages before veering into a discussion of Breaking Bad as a drama about shamelessness and denial: this is interesting in itself, but does little to illuminate the specifics of Sophoclean tragedy, although Critchley implies that Walter White is, like Oedipus, a “tyrant” who is too slow to recognise his own failures and limitations.

Critchley seems not quite able to decide if Athenian tragedy is similar or different from modern US cultural production. He insists, rightly, that “in Greek tragedy, the hero is not the solution to the problem, but the problem itself” – in contrast to the more simplistic tropes of John Wayne movies. But he also hints at a fundamentally ahistorical reading of tragedy, suggesting that the same “tragic philosophy” can be found in Shakespeare and Ibsen. The critique of the technologised societies of modernity is muddled, sketchy and feels unfinished.

The second target is addressed in a much more sustained way, and forms the central theme of the book. Critchley argues that the mainstream discipline of philosophy, since the time of Socrates and Plato, has been hampered by a “will to truth”, an insistence that, through a rational philosophical method, human beings can gain access to an intelligible cosmic order and also, usually, some kind of moral truth. He counters with the claim that there could be an alternative style of “philosophy” that would be more akin to tragedy, in its acknowledgement of “moral ambiguity”, of the possibility that human beings and the universe might have no fundamental order or design.

The case is made partly through a discussion of a few Athenian tragedies (Oedipus Tyrannos, the Oresteia, and several more by Euripides). But more of the book is devoted to the work of philosophers and prose stylists. Critchley’s hero turns out to be the fifth-century-BCE rhetorician Gorgias, who composed elaborately paradoxical (or, according to Critchley, “stunningly beautiful”) speeches arguing for surprising or contradictory positions. His most famous work is the Encomium on Helen, which offers a series of arguments in defence of the adulterous wife of Menelaus – who, Gorgias argues, left her husband only because she was overcome by various overwhelming forces, such as persuasion and desire.

Gorgias has usually been considered far more important in the history of literary style than in the history of philosophy; his wonderfully baroque, sonorous, playful sentences showcased what prose, which was a new invention at the time, could do. But for Critchley, Gorgias got it right as a “philosopher”, apparently because he does not argue for a consistent position or truth; instead, he plays with different possible realities and ways of seeing the same event. Philosophers, Critchley suggests, should be less like philosophers and more like literary authors, or comedians; Samuel Beckett and Groucho Marx also turn out to be good models for the new, “tragic” philosopher to follow.

The second half of the book focuses on Plato and Aristotle, and argues, in essence, that both of them get tragedy – and thereby also philosophy – wrong. Critchley gives a summary, across several chapters, of the reasons why Plato’s Socrates in the Republic expels Homer and the tragic poets from his imaginary, semi-idealised city. Socrates argues that poetry is essentially false, at several levels of remove from reality; poets encourage people to indulge intense emotions, and fantasise about being other than they are. Critchley argues that the eviction of poetry and theatre is motivated, above all, by how seductive it is: the life of virtue, for individuals and the city as a whole, can be maintained only with iron discipline, and no yielding to the kind of deep psychological pleasure that is afforded by tragedy.

He does not explain exactly what he thinks is wrong with this way of thinking about literature and politics, although he hints that Plato’s vision of philosophy as a “practice of rational affect regulation” is not much fun. Critchley does not point out the obvious paradox, that Plato’s ostensibly rationalist arguments are evoked with all the artifice and rich ambiguity of literature: set into beautiful, musical, densely metaphorical Greek prose, and embedded in a made-up conversation featuring a fictionalised, long-dead Socrates and a sequence of elaborately invented myth.

Aristotle’s account of tragedy and other poetry in his brief pamphlet, the Poetics, is often read as a response to his teacher, Plato, and a defence of imitative art against Plato’s expulsion of the poets. Critchley argues that Aristotle is less “generous” to tragedy than we might imagine, in the sense that he sees tragic art as morally and psychologically healthy only insofar as it has unity, coherence and the “rationality” of plot. He says that neither Plato nor Aristotle have room in their theories for what he himself finds in Euripides: “a series of incomprehensible experiences that defy homeopathic moderation”. As far as it goes, this seems persuasive.

It is a pity that Critchley’s account of moral psychology is so gestural. Plato’s and Aristotle’s analyses of what theatre does to us depend on a thorough theoretical account of how the human psyche operates; Critchley offers no alternative account, beyond echoing Huppert. He tells us that tragedy helps us look into the “core of life, of aliveness”, but not why we would want or need to do so. Moreover, it is disappointing that we are told nothing about what the new, tragic philosophy will look like, or how exactly writing philosophy in a tragic mode will be different from writing what we normally call literature, or perhaps deconstructive literary criticism.

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Philosophers are not always very good at reading literature; Plato is one of the most obvious exceptions. I was once taught by an analytical philosopher who used to muse about how many true or false statements there might be in novels or other works of fiction, if any. Critchley’s astonished realisation that theatre – or, one might say, all literature – contains worlds undreamed of in his philosophy may be less startling to those who are not professional philosophers. But this infectiously enthusiastic book successfully conveys the importance of the study of ancient theatre and philosophy. There is something genuinely invigorating about Critchley’s eager open-mindedness, his willingness to step back from modernity to the ancient world and from philosophy to literature, to urge all of us to “become ecstatically stretched out into another time and other space, another way of experiencing things and the world”.

Robert Kennedy, delivering the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and claiming to be citing his favourite poem, gave a slightly garbled quotation from a weak prose translation of Aeschylus by Edith Hamilton: “against our will comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God”. Kennedy implied, implausibly, that these lines could provide a model and inspiration for “love, wisdom and compassion towards one another”, against “division” and “hatred”. Sadly, Aeschylus could not save Kennedy; he was shot two months later. Fifty years on, the United States is again in a time of division and hatred, and Athenian tragedy feels more resonant than ever with the concerns of our time.

Matthew Arnold, in late 19th-century Britain, claimed that Sophocles managed to look “steadily” at life and see it “whole”; modern readers are more likely to find in Sophocles and his contemporaries a clear vision of messiness and lack of wholeness, in specific communities and lives rather than “life”. There are constant new performances of Athenian tragedy, new translations and adaptations, including productions and discussions by combat veterans (through Theater of War and Aquila Theatre), and dozens of feminist responses to  the righteous rage of Medea, Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and Phaedra. Many recent adaptations, on stage or in novels (such as Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, or Kamila Shamshie’s Home Fire) have used Athenian tragedy to evoke contemporary divisions within identities, families, groups and nations. There have even been a number of comic adaptations, such as Hurricane Diane (a lesbian suburban comedy rewrite of the Bacchae, which played recently in New York); Athenian tragedy feels close enough to us that we can laugh with it as well as using its language of grief to express our tears.

More than perhaps any other literary genre, the Attic stage articulates how easily communities and individuals can be broken; how hard it is to know other people, including one’s family members and oneself; how often language means more or less than we understand; how generations clash and the old exploit the young; and how quickly triumph can change to disaster, and the other way around – themes that feel necessary in our times of deep political and ecological anxiety. Climate change will make life on Earth almost unimaginably different in the course of the next generation. In the words of Aeschylus, translated recently by Oliver Taplin, “learning comes from pain”: Athenian tragedy points to the possibility of recognising, if not through pain, then about pain, and about how lives can be split and changed beyond recognition, and beyond the realm of philosophical theory. 

Emily Wilson is professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her translation of the “Odyssey” is published by WW Norton

Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
Simon Critchley
Profile, 336pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal