A Tragic Honesty

ANNE CARSON, IN GRIEF LESSONSher extraordinarily bold translations of Euripides—writes, “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” This is absolutely right. Antigone rages because she is full of grief for her brother Polynices, who is refused burial rites by the political leader Creon. Clytemnestra rages at Agamemnon because of her grief for her daughter Iphigenia, slaughtered like a young foal in order to ensure favorable winds in the sails of the Greek ships on their way to Troy.

We might add a further question to Carson’s list: Why are you full of grief? Because we are full of war. Tragedy might be defined as the grief-stricken rage that flows from war. If this somehow seems remote and abstract, just think of how the past few years have witnessed a steady politicization of funerals—from Tunisia to the current debacle in Ukraine. Protesters are shot at the funerals of protesters who were shot for protesting against the governing regime.

We live in a world whose frame is war and where justice seems to be endlessly divided between claim and counterclaim: right and left, conservative and progressive, believer and nonbeliever, freedom fighter and terrorist. Each side believes unswervingly in the rightness of its position and the wrongness—or, as is usually said, evil—of the enemy. Such a belief legitimates destructive violence that unleashes counterviolence in return. We seem locked into vicious circles of grief and rage caused by war.

This is where, I think, a reflection on Greek tragedy might at the very least illuminate our current predicament and tell us something about our present.

The history of Greek tragedy is the history of war, from the war with the Persians in the early fifth century BCE to the Peloponnesian Wars, which ran until that century’s end; from the emergence of Athenian imperial hegemony to its dissolution and humiliation at the hands of Sparta. The oldest piece of theater that we possess, The Persians, from 472 BCE, deals with the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis in 480. The play was therefore somewhat closer to the battle than 9/11 is to us now. More than half of the surviving tragedies were composed after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars in 431. Oedipus the King was first performed in 429, during a time of plague that is estimated to have killed one-quarter of the Athenian population. The frame of tragedy is war and its devastating effects on human life.

This means that Greek tragedy, particularly with its obsessive focus on the aftermath of the Trojan War, especially in the delightful excessiveness of Euripides, is largely about veterans. And it was also performed by veterans. Its actors were not flimsy thespians but soldiers who had seen combat. All were traumatized by it, and everyone felt its effects. War was the life of the city and its pride, as Pericles argued. But war was also the city’s fall and undoing.

Yet Greek tragedy is a war story without a John Wayne figure, without a swaggering individualist who is the sole source of good in a world gone bad. On the contrary, in Greek tragedy, the hero is usually the problem, not the solution. This is one reason why Sophocles’s tragedy is called Oidipous Tyrannos. The hero-king is a tyrant who is polluting the city, and the only resolution to the drama is Oedipus’s expulsion and exile. Realism is the great virtue of ancient tragedy, as opposed to the idealized violence, empty empathy, and hollow sentimentality of our war literature.

How might we respond to the contemporary situation of war? It might seem that the noblest thing to do is to speak of peace. Yet, as Raymond Williams says in his still hugely relevant book Modern Tragedy (1966), “to say peace where there is no peace” is to say nothing. The danger of easy pacifism is that it is inert and self-regarding. It is always too pleased with itself. But the alternative is not a justification of war. It is, rather, the attempt to understand the tragic dialectics of political situations, particularly the ones that appear to be revolutionary.

Williams goes on to claim, “We expect men brutally exploited and intolerably poor to rest and be patient in their misery, because if they act to end their condition it will involve the rest of us, and threaten our convenience or our lives.” Often, we simply want violence and war to go away because they are an inconvenience to us and to our lovely lives. As such, we not only fail to see our implication in such violence and war, we completely disavow it.

The virtue of Greek tragedy is that it makes such a disavowal difficult by confronting us with situations of grief-stricken rage and disorder. Likewise, seeing the bloody events of the contemporary world in a tragic light exposes us to a disorder that is not just their disorder. It is ours, too. Our war, our rage, our (disavowed) grief. To see political events tragically is always to accept our complicity in the disaster that is unfolding. We are the audience in the theater of war, and we, too, are responsible.

Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor at the New School. His book Bowie is forthcoming from OR Books.