Tragedy, the Greeks and Us, by Simon Critchley, is a thought provoking, academic book about all that we have taken from Ancient Greek culture concerning our understanding of tragedy, and all that we have either forgotten, or never understood. The quote that appears at the front of the book says it all. We have cultivated ourselves on the foundations of Ancient Greek culture and civilisation, but we are, in the end, fakes unless we dig deeper and really get to grips with the particular lessons we could take away from tragedy, because first and foremost, tragedy is not really about disaster or a fall; it is about fate and what we do with it. That all sounds like the start of an oxymoron, because fate has always implied a state of affairs that is beyond our grasp to alter, but as Critchley points out, fate is really about the choices that we make and the reasons that propel us to make them. These choices and reasons underpin tragedy and tragedy underpins life in general, as much current as historical, which is why we need to take a closer look.
At the root of the tragic conundrum lies the question, How do I act? What shall I do? Because there is, Critchley writes, never one simple easy answer to that question. There is always a dilemma, and the moral boundaries that we think, with our Christianity, our secular morality, or democracy, we can impose on these dilemmas, are not so clear cut as we imagine. By looking deeper into the Greek understanding of tragedy we can see that the boundaries are profoundly blurred. So blurred in fact, that they have become invisible to most of us. In the world of tragedy, however, they are real, as are the ghosts that stalk their fuzzy borders. Ghosts are a feature of tragedy; we see them in the plays of Shakespeare, in Hamlet and Macbeth, and many other tragedies inspired by Greek thinking. What do these ghosts tell us?
Any ghost worth its salt in literary circles will always have a dialectic function. Its role is like the devil on our shoulder or the conscience in our head. It reminds us what we did not do or what we have conspired to do; it spells us out the cost of it and sometimes even gathers in the payment. Beware the ghost, as they say. But where do these tragic machinations finally lead us, if not to a final sticky literary end? What about society, what about real life?
Author Simon Critchley, who is also Professor of Philosophy at the New York School in New York, has lectured widely on the subject, shedding new light on the ways this tragic tension might illuminate us. In his chapter ‘Justice as Conflict’ he writes, ‘If one were optimistically inclined, one might see tragedy as providing an object lesson in resolving conflicts reasonably in a world of overwhelming enmity’. Except that he is not so optimistic. ‘What we also see in tragedy,’ he adds, ‘is the weakness of rational argumentation in the presence of violence and the persistence of forms of arbitrary decision making.’ Touché, I would say were I a politician. Fortunately I’m just a humble critic. All of which brings us back to the central core of tragedy: conflict. In order to resolve conflict, Greek philosophy became invented, you might say. But successful conflict resolution requires a little flexibility. ‘Reasoning,’ Critchley adds, ‘is always a two-sided process of fragile negotiation in a world of constitutive and irreducible violence’. Judging by our overall track record, this negotiation has not really been successful. Philosophy then is and always was a disappointment. Plato was, essentially, a kind of disappointment. Still, this is a book about tragedy, isn’t it? Somebody, at some point, has to die before things can get better. There has to be a death to make a ghost.
Any Cop?: Character is Destiny, right? Best remember that…