In a new interview published at The White Review, philosopher Simon Critchley engages in an interesting discussion of tragedy and the modern world. His book on tragedy, Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine, co-written with Jamieson Webster, will be published next year by Pantheon. The wide-ranging conversation touches on what we know (and what we don’t know) about ancient Greek tragedy, Nietzschean conceptions and misconceptions of the form, and the possibility of a theatrical tragedy in the contemporary world. From the interview:
We are as we speak in what seems to be a state of permanent war. Can we still access the tragic? If so, what is it that tragedy gives us that is useful or can help us to better contemplate the current order of things?
Those are very good questions. The answer to the first, can we access tragedy, is yes. The answer to the second is that it does illuminate the situation we’re in. Those are the short answers. This is where I turn to and lean on someone like Raymond Williams. There’s a view we can associate with someone like George Steiner that tragedy is dead, that’s the classical, reactionary, formalist aesthetic position, the glory that was Greece is gone and we live in a decaying modernity. The first thing to say is that makes very little sense of the extraordinary theatrical creativity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from people like Ibsen and Chekhov through to Brecht and Beckett and beyond into people like Sarah Kane and Heiner Müller. Theatre is still fecund it seems to me, the theatrical is still fecund. I’m not a death of tragedy person at all and that means looking in different places, we could look at different media, film, TV as places to access tragedy. People have written very well about series like The Wire as a modern American tragedy, I won’t go into that now, it can be a bit boyish and obsessional but it is fascinating. What it can show us, and this is where I want to bring in Williams, who in his book Modern Tragedy makes a link between tragedy and revolution and it’s a kind of melancholic link. He says, for example, something like: “We need to understand revolution tragically.” …
So, yes tragedy is accessible, the world needs to be understood in tragic terms in the name of realism. Lastly, once we do that, we throw off a certain naïve, optimistic, progressivist view of history in the name of something much more bracing and much more pessimistic. But there’s still a glimmer of hope. For me, the intellectual discipline of the left has to be to take the long historical view and to see events of oppression in the context of liberation and to see events of liberation in the context of their reversal and to see the long view and the big picture. Which means we can still hope but there’s no point in hoping blindly.