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Tragedy and Trauerspiel for the (Post-)Westphalian Age

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 197-208 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0004

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Our present historical situation . . . has not only made us more aware of the ambiguity of the world and of the inauthentic nature of daily life, but . . . has also revived our interest in the tragic writers and thinkers of the past.

—Lucien Goldmann, The Hidden God (1955)

Given Lucien Goldmann’s background as a left-leaning, exiled Romanian Jew, we can supply numerous referents for his “present historical situation”—from the general chaos of two world wars and the Cold War to the individual horrors of anti-Semitism and fascism in his native land. His claim also allows us to ask whether it might not now also be apt, given the “ambiguities” of our times, to turn to “the tragic writers and thinkers of the past,” here, to theorists of tragedy in particular. Tragedy has been described as capturing “the dynamic of transition” and “cultural or political change.”1 If this is true, how might we usefully approach it in the context of the uncertainties produced by the tumultuous changes now under way in what, following recent political theorists, I refer to here as our post-Westphalian age?

The signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 is often (perhaps too simply) understood as just such a transitional moment, when the modern system of territorial states was born out of the ashes of the bloody religious wars that rolled across Europe for over a hundred years. Thanks to Westphalia, it is said, the sacral and the terrestrial orders parted ways. The disruptive demon of religion was removed from the public into an interior, spiritual realm; the secular state replaced the church and confessionalism writ large as guarantor of more peaceful, profane rhythms within a “sovereignty-oriented,” “territorially bound global order.”2 The modern polity meant to guarantee this peace was classically defined by Max Weber and others as the state that could “(successfully) claim [a] monopoly [on] the legitimate use” of force.3 The ramifications of giving over responsibility for securing peace by means of violence into the hands of what emerged as the modern nation-state continue to be huge. Recently, other forces have added a post-Westphalian twist, traumatizing the modern system of sovereign territorial states and, by implication, secular political modernity as such. Border-busting flows of capital, people, and information and spectacular, religiously inflected terrorist projects, on the one hand, and subnational and anti-nation-state political and social experimentation, itself also often anchored in religious beliefs, on the other hand, have allowed the Westphalian distinction between profane and transmundane logics to fade.4

Two questions arise. If, as we might plausibly argue, tragedy occurs in the tense space that sutures the human to the divine, can there really be tragedy under a divided Westphalian sky? And, if we tell time according to a Westphalian clock, would we not have to designate the “Renaissance” as premodern because it was pre-Westphalian—at least according to the dates? Both hypotheses feel strange. There was clearly tragedy after Westphalia. In turn, much “modern” criticism of Renaissance tragedy (cultural materialist, New Historicist, and gender and sexuality approaches) has actually been extremely Westphalian, avoiding issues of faith for the sake of more profane matters, such as how to read texts “politically” and “historically.” The turn to religion in the study of Renaissance drama, and particularly tragedy, over the past decade or so nevertheless suggests that criticism may now be engaging in a post-Westphalian readjustment of its own.5 As I return to theories of the “difficult genre”6 of tragedy and its relation to discourses of belief in our famously postsecular times, I would propose that we reconsider the question of religion in/and Renaissance drama with the help of a Westphalian vocabulary and lens. To help us with this project, I call upon the work of an earlier generation that theorized tragedy in the face of the wreckage of a Westphalianized world. To reassess their still compelling work is to consider the direction in which we might want to take the conversation about how to understand the intersection of politics and religion both in the world and onstage.

That this generation was made up of men...



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