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diacritics 35.1 (2005) 22-46

Tragedy, Comedy, Parody
From Hegel to Klossowski
Russell Ford

Ressentiment, bad conscience, the ascetic ideal, nihilism are the touchstone of every Nietzschean. Here he must show whether he has understood or failed to recognize the true sense of the tragic.

—Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy


While it has perhaps always accompanied philosophical thought—one immediately thinks of Plato's Dialogues—the problem of the communication of that thought, and therefore of its capacity to be taught, has been particularly insistent in the work of post-Kantian thinkers. One could cite Fichte's repeated efforts to formulate a definitive version of his Wissenschaftslehre, the model of the Bildungsroman that Hegel adopts for his Phenomenology of Spirit1 Kierkegaard's pseudonymous works,2 Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Heidegger's uncompleted Being and Time. Certainly each of these projects is quite distinct from the others, and the puzzles and difficulties of these works cannot be reduced to some single element, some trace of a philosophical zeitgeist. Their common preoccupation with the problem of the communicability of thinking, however, raises the question of the modality of such a communication. How has thinking come to be so fundamentally troubled by its own expression?

That Kant's critical philosophy has precipitated this preoccupation ought to come as no surprise, for it was Kant, most famously in the Critique of Pure Reason, who sought to definitively set the limits of philosophical thinking. In doing so, however, Kant was unable to remain utterly silent about what he himself set outside the bounds of meaningful thought and speech: things-in-themselves. That this meaningless element is an essential component of Kant's philosophical exposition3 is an indication of [End Page 22] the paradoxical logic of the limit: to postulate a limit is simultaneously to set out its obverse side. In Kant's case, then, the demarcation of what can be thought carries with it the implicit thinking of what is ruled out of bounds for thought.4 Beginning with Fichte, the philosophical project of Kant's successors and inheritors is then largely determined by an effort to incorporate or at least accommodate this alien element within thinking.5 The initial phase of this effort is marked by a tragic motif [cf. Schmidt], a conjoining of thought with the experience of loss and suffering that is characteristic of Romanticism, that culminates in the dialectic of Hegel's Absolute Knowing. In Absolute Knowing, thought has not vanquished its limitations; it has instead discovered the resources with which it can perpetually surmount them. This first phase is followed by a reaction or response to this seeming completion and overcoming of the Kantian limitation. Now, the tragic movement of thought comes to be understood as itself limited, and necessarily so according to the logic of the limit that imposes itself upon every gesture of closure. Tragedy thereby gives way to comedy insofar as the limitation that is incorporated as an obstacle to be overcome by tragic thought is shown to be the external condition of that very thought. Finally, if the comic is the fate of the limitations of tragedy, the thought of comedy itself demands a third mode of thinking, one capable of something more than the mere reiteration of the limit between comedy and tragedy that troubles them both. This third form of expression is parody, an expression appropriate to a thinking that repeats and completes the threefold movement of tragic thought while, in this very repetition, creating a limitless domain of thoughtful expression.

Nietzsche's work is the fulcrum of this problematization of the expression of thought. Beginning with The Birth of Tragedy, and continuing through his final works, Nietzsche perpetually confronts the difficulty of conveying his thinking. This confrontation takes many forms: the aphoristic style and its accompanying commentary, the recourse to poetry, the grand fable of Zarathustra, and the critical reappropriation of Ecce Homo.6 Indeed, Nietzsche himself indicates the trajectory of the present essay when he writes, in the retrospective preface to the second edition...


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