Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (review)
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Theatre Journal 56.1 (2004) 129-130

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Sweet Violence: The Idea of The Tragic. By Terry Eagleton. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003; pp. xvii + 328. $59.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Terry Eagleton's Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic is an ironically brilliant work of theoretical antinomy, an exercise both in definition and in the denial of the very possibility of definition, and a materialist critique of an idea that, in the final chapter, is embraced on the level of myth. Eagleton signals early on that his project is not a predictable deconstruction of tragedy as an ideological instrument that promulgates false universals, validates suffering as inevitable (or worse—good), and romanticizes the individual over the social. He objects to these tendencies, at least as totalizing theory, but with a degree of flexibility rare in politically explicit theory. In this impressive, flawed work, Eagleton embraces a left politics while questioning many of its tenets, particularly those associated with theory as practiced in the United States, "with its belief that culture goes all the way down" (285) and, therefore, its insistence on diversity and the rejection of universals.

This "faith in plurality, plasticity, dismantling, destabilizing, the power of self-invention . . . smacks" of "advanced capitalism," especially American "ideologies of self-fashioning" and the "moulding of Nature," versus the "self-doubting, deterministic cultures of Europe" (xi). This "glib particularism" (xvi) dismisses the universal and transhistorical too blithely: "physical suffering has probably changed little over the centuries. . . . It is of no particular consolation to the victims of torture to be told that their anguish is culturally constructed. . ." (xiv). On the contrary, one "is mistaken to believe that what belongs to our species-being must invariably be politically retrograde or irrelevant." We all have bodies, as well as an "impulse to freedom from oppression, however that goal is culturally framed, [that] seems as obdurate and implacable as the drive to material survival" (xv). Why forgo a carefully parsed universalism that emphasizes the suffering of majorities as well as minorities, or "surrender a notion" altogether "when one never knows when [it] might come in handy" (275)? Without exactly saying so, Eagleton exposes the central contradiction of the anti-tragic polemic: we object to tragedy as an oppressive ideology that sets the highborn above the low, the individual above the group, the law above justice; but can't we please use the term to describe what befalls powerless individuals and oppressed groups? We reject tragedy because it is prestigious, but no other word being equally so, we would like to use it too.

Eagleton too would valorize oppression as tragic, observing, for example, that "Stalinism, not just in its Russian variety, was a reflection of one of the most abiding tragedies of the twentieth century: the fact that socialism proved least possible where it was most necessary" (240). And Sweet Violence concludes with a discursion (not well developed) on how tragedy might confront the current crisis of terrorism, fundamentalism, and war. More broadly, Eagleton locates a progressive tragic sensibility in the uncertain ground of reality that began with Kant and has persisted through Nietzsche, existentialism, and postmodernism. But he accepts the power of the Western tragic tradition and sees no complicity in harnessing that power. The stuffiest formulations—about "tragic flaws," "the death of tragedy," and the like—he puts down with wittily barbed sarcasm. If he is sometimes unfair, he compensates for this by the sweep of a work that, if nothing else, is a magisterial survey of Western tragic theory. The final chapter proffers a deeply imaginative view of the scapegoat as a tragic figure both atavistic and progressive. Atavistic, in that the scapegoat is expelled from the community as a sacrificial other; progressive, in that the community must thereby face its systemic failings.

Eagleton frees himself for such speculations by explicitly rejecting totalizing theories, claiming that [End Page 129] no definition of tragedy "has ever worked" that goes beyond "very sad" (3). He turns the phrase over and over like a multifaceted but extremely dull stone. "Very sad" doesn't work either, as "'tragic' is...