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Truth and Theater Aureliu Weiss In his essay “Tragedy and the Whole Truth,” Aldous Huxley cri­ ticizes tragedy for refining and correcting our emotional life and giving it a style, which is the source of “its power to act swiftly and intensely on our feelings.” The method of the writer of tragedy is to “isolate a single element out of the totality of human experience” and to “use that exclusively as his material. Tragedy is something that is separated out from the Whole Truth, distilled from it, so to speak, as an essence is distilled from the living flower. Tragedy is chemically pure.” To give an example of what he means by “the Whole Truth,” Huxley quotes this passage from the end of the Twelfth Book of the Odyssey: “When they had satisfied their thirst and hunger, they thought of their dear companions and wept, and in the midst of their tears, sleep came gently upon them.” The six companions whom they mourned so sincerely, after having satisfied the demands of hunger and thirst, had perished tragically, swallowed up by the furious sea. The simplicity of this description, the naturalness of the feelings and attitudes, the unsophisticated style strike the reader’s sensibility directly and win the critic’s approval. But what he especially admires is Homer’s refusal “to treat the theme tragically.” And to emphasize the difference between the tragic style and the Whole Truth, he adds immediately: “He preferred to tell the Whole Truth.” Another writer who, according to Huxley, has the habit of telling the Whole Truth is Fielding who, in Tom Jones, tempers “situations and characters that writers of tragedy insist on keeping chemically pure.” Plato long ago banished from his ideal Republic the doleful lament­ ing heroes of tragedy; this ostracism would probably have delighted the English essayist were it not for the fact that the ancient philosopher had, at the same time, also excluded Homer and his Odyssey. Not to pause any longer over these excommunictions, it is possible to wonder if the Odyssey is really a good choice as an example of the Whole Truth. Not that the passage cited does not provide the evidence desired, but it is only a very small fragment of a poem in which psycho­ logical realism is developed within a fabulous world of fantastic vis­ ions, whose wonders increasingly enthrall the imagination the further they depart from the truth. To be sure, truth can be discerned even where facts are unreal, 63 64 Comparative Drama but the human heroes of the Odyssey are too pre-occupied with keep­ ing the good will of the friendly gods and with avoiding the blows that threaten them from the other sort to give free rein to their true nature. The intrigues of the gods, their whims, their arbitrariness, their favor or their disfavor, the curious interest they take in the ambitions and passions of men even to the point of identifying them with their own, make of the human condition as it emerges in the Homeric poems a very precarious thing and threaten to falsify the psychological truth of the heroes, who are forced to make their reactions and even their thoughts conform to demands which they know in advance they will be unable to meet. This is probably what inspired Saint-Evremond with his disillusion­ ed observation on the poems of Homer and Vergil. The humans in these works appeared to him like “mere machines moved by hidden springs.” It seemed to him, in fact, that these early ages had no taste at all for truth; their poems present “fictions, allegories, parables” in which nothing appears “as it is in itself,” empty images hiding reality. “They made long speeches before going into battle, the way people in England do when they are going to die” (Sur les poèmes des an­ ciens) . The indictment is clearly exaggerated, but what is striking and deserves remembering is that the Whole Truth which is proclaimed with capital letters by one critic is declared by the other to be a “felici­ tous falsehood.” The Greek tragic poets refined some stories from the Homeric poems and endowed supernatural interventions with an elevated and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 63-74
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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