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Tragedy and Its Validating Conditions R. J. Kaufmann It is not possible that this condition of despair should be natural to mankind. Tolstoy My argument starts with a passage from Giraudoux’s ironic tragedy Electra. “ It is by justice, generosity, duty and not by egotism and easy going ways, that the state, individuals, and the best families are ruined. Because those three virtues have in common the one element fatal to humanity— implacability. . . . A happy epoch demands unani­ mous capitulation.” There is no need to accept all the reverberations of this, but it contains a clue to something which draws us to tragic literature nowadays. Tragedy may be understood as an inquest into traditional ethical stipulations by subjecting these— and the putative virtues they designate— to pragmatic scrutiny. The tragic form gives animated embodiment to otherwise bodiless abstractions and thereby provides contextual tests for the social utility of traditional virtues. As artists, tragic writers are dedicated to resonant particularities, but successful tragedy is, nonetheless, a highly developed form of general­ ized thinking. Near its root there are prodding doubts about the stability of those ethical terms which give shape to cultural discipline and which maintain an intelligible common understanding. Tragic artists challenge the permanence of the “fabric of imperatives” which governs their epoch’s notions of human resolution and human obliga­ tion. That they do this while still emotionally captive to the very dispensation against which their intellect rebels, fosters the tensions we recognize as tragic. I Dostoevsky says, usefully, “ One must really be a great man to be able to hold out against common sense.” For, common sense often dictates premature surrender to apparent necessities, a compliant modesty, prudence, a slack and unheroic cynicism and even a very undramatic form of despair. All men, doctrinaire irrationalists to the contrary, are much of the time common-sensical. If common sense is to be what we name it— common— it must be imaginable by all, learnable by all, within the reach of all men to practice its behests. It is, by its very nature, the technology of routine moral behavior. Tragic heroes tend to be those for whom common sense is either a foreign idiom or only a beginning step on the road. Think of a society which had never had any Cordelias, any Antigones, any Ham­ lets, any Oedipuses, any Medeas— the vision is depressing, for tragic heroes exist to raise the ceiling of possibility, to widen the margins of 3 our imaginative tolerance and thereby to challenge the tiny perfections of our common-sensical reading of the world. What’s more, most men harbor embryonic Antigones or Hamlets within them. These embryos will never be born alive, but they are there and if we feed them they will not die. We need acquaintance with someone who shouts “ N o!” to expediency and has the spiritual obstinacy to hold out against com­ mon sense— all the common sense prated so beautifully by the chorus in Greek tragedy, and by their perennial successors in the chorus of approved opinion drafting the editorial pages of life. Spiritual obstinacy makes for that uncomfortable virtue called nobility. Nobility is a scarce product; there will never be any population explosion in the nobility birthrate. Tragedy is a form of artificial respiration for some of the higher virtues. If a society that had never had an Antigone or a Hamlet would be a morally depressed one, a sandy plain with no mountain heights to ennoble the life-view, a society made up altogether of such un­ obliging creatures would be a dangerous and unstable one. Think of facing Antigone or Hamlet over the breakfast coffee every morning. In tragedy, those “ normal” people who stand too close to the great, unyielding, god-driven protagonists are almost casually erased. Ophelia sinks to her death by drowning, literally and figuratively beyond her depth. Haemon, whose only offense is to love Antigone with loyal simplicity, shares her physical fate— early and violent death— and we hardly remember his name. It is Jocasta who dies in Oedipus Rex, not Oedipus. He lives on, blind and terrible, into extreme old age and at last exonerates himself in Oedipus at Colonus, declaring at...


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