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On Greek Tragedy and the Kantian Sublime M. W. Gellrich I In the past ten years, criticism of Greek tragedy has begun to show the influence of structuralist and post-structuralist inquiries into the humanities. The work of Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vemant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Piero Pucci, and Charles Segal, among others, has opened new paths of approach to traditional philological problems in the plays of the fifthcentury dramatists and encouraged classicists to turn their attention to the potential contributions of critical developments that have already had a major impact on other areas of literary study,l Perhaps one of the most notable trends in these recent discussions has been the targeting of a concept that figures prominently in twentieth-century views of Greek tragedy— heroic individualism. As Segal says in his recent introduction to a collected group of essays by the late Cedric Whitman, The Heroic Paradox, there is a “major movement in contemporary criticism which seeks to replace the person with the discourse of the person and to deconstruct the individual into mental categories, strategies of representation, and linguistic forms.”2 The dismantling of a humanistic model of classical tragedy, through semiological and linguistic tools, is likely to be met with skepticism or hostility by some scholars in the field, who would regard such efforts as disruptive of a central body of cherished beliefs about the great plays that have come down to us from antiquity. Nonetheless, a systematic evaluation of this model of interpretation is needed, not only because of the challenges coming from new quarters of critical thinking, but also for other important reasons. First of all, one of the major sources for the humanistic MICHELLE W. GELLRICH is Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Michigan. Her essay, “Aristotle’s Poetics and the Problem of Tragic Conflict,” is forthcoming in Ramus. 311 312 Comparative Drama position, which continues to enjoy considerable popularity, has never been sufficiently appreciated or studied. Consequently, a central historical debt in modem scholarship has gone largely unacknowledged. Secondly, although limitations of the position have been confronted in the past by classical critics, including those who do not share post-structuralist sympathies, they have not been met, so far as I know, from the angle of the intellectual milieu that appears to have produced them.3 A deeper and fuller understanding of the inadequacies of tragic humanism can be achieved by examining the conceptual framework that has generated some problematic assumptions, still current, about the Greek plays. Taking up these issues, the present paper first outlines the salient tenets of the modem humanistic model and then engages the question of historical indebtedness, by develop­ ing the philosophical complex of ideas, which has influenced contemporary notions of the tragic hero and his dignified autonomy. After the position and its background have been established, I analyze, through discussion of several dramatic texts, the difficulties of interpretation to which the humanistic orientation in critical thinking has led. The philosophical context on which I will be focusing is provided largely by the theory of the sublime, which Immanuel Kant elaborated in the Critique of Judgment, published in 1790.4 Kant’s critique, however, did not offer a view of tragedy, nor was his technical jargon easily nianxpulable in the interpre­ tation of literary texts. His discussions had to be appropriated and adapted in order for his aesthetic ideas to become viable critical tools. The work of appropriation was carried out mainly in the literary essays of Friedrich Schiller and the dramatic lectures of A. W. Schlegel.5 These figures—and Schiller, espe­ cially, on whom our attention will center—used the Kantian theory of the sublime as the basis for a model of tragedy, which would become quite influential. As major critics in the German Romantic tradition, they are conduits for the trans­ portation of Kantian views into die later tradition. The Romantic criticism represented by Schiller and Schlegel, however, does not appear in a pure or readily discernible form in recent theories of tragic humanism. Many of its central principles, as we will see, were so formulated that as they disseminated they mingled with existentially-oriented theories, to which they bear important...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 311-334
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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