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  • What was Tragedy? Theory and The Early Modern Canon by Blair Hoxby
  • Paul A. Kottman
What was Tragedy? Theory and The Early Modern Canon. By Blair Hoxby. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015; pp. 366.

Blair Hoxby's What Was Tragedy? asks a question that is both historical (what was Tragedy?) and literary-poetic (what was Tragedy?). His answer is thus a literary history. Hoxby makes a compelling case for attending to a range of tragedies produced in Europe between 1515 and 1795, prior to the emergence around 1800 of the "philosophy of the tragic" in post-Kantian German philosophy. Hoxby challenges traditional literary histories that have occluded these works, either because these histories were unduly influenced by "the philosophy of the tragic" or because these tragedies have been pinned to national traditions, blinding us to their [End Page 434] broader significance. Over the course of the book, Hoxby treats us to nuanced readings of Sophocles, Euripides, Harpe, Stefanio, Mozart, Nietzsche, Luis de Molina, and others. The book also includes illuminating chapters on opera and on Counter-Reformation (especially Jesuit) tragedy as case studies for what an early modern poetics of tragedy ought to include and illuminate. Hoxby's scholarship is first-rate, original in its ambitions and scope.

He turns to the "early modern poetics of tragedy" to subvert the "interpretive regime" (293) of the philosophy of the tragic. It was Peter Szondi, in his Essay on the Tragic, who distinguished between a (Aristotelian) "poetics of tragedy" and the "philosophy of the tragic" that emerged around 1800 in Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel. As Szondi notes, the relation between tragedy and philosophy cannot be resolved poetically or by asking "What is a tragedy?" ("What are its features?"), because it is a problem for philosophy qua philosophy, to the extent that tragedy challenges philosophy's own claim to make sense of human woe and weal, and perhaps even offers an alternative way of "doing" philosophy that philosophy "proper" must contend with in order establish its own authority. Indeed, the poetics of tragedy, as it takes shape in Aristotle in response to Plato, is prompted by the more fundamental challenge posed to philosophy by the very existence of tragedies as human products: namely, what the tragic poets render intelligible about pain, death, eros, loss, the passage of time in tragedies—in those works that cannot thus be made intelligible in any other way.

Such are the stakes of the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, although Hoxby himself avoids this basic issue. Tellingly, he instead treats the philosophy of the tragic as if it were merely a theory or interpretation of Oedipus the King, Antigone, or Hamlet. "Cultural criticism and the philosophy of the tragic," Hoxby concludes, "move in a hermeneutic circle" (293). Hence for him, the right response to the philosophy of the tragic is a new poetics that takes on board occluded works. But as just indicated, the relation between philosophy and tragedy cannot itself be resolved poetically—that is, by answering the question "what is a tragic drama?"—since the issue concerns the extent to which philosophy understands its own self-authorization as provoked by the knowledge that poets have of what is tragic in human life as such. Thus although it can be the impetus to a new poetics, the philosophy of the tragic is not itself a poetics. The key goal of reconsidering these early modern tragedies would be to reconsider tragedy's ongoing challenge to philosophy.

Hoxby concludes that his "primary concern has not been to refute the … principles [of the interpretive regime of the philosophy of the tragic], but … if we can provisionally accept the early modern normative description of tragedy that I have attempted to reconstruct, we will find ourselves liberated from those principles and able to ask ourselves afresh what makes human existence … tragic" (ibid.). However, for the reasons I have just suggested—namely, that the challenge posed to philosophy by what tragic poets "know" is prior to, is the impetus for poetics in the first place—literary critics do not "normatively describe" tragedies and just thereby liberate us to ask ourselves afresh fundamental questions about human existence. That gets...


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