“I am currently in week 190 of my reading journey through the Great Books of the Western World. Now reading Greek tragedy plays.”
—Stephen

Trading Tragedy for God: Assessing the Cost of Hope

by Stephen James Carter on October 14, 2013

It is better, argues the chorus in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, to never have been born: “Where is the man who wants / More length of days?” Cadmus, surveying the utter loss and misery left upon the state of Thebes in the wake of Dionysus’ fury, states, “to what a dreadful end have we all come.” Jason, when confronted with the corpses of his young sons recently murdered by his vengeful wife, proclaims, “I wish I had never begot them to see them afterwards slaughtered by you.” True tragedy plays, plays that convey utter hopelessness and despair with no promise of redemption or justice, seem relegated only to a brief period in fifth century Athens and have since, according to George Steiner, ceased to be written and performed. With the sole exception of King Lear (whose “as flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods”; “when we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools”; and “never, never, never, never, never” ring with the finality of despair), literature in the wake of 500 BC Greece has failed to reach the irreparable sense of tragedy as conveyed by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Steiner and others argue that because the Judeo-Christian worldview is antithetical to the ancient Greek worldview, its traditions will not allow for a truly hopeless reading of humanity. I agree with Steiner and suggest that the contradictory worldviews offer a tradeoff in an artistic sense: we have, in short, traded art for hope.

The primary difference between the largely monotheistic Christian worldview and the polytheistic Greek worldview comes down to a relationship. The large core of Christian theology teaches that God not only allows but desires a personal relationship with His followers—a relationship all but unimaginable in the mindset of ancient citizens whose interactions with the gods was full of spite and cruelty. Regardless of whether or not an individual in today’s society is a Christian or believer of any sort, he/she is part of a culture irreconcilably shaped by Christian beliefs which rally around a central notion of hope. It is this sense of hope, whether in God or in humanity, that has influenced all aspects of culture in the modern Western world. It is this sense of hope, I argue, that has destroyed our attempts to reclaim the Greek tragic form as our own. We cannot fathom a world truly void of meaning and therefore cannot accept artistic representations that speak to this. Yes, our modern and contemporary plays are sad, and yes, at times, seemingly hopeless, but often they are merely trivial. They are born out of a tradition genetically attached to hope and therefore fail to achieve in artistic form what was achieved some two and a half centuries ago. Many would say that the tradeoff is worth it. Many would say that tragedy has little to offer us in the way of cultural advancement. Some may even say that hope adds a certain palatability to tragedy and that these ancient plays can be re-read from a lens of hope and purpose. To these in particular I contend that what some see as hope in these tragedies is actually a sense of the heroic, a sense of dignity in the midst of suffering. There is no hope for humanity in the face of vengeful, unjust gods, but there is a sense of power in the broken man accepting the doling out of the gods and the sense of human’s pitiful place in the grand scheme. Hope and tragedy are mutually exclusive—true tragedy offers no more hope than the teachings of Christ offer a sense of despair. That hope has killed tragedy, then, is the true tragedy.

While the Greek playwrights relied solely upon the rich cultural fodder of their gods and their heroes for the substance of their plays, many Western playwrights have followed suit, using biblical ideas and stories to spark artistic representation. Within this tradition, the story of Job seems to come to the forefront of the discussion of tragedy. Here we have a “perfect and upright man” who suffers as a result of divine bet. Job’s story has been the subject of more than one play in modern times and seems to be the go to example for unexplained suffering. From Robert Frost’s A Masque of Reason and Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. to Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, the symbol of the innocent man searching for a reason for his suffering has been treated again and again. Perhaps the most tragic of these representations is MacLeish’s J.B. which, published in 1956, places Job in a contemporary context and dwells more fully upon his suffering than the biblical source. Yet even J.B., with its modernist notions of absurdity and meaningless existence, ends on a hopeful note. J.B. loses his children, his fortune, his community standing, and his health, and at the end the play is counseled by his wife, Sarah, to give up on religion (“the candles in the churches are out”) and to give up on God (“the lights have gone out in the sky”). After this devastating plea, however, Sarah suggests that they “blow on the coal of the heart / And we’ll see by and by.” Her suggestion is that while hope in meaning and purpose specifically tied to a divine being is dead, hope in humanity through the human capacity to love is enough to ignite the fire. At no point does J.B. lament his birth; at no point does he wish his children never born. At no point does the play, despite its source in the most tragic of biblical stories, transcend the bounds of modern literature to offer true tragedy.

This idea of human capacity to love is furthered by Professor Levy in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors who states, “Human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” The idea of an indifferent universe seems to destroy the thesis that we live in an inherently hopeful culture and that this hopeful culture brought death to true tragedy. I argue that while indifference does not offer hope in the sense of meaning and purpose, it does, like hope, leave no room for true tragedy. If the ancient Greek mindset and Judeo-Christian mindset are antithetical, then this modernistic mindset of random chance is located at midpoint on the scale. The ancient Greek position does not offer hope, but it does offer purpose, or at the very least, meaning—a reason why. Oedipus does not wonder why he married his mother and killed his father any more than Agave questions why she was tricked into killing her son. They already know. It is the knowledge of the reason that brings the tragedy to the ancient Greeks. It is the acknowledgement from the gods of the position of humans in relation to them that brings suffering and unhappiness, an unhappiness directly opposed to the Christian idea of all things working together for good. Those who reject this view also reject a belief in purpose, leading not to true tragedy but to tragic indifference. The situation is similar to the scenario in Thomas Hardy’s “Hap” where the speaker explains that if only some menacing god would laugh and explain that he tortured humans for pleasure, then would the speaker “bear it, clench myself, and die.” However, like the speaker, many in this modernist age are left with the “But not so” in the poem—left embracing the absurdity of random suffering with as much indifference to the reason for it as can be mustered.

In short, we live in a day and age where we can merely glimpse the power of true Greek tragedy. We as a whole have chosen hope or indifference, and no longer maintain a large scale belief in divine beings bent on deriving pleasure from human suffering. Whether we believe in an ultimately positive meaning or whether we have accepted life’s random absurdity, we can neither produce true tragedy nor experience the catharsis from true tragedy. If we accept that this has been the tradeoff, that we have taken on either hope or indifference and thereby lose the sense of tragedy, one must ask if it was worthwhile. So I will: is the tradeoff worth it?

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Suffering is nothing new to Raskolnikov—or for many of the characters in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for that matter. Suffering, rather, is a way of life, a status of being. The reader follows the story of Raskolnikov as he suffers physically from delirium, emotionally from his conscience, and spiritually from his depravity. While suffering appears to be universal in the story (extending even to the Christ-like Sonya) it is in the embracing of the suffering that true power lies. In the story, suffering, when embraced, ushers in a greater appreciation for life which, if properly channeled, yields redemption.

The first benefit from the acceptance of suffering is an awareness of the preciousness of life. Raskolnikov experiences this after witnessing the suffering of Marmeladov who, on his death bed, cast his eyes on his daughter with “infinite suffering show[ing] in his face.” The cause for this suffering came with the knowledge, on Marmeladov’s part, that his actions forced his daughter into a life of prostitution to provide for the family. Raskolnikov, who sees and understands this suffering, uses Marmeladov’s death as an opportunity to fully appreciate the gift of life. He recalls an anecdote about “a narrow ledge” where a condemned man wishes for a mere square foot of space to live out his remaining days rather than end them now. His initial thoughts after Marmeladov’s include a “new, boundless sensation of a sudden influx of full and powerful life” which leads him back to a bridge where earlier, contemplating his own suicide, he witnessed a suicide attempt. Now, changed, transformed, he states, “There is life” and purposes to go see his friend. While this observation of suffering on his part leads to an appreciation for life, the feelings are temporary and fade quickly as his conscience battles on weakening his desire to live. Here it is suggested that Raskolnikov’s attempt to suffer vicariously leads only to fleeting satisfaction.

While vicarious suffering leads to fleeting satisfaction, the novel suggests that true redemption lies only with embracing suffering for oneself. This notion comes to the reader through the police detective Porfiry whose seemingly unorthodox methods of entrapment walk the line between madness and brilliance. Nonetheless, he sees through Raskolnikov and justly accuses him of the murder despite a recent confession from a workingman. This confession is explained away by Porfiry as the desire to embrace suffering: “Because suffering . . . is a great thing . . . there is an idea in suffering.” This idea, though unstated, seems to be the possibility for redemption. It is this idea that seems to tempt Raskolnikov to not “disdain life” but rather to confess and accept the consequences for his crime. He confesses and is sent to Siberia, expecting, it would seem, the promised benefits of suffering. He waits, and nothing happens. He then begins to disdain the appreciation for life that suffering brings about in the other convicts: “He looked at his fellow convicts and was amazed: how they, too, all loved life, how they valued it! It precisely seemed to him that in prison they loved and valued it even more, cherished it even more than in freedom.” But yet he remains empty and miserable.

It is not until his complete embracing of suffering, which happens literally with the embracing of Sonya’s feet, that Raskolnikov enters into the redemption suffering brings. While vicarious suffering left him only temporary peace, true suffering brings him “the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life.” Now, like Lazarus, “he was risen and he knew it” and the presence of Sonya’s Gospels under his pillow takes on an even greater significance. Now, at the novel’s close, Raskolnikov stands ready to accept the terms of his newly given resurrection, terms that suggest the suffering is far from over but will be worth it all: “He did not even know that a new life would not be given him for nothing, that it still had to be dearly bought, to be paid for with a great future deed.”

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Stepping Over the Obstacles: Murder and Motivation in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

April 30, 2013

Well it’s true that The Brothers Karamazov did not exactly put me in the mood to dive headfirst into another Dostoevsky novel any time soon—or, rather, my motive was dwindling. Not to mention the fact that I have spent the last few months (has it really been that long?) reading anything but the heavy, laborious [...]

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The Governed and the Governing: Ideal Ruling in Plato’s “The Statesman”

November 15, 2012

While plowing through the third year plan of The Great Conversation, I have found momentary breaks to pursue unrelated reading. Recently this has led me to renew an interest in science fiction and specifically Robert Heinlein as I picked up a copy of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Toward the beginning of the novel, [...]

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“All Is But Toys”: Absurdity in the “Mere Lees” of Life in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

November 6, 2012

While faking astonishment at the news of Duncan’s murder—a murder he orchestrated with the help of his wife—Macbeth laments the misfortune of the king dying in his (Macbeth’s) house: “Had I but died an hour before this chance / I had lived a blessed time, for from this instant / There’s nothing serious in mortality.” [...]

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“A Hundred Years Are Gone By”: Xerxes on the Brevity of Life in Herodotus’ The History

October 7, 2012

Anecdote is the revealing medium of humanity’s kinship—or so it would appear in book VII of The History by Herodotus. As previously established in his work, anecdote functions throughout as a means to point out the incredible, to add a touch of humor, and to renew dissipating interest. What often happens through the anecdote, however, [...]

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His Brothers’ Keeper: The Devil and Ivan Pavlovich in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

September 27, 2012

Having finally finished Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, I came across several critical essays on the novel. Most intriguing was that of Konstantin Mochulsky who argues that Karamazov is “the most constructed and ideologically complete of all Dostoevksy’s works” (776). Reason enough, perhaps, for Karamazov to be chosen over Crime and Punishment for inclusion in the [...]

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Inventing God: The Cost of Knowledge in The Brothers Karamazov

August 4, 2012

In the midst of a conversation with his brother Alyosha, Ivan Pavlovich cites Voltaire’s famous saying, “If God did not exist, he would have to be invented.” This conversation, taking place a third of the way through the novel, hearkens back to an earlier conversation in which Fyodor Pavlovich questions his sons, Ivan and Alyosha, [...]

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“His Vulture and His Rock”: Surprising Hope in Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound”

July 26, 2012

In the lines of Lord Byron we “inherit” a “mighty lesson” borne of the “impenetrable spirit” of Prometheus. This spirit is the driving force of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound—a tragedy built upon the titan himself who, foreseeing his fate and horrid destiny, chose to embrace “The rock, the vulture, and the chain” (Byron) rather than to [...]

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Updates and Progress: Beginning the Third Year Reading Plan

July 8, 2012

Having taken off the better part of two months, I now return to the Great Conversation. Amongst other sidetracks, I had the opportunity to travel to London and Paris—a trip whose highlights included perusing Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, watching an Indian rendition of As You Like It while touring the Globe, and sampling [...]

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