“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?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Postmaster November 5, 2013 at 12:45 PM

“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.”

What about Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill?

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Lukas Nietzsche October 28, 2013 at 7:12 PM

I’ve noticed your production has slowed down somewhat lately, but I applaud your contribution thus far. Of course, circumstances may have interrupted your plight to stand on the shoulders of giants. But I do implore you to continue on your journey, life will repay you for your discipline.

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Joshua Wulf October 15, 2013 at 1:02 PM

Is it worth it? It depends. I see here that we’ve lost a sense of tragedy and I agree (especially in art). What are the benefits of having a sense of tragedy though? If tragedy and hopelessness is reality, then it’s important to have a sense of it.

There are some Judeo-Christian lines of thought that actually teach that God is pleased and glorified in our sufferings (as well as our blessings) and that all things don’t work together for our good, but for God’s. That doesn’t give us individual hope, but when realized, gives us a sense of purpose and peace.

I’m not familiar with ancient Greek mindset, but did they live with a sense of no hope or unlike us, express in art the reality that all stories don’t have a happy ending for the protagonists (in our minds, us)?

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