Nicholas Grene, ‘A Tragedy for All Seasons’, review of Sweet Violence by Terry Eagleton, in The Irish Times (26 Oct. 2002), Weekend Review, p.12.

When the prolific thriller writer Edgar Wallace was at the height of his powers, the joke question used to be: “Have you read the midday Wallace?” In that vein, Sweet Violence is the autumn Terry Eagleton, writes Nicholas Grene

Not, this time, a memoir like The Gatekeeper (published earlier this year) nor a decently slim volume such as The Idea of Culture (2000), a satiric guidebook such as The Truth about the Irish (1999), a volume of essays such as the 1998 Crazy John and the Bishop , but a doorstopper of a book on that most grandly daunting of all literary subjects, tragedy. The ordinary sub- Eagletonian academic can only look on in awe and envy.

And the awe and envy are increased by the sheer bravura range of reference of this book. Eagleton does not limit himself to dramatic tragedy; in fact, it is a crucial part of his argument that the tragic is not confined to a single genre but is an idea we must pursue through the novel, poetry, philosophy, theology, psychology and, of course, politics. The index reads like a directory of every major writer and thinker in western European culture. He can move without strain from a detailed analysis of Kafka to an illustration from The Playboy of the Western World ; he seems as comfortably at home with Manzoni as he is with Marx. At times reading the book, you feel positively punch-drunk as the names hit you, philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger, playwrights from Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams. And always there are the piquant turns of phrase arresting the attention momentarily until the next one comes along: Balzac’s Comédie Humaine is characterised as “some great stock exchange of the literary imagination”; the demonic “is a kind of cosmic skulking”; according to one reading of Pascal, “what we call reality is just the set of shabby illusions which shield us from death, a kind of Soho of the psyche”.

Eagleton’s bestselling critical text is called Literary Theory: an Introduction . An alternative title for Sweet Violence might have been Tragic Theory: a Denunciation . The opening chapter, ‘A Theory in Ruins’, sets the keynote for much of the first third of the book, which is devoted to dissecting the fallaciousness of past theories of tragedy. Eagleton is particularly impatient with those (many) interpreters who have seen the suffering of tragedy as edifying or ennobling; for such theorists, he jeers, “tragedy is really a superior way of cheering yourself up”.

He is equally scathing about what he calls the tragic elitists who cultivate a sense of the grand superiority of the tragic hero over ordinary mortals, and the drama of T.S. Eliot comes in for especially severe treatment in this category. For Eagleton, the spectacle of human suffering in tragedy should be felt for the intolerable pain that it is; we should not be allowed complacently to console ourselves with the nobility of the sufferers, or resign ourselves to its providential necessity.

What then is there to enjoy in the “sweet violence” of tragedy? (The quotation that gives the book its title is taken from Sidney’s Apology for Poetry.) In a central chapter on ‘Pity, Fear and Pleasure’, Eagleton offers a psychoanalytic answer: “The sadism of the superego, and the masochism of baffled desire, are both satisfied; but desire also steals a maliciously enjoyable march on the Law, feeling both gratified and guilty for doing so.”

What is striking throughout the book, in fact, given Eagleton’s reputation as a leading leftist cultural critic, is how often the interpretations he offers are Freudian - and Christian - rather than Marxist. If the Freudian Lacan is a major influence throughout, Pascal and St Paul are cited just as respectfully as Benjamin and Bakhtin. Original sin is the theological equivalent to the rooted guilts of the psyche.

There is a tension running through the book as to whether the tragic is to be considered as a universal and irremediable part of the human condition, or a historically grounded and potentially alterable state of things.

Eagleton argues strenuously that his idea of tragedy is compatible with political revolution. The “tragic rhythm of death and regeneration”, he tells us, involves “relinquishing a form of life which is inherently exploitative so that another, more just one may be brought to life”. What remains obscure is just how and when this might happen or how the experience of tragedy might help to bring it about. It cannot be linked directly to socialist revolution for, Eagleton admits, in the wake of the catastrophe of Stalinism, “the most we can muster is a Marxism without a name”. It is in some less politically defined way that the extremity of suffering witnessed in tragedy may augur its opposite: “When humanity reaches its nadir, it becomes a symbol of everything that cries out for transformation, and so a negative image of that renewal.” In this process, the emphasis is on the tragic protagonist as scapegoat or martyr, and the ultimate type of the tragic is the Passion of Christ.

It’s a rich book; a big, if a somewhat distended and shapeless, book. One hundred pages of Eagleton beating past tragic theorists about the head can become wearisome; he overuses sarcasm, that most schoolmasterly weapon of attack. It is sometimes difficult to work out the structural logic of the argument: a fine chapter on ‘Tragedy and the Novel’, arguing against the traditional view of the novel as an inherently anti-tragic form, is followed by a chapter on ‘Tragedy and Modernity’ that seems to lose its philosophical way. From someone with the author’s gifts for clarity and incisiveness, Sweet Violence can at times be disappointingly opaque.

Still this is another major work to add to the Eagleton canon. And presumably by next spring we can look forward to yet another one.

 

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