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Tragedy, by Terry Eagleton

30 October 2020

Richard Harries reviews a discussion of tragedy, in the arts and real life

TERRY EAGLETON was a member of the original Slant group in the 1960s who combined Marxism and Catholic Christianity in their approach to cultural and political issues. Eagleton, a distinguished literary scholar and the author of more than 50 books, brings this approach to bear again in this book on tragedy.

He sets particular understandings of tragic art in their (usually Marxist) historical context. For example, theories of the tragic in the Age of Enlightenment and in the wake of the French Revolution reflected both the rise of the bourgeoisie and a stage of radical change. They also expressed a search for the loss of God. It was an age that gave birth to democracy, with its emphasis on the individual; so, from then on, tragedies no longer had to be about great figures, but ordinary human beings, who simply by being human are worth attention.

The 20th century, with its extremes, gave rise to modernism, and was particularly conducive to tragic drama. Eagleton discusses Ibsen, Chekhov, Conrad, Eugene O’ Neil, J. M. Synge, Henry Miller, and Tennessee Williams in this context.

Our post-modernist age is very different. If it does not believe in redemption, it is because it can see nothing to be redeemed. Such high-toned metaphysical talk rings hollow in a world of social media and high finance. Besides, the relativist spirit of post-modernism is uneasy with the absolutism of death and the irreparable nature of the tragic.

Eagleton has a first chapter on when and if the whole concept of tragic art died out (as George Steiner maintained). It did not, and Eagleton then goes on to show how it transitioned. He has a chapter on the concept of incest in tragedy, and one on the emergence of high-falutin tragic theorists of the German Enlightenment. This is very erudite, but not many will be familiar with the authors whom he discusses.

A chapter on “Fruitful falsehoods” begins with Plato’s “noble lie”, and shows how every state built on conquest, usurpation, and suppression of dissent has somehow to achieve order, and does so though a myth of one kind of other: for example, too many people who have not believed the Christian faith themselves have thought that it was necessary to uphold it for purposes of social control. They know that this is a lie, but believe that, tragically, it is necessary.

The final chapter on “the inconsolable” has a surprising twist. He argues that all this discussion of the nature of the tragic which so preoccupied great European thinkers takes us too far away from the use of the word “tragic” in everyday speech. Through offering some kind of consolation in tragic art or theory — whether by a sense of exaltation, the nobility of the human spirit, the resolution of necessity and freedom, or any other way — it detracts from the main point, which is that when a tragedy occurs, those left bereft are simply inconsolable.

This does not, I think, undermine the importance of tragedy as an art form, but it does highlight its raison d’être, which is, as Rowan Williams has argued, to help us to attend to the person actually suffering in their suffering.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Seeing God in Art: The Christian faith in 30 images (SPCK, 2020).


Terry Eagleton
Yale £20
Church House Bookshop £18

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