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#7- 31: Tragedy or farce?

Artemy Magun // Tragedy as the Self-Critique of Spectacle

In his theoretical notes on the theater, Bertolt Brecht often contrasts his own artistic method with classical tragedy. According to him, tragedy, as Aristotle described it, was based on “empathy.” Brecht argues that Aristotelian mimesis – that is, expressive imitation – is analogous to “empathy” or Einfьhlung, a concept from the neo-Kantian aesthetics of the nineteenth century. He thus writes, “Empathy is the cornerstone of contemporary aesthetics. Already in Aristotle’s magnificent aesthetics, it is described how catharsis – that is, the emotional purification of the spectator – is achieved with the aid of mimesis.” Brecht then goes on to ascribe to classical tragedy “hypnotism,” the task of “inciting emotions” and transmitting them from actor to spectator, as well as a timeless, “perennial” character. In contrast to this tradition, Brecht proposes rejecting empathy and creating a critically oriented “epic” theater in which the actor would distance himself from his character and “when, as he [showed] what he [was] doing, [would] in all the important places force the spectator to notice, understand, and feel what he [was] not doing.” Brecht calls this poetics, which he opposes to “empathy,” “alienation” or “defamiliarization” (Verfremdung), a word he borrowed from Shklovsky. He describes it just as Shklovsky describes it: art must emphasize its own conventionality and accidental nature, the surprise engendered by what it depicts, and, in particular, the historicity of the events it portrays. However, Brecht adds a moral-didactic element to Skhlovsky’s poetics that is missing in the original: alienation helps the individual realize the limitedness of depicted reality and look for alternative modes of action. It therefore leads to paradoxical, contrasting affects.

In his theoretical notes on the theater, Bertolt Brecht often contrasts his own artistic method with classical tragedy. According to him, tragedy, as Aristotle described it, was based on “empathy.” Brecht argues that Aristotelian mimesis – that is, expressive imitation – is analogous to “empathy” or Einfьhlung, a concept from the neo-Kantian aesthetics of the nineteenth century. He thus writes, “Empathy is the cornerstone of contemporary aesthetics. Already in Aristotle’s magnificent aesthetics, it is described how catharsis – that is, the emotional purification of the spectator – is achieved with the aid of mimesis.” Brecht then goes on to ascribe to classical tragedy “hypnotism,” the task of “inciting emotions” and transmitting them from actor to spectator, as well as a timeless, “perennial” character. In contrast to this tradition, Brecht proposes rejecting empathy and creating a critically oriented “epic” theater in which the actor would distance himself from his character and “when, as he [showed] what he [was] doing, [would] in all the important places force the spectator to notice, understand, and feel what he [was] not doing.” Brecht calls this poetics, which he opposes to “empathy,” “alienation” or “defamiliarization” (Verfremdung), a word he borrowed from Shklovsky. He describes it just as Shklovsky describes it: art must emphasize its own conventionality and accidental nature, the surprise engendered by what it depicts, and, in particular, the historicity of the events it portrays. However, Brecht adds a moral-didactic element to Skhlovsky’s poetics that is missing in the original: alienation helps the individual realize the limitedness of depicted reality and look for alternative modes of action. It therefore leads to paradoxical, contrasting affects.

These principles of Brecht’s are manifested in his numerous works. The irony in characters’ monologues, the author’s own commentary, and the introduction of intermedia in the form of songs destroys the aesthetic illusion and heightens the conventionality of the drama. The tragic (sorrowful) aspect is interwoven with the comic (humorous), and the characters are presented as agents of ethical choice (albeit the wrong one). This critical, rationalistic aesthetic is quite winning, because it is meant to critique art in its traditional aesthetic conception and because it pursues avant-garde goals – that is, the overcoming of art and its transfiguration into life.

Brecht’s blind spot, however, is “traditional” tragedy – that is, the tradition that experienced two heydays, in Greece during the fifth century BC, and in Europe during the seventeenth century. What he writes about Aristotle and ancient drama in general corresponds to no historical reality and testifies only to Brecht’s quite passing acquaintance with extant theoretical texts. This would not matter if Brecht himself were not forced to turn to the classical forms of heroism known to us from ancient tragedy and if he had his own well-elaborated theory on the affective organization of drama. But insofar as he does not have such a theory, offering instead only a theory on the transgression and critique of affect, in his own theatrical work he to a great extent behaves intuitively with regard to pathos and is forced to repeat tried-and-true schemes, such as the heroic act of Kattrin in Mother Courage and Her Children. This wonderful catharsis is worthy of Sophocles at his best moments, but where here is the critique and the distancing? The force of the catharsis is due in no small part to the fact that Kattrin beats a drum: a ritual instrument and means of mobilizing people for war thus crowns this allegedly anti-war drama.

Moreover, the irony and critique in the text and the performance of the actors is a double-edged tool. This tool can easily serve to heighten the aesthetic effect and the illusion, to raise them to the next power (insofar as even the reaction of spectators themselves is represented on stage). Brecht is not completely immune to this modernist recuperation of avant-garde strategies, although he quite rightly objects to sacralization and sublimation, which for us (but not for the Greeks) are the embodiment of the ancient Greek tragedy. It is nearly the same story with Lars von Trier. He deliberately uses irony and convention to exacerbate pathos. Thus, in his brilliant film Dancer in the Dark, the catharsis is based on the implausible and almost comical intensification of the miseries that befall the unfortunate heroine. Von Trier’s detractors see him (not without good reason) as a commercial artist who exploits sentimentality. His well-wishers (in whose ranks I include myself) see a constant self-critique of art in his films: music summons Selma to work, music leads her to death, and the catharsis consists in the fact that our pity for the heroine is turned against the art that conceived her. But the ambivalence of aestheticism and the avant-garde overcoming of art is something that cannot be eliminated all the same.

We should thus back up a bit and clarify for ourselves how, long before Brecht, in antiquity, tragedy arose and what problems it was meant to solve. Here, we encounter things that are common knowledge as well as things that are not so common knowledge. It is common knowledge that tragedy – and art (poiesis) in general as a new institution – was a form for critically reproducing myth and religious ritual. In tragedy, myth, which forms the plot (Aristotle in fact calls plot “myth”), is stripped of its mythological character – that is, its reference to timeless, perennially repetitive cycles. The tragic plot is linear: in the middle there is a turning point (from evil to good, or vice versa) that is irreversible. Political, psychological and moral motives are introduced into myth – in particular, as Aristotle interprets it, the tragic hero always commits a certain mistake (hamartia) that leads to his pitiable demise. We watch him making this mistake (which usually consists in excess, in the inability to stop in time – hubris) and, correspondingly, we see how he might have acted otherwise. What is more, we witness a certain zone of uncertainty, so-called tragic amekhania, in which the hero does not know how to act, in which he hesitates, in this way passing from the mythological to the ethical register. The tragic denouement is the unique point in time of an irreversible event, an event that is of course reenacted again in the theater (true, in the fifth century BC, tragedies were performed only once: only new tragedies were mounted), but which nevertheless opposes myth’s “machine for destroying time” (Lйvi-Strauss). “This very day will sire you and destroy you,” says Tiresias to Oedipus at the moment of the tragic peripeteia. This phrase, it should be noted, is ironic: it refers to the fate of Oedipus, the unity of time in drama (as a rule, a single day), and the day of the Great Dionysia, during which tragedies were performed in Athens. Irony and reflection are inherent to Greek tragedy to a supreme degree: it constantly alludes to spectator and spectacle as it speaks to us of heroes. In this sense, we cannot (as Keti Chukhrov does in her essay in this same issue) unilaterally separate the aesthetic of the actor from that of the spectator. Everything in tragedy – beginning with the chorus and ending with tragic irony – constantly fuses actor with spectator, transforms them into one another, and in this we see a peculiar kind of heroic democratism. Action in itself is blind, and contemplation is helpless, but together they form a powerful machine for collective sharing.

All these qualities of tragedy are not superimposed on the plot’s emotional, sentimental base. On the contrary, they grow out of the pathos. Aristotle argues that the principal tragic passions are pity and fear (eleos and phobos). To be more precise, these are the mimetic passions, the passions that emerge from mimesis – that is, from people mutually imitating one other. Consequently, although pity and fear are often mentioned in tragedies, they have their origin in the very fact of imitation, which according to Aristotle is the essence of the art of tragedy. That is, the actor imitates a character, while the audience in turn imitates or is infected by his acting; they identify with him, while also being infected by each other. There is also the chorus, which evinces pity for the hero and imitates the audience. As Aristotle shows in the Rhetoric, pity is identification with another person during which you suffer for him, while fear, which is also based on identification, is fear for oneself. The suffering of another person, a person who resembles you, provokes these two affects simultaneously, although they are obviously opposed to one another. Pity rivets the spectator to the spectacle; fear, on the contrary, averts him from it. Pity is an associative affect, while fear is a dissociative affect. Finally, fear and pity are also affects of time: fear is directed towards the future, while pity (compassion) is turned toward the irreparable past. Their clash reflects the linearity of tragic time and the hero’s tension in its gap.

So now we understand better why Aristotle believes that the effect of tragedy, catharsis (purification), is paradoxical: “The purification of fear and pity by means of these same passions.” The debate over how this should be understood has been going on for millennia. First, the spectacle is of significance here. Pity forces us to watch: in its absolute form (as in Russia after the Revolution) it would lead to the spectators running onto the stage in the desire to help the characters. In its utmost form, fear should lead to the spectators running from the theater and the cessation of the performance. The fact that the spectator sits through the entire action, his capacity for “bearing” the contradictions of tragedy, is the resultant of the two passions, the unstable tension between them. Second, fear not only balances pity (and vice versa), but in some sense the two passions amplify one another. We feel pity for those who are fearful, and we fear being fused together in pity. We thus end up with a kind of resonance between the two passions: we are thrown from the absolute loss of self among the masses to panic and social collapse. Hцlderlin’s definition of catharsis seems on the mark: “[T]he limitless becoming-one purifies itself through limitless separation.” But, according to Hцlderlin, for human beings limitlessness means the need for caesura, a sudden halt to limitless motion, while caesura itself is the “day,” historical concreteness.

Aristotle’s poetics is a response to Plato’s theory of mimesis. In the Republic, Plato had subjected the art of his time to a devastating critique, showing that its mimetic character (imitativeness) did not liberate man from the slavery of immersion in finite things, but, on the contrary, deepened this slavery by copying finite thingishness. Aristotle, on the other hand, shows how art – namely, tragedy – itself implements the critique that Plato directs against it by absorbing it. By overcoming finite, inauthentic mimesis with its own means, tragedy becomes, at the height of ecstasy, an instrument for the pure contemplation of meaning (something that Plato himself would approve).

Thus, Greek tragedy has its own analogue to Brechtian “alienation” – the mimetic fear that repels the spectator from the spectacle, from identifying with the hero. Here we arrive at tragedy’s most important and popular trait (although tragedy is not reducible to it) – the depiction of torments, murders, and other such “passions.” In the common parlance, “tragedy” is invoked when someone dies because this lends a sense of loftiness to what has happened. It is clear, however, that in terms of plot, genuine tragedy is not simply death and not necessarily death, but rather a certain fatal order of things that is unconscious for its participants and that unfolds over the course of the drama. Torments and passions, however, are usually present in tragedy. As we would say today, tragedy is sentimental. And in fact the cult of Dionysus was democratic, even peasant-based, and the tyrant Peisistratus first introduced its feast day, during which tragedies were performed. What is more, tragedy derives historically from an earlier genre, the dithyramb, but unlike the animated panegyric that was the dithyramb, tragedy chooses a more “democratic,” sentimental content. Sentimentalism has in all ages been a symptom of grassroots, “mass” culture.” Shock, on the one hand, has a strong effect even on crude, insensitive sensibilities (a topic that was frequently addressed by Walter Benjamin). On the other, its negativity repulses the spectator from the spectacle or, at very least, provides him with an alibi (I can take pleasure in this fictitious world because it is dangerous all the same and I am not tempted to become part of it). Sentimentality, therefore, is a convenient mode for the distanced entertainment of the burgher: touched to the bottom of his heart, he at the same time sees the limits to his sympathy and his practical identification with the events on stage. When Aristotle remarks (and Brecht is in solidarity with him on only this one point) that deriving pleasure from the spectacle of suffering is pleasant only by virtue of our yearning for knowledge (that is, sensation), we might ask why it is suffering that accords more pleasure than other emotions also bound up with knowing. Here, it is a matter of suffering’s ecstatic function: it extricates the individual both from his own position and from the position of full identification.

Tragedy, however, is not simply sentimental; in tragedy, reflection is added to suffering. Moreover, in tragedy it is the sufferer himself who, as a rule, takes responsibility for the suffering. The representation of horror in tragedy differs from the terroristic sensorium to which we are accustomed, which is purely negative representation that burns out the mimetic sphere as such, turning society into a mass of quivering loners. Unlike terror, tragedy does not destroy but reveals (even though this revelation might be accompanied by violence.) It does not merely enchant the spectator with pathos and expel the lone individual from the spectacle, but brings the spectator himself into existence in his seeming alibi. Oedipus Rex is a tragedy about a spectator. Mimesis is not only imitation, but also expression – that is, the revelation, the presentation of action. Oedipus, who takes a contemplative stance towards the criminal he seeks and feels pity for the people, whom he wishes to save, in the end discovers that it was he who was the criminal. He then pokes out his eyes and flings open all the doors, demanding that he, a blind man, be shown to the people. This is a metaphor that forces each spectator to sense that he is exposed to the judgment of others. The chorus performs this same function: the action of the tragedy is meditated on, and the spectator, as in Brecht’s work, sees both the action and his possible reaction to it. Like all genuine art, the tragic drama is a mirror in which both isolated individuals and the people as a whole see themselves – not in a fantasy, but in the givenness of their condition. Using strong ecstatic means (that is, shocking revelations and physical suffering), the theater extricates the subject from fixation on itself, from egocentrism, and turns it into an observable object. In this sense, the affect produced by the theater, beyond fear and pity, is shame. Brecht is not quite correct in his moral interpretation of the theater. Tragedy does not so much subjectivize the individual into a critically thinking actor as it objectivizes him, even turning him into a thing, and this is precisely how it achieves defamiliarization. This is exactly what Brecht does in his own theater, but he interprets this as a means to lead a certain mythical atheatrical subject beyond the mechanical. In fact, tragedy’s denouement provides us with no such subject/actor. There is the path that this subject takes, from the presumption of critical thought to recognition of his objective role (“fate”) and, consequently, the capacity to dramatize it or turn into a metaphor. By destroying the individual’s egocentric and, more generally, centristic fixation, tragedy leads him out from the loneliness of subjectivity into another, objective loneliness that exists only in the face of an indeterminate multitude of others, that is shared with others.

And it is by virtue of this fact, as Hegel noted long ago, that tragedy logically passes into comedy, which is precisely the supreme form of mimetic representation. But tragedy remains its basic form, the form of theatricality as such, insofar as it absorbs the critique of art, this mimetic illusion, as such, while at the same time remaining art.

 

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