Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Consolations of Greek Tragedy VS the Terrors of Easter

The Tragic Hero always reinstates those in power, never builds a new World

David Bentley Hart writes on the difference between the Tragic and the Christian view of things :

....whereas the resurrection of Christ in a sense breaks the bonds of the social order that crucifies, so as to inaugurate a new history, a new city, whose story is told along the infinite axis of divine peace, the religious dynamism of Attic tragedy has the form of a closed circle; it reinforces the civic order it puts into question, by placing that order within a context of cosmic violence that demonstrates not only the limits but the necessity ofthe city's regime.

These irresoluble contradictions within moral order belong often to a civic order of injustice, which tragedy dissimulates by displacing the responsibility for civic violence to a metaphysical horizon of cosmic violence; the sacrificial structure of the polis is presented as the sacrificial order of the world.

Perhaps, however, it is just this mythos - this pagan metanarrative of ontological violence - that the Christian narrative has from its beginning rejected, and against which it must pose itself as an alternative wisdom. Greek tragedy, as a gnosis, a vision of truth, is a particularly alluring feature of a particular linguistic economy, a narrative of being according to which the cosmos is primordially a conflict of irreconcilable forces, embraced within the overarching violence of fate; and the wisdom it imparts is one of accommodation, resignation before the unsynthesizable abyss of being, a willingness on the part of the spectator to turn back toward the polis as a refuge from the turmoils of a hostile universe, reconciled to its regime and its prudential violences, its martial logic.

This is the opiate of tragic consciousness, its place in a sacrificial economy-its power to stabilize civic order through a brief but enchanting dalliance with the powers that both sustain and threaten that order. Tragedy is never a revolutionary art form: its peculiar artistry lies in making it appear as if the polis has been momentarily invaded by the world's circumambient chaos (which it has repelled), even though everything that occurs in the course of the drama is contained within the rigid lineaments of Apollonian order. Its dramatic effect, that is, arises from the cataclysm it seems to portend; and its special enchantment lies in making its very orderly metaphysics of violence seem disordered and mysterious; but it is purest speculative stability. All is Apollo, to invert Schelling's and Nietzsche's formula; Dionysus is the bright and pitiless glare of reason and prudence.

Tragedy might well represent the most pronounced instance in Greek religion of that mystification of violence that sustains the sacred order of pagan society, the consecration of social violence as a restraint of cosmic violence, natural and divine. This is why it cannot preserve moral thought against the lure of ideology, but can only preserve a particular ideology against critique: its salubrious disenchantment is meant to mesmerize us with necessity's dark majesty.

...the Christian narrative proves resistant to a tragic reading: theology must insist upon "historicizing" evil, treating it as the superscribed text of a palimpsest, obscuring the aboriginal goodness of creation; Christian thought, which conceives of difference within being as primordially an ordination of peace, capable of being sustained within unforeclosable complications of harmony, radically resituates all things (even, ultimately, pain, alienation, and death) within its greater story of creation and redemption, and so can never reconcile itself to any wisdom whose premise is the ontological necessity of violence. 

In the plays of Euripides someone often dies on behalf of the polis, heroically (which is also to say sacrificially); and it is just this gesture of exclusion, reappropriated by the polis under the form of a heroic decision that affirms the order of society, that is the very core of the tragic.

But from the vantage of Christian thought, the motion of exclusion, when demystified, is shown to subserve a sacrificial regime whose mechanisms are justified only by way of just this heroic mythology: in the light of Easter, which is the Father's verdict in favor of the crucified and his condemnation of the powers that crucify, Christ can finally be seen only as dying against the pagan polis, as. the one the city kills and the Father raises up in defiance of civilization's most essential economic gesture. Nor is Christ excluded like Oedipus, as the one who purifies society by venturing forth into the abyss, in the interests of society; he dies as a criminal, forcibly excluded, and his resurrection forever associates the divine with the realm of the excluded, the "impure;' the waste.

The resurrection unsettles (indeed, irreparably disrupts) the analogy between cosmic and civic violence; it shows Christ's self-donation to be an infinite motion, indifferent to the boundary between polis and chaos; it "untells" the tale by which power sustains and justifies itself, breaks open the closed circle of exchange and sublation, overcomes totality through the sheer exceedingness of an infinite that is beauty.

Tragedy universalizes the form of the splendid hero: and even so, he is excluded, pushed to the margins; his suffering cannot inaugurate a new civitas, but only restores the balance of the old order; he ventures into the void, and so affirms once again that beyond the city walls there is only void.

But Christ, who suffers outside the gate, makes of his death an act of inclusion that begins the world anew; his resurrection erases the boundary between city and waste, life and death, pure and impure, exclusion and inclusion, by simply passing these distinctions by in his infinite motion toward the Father.

...the Gospels prove at the last irreconcilably subversive of this aesthetic; Peter's grief over his denial of Christ marks an irrevocable departure from the staid representations of antique order, and announces from the beginning Christianity's tendency to "spill" the tragic out, to overturn the lovely vessel that appeared so splendid standing upright on the dionysia, at the unmoving center of the polis.

If any suffering is worthy of attention, if divine solace is intended for such as these (to recall Nietzsche's declarations of repugnance), then tragedy as such is evacuated of its sacred func- tion: it is no longer a ritual mediation between city and cosmos, nor can it be taken uncritically in its depictions of a special greatness enmeshed in the toils of "fate;' its tales of a unique Mea that makes glamorous the violences that afflict it. Tragedy is not, in its origins, an art of disenchantment; it does not disabuse the spectators of their mythic expectations or universalizing inclinations by bringing vision back from the horizon of the absolute to the particularity of suffering; as Nietzsche understood, only the god suffers.

...metaphysical solace is precisely what the tragic is. It turns attention not toward the one who suffers, but to the sublime backdrop against which the drama is played out; it assures the spectator that this is how things are, this is the constitution of the universe, and that justice is strife; tragic wisdom is the wisdom of resignation and consent, a wisdom that is too prudent to rebel against what is fixed in the very fabric of being, and that refuses to suffer inordinately, enraged by death or resentful of civic order. Tragedy legitimates a particular regime of law, violence, and war: it teaches that μoipa places and displaces us, and so leads us to a serene and chastened acceptance of where we are placed and how we are displaced; tragedy resists every motion outward, beyond the sentineled frontier, and reinforces the stable foundation of the totality.

Christianity, however, feeds upon a different wisdom, a defiant, Jewish wisdom that insists upon an act of affirmation far removed from the resigned serenity of tragic consciousness: insanely, perhaps, it enjoins a love of creation that will not be reconciled to the loss of what is created but enacts a double motion, an affirmation of the goodness of what is and an expectation of action by God to rescue this wholly good creation from the violences that enslave it.

A recognition of the true universality of suffering, of its endless particularity and the infinite gravity of its every instance (no matter how base the sufferer), is a Jewish, not an Attic, accomplishment, and it leads inevitably to a prophetic outcry, a call for a reconciliation that is also redemption, a demand for divine justice; Israel is always - and always ever more - in rebellion against the wisdom of totality.

The wisdom of Israel - expressed in the added ending to the book of Job, or in Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones - lies in its growing awareness that God is the God of justice and election, and that his goodness and the goodness of creation can be affirmed only through faith in a future that overcomes all endings; this is the wisdom of an outcry, which begins as a low and plaintive threnody, arrives at its first aston- ished dramatic peak in the aqedah, and then acquires confidence, even audacity, until it can say that God is God only if he confirms his glory in resurrection.

...far from failing to glimpse behind evil a transcendent horizon, a chthonian depth, Christian thought has simply always denied that such a horizon or such a depth belongs to being in any but a contingent fashion. The cross dispelled the seduc- tions of the tragic by revealing an infinite gulf between the God of creation and the power of death (a gulf, that is, that is not spanned by sacrifice), by emptying the tragic of its heroic pathos and false beauty, and - most importantly- by opening out into a resurrection that reveals love as the source and end of creation.

It is from Israel that Christianity learns the grammar of charity, its passionate commitment to creation and its revulsion before injustice, rather than resignation before the magnitude of evil. Christian love erupts from the empty tomb, and so must always be in rebellion against all tragic "profundities:'

Christ's resurrection transgresses the orderly metaphysics that makes negation a tragic or dialectical moment; for theology, then, the Otaμa of the crucifixion is never translated into contemplative repose (self, "meaningfulness:' eleos and phobos, Geist), because the serenity of every tragic representation has been dis- rupted by a sudden, unanticipated, inassimilable declaration of divine glory.

Christian thought is obliged to remain bound to Israel's cry for eschatological justice; the Jewish "unhappy consciousness;' knowing the contingency of finite existence but refusing to submerge the beauty of the beloved in the indeterminate flux of "nature's" chaos, continues to have the mad audacity to desire back what is lost, not as inward consolation, but in the concrete exteriority of the gift. After the violence of crucifixion (which is the last drama totality can enact, its final word, its boundary), the resurrection is aesthetically (which is to say, historically) an- other thing; he who was dead is - literally- not dead now; this is an act of rebellion. It is not the beauty of the cross, but of the one crucified, that is rescued at Easter; God's judgment vindicates Christ, his obedience unto death, but not the crucifIXion.

If tragedy seeks to recuperate what is lost in death by making the particular instance of death an occasion for the disclosure of the god, then the Chris- tian story stands starkly opposed to tragedy precisely because it views the death of the beloved with far greater gravity and cannot rest content with tragedy's economic optimism, its certainty regarding the credit stored up in the absolute.

Christ is God as a particular man, who only in returning exceeds the limit set by death; he exceeds also the economy of death, though, by failing to become an abstract security reserved within an abstract infinite, and reveals the infinite to be instead endlessly determinate, boundlessly beautiful, serving no economy at all, but embracing all things.

Dionysus may reassemble his torn limbs, but only because he is one in being divided, he is violence, he lives in the death of the particular; Christ, however, is a rabbi, is indeed God as a rabbi, and so is obliter- ated - becomes no one -'-- unless the Father who speaks him speaks him anew as the illimitable rhetoric and form and appeal of the gift.

The resurrection, then, shows the way to no truth within us (existential, tragic, Dionysian, or what have you), but declares anew, with the newest inflection, the glory of God in the beauty of his creatures, and in such a way as to leave us no self-knowledge at all; our story has been interrupted, our tragic narrative of self-recovery overturned.

Theology forbidden to extract any metaphysical comfort from the cross because the violence of crucifixion has been demystified; the crucifixion must not be subjected to the sacrificial logic of speculation, as it is, say, in any "death of God" theology (which recuperates the meaning of this death as the abolition of divine transcendence), or in any theology that makes of the cross a necessary moment for God, a taking into himself of suffering and death (which attributes to suffering and death a primordial autonomy, with which God is obliged to come to terms), because Easter unsettles every hermeneutics of death, every attempt to make death a place of meaning.

Rather than seeing the resurrection as a speculative (that is, dialectical) tension that eternalizes the cross, theology must recognize it as a reversal of the narrative of violence that makes crucifixion seem meaningful. In the self-oblation of Christ (which is the entire motion of his life) God indeed comprehends suffering and death, but only as a finite darkness exceeded- and conquered- by an infinite light; God's infinity embraces death by passing it by as though it is nothing at all and by making it henceforth a place of broken limits.

The only way to avoid the violence of making Christ the object of a speculative sacrifice, in the interest of meta- physical solace, is by affirming that the resurrection occurs apart from the crucifixion, after the crucifixion, in time, and that it therefore vindicates not the cross but the Jew who died there.

In the light of Easter, all the sacrifices totality makes are seen to be meaningless, an offense before God, disclosing no deeper truths about being; the system of sacrifice is a tautology, a practice that justifies itself through further practice; but what the totality is willing to sacrifice on behalf of metaphysical solace is what God raises up. Because of the resurrection, it is impossible to be reconciled to coercive or natural violence, to ascribe its origins to fate or cosmic order, to employ it prudentially; as difficult as it may be to accept, all violence, all death, stands under judgment as that which God has and will overcome.

Only in the light of this impossible desire for the one who is lost, this insane expectation of a restoration of the gift, and this faith in what is revealed at Easter is it morally possible for Christian thought to regard the interval between oneself and the lost beloved as potentially an inflection of divine rejoicing, a distance of peace: not by way of some sublation of the beloved, nor according to the serene proportions of tragic wisdom, but by way of the Holy Spirit's ingenuity in resurrection, his ability to sustain the theme of God's love (the gift given) over the most dissonant passages, now under the form of hope."

- From Beauty of the Infinite

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