This part if s revised version of the lectures delivered by Williams at Cambridge and the third part consists of a play called ‘Koba’. The literature of ideas and of experience is a single literature. Tragedy is the most important example of this complex and necessary unity. So, the writer says, the book is about the connections, in modern tragedy between event and experience and idea and its form is designed at once to explore and to emphasize these radical connections.
He presented tragedy of experience as contrasted with tragedy of theory. The essays: Tragedy and the Tradition, Tragedy and Contemporary Ideas and A Rejection of Tragedy are part of the syllabus. Like Culture and Society, Modern Tragedy discussed texts—the main tragic texts and texts about tragic theory that had been written in Europe and the United States since Ibsen—and extracted from them a political message about the inadequacy of individuation and about the desirability of revolution. Modern Tragedy was written in a dense, coded prose. Decoded, it manifests the confusion between the cultural elite and the people which was a feature of Williams’s doctrine throughout his work and which became particularly troublesome in this book, where dramatic and fictional tragedy were presented as realizations of the “shape and set” of modern “culture,” and the dramatists and novelists who had produced it were assumed to represent “our” minds and experience.
This thesis was both elitist and anti-elitist, naïve about the prospect of bridging the gap between the cultural elite and the people but emphasizing the affiliations that kept Williams, as a member of the former, in conscious empathy with the latter. The effect was nevertheless odd, implying that Strindberg, Brecht, and Arthur Miller, for example, were not arcane, and amalgamating the “we” who went to their plays or listened to Williams’s lectures in Cambridge with the “we” who had been described appreciatively in Border Country. However deep Williams’s desire was to make “critical discrimination” relevant to the people among whom he had grown up, moreover, it neglected the consideration that critical discrimination was in fact a minority activity which spoke meaningfully only to those who had already heard Leavis’s voice.
In Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (1952) Williams had criticized the English theater as a manifestation of literary decline and for failing to achieve either “the communication” of an “experience” and a “radical reading of life,” or that “total performance” which reflected “changes in the structure of feeling as a whole.” In Modern Tragedy the central contentions were that “liberal” tragedy, while being liberal because it emphasized the “surpassing individual,” and tragic because it recorded his defeat by society or the universe, reflected the inability of the money-oriented privacy of the bourgeois ethic to provide a “positive” conception of society. It was the “individual fight against the lie” embodied in “false relationships, a false society and a false conception of man” that Ibsen had made central, but it was the liberal martyrs’ discovery of the lie in themselves and their failure to relate themselves to a “social” consciousness that heralded the “breakdown of liberalism” and the need to replace its belief in the primacy of “individualist” desire and aspiration by a socialist perception of the primacy of “common” desire and aspiration.
Williams wished to give tragic theory a social function. He pointed out that “significant suffering” was not confined to persons of “rank,” and that personal belief, faults in the soul, “God,” “death,” and the “individual will” had been central to the tragic experience of the present. It was the “human agency” and “ethical control” manifested in revolution and the “deep social crisis through which we had all been living” that were the proper subjects of “modern” tragedy, and it was human agency and ethical control that tragic theory needed to accommodate.
The first point that had to be explained was the Burkean point that revolution caused suffering. The second point was the anti-Burkean point that revolution was not the only cause of suffering, that suffering was “in the whole action” of which “revolution” was only “the crisis,” and that it was suffering as an aspect of the “wholeness” of the action that needed to be considered. And this, of course, disclosed the real agenda in Modern Tragedy—the use of tragic texts to formulate a socialist theory of tragedy in which revolution would receive a literary justification and society would become more important than the individual.
In all this Williams was moving out from the defensiveness of Culture and Society and making a central feature of the argument that, when the revolutionary process was complete, “revolution” would become “epic,” suffering would be “justified,” and pre-revolutionary institutions, so far from being the “settled … innocent order” that they had claimed to be, would be seen to have been rooted in “violence and disorder.” This was the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could remove cynicism and despair, could give revolution the “tragic” perspective that Marx had given it, and could show what tragedy had hitherto failed to show, that “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” were endemic in existing society’s “tragic” failure to “incorporate … all its people as whole human beings.” It was also the route by which tragedy and tragic theory could incorporate the fact that further “degeneration, brutalization, fear, hatred and envy” would be integral to the “whole action”—not just to the “crisis” and the revolutionary energy released by it or the “new kinds of alienation” which the revolution against alienation would have to “overcome … if it was to remain revolutionary,” but also, and supremely, to the connection between “terror” and “liberation.”
Williams’s rhetoric was ruthless, and yet in retrospect looks faintly silly. Nor were the tasks that he attributed to tragic theory plausible. It remains true, nevertheless, that Modern Tragedy, while reiterating the formal denial that revolution was to be identified with the violent capture of power and identifying it rather as a “change … in the deepest structure of relationships and feelings,” implied, more than any other of Williams’s works, a circuitous but indubitably evil attempt to encourage the young to think of violence as morally reputable.
In evaluating Williams, one wishes to be just. He should not be dismissed merely because his followers have helped to keep their party out of office, since many of them, and perhaps he also, regarded party politics as merely a convenient way of inserting their moral messages into the public mind. Like the theorists of the student revolution of the Sixties, Williams was “against liberalism,” but those who are against liberalism for conservative reasons do not need his sort of support. They should not be misled by the “organicism” of Culture and Society, which ignored the moral solidarity of twentieth-century English society and used the language of solidarity in order to subvert such solidarity as monarchy and two world wars had created by denying that it existed.
The most general fault in critical works is not avoided by even Williams. Most of the critical books are written with and on the general assumption of some creative work by others. To write or give views on others is certainly not objectionable. What seems objectionable is the way of giving views or opinions without quoting the original creative work.
What most of the critics do is very non-critical in a sense. They give first their own understanding of the work and then their views or opinions against or for this said work. What they do in this way is the critical analysis of their own understanding. It seems having nothing to do with the understanding of the writer’s work or others’ views about it. While going through a book of criticism one should keep in mind the original work the criticism is about.
In Modern Tragedy, the central contentions were that ‘liberal tragedy’, while being liberal because it emphasized the ‘surpassing individual’ and tragic because it recorded the defeat by society or the universe, reflected the inability of the money-oriented privacy of the bourgeois ethic to provided a ‘positive’ conception of society. William wished to give tragic theory a social function. He pointed out that ‘significant suffering’ was not confined to the persons of ‘rank’ and that personal belief, faults in the soul, ‘God’, ‘Death’ and ‘Individual Will’ had been central to the tragic experience of the present. It was the ‘human agency’ and ‘ethical control’ manifested in revolution and the ‘deep social crises through which we had all been living’ that were the proper subjects of modern tragedy and it was human agency and ethical control that tragic theory needed to accommodate.
Williams criticized the English theater as a manifestation of literary decline and for failing to achieve either the ‘communication’ of an ‘experience’ and ‘a radical reading of life’ or that of ‘total performance’ which reflected ‘changes in the structure of feeling as a whole’
The first chapter of Modern Tragedy by Raymond Williams seems dealing with the word tragedy in its historically theoretical and social background. These are the topics Raymond Williams is going to discuss in this book.
The book is directly concerned with the social aspects of the above topics. In other words the book is concerned with the ways these topics are derived from the surrounding life in.
By his own sense of tragedy he means the sense of tragedy he had got through reading books on tragedy or tragedies in general. The examples he offers from surrounding society are in fact the conditions or circumstances that lead to some tragic action. This approach to see Life as a tragedy in general shall be discussed in the later part of the book. The above sentence seems rather ironical. The words ‘trained’, ‘impatient’, ‘contemptuous’, ‘loose’ and ‘vulgar’ are enough to convey the underlying tone of this sentence. The writing of word tragedy in inverted commas is itself significant of this ironic tone. Raymond Williams has used this way of expression to give us the justification for writing his views in this book. The Modern Tragedy in this way is intended to explain us the history of word tragedy – both in perspective of theoretical tradition and social experience.
What he wants to say is the relative suitability of modern tragic experience to theoretical and explanatory definitions of tragedy since twenty-five centuries. In this brief paragraph Williams has denied most of the theories we r going to meet in the discussion of this word Tragedy. What he means to say is not said however here and is left to the following chapters. Particular kind of event and response that is genuinely tragic is and that the long tradition of this word embodies is left unexplained. To confuse this tradition with other kinds of event and response is merely ignorant. What he means to say here is the difference in tragic and common experience. All painfully and pathetically charged events and happenings can not be tragic in nature. In Williams’ views the problem does not lye in calling some work of literature a tragedy and the other not. The real problem lies in defining what experience in life we should call tragic and what not – what suffering or event can be called tragic and what not. The naming of certain dramas as tragedy and certain as other than tragedy is easier than naming certain experiences and events as tragic and others as non-tragic.
These kinds of sentences in a critical work leave their peculiar atmosphere. Though they seem rather an outcome of intellectual gymnastic, they give an impression of living social mind behind all stark theoretical discussions.
Just to prepare us for detailed discussion, Williams asks for a while what we can say a parenthetic question. Though it has nothing to do with what he is going to say, the question shakes our mind for the time being and makes us think it over a bit more carefully. We can take it as another quality of Williams rhetoric. He does not write in the form of a soliloquy – that he is talking to himself. Rather he writes as if he is engaged in a kind of dialogue with his reader. What his reader may desire to ask is asked mostly by Williams himself.
On the other hand the word tradition is very important to be considered here. The tradition means the tradition or continuity of tragedy as a form of literature. It also means the continuity of different theories pertaining to the peculiar nature of tragedy and its influence on audience – as well as their response to that influence. What Williams wants us to be prepared for is the different critical views about this particular form and experience. He seems asking a very simple question – if the definition of tragedy or the discussion on this literary form is the same since Aristotle. Here again Williams seems interested more in classifying the experiences into tragic and non-tragic than in justifying the most true definition of this work of art. This emotional and mental inclination may help us understand the title of this book – Modern Tragedy. We can feel that the modern experiences involving all kinds of pain and agonies are going to be discussed under suitability for being called tragic.
The other important word is experience. We undergo so many experiences. They may be pleasant or painful. If we take for a while the painful experiences, we have to ask us what painful experiences are tragic and what non tragic. Seeing and going through the definitions of different critics we can easily say that all painful experiences are not tragic – and so the word tragic or tragedy should not be used so meaninglessly.
What Williams says in this chapter is a kind of introduction to the coming chapters.
Tragedy And The Tradition
The separation of ‘tragedy’ from tragedy means the separation of some painful experiences from others. These ‘some painful experiences’ should be considered different from other painful experiences on the bases of certain grounds. We may take these grounds as defining element in tragic and non-tragic experiences. The word coincidence is somewhat important to be kept in mind. We may have to read it in detail in the coming chapters. To start the new chapter Williams has however given is point on tradition and experience as an introduction. Here in this chapter we can also see the gradual forwarding of his point of view in some type of elaboration. We may also take it as his condensed prose style. Williams has used the word continuity as collate of tradition. Yet the basic difference in two words is not ignored in any sense. So tradition is the word used for continuity of something through a long past. This continuity may be of some ritual, behaviour or idea. In case of tragedy the continuity is of the word tragedy used for a specific form of literature. It is not only the continuity of word but also the continuity of that form of literature this word is used for. So the tradition of tragedy is on two levels: the views and explanation about the word tragedy, and the definitions and interpretations of a literary form called tragedy.
The Christian culture is the continuity of Grecian culture. What westerns have given the utmost importance in these days are the issues of culture and language. On my part the culture and language are not the products of mankind. They are not subject to human beings. Rather human beings are subject to certain culture and language. Now with the progress of time the culture of the whole world shall undergo considerable changes. As all the human beings r using same type of things the culture of the world shall no more be varying from country to country, but be same every where.
What Williams has said is important not in the context of tragedy as form or tragedy as experience, but culture and its transformation to present and modern. Why do we take something from past and leave the other is the question that can be understood in the context of present and modern only.
The culture is a living thing. It never remains stagnant or still. It grows and wears out with time. What comes to present through past is a kind of genetic transformation. As the population never remains same, the culture never stays still.
Williams has taken enough advantage of this style. It helps him take time to put forward the next point. It also makes his reader to get prepared for something new. And it also keeps a kind of suspense – without which a book of criticism may feel drier.
What he means by contemporary deadlock is perhaps the insensitivity of the people of twentieth century towards this form of literature. He may also a mean a particular set of feelings the modern people are unable to stand for.
The Greek tragedy remains untransferable throughout ages. What we now have as tragedy is not Greek in its treatment and nature. Williams’ emphasis on tragedy as mature form in a mature culture is noteworthy. It seems a kind of pun on the tragedies written afterwards. They were as immature in form as the cultures they were written in. The word ‘systematise’ should be understood in the sense of ‘harmonise’. The written tragedy and experienced tragedy are not harmonised in any sense. The tragedies written in the modern times are different from those written by Greeks. The very nature and content of these tragedies resist them to come under any systematisation. The failure in systematising these tragedies to the contemporary life is for unsystematised issues of Fate, Necessity and Gods. By the way they were not systematised even by Greeks. What we are going to understand and apply through theories and philosophies was a kind of belief, practice and feeling for them. What we can not adopt was their daily posture.
Williams tries to give us reasons for our inability to understand the concept of Greek tragedians. We cannot experience that concept if we are not living in that set of beliefs and feelings.
Necessity means determinism. What we do we do not do with our free will. Rather we are designed to do it. We cannot understand Greek tragedy if we have no concept of Necessity.
Williams gives his cultural concept of literary form. As it is impossible to import a whole culture so it is impossible to import a whole literary form. A literary form is mostly inspired by the particular set of feelings the people are living with or in.
Having abstracted the concept of Necessity the modern system of feelings has reduced the tragic hero to a suffering individual. We cannot see this individual but in isolation. He is isolated from his surrounding social norms. The chorus in this sense plays the role of a unifying factor. He is external as well as internal. The presence of chorus in Greek tragedy makes it a collective experience. It no more remains individual in any sense. The form was not given any importance. It was considered that a tragedy could be written like other things. Secondly the mediaeval structure of beliefs and feelings was not suitable for any tragedy. So the two most important elements of Greek tragedy were unavailable in Mediaeval Age.
It is commonly said that Elizabethans acquired their beliefs and feelings from mediaeval world. If the Mediaeval world was unable to produce any tragedy how could the Elizabethans do so? In Williams views the Mediaeval people did not have any concept of tragedy. Their concept of tragedy was not real in any sense. We can say that in Mediaeval world there were no chances of real tragic experience. What they called tragedy was purely a Greek ideal in its apparent form. They could not have imported any concept as a tradition. Their feelings were unable to experience the true tragedy. What they called tragedy was non-existent in their society or social structure. What Williams gives us as Greek view of Tragedy is in fact based on the understanding of his own view of Greek Tragedy. As we are not provided with the views of Greek critics in their original text and context, and that too without any translation, we cannot trust on Williams understanding of their views and then elaboration with his own.
I would have considered Williams words true to his own understanding if he had given us what he had understood once and for all. I feel it greatly inconvenient to come across a new understanding of Greek views every now and again. What we have gone through as Williams understanding of Greek views in the previous chapters is quite different from the one we meet in these chapters or shall come to know in the following ones. Either it is Williams technique or the pattern for book, it seems and feels manipulated. If I am true I can say that Williams is a kind of critic who distorts and deshapes the facts to make them look suitable for the propagation of his certain views.
If not possible in any other way he should have written the views of other critics with words in the beginning of sentences as ‘I think Aristotle means to say that – ’ or ‘If Aristotle says that – ’ etc.
Williams socialist or leftist bent of mind is not difficult to detect in the book. His ideas about sin, morality and religion are always derogatory and ironical in tune. So we can say and feel that his purpose of writing this book was not analyse the change in the use of word tragedy in its literal and social sense; but to give air to his political or anti-political views. The underlying idea in Modern Tragedy should not be overlooked in any sense. What I think necessary for ideal criticism is therefore unfound in Williams. A critic should give his unbiased views without distorting and deshaping the original views of writers or other critics. He should not try to challenge the general understanding of common people even. If he has any such purpose in mind he should not name his work as criticism then. The category or nature of his work shall fall it in some other form of literature ultimately. What Williams means by all this rhetoric way of convincing is nothing more providing solid grounds for the acceptability of his own views. It is we can say a kind of rational convincing – though like all convincing prejudiced and biased. What we need to do is to put side by side the views given in the previous pages and present ones. What growth he wants to point out in the idea of tragedy seems fake and personal in some respects.
On my part I feel that the word tragedy has undergone no changes at any level. In what sense Greeks used this word for a form of literature and experience is still the most prevailing of all senses. The differences we feel in the use of this word are not because of its transformation from one society to another (or from one age to another), but because of the complexity, not only the word tragedy, but every other word, involved in it.
I am sure the words undergo these types of changes even within the society and language they are born in or from. Even the Greeks must not be using the word tragedy in the same meaning Aristotle or others used in their times. In fact it so happens that the meanings or ideas once accepted by certain group of people are seldom proved acceptable for the coming generations of the same society. The words exist in their different shapes or shades right from the beginning of that language. They change in their shades of meanings because of the acceptability of every other group they are transformed or transferred.
The possible meanings of the word tragedy Williams discusses in this book with respect or reference to different ages and societies are the same meanings that existed in the times of Aristotle even. The change in the meanings of a word is not the matter of society or time. It is the matter of duration a language is spoken in some society. The societies do not extinct before languages. These are the languages that extinct before societies. The falls of civilizations and societies are never tried to be read as falls of languages. Though actually they are the falls of languages. The society cannot die before its language. It is the language that has to die first. And the possibility of no other meanings of words is the death of a language.
Another important thing we should keep in mind while going through not only the Modern Tragedy but all other works of the same genre, is the usage of a person’s views as representative of the whole society. The sense Greek intellectuals and people of imagination used this word tragedy was not the one and only sense for this word even in their own time. The religious and political minded people must have their own sense of tragedy. As knowledge up to the last century was based wholly on imaginative mind the meanings conveyed to books and written traditions should not be considered final in any sense.
(The world up to nineteenth century was running on imaginative and religious mind. Now it is running, and will go on running for the coming four or five millenniums, on political and imaginative mind. As all the things in the previous millenniums were considered in the light of imaginative and religious mind, they shall be considered in the light of imaginative and political mind in the coming millenniums.)
What seems new to Williams is quite old for me. The very meaning of catharsis involves in it a kind of pleasure. Catharsis without pleasure is impossible. So what other critics said about tragedy was mostly a repeated version of what Aristotle had said already. On my part I don’t feel any growth in the concept and practice of tragedy. There is indeed a kind of change – but that too is quite apparent one. Tragedy as form and experience is still the same in its very concept. It is as same and different as weeping and laughing are same and different from the people of past. If in modern tragedy the hero is a Lowman and in Greek a king. The writer has to present this Lowman in the grandeur of a king. It was not the wealth and prosperity that mattered in Oedipus but the grandeur of Oedipus. Willy Lowman in Death of the salesman and John Proctor in Crucible are also wearing the same grandeur. Their prosperity is not the material prosperity but the prosperity of mind and soul – the prosperity of their living image.
The thoughts Williams attributes to other critics are in fact his own. The development he feels in the idea of tragedy is based completely on his own understanding of the Classical, Mediaeval and Renaissance theories. If we put all the theories Williams gives with respect to different ages side by side we shall find a big contrast in Williams own understanding. What he seems understanding in the first chapter is not felt understood in the second, third and fourth chapter of this book. His ideas about tragedy and experience seem confused when we reach the second chapter named tragedy and tradition. In each chapter the Greek ideal of tragedy is repeated from different angles and perspective. What I want to say seems very simple when I say that Williams should have given the Greek views about tragedy once and for all. He should not have repeated them in each chapter from a different angle. If Williams’ aim had been to analyse the different theories given in different ages, the book might not have been so difficult and confused. What makes this book so complex a piece of argument is Williams’ effort to put forward his views about culture and society – far and deep in between the lines. The discussion about the growth and development of the idea of tragedy hence becomes secondary and very much a kind of allegory.
What I feel and want to say is quite different from what they call the general concept of literature as an interpretation of society. In my view the literature and society has nothing to do with each other. The idea of their being inter-influencing is merely an illusion. The forces working behind literary development and social development are quite different in nature. The poets or literary people have hardly been social, and society and culture have hardly been poetical or literary. Rather they have been the opposite of each other. In the most materialistic and powerfully political society of Greece, the writers and poets were the most imaginative of all ages. When we talk about the truth and greatness of Socrates, we should not forget that we are also talking about the injustice and blind judicial system prevailing upon the society of that time. This type of injustice and judicial murder is common in the societies where the material values and surface truths give no place to even graver and stronger realities. I therefore hesitate to admit that the theoretical and philosophical world of Greek intellectuals had anything to do with the surrounding society of their times. The same is the case with Roman, Egyptian and Indian civilizations. The politically best societies have always been criticised strongly for their moral discrepancies.
What mistake we always have been committing in defining the greatness of some civilization is the attribution of greatness to some society on its political achievements. We have never called any civilization or society great if it has not been politically strong. What relationship do we suggest in this case in between the political strength of a certain group of people called society or civilization and their cultural and social strength. Has there ever been a civilization politically weak but culturally very strong and powerful? The obvious answer seems No. The politically strength – and that also got having conquered the neighbouring territories – of certain civilization has been very much helpful in crediting it the name of a strong and powerful civilization. Should we say that the political strength of certain civilization lies in its pre-existing cultural strength? And should we say that the cultural strength of certain civilization lies in its pre-existing literary and lingual strength? If I say yes it seems rather confusing but I say no. All these strengths have their respective origins.
The words ‘remade’ and ‘tragic cause’ are ambiguous. Perhaps Williams wants to say that the tragic hero stood for his spectators, and the spectators were conscious of their feelings for tragic hero. The tragic response of pity and terror was incorporated in the spectator’s mind. The spectator therefore remained detached in his response. This detachment was minimised by creating an affinity in the tragic hero and the spectator. The spectator was supposed to take part in the tragic action. And he did so having consumed his response to fear and pity. Though we call it a Romantic excess, its basis are found in the concept of shared behaviour – a result of decorum.
The word assimilation is very ambiguously used. We are not sure whether we should take it in the sense of hypothesis or theory – or definition. Whether it is merging up of certain ideas or emerging out of certain things. The word order is important in so many ways. It means both in physical and metaphysical terms. It can be taken as social order; and it can also be taken as natural order of things. Again it may mean the order of events and happenings in which a tragic hero is put to perform a determined action. As a whole we can feel and see that Williams is not rejecting Lessing and nor he is accepting him completely. In other words his rejection and acceptance is not on the basis of the views a person gives but on the basis of his own views he feels different from him. As Williams himself is against neo-classicism he seems accepting Lessing. And also that Williams seems having no power to say his views against a person who commends Shakespeare. To challenge Shakespeare’s position in not only English but in the history of drama is meant mostly a kind of intellectual suicide. And Williams seems unable to commit it anyway. If we take Williams true to his socialist and Marxist views, we cannot imagine and accept him as an advocate or supporter of Elizabethans – a mixture of feudal and aristocratic minds.
In all respects this is what Williams wants to bring us to – the secularisation of tragedy – not only tragedy but also the tradition of tragedy. The secularisation of drama is not on the basis of theories and social bents but on the basis of beliefs. In Williams view the transformation of tragedy from religious to secular is in fact the transformation of society from religious to secular. I say the secularism is nothing in itself. If the people are not ceremoniously and ritually religious it does not mean that they are non-religious or secular. The concept or identity of God is ingrained in human nature. He cannot be separate from it. If one stops believing in certain myths and codes his ancestors have been believing for centuries, it does not mean that one has ceased to be religious any more. The understanding of God is changing from person to person and age to age, but it remains very much there in us.
On my part I think Hamlet as a complete religious tragedy. If Hamlet had not been believing in hereafter he might have killed Polonius knelt in prayers; he might not have been convinced to take revenge of his father’s murderers. If Elizabethan tragedy is not religious who is the secular hero or character in secular tragedy of Elizabethan age. If Marlow’s heroes are non-religious in typical sense it does not mean that they are secular. They are merely ambitious. Doctor Faustus has never been secular minded or non-religious in the whole tragedy. It was his ambitious nature that made him go against the common prevalent forms of religion. In other words it the religious nature of Doctor Faustus that makes him a tragic hero. This is what I call the intellectual kidnapping in Raymond Williams’ prose. He gives his understandings and views about others and then start accepting or rejecting them on his own account. He does not take the opinion of others and especially his readers in confidence. A great part of this book is based on Williams own understanding of some theories and theorists. I think when a person is criticising some other person’s work he should either give first that other person’s work or view in original and then give his own opinion. If he is giving his opinion against or for some other opinion about that work he should state that opinion first in full text and then give his own as a supplicant.
What one gets the very first time is the secular nature of Elizabethan drama. The phrases ‘immediate practice’ and ‘Christian consciousness’ are given to get intellectual security. In this and other ways, the definition of tragedy became centred on a specific kind of spiritual action, rather than on particular events, and a metaphysic of tragedy replaced both the critical and ordinary moral emphasis.
Williams is evaluating his own understanding of Hegel’s definition. Hegel is certainly not meant in this way. His definition of tragedy is nearest to perfection. Do we find this characteristic in Oedipus Rex? On my part I feel it a great drawback in critical works. They should not be the overflow of powerful feelings. The critical works should base on facts and figures of mathematical nature. Otherwise they may better be called personal analysis. Most of Williams’ judgements seem an overflow of powerful feelings. They are so common and general that we feel no doubt in their truth. They are very much like poetic feelings – general and true to all of us. However, if Williams had not tried to intersperse them here and there and had put them under headings and chapters, they might have been more effective and comprehensive than they are now.
In my view a genuine criticism should not have anything to do with emotions and passions. It should be as arid and dry as mathematics. Anyhow it is my personal opinion. Some one may have a right to consider Williams’ work the only true criticism written through ages. One may also say that Williams’ is also an approach among so many others. The Greek tragedy is a conflict between primitive social forms and a new social order. But we see that the conflict is solved in the favour of primitive social forms. And we also see in the history of Oedipus text that the new social order prevailed upon, and Sophocles could not revive the old believes.
It seems very strange when we read about Sophocles’ intentions to revive the old social order. He tried to do it with a character utterly a puppet in gods’ hands. But Sophocles forgot a very crucial point – that the new order he thinks against old believes is also a will of gods.
All definitions of Oedipus Rex are true. In other words all definitions of tragedy are true. The aspects of tragedy critics have been discussing in various ages with reference to various tragedies are true. The tragedy of Oedipus can be discussed in all these contexts and perspectives. Not only the tragic events can be discussed under these headings or with respect to these aspects but also the comic and parodic events. The aspects and angles critics point out of a tragic action are the possible aspects of all actions. All people can be seen as tragic heroes – provided only focus.
What we need to know about is very simple and very hard – the fact that there are two kinds of people. One who believe in fate and one who do not. The tragedy takes place where the opposites fall opposite to each other. If Oedipus had not met the circumstances opposite to his instincts – means if he had been put in the circumstances favourable to his instincts of free will – he might have met a very happy end. The forces of fate are not same for all. There are people who believe in free will and they are provided with circumstances utterly dependent on their free will. And there are people who are fatalists and they are provided with circumstances utterly out of control. The tragedy takes place where a person of free will falls counter to fate. If Oedipus had been of fatalist instincts he might have succumbed to fate from the very first day he came to know about his future from oracles. In the above discussion the word Idea is also used in the sense of moral code. The most difficult and absurd thing to do is to debate on the validity of moral concepts. We don’t know and we can never judge in what particular circumstances the moral concepts spring and generate from one generation and time period to the other.
The way Williams tries to convince his reader on his point is strange. What he wants to say is the uselessness and absurdity of the concept of poetical justice. But the way he conveys it to his reader is quite non critical in my view. He relates the unjustifiability of poetical justice to the group of people who and whose views are considered nonsense in most of the people. In other words it is quite an emotional way of delivering critical thoughts suitable to orators and preachers. I think a literary critic should not adopt this way of delivering his ideas. Otherwise he may justly be called a political theorist and a propagandist. This is where we feel us forced to put Williams in the category of philosophers or reformers. What he says is totally his own opinion. But he gives it with reference to other works and makes it feel sprung out of them.
Now as a reader it is our duty to compare Williams definitions in each case. Whenever there is a new theory Williams not only repeats it in his own words but also in the context of former theories. Also he repeats the former theories in his own words and tries to interpret them in the context of new theories. This creates a kind of confusion in the minds of his readers. They feel hesitate to accept each version of the old theories as true. For example in the case of modern interpretation of tragedy Williams repeats Greek, Mediaeval and Renaissance definitions in a kind of new perspective. We feel confused to accept them as true each time. The concept of myth and ritual in tragedy is discussed purely in its new perspective. What we have met in the former chapters seems totally another debate. This is how I feel this book merely a kind of discussion. We don’t feel these discussions centred upon any point. Williams has either accepted the views of other critics or rejected them. He has not given at any moment his own views. If he has given any he has given it in the explanation not as an independent view but as a supporting one. In the discussion on tragedy we don’t find Williams’ views on tragedy but on every other thing.
In this way we can say that Williams’ discussion on tragedy is in fact an expression of his views on culture, society and politics. And he wants his reader to see not only tragedy but also the whole literary activity as an interaction or an outcome of this interaction in cultural, social and political forces.
Williams’ reversion to the ideas discussed in the first chapter seems a surrendering effort to join beginning to the end. In fact the intervening and last chapters are but of parenthetic importance. The structure of the whole book is developed on academic approaches. The dominant mode of expression is of discussion and debate. If Williams had not been a teacher he might not have depended so much on evaluating, explaining and elaborating the ideas already given in theories or critical works. Instead of writing a helping book he might have written a textbook. Having gone through such works I feel as if modern mind is afraid of passing any theoretical view about anything. Williams has not used the instances taken from other works to support his own view. Rather he has given his views inspired by those instances. With respect to the style discussed above we cannot count Williams in the category of critics Sidney, Wordsworth and Coleridge were.
Tragedy And Contemporary Ideas
This is what Williams has himself done. However, he has taken the work from past not to reject it but to accept it and interpret it in terms of past. But we should keep in mind, whatever discussion on accident and tragedy there goes, that it is not the nature of event that makes it tragedy or accident but the perspective in which that event takes place. If an accident is detailed in all its perspective it can be felt as a tragedy.
On the other hand if we are told that a king gouged his eyes out in rage on learning that he had killed the former king himself we may not feel any tragic feelings. In the case of written tragedy we should not anyhow neglect the role of description. The description here should not be considered in terms of an authority on the part of writer, but a kind of knowledge we have got already through our identification with the deceased. In case of Oedipus Rex, not only Oedipus but all the involving characters are bearing tragic postures.
If we focus our attention to Liaus and get the details we shall find him a complete tragic character himself. Same is the case with Jocasta, Creon and Oedipus’ children. So the dominant characteristic of a tragedy is also its quality of being a tragedy of all the joining persons. As for analysis of tragedy with respect to its effects on its audience I would like to say that the category or quality of audience is very noteworthy a fact. If Oedipus had been played on modern stage it would not have been so effective a tragedy. This is where we can say Williams can talk about tragedy in its social context.
Means if suffering related to ordinary people is ordinary suffering the suffering related to noble people is noble suffering.
But I think Williams is not true in his judgement. What we have come to know in the above discussion about suffering is the ordinary and particular nature of suffering, not the ordinary and particular kind of sufferer. A socially noble person may have to suffer an ordinary suffering, and a layman on the other hand may suffer a particular or noble suffering. The ordinary and noble sufferings therefore should not be understood as socially relative terms. Suffering is not a subordinate clause. It has its separate identity that is active in nature.
We have discussed already that the history and knowledge about sufferer can help us understand his suffering as tragic or accidental. On the other hand if our experience of seeing suffering is too common, too often and too much, we cannot feel it tragic in most of the ways. If the story of Oedipus had been the common happening in Greek society, even Sophocles would not have presented it as a play. So the uniqueness of incident also helps it make a tragedy.
It does not mean however that the number of sufferings or deaths in present age has changed and shaped the meanings and effect of tragedy to some other proportions. Death has never been so rare as it is in these days. The people in past were more used to death than we are now. It means the view is given completely in its social perspective. The types of events or accidents given in the support of this argument and the categories of sufferer as ‘you and I’ are also social. The power of this argument lies not in its relativity but use of deprecating words. The comparative stress on the particularity of event and suffering person is however too obvious to be mentioned in this view. We have seen Williams and other critics talking on the point of rank – that some deaths matter more than others. But I don’t find a tragedy where the death or suffering of a tragic hero becomes the death and suffering of whole community. Even Oedipus’ gouging his eyes and expelling himself from Thebes is no more a kind of personal suffering for Thebans. Hamlet’s death is not the death of his countrymen. The Thebans and Hamlet’s countrymen were mere observers or spectators. Their suffering was more or less equal to the suffering of present day audience.
If Sophocles presented Oedipus as a tragic hero it does not mean that a tragic hero should always be of a kingly stature. He might have written tragedies on common men that unfortunately could not survive to us. Secondly the ability of gaining lessons in those days was not related to the things of daily experience. The people in those days got lessons from the tales of animals and birds. They got lessons from supernatural and mythological lore. Unlike to the psychology of present day people who get lessons from the happenings and matters related to their immediate experience, for the people of those days the things or stories taken from their immediate experience were not mostly considered of any importance. It was not the rank but the alienation or strangeness of tragic hero that inspired the audience in those days. Though to meet the king was not as difficult as it is today yet the love of public for their king that was far more and far greater than the love of public for president or prime minister in these days, made the suffering of king or a man of rank something worthy to mourn at. The reasons of this modern view are based on the points we have discussed in the above explanations for rank and suffering. The fate of tragic hero in relation to the fate of dynasty or kingdom is emphasised again in the false old context. The example of King Lear is not sufficient. The play itself is not decided as a tragedy yet. We feel sorry for King Lear but this feeling sorry for him is different from what we feel for Oedipus. Faith does not mean the faith in the existence of God only. We cannot live without faith. In whatever thing or idea we shall have faith its intensity or importance shall be equal to that of what we have for God. To have no faith in God is also a kind of faith. This is again a kind of poetic statement. Neither we can accept it nor deny. It seems said in the light of Oedipus Rex. But the fact I always try to penetrate is again invitingly open. Why Aristotle’s definition of tragedy is considered only the best available definition? Why Oedipus Rex is considered the best available tragedy. If Sophocles had not written Oedipus Rex would Aristotle have been able to present his theory of ideal tragedy?
What I want to say is quite simple in a way. If Aristotle’s theory of tragedy is accepted as faultless and the most perfect, it should have its value for other tragedies written in his times also. If it is dependent on Oedipus Rex only, it should rather be called an evaluation than a theory. To reach the final concept of tragedy in Greek society we should keep in mind the other tragedies written in those times also. If we find any difference in the tragedies written by other tragedians and those written by Sophocles, we should conclude very simply that the concepts we have studied as growth of the idea of tragedy were existing even in those early days also.
Williams’ arguments and counter arguments are obviously the creation of his own mind – the fact we should not forget at any moment. Whatever he provides us as a common view or opinion of people and critics is in fact his own view or opinion.
We cannot take this type of criticism as genuine criticism. The type of criticism Williams offers us is a kind of political or social propaganda. Williams has adopted criticism as a form of creative activity to spread only his views. His main aim is not to discuss the social or historical perspective of tragedy but to convey his social and political views. The underlined statement is given to support the arguments given in the above paragraph. The concentration camp is the name given to one of the prison camps used for exterminating prisoners under the rule of Hitler in Nazi Germany What we have come to know so far are the relevant details and explanations of the theories of tragedy. If Williams has discussed experience he has discussed it in its relevancy to theoretical progress of tragedy.
Rejection of Tragedy
Except one or two sentences, whatever Williams has said about Brecht so far is merely an approval or appraisal from a teacher. He seems unable to do with Brecht what he has been doing with other critics – contriving and deducting from their views and opinions the views and opinions of his own. In between the lines we feel him saying if we want to know his (Williams’) views about the concept of tragedy in modern times we should simply read Brecht or any available criticism on him and that’s all. Whatever Brecht says and practices seems on Williams’ behalf true, accepted and agreed.
The chapter seems a kind of evaluation of Brecht’s work. Rather it should have been the evaluation of his theories. The instances given from plays seem unnecessary when we recall to mind the earlier chapters of the book. What we except to read in this chapter is the theoretical growth in the idea of tragedy. What we read in real is the growth in the writing style of tragedies. All Brecht’s statements are left unexplained as if they were already agreed upon. We find very little of evaluating or interpreting nature. Unlike to the demand of the topic or Williams’ former expression, the chapter seems bearing no cultural or political perspective.
What he says in these lines seems irrelevant or imposed. I have been unable to see this all in the above discussion or commentary. Williams could have said this even for Eliot or Pinter. I don’t find it subjectively coherent. However the argument he gives about Brecht’s rejection of tragedy with respect to the former tragedies seems interconnecting to some extent. Throughout this chapter Williams has been like a traditional academic critic. The chapter seems merely an introductory or interpretative article – worthless in all respects to be included in a book of more philosophical than critical judgements on the tragedy in theory and experience. We don’t see the vigour of arguments he discussed with the Greek, Mediaeval and Elizabethan critics. We have seen this argumentative helplessness in discussion on Nietzsche. But it was not so tangible as it is in case of Brecht. At moments I feel that the chapter has nothing to do with the rest of the book. All Williams has done is to explain and interpret Brecht’s ideas and experiments. His effort to see things in social and political perspectives also seems minimised. He looks but an intellectually kidnapped. In fact what Brecht writes does not suit to the taste of Modern Tragedy. I am unable to understand Brecht’s theoretical contribution to tragedy. His aim was to portray the mind or society, not the theory. His intention was to discover mainly some new form of expression, not to reject the old ones. In fact I don’t think that Brecht’s experimental work has anything to do with the idea of tragedy. Brecht was an innovator, but could not be a pioneer.