Archive for the ‘Tragedy’ Category

Where is Dante When we Need Him?

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Where is Dante when we need him? Faust: A Tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but neither Goethe or Faust know it.  The tragedy is that this Romantic tale lacks a tragic ending. We Christians earnestly, fervently hope that it does.  The notion that there is no moral universe with no consequences, no cause and effect, invites inevitable chaos and nihilism that is so much a part of our Post-Modern world. Faust’s yearning for experience and knowledge created a type for the Modern (1900-1990) and Post-Modern (1990-Present) ages still known as the Faustian hero, though in reality Goethe’s Faust is more a villain than a hero; and the purported villain–Mephistopheles–is one of the most likable characters in the play. His yearnings draw him toward the heavens, yet he is also powerfully attracted to the physical world. Ultimately the tragedy of Goethe’s tragedy, is that mankind cannot have his cake and eat it too:  we cannot reject Christ as Savior and suppose that we will spend eternity in his presence.  The fact that Goethe thinks otherwise is remarkable in its presumptuousness.

Faust is a very learned professor, who is dissatisfied with human knowledge, which by its nature is limited. Using magic, he conjures up the Earth Spirit in his darkened study. Regarding himself as more than mortal, he tries to claim the Earth Spirit as a colleague, but the Spirit rejects him scornfully and disappears.  Despairing, Faust contemplates suicide. He is saved by the sound of the bells welcoming Easter morning. He and his research assistant, Wagner, go out into the sunlight and enjoy the greetings of the crowd, which remembers the medical attention given to the people by Faust and his father. Faust is still depressed, denying the value of medicine and feeling torn between the two souls in him, one longing for earthly pleasures, the other seeking the highest spiritual knowledge. A dog follows Faust and Wagner home.  The dog, of course, is Mephistopheles!   The overall theme of this work is the struggle mankind undertakes to overcome evil and to discriminate between good and evil.

Faust Part One is a complex story. It takes place in multiple settings, the first of which is heaven. Mephistopheles makes a bet with God. He says that he can deflect God’s favorite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits. The next scene takes place in Faust’s study where Faust, despairing at the vanity of scientific, humanitarian and religious learning, turns to magic for the revelation of ultimate knowledge. He suspects, however, that his attempts are failing. Frustrated, he ponders suicide, but rejects it as he hears the echo of nearby Easter celebrations begin. He goes for a walk with his assistant Wagner and is followed home by a stray poodle.  God is only one among equals—epistemology is more important than faith, truth is subjective, not objective. We are no longer enjoying sunsets with William Wordsworth and speculating on their origins—we are looking into Hell itself, the New Age, Modernism, what Nietzsche calls “the vacuum.”

With Goethe, we move forward four hundred years through the Reformation, through the Renaissance, and into the Enlightenment. The period of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, the greatest epoch in German literature, fell within the lifetime of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The age of Goethe went beyond the Enlightenment’s substitution of science for religion, inasmuch as it ascribed to science only a peripheral position in relation to the ultimate questions of life. It insisted upon the value of feeling in face of the limitations of reason. Impulse, instinct, emotion, and intuition acquired a quasi-religious significance as being the links that connected man with divine nature—one way to define Romanticism. The ideal of the classical age was that of the fully developed personality in which intellect and feeling should be harmoniously balanced. We see the enigmatic Doctor Faust representing all three movements. Three phases may be distinguished in the evolution of this new outlook: Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), Classicism, and Romanticism. Goethe belonged to and profoundly affected the Sturm und Drang movement, which aimed at overthrowing rationalism. There is, however, something that is modern: the emphasis on an amoral vision. We see the beginning of a Friedrich Nietzsche’s “survival of the fittest” mentality.   It continues today . . .


Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Another important important contemporary of Sophocles playwright is Aeschylus. The importance of Aeschylus in the development of the drama is immense. Prior to his writings, tragedy (as opposed to comedy) had consisted of a chorus and one actor. Aeschylus introduced a second actor, expanding the dramatic dialogue and he revolutionizing Greek tragedy. He acted in his own plays, and directed the chorus. The role of director assumed a new importance in the person of Aeschylus. His most famous tragic trilogy, Oresteia, the only example of a complete Greek tragic trilogy which has come down to us, consists of the “Agamemnon,” the “Choephorae,” and the “The Furies.” Students should read at least one of the trilogy selections and compare it to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The following is the beginning of Agamemnon:

Pray the gods to quit me of my toils,
To close the watch I keep, this livelong year;
For as a watch-dog lying, not at rest,
Propped on one arm, upon the palace-roof
Of Atreus’ race, too long, too well I know
The starry conclave of the midnight sky,
Too well, the splendours of the firmament,
The lords of light, whose kingly aspect shows–
What time they set or climb the sky in turn–
The year’s divisions, bringing frost or fire.
And now, as ever, am I set to mark
When shall stream up the glow of signal-flame,
The bale-fire bright, and tell its Trojan tale–
Troy town is ta’en: such issue holds in hope
She in whose woman’s breast beats heart of man.
Thus upon mine unrestful couch I lie,
Bathed with the dews of night, unvisited
By dreams–ah me–for in the place of sleep Stands
Fear as my familiar, and repels
The soft repose that would mine eyelids seal.
And if at whiles, for the lost balm of sleep,
I medicine my soul with melody Of trill or song–anon to tears I turn,
Wailing the woe that broods upon this home,
Not now by honour guided as of old.
But now at last fair fall the welcome hour
That sets me free, whene’er the thick night glow
With beacon-fire of hope deferred no more.
All hail! [A beacon-light is seen reddening the distant sky.
Fire of the night, that brings my spirit day,
Shedding on Argos light, and dance, and song.
Greetings to fortune, hail!
Let my loud summons ring within the ears Of Agamemnon’s queen, that she anon
Start from her couch and with a shrill voice cry
A joyous welcome to the beacon-blaze,
For Ilion’s fall; such fiery message gleams
From yon high flame; and I, before the rest,
Will foot the lightsome measure of our joy;
For I can say, My master’s dice fell fair-”-Behold! the triple sice, the lucky flame!
Now be my lot to clasp, in loyal love,
The hand of him restored, who rules our home:
Home–but I say no moreore: upon my tongue
Treads hard the ox o’ the adage.
Had it voice,
The home itself might soothliest tell its tale;
I, of set will, speak words the wise may learn,
To others, nought remember nor discern.
[Exit. The chorus of old men of Mycenà enter, each leaning on a staff. During their song Clytemnestra appears in the background, kindling the altars].
(Charles W. Eliot, The Harvard Classics, Vol. 8< /SPAN>, NY: P. F. Collier and Co., 1937, 7-8).

In Ancient Greek tragedy, like Oedipus Rex, there was as an attempt to attain what Greek critics (e.g., Aristotle) called the “art impulses of nature.” Like mixing acids and bases in a chemical compound until one reaches equilibrium, Greeks sought to mix passion and realism to attain a sort of cosmic equilibrium. Thus the tragic plot would emphasize the realism of this play and the metaphysical lyrics of the chorus would highlight the passionate ingredient of the same play. The hope was that the net result would be a pure tragedy full of feeling and reason.

Students should ask themselves these questions, “Was that balance attained=2 0by Sophocles in this play? Was the play too incredible and passionate to enjoy? Or did Sophocles manage to inspire and to inform the view at the same time?”

Breakfast with Aristotle

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Aristotle (350 B.C. -?), a disciple of Plato, wrote what is essentially a modification, a taming down, of Plato’s ideas. To Plato, knowledge and virtue were inseparable. To Aristotle, they were merely connected. Aristotle was not on a search for absolute truth; in fact he was not certain it existed. Truth, beauty, and goodness were to be observed and quantified from human behavior and the senses. Goodness in particular was not an absolute. It was an average between two absolutes. Aristotle said that mankind should strike a balance between passion and temperance. He said that people should seek the “Golden Mean” defined as a course of life that was never extreme. Finally, Plato argued that reality lay in knowledge of the gods. Aristotle argued that truth lay in empirical, measurable knowledge. Aristotle, then, was the father of modern science (Fire That Burns, James Stobaugh, 23-27). Having said that, Rhetoric and Poetics is more of a handbook of literary criticism than a discussion of metaphysics. Most modern readers will be offended by Aristotle’s autocratic tone. He is no reticent literary critic tiptoeing around his reader’s literary feelings. He states succinctly what he believes good literature is. How would Aristotle define rhetoric? “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric and Poetics translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater (NY: Modern Library, 1954), 24). Rhetoric is the means of persuasion on almost any subject. It is not concerned with any special class of subjects. For instance, art, as well as prose fiction, persuades and has a rhetorical component. To Aristotle there are three means of persuading: by use of logic, by appeal to goodness, and by appeal to the emotions. What warnings does Aristotle issue surrounding rhetoric? “The orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind.” (Rhys and Bywater, 8). Aristotle warns the reader that “in regards to each emotion we must consider the states of mind in which it is felt, the people towards it is felt, and the grounds on which it is felt (Rhys and Bywater, 8)” How would Aristotle define poetry? Poetry would be seen as art. Among the arts mentioned are poetry, tragic drama, comedy, and music composition. How does Aristotle define tragedy? Tragedy is defined as an imitation of fear and sadness promulgated by language whose purpose is to purge the reader from sentimentality. There is always a catharsis or cleansing that occurs in the reader when he embraces the whole scope of the tragedy. Who is the “tragic hero?”The tragic hero is greater than life but not necessarily perfect. The tragic hero inherently possesses a flaw that ultimately will destroy him. Oedipus, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a perfect illustration of this tragic hero.