Man of Sorrows: On Terry Eagleton’s “Tragedy”

Rhodri Lewis makes sense of "Tragedy," the newest book from Terry Eagleton.

Man of Sorrows: On Terry Eagleton’s “Tragedy”

Tragedy by Terry Eagleton. Yale University Press. 216 pages.

AS A FRESHMAN UNDERGRADUATE in 1995, I counted myself lucky to attend a university at which I could hear Terry Eagleton lecture in the flesh. He was the author of the book with which I had dutifully-excitedly shut myself away for a large portion of that summer: Literary Theory: An Introduction, which remains a far more engaging piece of work than the primer it was destined, and perhaps intended, to become. First appearances did not disappoint. Eagleton wore a pale linen Nehru jacket and collarless white shirt that were a revelation to my provincial sensibilities, and everything about him suggested that the academic world in which we found ourselves was a vast, and likely nefarious, conjuring trick. One to which he was going to share the key. Although I quietly abandoned his course after three or maybe four lectures (I just didn’t care enough about the Frankfurt School and suspected that I might have been one of the postmodernists at whom he looked so askance), it was reassuring to know that I could try again the following year, or the year after that. It never happened.

Before long I, like most students I knew, had settled into a sort of post-Theoretical eclecticism, and had come to the view that Theory was yesterday’s news: we turned to it when it was useful in our writing, and didn’t worry when it wasn’t. A few years later, Eagleton himself seemed to follow suit, publishing a book titled After Theory. His emphasis there on the under-acknowledged bonds of human mortality cleared a path to the Roman Catholic politico-theologizing that has held his attention for most of the past decade and a half. And here we are today. Rare is the theory bro who thumps the table with his copy of The Ideology of the Aesthetic.

Eagleton’s latest book is titled Tragedy, and revisits a topic he treated at greater length in his Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (2003). In both books, he follows his one-time mentor Raymond Williams in seeking to demonstrate that “democratised” notions of tragedy have much to offer our cultural and political moment. Tragedy is a better book than Sweet Violence, and has what I think is a serious claim at its core; one that, furthermore, strives to reclaim some of the political ground that, for Eagleton, literary theorizing has foolishly given up. But the way in which Tragedy is written — Eagleton’s prose, his mode of argumentation, the nature of his argument itself — is exhausting. The experience of it is akin to being stuck in a seminar room with a distinguished speaker who has read a lot and who has lots of ideas about the matter at hand, but who has been unable to figure out what he is trying to say — and who therefore keeps on talking and talking (sometimes with wit and verve) while never quite saying it. If only he’d let the Q-and-A start, one of us might be able to help him.


The title of Eagleton’s first chapter poses a question: “Did Tragedy Die?” The answer is no. Or, more precisely, only if your definition is as narrow and politically quietist as the one offered by George Steiner in his The Death of Tragedy — a work that was once a cause célèbre, but that, as it prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, has long attained the unthreatening respectability of a period piece. In his push to stretch our understanding of that which the tragic can be said to connote, not all of Eagleton’s targets are as soft as this. Žižek and Lacan, for instance, are taken to task for their insistence that the Holocaust cannot be considered tragic, since to invest Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bełżec, and Treblinka with tragic dignity would be to look away from the conditions of callous brutality in which so many millions were murdered. By asserting that tragedy dignifies violence and suffering, says Eagleton, Žižek and Lacan offer “a form of left elitism” that echoes Steiner in denying the possibility of tragedy in an age within which capitalism (aided by rationalism, liberalism, and bourgeois individualism) has dissolved most kinds of social and cultural hierarchy.

By contrast, Eagleton sees the tragic not as a matter of dignity or moral improvement, but as a way of looking at the world that permits political and spiritual “redemption.” It is as such akin to Marxism and Christianity, both of which qualify as “tragic doctrines,” concerned not with a “disastrous end to history,” but with “the appalling price that an unjust world must pay” before it can be redeemed. The tragic, on this account, can just as easily find expression in a novel as a stage play — and need not find expression in a work of art at all. Nor need it arise from circumstances of extremity. Eagleton cites with approval George Eliot’s attention to “that element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency.”

The scene set, Tragedy consists of four further chapters in which Eagleton riffs on the idea-themes that he sees at the heart of the tragic. Chapter Two is the one with the clearest focus. In it, Eagleton offers his only extended attempt at literary criticism: a close reading of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus that brings together ideas of incest and arithmetic to present tragedy as a vehicle through which to contemplate things that exceed rational analysis. Chapters Three, Four, and Five offer a very different kind of fare, and employ a comparativist methodology that is unusually broad-ranging in its reference, unusually abstract in its mode of analysis, and more in keeping with Eagleton’s belief that what he calls “the tragic world-view” has only an incidental relationship with tragic drama.

Chapter Three discusses liminality: tragedies identify and explore the spaces between order and disorder, the collective and the individual, freedom and necessity, the modern and the pre-modern, and so forth. Chapter Four discusses false consciousness: tragedies are a form of artifice through which it is possible to identify and explore the more far-reaching forms of artifice — that is, the stories and ideologies — to which we commit ourselves in order to get through the day. As Eagleton puts it in discussing Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, “the world may be an illusion of a kind, but art (not least tragedy) is a redemptive illusion.”

Chapter Five, titled “The Inconsolable,” is confusing — both in its own right and as the nearest thing Tragedy has to a conclusion. It begins well enough, with some illuminating remarks on “freely undertaken actions […] breed[ing] effects which are uncontrollable,” and returning “to confront the agent himself as a form of destiny.” From here, Eagleton segues to the hubris of “Bourgeois Man,” philosophical aesthetics as an avatar of revolutionary fervor, the status of “Nietzsche, Heidegger, the early Lukács, Jacques Derrida and others” as champions of art over philosophy, the acte gratuit of existentialism, the theology of the crucifixion, the shortcomings of Hegel’s overly rational tragic theorizing, Nietzsche versus the rest of the German 19th century (again), the frivolity of “postmodernism,” and — finally — Rowan Williams’s suggestion that the true force of tragedy lies in allowing us to acknowledge the community of inconsolable pain and suffering and sorrow to which all human beings are heir. If there is a design to all of this, then it escapes me. If it is perplexing that, after asserting that the Western tradition has never come to grips with tragedy and the tragic, Eagleton proceeds to rehearse, attack, and talk around the literary and intellectual histories of the Western tradition — well, the perplexity belongs to the reader alone.

Another puzzle. Although Eagleton is hung up on the inadequate foundations on which tragic theories have generally been constructed, he is himself a woefully over-schematic reader of tragedies (dramatic and otherwise). The reading of Sophocles mentioned above is a good case in point, but consider this claim, which appears in the third chapter:

Shakespearian tragedy draws much of its strength from portraying with equal conviction the traditional order and the forces which threaten to usurp it. The former is no mere painted backdrop, while the forces of individualism can be productive as well as malign.

For Eagleton, Shakespeare’s tragedies matter because they synthesize the Hegelian tensions between the old and the new from which the modern world emerged. I struggle to think of any historical period that did not conceive of itself as modern, but the debate over the origins of our own historical epoch is a long-running one. The rub is that the reality of plays like Hamlet and King Lear is vastly more complicated — more “dissonant,” to use a favored Eagletonianism — than this debate can allow. Let that pass. What I ultimately don’t understand is why Eagleton bothers with this sort of reading at all. Like his railing against tragic theorizing through the ages, literary criticism seems beside the point of his argument as he presents it. Which, in its essentials, is that tragedies are noteworthy to the extent that they body forth the hypostatized set of spiritual-historical-philosophical-political-ideological truths that comprise the tragic worldview. Why not just concentrate on tragic truth-telling?

The answer, I suspect, has two parts. First, Eagleton grasps that as to discuss tragedy as a worldview is to use tragic art as a metaphor through which to comprehend some of the most intractably difficult features of the human experience, it is impossible to say very much on the subject if we don’t have a line on what — and how — tragic art might signify. Second, Eagleton has such an abject horror of being regarded as a belletristic trifler that he can only fitfully submit himself to the task of discovering how works of tragic art might aid him in tracing such a line. Rather than arriving at a synthesis of his own, Eagleton falls between two stools.


But the real frustration of Tragedy is not that Eagleton isn’t up to much as a literary critic. Nor is it lazily polemic verbosity. Instead, it is the fact that Eagleton’s failings as a critic, a historian, and a rhetorician prevent him from realizing a project that, despite everything, has much to recommend it.

Although vestiges of Christianity and its commitment to redemptive suffering are everywhere present in Romantic and Idealist versions of the tragic, tragedy and Christianity are usually kept a safe distance apart from one another. As Dante’s Commedia suggests, the Christian life has a happy ending, at least for those who are deemed worthy of it. But Eagleton takes a different view, and is rightly at pains to stress that there is no need for a tragedy to end in calamity — consider Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Sophocles’s Philoctetes, Euripides’s Alcestis, or even Macbeth.

In the most interesting and original parts of Tragedy, Eagleton uses this perspective to help him Christianize tragedy and to tragicize Christianity. For him, tragedy repudiates “banal middle-class progressivism” and “faint-hearted nihilism” alike, and offers a species of redemption that rejects optimism of all kinds while encouraging clear-eyed versions of hope. But he has more in mind than the resuscitation of 19th-century notions about literature as a secular kind of religion. What Eagleton wants to do is to use tragedy to make a claim about the nature and significance of Christianity, and of Christianity in the cultural and political realities of the 21st century.

At the center of all this is the figure of the suffering Christ, closely resembling the “man of sorrows,” or imago pietatis, that was a popular subject of devotional art from about 1300 to 1600. That the bleeding, wounded Christ is so visibly corporeal emphasizes that his passion is a source of commonality for humankind at large — all parts of which, from the mightiest king to the lowliest peasant, are equal before God, as also in the sufferings of their mortality. Because the “risen body of Jesus, still bearing the marks of his wounds, cannot annul the fact of his torture and humiliation,” Eagleton views the New Testament as “a tragic but not a heroic document.” Eagleton’s Christology affirms the status of Christianity both as an inherently tragic way of looking at the world, and as a medium that enables us to pass “through death and self-abandonment” to a future of radical egalitarianism.

Perhaps so, but Rowan Williams seems closer to the mark in concluding that “tragedy typically leaves questions painfully open,” whereas “religious language aspires to some kinds of — if not closure, then at least the promise of sense or of reconciliation.” It is nonetheless true that Christianity as Eagleton conceives it makes for a fine heuristic through which to grasp many of the things that tragedy seeks to accomplish, and that might otherwise escape our attention. If Eagleton were to write a book making the argument that the tragic can best be understood through a version of Christianity (rather, that is, than pretending to write one while going through the motions with old sparring partners), I for one would be keen to read it.


Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

LARB Contributor

Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton, and has interests in the literature and history of early modern England and Europe. His most recent book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, was published in 2017.


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