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Many discussions of tragedy point out that calling an event or situation “tragic” these days is really just an emotionally charged way of saying “very sad indeed”; it has little to do with the literary and philosophical conventions that we associate with tragedy as an art form – or indeed as a dimension of the moral world. One of the most important features of Terry Eagleton’s brief but resourceful new book on the subject is the way in which he exposes the shadow side of any such approach. He is clear that it won’t do to think of the tragic as a special kind of suffering, undergone by special sorts of people: “The banal truth is that one does not need to do anything in particular to qualify as a tragic protagonist.” And, correspondingly, we should be very suspicious of an understanding of tragedy which specifies a set of necessary formal conditions beyond being the representation of appalling pain. George Steiner’s concerns about the erosion of “real” or “absolute” tragedy by both democracy and religion are dealt with forcefully – but with a generous recognition of the creative strength of Steiner’s baroque inventiveness.
Nonetheless, there are some general things we can reflect on as we look at how the form is embodied. Eagleton notes that literary tragedy is not only a culturally specific genre, unparalleled outside Europe, but one that is most in evidence at times of major transition. Revolution of whatever sort involves the imperative to do new things; yet the newness of new things is only imaginable against the backdrop of a continuing narrative, usually one of advance or enlightenment. And the more that is understood, the more clearly we see that our possibilities are circumscribed, our parts already in some degree written for us. What can we intelligibly say about human agency or liberty when pressed between the urgency of the new (which is the distinctive, the individual, the creative) and the inescapability of the past narrative without which we could not even speak about ourselves or to each other?