Commentary Magazine

Is There A Tragic Sense of Life?

For Merry Abel, 1940-1964, in memoriam

Our Estimate of Writers with the “Tragic Sense”

We set a particular value on those writers of plays—sometimes of novels—who give expression to what has been called the “tragic sense of life.” Do we overvalue them? The truth is, I think, that we value them in a very special way. For we see demonstrated in their works the possibility of viewing life other than with optimism or pessimism; and for ourselves, when we reflect, the only possible choice lies with one or the other of these extremes. So that it is not only the art of the writer of tragedy we admire, but some special insight, which we feel that without his aid we are denied, and can only achieve through his intervention, but which he—for that is our assumption—enjoys by some peculiar privilege of rare wisdom, or intelligence, or some yet more mysterious endowment. He seems more philosophic than other writers of equal art or scope, so that by a kind of tacit consent philosophers have honored the authors of tragedy as the most philosophical of writers. In this estimate of the writer of tragedy I think there is a misunderstanding of his very special achievement, hence also a misunderstanding of what he achieves—namely, tragedy. If we correctly think out what we are right to admire the author of tragedy for, we can correct some wrong notions of what tragedy is.



Our dissatisfaction with Optimism and Pessimism

Now it should be clear why optimism as an attitude toward life cannot satisfy us. It should be clear, too, that our dissatisfaction with it is mainly intellectual. For we are quite naturally optimistic insofar as we are active beings, living in time and planning the future which our very life structure requires us to think of as being capable of yielding to our purposes. But when we reflect, when we remember “Things said and done long years ago,” and also the things we did not say or do, as well as those said and done by others, we cannot but realize that there are a great many negative facts. Only a few of these, and there are a great many of them, would be enough to invalidate any optimistic hypothesis that the world as it is can be truthfully described as good. Instances of such negative facts may be remote or local; the unjust sentence passed on Socrates, or the example raised by André Malraux at a Congress of Soviet writers during the 30’s, of a man run over by a trolley car.1 Such negative facts are able to render void all optimistic generalizations about the world, just as a few tiny facts which remain obdurate to explanation are sufficient to refute a whole scientific theory accounting for a multitude of others. So those who live by optimistic beliefs are like bad scientists, clinging, despite the evidence, to refuted theories.

But what about the negative facts? Do they at least justify pessimism? Not as a hypothesis, not as a generalized view. For the negative facts comprise merely one set of facts, and the world is such that no one set of facts is able to speak for it. Alas for the heartbreak of the defeated and the dead! If we do not straightaway share their fate—we are forced to think of something else.

The Russian thinker Shestov—I will not call him a philosopher—repeated again and again in his writings that the injustice done to Socrates was a fact he could not endure. He thought, too, that a fact of this sort should make us suspicious of any facts we ordinarily think of as positive. But even if the positive facts were far fewer than the negative they could still not justify our electing for pessimism. (For Schopenhauer a preponderance of negative facts did justify pessimism; his argument lacks subtlety.) The positive facts remain, and they prevent us from resolving without artificiality in favor of a pessimistic view. A very few positive facts can make pessimism unacceptable. This is illustrated, I think, in the Biblical story of Abraham’s debate with God when He was intent on destroying the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham argued that if there were even ten good men in those cities, the Lord’s proposed action would be unjust. And God finally conceded Abraham to be the better philosopher, admitting that if there were even fewer than ten good men in Sodom and Gomorrah, His pessimism about the two cities would be unjustified, notwithstanding all the wicked in them.

That the positive facts stand in the way of a resolve for pessimism is not in any sense an argument for being optimistic. Far from it! It is a sad fact indeed that sadness is no closer than lightness of spirit to the very heart of things.

What argues for optimism is that it is required by our life structure. If we plan to be optimistic, then at least we are not contradicting ourselves; but if we plan to be pessimistic—and since we live in time, to be pessimistic means to plan to be pessimistic—then we are contradicting ourselves; we are placing our trust in the view that things will be untrustworthy; we are reasoning that Failure cannot fail, and so, in a sense, can be depended upon. Then, too, except in cases of present or permanent distress, optimism is natural and spontaneous, while pessimism is inevitably theatrical. Life requires optimism; but optimism leaves out of account and quite disregards pain, frustration, and death; such disregard is, of course, intellectually shallow. So we are back with our dilemma: we can be optimists or pessimists; but can we want to be either?



The Tragic Sense

And the remedy is a fantastic one: it is a vision of the irremediable. We go to the theater to see a tragedy. We see human action in the clearest light the mind can cast on it, and behold, we see the human person at his best. We do not disregard pain or frustration or death; in fact, we give them our whole attention, and they do not make us pessimistic, they give us joy. As Aristotle said, we are relieved of pity and terror—the very emotions pessimism would yield to and optimism would avoid. We see life tragically; we have for the duration of the play at least, and perhaps for some time afterward, the tragic sense. Would that it were more lasting!

Can we make it so? Can we not make permanent the view of life we enjoyed in the theater and in recollection afterward for however short a time? Can we not acquire or develop a sense of life such as the playwright himself must have had? Of course we cannot be Sophocles, Shakespeare, or Racine. The question then is: can the tragic sense be acquired without the special genius of the writer of tragedy, and if so, how?



Why we cannot Acquire the Tragic Sense

Suppose, though—for I think this true—that what we call the tragic sense does not form part of the playwright’s genius and does not involve superior capacities of mind. Then it must be the result of experience. Of what experience? The answer to this question is obvious, we should have thought of it immediately: the experience which leads to the tragic sense of life is the experience of tragedy; it is by undergoing tragedy that one arrives at the tragic sense. Or rather, the word “arrives” is misleading here, for one does not acquire or develop the tragic sense, it is not realized but imposed; one never possesses it; one has to be possessed by it.

We cannot add the tragic sense to our present sense of life, be that present sense optimistic or pessimistic. And without our present sense we have neither terms nor criteria with which to decide whether the tragic sense is worth what it will cost us. And from this it follows that no reason can ever be given for recommending the tragic sense, however good or great a thing the tragic sense may be.

Mr. Herbert J. Muller in a recent book, The Spirit of Tragedy, has had the temerity to urge on us the acquisition of the tragic sense for reasons which he himself does not deny are frankly utilitarian. He writes: “We might not continue to get along as a free open society without more of the tragic sense of life.” I think the error he has fallen into is expressed in his use of the word “more.” If we had some of the tragic sense of life, then perhaps we could get still more of it, but it would not be the drastic thing it is if that were the way it could be come by. The prospect we would face, if we had not just “more” of the tragic sense, but enough of it to have it, would be one of all or nothing.

So we cannot urge the tragic sense on ourselves or on others. To try to attain it or to recommend it is comical and self-refuting, tragedy being real only when unavoidable. There would be no such thing as tragedy if a tragic fate could be rationally chosen.



The writer of Tragedy and the Philosopher

But what about the writer of tragedy? Must he not possess the tragic sense of life since he is able to make it available to us at least for the time we spend under his spell? Is there not reason for thinking that the writer of tragedy must have a more permanent relation to the tragic view than those who receive it from him? Does he have a special philosophy, a tragic philosophy if you please, permanently his and which, through his art, he is able to share with us in some small measure?

I do not think the writer of tragedy has to have any view of life drastically different from our own. Supposing he were a philosopher, what difference would that make? He could not by means of philosophy resolve the question of optimism or pessimism, which we, who are not philosophers, face. For philosophies are also either optimistic or pessimistic. (Some philosophies are neutral, but this last attitude is finally subsumed under pessimism. Neutrality to life really means pessimism about it.)

And when the vision of a writer of tragedy is stated philosophically it is always converted (I submit, necessarily) into a form of optimism or of pessimism. I shall give two examples. The first is taken from Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, “Dover Beach.” Arnold, looking out at the sea from Dover Beach and hearing in the cadence of the waves the “eternal note of sadness,” thinks of Sophocles:

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery;. . .

And the image of Sophocles hearing the note of “human misery” leads Arnold to this pessimistic declaration:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

The view of life expressed here is not one that I, or any one else, could derive from seeing a performance of Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, or Antigone. Perhaps Sophocles had such thoughts when he looked at the Aegean, but these are not the thoughts we think when witnessing his tragedies. And from the reports about Sophocles by his contemporaries, we are scarcely justified in calling to mind an individual contemplating human misery. The tragic poet was said to have been charming, gracious, genial, and with no better opinions about politics or life than other cultivated Athenians.

The wonderful Spanish writer and thinker Miguel de Unamuno, who is actually responsible for the phrase “the tragic sense of life,” trying to state this “tragic sense” as a philosophical attitude, converts it, I think, into a refined and pleasing, though somber, form of optimism. Unamuno’s tragic sense is even a misnomer; there is little that is tragic about it, for he is not urging us to set something above life; rather what he does urge us to set above life is nothing more than life, immortal life, the immortality of the soul, on which immortality he asks us to gamble the existence we are certain of. That this violently optimistic Christianity should attract us with its death-splashed Spanish cloak is due, of course, to our obscure recognition, even if we have not thought the matter through, that optimism presented simply as optimism would offer us only what we are well acquainted and dissatisfied with.

A novel and, I think, quite wrong view that thought, even philosophic thought, can have and has had a tragic cast is presented by Lucien Goldmann in his much-praised book on Pascal and Racine, he Dieu Caché (“The Hidden God”). According to Goldmann, there are certain philosophers whose thought can be characterized as tragic. He cites as instances Pascal and Kant. Why is their thought tragic? Because, says Goldmann, it expresses the conflict in them between alternative and exclusive world views, the world view of mathematical science and the world view of revealed religion. But surely no character on the stage would be convincing in the tragic hero’s part if his torment were due to nothing more drastic than his inability to choose between or mediate conflicting views. In fact, Kant and Pascal did both. What I mean is this: Kant opted for religion in his metaphysics and for science in his epistemology. And I think Pascal did the same in his distinction between l’esprit géométrique and l’esprit de finesse (reasoning of the mind and reasoning of the heart).

I submit that it is not through any particular philosophy that the tragic writer is able to give expression to his tragic sense of life, although this tragic sense does have for us, the audience, a virtue which has been called philosophic. Then is it by art alone that the writer of tragedy affects us as he does?



The writer of tragedy without the Philosopher

The very great probability is, I suggest, that the writer of tragedy is no more endowed with a tragic sense of life than are we to whom he makes it available. By which I mean that he, too, in his regular experience of life is condemned to the same unsatisfactory choice between optimism and pessimism that we are, and that only in the act of writing tragedy, only by making the tragic view available to us, is he himself enabled to envisage life in its terms. His creation then is a communion with us, in the experiencing of a view of things which we could not have without him, but which he in turn can only have insofar as he is capable of extending it to us.

Why could we not have the tragic sense without the written tragedy? Let us consider this point from a somewhat different angle. There is something we could have without the help of art, and which many people may confuse with the tragic sense, namely, the feeling of a pessimism that is justified. This is all we can get from the lesser masters of the art of tragedy, from Euripides and Webster at their best, and from Shakespeare in his unsuccessful tragedies such as Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and King Lear. Moreover, it is not this which makes them tragic. When Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard II complains of the vulnerability of kings—

        . . . for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic
        sits . . .
Allowing him a breath, a little scene . . .
. . . and humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell King!

he gives expression to a pessimism which in view of his situation he is certainly justified in feeling. And the greatness of the verse penetrates Richard’s feeling completely; what he says seems all the more inevitable because said in lines of such power. Who can be secure if the best protected of men, the king, is not? It is to be noted that a negative fact, in this instance death, armed with so mean and trivial an instrument as a pin, is seen as rendering meaningless the highest state a man can aspire to, that of kingliness. Later in the play Richard will say that man

    . . . who but man is
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
By being nothing.

The feeling expressed here of life’s meaninglessness we may all have felt, indeed must have felt, at some time or other and with some measure of poetry too, for such feelings provide a verbal talent all by themselves. We would not need the art of tragedy to acquaint us with such a judgment of life nor even with the necessity to pronounce it consummately.

A judgment of life similar in its pessimism to Richard’s and equally justified is uttered by Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This judgment, too, we could form for ourselves without either the experience of tragedy or Shakespeare’s art. But what we could not get without actual or invented tragedy is the experience of resolution when nothing can follow from resolve, a resolution beyond optimism or pessimism, hope or despair. This we get from Macbeth’s great words:

Though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane
And thou opposed, being not of woman born,
Yet will I try the last.

Richard’s speech about the death of kings is a protest against the weakness and impotence of the most highly placed. Macbeth’s lines of resolution express a much more complicated feeling, one in which are allied, to use Heidegger’s terms, utter impotence and super power. Richard’s lines about the death of kings, justifying pessimism, point to the negative fact, death, which renders optimistic notions of life invalid even for a king. Macbeth’s lines of resolution refer to no negative facts at all, nor to anything common in human experience, not even to the common experience of kings, but exclusively to the withdrawal of their aid from him by those metaphysical beings, the witches, who had for a time supported him. Macbeth’s lines are thrilling; Richard’s are merely sad. What has to be explained is why Macbeth’s lines thrill us, and why he had to pass through the experience of tragedy in order to be able to utter them. The weakness of Richard is evident, so is Macbeth’s. But whence comes Macbeth’s power?



What is Tragedy?

In tragedy, it is not the negative facts, rendering optimism invalid, which cause ultimate misfortune. Such negative facts as commonly threaten all of us are even converted in the mechanism of tragedy into positive goods. Blindness is an evil; yet Oedipus deliberately blinds himself. Death we would think is to be avoided at all costs; yet Antigone elects to die and denies her sister Ismene the same privilege. Ajax, when told that if he spends the day in his tent he will be allowed to live, deliberately leaves his tent and falls on his sword. In the tragic universe the negative facts of experience are finally unimportant. What might lead us in ordinary life to be pessimistic is never the cause of tragedy.

What is the cause, then, of tragedy? It is the opposition, as Hegel affirmed, of two conflicting goods. Tragedy is never caused by what is unambiguously evil. It is the sheerly positive in conflict with the sheerly positive that destroys the tragic protagonist. In the Greek world it was the collision of the values of the family with those of the state. For these contrary values, as Aeschylus and Sophocles understood them, could not be held to with equal fidelity in any superior experience of life. The superior man would inevitably violate the one or the other.2 Perhaps it may be said that while this may have been true of the ancient Greek world, it was not true of the Shakespearian world. For in what sense can the witches who incite Macbeth to kill Duncan be called sheerly positive? In what sense can they be called representatives of the good? Are they not an expression of unmitigated evil?

If they were, Macbeth would not be a tragedy. It would be a melodrama, and Macbeth’s story would merely be that of a villain defeated. But once again: in what sense can the witches be said to represent the good? In this sense: the witches in Macbeth are the only dramatic expression of the metaphysical. Duncan, the reigning king, is presented as kingly, just, morally upright. But Macbeth and Banquo are the characters in the play who have direct contact with the representatives of the metaphysical—that is to say, the witches. Now in Macbeth the metaphysical does not coincide with the moral, but is at odds with it; yet both are to be valued. Since the justification for kingship was finally metaphysical—the Elizabethans believed in the divine right of kings as opposed to any merely moral right to kingship—how could an immoral deed of murder to attain kingship, when metaphysical forces (in this case, the witches) seemed to support that deed, be thought of as evil? And, in fact, we never feel Macbeth is evil. We think of him as suffering, suffering because he has violated moral values he cannot deny, in support of values neither he nor Shakespeare’s age could think criticizable in moral terms. As in the Greek tragedies, we have in Macbeth good pitted against good, and the protagonist is the victim of their collision. What is dreadful, then, is never the mere negative facts ordinary experience fears. It is the good which is dreaded and has to be dreaded. Søren Kierkegaard, peculiarly sensitive to these matters, summed up what, I think, can be called the experience of tragedy when he said in his acute analysis of dread that it is fundamentally dread of the good.



What has the Writer of Tragedy Seen?

So the tragic writer has to have seen some collision of good with good in order to have been able to arrange the events he describes into a tragedy. Was he predisposed to see some such collision of good with good? Not, I should say, if it were not there to be seen, even if only he saw it. For can we want to see what it is undesirable to see? Some of us may, out of ambition or perversity, but not the writer of a proper tragedy. He sees what it is undesirable to see, without desiring to see it. This is one of the things we admire him for. To be sure, there are others. But in any case, what must be understood here is that the object of his vision was given by his age or epoch, and not created by him alone. The collision of good with good which he witnessed had then to be given him along with others to see; his part was to take what he saw, and what others may have seen, and fashion it into tragedy.

Thus the tragic view, properly understood, means to have seen the necessity for tragedy, to have recognized it rather than to have created it. That the tragic vision results from a direct act of seeing, and not from the holding of any particular view, or from any predilection for interpreting reality tragically, is something we must understand in order to evaluate that vision and judge it for its true worth. Just as in the tragedy he is going to write, the dramatist will set forth a sequence of events whose connections are necessary, so he himself can only be stirred to set forth such a sequence of events by the sight of a fatality that was thrust upon his view, and which was necessarily, not accidentally, there before him.

Once again: what did he see? A collision of good with good. Is it desirable that such a collision come within our view? Not in life. No. Nobody can genuinely say that he wants to see a tragedy enacted anywhere but on the stage. For it is a misfortune to a society or to a culture if its main values contradict one another. On the other hand, tragedy, that art which expresses the collision and not the harmony of such values, is in itself a positive aesthetic good. But this good, this aesthetic good, is achieved through an appropriate description of the ultimate in human misfortune: that men’s values should contradict rather than support one another.



Once again “The Tragic Thinker”

Perhaps it is right to say of the writer of tragedy that his thought, since it had to be equal to what he saw—what he saw was tragedy—is a kind of “tragic thinking.” But this can only mean that the writer of tragedy has not permitted any philosophy or ideology to impede or obstruct his vision. But what about those thinkers who have been called “tragic,” as for instance Pascal? As I indicated before, I think the term “tragic” when used to designate the thought of anyone not the writer of a tragedy is always wrongly used. Nonetheless, there are in Pascal’s Pensées many dramatic characterizations of experience which give us a kind of thrill comparable to the kind we get from tragedy. My contention is that in the case of such Pensées, Pascal has merely created an abstract replica of the kind of collision of values we find embodied with ever so much more concreteness in tragic poetry. Here is one of the most famous of Pascal’s thoughts:

Man is but a reed,. the feeblest of Nature’s growths, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him; a breath, a drop of water, may prove fatal. But were the universe to kill him, he would still be more noble than his slayers: for man knows that he is crushed, but the universe does not know that it crushes him.

Now I think what we have here is an imitation in conceptual terms of the kind of event set forth in a real tragedy. It is to be noted that Pascal begins by saying men can be destroyed by a drop of water or a breath; but he chooses not to continue the thought that men can be destroyed by such small means. The drop of water, the breath, are tiny facts: acting negatively, they would be of no interest in tragedy. So in Pascal’s thought they are expanded—in possibility, of course—into the universe. From the breath, the drop of water, Pascal goes to the whole universe which he imagines in the act of overwhelming a man. Even then, says Pascal, the man would be nobler than his slayer. But in any case, the slayer would be noble, being the universe. Insofar as Pascal’s thought here may strike one as tragic, I should say that the event he has described was modeled on that structure of events always present in a true tragedy. For he who is destroyed in a true tragedy is always destroyed by something of worth. The drop of water, the breath may be thought of, as I said before, as tiny facts behaving negatively, but which Pascal had finally to forget about and obscure from his view in order to make a true judgment of man’s nobility in misfortune.



What we should Admire in the Writer of Tragedy

Let us turn from the “tragic thinker” to the writer of tragedy. Why do we admire him? Not for his philosophy, for he has none. If he does hold to one in his personal life, this is not pertinent to his achievement or to our judgment of it. Nor are we required to think of him as a master of experience, as wiser or more deeply human than ourselves. Let us admire him for his art; we should recognize, though, that what he gives us goes far beyond what art generally or regularly gives. And let us admire him for his luck, too, at having been given by his age the opportunity to see in his mind’s eye certain paradigm instances of human adversity. Does not Pushkin say that the day after the flooding of Petrograd, “Khostov, poet, favorite of the heavens, already sang in verses never to die the griefs of Neva’s shores”?3

Moreover, the effort the writer of tragedy makes has to be immense. He has seen the collision of the main values of his age or culture; he has seen the non-meaning of meanings. Now the mind naturally seeks for meanings; the writer of tragedy has to deny and reverse this process in the very movement with which he yields to it.

His interest is, of course, an aesthetic one. May I speak for just one moment from a professional point of view? When you have written a play you are faced with this problem: what does this play mean? If it is meaningless, it is uninteresting. Suppose it does have a meaning, though. This is scarcely better. For have you not then reduced the action in your play to the illustration of an idea? Now illustrative art is scarcely better for many of us today than is meaningless art. Here the idea of tragedy exerts its fascination. For it is the kind of idea that attains to its truth only when represented in the work itself: the play, the tragedy. We are much more clear about what tragedy is when we see a tragedy enacted than when we try to reason about tragedy.

And let us not forget that what the writer of tragedy gives, he himself gets in the very act of giving: communion with us in a privileged view of human adversity. We admire him then for what he has seen and what he makes us see, a world where the highest values collide and in which we know we could not live. We recognize this when the curtain comes down and we do not know where to go. We have to become optimists or pessimists again in order to think of going home.


1 The reply made to Malraux was that the Soviet authorities would see to it that accidents of that sort decreased annually. The argument of the Soviet writers was for optimism, to them obligatory; the greater relative safety of future generations would more than make up for the absolute harm which had befallen a single man.

2 It may be asked: Why is a collision of values different from a collision of world views? But a collision of views, even if we call them world views, takes place within consciousness and not within the world. Values such as the family and the state are not merely values; they are valued realities. I should like to point out here that one of the most interesting insights of Martin Heidegger—much more interesting than his remarks about anguish and guilt, which have become part of current twaddle—is his judgment that world views imply the absence of a world rather than a world’s enduring presence. Tragedy takes place in a world, not in a consciousness which is uncertain as to what the world is.

3 From Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman in Edmund Wilson’s translation.

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