Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.63

Christoph Menke, Tragic Play: Irony and Theater from Sophocles to Beckett (translated by James Phillips; first published 2005). Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts.   New York:  Columbia University Press, 2009.  Pp. xi, 232.  ISBN 9780231145565.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Joshua Billings, Merton College, Oxford University (
Word count: 2179 words

Table of Contents

In Tragic Play: Irony and Theater from Sophocles to Beckett, Christoph Menke turns his attention from Hegel's theory of tragedy (the focus of his 1996 Die Tragödie im Sittlichen) to the question of tragedy's presence in the modern world. For Menke, tragedy is defined primarily by irony, the way that actions bring about the opposite of their intended consequences. Menke begins with a reading of Oedipus the King informed by the notoriously recondite notes of Hegel's friend and former roommate, Friedrich Hölderlin. This brings to the fore the question of judgment: the crux of the play lies not in guilt for actions Oedipus has committed but in his "excess of judgment," the way he condemns himself for the unavoidable irony of his actions. Oedipus the King is the exemplary tragedy because Oedipus's excessive judgment illustrates the essential tragic fact of irony. From this understanding of tragedy as irony, Menke develops a theory of tragic form and a polemical account of the history of the genre: tragedy has not been rendered impossible by modern reason (as Hegel, Nietzsche, et al. believe) nor by Christian religion (as Benjamin, Steiner, et al. have argued), but remains an essential element of experience and a vital dramatic form. Though I have reservations about this final step of the argument (which was clearer in its German title, Die Gegenwart der Tragödie: Versuch über Urteil und Spiel), Menke's remarks on Oedipus the King and genre are bold, rigorous, and should be of interest to all those who study tragedy. His willingness to pose big questions is refreshing, and his answers, if not always convincing, are fascinating.

Menke has a longstanding interest in law, which he brings to bear impressively on Oedipus the King. Menke reads the play as a depiction of Oedipus's effort to establish and carry out a regime that would ground judgment, and the ironic failure of that effort. Following Hölderlin, he locates the decisive moment in Oedipus's proclamation of a curse on the murderer of Laios. This "juridification" (Verrechtlichung) of Oedipus's role binds him to follow the consequences of his curse into excess, extracting a penalty beyond what reasonable judgment would demand. In setting up an objective standard ("whoever does this is cursed"), Oedipus seeks to establish an order that would judge and punish fairly, but the effect is to exaggerate the injustice of his own judgment. Oedipus the King, then, not only reveals a life marked by tragic irony, but incorporates that irony into the structure of its revelation. Though this summary is inadequate to the complexity of Menke's ideas and the rigor of his argument, it should make clear its strongest point: it delineates the relation of character and plot as a play of irony.

The weakness of this reading, as commentators on Hölderlin have remarked for two hundred years, is that it hinges on the interpretation of the curse (233-51) as excessive. The particularity of the curse, according to Menke, is that Oedipus breaks off the appeal to the community's interest in the previous words, and prescribes self-condemnation to the unknown perpetrator (though there is also a grammatical/interpretive question as to who is implicated in the words). Once this has been pronounced, Menke argues, it renders the juridical structure Oedipus has tried to establish void; it makes punishment a syllogistic mechanism rather than a reasoned judgment. For those who have puzzled over what it is that Hölderlin means in locating Oedipus's "nefas" in this moment, Menke's reading is illuminating, and suggests interesting consequences for reading other tragedies of excessive judgment: Sophoclean parallels are obvious (the 'heroic temper' might be understood as the judicial temper); Euripides's Hippolytus and Bacchae come to mind, but also the shocking reversals of his escape tragedies; the Eumenides, Menke shows, might represent the reverse of Oedipus's failed juridification. Yet this edifice rests largely on proving that Oedipus's proclamation is disproportionate to his role ("zu unendlich...priesterlich" writes Hölderlin), and that it does not follow from the oracular utterance. This is a hard task, as there is no internal evidence to suggest that this is the case. One can follow Menke (and Bollack, whom he cites) and see that Oedipus's response changes in turning to curse the perpetrator, but this need not represent so radical a break as Menke argues. This weakness by no means renders the larger insight into the excess of judgment void, but it does place into question some of the details of Menke's argument. Still, Menke offers a bracing, original reading of the play, which at every moment is worth considering, whether to think with or against.

Menke follows the analysis of Oedipus the King with a theoretical consideration of character in tragedy. Against historical and psychological explanations of actions, Menke argues for a rigorous separation of dramatic from real existence: character in drama only exists in so far as it manifests itself (as Heidegger's Dasein) through the determinations of the author. In drama the relation between character and author differs fundamentally from that of narrative forms: though action is determined by a text, it is represented on stage as autonomous. This interaction of freedom and determination makes drama an inherently self-reflexive mode. For Menke, tragedy's self-reflection consists in an ironic play of the roles of author and character: tragic characters are those "who comport themselves like the author of a dramatic text and who experience as characters in a dramatic text." That is to say, tragic irony comes about when characters, in trying to make their own fate, find themselves stuck in a fate determined for them. Though all literary characters are subject to an author's determination, tragedy's characters have a special, ironic relation to this fact in that their actions seek to assert their own independence. This is hardly a radical definition, but it offers a convincing account of the relation of tragic plot and character, muthos and ethos. Menke's thinking is thoroughly Aristotelian, formalizing the concepts of hamartia and peripeteia as facets of irony. The rigor of this description, though, makes it of great potential use to considerations of tragedy in any period: irony, writes Menke, "is the condition of possibility of tragic experience."

The irony of tragic experience informs Menke's contribution to philosophical considerations of tragedy. The philosophical content of literature, though, is not to be understood as comparable to the discursive truth of philosophy; language can elaborate the truth of tragedy, but it cannot assert or test this truth in any other realm. Literature's truth, then, lies (contra Aristotle) not in the universality of its assertions, but in their particularity. The excess of judgment in Oedipus the King does not show a truth of all judgment, but an extreme case that illustrates the constant possibility that existence can turn into tragedy. In his deed, justice becomes violence, and therefore constitutes a "self-subversion of the law." This is because, Menke argues, law is based on the presupposition that criminality is avoidable -- precisely the assumption that Oedipus's case contradicts. Oedipus's experience undermines, on a philosophical (though not a practical) level, the validity of law by presenting a case in which no learning can come from suffering. Tragedy, then, exposes the "aporia of prudence...the knowledge of prudence's impossibility." This is not, Menke points out, a truth that can guide action. It is itself a knowledge from which nothing can be learned, ironic to its very core. The importance of this conclusion can hardly be overstated: Menke's refusal to see tragic experience as educative or dialectical sets him against a long tradition of thought, and his superbly argued account of tragic irony is a major contribution to the philosophy of tragedy.

In a "Theoretical Interlude," Menke steps back to consider the theory of tragedy historically. All accounts of the pleasure of tragedy must come to terms with a dichotomy of "metaphysical aversion for the tragic and aesthetic pleasure in the art of its presentation." Historically, this has been done in two ways: the "classical" model (Aristotle and the tradition of affective poetics) sees the two experiences in irreconcilable conflict, whereas the "modern" model (Hegel, Nietzsche, etc.) sees tragic aversion as dissolved in aesthetic pleasure. Menke chooses the first as the basis of what will be a postmodern theory. This is based on a brilliant interpretation of Hölderlin's notion of the Sophoclean caesura, the moment at which the tragic nature of action discloses itself to aesthetic contemplation. The distance that understands actions as tragic and that experiences them as beautifully presented is one and the same; aversion and pleasure coexist in any experience of the tragic. Tragedy, thus, "is the scene of an irresolvable conflict between beauty and the tragic, between the aesthetic and the practical." This quality makes tragedy necessarily self-reflective, "meta-art." The classical is preferable to the modern model of tragedy both because it preserves the question of practice (which romantic dialectical models dissolve into aesthetics) and because it offers an aporetic answer (unlike modernist didactic theories). Menke defines postmodern tragedy as depicting the insoluble conflict of aesthetic and practical responses as play, therefore "meta-tragedy" in two senses: tragedy about tragedy and tragedy after tragedy.

The proof of this theory, of course, will have to lie in its success as an account of the "tragedy of play." The tragedy of play would begin in the aporia of action with which ancient tragedy ends; its fundamental outlook is therefore be one of skepticism. Meta-tragedy, epitomized for Menke by Hamlet, explores the consequences of a skeptical attitude towards action. What was implicit as irony in Oedipus the King becomes explicit as theatrical play in Hamlet. Hamlet's obsessive concern with appearance and reality and his inability to take decisive action appear as facets of a comprehensive, paralyzing skepticism. The irony of Hamlet's fate is that he is caught between the roles of actor and spectator, simultaneously blind to and too aware of the ironic structure of action. Menke calls this experience "the dizziness of reflection" and argues that "Shakespeare's play sketches a genealogy of skepticism." Though Hamlet is distinguished from Oedipus the King by this mise-en-abîme structure of reflection, both are concerned with the possibility of action and end, according to Menke, in an attitude of skepticism. This provides the basis for three (too) brief readings of post-war "tragedies of play," all of which manifest the same playful relation to the aporia of practice: Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Heiner Müller's Philoktet, and Botho Strauss's Ithaka. Menke offers sensitive, intelligent accounts of these major works, the latter two of which have particular importance for classicists.

In turning to postmodernity, the limitations of Menke's approach become most clear. Though his reading of Hamlet is fascinating and important in its own right (particularly as a refutation of those who see the problem as a lack of secure knowledge), the definition of tragedy by its ironic content threatens, I fear, to weaken the contemporary force of the genre. In our world and on our stages, irony comes cheaply; we are all too aware of the impotence of action. To see any skepticism towards practical action as tragic leads to a pan-tragicism that I do not find useful for understanding either Sophocles or Botho Strauss. The analysis of Ithaka is particularly frustrating: though the play presents Odysseus's successful homecoming, this is rendered tragic because it occurs only through the self-consciously theatrical intervention of Athena and three mystical Fragmentary Women. I would not dispute that Strauss's outlook is ironic and skeptical towards action, but is the effect anything like that of Oedipus the King or Hamlet? Sophocles's and Shakespeare's irony runs deeper and cuts more sharply than Strauss's (or Müller's, certainly; Beckett is a better case). The reason, I believe, is that the classic tragedies do not take irony for granted. We are used to understanding our lives as characterized by irony. The philosophical interest of Oedipus and Hamlet is that they are not, that from the experiences peripeteia and anagnorisis they come to know irony. Menke's analysis thus leaves this reader all the more convinced that tragedy in the modern world is rare and even impossible: tragedy can only exist in a world that is not already tragic.

James Phillips' translation is readable and clear, though without the verve of Menke's German. My only quibble is with the translation and referencing practice. Generally, translations of tragedians come from the perfectly serviceable Loeb series, yet Aeschylus is given alternately in the now-superseded (though perhaps not at the time of submission) Loeb of Smyth, and Campbell's extremely archaic 1906 translation. This makes for an odd alternation of prose and verse that bears no relation to the original meters. Modern works fare little better: German primary texts are not referred to scholarly, original-language editions, and the translations employed can be obscure. Some secondary texts that have been translated are referenced in their original editions, rather than available translations. Finally, French is left in the original throughout the footnotes, while all German is translated. A little more attention to detail could have made the book a great deal more useful to scholars. Nevertheless, Menke's insights deserve careful attention from classicists.

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