Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.40

Pierre Judet de La Combe, Les tragédies grecques sont-elles tragiques?: théâtre et théorie.   Montrouge:  Bayard Éditions, 2010.  Pp. 334.  ISBN 9782227481398.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joshua Billings, Oxford University (

It is easy to doubt the applicability of philosophy to philology, and such skepticism is well-founded when interpretations seek to subsume the particularity of works of art in the universality of concepts. Yet there is also a more subtle way that literature can be understood as philosophical, when artistic singularity is not considered merely as the manifestation of an idea, but as an idea itself, irreducible to any other form, but nevertheless in some way universal. Pierre Judet de la Combe’s Les tragédies grecques sont-elles tragiques? Théâtre et Théorie invites us to consider this possibility, proposing an interpretation of Greek tragedy that would be at once philosophical and philological, grounding the truth of literature in textual detail. The concept of the tragic, as articulated around 1800 in the thought of Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin provides the foundation for the book’s discussion. Judet de la Combe seeks to validate the concept of the tragic for philology by removing it from its usual philosophical contexts. Though the book as a whole is quite uneven, Judet de la Combe’s larger points shine through as original, profound, and vastly important.

Judet de la Combe’s lengthy introduction considers the antithesis of his subtitle, that between theater, a one-time, dynamic event, and theory, a universal, static essence; similarly, between the particular genre of tragedy in ancient Greece, and the generalizing philosophy of the tragic of German Idealism. Do they have any productive relationship? Most classicists have answered in the negative, and largely ignored theories of the tragic to concentrate on tragic theater. Yet this has not meant that Classics is free of the idealist legacy: the elements of philosophical thought on tragedy have, Judet de la Combe argues, penetrated our understanding of the genre. When classicists consider some of the central issues of tragedy – the role of the gods, guilt and punishment, civic ideals – they do so in terms that can be traced back to Idealism. Judet de la Combe maintains a healthy skepticism towards all the theories he discusses, but uses their implications and their inadequacies to begin to formulate an adequate understanding of the tragic in the plays themselves.

Judet de la Combe understands idealist theories as efforts to determine the relation of the general to the particular, of a metaphysical essence to human existence. There are two basic ways to figure this relation: either positively, seeing the Absolute as a reconciliation or justification of the contradictions and conflicts of life (Hegel and Schelling); or negatively, defining the Absolute as the inscrutable source of existential incoherence (Hölderlin and Solger). His description is particularly illuminating for connecting both positions to our understanding of language: the positive ontology is based on a belief in the adequacy of language to express the fundamental facts of existence, while the negative ontology brings with it a skepticism towards linguistic meaning. This opposition – which is nowhere explicit in the idealist sources – will structure Judet de la Combe’s own understanding of the tragedies, and prove an illuminating way to thematize hermeneutic questions. The divergence within idealist ontologies reveals an antinomy in reading Greek tragedy, between a practice that seeks to fix meaning and one that leaves meaning open.

This antinomy, Judet de la Combe argues, is not external to tragedy, but is rather the fundamental content of the genre. Tragedy is about the possibility of making sense. The genre’s basic theme is temporality, changes of fortune, peripeteiai; this makes it in a sense inherently resistant to theory, to the fixation of meaning. Yet tragedy’s resistance to theory is at the same time an acknowledgment ex negativo of the possibility of attaining general truth. Idealism is valuable in thematizing the fundamental tension of tragedy between reason and unreason. Idealist thought should be understood as an examination of the antinomy at the heart of the genre. To read tragedy philosophically is to pose the question of meaning to the works themselves.

The first chapter, ‘Comment lit-on une tragédie’, is again structured by the opposition between generality and particularity. Judet de la Combe opposes, on one hand, the purely philosophical readings of tragedy that seek to dissolve tragic action into a single theory, and on the other, a purely practical reading that refuses to see any relation to a greater truth. Against these possibilities, he proposes a ‘morphological hypothesis.’ This assumes (unlike the theoretical readings) that the form of representation is essential to creating the sense of the work, but (unlike the practical readings) that this sense exists and is communicated in performance. Such a reading, he argues, is able to move beyond the dichotomy of production and reception by understanding reception as a consequence of production: the effect of the work is created by an address to the process of its decipherment. Though one can welcome this description of Judet de la Combe’s parameters for reading, the chapter as a whole is rather too cursory in its methodological discussion to be of great use and, after the very substantial introduction, seems unnecessary.

In Chapter 2, ‘Premières conceptions du tragique,’ Judet de la Combe situates the philosophical texts of Schelling, Hegel, and Hölderlin in the context of thought on tragedy. He is especially illuminating in showing how idealist readings, consciously or not, have been echoed in more ‘philological’ interpretations – whether they subscribe to a positive or negative metaphysics of tragedy. He points out drawbacks in both approaches and shows neatly how each has influenced major strands of modern thought: either that tragedy is a means of constructive civic discourse, or that it is a form of irreducible ambiguity. Judet de la Combe’s discussion of particular theories is quite general and idiosyncratically focused, so readers new to Idealism will want to begin elsewhere (it is also rather unreliable for dates and other such historical details) . Only his reading of Hegel offers substantial interpretive gains, focusing on Hegel’s discussion of the Eumenides in the 1802-3 Naturrecht essay. Hegel suggests that the work preserves a tension between viewing the founding of the Athenian democracy as an act of justice and as an act of violence – a view that is then demonstrated in the text itself. Although buried in the middle of the chapter, the notion of tragedy as an open dialectic is central to Judet de la Combe’s reading of Aeschylus in his third chapter ‘Tragique et tragédie: Eschyle.’

Here, the author is on familiar ground, focusing on the famous scene of deliberation in Aulis as recounted by the chorus in the parodos of the Agamemnon. An idealist reading would understand the scene as a conflict between subjective freedom and objective necessity, which Agamemnon resolves by freely taking on necessity. This would demonstrate that freedom is, in its absolute form, identical with necessity. Judet de la Combe first counsels against the anachrony of reading modern concepts into the work: for Agamemnon, freedom is ‘objective,’ an absence of external compulsion, and not the possibility of choosing the option that best suits him. This is precisely what he cannot do in the situation, and his choice to sacrifice Iphigenia appears as an example of ‘functional liberty,’ in which choice and constraint are ultimately inseparable. There is thus validity in seeing the moment as a modified idealist tragic crisis, in which the forces of freedom and compulson do not entirely merge, but remain in an open tension.

Turning to the Seven, Judet de la Combe describes the consequences of tragic crisis for the speech of the protagonists. He here picks up another strand of idealist thought, the negative ontology that understands language as inadequate to tragic events. He finds such a moment when Eteocles, on hearing of the word Δίκη emblazoned on his brother’s shield, plays with the absolute meaning of the word in turning it into a relative description of equivalency (ἐνδικώτερος, line 673). At the moment of tragic crisis, language becomes fluid and is caught between general signification and particular appropriation. This irreducible linguistic obscurity would create reflective possibilities for the audience, for whom the details of the myth cannot be reconciled with the obscure signification of what is spoken. Tragedy’s cognitive function, Judet de la Combe concludes, is the way it presents crises, oppositions, and tensions for the audience to consider.

The strength of both these readings of Aeschylus (unsurprisingly) lies in Judet de la Combe’s extraordinary knowledge of and sensitivity to the texts. He demonstrates in great detail how Aeschylus’s words continually problematize their own interpretation. Yet it is not always clear what is specifically idealist in Judet de la Combe’s readings: seeing freedom and necessity in conflict is certainly an important starting-point for Schelling, but it is not unique or particularly original to him. Similarly, Hölderlin’s views on the ambiguity of language in tragedy are so broadly applied that they might come from anywhere. As I understand it, Judet de la Combe’s idealism consists in seeing a constructive cognitive effect of Greek tragedy, and actually has relatively little to do with the specifics of the theories elaborated around 1800. His discussion of their details in Chapter 2 may then have been something of a red herring. What he takes from Idealism is the conviction – nowhere stated explicitly but underlying all its theories of the tragic – that tragedy is about making sense, that the genre is fundamentally existential. This is, depending on one’s viewpoint, an idealist discovery or invention, but undeniably differentiates post-1800 thought on tragedy from the largely affective discussions that went before.

In ‘D’Eschyle aux autres,’ Judet de la Combe offers a glance at the tragic as the genre changes over the course of the fifth century. He argues that the philosophical content of tragedy alters as philosophical discourse becomes an independent linguistic form over the course of the century. Tragedy gives up its place as the culture’s primary forum for producing sense and assumes the function of problematizing the conclusions of philosophical thought. It does so by taking on the exemplary philosophical figure of antithesis, which tragedy leaves always unresolved and out of balance. Judet de la Combe demonstrates this first on the Antigone, reading its grammatically tortured opening words as the construction of a relation to divinity characterized by complete asymmetry. Even more radical is Euripides’s technique in the prologue of the Orestes, he argues, which suggests that there exists a stable human φύσις only to undermine any coherent understanding of what this might be. Judet de la Combe’s attention to textual detail is admirable and his discussions of both passages is illuminating – though again, philosophical thought on the tragic only establishes, quite generally, the terms of his discussion. The tragic, as the author makes clear in his brief conclusion, does not reside in universal truths, but in the way that language continually poses and undermines the possibility of making sense. Tragedy is for him a fundamentally open form because language is always caught in the tension between meaning and incoherence. His is the theory of a philologist, not a philosopher – and the better for it.

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