BMCR 2006.01.40

Über das Vergnügen an tragischen Gegenständen: Studien zum antiken Drama. Edited by J. Holzhausen

, , Über das Vergnügen an tragischen Gegenständen : Studien zum antiken Drama. Munich and Leipzig: Saur, 2005. vi, 454 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 3598730241 €96.00.

[Disclosure: Bernd Seidensticker was my host when I was a Humboldt-fellow in Berlin in 1993. We first met in the early 80s, when I and another assistant professor were assigned to help him do various errands around Cambridge and Boston on his last day of a visit to Harvard. At the end of the day, he telephoned a senior colleague to say he needed some time to pack, so that he could buy us a drink. I do not know many people who would lie to somebody important in order to be gracious to the unimportant, and I have had the deepest respect for him ever since.]

“Studien zum antiken Drama”: the volume includes 14 papers on Greek tragedy, one on satyr-play, and one on Seneca. All have appeared before, several in Festschriften, between 1972 and 1999. Several were originally lectures and retain traces of that origin. Six are in English, the rest in German. Bacchae receives most attention, followed by Orestes, Medea, Ajax, and OT. The book groups them thematically rather than chronologically, with the studies of particular texts and passages first, and then the broader ones.

It is always a pleasure to read along with Seidensticker, whether you agree with him or not. I myself do not think the two Oedipus-plays of Sophocles are as closely connected as he does, but his discussion, in the volume’s first paper (“Beziehungen zwischen den beiden Oidipusdramen des Sophokles”), is the most helpful and thoughtful comparison one could hope for (I plan to assign it in my Sophocles seminar next term). The second, Die Wahl des Todes bei Sophokles,” shows the characteristic Seidensticker combination of philology and intellectual openness, as he examines Ajax’ suicide in the light of contemporary suicidology and shows that Ajax displays characteristic symptoms. The third paper examines Sophocles’ techniques of characterization: contrast between characters, significant detail and pointed expression, the dynamic presentation of character in dialogue, the impression of complexity provided by differing and even barely compatible traits in the same character, the use of allusion to the part. While the methods he discusses have been often recognized, Seidensticker brings them together to offer a brief but compelling defense of characterization in the conventional sense as an important component of Sophoclean tragedy; the paper is a real contribution within an (otherwise mostly English-language) debate.

Then there are two papers on famous passages that some have argued are interpolations, one on Medea 1056-80 and the other on Orestes 1503-36. These are both models of judicious discussion. He defends the transmitted text in both instances, but not without recognizing the real problems critics have raised.

“Comic Elements in Euripides’ Bacchae” has for scholars been superseded by Palintonos Harmonia, for it is inherently more satisfying to locate the comic side of one tragedy in the larger corpus; but one can be grateful that this paper exists in English, since we so often teach this play to undergraduates and it is good to have the paper available to them.1 It is hard to imagine how anyone will argue again that these elements are not funny. The next essay, “Pentheus,” is an extended defense of a “psychological” interpretation of the character, in particular of the claim that he has repressed Dionysiac impulses. In another of Seidensticker’s ventures outside usual philological territory, he argues that Pentheus is an “authoritarian personality” in the sense defined by the famous, or infamous, book of Adorno et al.2 — a book, interestingly, whose continuing value has just been argued by Alan Wolfe ( Chronicle of High Education). He did not convince me (not surprisingly, since I am deeply suspicious of the concept of “repression” in the Freudian sense), but, as usual, engaged me anyway. The following essay, from 1979, analyses the echoes of sacrificial ritual in the action of the Bacchae. Although it seems dated, since scholars have in the meantime extensively treated ritual within Greek tragedy in general and especially in this play, it is crisp and to the point, and may be the better for its concentration on the parallels themselves rather than their interpretation. S. briefly links the play to Burkert’s theory of the origins of tragedy (190-91); I doubt that tragedy is as “ritual” in origin or meaning as this, but the pattern he describes is certainly there.3 The next piece, “Die Zerstörung des tragischen Helden bei Euripides,” looks at the unheroic Euripidean hero. This was the only essay in the book where I found myself bored, for its argument is very familiar, and the conclusion, which states that in 405 the first high point of European tragedy was over, seems to endorse the Nietzschean view that Euripides killed tragedy, or at least Sophoclean tragedy. I’d have to be able to see a fair sample of fourth-century tragedies before being convinced that the great days of tragedy were truly over.

Über das Vergnügen an tragischen Gegenständen is an exemplary short meditation on the history, beginning with Aristotle, of thinking about why human beings can take pleasure in tragedy and what the necessary conditions of such pleasure are (e.g.because we learn from it and by nature enjoy learning; because we are all prone to Schadenfreude; because strong emotion is inherently pleasurable). He defines four theories with a basis in antiquity, those that stress pleasure in art, those that stress the spectator’s distance from the represented suffering, those that stress learning and recognition, and those that stress the pleasure of strong emotion and of the relief from it when it is expressed in lamentation. To these he adds a fifth that is purely modern, that tragic pleasure resides in the ritual basis of tragedy. S. is always intellectually generous, and looks for the nuggets of truth in all of these. I learned a great deal from this essay, but I also became immensely frustrated. This is really a question about psychology (human psychology rather than a culturally limited form, I think, though that is part of the question), yet all these answers are essentially based on individual intuitions and prior assumptions, cultural or philosophical. Some of these are clearly only partially true: for example, while it is true that people often take a certain pleasure in past sufferings, and it is appropriate to connect this pleasure with tragedy, it is also important to consider that some sufferings cannot be recuperated into a satisfying narrative. But if we really want to begin to answer this question in the real world, we cannot rely on intuition and anecdotes. Why not some serious survey work, and some MRIs? What is happening in the hippocampus of the spectator? How is it different from what happens when we remember our own griefs? Do the same people typically like tragedies and horror movies? (In my case, no). Do the same people like tragedies and weepies? (in my case, yes).

The following paper, on tragedies as literary competition, looks at the usual suspects, such as Euripides’ and Sophocles’ handling of the Aeschylean recognition of Orestes and Electra, with the sensitivity we expect. But it is the following pair, “Peripetie und tragische Dialektik” and “Peripeteia and Tragic Dialectic in Euripidean Tragedy,” that will excite the reader. It is probably not necessary to read both, although the first concentrates on Sophocles and sketches the outline of a discussion of Euripides, while the second quickly summarizes the first and then treats Euripides in more detail. After reading one, a careful reader would be able to infer what is in the other. Seidensticker here responds to P. Szondi’s Versuch über das Tragische.4 Szondi tried to find a point of origin in Aristotle for the German idealist treatment of the essence of tragedy as dialectical. S. shows that his reading of Aristotle is wrong, but that Chapter 11 of the Poetics introduces an idea that reveals a dialectical element basic to Sophoclean tragedy and sometimes found in Euripides. S. argues convincingly that at 1452a 22-29, Aristotle’s definition of peripeteia refers to a change not in the action, but in the things being done by characters: that is, we have a peripeteia when a character intends to do one thing and his own actions in pursuit of the goal give an opposite result, like the messenger who thinks he is making Oedipus happy when he is causing his downfall. S. then demonstrates how pervasive this kind of action is in Sophocles, and how it also operates in some plays of Euripides. Indeed, at one point he may understate his case, since he says (p. 298) that Creon in OT is an exception — but it is Creon who tells Oedipus to send for Tiresias, a move that certainly blows up in his face. To be sure, maybe too great a variety of ironic situations are placed under “Dialectic” — those where the opposite outcome is the result of a specific action whose implications the actor does not know, like the Corinthian messenger’s; those where it is the result of the character’s nature, like Ajax’ need for honor, which both makes him a great hero and makes him unable to endure failure; those where the actor does not consider enough, like Deianeira; and those where the actor deliberately acts in a way whose results will be both good and bad for him (Medea). Still, even though the material is familiar and we all know Sophocles is ironic, these essays point to a particular form of irony to which we are not always sensitive enough.

“Women on the Tragic Stage” reminds us that the women of tragedy, however transgressive they are, also typically defend traditional female values and territories. “Das Satyrspiel” is the introduction to the volume on the genre,5 and it is a helpful an introduction as anyone could want — thorough but brief, and as usual clear and thoughtful about different views. The final paper concentrates on Seneca’s Thyestes in discussing the desperate search of the Senecan protagonist for something new and worse than has even been done before. S. treats the “Senecan comparison” as central to both plot and rhetoric and locates it philosophically and politically.

The great merit of the book lies in following S.’s combination of humanism, philology, and openness to other fields. Missing is an introduction that would help define the themes; Holzhausen speaks of “eine Zusammenstellung der einander in vielerlei Hinsicht ergänzenden Arbeiten,” but while some articles clearly complement each other, there is also some repetition, and a guide to seeing how they belong together would have been helpful. Collections of papers like this one require more justification than they once did, since so much is available on line (the paper on Medea is available online as a pdf, for example), and Interlibrary Loan can now often provide a pdf of an article very quickly. So such collections are worth having only when the papers really have a significance together that they do not have individually. Most readers, though, will use the volume only to find a particular article, and that is too bad; a reader’s guide would have made a good book better.


1. B. Seidensticker, Palintonos Harmonia. Studien zu komischen Elementen in der griechischen Tragödie. Hypomnemata, Band 72 (Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht 1982).

2. T. Adorno, E. Frenkel-Brunswik, D. J. Levinson, R. N. Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York 1950). Although S. expresses some reservations about the Freudian assumptions of the book, he seems relatively uncritical about its survey methods and other assumptions — we have become more sophisticated consumers of social science in recent years.

3. W. Burkert, “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual,” GRBS 7 (1966) 87-121. Later treatments of ritual in the play include H. Foley, Ritual Irony (Ithaca 1985) who comments (210 n. 7) that S. “fails to come to terms with the horrible and perverted nature” of the sacrifice (surely he assumes it?) and R. Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford 1994) passim.

4. P. Szondi, “Versuch über das Tragische,” In Schriften. Band 1 (Frankfurt am Main 1978) 151-260.

5. Das griechsiche Satyrspiel, edd. R. Krumeich, N. Pechstein, and B. Seidensticker (Darmstadt 1999).