Friday, January 16, 2015

Tragedy and the Sublime

It is well established that tragedies in their purest forms come during sharp cultural transitions. During the tragic age of the Greeks, that transition was from a shame to a guilt culture. As such, we should expect to see evidence of this transition in the works themselves.

I recently discussed the fact that it has been discovered that experiencing the sublime creates awe, and this makes people feel more connected as a group. One of the purposes of tragedy was to create a feeling of group cohesiveness amongst the Athenians, who almost all attended the Great Dionysia each Spring. It has been suggested that the common experience of the plays helped create more social cohesiveness. However, what if it was the fact that the tragedies created feelings of awe that they created this feeling of social cohesiveness?

Consider a very specific example, Sophocles' Antigone. In it we find the famous "Ode to Man":

CHORUS singing
strophe 1

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.

antistrophe 1

And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the beast whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull.

strophe 2

And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when 'tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.

antistrophe 2

Cunning beyond fancy's dream is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good. When he honours the laws of the land, and that justice which he hath sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city hath he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin. Never may he share my hearth, never think my thoughts, who doth these things!

The word mistranslated here as "wonders" is a Greek work that simultaneously means "awful" and "great." The first problem is that "awful" only has negative connotations and English. One could perhaps solve the problem by rendering the Greek word "awful and awesome," except that "awesome" sounds frivolous to us in English. And saying "full of awe" doesn't catch the duality of the Greek. One almost wishes one could render it "awe-ful," but this would not solve the problem phonetically. It still sounds like "awful." Still, it helps us to read "Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than  man" as "Awe-full is the world, and nothing more awe-full than man." That is, the world is full of things that create awe -- things terrible and things wonderful -- but humans are simultaneously the most terrible and most wonderful of all. No creature is either as immensely destructive nor as creative as are human beings.

The argument is that humans ought to feel the most awe when we are in the presence of our very selves. This argument ends up doing double duty. First, it addresses the issue of awe and the sublime. It thus works to make us feel small and reduces our egos. However, what is it that is sublime? Mankind itself. Thus, is raises us up, increases our egos. This tension makes sense if we understand the shame culture out of which Athens was evolving as being egocentric and the guilt culture into which Athens was evolving as being more collective-minded. More, it was Mankind against which one should compare oneself, and against which one's ego ought to feel small.

This duality is perhaps why tragedies continue to fascinate us. The tragedies demand of us the simultaneous feelings of beauty and the sublime. They raise us up and make us feel small beside their grandeur. They individuate us and bring us together. Thus they achieve what no other art form can achieve by embracing only beauty or only the sublime.
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