Tragedy without Apology, Pleasure without End
Tragedy might well be the primal scene of Western literary theory. Initially, the mass consumption of tragedies in the Dionysian festivals of Athens went on for well over a century without eliciting much theoretical concern as far as we know, until Plato decided to object to the audience’s psychic derangement by its favorite poets and performers. This first shock of critical thinking about tragedy came in the context of Plato’s larger attempt at a kind of hedonic orthodoxy; that is, asserting the philosopher’s right to claim that one can distinguish objectively between true and false pleasures (casting most of the sybaritic variety as mere instances of “relief,” illusions of pleasure predicated upon the removal of pain [Republic 584a7–c12]), and that the utopian Kallipolis should monitor very stringently the kind of pleasures its citizens experience in the performance space. Pleasures have consequences in the ordering of the soul, Socrates argues, and the tragedians just scramble our psychic harmony, eroding rational hegemony (cf. Republic 605b 3–6, 606d1–7). One wonders if any actual Athenian took that critique seriously; at any rate, the state business of drama cranked on all the same for a few more centuries. But Aristotle of Stagira certainly took it seriously, at least if one assumes his Poetics can be read as a concerted response to Plato. However, whereas Plato speaks of tragedy in effect as a “concerned citizen” in the context of the Athenian polis and its powerful performance culture, Aristotle seems rather uninterested in performance, a feature dismissed as “spectacle” (opsis), which pursued blindly to its own ends produces the monstrous, not the tragic (Poet. 1453b1–11).1 In this regard, Aristotle seems almost to agree with Plato; but there is no agreement on the matter of pleasure. Aristotle tactically reduces the hedonic agenda to mapping the specific differences of genres and locating the telos of tragedy in plot structure (muthos—Poet. 1450a15, 22–23). For one should seek not just any kind of pleasure from tragedy, but only that which is specific to it (Poet. 1453b10–11), a pleasure linked to the mechanisms of plot, the specific coefficient emotions of pity and fear, and bringing about a katharsis—whatever that means (Poet. 1449b24–28). And so Western literary theory went from the broad social-political critique of Plato to the structural-defensive strategy of Aristotle, and we have been apologizing for tragedy ever since—mostly by approaching it in terms of a branding exercise for some unique and user-friendly hedonic payload, the imagined benefits of catharsis, and the tidy parameters of genre.
One of many remarkable strengths of Mario Telò’s book Archive Feelings: A Theory of Greek Tragedy is that it is decidedly unapologetic, untidy, explosive, and diverse in its hedonic interests. It does not seek an easy way to make tragedy a reparative exercise. It does not rehash the exegetical arguments surrounding the Poetics, as if that would be the key to understanding all Greek tragedy at long last. In fact, in his return to the scène originaire, Telò largely dumps Aristotle in favor of a host of postmodern thinkers who make arguments of a kind that would send the Stagirite staggering for their complexity and unsettling implications. From the start, Telò comes out as fully anti-cathartic, refusing to play the game of retrofitting that vexed concept to suit his interpretation. He dumps the Athenians as well, no longer seeking the archaeological return to the Theater of Dionysus as the only horizon of true understanding, as if tragic emotions could only be effectively understood and validated when performed—as musicologists say—on original instruments. Following in the footsteps of Simon Goldhill’s seminal Reading Greek Tragedy, Telò’s “ardent reading” of the plays does not fixate on performance context, but returns the modern reader of tragedy to center stage, inviting us to step up our game in close reading with all its anachronic possibilities, and to jump into the frame of interpretation by rethinking critical writing itself. His rich engagement with a wide range of competing and even contradictory thinkers equips us to take on more boldly the idea, to quote Paul Hammond, that “tragedy is, par excellence, a deconstructive medium.”2
Central to the book is the question: “What if the pleasure of tragedy is produced not by release but by the lack of it—by a sense of stuckness rather than intensity as such?” The turn, then, is towards a conception of “pleasure in thwarted restoration” which Telò explores through a multifaceted recourse to the Freudian death drive and its later explorations by Jacques Lacan, Leo Bersani, Kaja Silverman, Slavoj Žižek, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and especially Jacques Derrida, whose Mal d’Archive motivates and informs the archival core of Telò’s book. After its programmatic introduction, “Re-impressions of Greek Tragedy: Toward an Anti-cathartic Aesthetics,” the remaining five chapters comprise extensive readings of Greek plays toying with their chronological order and what it means to read backward and forward within this tragic archive. The chapters are divided into the sections Archival Time, Archival Space, and Archival Endings, and the last chapter in particular shows Telò at his most dexterous. He uses Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est to initiate a discussion of “orgasmic anti-catharsis,” featuring the blood-spurting endings of four canonical tragedies: Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Sophocles’s Antigone and Oedipus Tyrannus, and Euripides’s Bacchae, plays whose disturbing imagery Telò entwines around his exploration of jouissance, and he ends with a discussion of paintings by Cy Twombly. In his epilogue, Telò enlists Toni Morrison to show how far the implications of his new reading of tragedy can take us, and offers a lucid self-analysis of his commitment to the radical possibilities of tragic language: “Twisting the practice of close reading into a liminal exercise between critique and post-critique, I have relished the excess that oozes from formal edges” (279). Such a confession shows how Telò will be our guide to a brave new literary world of tragedy without apology, of pleasure without end.
Archive Feelings is vast and vortical, and as coeditor of the series in which it appeared, I felt it urgent to invite other scholars and critics to take up the challenge it throws down. I am grateful that Mario’s work and reputation for collegial interchange readily attracted a band of willing participants, each one a scholar and critic fully up to the task and eager for a place at the table. So, we present to you, dear reader, that scariest of things in the context of tragedy: a royal feast. There is no need to summarize at length what soon will follow for your reading pleasure, but let me highlight a few characteristic gestures of our hungry guests.
First to the table is Sean Gurd, who characterizes this book as an attempt to create a “discursive machine” that will “run next to certain tragic texts.” Gurd attempts to characterize Telò’s recourse to the Freudian death drive that runs this machine as similar to a ‘pataphysical appropriation of a psychological theory, one that combines “both hyper-rationality and deliriousness to produce results that are simultaneously ludic and profound.”
Next seated is Dan Orrells, who retraces the modern disciplinary formation of Classical Studies and the place of Greek tragedy within it, showing that at best this academic canonization exposed the paradox of tragedy as a place of the imagined Other (slaves, women, barbarians) within the Athenian polis, and its performance as an inevitable negotiation between ancient and modern. So Telò is certainly right to take up the close reading of tragedy to make it do something new, using the rigor of philology to enact “a gallery of gorgeously obscene thought experiments.”
Karen Bassi follows by targeting the uncritical, conservative nature of the “psychic equilibrium” catharsis was long thought to establish. But she then returns to Aristotle’s mention of Iphigenia Among the Taurians to suggest there is another sense of catharsis, one more amenable to Telò’s project: a signaling of “the inevitability of death in its temporary postponement,” a thought that casts Aristotle, Derrida, Freud, and Telò himself in a repetitive loop regarding the death drive.
Paul Kottman, from his end of the table, then returns us to Peter Szondi’s distinction between a poetics of tragedy and a philosophy of the tragic, and kicks the argument back to the larger frame of a philosophical interest in human suffering. From this perspective, he wonders if Telò, in his “anti-cathartic” approach, is still too indebted to the very same Aristotle he is trying to unhorse, since one could simply skip over Aristotle and address directly Plato’s concern about our stuckness in irrational pleasure-in-pain and put that into dialogue with Freud.
Helen Morales challenges Telò to state just what his project means for feminists, specifically in relation to the “‘emancipatory force’ of death-driven aesthetics,” the “jouissance of [Telò’s] hermeneutics,” and the question of a catharsis based not on an “ejaculatory” model like his, but rather on “a kind of ethical attunement.” She raises the poignant question, “Is there room for intersectionality in the death-drive?” She asks as well what would happen if we chose as a model for the pleasurable-pain of tragedy not ejaculation, but menstruation, another meaning of katharsis deployed by Aristotle.
“Archivable meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives,” Derrida says;3 and in that spirit, we feel this Syndicate symposium will help to archive not just the reactions of various scholars to Telò’s extraordinary book, but his own willingness—I should rather say, outright eagerness—to engage dialogically with his readers. Though the book is a conventional monograph in appearance, it reveals itself to be a rich and disturbing tapestry of conversations between disciplines, continents, centuries, and myriad points of view. So now, for your consideration we spin that tapestry out further into the future through the internet’s endless archive.