Of Comfort No Man Speak: Tragedy, Indifference, Consolation
‘Let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories’, says Shakespeare’s Richard II; ‘Sit down, / Discourse to me some dismal tragedy’ says Webster’s Duchess of Malfi; ‘Come, let’s away to prison [...] And take upon’s the mystery of things / As if we were God’s spies’, says Lear to Cordelia; ‘No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied’, says Maurya at the end of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, described By D.H. Lawrence as ‘the genuinest bit of dramatic tragedy, English, since Shakespeare’. In each of these examples—and there are many others—the recognition and acceptance of some sort of tragic disappointment seems to have a calming and consoling effect that cannot be adequately accommodated by traditional theories of catharsis. This paper will consider tragedy as an artistic mechanism that, through an overwhelming emotional impact, fosters a degree of clear-eyed indifference in which the indexical affectivity of the narcissistic subject is decentred (though not dismissed), establishing the conditions for a tragic thinking imbued with ethical and political potential. I will argue that besides offering a middle way between the emotional or ‘sublimeist’ (J. Young) theories of tragedy on the one hand and the theories that position it rationally as a sort of ethical laboratory or tribunal on the other, this understanding of tragedy offers what, using Nietzsche’s phrase, we might call ‘this-worldly consolation’—an elevated, calm state, free of illusions and yet ethically engaged.
Dr James Corby is a senior lecturer and HoD in the Department of English at the University of Malta. He has published on literature and philosophy, including articles on romanticism, modernism, phenomenology, politics, and contemporary American literature. He co-edited a volume of essays entitled Style in Theory: Between Literature and Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2013) and he is co-General Editor of the forthcoming EUP journal CounterText. He is currently preparing several projects for publication: a special issue of the Journal for Cultural Research called Critical Distance, and two monographs: Performance and the Literary: Ethics, Risk and Play, and The Art of Failure: Romantic and Post-Romantic Aesthetics.