David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite looks to be one of those books to savor, read, reread, mark, and inwardly digest. I’ve only read a bit of it, but it’s as masterful as his articles. (Stylisically, the book is by turns moving and maddening; I’ve never seen anyone use more semi-colons than Hart; and some of the rhetoric is a shade just this side of purple; but when he’s more controlled the writing is transfixing.) Late in the book, he has a section on the tragic, and I turned there first and found some very stimulating things:

1) He challenges the whole notion of tragic wisdom, claiming that what looks like tragic insight or wisdom in Attic tragedy is really just “emotional exhaustion”: the chorus “foresees or fails to, it warns, it dreads, it ululates, but the only ‘wisdom’ arrived at from the choral vantage point is a state of resignation before the invicible violence of being.”

2) Tied up as it is with the sacrificial economy of antiquity (strong Girardians echoes here), tragedy is always simply a matter of restoring a status quo ante: “whereas the resurrection of Christ in a sense breaks the bonds of the social order that crucifies, so as to inaugurate a new history, a new city, whose story is told along the infinite axis of divine peace, the religious dynamism of Attic tragedy has the form of a closed circle; it reinforces the civic order it puts into question, by placing that order within a context of cosmic violence that demonstrates not only the limits but the necessity of the city’s regime.” What survives in Aristotle in a weakened form as “pity and fear” was originally much more disturbing: “behind Athenian dramaturgy lay memories of the promiscuous cruelty and antinomianism of the god who came out of the Libyan wastes to shake the pillars of the city, and the hope that, if this devastating force could be contained within the Apollonian forms and propitiated through a ritual carnival mimicking its disorder, perhaps the polis could for another year maintain its precarious peace against a world that is essentially a realm of countervailing violences.”

3) He offers a devastating critique of Donald MacKinnon and Nicholas Lash, both of whom have urged the necessity to subject theology to the “refining fire of tragic consciousness” (Hart’s phrase). In response to the claim that tragedy innoculates theology against easy totalizing schemes, Hart makes the obvious but brilliant point that tragedy itself existed with a totalizing, the closed system of the sacrificial antique city. Tragedy is no protection against ideology, but rather itself an ideology: “Tragedy might well represent the most pronounced instance in Greek religion of that mystification of violence that sustains the sacred order of pagan society, the consecration of social violence as a restraint of cosmic violence, natural and divine. This is why it cannot preserve moral thought against the lure of ideology, but can only preserve a particular ideology against critique . . . . It is here, first and foremost, that the Christian narrative proves resistant to a tragic reading: theology must insist upon ‘historicizing’ evil, treating it as the superscribed text of a palimpsest, obscuring the original goodness of creation.” Thus Christian thought “can never reconcile itself to any wisdom whose premise is the ontological necessity of violence.” He points out too that tragedy, rather than disturbing complacency, is in the ancient world a strategy of consolation: “tragic wisdom is the wisdom of resignation and consent, a wisdom that is too prudent to rebel against what is fixed in the very fabric of being, and that refuses to suffer inordinately, enraged by death or resentful of civic order . . . . it teaches that MOIRA [fate] places and displaces us, and so leads us to a serene and chastened acceptance of where we are placed and how we are displaced; tragedy resists every motion outward, beyond the sentineled frontier, and reinforces the stable foundation of totality.” That is, tragedy tells us that there’s nothing to do anyway, and so it legitimates quietism in face of horrific evil.

4) Especially Lash, in Hart’s reading, undoes the social power of the gospel by reading the gospel as tragedy. The resurrection, for Lash, is not so much the vindication of Jesus or the reversal of His death as another dimension to the cross. The effect, Hart argues, is to eternalize the crucifixion, and thereby to set the cross perilously near to the sacrificial regimes of antiquity. (He is not denying a sacrificial dimension to Christ’s death; like Girard, he sees two kinds of sacrificial regimes in antiquity and Christianity.)

5) Hart ties this in with his predominant concerns, which are with the “aesthetics of Christian truth” as follows: The God of Israel is not a tragic God, but a God of love and election, a God who loves the beauty of the particular and who therefore does not allow the life of Christ ?Einsofar as it is a life that ends in murder and the silence of death ?Eto stand in his eternal light; even if from his eternal vantage the entire shape of Christ’s life is supremely beautiful and worthy of lifting up into himself, he is not a speculative God, not a God who speculates, whose eternal light abstracts from the worldly horror of Christ’s murder the transcendent beauty of Christ’s life considered as a finished totality ?Ea well-wrought urn. God’s gift in Christ is put to death, and must be given again ?Ecalled back to the surface of things ?Eif it is truly any gift at all.” Put differently, what is vindicated and beautified is not the cross but the crucified One: “God’s judgment [at Easter] vindicates Christ, his obedience unto death, but not the crucifixion.”

6) Hart denies that the resurrection produces a Pollyannish avoidance or denial of evil or of the loss of death. Quite the contrary, he says. The resurrection exposes the fact that tragic consolations regarding death were hollow, and thus throws the believer on a wild surmise of faith and hope. Resurrection “requires of faith something even more terrible than submission before the violence of being and acceptance of fate, and forbids faith the consolations of tragic wisdom; it places all hope and all consolation upon the insane expectation that what is lost will be given back, not as a heroic wisdom (death has been robbed of its tragic beauty) but as the gift it always was.” Death is no longer glorious and heroic; death is simply enemy, hopeless and meaningless, except for the faith that the loss will be restored. Because of the resurrection (as Hart argued in his recent First Things piece) there is simply no choice but faith in Christ or the nihil of meaninglessness. No noble, no heroic, no tragic compromise position will do, given the fact of the cross. In a footnote, Hart notes what this does to tragic drama, using Lear to illustrate. An ancient version of Lear would have ended with Lear defiantly standing against the storm on the heath; but Shakespeare brings us back to hope and sanity, and the scene where Lear and Cordelia are reunited is redolent with forgiveness, reconciliation, even resurrection. This does NOT soften the blow when Cordelia finally dies, but makes it immeasurably more unbearable.

From what I’ve read, this is a book that lives up to the back-cover hype.

More on: Theology

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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