Further thoughts from Steiner, and also inspired by Steiner:

1) The dilemma of tragic drama in the modern world, he claims, was that the two main “ideologies” available (at the time of writing, 1961) are Marxism and Christianity, both of which are “anti-tragic.”

2) Steiner points out that Rousseau, with his sunny view of human nature and denial of original sin, undermined the tragic outlook thoroughly. With Rousseau, the evils of human society are the product of perverse social and economic structures (fundamentally, the distinction of “mine” and “yours”), and they can be corrected by revolutionary changes in social order.

3) Romanticism tended to produce what Steiner calls “near-tragedies,” which is another term for melodrama. In such dramas and stories, four acts of terrifying and meaningless violence are purged by the remorse and tears of the main character. The trajectory of the story is toward a climactic dissolution of all things, but the story lurches off into a happy ending. He notes that we (ie, Hollywood) are still romantics, who will NOT have a non-happy ending. This makes Romanticism the great pseudo-comic alternative to Christianity. Romanticism (including Victorian and later sentimentalism) has been the great rival of the church for two centuries, and is all the more powerful a rival for having stolen and deployed one of the church’s great weapons ?Eits confidence in comic resolution. Meanwhile, significant sectors of the church abandoned this weapon.

4) Steiner insists that neither Enlightenment rationalism nor romanticism were conducive to tragedy. For tragedy, a character endures suffering and there is NEVER an answer to his demands for an explanation. In a sense, tragedy gets things exactly right here, and in this sense Job is a “tragic” book, for Yahweh gives no answers at the end of the story. But in the world of the Bible, no answers are needed. As Orual finds in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces , the appearance of God is all the answer that can be or need be given.

5) A thought raised by some of Steiner’s material: Is the “courtly love” tradition a medieval tragic tradition? If so, then it is one mark of Dante’s genius to shape this tradition in the direction of a cosmic comedy.

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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