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I hypothesize that tragedy is the genre best suited to represent climate catastrophe. Tragedy, I contend, is committed to diagnosing the ideological and material conditions that make for mass, undeserved suffering—conditions of colonization and racialization, for instance, in Greek and modern drama and in modern tragic fiction. Not only does tragedy reveal injurious forms of power, it stages or incites rebellious collective action against them. These features of literary tragedy, I suggest, are non-Aristotelian. Aristotle lodges the source of crisis in individuals, who inadvertently cause their own misfortunes and suffer from them. The literary tragedy that I theorize, however, locates the origins of communal suffering in external agents of death and domination.
In Greek tragedies and in Hardy’s tragic novels, plots beyond our control destroy our good character, while we or others lament this injustice and envision events otherwise. In such moments of counter-narrative rebellion, both the impassioned narrator of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the titular character of Jude the Obscure attack the logics of rape culture and victim-blaming that, in Greek tragic fashion, descend on their heroines from without and degrade them beyond recognition. This chapter contrasts Hardy’s theory of tragedy with the Aristotelian model of tragedy in which protagonists themselves inadvertently cause their demises. Hardy’s sense of tragedy is different, too, from the Christian model in which heroines fall because of their moral vices. Like Greek tragedies, Hardy’s novels show extrahuman and anthropogenic sources of suffering that cannot be justified. In particular, Hardy’s tragedy decries the notion of scapegoating, which understands the exile or elimination of the “other” to cleanse the community.
This introduction explains (1) these authors’ fascination with Greek tragedy, (2) their modern reenvisioning of it in contrast to consolatory philosophies of tragedy and science, (3) their representation instead of a natural world that is a source of terror, and (4) their stand against nihilism in the face of such terror. My contention is that for Hardy, Woolf, Camus, and Beckett, tragedy is not a genre that defends or valorizes pain. Tragedy is a genre of insurrectionary truth-telling. I suggest that their tragic fiction models or incites desire for solidarity in the face of inhuman time scales and the destructiveness and chanciness of natural history. These writers recognize, too, that modern European history acts as (rather than banishes) tragic fatality. Engaging with tragedy, these authors devise strategies to evoke and indict both natural accident and manmade violence.
Woolf calls Hardy “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists,” and I argue that she shares his tragic sense. Both a “Dionysiac” view of time as unceasing flux (the view held by Friedrich Nietzsche, Jane Ellen Harrison, and Henri Bergson) and a mathematical view of time as abstract continuum (the view held by Bertrand Russell) make for tragedy in Woolf’s fiction. Her novels are devoid of the ritual and mythic consolations so often misattributed to ancient drama. Woolf’s Dionysiac time is severed from Dionysiac rituals’ cyclical renewals. Woolf’s mathematical time is severed from redemptive myth. Like Darwin, Woolf makes tragic chance inseparable from the theater of life. Woolf depicts the nonteleological, nonanthropocentric change and persistence of nonhuman nature, as well as the inhuman permanence of Russell’s “universals.” To the Lighthouse and The Waves set the “still space” of characters’ most cherished moments against “the waste of ages and the perishing of the stars.” Woolf’s fiction accentuates time’s passing and models characters’ Sisyphean resistance to it.
Camus takes a Woolfian message of human limitation and solidarity – not domination and hierarchy – from his vision of nature and from his reading of Greek tragedy. Camus argues that modern European history “has put on the mask of destiny”; this history behaves as the divine or natural fatality that it claimed to supersede. Grounded in Camus’s writing on the Greeks and tragedy in his lectures, interviews, essays, and infamous dispute with Jean-Paul Sartre, this chapter explores Camus’s ethics of tragedy. Camus's ethical paradigm – cognizance of injurious power accompanied by lucid revolt – is on offer in The Plague, the lyrical short story “The Adulterous Wife,” and his unfinished novel The First Man. Finally, this chapter argues for Camus’s fierce indictment of genocidal politics in The Stranger and The Fall.
Beckett’s narrator in The Unnamable spurns both tragedy’s undeserved pains and the counter-tragic theology and philosophies (Christianity, Platonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism) that aim to rationalize or overcome pain. Beckett’s character tries and fails to negate his humanity, imagining devolution to insentience. This chapter challenges Beckett scholarship that understands the Unnamable to be in search of mystical wordlessness and self-dissolution. Against the grain, it contends that the more Beckett’s narrator wages war on embodiment and language, the more he severs himself from all attachment to the world. His strategies, I suggest, might kindle the opposite desire in readers. This chapter proceeds to argue that Beckett rewrites this nihilistic character in Company, revisiting his tactics but supplying an alternative to them. Company’s narrator admits the attraction of a suicidal narrative strategy yet opts to resuscitate bonds with others by way of lyrical moments of memory.
This study of tragic fiction in European modernism brings together novelists who espoused, in their view, a Greek vision of tragedy and a Darwinian vision of nature. To their minds, both tragedy and natural history disclosed unwarranted suffering at the center of life. Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett broke with entrenched philosophical and scientific traditions that sought to exclude chance, undeserved pains from tragedy and evolutionary biology. Tragedy and the Modernist Novel uncovers a temporality central to tragic novels' structure and ethics: that of the moment. These authors made novelistic plot the delivery system for lethal natural and historical forces, and then countered such plot with moments of protest - characters' fleeting dissent against unjustifiable harms.
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