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Interview with Simon Critchley : The Tragic and Its Limits

Over the last twenty years Simon Critchley has produced a series of elegant works of political and cultural theory. From The Ethics of Deconstruction (1992), which sought to locate an ethical source within deconstruction by reading Derrida with Levinas, through to Very Little . . . Almost Nothing (1998) and his more recent study of political theology Faith of the Faithless (2012), Critchley’s work has had a dramatic impact outside the philosophy department. He has become a prominent public intellectual whose work is attractive for its passionate political engagement, humanity, broad cultural scope and grace of style. 

Critchley has said in the past that he ‘tends to work obsessively on one topic at a time to the exclusion of all others.’ Recently, that topic has been ancient tragedy, which he has been teaching at the New School with Judith Butler in a course entitled The Tragic and Its Limits. Yet the result of this research has been unexpected, as one obsession has yielded another; Critchely’s new book, co-authored with his wife, the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, is The Hamlet Doctrine (forthcoming 2013), and seems borne of both the possibilities of tragedy and its restrictions.


To Critchley, one attraction of tragedy lies in ‘its savage and troubling beauty, its conflict with and superiority to philosophy, and its massive and unacknowledged relevance to the contemporary psychical and political situation.’ Since the beginning of his career he has been concerned with the antagonism between literature and philosophy, telling me earlier this year that  ‘Literature was always my passion. It was what philosophy was meant to serve in a sense . . . Literature was served by philosophy rather than the other way around.’ His work on tragedy may be read in this light, and can also be seen as a model for reading the present state of permanent war in which we find ourselves.  In the following interview we discussed the significance of tragedy for him, his use of collaboration as a working method, and how his latest obsession has lead to the new book.


QThe White Review — Going to the theatre was an important part of public life in classical Athens and I’m interested in what going to the theatre meant for an Athenian citizen, what the experience of tragedy was about, what the festival of Dionysus entailed. For someone like Nietzsche tragedy is born directly out of the cult of Dionysus and it is a kind of trance experience of communion with the Dionystic. But for others, like Jean Pierre Vernant for example, and I think for yourself, it is perhaps a more complicated phenomenon.

ASimon Critchley — Bernard Williams begins his account of Greek tragedy Shame and Necessity with the sentence: ‘We’re accustomed to thinking of the ancient Greeks as exotic people’. In the work of early Nietzsche we do find the view that the Greeks were not like us, the Greeks weren’t moderns, they weren’t Christians, and what they engaged in in going to the theatre had its origins in a mystery cult surrounding the god Dionysus. Nietzsche’s claim is that every tragic hero is a mask for Dionysus, the god of intoxication, and that in the experience of tragedy the lines between myself and the Other disappear and we engage in some kind of communal fusion. That view is very seductive because it seems to offer something that is not available in the individualistic atomised world of modernity, you can see how it gets a certain traction. 

QThe White Review — With Jim Morrison, for example.

ASimon Critchley — Yes, it’s this kind of orgy. Now it strikes me – there are people like Williams and, more importantly, Vernant who have shown the implausibility of that view – it just doesn’t add up. Dionysus appears only in one tragic drama – Euripides’ Bacchae, which itself is problematic as a drama, – and it says much more about the rich fantasy life of northern Europeans than it does about the ancient Greeks. So what were the Greeks going to when they went to the theatre? Well here we confront a really difficult question. We don’t know. I spent some time last year trying to read as much of the classical scholarship on these questions as I could and the conclusion really is that we just don’t know, we don’t even know who was there. There are estimations that a huge percentage of the population of Athens went to the theatre, maybe twelve to fifteen thousand people. We don’t know for sure whether women were allowed to attend. There are views both ways but no evidence that allows us to clinch it.  This is what I like about dealing with antiquity, we don’t know and so we can breathe our own imaginings into it, which is what Nietzsche did.

However, I think there is a more plausible view of what the theatre was. It was a spectacle, it’s somewhere you went to look at things that weren’t real, they were legends and stories that had some connection to history like the Trojan war, those spectacles were collective, the writing of tragedies was a competitive activity and it took place within the framework of an annual festival, beyond that we are into speculation. If there’s one thing that I take from ancient tragedy – and this is one way for preparing for the claim that what’s going on in tragedy is more interesting than what is going on in philosophy – it’s that tragedy is the staging of a series of ambiguities, a series of constitutive moral ambiguities that we cannot easily resolve and we don’t know how to judge. What seems to be going on is a sort of staging of dialectical thinking, a staging of a complex relationship between positions that doesn’t result in some kind of fusion with primal being as Nietzsche called it. It’s a medium that is able to articulate the ambiguities that constitute our life in the polis, our life in the city. 

QThe White Review — And what about the staging of the female in Attic tragedy?

ASimon Critchley — Well, that’s one of the many things we do not know. We don’t know if women went to the theatre, it’s probable that they did. We know that there were no female actors and that the female parts were played by men, or maybe young boys, it’s not clear. It would have been in full costume, we know that much. Now, it’s a really difficult question. The more that I learn about classical Greek society the more patriarchal it seems. You can get a certain picture from books but when I spent time in museums and looking at bits and pieces, for example the museum of the Agora in Athens, you can find fragments of friezes with veiled women. Women were veiled in public. This raises an interesting paradox in so far as we like to think of Greece as being the birth of western values. Women were veiled in the public realm. So it was a patriarchal society with a very clear division between the sexes and an accompanying hierarchy. The question then is, if that is the case, what’s going on in theatre where those hierarchies appear to be inverted?

Women are often these unruly, ungovernable characters, often foreign like Phaedra, or Medea, often exotic, often savage, who throw into crisis the patriarchal order of the city. One way of reading that is to say that tragedy should be read as a kind of symptom of social order. The repression of women finds its expression and compensation in these female characters. The other view is that there’s a kind of revolutionary potential in theatre, theatre is not just the return of the repressed but rather the glorification of female characters. Another view says that women are being played by men, men always want to dress up as women, and it achieves nothing, it’s just a kind of spectacle intended to titillate male citizens through the depiction of an order that is not their order. We don’t know, we don’t know what the spectators saw or were meant to see when they saw Antigone or Medea, these insurrectionary female figures. Was this a kind of transgressive moment or was it an experience that confirmed the order through its inversion, a bit like medieval carnival did according to someone like Bakhtin? We just don’t know. Well then the next move is to say it doesn’t really matter, our relationship to the ancient Greeks has to be one where they are like vampires, they need our blood in order to live and when we infuse them with our blood they become reflections of who we are, or who we might be. For us at this point in history, or over the last century, ancient Greek tragedy has presented characters that have accompanied and deepened women’s emancipation. We make of the ancients what we need in each new generation and that’s the key thing and we’ll never ultimately know the truth one way or the other, thank god. 

QThe White Review — That idea of ambiguity is really interesting and it begs the question: what are we left with at the end of a staged tragedy? Are we left with the moment of becoming through the violent act whereby a character brings together their inner divisions by means of that action? Or are we left with a problem to consider?

ASimon Critchley — Yes, there’s the most famous view, Aristotle’s, which is that tragedy is the imitation of action, mimesis praxeos, which produces extreme emotions as Socrates said, pity and fear, and has mechanisms of reversal, reversal of fortunes and the recognition of error which leads to an experience of catharsis. We don’t know what catharsis means; it only appears twice in Aristotle. It could have a biological meaning, a kind of relief, or it could have a more religious function, a kind of purification, we don’t know. So there’s a persuasive view that we go to the theatre to, in a sense, detox; it’s like an aesthetic detox where we are cleansed of our impurities and ambiguities and we walk away refreshed. That’s not wrong but there’s an awful lot more to say about it. Is what’s going on a detox, or is it perhaps a staging of a greater complexity, an intractable moral dilemma. We need to look at the plays. What tends to happen in discussions of tragedy – and again, this goes back to Aristotle – is that we begin with an example, usually Oedipus Tyrannus, and then people derive all sorts of conclusions from that, whereas there are thirty one tragedies, most of them by Euripides, and we should at least read them and see if we can find patterns in all of them. That’s where things get more complicated and interesting.

QThe White Review — Is part of what is going on with your work on tragedy a defence of sophism?

ASimon Critchley — It’s a literal defence in one sense. There’s this remark by Gorgias, who is known as a sophist, and what is a sophist? Well, it’s someone that is called a sophist by a philosopher, who’s not a sophist. So, a sophist is someone that claims wisdom, a philosopher is someone who – much more humbly – is a lover of wisdom, that’s the standard narrative. So philosophy begins by expelling tragedy but also by expelling sophistry and we buy that, sophistry is bad, you can see this repeated in people like Alain Badiou. Now, we know pretty much nothing about ancient tragedy besides what we find in Plato and Aristotle, we have Aristophanes play The Frogs, which is an interesting dramatisation of how tragedy was seen, and we have this fragment from Gorgias, the so called sophist. He says: ‘Tragedy by means of legends and emotions creates a deception where the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.’ So, tragedy is a deception that produces greater wisdom. For Plato the deception of tragedy is a strike against it, for Gorgias that deception is its virtue, it’s an enabling fiction if you like. Then also, if you look at the tragedies themselves – particularly Euripides, but you find this all over – there was a sophistical technique that argues both sides of an argument, both for and against, being able to make a strong case for something weak and a weak case for something strong. This is what philosophers dismiss as rhetoric.

In Euripides tragedies you find a lot of situations where two positions seem to be contrasted with each other very directly and we’re not told how those positions are resolved. Look at Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens, at the end of that play the chorus is divided and one side of the chorus says ‘these people are right’ and the other side says ‘no, these people are right’ and it’s left like that. Or there’s a wonderful play by Euripides, The Trojan Women in which the women are gathered together, the city has been burned, the men have been put to death and the women are about to be sold into slavery, it’s a pretty bad moment. Cassandra, who can see the future although no one believes her, engages in this amazing argument where she says that in our defeat and humiliation is our glory finally because people will realise what bastards the Greeks are and that by raping the city and then raping us and committing violence and murder they will be undone. That’s a wonderful example of someone finding the weaker argument a basis for the stronger. The point being that unlike Nietzsche and a whole series of others for whom tragedy is a kind of pre-rational fusion with being, what you actually see in tragedy is rational argumentation moving between two positions. However, reason is not triumphant. Cassandra is going to be sold into slavery to Agamemnon and she’s going to die. So we see that reason can produce incredibly strong arguments but in the end it bumps up against the facts of history or the reality of violence, which it cannot overcome. The founding delusion of philosophy is that reason can ultimately find an underlying pattern in reality or history and can, through the force of the better argument, transform things. Tragedy does not believe in such a view. Tragedy is more pessimistic. 

QThe White Review — Reading about sophistry and tragedy in Simon Goldhill’s book Reading Greek Tragedy, there is the idea that sophistry reveals that language itself is unstable which is a threat to Socrates or Plato. You can’t rely on first principles, which is what philosophy is all about, if the language you express them in is unstable.

ASimon Critchley — Yes, you need language to be able to define stable concepts. It’s not that people don’t believe in language in tragedy, people are talking all the time. There’s both a faith in language and a recognition of its instability. One thing, one word, can mean exactly the opposite of what we think it means. This is something that Goldhill takes from Vernant. It’s the idea that tragedies like the Antigone and the Orestia turn around the semantic ambiguity of one word, the word nomos in the Antigone, law or custom, or the word justice in the Orestia, dike. What tragedy will often explore is that ambiguity. I also think that’s what a good bunch of Shakespeare is about. Philosophy is, for much of its history, at war with ambiguity. Ambiguity is a symptom of a crisis that it has to solve. A great example of that is Thomas Hobbes. The great horror of the English Revolution for Hobbes was that it unleashed ambiguity, and once you’ve unleashed ambiguity you can’t put the genie back in the bottle other than through authority and force, which is part of the argument for the Leviathan. Meaning has to be authorised by the sovereign. Theatre is an exploration of constitutive linguistic ambiguity.

QThe White Review — You have commented that philosophy at its moment of crisis returns to tragedy, could expand on that statement?

ASimon Critchley — This is a long argument, but to be brutal about it, there is the recognition after Kant  (it’s more complex than that but let’s just say after Kant) that the completion of philosophy requires an aesthetic act. So what Kant left us is what Hegel will call an amphibious world, we have one foot in the world of nature determined by science and another in the world of freedom defined by autonomy and rationality. How can those two realms be unified? The work of art becomes the best bet to be a vehicle for unifying those two domains, and that’s what happens in Romanticism, in Schiller and in the early German idealists and you can trace that on through Nietzsche, Heidegger and elsewhere. So in a sense the crisis, the division in modern philosophy requires some kind of aesthetic moment of healing and the exemplary experience of the aesthetic is tragedy. Tragedy is the highest form of art for all these people. It offers the possibility of a reconciliation of that which was divided. Hegel has for me the great distinction of recognising the force of what tragedy can do in his early work, but also of not being convinced by the idea of a purely aesthetic reconciliation. So for Hegel, ultimately, tragedy has to be overcome in an experience of comedy and that’s then overcome in an experience of philosophy and that is where the reconciliation might take place.  

QThe White Review — So ancient tragedy is, as you’ve said elsewhere, defined by the context of war.

ASimon Critchley — Yes, the frame of war as Judith Butler would say.

QThe White Review — We are as we speak in what seems to be a state of permanent war.  Can we still access the tragic?  If so, what is it that tragedy gives us that is useful or can help us to better contemplate the current order of things?

ASimon Critchley — Those are very good questions. The answer to the first, can we access tragedy, is yes. The answer to the second is that it does illuminate the situation we’re in. Those are the short answers. This is where I turn to and lean on someone like Raymond Williams. There’s a view we can associate with someone like George Steiner that tragedy is dead, that’s the classical, reactionary, formalist aesthetic position, the glory that was Greece is gone and we live in a decaying modernity. The first thing to say is that makes very little sense of the extraordinary theatrical creativity of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from people like Ibsen and Chekov through to Brecht and Beckett and beyond into people like Sarah Kane and Heiner Muller. Theatre is still fecund it seems to me, the theatrical is still fecund. I’m not a death of tragedy person at all and that means looking in different places, we could look at different media, film, T.V as places to access tragedy. People have written very well about series like The Wire as a modern American tragedy, I won’t go into that now, it can be a bit boyish and obsessional but it is fascinating. What it can show us, and this is where I want to bring in Williams, who in his book Modern Tragedy makes a link between tragedy and revolution and it’s a kind of melancholic link. He says, for example, something like: ‘We need to understand revolution tragically’. 

If we see revolution as a throwing off of repression and the experience of liberation that’s all very nice but we see just half of the picture. Revolution is always a dialectical process where revolution undergoes inversion in counter-revolution. So a tragic understanding of revolution would show the experience of liberation as always risking flipping over into a new experience of oppression and terror and the two things are intrinsically linked. Liberation and terror are intricated, are dialectically interdependent and that’s what a properly tragic understanding would lead us to. If we want to maintain something like revolution or rebellion then we have to see it tragically in terms of the inversions to which it is subject. If that sounds a bit abstract then if we think about, say, Egypt, well we have the experience of Tahrir Square and that’s one side of it but what’s happened in Egypt is what Gramsci would have called a passive revolution, one where everything seems to have changed but the institutions of society have remained the same – in Egypt’s case with the military and the rest – and because of that there’s a risk of inversion, a new form of oppression emerging, maybe not immediately but in perhaps ten, fifteen years down the road.

We have this progressivist liberal understanding of events like revolutions as being once and for all events where oppression is thrown off, whereas a properly tragical, dialectical understanding would see the situation as a much more complex question. And also, and this is the other crucial point about why tragedy is so important – and this goes back to a theme in the Faith of the Faithless on violence – that violence is a phenomenon with a history and violence is never one thing. Violence is always a part of a sequence of violence and counter-violence, each of which comes with its claim to justification. Williams says, and it’s a lovely phrase, ‘to say peace when there is no peace is to say nothing.’ So we have to understand the possibility of peace in relationship to the history of violence, which is our history wherever we may be. This violence has a tragic character, it’s about cycles of violence and counter-violence that unfold historically, and to imagine that can just be arrested, that it could be stopped in an experience of freedom is to risk disavowing that history and to understand nothing. So for example if we think about the situation in South Africa post apartheid, or indeed, what’s been happening in Ireland. To understand the Irish situation we have to grasp the history of violence that that emerges out of and the pattern of violence and counter-violence with their accompanying chains of justification which unfold.

So, yes tragedy is accessible, the world needs to be understood in tragic terms in the name of realism. Lastly, once we do that, we throw off a certain naïve, optimistic, progressivist view of history in the name of something much more bracing and much more pessimistic. But there’s still a glimmer of hope. For me, the intellectual discipline of the left has to be to take the long historical view and to see events of oppression in the context of liberation and to see events of liberation in the context of their reversal and to see the long view and the big picture. Which means we can still hope but there’s no point in hoping blindly. 

QThe White Review — You’ve been a vocal admirer of Anne Carson, who has translated some of Euripides work and who is a professional classicist as well as a poet. You’ve drawn on her work before the tragedy project also – her book of poems, essays and opera dealing with Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil, Decreation, played a significant role in one section of Faith of the Faithless.

ASimon Critchley — There are two reasons I find her so interesting. Firstly, she’s a classicist insider and her translations are at the antipodes of the kind of Oxonian, mannered translations of tragedies that I was reading as a student, ‘my dear chap’ and all of that. She takes real liberties with the brutalities of the language, which I find incredibly powerful, and she can do that because her Greek is good. Secondly, her central preoccupation is really the question of love and in particular love as it’s experienced in relation to female characters. What I came away with from the Decreation book was her preoccupation Porete, and Sapho and Simone Weil as three women who have tried to engage in the act of love as an act not of satisfaction or happiness but an act of impoverishment, as Marguerite Porete says ‘to hack and hew away at oneself to make a space that’s large enough for love to enter in’. The idea of love as a kind of pain is extreme in Carson’s work and she brings that to bear on the female characters in Greek tragedy.

Also, she’s a great supporter of Euripides over and against Sophocles and Aeschylus. The usual philosophical view is the Aeschylus is beautiful and ritualised and stately, Euripides is psychological and decedent and Sophocles is the perfect mien between the two and we should read him. That’s confounded by the idea that you find in Nietzsche that Socrates helped Euripides write his plays which is just rubbish. Euripides’ is a kind of meta-theatre. He takes the stories that are put to work in Aeschylus and Sophocles and then engages in a kind of reflexive critique of them, and those characters that looked like sacrificial victims or noble individuals are shown to be their opposite. In Orestes we see that, he’s shown as a nut job. I find her concerns incredibly amenable.

QThe White Review — So do you feel ready to dive in with the classicists yourself?

ASimon Critchley — I wanted to do a taxonomy of all of Euripides plays, but it’s just ludicrous.

QThe White Review — If not ancient tragedy, then what is the focus of your new book? 

ASimon Critchley — I was going to write a book on ancient tragedy and I had a contract to do that, but then my wife, Jamieson Webster, who’s a psychoanalyst, had a different idea. I’ve been teaching a course on ancient tragedy with Judith Butler and Judith wrote this beautiful little book on Antigone, Antigone’s Claim. It’s three lectures and it’s very economical. She looks at the play through a series of interpretations, Hegal, Lacan and others, and Jamieson thought this would be a neat way of approaching Hamlet. We’d both been thinking about the play for much of the previous year through a reading of Lacan’s interpretation. So then we were going to do this little book, it would have been four or five months work, and then I was going to go on and do the book on ancient tragedy. Things didn’t work out that way and the Hamlet project sucked us both in.

What I found was that I can talk to you about ancient tragedy, but I’m not sure I’m really up to writing about it in ways I’m happy with. Partly because of problems with ancient Greek, I’ve tried to work on it and improve it. It’s so hard. I think I have to leave it to the Simon Goldhills of this world. Hamlet is written in English and so it became a vehicle for these larger concerns. So all the stuff I was talking about, sophistry and philosophy and Plato, that keeps coming up in the book and it’s the frame, but at its heart it’s an obsessive interpretation and elaboration of the play. There aren’t many references to Shakespeare, I mean we talk about The Merchant of Venice and other bits and pieces, but really it’s on Hamlet and we take a series of outsider interpretations as privileged interlocutors, and they are in order: Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book on German Tragic Drama, Freud and Lacan and Nietzsche. We tracked the place of Shakespeare in Nietzsche, which is really quite interesting. Then we ended up looking at Joyce and Melville and Heiner Muller and people like that. It’s a kind of assault on the Shakespeare industry; you know that view that Shakespeare, like Guinness, is good for you. It’s an attack on the view that Hamlet might be a confused indecisive wretch but ultimately ends up as a redeemed individual who might be a model for what it means to be human or perhaps even invents the human condition. We take some swipes at that. 

QThe White Review — The Harold Blooms of this world take a kicking?

ASimon Critchley — Yes. We give a nihilistic reading of it. Hamlet is the consummate nihilist. There’s a long discussion of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet. It’s pretty weird. To my amazement we showed it to my editor, who was going to do the ancient tragedy book, he made a brilliant series of suggestions for restructuring it and said we’ll do it, we’ll put it out. So I dropped the ancient tragedy book, I might pick it up again in a few years. It’s more fun to teach and think about, there’s too much material. 

QThe White Review — With the new book, I’m interested in how the collaboration with your wife worked? 

ASimon Critchley — Well, she came up with the idea and the structure and then when I had some time off last year I began to write it and wrote the parts on Schmitt and Benjamin and she had written parts on Lacan and Freud. Then there was a psychotic period of several weeks over Christmas last year where we were sitting in the same room banging sentences back and forth and writing separately but having a very clear idea of what the other was doing. At the end of that process it was clear that something had taken shape which then needed to be tidied up and really thought through. It’s a real collaboration. It’s the most intense I’ve worked on. I’ve done collaborations before with Tom McCarthy which have been terrific fun but, you know, we weren’t living together. There are similarities though; Tom thinks in terms of lateral associations while I tend to think in terms of argument structures so there’s a kind of mismatch in the way we think. Jamieson thinks more laterally and associatively than I tend to do. Then you’ve got the fact that the drama of Hamlet is, for us, the drama of sexual difference, the drama of the relationships between male and female characters, so that’s being played out in the writing as well.

It goes back to another side of the interest in tragedy that I have, and that is that if you think about philosophy from a psychoanalytic point of view, particularly from a Lacanian point of view, you can see philosophy as an obsessional activity. It’s a subsuming of data under concepts, which is what obsessionals do when they’re organising their desks or whatever it might be, and as an obsessional I’m eager not to be one. What tragedy offers in someone like Anne Carson’s translations is a kind of hystericisation of philosophical discourse. Which also means trying to take philosophical discourse to a point of vulnerability and weakness and openness, which sounds noble but it’s really not. Where we are with philosophy right now there’s a neoplatonism out there in people like Badiou and there’s that boyish, obsessional Marxism which is trying to order things under neat concepts, you’ve also got a sort of pop-philosophy about how philosophy can help you lead a better life and I just hate all that shit. What I find in tragedy, or theatre more generally is something much more philosophically interesting and challenging, that experience of ambiguity, and rending and openness. It can allow someone like me to imagine a different way of writing. Writing with someone else is to imagine another way of being your self. So for me the collaboration is about writing a different way and I’ve been pushing at that for a number of years with mixed success.

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