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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Anatomy of Tragedy #2: Monologue and Dialogue

written by the Judge


The Poetics aside, the other two great works on tragic theory belong to Hegel and Nietzsche. Hegel’s writings on the subject are scattered across his lectures and essays, so we cannot talk of a single treatise. Nietzsche makes it easier for us: the first book he ever published was the short and radically innovative The Birth of Tragedy.

The Birth of Tragedy occupies a bizarre spot in dramatic theory. It is so radically different from anything else written on the subject that most critics tend to treat it as a separate entity, one which could even be removed from the history of criticism with little change on the landscape that developed later. Indeed, the merit of the Birth of Tragedy is that it abandons the Aristotelian models and goes for something completely new. Today, it is mostly remembered for having introduced the antinomy of Apollonian and Dionysian values, with Apollo representing order, form, rigidity, reason and ideal, and Dionysus standing in for chaos, dissolution, anarchy, emotion and ecstasy.

But the pertinence of Nietzsche’s vision becomes clear when you consider that Apollo and Dionysus correspond perfectly to the tragic duality that Homer first projected in Achilles and the sea. Achilles is an Apollonian figure, an ideal of a man whose rage is the expression of his uncompromising moral integrity. The sea is a Dionysian object, a non-differentiated, formless, vaporous essence. When Achilles calls to his mother across the sea, she emerges from it ‘as it were a grey mist out of the waves’. Nietzsche was the first not only to identify the bipolar nature of tragedy, but also to provide us with an accurate representation of its symbolic values.


Hegel’s work on tragedy is more widely quoted than Nietzsche’s, but less original. He claimed that tragedy is a moral conflict not between good and evil, but between good and good. Two equally legitimate and incompatible values clash against each other until one is annihilated. In Hegelian tragedy, love demands what honour forbids; ambition commands what family resists; duty requires what society outlaws.

What really made Hegel’s contribution so priceless, however, was the way that he framed tragedy as part of a much greater architecture of literary genres (something that Northrop Frye would also attempt a hundred years later in the Anatomy of Criticism). Hegel’s studies, like Aristotle’s, discuss not only tragedy but also lyric and epic poetry. The novelty is that he does not treat them as separate entities, but as logically, organically connected parts of the same tradition. In Hegel’s view, epic poetry is a representation of the past, with the narrative taking place in a golden age of heroes that is detached from the present age and inherently inaccessible. Lyric poetry is a representation of the present, with the voice of the speaker and the sentiment of the reader being simultaneous and synchronised with each other. The poem ‘happens’ as we read it, which is in a small measure where the cliché of certain poetry being ‘timeless’ derives from.

Now tragedy, according to Hegel, is a special composite that brings together the epic and lyric form. Like the epic, it is set in a past age of heroes (this is literally the case in Hellenic tragedy, which involves mythical characters like Odysseus, Prometheus, and Oedipus). But the various speakers declare their positions and ideologies by means of subjective, lyric monologues. The result according to Hegel is a separate time continuum occurring in front of us (which is why the stage, as a suspended, self-sufficient temporal zone, is required for tragedy). It is neither the present nor the past, but a separate time that goes on with its own internal congruity – a staging of the present in the past.

Oddly enough, and perhaps due to the over-emphasis on Aristotle, there is no critical tradition that attempts to bring together the theories of Hegel and Nietzsche, in spite of the fact that they are widely recognised as the two greatest non-Classical thinkers on the subject. Every book I’ve ever read on tragedy dedicates one or more chapters to each of them, but insists on treating their ideas separately, as though they were two possible hypotheses to account for the same phenomenon. In reality, they are better described as two dimensions of the same theory. My first attempt at bringing together Hegel and Nietzsche can be found in the trilogy of articles we published three years ago, which are an exegesis of lyric and epic poetry (as much as this series is an exegesis of tragedy – and partly of comedy, but more on this later). You can access part one, part two and part three in our 2010 archives.

In those essays, I started from Hegel’s idea that the lyric and the epic are dialectically related, each representing the opposite of the other, each necessitating its opposite. My thesis was that the nature of this dialectic was defined by an opposition of values which are best symbolised by the letters ‘I’ and ‘O’ – intended as letters, words, and even numbers (1 and 0). These are the elementary signs which synthetically represent Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus, and also Achilles and the sea. To put it as succinctly as possible, I argued that the lyric is an effect produced by a transition from values of the I to values of the O, while the epic is produced by going from values of the O to values of the I. In the lyric, Achilles comes into the sea and surrenders to it. In the epic, Achilles emerges from the sea, triumphant.

All of this is crucial to an understanding of tragedy. One of Hegel’s great lessons is that due to the organic relation between the different literary genres, you cannot really understand tragedy if you have not grasped lyric and epic poetry first – for these two are the core constituents of dramatic poetry. This aspect of Hegel’s theory was so original and ahead of its time (and written in such a tremendously difficult, convoluted and impenetrable style) that it was mostly ignored by his successors. With the exception of Frye, the literary community kept seeing tragedy as its own thing, as a genre which could be taken in isolation. Definitions such as the one by Mandel, which does not involve poetry at all, have been rife. This, along with the usual over-reliance on Aristotle, is perhaps the greatest shortcoming of twentieth-century theory on tragedy. As we are about to see, tragedy cannot be understood if not as a successor (formal and conceptual, not just temporal) to the lyric and epic forms.


A metrical connection can be established between poetry and tragedy. Most tragedies are written in verse, of a kind which obeys the same formal rules that we find in the lyric and epic forms. In the case of the English language, the most convenient example is iambic pentameter. It’s the standard metre for Elizabethan drama, but also preponderant in English poetry in general.

Now, we know that dramatic verse is fundamentally based on dialogue, while poetry is essentially a monologue – the exact lexicology states that the former is dialogical, while the latter is monological. This has been more or less agreed on by all theory on the subject, from Hegel to Bakhtin. Though it may seem intuitively true, the precise meaning of the concept is in fact quite difficult to grasp. Any literature student can point to numerous examples of poetry replicating or simulating dialogue between two or more speakers. TS Eliot’s Wasteland is notoriously composed of a pastiche of different voices, though they are not exactly arranged in a precise dialogue. And yet it is not enough to simply string together a sequence of different poems in pentameter, even connecting them in a narrative as has been done in many collections, to produce a full tragedy. What, then, truly distinguishes drama from poetry?

The answer is that the types of dialogue are qualitatively different. In lyric / epic poetry, symbols and metaphors for the I and O values are employed with great liberality, but these final values do not themselves change. It doesn’t matter how many images you use to represent the I, there is always only one I: you can write a poem in which three characters defend the respective merits of a sword, a sceptre and a wand, standing in for the philosophical merits of warriors, rulers and sages, and though they may appear to be on opposing sides, all of their objects will throw us back to the same I (the pun is not a coincidence – indeed the three voices are only three representations all coming from the same speaker, which would be the lyric poet). It may be argued that mine is an easy example, having chosen three objects which are clearly vertical signifiers. Yet the only possible symbol, other than the I, to which any fictional voice may ultimately refer, is the O. The three characters could hold a sword, a crown and an egg, for example – one I and two Os. Again, I use objects the shapes of which make it clear what they signify, but the shape does not matter – any non-literal, referential object or word in lyric or epic poetry, whatever its function, meaning, appearance or shape, will always ultimately refer to one of the two primal symbols which we have identified in the I and the O. This is the very definition of monological discourse, on which lyric and epic poetry are founded. A text whose signifiers cannot be referred to an I or an O (and this is much more difficult than it sounds) is straying outside the boundaries of the genre – regardless of what its form is. A sonnet that does not conform to these rules, for instance, may have less in common with an original Petrarchan lyric than a paragraph in prose that does – even if the sonnet respects every formal rule of metre, rhyme and structure. Compare the following passage of glittering prose from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

…with the full poem Photograph by contemporary French poet Emmanuel Hocquard…

When we say “a red cube”, do we
mean a cube of red colour
(painted or coloured in red) or a red
that is cubical (a red in the form of a cube)?

The same question is posed with “X naked”.
Does “X naked” mean X made naked
(with no clothes) or does it refer
to an X nakedness (this nakedness of X form)?

Nakedness and absence of clothes are two

…and make up your own mind as to which one seems more immediately lyrical.

This is not something uncommon or unheard of, especially not in this postmodern age in which poetry deliberately questions and undermines established forms and genres. So-called ‘experimental’ verse is usually termed as such when we recognise (even if only subconsciously) that it is not being or attempting to be lyric or epic in any traditional way; other than that, there are almost no common traits by which to recognise this ‘genre’ at all.

Nietzsche’s categorical claim in the opening of the Birth of Tragedy that the ‘development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian’ holds true, and our studies in lyric and epic poetry only continue what he began with tragedy.


Now the question is, how is dialogical / dramatic discourse any different from that of poetry? If all objects and images refer us back to the same I or O, how is it possible to have anything other than monological discourse at all? What else can we do with the I and the O, other than simply going from one to the other and back?

In order to answer these questions, we must go back to the origins of tragedy. Let us return to the Greeks.


The chorus is an aspect of Hellenic tragedy that struggled to make its way into the more modern traditions – understandably so. Since it usually represents a crowd of people, it does not leave much space for subtlety of characterisation, and it is difficult to integrate it into dramatic action. The chorus cannot wait behind a curtain like Polonius, it cannot fall in love, depart from or arrive at a city, be killed or commit suicide. Yes, in theory it could itself kill one of the characters, but in practice it never does.

The Elizabethan stage later showed instances of crowds taking part in the dramatic action. An excellent example is provided by the citizens of Rome in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who enter in conflicts with the protagonists and even murder a side-character in Cinna the poet. But Shakespeare’s mobs are not a chorus. They are there to illustrate dramatically what happened at the historical moment of Rome’s civil upheavals, and also to clarify the political weight of the main characters, who sway the mob with their rhetoric. But they are never set in the type of diametric relation with the tragic hero(es) that typifies the Hellenic chorus. Shakespeare’s crowds are, if anything, an abnormality within the genre, a violation of the Aristotelian canon. Along with the unwillingness to sustain the unity of time and place, this is the type of genre contamination that incurred in the wrath of classicists like Voltaire (who famously referred to Shakespeare as a ‘barbarian’).

One of the qualities that define the original Hellenic chorus is its inherent passivity. The chorus stands there while the other characters pass by and enunciate their positions (usually via lyric monologues); it provides a response to them, but it never actually takes action, except sometimes by performing custom ceremonials such as funerary rites or coronations. The nature of their speech is usually something along the lines of “Oh dear! Our king intends to dig out the dead soldiers from their holy resting place! And who shall hold back the wrath of the sacred Erynies then? Alas, alas!” (This is not an actual quote, but it gives the idea).

That these speeches should resemble the classic matter of lyric poems is no coincidence – because when taken on their own, they are examples of lyric verse:

O for the wings, the wings of a dove
To be borne with the speed of the gale,
Up and still upwards to sail
And gaze on the fray from the clouds above.
(Oedipus Colonus)

Note how everything in these lines emphasizes passivity, from the desire to be ‘borne’ to the image of the harmless ‘dove’, while the signifiers – clouds, winds, air, sky – all belong to the O (also the letter that opens the enunciation). As Hegel already argued, lyric (and epic) verse is the compositional matter of tragedies; when broken down, tragedies turn into collections of lyrics.

Now, seen how poetry is lyric when it is dominated by signifiers of the O, and seen how we identified the O with the sea (as opposed to Achilles), it is possible for us to say that the Hellenic chorus represents the sea in the great duality that is at the heart of tragedy. The part of Achilles (ergo the I) can be taken up by any of the tragic heroes that are at the centre of the play and who stand in opposition to the chorus. They represent the same type of hyper-individualism dedicated to the defence of an unbending, uncompromising ethical position that clashes with the antagonist order represented by the non-differentiated, impersonal, undefined voice of the chorus / sea.

If this were all that there were to tragedy, it would never have posed such theoretical problems. What makes it complicated is that both the forces representing the I and the O (these forces being the hero and the chorus) are seen to shift between making lyric and epic speeches depending on the dramatic situation. If these shifts were arbitrary, we would be back to monological discourse as we find in the dialogue of lyric poems (e.g. The Wasteland). But they are not arbitrary: in fact, the way that the hero and the chorus employ lyric and epic speeches reveals a pattern that is consistent to all dramatic verse, and it is this pattern that produces what we know as dialogical verse – and, by extension, tragedy.

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