Neither in his specific analyses of the particular arts nor in his ontological inquiries into human existence does Martin Heidegger anywhere develop what might be called a “theory” of tragedy. To be sure, he quotes from tragedy, and in the case of his interpretation of the Chorus in Antigone, which we find in his Introduction to Metaphysics, he goes far to show us how to read the tragic passage. Yet on the meaning of tragedy as such, Heidegger is strangely silent. His thinking, however, both in terms of his existential ontology and of his works on the nature of the arts, is peculiarly well suited for examining tragedy as an art form, and even more, of throwing light on that mysterious paradox of tragedy — why we thrill to the grim failures of great men.
But it is not only that Heidegger can throw light on tragedy, but tragedy can throw light on our understanding of Heidegger’s philosophy. For it is the peculiar characteristic of tragic genius to teach us how to see worth — and hence meaning — in noble existence without relying upon fortuitous circumstances or even moral excellence to prompt our approval. Just as Heidegger struggles to show us how to think about what it means to be1 without reference to substances or even moral judgments, so do the great tragedians teach us to respect the being of the hero even as he suffers and brings about misfortune through his actions.
Both Heidegger and the tragedians struggle with a similar problem: how to focus our attention on being rather than things; how to understand the meaning of existence and not merely our actions and their consequences. What is not so obvious, however, is that the philosophical inquiry which Heidegger carries out on the problems of existence constitutes a rich response to the paradox of tragedy; and the insights into the nature of the tragic art in turn provides us with a profound understanding of the chief tenets of Heidegger’s philosophy. In this article I intend to think through the paradox and the nature of tragedy under the influence and inspiration of Heidegger’s teachings — but in addition I intend to show how our native grasp of the meaning of tragedy reveals in concreto some of the more spectacular elements of Heidegger’s thought. Furthermore, I shall show how this analysis of tragedy provides the best example possible of how one can understand that remarkable doctrine of Heidegger aesthetics: that art, particularly poetic art, speaks the truth.2 For tragedy is not just another instance of an “art form”; its emphasis upon the ritual of being characterizes it as an elemental way of thinking. It is not by accident that tragedy, above all other arts, has fascinated the great philosophers.
The interrogation of tragedy must always proceed from a profound realization of the paradox inherent in our obvious appreciation of what should seemingly be censured and rejected: the suffering of a noble person. How is it possible to be so uplifted and so inspired to greatness at our witnessing the madness of Lear, the death of Hamlet, the damnation of Faustus, the desperate dilemma of Antigone? In order to show what this paradox means, we must avoid every attempt to dissolve the paradox by treating the suffering as morally deserved (Antigone ought not to have irritated Creon; Hamlet was too weak to avenge his father, hence he should have been killed; Desdemona was just too stupid, hence she deserved to be killed; etc.). For our experience of tragedy is not that of moral satisfaction — but on the contrary, there is a sense of greatness and boldness, if you will, purchased at the price of moral dissatisfaction. It is precisely because Desdemona does not deserve to die that we are deeply disturbed and enthralled at our acceptance of her murder as a part of that experience which satisfies on a different and indeed transmoral level.
In order to show how carefully the great tragedians remove from us our moral sentiments in interpreting the play, a close look at a particular tragedy may help to show the true nature of that strange “affirmation” which is the result of all truly great tragedy. Only in the actual working-out of a concrete instance of the tragedian’s art can their emphasis upon the meaning of being (Sinn von Sein) be fully realized.
Few scenes in the repertoire of tragedy have greater dramatic force or power to provoke a truly tragic response than the three scenes in Othello which show the painful development of the Moor’s accusation against his innocent wife. A consideration of these three scenes (III, 4; IV, 1; IV, 2) in light of their emphasis upon the question of being will show the point better than any purely abstract arguments. The three scenes reveal the rapidly intensifying passion with which Othello confronts Desdemona with her “guilt.” The first of these scenes describes his famous request for the handkerchief; the second provides the indecent sight of Othello striking his wife in public; the third shows us, almost with relief, Othello finally accusing her of infidelity, thus changing her terrible confusion to an even more terrible injury. Our perception of these events is almost unbearable, and we are usually grateful that most actors botch them rather badly with over-frenzied theatricality, for their effect done well might be beyond our capacity. There are several reasons why these scenes are so compelling. In the first place, Shakespeare has made us rather fond of both lovers, and this fondness is due in part to their respective weaknesses. We love Desdemona for her innocence and feminine sweetness, even though this is precisely what we curse in her, since these attributes become rather foolish and inadequate in terms of the enormity of her danger. A little less trusting, a little less innocent in the ways of the world, and Desdemona could easily have avoided her fate. Her innocence is at times almost startling, for she is quite serious when she asks:
Dost thou in conscience, think, tell me, Emilia,
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
and we are most relieved by Emilia’s earthy response. The same can be said for Othello’s noble but irritating sense of honor. We understand it quite well. It is that about him which attracts us to him even as it is that which brings him to disaster. For he is not boasting when he says:
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
And it is Othello himself who recognizes that this characteristic is the cause of his downfall. His famous line,
then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
does not tell us that his love was too passionate, but too honorable. For Othello, to love well just means to love with honor, and his virtue in so doing has become his vice. In addition to these vicious virtues or virtuous vices which constitute the lovers’ characters, there is the problem of justice. We know Desdemona is innocent, we also know that Othello firmly believes he is just in thinking her guilty, and we have a natural concern for justice. We do not want to see injustice triumph, and so the approach of such injustice grips us as we desperately hope that the wrongdoing can be avoided. If there can be such a thing as a hopeless hope, it is ours as we find ourselves caring so intensely for justice to occur when we know that it will not. We find ourselves, too, confused as to who suffers more, who deserves our greater sympathy; and in spite of the fact that it is Desdemona who suffers unjustly, it is Othello’s agonies which, I think, touch us the more deeply.
Shakespeare’s skill in developing the three-stage intensity of these gruesome confrontations between suspicious husband and injured wife is simply magnificent. In the first of these scenes, the absence of the handkerchief is unsettling; we see it as part of lago’s planning, an incident which could easily be rectified by disclosure of certain facts. Thus, although it makes us anxious, its alleviation is so palpable that our response is chiefly one of frustration. Our sentiments are, at this early stage, with Desdemona’s simple and uncomplicated worry:
Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief;
I am most unhappy at the loss of it.
Unhappy, indeed! But in the second of these three scenes, Othello’s physical savagery is unforgiveable. We are no longer dealing with a situation which can be rectified by proper information. His fury and anger are blinding him and hurting both himself and his wife. Our reaction to his actions, unlike the mere frustration in the previous scene, is now one of moral censure. We are led to wonder with Lodovico:
Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate
Call all-in-all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?
In short, we are overwhelmed with outrage. But Shakespeare has not yet reached the zenith of his development of this confrontation. In the third of these dreadful encounters, we find her protestations of innocence totally inadequate. His sense of outraged honor and her sense of outraged innocence can compel no longer our sympathy but our shock. We are no longer compassionate or even outraged, but aghast. We tremble as he says:
But there, where I have garnered up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!
As we hear this, we know it is too late. We are now prepared to watch in stunned horror at the inevitable destruction of these two whom we have learned to love far too dearly. When he kills her, he protests that her word “murder” is inaccurate: he calls it “sacrifice”!
Now what is the nature of this series of responses on the part of the audience? Our sense of concern for those we admire, our sense of justice, our sympathy with suffering, our outrage, even our own vicarious suffering — what is the nature of these responses? And what does it mean to go beyond them? We can identify these feelings loosely as moral, for they all belong to our sensitivity to human need. These responses constitute our moral level, and on these responses alone the play Othello warrants our appreciation. For if we find ourselves experiencing such emotions they may well increase our moral sensitivity, and as such be beneficial. The character of these responses can be called moral because they consist of our spiritual identification with the hero. We see his character in its flawed state, but we realize how genuinely he suffers, and we share with him his agonies. This attests to the worth of such suffering and to our natural hatred of misery. Because we feel with the hero we know how much he is hurt, and so our protest of his situation ennobles our sensitivity. These feelings identify us with the human condition, and as such they are moral.
But if we were to interrupt our participation in any of these scenes with a request for our true response, would it indeed be one of sympathy for the suffering we are witnessing? If that were so, our basic impulse would be to stop what is going on. Moral responses necessitate action. If we could, we would shout to Othello that it was lago who stole the handkerchief; we would rush to tell Desdemona not to press her suit on Cassio’s behalf; we would urge Emilia not to leave her mistress on that fateful night. Now to be sure, these instincts are present when we watch the play. But if our watching were interrupted, would our first response be to lament, How sad? How unfortunate? Is not rather our primary response to such scenes the revealing utterance, How beautiful! And with this utterance, is not the whole complexion of our experience radically altered?
“How beautiful!” we say, as we watch Othello’s noble character unravel into violent jealousy; “How beautiful!” we say, as their mutual loves lead husband and wife to their fateful undoing; “How beautiful!” we say, as we watch Shakespeare so develop the scenes that our moral responses are totally exhausted, and we are purged of any and all moral censure or sentiment. And what does this utterance signify? It does not signify our willingness to act, as does the moral instinct, but to let the thing go on, to thrill to its unfolding. The moral impulse would put us on the stage to keep injustice from conquering, it binds us to the sharing of those all-too-human griefs; but our exclamation, “How beautiful!” keeps us in our seats, absolves us from lamentation, and emphasizes not our humanity but that thin and insecure participation in a kind of Dionysian divinity. For in a perspective which is almost wicked from the human point of view, we find ourselves affirming the steady march toward doom which our beloved heroes on the stage must inevitably take. This perspective cannot be justified by the moral order, for it violates that order; but it is justified by the single word: beauty.
Thus, in tragedy, it is the triumph of our love of beauty over our concern for the good that thrills us. The essence of tragedy might therefore be identified as the triumph of eros over ethos: our appreciation of beauty is actually enhanced when all other forms of support and affirmation are removed. By the careful work of the tragedian we are led to abandon our purely moral perspective of what is going on, so that our appreciation of its beauty will stand alone. We need to have our moral sense offended lest we make the otherwise inevitable error of justifying beauty on moral grounds. But many great philosophers have assured us that beauty is precisely that form of affirmation which is autonomous — that, as Kant says: the beautiful is that which we appreciate without interest.3
But if our love is of the beautiful, and if beauty is without interest or benefit or even moral approval, what is beauty about? What is it that I affirm in the love of the beautiful even when all other forms of support are removed? The answer is: existence. A beautiful woman is she who is appreciated not for what she does but simply for what she is. Reverence for beauty therefore is the ancient and classical way of getting at the meaning of being.
When an architect makes beautiful a house, what he has done through his art is to show us what it means to dwell — and he has done so by showing that “dwelling” is precisely that dimension to our going and staying in buildings which is not necessary. A warm and dry hovel which protects us from the elements provides us with the basic necessities — it is why we build the house in the first place. But once this basic aspect is provided for, whatever else we do, whether it is to taper the supporting posts and thus make them pillars, or arch a doorway so that what is a mere aperture in a wall becomes an entranceway; whatever is in addition to the needs is of the order of beauty, i.e., that from which we learn meaning. The architect teaches us, through his art, what it means to dwell. Thus we see how beauty reveals meaning.4
Now, in tragedy, the artist’s skill, by doing violence to the basic needs and instincts (comfort and morals) forces our attention solely to the realization of the worth of our existence. The nobility of the hero (which is an aesthetic, and not a moral virtue) becomes emphasized when I cannot find any other source to affirm what I see.
Tragedy began as a part of the Dionysian festival. Its etymology (literally: the song of the goat) suggests the close connection between the plays and the celebration of beauty for its own sake — for Dionysius is that god whose riggish indifference to moral restraint deifies our love (eros) for things beautiful. Upon analysis we see that beauty teaches us the meaning (rather than the use or the cause) of a thing. What a dwelling means is accomplished by the architect making the building beautiful. Hence, even as early as the ancients, beauty was seen as that by which the mere existence of a thing is appreciated on its own. This is precisely what Heidegger teaches in his existential ontology.
What Heidegger argues is that our existence as such is open to rational inquiry, and is hence meaningful in and of itself. But furthermore, Heidegger’s analyses show us that what makes our existence meaningful is: first, that the modes or ways in which we exist are either authentic or inauthentic; and second, that the basis for authenticity and inauthenticity is our capacity to fail at being, or to be as the basis of nullity in guilt. This means that one’s being guilty is the basis by which one’s existence can be thought about. (Since whatever is thought about is thereby meaningful, to be able to be guilty is the basis of our existence being meaningful.) Being guilty — and the reticent projection of this guilt toward our own possibilities, which is the meaning of authenticity — is not a moral predicate which reveals the worth of action, but is an ontological term which reveals the meaning of being as such. Thus without this profound sense of being the basis of my own failure (and the resolute acceptance of this being guilty in authenticity), my existence could not be thought about, and as such, could not be meaningful. But the question is, How can I think about my being? Must not I first determine the question of substance (by asking, What kind of thing am I?) or at least must I not first determine the principles by which I can make moral judgments? Heidegger has shown, however, that I can think about being, prior to and independently of these questions, and indeed, by realizing the fundamental and irreducible capacity to fail at existing. But since this very capacity to be negatively is the principle by which meaning is possible, I learn to affirm, to accept, indeed, to celebrate my being precisely in the light of this capacity to fail. However, this is surely the same thing which King Lear provides for the sensitive audience.
By carefully expurgating any possibility of moral satisfaction or approval, the only thing left we have to approve is the worth of Lear’s being. (And in so doing, we approve too of our own being.) His suffering, madness, and even his death repudiate meaninglessness because we see these things which are done beautifully, as dimensions which matter. Lear, though he falls, does so in such splendid terms that we realize there is meaning to his very existence which all his agony and misery can never erase.
Both Heidegger’s thinking and the tragedian’s art are intensely affirmative in this singular sense — they both refute nihilism. In spite of Stanley Rosen’s miserable and petty misinterpretation,5 Heidegger’s works teach us how to confront the nihilist — by showing that the meaning of existence can indeed be thought about. For the nihilist need not join with either the sceptic or the relativist: he could accept the claims of certain knowledge, and even admit there are certain duties which one should do; but the nihilist simply adds that the validity of such reasoning does not matter. He says this for a simple reason: there is no way, he claims, in which my existence can be rationally thought about. Both Heidegger and the tragedian show the nihilist’s position to be untenable. Heidegger does so by actually developing successfully a thematic analysis of the ways in which we exist and grounding them in the reality of our being. The tragedian counfounds the nihilist by showing our affirmation of the nobility of being, even when all other sources of affirmation, such as pleasure, well-being, utility, and even moral approval, are violated.
The mutual confrontation with nihilism by Heidegger and the tragedian manifests a similarity in their ultimate attitudes toward the reality of being. The ability to-be-guilty, our ultimate and non-transferable power to be the basis of our own success and failure, is celebrated by both philosopher and artist. Whether the burden of being guilty is due to our own moral weakness (Macbeth) or to the circumstances of our fate (Antigone), what is affirmed is the meaning of existence as such. Although Antigone may not be as directly responsible for her misery as Macbeth, it is still her own existence which is made meaningful by her dilemma, a dilemma which is due to who she is.
A slightly different nomenclature from more classical times evokes a similar response. Of the great trinity of being — the true, the good, and the beautiful — it could be said that truth is that through which we can think and ground facts and actuality: i.e., truth tells us about the world. Goodness is that through which we think and ground our acts and our duties’, i.e., goodness tells us what we ought to do. But beauty is that through which we think and ground meaning: i.e., to see a thing as beautiful is to see what it means, or to see it in the light of its meaning. The classical emphasis upon the beautiful as that which reveals meaning accounts for Heidegger’s “shift” from doing existential analyses to his “later” concern for the arts. For one who truly understands Heidegger and classical views toward beauty, however, this “shift” is as natural, indeed as inevitable as thought itself. For beauty speaks of the meaning of being — which is precisely the concern of Heidegger’s early Being and Time. Perhaps the “turning” from ontology to poetry is simply the result of the courageous recognition of the importance of beauty in revealing philosophical meaning.
In the above analysis of the three scenes from Othello, we see how our responses are very carefully manipulated so that we go through various stages: first our sense of frustration, then moral outrage, and finally shock. Our interests, then, shift from a concern for mere physical conditions (the location of the handkerchief) to moral judgments (the censure of Othello’s anger) to the aesthetic response of numbed but deeply thrilling acceptability of the inevitable. By forcing us through these stages, Shakespeare succeeds as a tragedian, and leaves us with a profound sense of reverence for our being. Heidegger, on the other hand, in articulating in his existential analysis how true being is grasped in authenticity, carefully leads us through a similar journey. We are first led through the rejection of the Cartesian world and subject — i.e., rejection of substance as the basis of being. Then, by showing that moral actions presuppose the existential situation — i.e., that one must first be able to be guilty before one can be held responsible for an action — he removes us from establishing moral judgments as the basis of meaning. Both Shakespeare’s development of Othello’s grand but guilty existence and Heidegger’s insistence upon the fundamental priority of guilt as the basis for reasoning about human meaning succeed in showing us how we stand in thrall of our own being. Unless such an awareness of being were possible, as seen either through the tragedian’s art or through Heidegger’s philosophy, the nihilist, in his denying the thinkability of existence, would ultimately be right.
Heidegger’s analysis of guilt is especially helpful in seeing this point. For his analysis shows that guilt is not something we can understand as a mere feeling or as a response to action, but is rather that essential mode of being which makes us the basis of that nullity which is necessary for a rational understanding of being. He writes:
When human existence understandingly lets itself be called forth to the possibility of guilt, this includes its becoming free for the call. In understanding the call, human existence is in thrall to its ownmost possibility of existence.6
Thus, only by being fundamentally guilty is the human person capable of being aware of the meaning of existence, for only then does this existence matter.
Tragedy makes the same point. Why are we so thrilled and uplifted (or, Why are we put “in thrall to our ownmost possibility of existence”) by the grim suffering and abject failure of King Lear? Because the tragedy shows us that such ultimate guilt is the basis of our meaning — that Lear’s greatness and nobility, in spite of his other losses, saves him (and hence, us) from meaninglessness. Such salvation can only be the source of the deepest kind of joy, the profoundest kind of affirmation. For all the pleasantness, justice, and well-being in the world can turn sour for us if we sense the basis of our meaning slip away — just as there is no suffering too great, not even death itself, that can ultimately conquer the tragic triumph of beauty over mere fortuity and happiness. It is not by accident that tragedy flourishes in eras and epochs charged with great fervor and enormity of the affirmative spirit: Periclean Athens, Elizabethean England, and nineteenth century Germany. Far from being morbid times, they are periods of affirmation, for tragedy shows us that even if all else is lost, the dignity and grandeur of our existence as such can be loved as beautiful.
If Heidegger does nothing else but show (1) that it is possible to inquire into the meaning of existence as such and (2) that death and guilt provide the basis for an understanding of such meaning, his thought would greatly illuminate the paradox of tragedy. But Heidegger’s careful and profound analysis of the nature of art as truth does even more in throwing light upon the meaning of tragedy. For Heidegger, truth is not a matter of propositions, but rather should be seen as that by which the meaning of being is manifest. (And surely, such a definition of truth does represent what we normally mean when we use the word.) Now art, particularly the poet’s art, makes us aware of what it means to be (through language) and hence, the poet literally speaks the truth. This is a truly amazing thing to say; indeed, as a principle of aesthetics it can almost be called spectacular. Rather than seeing art as that which makes something pleasant to look at or to otherwise sense, art is seen as concerned with truth itself. According to this remarkable theory, poets can be said to speak the truth, not because their attractively designed propositions refer to facts which happen to be the case, but because their language reveals what it means to be.
The impressive if somewhat startling advantage of this theory of aesthetics is that it breaks through the time-stiffened distinction between what is said and how it is said. This dubious distinction has often led one to believe that the inelegant vernacular could speak the same truth as brilliant poetry but without the fancy “externals.” This has led many English teachers to urge their students to disregard the meaning of a poem and note rather the mere felicity of how nicely something, no matter what, is said. According to Heidegger, however, beautifully spoken language reveals more meaning than nonpoetic speech, and hence, is more true. In fact, what makes the speech of the poet beautiful is that it reveals greater truth. How I say something, therefore, becomes a part of what I say. The great poet can thus reveal certain truths which cannot be revealed outside his art. If such a point can be made, then the nature of language is not essentially that of reference: language does not refer to facts; rather, language articulates meaning. Referring to facts is only one (and indeed a derived) way of articulating meaning.
But can we believe such a theory? As much as we might like to accept Heidegger’s development of language, in which poetry speaks a truth unattainable through prose, how are we to understand such a claim? What is it about poetry (and the arts in general) that provides it with the special qualities for uncovering the meaning of being? It is only when we realize that tragedy is a ritual, and that tragic language or poetry performs a rite, that the full significance of this theory for our understanding of tragedy can be seen.
The purpose of tragic poetry is not to reveal the facts, but to establish respect for the meaning of human existence. It takes just three words to inform someone that Romeo loves Juliet, but the knowledge of such a fact is not the purpose of Shakespeare’s art. Through his art he establishes the meaning of such a love. His language is true, not because it is accurate, but because it is performative. That is to say, we attend the theatre, not to find out what is going to happen, but to celebrate its meaning. The very formality and structure of metered lines, for example, gives a stately atmosphere of pomp and ritual. Through such solemnity of language our attention is drawn by the power of language to establish meaning. In tragedy, language does not reveal what is the case, it establishes an order of meaning, for its nature is performative. This needs further comment.
Let us take an example of a non-dramatic instance of performative language. The philosophers tell us that uses of language such as the making of promises, the taking of oaths, or the utterance of marriage vows are special kinds of language which are not about the world but become an important part of the world. Thus when I utter sayings such as “I hereby take thee as wife,” or “I hereby promise that. . . ,” one understands that a certain order or structure of meaning is established by the language. In the same way, religious ceremonies are performative; they do not merely remind us of certain beliefs, they establish such beliefs by official ceremony. The breaking of bread, the baptizing of an infant, the incantations at burial, exorcisms, all establish a reality by means of performative language. Reality itself is altered by the utterance. Performative language makes real certain objects of meaning. For language to be able to do this, it must have certain characteristics: it must, for example, be extraordinary; it must inspire our respect; it must be stately and formal since it itself establishes a form and a state; it must present itself with the authority necessary to establish binding influence on the mind. In tragedy, such performative language establishes the triumph of “eros over ethos”7; i.e., it celebrates our understanding of what it means to be over our mere knowledge of facts: it establishes meaning to existence.
A rite is the symbolic but concrete performance of an action which gives meaning and evokes the sentiments of reverence, awe, and fear. Because a rite is performative and not descriptive, it establishes meaning rather than merely refers to it. Often rites have legal significance, as in the case of oaths and the rites of marriage; but even when they do not, they possess a kind of authority which cannot be found in purely symbolic acts or in sentiments of nostalgia. It is sometimes said that a certain act is a “mere ritual”; i.e., that someone has done something merely out of concern for etiquette or habit. The phrase sometimes even means that someone has done something without thinking. Such uses of the term are inaccurate and manifest a profound misunderstanding of the etymology and tradition behind rites. A rite, rather than being something less than real, is actually that which determines reality. Its etymology (Latin ritus) shows the close connection between a rite and a religious ceremony. In fact, even in modern usage there is often the suggestion of religiosity about a rite.
Ritual provokes the sentiments of reverence, awe, and fear. Fear, because the power of that which validates the rite — i.e., the godhead, the state, or an institution — with authority, is greater than those who perform the rite. Rites put us in the presence of forces greater than ourselves, or at least provoke dimensions in ourselves (such as the moral law) which outrank our individual desires. To have ritualistically promised something is to put one’s commitment beyond the influence of mere desire and the concern for pleasure. Hence, the rite produces fear, for the forces unleashed by the rite can destroy our tranquility or even our lives. It produces reverence for the same reason: we are in the presence of a reality which demands our respect and prompts our humility. And it evokes awe because a rite orients our consciousness towards dimensions of greatness. A rite prompts a kind of thinking which reveals the enormity of our being in the world. The sentiments of reverence, awe, and fear are proper responses to rites, for the performative language of a rite establishes an order to reality which binds us to the meaning of our existence as whatever it is the rite suggests.
To what extent, then, can we understand tragedy as the performance of a rite? As we have seen, tragedy is the triumph of eros over ethos; but this triumph is accomplished as a ritual. The plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare are rites performed in the temple of Dionysius — the theatre — where we participate in the affirmation of the autonomous worth of the beautiful, of the meaning of being as such. Such an affirmation must be established by the performative power of a rite, since no basis for affirmation can be found in a mere description or experience of the world. When we leave the performance of a successful tragedy, we sense that our own reality has been formally sanctioned by the persuasive power of greatness.
This is because the audience in a tragedy is not a group of mere observers looking on, but participants in the ritual. It is we the audience, and not the dramatis personae, who thrill to the grim violation of our moral instincts for the sake of participating in the worship of the autonomous worth of beauty. When Romeo first sees Juliet, the beauty of his language evokes in us an affirmation: we do not merely hear Romeo and thus become informed of his love, rather the poetry provokes in us our performance of the rite by which we sanction Romeo’s commitment to Juliet:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this;
My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a gentle kiss.
But within just a few lines of this, our ritualistic approval of their young love is checked by our discovery (through Juliet’s lines) that their love — and hence our sanction — is cursed:
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy.
But, rather than merely lamenting the situation, we thrill to it, we affirm it, indeed, we participate in this frustration of happiness and thus celebrate the triumph of eros over ethos — we perform the rite by which we establish our meaning as higher than our happiness. Thus tragic poetry shows us how the poet can speak the truth. Heidegger’s seemingly outrageous claim is here seen to be valid.
A final word should be said about the roots of tragedy in the Dionysian festival and the significance this has for Heidegger’s philosophy. In celebrating eros over ethos, or the meaning of existence over a concern for the world, the Dionysians praise three things which simply confound most other thinkers. In tragedy we have seen how the Dionysians teach us to understand human suffering and even death. But suffering is not the only enigma: there is also foolishness. This they celebrate in Comedy (the song of the Fool). Comedy teaches us how to affirm our own foolishness. But the third enigma which the Dionysian teaches us to accept is perhaps the greatest of all: ignorance. Philosophy teaches us to celebrate our own ignorance. For the true philosopher, like Socrates, is he who realizes that his wisdom lies in the recognition of ignorance. Ignorance for a philosopher is that from which one can inquire (for knowledge ends inquiry: if I know, I have no need to inquire further). Thus the Dionysian celebration of ignorance is the philosophical realization of finitude. Socrates learns that he does not possess wisdom but that he loves it, and it is thus his self-realized ignorance that leads him to inquire and which validates the oracle’s claim that he is the “wisest” of men.
These three enigmas — suffering, foolishness, and ignorance — are celebrated by the three worshippers of Dionysius: the tragedian, the comedian, and the philosopher. Martin Heidegger is a true philosopher in this special and exalted sense.
Northern Illinois University
1 I translate Heidegger’s phrase “Die Frage nach dem Sinn vom Sein” by “The question of what it means to be.” For a defense and discussion of this translation, see my A Commentary on Heidegger’s “Being and Time ” (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 18.
2 See “The Origin of the Art-work” by Heidegger, finely translated by Prof. Albert Hofstadter in Poetry, Language and Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
3 See Kant, I, Critique of Judgment.
4 For a further discussion of how beauty is the rational basis for thinking about meaning, see my Winter, Friendship and Guilt (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
5 S. Rosen, Nihilism, a Philosophical Essay (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).
6 Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 334.
7 For a further discussion of the definition of tragedy as “eros over ethos” see my forthcoming book, Eros and Tragedy.