Rowan Williams's tragic mistake

How can Rowan Williams reconcile his Christianity with the Greek tragic vision?
November 17, 2016
The Tragic Imagination by Rowan Williams (OUP, £12.99)

Can there be a Christian reading of tragedy? Can a pre-Christian, pagan, literary genre, which confronts the gross unfairness of human pain, be reconciled with the idea of a loving deity? Expectations must be high of a book about tragedy professing to explore these questions by Rowan Williams. He is the most intellectually renowned British churchman alive, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He has always enriched his prolific theological and church-historical studies with intense reflections on philosophy and literature; in addition to his more than 30 volumes on Christianity, he has published on Fydor Dostoyevsky and WH Auden and even volumes of his own poetry. The Tragic Imagination is a short monograph, a little over 40,000 words, arguing for the past and continuing importance of tragic drama and its compatibility—indeed affinity—with a philosophically inflected Christian outlook.

As Archbishop, Williams elicited criticism from Anglicans who regarded him as too scholarly to be an effective leader, and too interested in analytical complexities to be an effective interpreter of the Gospel. On the other hand, he disappointed the political left, who felt he failed to deliver on the hopes inspired by his sensitivity to interfaith issues, apparent preparedness to embrace a degree of cultural relativism, and well-known sympathy with the poor.

The overall effect of The Tragic Imagination will do nothing to alter the public perception that Williams instinctively rejects clarity in favour of sitting on intellectual fences to ponder arcane points of metaphysics and excavate the views of obscure thinkers. The book is difficult and, ultimately, frustrating. It leaves an agnostic such as myself still failing to understand how such a committed Christian as Williams can reconcile his faith with what seems to be a complete lack of belief in a “happy ending” for any individual or for the human race as a whole.

Williams traces his lifelong fascination with tragedy to two watersheds in his intellectual development. He was struck, when he was introduced to King Lear at secondary school in Swansea, by the play’s shocking refusal of “anything resembling a resolution, a message, or a promise of a more obviously reconciled future.” He is determined to see King Lear as timeless and metaphysically transcending all culturally contingent relationships with Reformation England. This means that he ignores the considerable interpretive literature on Lear which points to the submerged religious message of redemption lying behind the passion and quasi-sacrificial death of the sanctified, Christlike figure of Cordelia. When he was studying theology at Cambridge, Williams was impressed, along with other influential thinkers including Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot, by the famous lectures on suffering and evil by the Christian neo-Kantian Donald MacKinnon. MacKinnon came as near to agnosticism as it is possible for a professed Christian to go without renouncing faith altogether. He always lambasted religious or intellectual attempts to infer constructive or instructive consequences from suffering. Underlying every page of Williams’s book is MacKinnon’s insistence that even the most confident faith must be, in Williams’s words, “honest about what is utterly unresolved in human experience, what cannot be made sense of (if making sense means showing why it’s a good thing really).”

But the other intellectual filament running through Williams’s study is his proposal that tragedy, by talking about suffering, can offer some healing even if no cure. He returns repeatedly to a tale about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who spent months queueing outside prisons in Stalin’s Russia, trying to deliver food parcels to her incarcerated son and only intermittently succeeding. When another woman recognised her and asked if she could describe the situation, Akhmatova pleased her by saying “yes” and did so. Here lies the kernel of Williams’s position on tragedy: putting things into words effects its own change, even in catastrophe, because it “establishes that there remains a world in which speakers can understand one another.” This proves the resilience of human communities, and the legitimacy—what he calls the “groundedness”—of the selfhood of the individuals constituting communities. The verbal representation of misery can remain a surviving freedom even in our darkest hours.

Tragedy, in Williams’s view, achieves three things. First, it makes us sit still and do nothing while we witness pain that we are powerless to alleviate—“the sheer discipline of holding back and not intruding as either messiahs or fellow-sufferers.” Second, it demands the response of others to the subject experiencing the pain, thus turning the pain—even if it is experienced within a fictional story set faraway and long ago—into something public, shared and linguistically speaking real, which keeps the sufferer open to being heard and understood. Third, it makes us aware of how the ease with which suffering can be exploited for amoral ends (as Iago exploits Othello’s emotional pain), heightening our sensitivity to self-seeking, partial, opportunistic abuse of knowledge of the sorrow of others.

Williams’s five principal chapters press this argument from different trajectories: politics, problems of knowledge (epistemology), Hegel’s dialectical interpretation of tragedy as the representation of conflict and (limited) reconciliation, George Steiner’s notion of “absolute tragedy,” and the affinities between tragic drama and religious discourse, especially the Book of Job, the Gospel of John, and the Christian Mass. Williams is also influenced by the work of Martha Nussbaum, the philosopher, especially her work on the relationship between random chance and human deliberation in ancient thought, and Gillian Rose’s Hegelian reflections on the ideology of responses to atrocities such as the Holocaust.
"For Rowan Williams, tragic drama makes us sit still and do nothing while we witness pain that we are powerless to alleviate"
He offers surprisingly sympathetic observations on the relentless depictions of violence and suffering in the works of controversial British playwrights Edward Bond and Sarah Kane. But there is only a small number of references to tragedies from beyond Europe and North America, to Wole Soyinka and The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona (although Williams only credits Fugard). Little use is made of the substantial available scholarship on the flowering of intercultural performances of ancient tragedy since the late 1960s, from China to Chile, Tehran to Taiwan and Tasmania to Algeria. The world has moved on since the dialogue between Raymond Williams’s Marxist interpretation of the continuing valence of tragedy, and George Steiner’s denial of the possibility of “absolute tragedy” in the modern world.

It is inevitable that when someone sets out to study a topic on such a scale, intersecting with several specialist fields, experts in each will be frustrated at the gaps in his coverage. Theatre and performance specialists will be baffled by the book’s logocentrism—its insistence that tragedy does all its work using words rather than through the physical representation via embodied enactment of communal ritual, pain, libido, or mimetic conflict. Non-linguistic communication has been central to the direction of tragic theatre all over the world since the pioneering productions of Max Reinhardt and especially of Antonin Artaud. Historians of literature, ideas and culture will likewise be frustrated by the emphasis on German Idealism and the absence of any real engagement with Nietzsche, let alone Brecht (whose version of Antigone has been just as important to the reception of that play in performance as Anouilh’s) or the French intellectual tradition after Sartre, especially his atheist version of The Trojan Women.

Speaking as a classicist, I sometimes wondered if Williams has been reading the same Greek tragedies as I have. There are factual mistakes: Euripides’ Medea is set in Corinth, but on one occasion he claims that it is Thebes (and, yes, this does make a difference to our understanding of the play). The lack of reference to Athenian democracy in the chapter on politics is flummoxing. Contrary to Williams’s stated view, several plays feature dramatis personae who know exactly what is about to happen, and why. It is not true that Euripides’ work postdates that of Sophocles; they were contemporaries. Nor is it true that Athens is portrayed in Sophocles’ Theban plays; in two of the three (Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone) Athens does not feature at all. It is not Tiresias who finally persuades Creon to spare the heroine of Antigone, but the chorus of Theban elders.

Other statements, though not factually erroneous, reproduce outdated critical viewpoints, a result of Williams’s narrow acquaintance with the work of classical scholars (most of those he cites are based in Cambridge). The ground on which Euripides was deemed “most tragic” of the poets by Aristotle was not that he favoured endings of unrelieved misery; Aristotle meant here that Euripides was the most effective tragedian at eliciting the emotions Aristotle deemed appropriate to tragedy—pity and fear. Euripides also enjoyed upbeat tragic endings, after prolonged suffering. Aristotle admires several of his plays on this pattern, especially Iphigenia in Tauris, which he admires almost as much as Oedipus Tyrannus. But these facts fit so ill with Williams’s viewpoint that he has evaded them.
"Williams puts his faith in the assumption that putting tragic things into words establishes the resilience of human communities"
I normally avoid quibbling in reviews, but risk appearing quarrelsome here in order to explain why I cannot recommend this book to my students or to people coming to tragedy as interested laypersons. It is insufficiently reliable on the subject of ancient Greek literature, which is central to his argument. Most modern tragedies Williams discusses in detail—Anouilh’s Antigone and Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love included—are adaptations of ancient plays. The inadequate engagement with Aristotle’s Poetics is troublesome, because Aristotle first conceived the analytical categories which would determine the directions taken by the tragic genre throughout its long future, and he succeeded in doing so from a humanist standpoint. With the exception of a brief discussion of the convention of the deus ex machina, Aristotle makes no reference to the gods or theology whatsoever. Aristotle is interested in how and why humans bring suffering on themselves by making mistakes, whether through false knowledge, bad decision-making, or either of these combined with bad luck. Since Aristotle did not think that his God, the remote “unmoved mover,” had any interest in human affairs, and neither punished nor rewarded human actions, he did not worry that Greek tragedy did not portray providential cosmic justice. Yet he saw that tragedy allowed its spectators to think about suffering, and experience it vicariously, while enjoying the beauty of the poetic art form. Just as humans can look at pictures of ugly monsters or human cadavers in order to learn about them with an element of pleasure. So, argued Aristotle, they can learn both intellectually and emotionally about suffering in all its forms from tragic theatre.

But Williams has no apparent interest in aesthetics, I suspect on account of his determination to distance himself from the school of tragic criticism which claims that suffering, or at least stoic resilience or defiant resistance to suffering, somehow ennobles or even bestows a glamorous dignity on the sufferer. He therefore avoids discussing the paradoxical union of agony and exquisite poetry which marks the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and Racine. He makes no response to Terry Eagleton’s identification in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (2003) of aesthetic beauty as intrinsic to the history of tragedy both as text and script for performance. Williams also seems reluctant to acknowledge that a humanist’s or Aristotelian’s response to any tragedy, Greek, Shakespearean or modern, can be just as metaphysically open, questing and questioning, as that of a believer in a religious faith.

The sustained dialogue with MacKinnon reveals the limits of the conceptual arena in which Williams’s argument operates. His book, which is stylishly written, is an important addition to the corpus of Christian writing on western literature. It will feature on theological bibliographies alongside works by a sub-set of other philosophically minded Christians whom he cites. They include John Milbank (professor of religion, politics and ethics at Nottingham University) and David Bentley Hart (Eastern Orthodox radical and author of the popular polemic Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies).

But the Christian and western nuclei make Williams’s cerebrally strenuous book, in the final analysis, culturally parochial. It will be of rather less interest to those who think about tragic theatre from a more global and trans-historical perspective.