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Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II

Oedipus at Colonus, by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. 1788.

July 2, 2020

This brings us to Aristotle’s Poetics, which Critchley gives an even closer reading than he gave to The Republic. And why not? It’s shorter, more succinct and more germane. He begins by unpacking that troublesome concept, “catharsis.” Is it life-changing or purgative or disruptive or like menstruation? Many philosophers claim Aristotle uses it to argue directly with Plato about the value of tragic poetry. Critchley thinks it’s just a description of what people feel when they watch a tragedy, then return home and go on with their lives unchanged. (Much the way people now read murder mysteries.) Which actually is a response to Plato. Tragedy is not disruptive and dangerous, but speaks to normal parts of human nature. Aristotle is an observant naturalist, unlike moralistic Plato.

Critchley works his way through the famous concepts: hamartia, unity, dramatic action, fear and pity, the value of poetry over history (history is “a bloody archive of particulars” that can be used for tragedy). Euripides is Critchley’s favorite but dismissed by Aristotle as “the most tragic”—not actual praise. (Aristophanes in The Frogs left Euripides in Hades because he had made tragedy “democratic.” He saved Aeschylus instead. Aristotle disliked democracy almost as much as Plato did.)

Aristotle’s rules about characters, especially women and slaves, set him at odds with Euripides. But Euripides is even stranger than I knew. The endings of his Orestes and Helen sound as bloody as Jacobean tragedies—with the weird plot twist in both that the real Helen wasn’t taken to Troy, but only a simulacrum of her. Critchley claims Euripides uses deus ex machina as a deliberate mockery of the concept of neat, clean endings admired by Aristotle and practiced by Sophocles. He gives many examples of Euripides parodying Aeschylus and Greek myths with bits of realism and put-down lines. He enjoyed screwing around with the genre.

But he wasn’t alone in his extremism. Elektra by Sophocles stars the biggest screamer in Greek tragedy, even louder than Cassandra. Perhaps Aeschylus and Sophocles both wrote wild, mixed genre plays that are now lost? Aristotle next weighs tragedy against epic and decides tragedy is better, chiefly because it’s more concentrated.

Aristotle is more generous to poetry than Plato was, but Critchley complicates this fact by arguing that he could be generous since philosopy had won. His calm, reasonable descriptions can be smug and condescending, Critchley claims. Well, maybe. But Poetics is never outright wrong or crazy the way Republic can be. And Aristotle’s inclusion of facts and examples is useful to the modern reader, even when he avoids examples that are exceptions to his rules. We may disagree with Aristotle’s answers, but he asks good questions.

July 3, 2020

Critchley moves on to a discussion of the missing second book of Poetics, which is about comedy. Ecco made this text the MacGuffin of his Name of the Rose, but it turns out the book isn’t entirely missing. A Byzantine manuscript, Tractatus Coislineanus, summarizes the missing book. A scholar has recreated it and Critchley finds the recreation convincing, although his summary doesn’t sound very interesting. Nevertheless, Critchley uses it to return to catharsis, arguing for a more moderate, less radical effect on the audience in the eyes of Aristotle, mildly homeopathic, like piling on blankets to cure a fever. Critchley prefers the confusion and disruption produced by Euripides, which he explores with a discussion of The Frogs. Aeschylus is chosen over Euripides in a contest for who should be brought back from Hades to save Athens from itself. Aristophanes finds Euripides too realistic, too “democratic.” Critchley speaks of Cloud Cuckooland in The Birds and the role of Aristophanes in The Symposium (he falls asleep during Socrates’ big speech about the similarities of tragedy and comedy).

Critchley closes with a reading of Oedipus, not a close reading, but a lyric reading that draws in the ideas he discussed earlier. There are interesting observations—acting and being acted upon meld against the background of ideology; the role of grief and funerals in political movements—but it’s surprisingly dry, almost glib, compared to what preceded it. Critchley clearly saw this, because he now gives the real ending. He once interviewed Isabelle Huppert at BAM after a production called Phaedra(s). He talked around the ideas at work in Euripides, Racine and others. She was polite and intelligent, but then she impatiently said, “What theater is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness. That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas. Good ideas, maybe. But just ideas.” This, with a few words from Anne Carson about tragedy as a furnace glimpsed in the dark, gives him the ending he needs, where great theater leaves us seemingly blinded but able to see further than before.

Here’s a timeline I drew up to help me remember where I am in these pages. (Placing famous works in time somehow makes them more real to me.)

480 BC Salamis

472 BC The Persians by Aeschylus

432 BC Declaration of Peloponnesian War

429 BC Oedipus the King by Sophocles

415 BC The Trojan Women by Euripides

413 BC Athenian defeat at Syracuse

405 BC The Frogs by Aristophanes

404 BC Athens defeated in second war

399 BC Trial and death of Socrates

380 BC The Republic

336 BC Alexander comes to the throne

335 BC The Poetics

323 BC Death of Alexander

Dates before Christ run backwards, so I often feel disoriented. But it’s startling to see that the golden age of Greece lasted 150 years, which seems both too short and too long. Then I remember that the most vital time of American history also ran 150 years, from 1800 to 1950. Maybe we are as doomed as Athens.

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I

School of Athens
School of Athens, by Raphael. 1509-1511

June 29, 2020

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us by Simon Critchley. A lean, concentrated, engaging, exasperating look at Greek tragedy and “tragedy’s philosophy.” It is so lean that it feels like a fatter, more conventional book that’s been cooked down into a series of zen koans. I can read only so much at a time, usually in the morning, before it turns opaque and incomprehensible. But in this age of plague, a tyrant and the failure of democracy, a visit to ancient Athens feels right.

Here are a few of the ideas from the book:

Tragedy was performed not for individuals but for the city, a civic event more akin to a trial than to private reverie or religious ritual. Aristotle left this side out of his Poetics.

Gorgias the sophist wrote: “Tragedy . . . creates a deception in which the deceiver is more honest than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.” Which is similar to Picasso’s “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”

Critchley draws heavily on Hegel’s argument that tragedy is about the conflict between two rights, best illustrated by Antigone. (I first encountered this in Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, a book Critchley never mentions but affects my reading here.) He sets his progressives—Hegel, Marx—against his regressives—Nietzsche, Heidigger—but his strongest words come from Bernard Williams who said in Shame and Necessity that our current ethical condition is not so different from that of the Greeks. We all suffer from moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity. Critchley argues that it’s wrong to see the Greeks as too other, too exotic.

The hero in Greek tragedy is not a solution to the problem: he is the problem. A regular refrain in the plays is “What am I to do? How are we to choose?” The plays are about the disruption of meaning. Justice is conflict. Tragedy is a dialectical mode of experience. Meaning isn’t unified but polytheistic, like Greek religion.

Some of the plays I knowThe Orestia, Oedipus, Philoctetes, The Trojan Women—others I don’t—Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens. I wish he said more about the plays themselves. They are stepping stones through this existential thicket. Critchley makes much of the fact these are war plays, written at a time of war, and that they weren’t timeless but of “the tragic moment.” A xenophobic, sexist society watched plays that featured foreigners and women.

Demokratia is related to theatrokratia, “a theater state” like Geertz’s Bali. I don’t understand what this means yet but I am intrigued. This book, like Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro, is fueled by the triumph of Trump and the failure of democracy.

June 30, 2020

Critchley points out that although we have the complete texts of 31 plays, philosophers only talk about two, Oedipus and Antigone. I’d add the Orestia, but the point is taken. A sharp criticism of the concept of moral psychology—that ethics is part of human psychology—leads to the idea that tragedy disrupts such a connection. But a discussion of Schelling on Spinoza and Kant takes these ideas into the weeds where I couldn’t follow. When Critchley says, “We should get back to theater,” I was overjoyed—but he gives few specifics.

The section on sophistry and Gorgias takes me to more solid ground. In the great contest between tragedy and philosophy, Critchley adds a third force, the sophists. Plato dismissed them as wordplaying relativists, but Critchley takes them more seriously. They were not simply fancy talkers in it for the money, but serious thinkers arriving at different truths. Critchley compares them to Beckett; I was reminded of comic novelists like Sterne and Gogol. Their most effective thinker, Gorgias, survives as the subject of Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in a few fragments, and in commentary by Sextus Empiricus. His most famous pieces are a defense of Helen and a look at non-being. His clever arguments take us closer to the law courts of Athens, but there’s forensic style in Plato, too, despite his claim he is more interested in truth than cleverness.

So how does sophistry connect to tragedy? The reversals of Euripides in Trojan Women and elsewhere drew on the reversals of Gorgias and others, where the losers are presented as winners, etc. Wordplay and persuasion are tried in Philoctetes, but only Herakles, the deus ex machina, can change the archer’s mind. However, at the end of Trojan Women, Helen defends herself against a death sentence with a lawyerly speech denying her responsibility for the war. Hecuba answers the speech point by point, but Helen still wins.

July 1, 2020

We see the sophists from Plato’s point of view in his dialogues, including Phaedrus and Gorgias. The first is about love and rhetoric, defining the love of philosophy. Critchley calls it a success, although his description suggests the odds are stacked—but they are always stacked in Plato’s dialogues. Gorgias promises to be an argument with the chief sophist, but Gorgias himself barely appears. The antagonist is Callicles, a cynic who speaks an entirely different language. Socrates is a total pain here, talking chiefly to himself and finally admitting he will win in the afterlife. (Philosophy is better than sophistry only in the eyes of the gods: it is “divine” while sophistry is merely human.)

Now we enter The Republic, where Plato launches his full-scale attack against tragedy. It appears to be set in 410 BCE and was written in 380 BCE. (Socrates was put to death in 399 BCE—one of the few dates from the ancient world that I can remember.)

Critchley’s account is clear and readable, constructed around Socrates’ attack on Homer and the tragic poets, first in Book 3, where his emphasis is on education, then in Book 10 where he returns to the subject as a kind of epilogue. Ironies abound. This is a criticism of drama that takes the form of drama itself. Tales of bad behavior by gods need to be deleted as “untrue,” yet truth here means whatever is useful in this ideal city state. “Being dead is not such a terrible thing” is a useful truth for future warriors. Mimesis, the imitation of reality, is bad because it introduces distracting superficiality as well as the irrational. Lamentation makes for exciting tragedies but is bad in real life. Emotional excess must be regulated.

Along the way Socrates deals with the four possible forms of government: timocracy (honor), oligarchy (money), democracy, and tyranny. Democracy looks appealing but is dangerous because it can lead to tyranny. He addresses “the good” in Book VI, which is where we get the parable of the cave, that favorite image of Gallatin students. But the dialogue builds to the exclusion of the tragic poets. One cant help suspecting this is as much about turf war between the philosophers and poets as it is about truth.

Socrates hates tragedy because it gives pleasure. Tragedy is bad because it turns men into women, making them suffer emotionally and cry. Emotions that should be repressed are released, which corrodes democracy and enables the rise of tyrants. (But we’ve seen here that coldness leads to the rise of men like Trump and Bolsonaro.) Comedy is bad, too, because jokes that should be told in private are now made public. After expelling the poets, Socrates closes with his own weird, longwinded fairy tale about Er, a man who returns from the afterlife with a detailed account of what happens to good people and bad people after they die.

Critchley doesn’t defend any of this—how could he?—or claim that it’s ironic, but leaves it as a mysterious puzzle. Indicating he was utterly serious, Plato expanded his view of the afterlife twenty years later with another dialogue, Timaeus.

— Christopher Bram.


Copyright© 2020, by Chistopher Bram. All Rights Reserved.

Christopher Bram: Love in the Time of Garcia Marquez

Christopher Bram: Love in the Time of Garcia Marquez

Garcia Marquez. Foto: The Douglas Brothers; Copyright Harper-Perennial



November 12, 2007


I am rereading Love in the Time of Cholera, in part because of Draper’s recent pleasure in the book, in part to feed my new novel, and because I’m afraid that if I see the upcoming Mike Newell movie I will never be able to read the book again without seeing his images.


I first read the book five years ago. I see it more whole this time. The class issues read more clearly. Two people from the lower classes, Fermina and Florentino, fall in love, but Fermina marries up in the world with Dr. Urbino. Yet she’s not consciously ambitious. And one of many fine twists is that Garcia Marquez gives her a happy marriage while Florentino pines from afar. (In fact, he gives both protagonists good lives while we wait for love to be requited.)


The book is constructed out of endless shaggy dog stories: elaborately woven rugs of situation that are abruptly pulled out from both reader and character. Some of the stories are playful, such as Florentino’s long, lushly described journey upriver to his new job to escape Fermina, only to turn around and return to the coast as soon as he arrives. Others are tragic, such as the affair with Olimipia Zuleta that abruptly ends when her husband cuts her throat. But the chief shaggy dog story is quite profound, the central plot itself: Florentino courts Fermina with letters, nothing but letters, for four years, overcoming all obstacles. Then one day, in the marketplace, in a single paragraph, Fermina sees him up close and love dies. “Instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment.” It’s brutally perfect. These two young people barely know each other. They’re in love only with the idea of love. (But aren’t we all, the book seems to say. This is playfully illustrated in Florentino’s second career as an author of love letters. Love is so general, so formulaic, that he can conduct both sides of a romantic epistolary duet between two people he doesn’t know.)

Again I am struck by the language, Garcia Marquez’s elegant sentences that mix pretty ideals and prosaic reality. “After his erratic experience with the Widow Nazaret, which opened the door to street love, he continued to hunt the abandoned little birds of the night for several years, still hoping to find a cure for the pain of Fermina Daza. But by then he could no longer tell if his habit of fornicating without hope was a mental necessity or a simple vice of the body.”



November 13, 2007

The book defeats the old argument of “show, don’t tell.” The book is almost all telling, but it’s storytelling, which is a very different animal.


I spoke too soon about Fermina’s happy marriage. Florentino and the town assume the Urbinos are happy. However, after the honeymoon trip to Europe, Fermina is trapped in a sad household with Dr. Urbino’s awful mother, who forces her to eat eggplant. The old lady finally dies, and the pair reinvent happiness, rediscover love. “Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was the time when they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity.”


Under the many jokes, there is real experience of married life here. And despite the insistent, lighthearted cartoonyness, there is genuine sorrow, too. Something real is always at stake in the novel’s contest between domestic and romantic love. (The novel makes an interesting companion to Anna Karenina, more comic and tolerant yet ultimately as serious and sad.)


November 14, 2007

Garcia Marquez loves his stories, and he deftly packs one inside another. The mystery of Fermina’s two-year exile in San Juan de la Cienaga is slowly explained with the tale of Dr. Urbino’s affair with Miss Barbara Lynch, the black Protestant. The episode is remarkably fair to all parties involved. We know what Florentino doesn’t when he finally sees the two at an outdoor screening of Cabiria and realizes that they are growing old, not just the doctor but he and his beloved. There’s a lovely series of pages on Florentino’s loss of hair, teeth, and his changing wardrobe.


(Draper thinks Fermina is a bitch because she’s mean to Florentino. I find her quite sympathetic, first in her disenchantment, and later after the death of the doctor when she tells Florentino to leave her alone. From her point of view, Florentino is a pest–although from his point of view, I guess she is a bitch.)



November 15, 2007

My friend Michael Bronski likes to say that gay people and straight people are exactly alike, but straight people lie about what they want. There are, however, many straight novelists who tell the truth about love. Garcia Marquez is one, especially here. Many gay men would have no trouble seeing themselves in Florentino’s shoes.


Florentino has one last “consolation” lover, his fourteen-year-old goddaughter, America Vicuna. (I will bet she’s left out of the movie.) He is in bed with her when he hears the church bells announcing the death of Dr. Urbino.


Another novelist would give us a simple happy ending here: Patience wins, true love triumphs. But Garcia Marquez complicates it wonderfully. First there is Fermina’s anger. She really does mourn her husband. Florentino is a phantom from her past whom she resents, a vampire loitering at the cemetery. He interprets her angry letter as proof that she really does love him, which she does, but she hates him, too. Second, there is America. A law of love is that one almost never triumphs without somebody else losing. Success will be built on sorrow. (One of the moral surprises of the novel is that Fermina and Florentino aren’t punished because a child suffers.)



November 19, 2007

The love affair ends as it began, in letters. Florentino writes again to Fermina, only these le tters are more modern, less romantic, and composed on a typewriter. They are never quoted but we’re told they’re less subjective, less lyrical, more about life as a whole. We believe in their wisdom without ever seeing them chiefly because they help Fermina through her grief.


The letters go on for over a year, without being answered, before the two lovers meet again. It’s a slow-motion happy ending, Garcia Marquez taking his sweet time, which adds an element of suspense: what if one of the lovers dies before they reconcile?


Finally, they take their boat journey, Fermina wanting to escape town because she’s distraught over the gutter press lies that Dr. Urbino and her best friend were lovers, and revelations about her father’s crooked life. Her son and daughter take different stands on the romantic friendship of their mother and Florentino. “Love is ridiculous at our age,” says Ofelia, “but at theirs it is revolting.”


And still Garcia Marquez takes his time. The boat trip begins in beauty–“the breathing boat carried her toward the splendor of the day’s first roses”–but grows unpleasant as they go upstream. The forests have been cut down for fuel; the parrots and monkeys are gone. Fermina hears about the death of a manatee. She hears about an old couple beaten to death. Yet the lovers still don’t consummate their love. Florentino receives a telegram from Leona announcing the suicide of America Vicuna. She left no note but drank a flask of laudanum after failing her exams. Florentino knows the real reason and is anguished by the memory. “He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.”


At long last, bitten by mosquitos, Fermina suffering an earache, they go to bed together–and fail. Florention can’t get it up. He returns the next night, however, displaying it like “a war trophy,” and they fuck, but the act is presented as beside the point. “They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.”


They reach the end of the journey, then race back downstream flying the cholera flag so they won’t have to take on passengers. Fermina dreads the return home, as if it were death. When they reach the city, the captain finds that the authorities won’t let him dock. Florentino says they should sail back river again. The captain asks how long they can keep up such goddamn coming and going.


Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.

“Forever,” he said.


So what does it mean? What more can one say after describing this wonderful novel as it unfolded?

Garcia Marquez is a remarkably tender realist. He does not choose sides. He does not present romantic love as superior to married love. He even suggests similarities between the two, much as Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina. He doesn’t admire Florentino at the expense of Dr. Urbino. Both men are sympathetic and absurd. Fermina is granted her absurdity, too, yet I think she is the sympathetic center, the novel’s straight man, so to speak, the character we should find easiest to identify with. If we don’t identify with her, she can seem like a bitch and the novel falls apart.


It’s a tall tale of a novel, an absurdist fairy-tale full of very real emotional toads. For me it is Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, his one complete success. He loses control and balance when he writes about war and power and politics. He has no sympathy for that world, or pity either, and his strengths are dispersed. Writing about love and sex and marriage frees him to feel more. He is not afraid to be tender. The chaos of love doesn’t overwhelm him and numb him the way the chaos of history does. And love enables him to explore time more fully and deeply than violence and death did.


Time is his other great subject. Yet the time of love is so much more human and poignant than the time of brutal history–especially South American history.




–Christopher Bram



Copyright ©2008 by Christopher Bram. All rights reserved.
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