The Ends of Tragedy or the Origins of the Mourning Play
In this course we will look at various theories of tragedy for purposes of distinguishing it from what Walter Benjamin considered the specifically modern predicament of absolute immanence as depicted in the Baroque mourning play. In a post-Reformation world in which deeds don’t matter, tragedy is no longer up to the mimetic task prescribed by Aristotle. Instead, the mourning play, in which the sovereign has no access to an absolute to legitimate his decisions, makes of the hero an anti-hero, of the world a valley of tears. In that respect, we will also read Benjamin’s Origin of the German Mourning Play as a diagnosis of modernity and its ailments.
We will begin, however, with Plato’s Ion in which ontology is juxtaposed with the constant becoming that goes nowhere or an “Iontology.” We will then interrogate Aristotle’s Poetics, particularly for its understanding of catharsis and mimesis. What assumptions about the world underlie the Aristotelian notion of tragedy? After reading Antigone we will jump to Hegel’s reflections on that play and tragedy overall in The Aesthetics: How does Hegel come to think of tragedy as something that has been overcome or rendered obsolete? Next, we will turn to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy to understand how Nietzsche rethinks the Greeks to wrest it from the delicacies that framed its appropriation by the German classics.
More important, we will identify those aspects of Nietzsce’s text that underwrite Benjamin’s Mourning Play. How does Benjamin refute the ahistorical claims of Nietzsche? What distinguishes the mourning play from tragedy, the German mourning play from Calderon? To prepare ourselves for Benjamin’s work, we will read Andreas Gryphius’s Leo Armenius along with Pedro Calderon’s Life is a Dream. We will conclude the course by questioning what is it that allows for the sudden dialectical reversal at the end of Benjamin’s text. Has the project succeeded in rupturing the immanence of modernity; has that constellation finally exhausted itself; is it possible now to imagine with Heine a time when capitalism is finally over?
Readings in German (translations of all texts will be available). Discussion in English.