where the tangent is the architecture
I'm an independent bookseller, so please forgive me if I chatter about books. They're almost all I have.
I have always tended to work obsessively on one topic at a time to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t consider this a virtue. For the past 6 months, that topic has been ancient tragedy: its nature, its savage and troubling beauty, its conflict with and superiority to philosophy, and its massive and unacknowledged relevance to the contemporary psychical and political situation. This is why my cultural ingestion has been a little Cyclopean of late, with one or two exceptions, like belatedly watching all five seasons of The Wire for hours at a time over the holidays. Of course, I turned that into a Greek tragedy too. The book I’ve read most in the last months is A Lexicon, Abridged from Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Clarendon Press, 1980), which I bought in 1983 and which meant I couldn’t afford to go to the pub for two weeks. - Simon Critchley
1. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet: the most brilliant and detailed account of ancient tragedy, which the authors understand as an aesthetic invention, whose subject is not the tragic hero, but the city itself. The tragic hero is a problem, not the solution to any problem. Tragedy is the rendering spectacular of the political situation of the city.
On the aesthetics and tragic inclinations of philosophers, read George Steiner’s brilliant new book The Poetry of Thought, out just a week ago from New Directions. He makes a persuasive argument for the wealth of style in Plato, even while the philosopher himself famously (and correctly: such scoundrels) denounces poets.
2. Aristotle on Comedy, Richard Janko: for all you fans of speculative philology out there. Was there a second book to Aristotle’s Poetics? It would appear so. Why was it lost? Was it because it was unseemly for ‘The Philosopher’, as Umberto Eco put it in The Name of the Rose, to be seen to dignify laughter with a theory? We don’t know. But the questions raised are fascinating: if tragic catharsis proceeds through pity and fear, then how might comic catharsis work? In the words of the obscure Byzantine text, Tractatus Coislinianus, comedy ‘has laughter for its mother’. The latter tractate also contains a wonderful discussion of the comic effect of diminutives, where the example given is ‘Socratiddles’.
3. Six Tragedies, Seneca: forget his vapid, Hollywoodized (viz. Gladiator) Stoicism, the imperial self-help dogma of the First Century, his theatre is intensely gruesome and makes Tarantino look tepid. Seneca’s world is dark, paranoid, intense and claustrophobic; a world where forgiveness and redemption are impossible and where monstrous passions consume individuals. ‘What can reason do? Passion, passion rules’, say Phaedra. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a world where blind Tiresias disembowels an Ox and Theseus tries to rebuild his son’s smashed body from its dismembered parts, ‘What can this be, so ugly? I do not know what part it is, but I know it belongs to you’.
4. Grief Lessons, Euripides, trans. Anne Carson. There is an unpleasantness about Euripides and a relentlessness that differentiates him from the other tragedians. Where Aeschylus looks at the story of the House of Atreus and sees a story of familial violence leading through bloodshed to the legitimate political order of Athens, Euripides looks at the same story and sees ‘smeared makeup’. After all her kids have been slaughtered, Hekabe finds out that destiny will transform her into a dog. Imagine an afterlife of dog biscuits.
A book I gave to and then “borrowed” from an ex-girlfriend’s mother. She won’t miss it. The translation is purposefully idiosyncratic, but then the plays should box a person about the ears a bit. And Carson’s introductions are goddamned masterful.
5. Frames of War, Judith Butler. I share a passion for the moral ambiguity of Greek tragedy with Judith Butler and we are teaching a course together at the New School on the subject. My admiration for her work – its rigor, its honesty, its relentless self-questioning - increases with the years. The frame for tragedy is war and its centre is the experience of grief. The centre of Judith’s book is grief as a political category, of who counts (and who doesn’t) as a grievable population. Whatever we call what happened in North Africa last winter, at its centre is the politics of grief, for example in Benghazi this February, when guns were turned on mourners at a funeral in for people murdered at a protest.
It is tempting to think here that our greatest surviving tragedies come from a time when Athens was in a more-or-less permanent state of war, its citizenry given the luxury of writing and attending tragedies by an enormous underclass of slaves, some hereditary but most captured in warfare. Tragedy is not only framed by but made ironic to the point of defeat, from its very inception, by political realities. Graeber treats this a bit in his recent Debt. See him overlap, too, with Carson on issues of currency in her magnificent Economy of the Unlost.
6. Fanged Nuomena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Nick Land, eds. Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay.
Nick and I were students together during the wild years at Essex University in the late 1980s. He had the most brilliantly seductive and meteoric mind, endlessly imaginative and capable of adopting, inhabiting and discarding any philosophical position. With Nick - and rightly so - philosophy infected every area of life and sheer vitality of life reverberated in his thinking. I heard some of the texts in this book as talks and many of the others I read in draft. I’m really delighted that they are being published because I see this book as a kind of righteous revenge. Nick was dismissed by professional philosophers because they simply didn’t want to think and preferred their turgid academic complacency. Although Nick and I ended up - for stupid reasons that are best forgotten - as public enemies, I always privately admired him for his unwavering desire to take thought to its absolute limit and then see how much harder one could push. I wish I’d pushed harder.
This book is sheer exhuberant madness, a latter-day necronomicon. Also available at McNalz.
Read Jill Stauffer’s interview with Critchley from our August 2003 issue