on ‘The Tragic Imagination’

9780198736417Steven Knepper at Commonweal:

Rowan Williams argues that the “tragic imagination” is a moral imagination. Tragic drama teaches us that calamity can be narrated, that it can be drawn, at least to some degree, back into shared experience. There is a spare hope in this. It shows that “we have not been silenced forever by loss.” Furthermore, tragedy requires us to attend to the sufferings of others on stage. It presents us with “different kinds of witnessing to pain” and teaches us that “suffering calls out [for] recognition.” This is not a matter of straightforward empathy, which risks deluding us about our ability to identify with sufferers. Tragedy teaches us instead that “the suffering of others is not to be absorbed into our own feelings. But we also find that the suffering of others is already shared in human communication, recognized and named as loss or catastrophe.” Tragedy helps us recognize the limits of our own self-knowledge and the fragility of our condition.

Still, tragedy does not just dramatize individual fragility. Its representations of strife and cyclical violence, as in the paradigmatic Oresteia, dramatize the fragility of the political community as well. Indeed, in his opening chapter Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, claims that Athenian tragedy was a liturgical event.

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