EURIPIDES AND THE POLITICS OF FORM
Princeton ISBN 978-0-691-16650-6 200 pages £ 27.95
Reviewed by Alan Dent
Five chapters book-ended by an introduction and a conclusion, this study, Wohl explains, is not a thorough examination of Euripides, but rather chooses him as an exemplar: its real purpose is to explore the relationship between politics and literary form.
Wohl is Professor Classics at the University of Toronto. She has written three previous books about classical Greece. Without detracting from its formidable scholarship, this study is written in a clear style and its arguments can be followed by anyone with a real interest in its subject. It isn’t a book for experts on Euripides, though they will no doubt find in it much interest and pleasure.
By focussing on Euripides, Wohl is of course exploring the relationship between the form of tragedy and what can, in the broadest sense, come under the heading of politics. Whether different conclusions apply to comedy is moot. Her essential argument is that tragedy is not politics: it is an autonomous form, but exactly this autonomy gives it political purchase. Euripides, she contends, is not a political writer by virtue of “intervening” but by “transcribing”. Tragedy is Aristotle’s “mimesis of a praxis”, but it isn’t by incorporating political contention that tragedy takes on a political hue; rather the very form of tragedy, by working on those “structures of feeling” which Raymond Williams recognised as underlying all political action and argument, engages with the political battle. The aesthetic form, she argue, is the political content.
Tragedy embraces a conundrum: beautiful suffering. Beauty contains a promise (Baudelaire remarked that “beauty is the promise of happiness”). Perhaps it is the promise of justice too; maybe it engages parts of the brain in a way that links symmetry with fairness. However, Wohl points out that in Trojan Women, it is ugliness which inspires a sense of injustice and in Hecuba beauty makes us complicit with injustice. She does justice to the complexity of these relationships and intelligently permits a sense of puzzlement about them to remain.
The form of Euripides’s plays includes a good deal of chance. There is a curious relation between chance and teleology because, as the plays are mythically based, the audience can anticipate the action and resolution. The question is just how will things move to the known denouement. Some of the plays are almost chaotic in structure. Perhaps it was this which led Nietzsche to conclude that Euripides killed tragedy.
If Wohl is right and tragedy does not contain ideology (in more than one sense) but performs it, perhaps we see this illustrated vividly in Electra where in and through the action the discovery is made that rank does not imply virtue:
“Men’s natures are in confusion.
In ancient Greece no less than today, there was a powerful tendency of mind to naturalize rank, to reduce society to nature, to want to believe that the structures of wealth and power were necessary and, in some almost imperceptible way, beneficent. Is it given in tragedy that it shatters these illusions ? Perhaps this is what Wohl is suggesting: that the very essence of tragedy is disillusion through the working out of a fate which does not permit the old illusions to endure. Is there a clear line, then, from Electra to Lear on the blasted heath ?
Wohl says of Suppliants, that “it leads the audience to a psychic space where politics and tragedy are one.” Perhaps this is the most suggestive idea in the book: maybe Williams was hinting in his “structures of feeling” that the true locus of politics is sensibility. It is not by reaching people in their ideas that they are driven to one political action rather than another, but by reaching them in their essential emotional responses (something modern spin-doctors seemed to have grasped and use to nefarious end). At the same time, tragedy operates at a far more noble level than political power-grubbing. It is when the high-mindedness of tragedy meets the sense of the urgency of social justice (because the absence of justice is intrinsically tragic) that a unique sensibility is engendered; neither political nor tragic in the way that salt is neither chlorine nor sodium.
Is tragedy about human universals which transcend time-limited political issues ? Wohl examines the question in her discussion of Suppliants and correctly recognizes that in this play Euripides dissolves the tension. The play is explicitly political in content, but in its form rises to the proper height of tragedy.
Euripides’s plays Wohl argues, “not only ask their audience to think but force them to feel”. How our thoughts and feelings are generated is a mystery, but that they engender and reinforce one another seems uncontroversial. In asking how tragedy works the magic of using form to bring alive feelings which will not fit with certain ideas, Wohl points to a riddle we may never solve but which, for that very reason, we should celebrate and never stop thinking about.
There is a fair amount of summarizing of the plays here, but it is always apposite and never dull. Similarly, there is a substantial portion of Greek but Wohl has the courtesy to translate it all. This is a book for anyone interested in the question of how literary form impinges on our sensibilities and thus on how we organise our societies. Wohl is an academic who knows how to write for non-academics, a scholar who knows how to reach those who are far less learned. This book deserves to be widely read.