LEAR. Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Hah! here's three on's are sophisticated; thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.
THE VISION OF TRAGEDY
WHEN at the end of the Symposium Socrates insisted to his friends Aristophanes and Agathon that "the genius of comedy is the same as the genius of tragedy, and that the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also," the friends, says Plato, were "compelled to assent, being sleepy, and not quite understanding his meaning." It had been a long night, with much wine, and the friends might well have agreed to almost anything. But whether they would have agreed under different circumstances, and just what Socrates' arguments were, are other questions. One would like to know precisely what he said. Or perhaps the affair was a bit of a paradox spun out for his own amusement. For it seems clear-- at least it is the thesis of this book-- that the genius of tragedy is not the same as the genius of comedy. As for Socrates' notion that every writer ought to be able to do both, there can be no objection. Some few have done both. What he had in mind, perhaps, was the undeniable truth that the highest comedy gains its power from its sense of tragic possibility, and the profoundest tragedy presents a full if fleeting vision, through the temporary disorder, of an ordered universe to which comedy is witness. Without a sense of the tragic, comedy loses heart; it becomes brittle, it has animation but no life. Without a recognition of the truths of comedy, tragedy becomes bleak and intolerable.1
But since the Greeks first wrote what they called tragedies and comedies, and Aristotle in the Poetics formulated some principles about them, writers have been conscious of the two modes-- each with its own demands-- as engaging them in divergent undertakings, involving them in different worlds. They have gauged their predilections and capacities against the demands of each and have deliberately chosen one or the other, or some calculated mixture. They have often been explicit about it. Shakespeare announced his plays as "tragedies" or "comedies," or, when he chose, mixed the modes with the recklessness of Polonius. Marlowe spoke his intention when in the prologue to Tamburlaine he asked his audience to view his hero in ďthe tragic glass." Ben Jonson ventured into tragedy in his own scholarly, methodical way, boasting to have discharged (in Sejanus) all the crucial "offices of a Tragic writer," which he got from Aristotle. Milton's choice of the tragic form to express his final mood was deliberate and especially significant in relation to the tragic undertones of Paradise Lost. Artists are free-- but free to choose their own sort of bondage. It is they and not so much the critics who have worked to maintain the integrity of the forms. Their conscious, explicit choices show that in their eyes the forms are real and different and not merely an academic conspiracy.2 The phenomenon is a powerful example of the fruitful interaction of tradition and individual talent.
Tragedy, traditionally the most exalted of the forms, has exerted on artists of many generations, not only Greek and Elizabethan, a compelling influence. Its effect on the individual talent has sometimes been noble and often disastrous. It requires an independent, radical vision whose lack is as fatal as the lack of a sense of ultimate harmony is in comedy. Sophocles and Euripides, though building on Aeschylus' original insights and to this extent acting in imitation of him, used the form he had established to express their own individual and radical visions. The Elizabethans, whose nervous and independent force worked creatively on whatever form they chose, expanded and improvised to suit their own expressive needs. Since then, as writers not so vitally equipped have attempted to write tragedy, the sense of strain and artificiality is frequent.
The French at their best (Racine, for instance) embodied the true tragic vision in a finely disciplined form; but their next best shows how precarious is the balance between creation and imitation. Milton's vision in the masterful Samson Agonistes has been called only "spasmodically tragic." 3 In lesser artists, who approached tragedy too analytically or (it would seem) for its prestige, the strain is painfully obvious. The English theater after the Restoration produced plays called tragedies which are informed, rather, by the moral or "heroic" vision. The Romantic poets, great admirers though they were of the Greeks and the Elizabethans, showed how far their world actually was from the world of Oedipus and Lear (which Shelley described as "the deepest and sublimest of the tragic compositions") when they ventured into tragedy. Shelley's preface to The Cenci is an earnest little treatise on tragedy; but he tried the form only once.4 As his wife wrote, "the bent of his mind went the other way." So did Byron's and Tennyson's, although they both wrote what they called tragedies. Goethe was perhaps wisest when he said "the mere attempt to write tragedy might be my undoing." 5
In the nineteenth century certain of the novelists had the surest sense of the thing itself. Genuine and vital strains of Greek and Hebraic tragic traditions, intensified by the tragic insights of Christianity, appear impressively, for instance, in Hawthorne, Melville, and Dostoevski. Hawthorne, whose sense of kinship with Greek and Elizabethan tragedy he more than once indicated, invested Hester Prynne with some of the hard outlines of Antigone's character and with much of the passion and color of an Elizabethan. Melville shaped Ahab as, "a mighty pageant figure, fit for noble tragedies" and had him chase his "Job's whale" to the far quarters of the globe. Both novels show clearly that their authors were sensitive to the problem of making the tragic vision real to nineteenth century democratic America.6 Dostoevski opened up a vast new tragic area by his own peculiar synthesis of the basic insights of all the traditions. Ibsen and O'Neill, Conrad, Kafka, and Faulkner (to name only a few) have each in their own way explored the area which he plotted out. Whether they have written "tragedies" is not at present the point, but they seem closer to the tragic spirit than the Romantic and Victorian imitators.
But how can it be said that a novel by Kafka or Faulkner is more truly tragic than The Cenci? What is the "true" tragic spirit, the thing itself? Is it right to say that writers choose the form, or does the form in some subtle way choose them? Shelley chose the form-- his wife tells how the idea of writing a tragedy had haunted him long before he encountered the story of The Cenci-- but, quite clearly, he himself was not chosen. Shakespeare's tragedies are grouped in a period of his life when, as far as we can tell biographically, the "bent of his mind" seems to have been that way. Goethe never felt chosen. He realized that the tragic sense of the world and of man's destiny was not his, and he stayed away. There was nothing that he could not have mastered technically; indeed, Shelley showed how far a near-perfect executive form could be from the thing itself. But tragedy demands qualities of vision which neither of them had.
In general, the tragic vision is not a systematic view of life. It admits wide variations and degree. It is a sum of insights, intuitions, feelings, to which the words "vision" or "view" or "sense of life," however inadequate, are most readily applicable. The tragic sense of life, as Unamuno describes it, 7 is a subphilosophy, or a prephilosophy, "more or less formulated, more or less conscious." It reaches deep down into the temperament, "not so much flowing from ideas as determining them." It is an attitude toward life with which some individuals seem to be endowed to high degree, others less, but which is latent in every man and may be evoked by experience. Unamuno finds it characteristic of some nations and not others. Horace Walpole's epigram, "this world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel," has only relative truth, but it is significant in showing how readily the terms become metaphors to describe a view of life, a cast of thought or temperament. 8
The tragic vision is in its first phase primal, or primitive, in that it calls up out of the depths the first (and last) of all questions, the question of existence: What does it mean to be? It recalls the original
terror, harking back to a world that antedates the conceptions of philosophy, the consolations of the later religions, and whatever constructions the human mind has devised to persuade itself that its universe is secure. It recalls the original un-reason, the terror of the irrational. It sees man as questioner, naked, un-accommodated, alone, facing mysterious, demonic forces in his own nature and outside, and the irreducible facts of suffering and death. Thus it is not for those who cannot live with unsolved questions or unresolved doubts, whose bent of mind would reduce the fact of evil into something else or resolve it into some larger whole. Though no one is exempt from moments of tragic doubt or insight, the vision of life peculiar to the mystic, the pious, the propagandist, the confirmed optimist or pessimist-- or the confirmed anything-- is not tragic.
Nor is the tragic vision for those who, though admitting unsolved questions and the reality of guilt, anxiety, and suffering, would become quietist and do nothing. Mere sensitivity is not enough. The tragic vision impels the man of action to fight against his destiny, kick against the pricks, and state his case before God or his fellows. 9 It impels the artist, in his fictions, toward what Jaspers calls "boundary-situations," 10 man at the limits of his sovereignty-- Job on the ash-heap, Prometheus on the crag, Oedipus in his moment of self-discovery, Lear on the heath, Ahab on his lonely quarter-deck. Here, with all the protective covering stripped off, the hero faces as if no man had ever faced it before the existential question-Job's question, "What is man?" or Lear's "Is man no more than this?" The writing of a tragedy is the artist's way of taking action, of defying destiny, and this is why in the great tragedies there is a sense of the artist's own involvement, an immediacy not so true of the forms, like satire and comedy, where the artist's position seems more detached. 11
The findings of the anthropologists about the origins of tragedy are not irrelevant here. Even though they cannot be verified historically, they seem psychologically true. The religious ritual out of which it is thought tragedy grew-- the dance of mourning in the fall festival at the death of the old year or (as some think) the ritual sacrifice of propitiation was in itself an action, a response to a condition, a kind
of answer to the question of existence. It was an answer in terms of gesture and action rather than language, and represents, perhaps, man's first attempt to deal creatively with pain and fear. 12 Any action at all was better than nothing. It was not until later, when man graduated from the condition of pain and fear to the condition of suffering-- which is the condition of pain and fear contemplated and spiritualized-- that the response was verbalized in some kind of art form, a dirge or lament. Even in the most sophisticated of forms, literary tragedy, the element of gesture and action is strong, but it is the contemplated and individual response to suffering rather than the instinctive and tribal. Unamuno' s fine ancedote about Solon shows elements of both-- the primitive response by gesture (weeping) and the comment from the depths of an anguished spirit. 'Why do you weep for the death of your son," the skeptic asked Solon, "when it avails nothing?" "I weep," replied Solon, "precisely because it avails nothing." 13
It is this sense of ancient evil, of "the blight man was born for," of the permanence and the mystery of human suffering, that is basic to the tragic sense of life. It informs all literature of a somber cast: the dirge, the lament, the melancholy lyric or song, the folk ballad of betrayal and death. It colors many scenes in the great epics and hovers about the best comedy as an imminent possibility. The tragedies of the tradition, from Aeschylus to Dostoevski, say this about it: that by most men it must be learned-- and learned through direct, immediate experience: that is, through suffering. So universal is this testimony that it can be taken as one of the constants of tragedy, and the starting point. All men must learn to feel what wretches feel. In the lives of many writers of tragedy there is abundant evidence of deep autobiographic meaning in this recurrent theme, a fact of relevance to the sense of innerness and involvement that tragedy possesses above other forms.
Pressing out from this initial phase of the tragic vision, the artist's action or response takes him beyond the lament or the melancholy lyric toward an increasingly complicated dialectic as he contemplates the thrust and counterthrust of man against destiny. Here his cause is one with the philosophers and
theologians, the difference being that the artist's dialectic is not of ideas in the abstract but of ideas in action, ideas as lived. His dialectic is not so much with words as with lives, and his focus is not so much man thinking as man acting, man "on the way." Where the philosophers and moralists would generalize on experience, find unity in multiplicity, and reduce experience to viable categories and prescriptions, the tragic artist explores each experience directly, de novo, for whatever it may reveal about man's capacities and possibilities. He presses the "boundary-situation" for its total yield. Whatever he finds man capable of, in action and under extremest pressure, is to him the truth, whether it be abject and miserable or sublime and redeeming. This truth constitutes the "discovery" of tragedy.
Historically, literary tragedy has always appeared at the mature period of a culture, not at its beginning. Although it retains the primitive sense of terror at what Joyce called "the secret cause" 14 of suffering, it is in another sense highly sophisticated. It puts to the test of action all the formulations of philosophy and religion. In the three major western cultures-- Hebrew, Greek, and Christian-- there have come times (our present era may be one of them) when for reasons internal and external, spiritual and sociological, the questions of ultimate justice and human destiny seem suddenly to have been jarred loose again. Often these critical periods, or "moments," come after a long period of relative stability, when a dominant myth or religious orthodoxy or philosophic view has provided a coherent and sustaining way of life. Suddenly the original terror looms close and the old formulations cannot dispel it. The conflict between man and his destiny assumes once more the ultimate magnitude. It appears to be not a matter of accident, a temporary and limited disturbance, but an essential change in the face of the universe. The whole of society is involved, and the stake is survival. Thus the sense of despair in the early chapters of Job's complaint, the sense of doom in Greek tragedy, Gloucester's fears in the first act of Lear, and the sense of disintegration in The Brothers Karamazov.
In such periods, and in such moods, artists confront the existential question all over again. They ask,
like the elderly trader in Conrad's Lord Jim, "How to be?" and embody their answers, ambiguous and tentative, in their "boundary-situations." Each age has different tensions and terrors, but they open on the same abyss. If each new artist's primary source must be the data of his own experience and observation, he just as surely learns from his fellow artists who have stared into the same depths. What they came up with, the statement of their fictions, constitutes the tradition-- a total evaluation expressed in a literary form. As the tradition guides the new vision, the vision tests it, alters its focus and direction or expands its compass. Direction and focus may change, but the vision is constant. How vision forged a form, some major modes the form has taken, and some meanings it has revealed, are the concerns of the following chapters.
THE BOOK OF JOB
WE LOOK at a work of literature and call it "optimistic" or "pessimistic" or "epic" or "tragic." The book is there before us, and we find the term to describe it. But the work comes first. It is not right to say that without the vision of life embodied in the Old Testament, and notably in The Book of Job, the term "tragedy" would have no substance, for the Greeks invented the term and gave it a great deal of substance. But knowing what we do now about the full depth and reach of tragedy, we can see with striking clarity in the writings of the ancient Hebrews the vision which we now call tragic and in The Book of Job the basic elements of the tragic form. The cultural situation, the matrix out of which Job came, is the very definition of "the tragic moment" in history, a period when traditional values begin to lose their power to comfort and sustain, and man finds himself once more groping in the dark. The unknown Poet's "action," his redoing of the orthodox and optimistic folktale of the pious and rewarded Job, is (as we can say now) a classic example of the dynamics of tragedy, of vision creating form. And the great figure of his creation, the suffering, questioning, and unanswered Job, is the towering tragic figure of antiquity. More than Prometheus or Oedipus, Job is the universal symbol for the western imagination of the mystery of undeserved suffering.
Of all ancient peoples, the Hebrews were most surely possessed of the tragic sense of life. It pervades their ancient writings to an extent not true of the Greeks. "Judaism," writes Paul Weiss, "is Moses in
the wilderness straining to reach a land he knows he never can. For the Christian this truth is but the necessary first act of a Divine Comedy. The history of the universe for the Christian is in principle already told. For the Jew history is in the making. It has peaks and valleys, goods and bads, inseparably together and forever. " 15 The Hebraic answer to the question of existence was never unambiguous or utopian; the double vision of tragedy-- the snake in the garden, the paradox of man born in the image of God and yet recalcitrant, tending to go wrong-- permeates the Scriptures. No case is ever clear-cut, no hero or prophet entirely faultless. The Hebrews were the least sentimental and romantic of peoples. The Old Testament stories are heavy with irony, often of the most sardonic kind. And yet their hard, acrid realism appears against a background of belief that is the substance of the most exalted and affirmative religion, compared to which the religions of their sister civilizations, Egyptian, Babylonian, and even Greek, presented a conception of the universe and man both terrible and mean.16 The Hebraic view of God, man, and nature, wrought through the centuries out of hard experience and exalted vision, presented to the Poet of Job a rich and full-nerved tradition, containing all the alternatives, for evil as well as good, but founded on the belief in a just and benevolent Creator, in man as made in His image, and in an ordered universe.
Throughout their history as it is unfolded in the Old Testament, the Hebrews showed a strong critical sense, a tendency to test all their beliefs, even Jehovah Himself, against their individual experience and sense of values. This skepticism is at the root of much of their irony, and it implies, of course, a very high estimate of individual man. They had a sufficient confidence in their own native and immediate insights to set themselves, if need be, against their God. This was an affirmation about man, the Deity, and the relationship between the two, which the Babylonians and Egyptians surely never achieved, nor, as a people, did the Greeks. The Hebrews saw man not only as free and rational but free, rational, and righteous even before God. The eating of the apple was in a sense an act of the free critical intelligence. I7 Why should there have been even one prohibition, arbitrary and unexplained?
The failure in actual experience of the orthodox teaching that God would reward the righteous and punish the wicked gave rise in later times to a whole literature of dissent, ranging from the disturbed and melancholy psalms, the ambiguous attitude toward the Deity in stories like Jonah, to the complaints of Ecclesiastes and the full-scale protests of Job. It is hard to see why Simone Weil said of the Hebrews that they "believed themselves exempt from the misery that is the common human lot" and that only in parts of Job is "misfortune fairly portrayed." 18 Their belief in Jehovah and their hope for a Messiah served rather to intensify their sense of present inequity and to increase the anxiety which permeates this protest literature.
But another aspect of the Hebraic tragic vision gives it its peculiar depth and poignancy, and it is the very clue to Job. It comes from the conception of Jehovah as a person, to be communed with, worshiped, feared, but above all to be loved. In the transactions of the Greeks with their gods, no great amount of love was lost. There was no doctrine of Creation, nor a Creator to be praised (as in psalm after psalm) for his loving-kindness and tender mercies. The Greek gods were fallible, imperfect, finite, and, above all, laws unto themselves; to rebel against them might be disastrous but it involved no inevitable spiritual dilemma or clash of loyalties. But Jehovah, in the eyes of the orthodox Hebrew, was righteous, just, and loving-- and a being to whom one could appeal in the name of all these virtues. The protest embodied in The Book of Job came not from fear or hate but from love. Job's disillusionment was deeply personal, as from a cosmic breach of faith. However critical of the Deity, Job spoke not in arrogance and revolt but in love, and in this at least he was the true representative of an ancient piety.
The unknown Poet of Job, however, saw the old story of Job not as illustrating the ancient piety-- that is, a good man blessing the Lord even in his afflictions and being rewarded for his constancy-- but as throwing it into grievous question. All the latent doubts and questionings of his race came to a head. Job had trusted in The Covenant and followed The Code; God had watched over him; God's lamp had
lighted his way through the darkness. His friendship had been upon his tent. Job was the beloved patriarch of a large family and a man of consequence in the community. And then, suddenly and unaccountably, the face of the universe changed. It was not only that he suffered misfortunes, lost his property, family, position, and health. Mortal man must face losses; the proverbial wisdom of the Hebrews had taught for generations that man was born for trouble, as the sparks fly upward. The shock of the story for the Poet did not lie there, if we may judge by how he retold it. The succession of catastrophes that befell Job, as the folk story recounts them, was systematic, the result of a wager between God and Satan to test Job. Job, who could know nothing of the wager, suffered at the hands of a God whom to worship and to love had been his daily blessing and who had turned suddenly hateful and malign. There was no mortal cause for his sufferings, nothing in his past to account for these repeated, calculated blows. If he had sinned, he had not sinned that much.
From the depth of an ancient skepticism and a sense of justice which dared to hold Deity itself to account, the Poet saw the story, as we would say, in the light of the tragic vision. The primitive terror loomed close. The resolution of the folk story, by which Job for his piety and suffering was rewarded by twice his former possessions and a new family, was unacceptable. The Poet saw Job's suffering as a thrust of destiny that raised the deepest issues, not to be accounted for by a heavenly wager and bought off by a handsome recompense. The suffering had been real; it could not be taken back; and it had not been deserved.
What to do about it? One can imagine in earlier times the primitive response of propitiation or lament, the wailing at the wall, the sharing of communal grief over inexplicable suffering. In later times, psalmists caught the mood in the most beautiful of melancholy and anguished lyrics; rabbis taught men to regard such suffering as punishment for secret sin or as God's way of testing man's loyalty. So Eliphaz (5:17) interpreted Job's suffering: "Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty." 19 Again, none of the ancient Hebrew writers
responded to the fact of undeserved suffering more sensitively than Ecclesiastes or was truer to the realities of human misery: 4 "The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows," wrote Melville, "and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe." 20 But it was not for Ecclesiastes to discover the full possibilities of the "boundary situation," to hammer from the hard steel of woe the full dimensions of the tragic form. He observed, and contemplated, and recorded movingly what he saw. But he stopped, halfway, with pathos-- the single-voiced lament, the lyric expression of a reserved and passive acceptance. 5
The Poet of Job chose still another way, and with him tragic vision is fulfilled in tragic form. His response was dynamic and positive. He saw in Job's story the possibilities of a significant action, not only the lamentable blows that fell upon Job but the counterthrust that makes drama. He imagined Job as striking back in the only possible way when the adversary is Destiny-- that is, with words. The Poet did not deal in plotted physical action, as in a Greek play; rather, he conceived of ideas, or inner realities, functioning like actions and as fully freighted with consequences. Although Job and his Counselors do not budge from the ash-heap (which 2:8 suggests as the setting of the drama) and do not exchange blows or even threats of blows, they are actually at death-grips. Each side sees survival at stake. The parts of the drama-- character, incident, minor actions-- are not clearly articulated as in plays to be performed, but the vital tension and forward movement of formal drama are clear. This method of the Poet's-- sustained tension throughout the thrust-and-parry of ideas, the balancing of points of view in the challenge and response of argument-- is the inner logic, or dialectic, of the tragic form as it appears in fully developed drama.
It is a way, of course, of making an important-and "tragic" statement about the nature of truth. In tragedy, truth is not revealed as one harmonious whole; it is many faceted, ambiguous, a sum of irreconcilables-- and that is one source of its terror. As the Poet contemplated Job's case, he saw that the single-voiced response-- the lament or the diatribe-- was inadequate. The case was not clear; at
its center was a bitter dilemma, every aspect of which, in the full and fair portrayal of human suffering like Job's, must be given a voice. The Counselors were partly right, and Job was partly wrong. Job was at once justified in complaining against his God, and deeply guilty. There was no discharge in that war. The dramatic form above all others conveys this sense of the jarring conflict of ideas-in-action, gives each itís due, and shows how each qualifies and interacts on every other. It conveys directly what Jung called "the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience." 21 Comedy presents ambiguities but removes their terror; in tragedy the terror remains.
This method, like the tragic vision which was a part of the Poet's racial inheritance, was not new in the literature of the Hebrews. Job is merely the fullest development of a racial way of expression observable in the earliest writings. For example, after the single-voiced and full-throated praise of the Creator and the Creation in the first chapter of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall moves into a different mode. Many voices are heard, including the Serpent's. This is one way of saying that even this case was not entirely clear. Kierkegaard, who had a lively sense of the tragic aspect of the Old Testament, shows how Adam and Eve, though guilty, were in part justified. The Almighty had "goaded" them. The story of Abraham and Isaac, which moves forward in a kind of tragic dialectic, has frightening undertones, as Kierkegaard's famous discussion in Fear and Trembling shows. Moses, Jonah, and many of the Old Testament heroes and prophets argued with Jehovah, questioned his judgment, criticized his harshness or (as with Jonah) his leniency, in actual dialogue. In such ways the Hebrews surrounded even their most sacred religious figures and truths with an aura of ambiguity and qualification. Ideas, or truth, were not regarded apart, as abstractions or final causes. They were ideas-in-action, lived out and tested by men of flesh and blood. Thus like men they were in a constant process of becoming. Even Jehovah, as we see him in the Old Testament, evolved.
So the Poet of Job, true to his tradition, set his protagonist Job-- or the "Job-idea"-- free to run the dialectical gamut, to test it not only against Jehovah but against all the standard human
formulations that had traditionally resolved such situations. He gave Job human adversaries as well as divine, to try him at every point. Thus the movement of statement-and-reply between Job and the Counselors, now swift, now slow, gives the sense not of the static opposition of ideas in a debate but of men in action, temperamental and passionate. Job is in turn bitter and despairing, angry and defiant, pensive and exalted. The Counselors, in their turn, console, plead, argue, scold, and threaten. Nothing is left untouched in the furious spirals of the debate. The method allows for the fullest "existential" exploration of the concerns-- the nature of man and the universe-- without which, after the achievement of Job and the Greeks, tragedy is purely nominal. Again, what tragedy seems to be saying-- what Job and the Greeks made it say-- is that we come closest to the nature of man and universe in the test-situation, where the strength or weakness of the individual, to endure or let go, is laid bare. Only then does the final "yea" or "nay" have meaning. When Job in his extremity puts ironically the question of the pious psalmist, "What is man, that thou are mindful of him?" the Poet gives no pat answer. The answer is the total Book of Job, all that Job says and becomes, all that the Counselors say and do not become, all that the Voice from the Whirlwind says about man and his place in the universe. The answer is the full drama, not in anyone of its parts-- least of all in the pious and comforting resolution of the folk story in the last chapter.
No analysis can convey more than the bare structure of the Poet's meaning. But the heart of his meaning, and surely the chief source of the tragic meaning for subsequent artists, is contained in the so-called Poem of Job, all that occurs between Job's opening curse (ch. 3) and 42:6, the last verse before the folk-story conclusion. This is the agon, the passion scene, where the discoveries are made of most relevance to average, suffering, questioning humanity.
Job in the opening curse is in the torment of despair. The shock of his calamities has more than unbalanced him; it has prostrated him. For "seven days and seven nights" he has sat among the ashes, for "his grief was very great." His world has collapsed, his inherited values have been discredited. He
faces at least four possible choices. He may follow the advice of his wife to "Curse God, and die." He may come to terms with his fate and accept it as deserved-- the advice which his Counselors later give him. He may accept his fate, whether deserved or not, and contemplate it, like Ecclesiastes, with melancholy equanimity. Or he may strike back in some way, give vent to his feelings and carry his case wherever it may lead. The Poet does not present Job in his tragic moment as weighing these alternatives openly, although in "seven days and seven nights" he has had time to consider them all. But we get no sense of a closely reasoned choice. All we know is that he did not commit suicide (although the thought of it recurs to him later), that he "opened his mouth" and talked, and that he took this action through some mysterious dynamic within himself. There was no goddess whispering encouragement at his shoulder or divine vision leading him on. He was "unaccommodated man," moved in his first moment of bitterness to give up the struggle, but for some reason making a "gesture" first. It is this action, and the action which follows from it, which establishes Job as hero. It had what Aristotle called "magnitude": it involved Job totally, and he was a man of high estate on whom many people depended; it involved Job's world totally, since it questioned the basis of its belief and modes of life; it transcended Job's world, horizontally as well as vertically, as the perennial relevance of Jobís problem, from his time to ours, shows. And it involved Job in total risk: "Behold he will slay me; I have no hope." 22
Although there is little in literature as black as the opening verses of Job's curse, in the speech as a whole there is a saving ambiguity which predicts the main movement of the Poem. This movement, in brief, is from the obsessive egotism (like Lear's or Ahab's) that sees particular misfortune as a sign of universal ruin (and even wills it, for revenge or escape or oblivion) toward a mood more rational, outgoing, and compassionate. Job's first words are of furious, not passive, despair. He has been wounded in his pride, humiliated as well as stricken. He curses life and the parents who gave him life. He would have his birthday blotted from the calendar; he would have all men go into mourning on that
day and the light of heaven be darkened. He rages in the worst kind of arrogant, romantic rebellion. Yet gradually there is a change, however slight. The furious commands of the opening verses change to questions: "Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" The plaintive tone leads to one more contemplative, as he thinks not of universal darkness but of rest with all those who have gone before, "the kings and the counsellors of the earth . . . princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver." He has a word for the weary and oppressed, the small as well as the great. The first-person pronoun changes to the third: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul ... ? Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God hath hedged in?" Although he returns in the last three verses to a mood of anguish and dread, it is more like the response to a spasm of pain-- "For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me"-- than the nihilism of the opening verses.
Thus Job does not abandon life, and as he rallies and reorganizes he opens up new and redeeming reaches of life. In the reverse of the way they expect, the Counselors assist in the process. Their arguments sting and thrust, kindle new energies in him, and compel him to ever greater expressive efforts. The dialectic works beneficently with Job. Eliphaz's first speech (ch. 4) is a curious combination of scolding ("Behold, thou hast instructed many . . . But now it is come upon thee, and thou faintest"), of mystical witness ("Now a thing was secretly brought to me . . . in thoughts from the visions of the night"), and of the proverbial comforts about suffering as the common lot and as a corrective discipline. At the end of the speech Job is thoroughly aroused. He will not abide such half-faced fellowship. He will not be accused of impatience by men who have never had their own patience put to the test. He asks of them neither material aid nor deliverance "from the enemy's hand." What he wants is instruction. "teach me, and I will hold my tongue: and cause me to understand wherein I have
erred. " This is a great gain over the nihilism of the Curse. To be sure, as often happens in the long sequences to come, Job relapses in the second half of his answer to Eliphaz (ch. 7) into self-pity and lamentation: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope." But the speech ends in a surge of vigor, in defiance not so much of the Counselors as of Jehovah himself.
It is in this passage (7:11-21) that he commits himself to the ultimate risk: "Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." Later, in his first reply to Zophar (ch. 13), it is clear that he understands the full terms of the risk: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him." But by now Job has come to see his own ways and his own complaints in a different light. He sees his misfortunes not as unique but as typical of man's lot. In one phase of his being, at least, he is becoming a partisan of the human race.23 "What is man, that thou shouldst magnify him"-- only to torment him? He never forgets his own personal grievances, but his thoughts turn ever more outward; he does not "rest in his own suffering." 24 He discourses upon God's capricious ways with all mankind: "He increaseth the nations, and destroyeth them" (12:23); upon the flourishing of the wicked and the oppression of the poor
(chs. 21, 24); upon the element of chance in all life (ch. 21). For all his frequent lapses into despair, as sudden pain strikes him or as his thoughts turn back to happier times or forward to an uncertain future, he speaks as one having shouldered the burden of humanity.
But this growing sense of partisanship-- like Ahab's, "for all that has maddened and tormented the whole race from Adam down" is only one phase of Job's experience, the structure of which, as the Poet presents it, represents an ordering of experience which many subsequent tragedies have imitated and all of them shared in part, some emphasizing one aspect, some another. It was not until Job gained some mastery over his despair, chose his course, and began his defense, that the full meaning of his position grew upon him. This realization was to be the source of his greatest suffering,
beside which his physical afflictions were easy to bear. In justice he could decry the miseries of the human lot and the baffling ways of the Almighty, but he could not forget that it was Jehovah's hands that had (as he says) "made me and fashioned me together round about ... [and] granted me life and favour, and thy visitation hath preserved my spirit." He was on the horns of a terrible dilemma-- clue to the nature of his suffering. He saw that what he had done, though justified, was wrong. He had been justified in asserting his innocence and in speaking out for all men who had been afflicted as he had. But it was wrong, as the Counselors repeatedly and rightly dinned into his ears, to defy the God whom he loved. If he could have regarded the idea of Justice abstractly, his suffering would not have involved this peculiar anguish. It was the Person in the impersonal that Job loved and could not repudiate-- and which monomaniac Ahab hated and spat upon. It is this agony of dilemma, of the knowledge of the ambiguity of every choice, that, since Job and the Greeks, has defined tragic suffering. The capacity for such suffering (and even Ahab "has his humanities" 26) has ever since been the mark of the tragic figure-- he who is caught between the necessity to act and the knowledge of inevitable guilt. Job felt duty-bound to challenge God, Orestes to kill his mother, Hamlet to kill his uncle; and all of them knew guilt. Job had progressed from the experience of mere pain and distress to the experience of suffering.21
In the course of the long ordeal, the Poet reveals many personal qualities in Job that have since been appropriated into the tradition of formal tragedy. "The ponderous heart," the "globular brain," the "nervous lofty language" which Melville saw as the qualities of the tragic hero are all in Job. After Job and the Greeks, it became part of the function of tragedy to represent, and make probable, figures of such stature. What would break lesser folk-- the Counselors, or the members of the chorus-- releases new powers in Job. His compulsion toward self-justification sends him far and wide over all the affairs of men, and deep within himself; and the agony of his guilt propels him ever nearer his God. He sets
himself in solid debate against the Counselors: "I have understanding as well as you: I am not inferior to you." He answers their arguments in the full sweep of a massive mind, rich in learning and in the closest observation of human life. He resists every temptation to compromise or turn back, like Ahab denying Starbuck, or Hamlet thrusting aside his friends. As he gains in spiritual poise (though his course is very uneven), his mental processes become more orderly. He talks increasingly in legal terms. The universe becomes, as it were, a local court of justice where his "cause" can be "tried." "Behold now, I have ordered my cause; I know that I shall be justified." In one mood he complains that there is no "daysman," or umpire, to judge his case; in another he calls upon God to act as judge against Himself. He speaks of his "witness" and his "record" and longs to have his case recorded in a book-- like Othello or Hamlet, wanting his full story told.
Nothing is more revealing of Job's (and the tragic hero's) stature than the contrast which the Poet develops between Job and the Counselors. Job outstrips them in every way. By chapter 28 Job has achieved an ironic reversal of roles: the Counselors who came to teach him are now being taught by him-- and on the subject of Wisdom. He fails to convince them of the injustice of his suffering or even of the possibility of a law in their pat theology. But in failing to change their minds he demonstrates the littleness of minds that cannot be changed. He grows in stature as they shrink. He knows that he has achieved a vision, through suffering, beyond anything they can know. He has mystical insights, as when he sees into the time, perhaps long after his death, when his Vindicator "will stand up upon the earth," and when "without my flesh I shall see God." 29 On his miserable ash-heap (and this is what the Counselors never see) Job rises to heights he never reached in the days of his worldly prosperity, when in his presence "the aged arose and stood up, the princes refrained talking." His summing up, the Oath of Clearance (chs. 30-31), is orderly and composed. He is the master of his spirit. When the Voice from the Whirlwind begins its mighty oration, the Counselors seem not part of the picture at all. They return in the folk story conclusion (41:7) only to be rebuked: "the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath."
So far, the meaning of Job for the tragic tradition is this: A new dimension of human experience, a new possibility, has been explored and rendered probable. Vision, working on the raw materials of experience, has hammered out a form. New value has been found where it was least expected-- in the clearest possible case of unjustified suffering. Suffering itself, as the Poet of Job defines it, has been made to yield knowledge, and the way has been plotted out. After this achievement by the Poet of Job and after the similar achievement by Aeschylus in what may have been the same era of antiquity (the fifth century), the "tragic form" was permanently available. No subsequent artist whose imagination was attracted to this mode of writing could ignore it.
It has seemed to many that in the final stages of Job-- the speech of Elihu, the Voice 'from the Whirlwind, Job's repentance, and the folk-story ending-- tragic meaning, as the Poet has so far defined it, is swallowed up in mystical revelation or orthodox piety. In one sense it is true that the final phase of Job's experience carries him beyond the tragic domain, and the book as a whole is a religious book and not a formal tragedy. The revelation granted Job, and his repentance, would seem to deny the essence of his previous situation-- the agony of dilemma, of the opposing compulsions of necessity and guilt. Certainly no such unequivocal Voice speaks to Antigone or Hamlet or Hester Prynne, who conclude the dark voyage in the light of their own unaided convictions, and live out their dilemmas to the end. But in these final scenes the tragic vision of the Poet is still active. Ambiguities remain, and the central question of the book is unanswered. Also, in the treatment of Job's pride, in the final revelation of how Job learned humility, in the irony with which the "happy ending" of the folk story is left to make its own statement, the Poet includes much that is relevant, as we can now see, to the tragic tradition.
At the end of his Oath of Clearance, Job had achieved a state of what Aristotle called catharsis. He had challenged the Almighty, made his case, and purged his spirit. He was in a Hamlet-like state of readiness. In taking him beyond catharsis into abject repentance and self-abhorrence, the Poet makes of him a religious rather than a tragic figure; but the Poem as a whole makes an important statement about pride, which the Greeks were to make repeatedly, though from a different perspective. According to the Poet, and to the Greek tragedians, pride like Job's is justified. It has its ugly and dark side, but it was through pride that Job made his spiritual gains and got a hearing from Jehovah himself. The Lord favored Job's pride and rebuked the safe orthodoxy of the Counselors. The pride that moved Job is the dynamic of a whole line of tragic heroes, from Oedipus to Ahab. It is always ambiguous and often destructive, but it is the very hallmark of the type. 30
Although the speech of Elihu (chs. 32-37) is generally regarded as not the work of the original Poet of Job, and although it repeats tiresomely much of what the other Counselors had said, it has the distinction of dealing not so much with Job's past sinfulness as with his present pride. Elihu, young, fiery, and a little pompous, is shocked that the Counselors have allowed Job in his pride to have the last word, and he sets out to humble him. Job's eyes have been blinded by pride, and his ears deafened: "For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not . . . he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man." "Why dost thou strive against him?" Elihu suggests a way of learning humility that is a curious blend of religious insight and the wisdom of tragedy. Job must see in God's chastisement not only discipline and a just judgment, but he must see that in his affliction there is "delivery"-- through suffering he may learn: "He delivereth the afflicted by their affliction, and openeth their ear in oppression." 31 But not only this: Job must see with his own eyes. More than the other Counselors, Elihu turns Job's eyes outward. As if to prepare Job for the revelations of the Voice from the Whirlwind (in this respect Elihu's speech is a firm dramatic bridge between Job's "Oath of Clearance" and the climactic chapters of the book), Elihu asks him to contemplate the magnificence of the external universe. "Stand still," he says, "and consider the wondrous works of God." He rhapsodizes on the lightning, the thunder, and the wind; and he sees God's concern for men even in the snow, ice, cold, and rain,
Whether it be for correction, or for his land,
The main movement of Job's experience, from the morbid concern for his own suffering toward membership and partisanship in the human family, is extending even farther outward. He must now experience the Infinite or the Absolute. Even though in formal tragedy there is no such apocalypse as Job presently experiences, the direction is the same. Through suffering, as Aeschylus wrote, men learn not only their littleness and sinfulness but the positive and creative possibilities of themselves and the world they live in. They learn them, in Job as in later tragedy, not from Counselors or friends, but directly, on their pulses. As in the long debate with the Counselors Job made many discoveries about himself and the human realm, so now the Voice from the Whirlwind opens up for him the vast economy of the universe. In this new perspective, the question 'Why did I suffer?" loses its urgency.
The question loses its urgency-- Job never asks it again but it is never answered. To the Poet, in contrast to the teaching of the Counselors or The Book of Proverbs or the first Psalm, the universe was not reasonable and not always just. He did not see it as a sunny and secure place for human beings, where to prosper one only has to be good. Even after the Voice ceased, Job was no nearer an understanding of what justice is than when he began his complaints. Unjustified suffering must be accepted as part of a mystery; it is not for man to reason why. The universe is a realm of infinite complexity and power, in which catastrophe may fall at any time on the just as well as the unjust. There may be enough moral cause and effect to satisfy the members of the chorus or the Counselors. But all the hero can do, if he is visited as Job was, is to persevere in the pride of his conviction, to appeal to God against God, and if he is as fortunate as Job, hear his questionings echo into nothingness in the infinite mystery and the glory.
Even the folk-story ending contains a tantalizing ambiguity. Few people go away happy at the end of Job, or if they do they miss the point. Of course, the sense of frustration is largely eliminated by Job's rewards. God is good; justice of a sort has been rendered; the universe seems secure. We are inclined to smile at how neatly it works out-- the mathematical precision of the twofold restoration of Job's possessions and his perfectly balanced family, seven sons and three daughters-- a sign perhaps that we are in the domain of something less elevated than Divine Comedy. But the universe seems secure only to those who do not question too far. Can a new family make up for the one Job lost? What about the faithful servants who fell to the Sabeans and Chaldeans? These questions the folk story ignores, and itís reassuring final picture also makes it easy to forget Job's suffering and his unanswered question. Although the irony of the folk conclusion seems un mistakable, it was no doubt this easy piety, like the pious emendations to the bitterness of Ecclesiastes, that made The Book of Job acceptable to the orthodox for centuries. Actually, it is a "dangerous" book. Although the Hebrews had their recalcitrant figures, capable, like the Poet of Job, of deep penetration into the realm of tragedy, they are rightly regarded as the people of a Covenant, a Code, and a Book. This is one reason, perhaps, why they never developed a tragic theater, where their beliefs and modes of living would be under constant scrutiny. Their public communication was through synagogue and pulpit; their prophets and preachers proclaimed the doctrine of obedience to divine law, and the rabbis endlessly proliferated the rules for daily life. The rebellious Job was not typical. For the most part, their heroes were lonely, God-summoned men whose language was that of witness to the one true light.
OEDIPUS THE KING
THAT no such light shone upon 'the Greeks is a clue at once to the nature of their tragic vision and to the form in which it found expression in their drama. Both vision and form differ in important ways from the Hebraic, reflecting basic differences in the two cultures. Indeed, western culture has often been regarded, especially since Matthew Arnold's famous distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism, as an uneasy dualism of Hebraic mysticism and moral intensity, and the more expansive and humane tendencies of the Greeks. On the one hand are prophet, preacher, and pulpit; on the other, philosopher, scientist, artist, and theater. But the tragic voice of the two peoples is in important ways one. In both it proceeds from the existential vision, the radical response to the life situation, and in both it is an aspect of the religious consciousness. Suffering is inquired into, made articulate, and creatively appropriated. There is (characteristically) the same centering of meaning in the symbolic hero, whose suffering and discovery provide the structural pattern. The mood is one of exploration and anxiety, and the accomplished form speaks through dilemma and ambiguity.
But Greek dramatists achieved a technical medium, of course, more supple, flexible, and inclusive than the confessional-homiletic style of Job. They wrote under different skies and in a climate more favorable to the full development of the tragic form. The humanistic focus of their culture, the peculiar relationship between men and gods, and the institution of the theater sent their achievement far beyond the one full-scale Hebraic tragic achievement of The Book of Job.
Compared with the orthodox Hebrew universe, that of the Greeks was stark. They had no One God, no Code, Covenant, or sacred Scriptures. Though they knew their gods had a part in every breeze that blew, in every vital force, and in every human action, the nature of the divine participation in human affairs was unpredictable. There was cause for thanksgiving, as over a happy birth, a safe voyage, or a good harvest; but no one knew why at any moment happiness or safety or plenty might be denied. The ways of the gods were reflected in the precarious and uncertain conditions of existence. Legend told of changes of dynasty even in heaven. Though some gods behaved better than others toward men, the Greeks expected perfect justice from none of them. Even the wise Athena, in the famous case of Orestes, based her vote not on the merits of the case but on personal grounds. In such a universe, one must proceed warily and avoid extremes. Piety consisted in doing nothing to anger the gods, and in pleasing, or appeasing, them through offerings. They were not jealous as Jehovah was jealous when he commanded the Hebrews to have no other gods before him, but often in petty, human ways. They liked gifts, they hated to be jilted, and they worked off their spite shamelessly on mortals or on each other. Except for a hero like Odysseus or Orestes, who for his qualities was favored by god or goddess as ordinary men were not, a Greek's fondest wish was that the gods would leave him alone. A Greek could take no comfort in considering himself as made in the image of God, only a little lower than the angels, and part of a divine, just, and beneficent Creation. Fate, to which in a mysterious way the gods themselves were subject, was an impersonal force decreeing ultimate things only, and unconcerned with day-by-day affairs. 34
Beyond this, Greek theology did not go. The State could regulate religious festivals and in time of political tension try a Socrates for "atheism." But, as Charles Seltman has pointed out, 35 there was no rabbinate or priestly hierarchy or Church militant to teach or preach or declare dogmatic truth.
Socrates was simply a troublesome critic and alleged misleader of youth. The Homeric tales helped mold and guide the Greek imagination, but each individual, each new poet or philosopher, made of them what he could. They contained many useful truths-- how heroes behaved, what the heroic virtues were, and how to be a good Greek-- but not The Truth of revelation. The Greeks could be said to have had an "open society" as the Hebrews, with their Decalogue and prophecy, did not.
This "dangerous freedom" added a unique terror to the Greek tragic vision but at the same time made the Greek drama possible. The terror lay in this: that, in extremity, individual man was singularly unaccommodated and alone; he could not trust in the goodness of God or abide under the shadow of the Almighty; he could expect no recompense for a blameless life, nor, if he had sinned, could he put any hope, like Job's Counselors, in repentance and a contrite heart. But if there was no such orthodoxy to comfort and sustain, there was none, either, to confine or circumscribe. Greek culture nourished, as the Hebraic did not, an atmosphere peculiarly hospitable to drama, which became at its height an important medium of instruction in the deepest matters of human life and destiny. Here the Greek could witness the disparate elements of his life brought together in a viable aesthetic-- if not moral-- synthesis. What the materials of Greek religion-- myth, legend, folklore did with these disparate elements was so contradictory or sketchy that for the thoughtful Greek (Seltman suggests) it must have given cause for little more than "quiet speculation or gentle amusement." 36 But the very formlessness of these materials gave good cause, also, to the Greek tragic theater, where in the presence of the gods themselves the tragedies brought them into formal and vital relationship with the affairs of men. The poets submitted their culture to the same critical and creative process that the Poet of Job had exercised on the folk story. Out of the contradictions and conflicting claims of legend and myth, which in actual practice they saw making havoc of the lives of men, they too hammered out a new form.
From internal evidence, at least, the tragedies are witness to a "tragic moment" in Greek history similar to that discernible in Job. Like all such moments, it is to be accounted for in no simple terms. The political and social reforms of Pisistratus in the Sixth Century strengthened Athens in all ways, and gave it a new sense of its dignity and power. His encouragement of the arts and the institution of the great festivals, at which, in the next century, the dramatic contests were held, prepared the way externally for tragedy. The victory at Marathon gave to the Athenians the same spur and tonic that Elizabethan England knew after the Armada. National vitality and nerve, essential to creativeness of any sort, were high. The threat from the east, though successfully overcome, brought about a crisis in Athenian affairs in which, as in any war-situation, traditional values were brought into new focus; a new way of thinking and a new self-consciousness emerged. Athenian democracy under Pericles, who built the Parthenon and the Propylaea and counted Sophocles among his friends, provided the ideal milieu for their expression. Untold new possibilities were at hand, new discoveries imminent. In war, politics, trade, and the manual arts, the Greeks were learning what they could do; they were preparing to learn from the tragedians (and the philosophers) who they were.
But the immediate situation does not alone account for what Greek tragedy actually said when Aeschylus, in the early years of the fifth century, began writing plays. Also, there is little in pre-Aeschylean literature that could be regarded as preparing for the tragedies, as the long tradition of "dissent" in Old Testament literature could be said to have prepared for Job. It is thought that Aeschylus built formal tragedy on the simple structure of village folk drama and Dionysiac song,
which gave expression in some of their phases to the folk sense of affliction and of the need to propitiate the powers that brought it. His famous addition of the second actor was a gain not only in technique but in substance; it made dramatic action possible, of course, but more important it showed that Aeschylus recognized a kind of truth-- "tragic" truth-- that can be conveyed only through dramatic action, or the dialectic, as we have called it, of the play. In Homer he had at hand ample "tragic" truth, as well as examples of superb narrative and dramatic writing. But again, there is little in
Homer to account for the peculiar treatment Aeschylus gave his materials. Simone Weil, whose essay on the Iliad is unsurpassed in its insight into the tragic aspect of Homer, shows the world of that epic as dominated by force, blind and mechanical, which reduces men to things and destroys them indiscriminately. Through indirections-- image, metaphor, the stark recording of so many fatal actions-- Homer gives a sense of loss and waste and doom, even while he shows his heroes as capable of courage and loyalty, and his gods as often benign. But human suffering is in general presented as unrelated and haphazard. There is no frontal assault on underlying causes, no sense that the future can differ from the past or present. 87 No Homeric hero asks Job's radical questions. "We men are wretched things," says Achilles wearily, "and the gods who have no cares themselves have woven sorrow into the very pattern of our lives." 88 Simone Weil says truly that, although the question of justice "enlightens" the Iliad, it never "directly intervenes in it." 89 For some reason, perhaps to be explained as much by the radical vision of a single man as by external conditions or pressures, the question of justice came strikingly to the fore in the Greek tragic drama. Aeschylus, in major insights so much like the Poet of Job that he has been called the most Hebraic of the Greek tragedians, was the first to subject the idea of justice to the full dialectic of action. It became a recurrent theme in all Greek tragedy, from Prometheus and the Oresteia to Medea and The Bacchae. The question "Why does man suffer?" was seen to lead to all other questions, and thence to the nature and destiny of man.
Without the Hebraic effort toward transcendence-- "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills"-- and the obsessive sense of guilt which, as with Job, tended toward introversion, the Greek vision focused on the immediacy of experience, and on the nature of man, more sharply and objectively than did the Hebraic. The three tragedians are true to their Homeric background in this respect, that they keep a sharp eye on the present. Though the radical, metaphysical question "Why?" is implicit, and often explicit, in all their fictions, the dramatic medium in which they worked kept their attention centered on the "who," the "what," and the "how" of the action.
Aeschylus, the most theological and moral, presses the stark and bloody legends toward some degree of resolution or harmony between gods and men. He would wring at least some approximation of justice from the adventurer-gods. His Job-like Prometheus calls upon the heavens to be more just-- and (if we can trust what tradition records about the last acts of the trilogy) they were. At the end of the Oresteia tensions and ambiguities remain, but Athena finally intercedes to cast some light on the dark ways of men. In the dialectical pressures, in "the constant grinding conflict" of the trilogy's action, human character is revealed as no Greek before Aeschylus revealed it. The dark ways are plotted thoroughly. But for all their enormous vitality and depth, the characters have a static quality, slip a little too easily into categories, and seem manipulated toward a preconceived" general truth-and a truth that leads beyond, or above, tragedy.
Again, if it were not for Euripides' depth of insight and sure sense of values, it could be said that he looks the other way, below tragedy. He shows in grueling detail the disintegration of human character or the wreck of human lives under the stresses which the gods seem willfully and cruelly to place upon them. In every action, every passion, every step he takes, man is vulnerable. The gods may wreck him for their sport or their jealousy, or sit idly by while he wrecks himself. Euripides makes it clear where the major blame lies; in such a world the ideal of justice is ironic, and man's freedom is marginal.
Sophocles, often called the purest artist of the three, seems truest to the "givenness," the one most inclined to leave the question open. Aeschylus never begs the question, but he moves beyond it toward mysticism and revelation; and Euripides' tendency is toward nihilism and denial. Sophocles neither preaches nor rails. In the destructive element, he would say (with Conrad's Stein), "How to be?" Man is free but fated, fated but free. In the boundary-situation what happens? What qualities does he reveal? Through suffering what does he learn-- not about the gods for they are simply "given," but about himself? Let us carry out the action (Sophocles seems to say) to its uttermost limits,
explore the farthest reaches of human possibilities; only then can we pose the question of justice. If the answer is "tragic," it is at the same time heroic-- in a way which Sophocles (and Homer) peculiarly defined. Oedipus the King is Sophocles' farthest penetration into these mysteries, and the nuclear Greek tragedy.
The story of Oedipus, like the story of Job, is of a man plunged suddenly from prosperity and power to ruin and ignominy. We see both heroes at the height and the depth of their worldly fortunes. Oedipus, whom in the first scene the Priest calls "the first of men," to whom all knees are bent, is at the end polluted, blind, banished from the land he ruled and loved and from the people who lovingly obeyed him. Job had complained of his former friends, "They abhor me, they flee from me," and this was to be part of Oedipus' anguish. Both stories raise the same problem and state it in its extreme form: is there justice in a world where, for no reason clear to the ethical understanding, the worst happens to the best? ("That inscrutable thing," cried Ahab, "is chiefly what I hate.") 40 Oedipus, no more than Job, could be held accountable for his sufferings. He had faults, like Job, of temper and pride, and he made mistakes in judgment. But Sophocles does not present him as, a priori, a guilty man. The slaying of his father was done in ambiguous circumstances and in ignorance of Laius' identity, nor did he know that Jocasta was his mother when he married her. The play, like Job, presents a mystery, the stubborn and destructive stuff of experience as man meets it "on the way." Why do such things happen? All attempts to rationalize the play, to remove "the secret cause," fail. Oedipus' search for his own identity is of course capable of large extension. "Who am I?" is a variant of Job's "What is man?" and the answer is not that Oedipus is a sinner being punished by righteous gods, or an innocent man being destroyed by malign gods, or a man trapped by subconscious sexual jealousy of his father, or-- as the Chorus says finally, "a man who is better off dead." The answer, as in The Book of Job, is in all that Oedipus says, does, and becomes; all that each lesser character and the Chorus say and do and
do not become; all that is implicit in image and metaphor; all that is revealed through the rapid and relentless dialectic of the action.
As with Job, no analysis can convey more than a part of the rich meaning of the play. What emerges is not a doctrine or a system; it is rather an impression or sense of life. The hard, discrete particularities are brought into a kind of unity, but it is ambiguous, precarious, unfinal. We are left with images that cling, that fascinate and horrify, attract and repel, whose meanings cannot be stated precisely or ever fully reckoned. The meanings change and accrue with the advancing action-- and afterwards in our thoughts. Sophocles, accepting the terms of Oedipus' situation as in the old story, sets him free, though fated, as the Poet set Job free to "to open his mouth" in the midst of his afflictions. Oedipus speaks as much through actions as words, and the precise or full meaning of what he does is forever beyond our reach. What mysterious dynamic within him impels him to pursue his quest so tenaciously? No god was at his shoulder, as when Apollo told Orestes to murder his mother. Why did he blind himself? As he gives reason after reason, each one loses its cogency. At the end of the play much remains to praise, much to blame, and much to wonder at. What we thought impossible has happened. The destructive element has yielded more than destruction.
The first of the images that cling, and the play's first intimation of the human condition, is the plague-stricken city of Thebes. It stands to the play as the afflictions of Job stand to The Book of Job. It is the permanent backdrop of the play, the steady reminder of the precariousness of our lot, of the blight man was born for. The play opens at the point of crisis in the city's affairs. Normal life is suspended and survival is threatened. Prayer and sacrifice have been unavailing. The people turn in despair to Oedipus, who saved them from a similar fate once before. But against this setting another situation unfolds, involving Oedipus not as king and savior but as an individual human being, a situation so horrible in its possibilities that the people, engrossed in this new revelation, all but forget
their own afflictions. In this doubly destructive element, Sophocles has set his protagonist, Oedipus or the "Oedipus-idea" (which is Man), free, like Job, to run the full dialectical gamut, in order to test him not only against the brute stuff of fate but against all the standard human pressures and claims, within and without: the unruly passions and compulsions which, like Job's, twist his course this way and that, and the conflicting, distracting voices of his fellow beings, each with its own claim and justification. The course differs from Job's. The dramatist leads Oedipus gradually toward the ultimate test, and much is revealed on the way. Without Job's peculiar sense of religious dependence and yearning, Oedipus is more on his own. He walks a lonelier path, through a starker world. What he finally does and says and becomes is the product of his own human stuff. And like all human stuff as seen in the tragic vision, it is a strange mixture of guilt and innocence, beauty and ugliness, good and bad "inseparably together and forever."
But first, save for Oedipus' brief opening interrogation, we hear the voice of the suppliant citizens, speaking through the Priest. Out of their own helplessness they have come to appeal to Oedipus to rid them of the "fiery demon gripping the city." They are the poor and oppressed (for whom Job had compassion), the eternal, pathetic victims "as long as the world lasts," and they can only report and lament the dark world they find themselves in.
Sorrows beyond all telling--
"All's dark," they cry (in the second Ode); "we fear, but we cannot see, what is before us." In their lamentations, they do not once question the nature of things. Like the Job of the folk story, they keep the faith. They accept immediately the Oracle's explanation that their land is polluted by the presence
of the slayer of Laius, and long for his capture. But they never suggest that the terrible pestilence is unjust to them. In the third Ode, when, to add to their anxieties, the awful truth about Oedipus is becoming clear, even then they say:
I only ask to live, with pure faith keeping
In word and deed that Law which leaps the sky .
And the Law they refer to is the grim, retributive justice of the gods against presuming mankind, the law which (they think) can be neither questioned nor outdone.
It is hard to imagine a set of conditions more likely to produce a complete spiritual upheaval than that which they face. Their domestic world is in ruins, obviously the work of the unseen powers. Oedipus, who had been their one hope, the man who could do no wrong, is now the target of dreadful suspicions which, if true, would spell his downfall and threaten the stability of the State. The angry exchanges between Oedipus and Teiresius show leadership as all but bankrupt. Oedipus reveals ominous qualities they hardly could have expected, if we can judge by their earlier homage and supplication. In the encounter with Creon, Oedipus is even more arrogant and suspicious and hot-tempered, until Jocasta has to separate them like quarreling children. These shocking revelations lead the Chorus only to reiterate the old, hard doctrine of hubris and to call piously upon Zeus.
Who walks his own high-handed way, disdaining
True righteousness and holy ornament;
Who falsely wins, all sacred things profaning;
Shall he escape his doomed pride's punishment? .
Zeus! If thou livest, all-ruling, all-pervading,
Awake; old oracles are out of mind;
Apollo's name denied, his glory fading;
There is no godliness in all mankind.
The present experience merely confirms their stock knowledge, that he who would grasp for more than the common lot invites the correction of the gods.
It is to their credit, perhaps, that when they see Oedipus in the final scene, blood streaming from his eyes, their moralizing is stifled by their horror and compassion. Perhaps they see that it does not quite fit the case; their tact, at least, is superior to that of Job's Counselors. But still there is no outcry against the gods, only two brief queries.
Horror beyond all bearing!
That ever I saw! O cruel,
What demon of destiny
With swift assault outstriding
Has ridden you down? . . .
Those eyes-- how could you do what you have done?
What evil power has driven you to this end?
The suddenness of Oedipus' fall, the twofold nature of his suffering-- "once in the body and once in the soul"-- and the name rather than the nature of the evil power that goaded him on: these are the limits of the Chorus' response to the awful things they have witnessed. Their final comment, which is the last speech of the play, shows them numbed and nihilistic. "Behold: this was Oedipus, greatest of men." This is life; no man is happy until he is dead."
But the simple, syllogistic response of the Chorus, like that of Job's wife, is only a part of the complicated synthesis of the play, only one possible response to the hard truth of existence. It is only one of the many images or voices, which, interacting, qualifying one another, welling up from and defining the central action of the play, contribute to the total meaning. To the questions "How to be?" "In the destructive element, what becomes a man?" the answer of the Chorus is plaintive and un-heroic. As an inevitable part of Oedipus' racial consciousness it must be regarded as, for him, too, a constant compelling alternative to action. It is stated most stridently by Jocasta when she sees where Oedipus' action is leading: "In God's name," she cries, "if you want to live, this quest must not go on." Like Job, Oedipus turns a deaf ear to such counsel: "I must pursue this trail to the end."
To the Greeks, every action was a risk because it might invite the displeasure of a god; but; such was the tragic aspect of existence, man had to act. Great actions, the kind about which tragedies were written, involved great risks; and, since they inevitably involved a degree of hubris, they were ambiguous. Oedipus had always been a man of action. He had killed a man, not (as Sophocles has him describe the circumstances) altogether unjustly. He had violated no graven Law about killing; the victim happened to be his father and a king, and for these facts alone does Oedipus admit his pollution. Again, he had solved the riddle of the Sphinx, a "good" act, except that, as we see him in the opening scene, he is ominously confident of his ability to solve all other riddles. His marriage to the king's widow had been approved by the people and entered into only after he thought himself free and clear of the Oracle's prophecy. The Chorus had rejoiced in his action in the crisis of the Sphinx, and they longed for his active help in their present need. But as the truth unfolds and they see him as prideful and overweening, they apparently wish that he had not acted at all. They even call on Zeus to correct his pride.
But the play as a whole does not pass this judgment. It presents Oedipus' actions, past and present, in all their multiple meanings-- and one meaning is that such actions as his cannot be prejudged, or judged so simply. Hubris is not "sin." It is the mysterious dynamic of all tragic action, dangerous because it involves a challenge to the powers that be, but not (in the tragic view) morally good or bad. It may lead to destruction-- indeed, it so often has that the folk will have none of it; but without it, no man acts or suffers or learns. And it is the distinctive mark of the hero. Jocasta, urging Oedipus to desist, asks, "Have I not suffered enough?" But in determining to pursue the trail to the end, to take all risks and bear all consequences, Oedipus sets himself apart from her, the Chorus, and all others around him. The hero of epic (by way of contrast) takes a different sort of risk and invites a different sort of suffering. He would sack a city, or found one, and he faces the possibility of failure. He stands to lose friends, kinsmen, and his own life. But his goal is external and clear; and though he may be
tempted, there is no doubt about what his choice should be. His suffering has little in it of dilemma or enigma; it is not, characteristically, spiritual suffering. In continuing the quest of his own identity, Oedipus (like Job) defies the best advice of his time and plunges into a darkness. He knows he is not wholly right, but proceed he must. A man without hubris would have humbly acquiesced in his fate and let it unfold as it would. There would have been no significant action. Oedipus wants to wrench from fate its full truth, and at once. He will take whatever comes, and so he acts.
Oedipus' action, his relentless pursuit of the truth about the slayer of Laius, culminating in the cataclysmic stroke of his self-blinding, stirs from their long-dormant state a host of loyalties and disloyalties, beliefs and disbeliefs, goods and evils; sets them in new perspective; and reveals new and more endurable truth about them. His action sets other actions going, some mean, some beautiful, both in himself and others. Each action reveals the doer more clearly for what he is, and the world he lives in more clearly for what it is. Oedipus' own qualities of suspicion, arrogance, and temper, which worry the Chorus and infuriate Teiresias and Creon, appear in a different light as these actions unfold, no more definitive of his character than Job's early bitterness and despair defined Job.
Teiresias (the first to be drawn into the action), though justly indignant (as far as the play tells us) at Oedipus' threats and accusations, appears as a good prophet but no hero. For pity's sake he would have withheld the truth and retained the status quo. Better for man not to know either the worst or the best about his nature. Teiresias is a specialist and a conservative. His business is to tell the future, not to comment on it. We hear from him nothing more about the justice of Oedipus' lot than from the Chorus. Creon, too, speaks rightly in his own defense against the angry charges of Oedipus. But he too is a specialist, and his speciality is circumspection. He is the professional moderate. Why should he have plotted against Oedipus when he is entirely satisfied with his life as it is? "What more could any moderate man desire?" he asks Oedipus. "I stand in all men's favour, I am all men's friend." His defense is his record and his character: middle of the road, safe and sane. After Oedipus' self-blinding,
he conducts himself, and the situation correctly, firmly, and with some compassion, but no more than prudence permits. It seems little more' than another episode to him, his first problem as king. Jocasta is the central figure in this pattern of evasion in which Oedipus himself operates up to a certain point. Her first action, at Oedipus' birth, was to expose the child on the slopes of Mt. Cithaeron in an effort to escape the prophecy of the Oracle. Though no Greek could have told her whether the action was right or wrong, he might have told her it was useless. Neither she nor Oedipus, when he tried to evade the prophecy by judicious change of residence, seems to have been involved in serious impiety. No one accuses them of trying to controvert the will of the gods. In the final scene, this theme is strikingly absent from the comments of the Chorus; and when Oedipus questions Creon's suggestion of consulting the oracle about what to do with him, he is met only with this terse rejoinder, "Now even you will trust the God." But during the rising action of the play, Jocasta' s wifely concern was to keep Oedipus from trouble, to still his worries; and so she persistently tried to discount the authority of the Oracle. The closer Oedipus gets to the truth, the more frantic she becomes; until, in her moment of jubilation when the Messenger reports the death of Polybus, Oedipus' supposed father, she slips into
a cynicism which denies all divine order whatever:
Fear? What has a man to do with fear?
Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown.
Best live as best we may, from day to day.
Nor need this mother-marrying frighten you;
Many a man has dreamt as much. Such things
Must be forgotten, if life is to be endured.
Oedipus, though tempted under the first shock of Teiresias' charge and, later, by Jocasta' s blandishments, never goes so far. The charge that he was Laius' slayer had come suddenly, like Job's afflictions, and had had the same unbalancing effect. Oedipus had struck back in a fury of self-protection. The reverent tones in which he had first addressed Teiresias, the all-knowing
prophet, "our only help and protector," had turned suddenly to vituperation and countercharge. As with Job, the black bile of his nature had been started. But, again like Job, it was not long before he gained control of himself. In the midst of his destiny, he asserts his freedom. He proceeds like a prosecuting attorney against himself, ferreting out the truth from every bit of evidence. Not one hint will he reject, not one bit of the prophecy-- like "this mother marrying"-- will he ignore. He would like to have agreed with his wife: If she [my mother] were dead, you might have spoken so With justice; but she lives; and while she lives, Say what you will, I cannot cease to fear. But he is soon past the point' of temptation: "I cannot leave the truth unknown." When finally the truth is known, the ultimate distinction is made between him and Jocasta. Unable to accept the terms of so horrible a reality, she makes the supreme evasion of taking her life. Oedipus lives on to bear out his destiny to the end. In all this, the question of justice-- the justice of Oedipus' fate-- is not once directly raised, even by Oedipus himself, who of all the people in the play would seem to have had the right to raise it. Twice he comes close. Early in the play, when he first becomes aware of his vulnerable state, he says: "Can it be any but some monstrous god Of evil, that has sent this doom upon me? " And in the final scene when the Chorus asks him why he put out his eyes, his answer is, "Apollo laid this agony upon me." But there is no such open defiance of the heavens as in Job's complaints or in Prometheus' quarrel with Zeus. Instead of Prometheus' thundering "I was wronged!" Oedipus accepts his fate: "Be it so." He is like all the others in the play (even the Chorus) in feeling, apparently, the futility of verbal protest. But there is no doubt of the desperate injustice which the play as a whole presents. As Kitto
points out, the injustice done to Oedipus is the apex of a pyramid of ironies and in justices-- and of the most grievous kind: evil happens to those who intend the best. 43 Out of pity the Shepherd spared the infant Oedipus-- for such a fate. The Messenger, thinking to bring the best news, brought the worst. Teiresias wished to remain silent but was forced to speak. Jocasta, thinking to allay her husband's fears, dropped the one hint-- that the killing of Laius took place where three roads met-- which set in operation the whole train of events. Oedipus, searching for the slayer of Laius for the good of his city, brought ruin upon himself, death to his queen, and the prospect of a dreary life for his daughters. In the play no word is said about the efficacy of his sacrifice; no one thanks him for it, nor is he consoled by thoughts of martyrdom. Though Oedipus has faults of temper, no character in the play consciously does evil; and yet all suffer. The general disaster is as uncalled for as it seems crushing.
No play ever presented more starkly the terms of existence, "what it means to be." The messenger who reports Oedipus' blinding might well have spoken for the whole play: "All ills that there are names for-- all are here." And yet such is the effect of Oedipus' action that the final impression is not of unmixed evil. Although Oedipus never questions the justice of the gods, he does something about it-- and, as it were, outdoes it. The sustained action of his quest and the culminating action of his self-blinding set all the other actions, including those of the gods, in a new light. The disparate elements are reordered and recomposed. There emerges a clear hierarchy of values around which man can reorganize his ways-- as when, through Antigone's heroic action, the whole Theban society reforms behind her, or when Hamlet purges Elsinore. And the principles around which the new synthesis takes place are two: man's freedom and his capacity to learn.
Why did Oedipus put out his eyes? Like Job's action it has "magnitude" and is heavy with ambiguities. The scene which the Messenger reports is the most horrible and the most enigmatic of the play: Oedipus snatching the brooches from the bodice of his dead wife and plunging them "from full arm's
Till bloody tears rain down his beard-not drops
But in full spate a whole cascade descending
Why this fearful image? Its surface function in the play is relatively clear. It fulfills the prophecy of Teiresias, that "He that came seeing, blind shall he go," clinching the ironic theme of the blind Seer who could not, and the King who would not, see. Itís very horror shows the ironic inadequacy of the Chorus' final response. Oedipus' own motives are far from clear. He says that he did it to spare himself the sight of the ugliness he had caused, that he could not bring himself to face the people on whom he had brought such suffering. In Oedipus at Colonus he tells his son that he did it in a moment of frenzy and not from a sense of guilt. When the Chorus, in the present play, asks him directly why he did it, he says that Apollo had a hand in it. Again, he says he did it so that he might not meet eye-to-eye his father or his mother ''beyond the grave." No one reason suffices, nor all of them put together. The act seems compounded of opposite elements: egotism and altruism, self-loathing and self-glorification. As an act of destruction, it shows man at his worst, To the extent that it was "determined," it shows the gods at their worst. But as an act of freedom, it turns out to be curiously creative in unexpected ways, and shows man at his best. What Oedipus insists upon in his reply to the Chorus is that the act was his own:
Apollo, friends, Apollo,
Has laid this agony upon me;
Not by his hand; I did it.
Whatever he may have thought he was doing, the act stands in the play as his culminating act of freedom, the assertion of his ability to act independent of any god, oracle, or prophecy.
The "creativeness" of the act is all that is imaged in the final scene, the colloquy with Creon and the farewell to the daughters, and, as Sophocles was to present it years later, Oedipus' apotheosis in Oedipus at Colonus. It lies in all that Oedipus learned, about himself and his world, and in all the
others learned in this and the final play. The shrewd "reckoner" (as Bernard Knox shows 44), for whom at first riddles were easy, in this final reckoning finds that the answer to the question of the city's suffering is himself. The root (Sophocles seems to be saying) is man, and the gods who preside over his destiny have little care for whatever agony he may endure to achieve this knowledge. There is no use seeking any justice in the process, nor does the knowledge, which is hard and "tragic," necessarily compensate for the suffering.
But the knowledge may make the terms of existence more endurable. It brings a greater humility, as in Oedipus' apology and deference to Creon in the final scene and, in the opening scene of Colonus, the quiet permissiveness of the once headstrong king, now schooled by suffering. With humility come compassion and a new tenderness-- which Lear learned and, Ahab rejected. The final image of Oedipus, full of concern for his daughters even as he faces his wretched future, is in sharp contrast to the overconfident and slightly pompous figure of the opening scenes. To those who had looked closely, his limp, as he strode to greet the suppliant citizens, might have been (as Francis Fergusson suggested) telltale; but he must have seemed to them, as he seemed to himself, all-in-all sufficient. Even then, he did not deserve his fate. The important fact is that when it came, he accepted it, acted in accordance with it, and ultimately was saved by it. It was not a Christian salvation, nor were his new humility and love what the Christian understands by these virtues. He is still Oedipus; he still (as he shows at Colonus) believes in himself and is capable of hating his enemies. He is in no sense "born again." But he has enlarged his domain as a human being. He has a new sense of the powers that shape human destiny. Even, like Job, he has a new sense of kinship with them: in Oedipus at Colonus he tells Creon that death will not soon take him, that he feels "preserved for some more awful destiny"-- the mysterious finale at Colonus.
At the end of the present play, the Chorus look on him with pity and awe, but with loathing. They avoid his blind, groping arms. He is unclean, polluted, and he himself urges Creon to banish him at once, to free the city of his vileness. This is done with dispatch, after a none-too-generous moment
of farewell with his daughters: "This is enough," says Creon. "Will you go in?" The Chorus conclude the play with their warning to those who believed they had '"solved the riddle" and that felicity was permanent. But at the end of Colonus, when Oedipus' full stature is established, the tone is different. Loathing becomes reverence; the moralizing of the Chorus has no more place in the scene than the pious maxims of Job's Counselors after the Voice from the Whirlwind speaks. Although it is perhaps wrong to read the two plays in strict tandem, since many years separated their composition and conditions had changed, the later play has traditionally been regarded as a comment on the earlier, or even an answer to it. In the second play, it is said, the gods make up to Oedipus for their injustice in the first. But the gods, as Cedric Whitman points out, actually have little to do with it. In the second play, Oedipus still risks, suffers, and achieves a more-than human status through the exertion of his own human capacities-= and not through a god's grace. If the apotheosis of Oedipus, like Job's final vision, takes us beyond the realm of tragedy, we still see, in the final scene of the bereaved daughters, real suffering and real loss, mitigated only by the new insight into human capacities which the hero has revealed.