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Achilles' Choice: Examples of Modern Tragedy

Achilles' Choice: Examples of Modern Tragedy

David Lenson
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    Achilles' Choice: Examples of Modern Tragedy
    Book Description:

    Why, during the last two hundred years, when critical achievement in the field of tragedy has been outstanding, has there been little creative practice? David Lenson examines the work of various writers not ordinarily placed in the tragic tradition-among them, Kleist, Goethe, Melville, Yeats, and Faulkner-and suggests that the tradition of tragedy does continue in genres other than drama, that is, in the novel and even in lyric poetry.

    The notion of tragedy's migration from one genre to others indicates, however, rather sweeping modifications in the theory of tragedy.Achilles' Choiceproposes a structural model for tragic criticism that synthesizes the almost scientific theories predominant since World War II with the irrationalist theories they replaced.

    Originally published in 1975.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7002-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. 1 Paradoxes of Tragedy
    (pp. 3-23)

    Achilles’ choice is the archetype of the decision faced by every tragic hero. In the City Dionysia of Athens it is built into the very construction of the theatre. Down below, the chorus performs its odes and dances, collective and nameless, while above them on the stage declaim the masks of ancient heroes, unending names. The heroes act; the song re-acts to them, just as long ago the ancestors of those singers might have passed from lip to lip a recent rumor from Troy. The polarity is expressed in every possible way: spatially, linguistically, ethically, religiously, temporally. Every unified vision...

  2. 2 A Case of Migration through Genres
    (pp. 24-39)

    The relationship ofFaustto the tragic tradition is engaging for two reasons. First, it is a consideration on the highest level of the question of redemptive tragedy; second, it addresses itself to the problem of tragedy and genre in a very explicit way. The fact that, in spite of its subtitle, it may not itself be a tragedy is of tertiary concern here. The initial impressiveness of the work stems from its attempt to hold the same position in nineteenth-century tragedy that theOresteiaheld in Athens—as a statement of both unification and universality that would function as...

  3. 3 Tragedy in Prose Fiction: Moby-Dick
    (pp. 40-64)

    I have tried to show how the choice of Achilles came to be confronted by Michael Kohlhaas, a figure separated from the hero of theIliadnot only by time and space, but by genre as well. Kohlhaas, like Achilles, may leave his striving to return to his homeland, there to live long and prosperously. Remaining, each of the heroes surrenders longevity for the sake of intensity, giving his life form, individuality and uncompromised essence rather than anonymous survival among the mass of mankind.

    What makesKohlhaaspeculiarly a work of the nineteenth century is its degree of abstraction. We...

  4. 4 Toward Lyric Tragedy: W. B. Yeats
    (pp. 65-97)

    Among the members of the Rhymers’ Club, to which Yeats belonged, was Ernest Dowson, who wrote the following poem:

    They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,

    Love and desire and hate:

    I think they have no portion with us after

    We pass the gate.

    They are not long, the days of wine and roses:

    Out of a misty dream

    Our path emerges for a while, then closes

    Within a dream.

    Here, encapsulated, is the transcendental aestheticism that makes the “action” of a contemporary play, such as Swinburne’sAtalanta,or narrative poem, such as Mallarmé’sHérodiade, so static and...

  5. 5 Classical Analogy: Giraudoux versus Faulkner
    (pp. 98-116)

    There are two basic strategies for twentieth-century writers approaching the problem of tragedy. We might call them “imitation” and “incarnation”—tragedy by reference to one previous, usually classical work, as against the creation of an entirely modern tragedy which owes its tragic qualities to no single source. In general, the imitative sort tends to be written for the stage—the plays of Cocteau, Giraudoux, Anouilh, Sartre, as well as certain of Eliot’s and O‘Neill’s—whereas the second type is found in any number of genres, in the novel inAll the King’s Men, on the stage inLong Day’s Journey...

  6. 6 Choric Equivalents in Modern Drama
    (pp. 117-136)

    The dilemma is stated by T. S. Eliot in “Poetry and Drama”:

    [The Furies] must, in future, be omitted from the cast, and be understood to be visible only to certain of my characters, and not to the audience. We tried every possible manner of presenting them. We put them on the stage, and they looked like uninvited guests who had strayed in from a fancy dress ball. We concealed them behind a gauze, and they suggested a still out of a Walt Disney film. We made them dimmer, and they looked like shrubbery just outside the window. I have...

  7. 7 The Other Tragedy
    (pp. 137-158)

    A “conflict” theory of tragedy necessarily places tragic action between optimism and pessimism, just as it finds tragic values beyond ideas of good and evil. As an empirical model, it is useful on two counts: first, that it helps to order the material of the past into an informally coherent “tradition”; and second, that it equips a critic to evaluate new material in terms of that “tradition.” It is in this second function that conflict theories seem to be deficient. For if they demand compensation for loss and retribution for gain, in order to seek an explanation for at least...

  8. 8 Afterword
    (pp. 159-172)

    We have arrived at a period in history when all tragedy has become elegiac, because it celebrates an individualism which can have meaning only in a less populous world. Revolutionaries have replaced rebels. Thestatus quochallenged by every tragic hero was first ideological, and only later a matter of power. We live in an era when power is primary, and is served by words onlypost facto.This means that it is increasingly difficult for one man or woman to raise a vision of another world order in such a way that his or her rebellion is genuinely dangerous....

  9. Bibliography of Works on Tragedy
    (pp. 173-174)