The Metaphysics of Tragedy

Georg Lukács

Life is an anarchy of light and dark: nothing is ever completely fulfilled in life, nothing ever quite ends; new, confusing voices always mingle with the chorus of those that have been heard before. Everything flows, everything merges into another thing, and the mixture is uncontrolled and impure; everything is destroyed, everything is smashed, nothing ever flowers into real life. To live is to live something through to the end: but life means that nothing is ever fully and completely lived through to the end. Life is the most unreal and unliving of all conceivable existences; one can describe it only negatively—by saying that something always happens to disturb and interrupt the flow. Schelling wrote: “We say a thing 'lasts' because its existence is not in conformity with its nature.”

Real life is always unreal, always impossible, in the midst of empirical life. Suddenly there is a gleam, a lightning that illumines the banal paths of empirical life: something disturbing and seductive, dangerous and surprising; the accident, the great moment, the miracle; an enrichment and a confusion. It cannot last, no one would be able to bear it, no one could live at such heights—at the height of their own life and their own ultimate possibilities. One has to fall back into numbness. One has to deny life in order to live.

What men love about life is its atmospheric quality, its uncertainty, forever swinging this way and that, like a pendulum—but one that never swings out as far as it can go. They love the great uncertainty of life which is like a monotonous, reassuring lullaby. But the miracle is what determines and is determined: it bursts incalculably into life, accidentally and out of context, and ruthlessly turns life him a clear, an unambiguous equation—which it then resolves. Men hate and fear the unambiguous. Their weakness and cowardice make them welcome any obstacle that is imposed from the outside, any barrier that is put in their way. Unimaginable, eternally unreachable Gardens of Eden for idle dreams bloom for them behind every rock face whose sheerness they can never conquer. Life for them is longing and hoping, and what fate puts out of their reach is turned cheaply and easily into inner riches of the soul. Men never know life at the point where all the streams of life converge. Where nothing is fulfilled, everything is possible, But the miracle is fulfilment. It snatches from life all its deceptive veils, woven of gleaming moments and infinitely varied moods. Drawn in hard and ruthless outline, the soul stands naked before the face of life.

* * * * *

This is the metaphysical reason for the concentration of drama in time, of the condition of unity of time. It is born of the desire to come as close as possible to the timelessness of this moment which yet is the whole of life. (Unity of place is the natural symbol of such sudden standing still in the midst of the continual change of ordinary life, and is therefore a technically necessary condition of dramatic form‑giving.) Tragedy is only a moment: that is the meaning of the unity of time; and the technical paradox contained in trying to give temporal duration to a moment which, by its very nature, is without such duration, springs from the inadequacy of expressing a mystical experience in terms of human language. “How can one give form to what is without image, or prove what is without evidence?” asks Suso. Tragic drama has to express the becoming‑timeless of time. To fulfil all the conditions of unity is actually to unite the past, the present and the future. Not only is their empirically real sequence disturbed and destroyed by turning the present into something secondary and unreal, the past into a threat, the future into a familiar experience (although perhaps an unconscious one); even the way in which these moments follow one upon the other is no longer a sequence in time. In terms of time, such drama is completely and rigidly static. Its moments exist in parallel rather than in series; it no longer lies within the plane of temporal experience. Unity of time is a paradoxical notion in any case; any attempt to limit time or to make it circular—and this is the only way to achieve unity of time—contradicts the very nature of time. (One need only think of the inner rigidity of the circular movement in Nietzsche’s theory of recurrence.) But drama interrupts the eternal flow of time not only at its beginning and its end, bending the two poles towards each other and melting them together; it carries out this same stylization at every instant of the drama; every moment is a symbol, a reduced-scale image of the whole, distinguishable from it only by its size. To fit these moments together must therefore be a matter of fitting them into one another, not after one another. The French classicists looked for rational reasons to explain their true insight in this matter, and by formulating the mystical unity in a rationalistic way, they reduced the profound paradox to something trivial and arbitrary. They made of this supra- and extra-temporal unity a unity within time, of the mystical unity a mechanical one.

* * * * *

Tragedy is the becoming‑real of the concrete, essential name of man. Tragedy gives a firm and sure answer to the most delicate question of platonism: the question whether individual things can have idea or essence. Tragedy’s answer puts the question the other way round: only that which is individual, only something whose individuality is carried to the uttermost limit, is adequate to its idea—i.e. is really existent. That which is general, that which encompasses all things yet has not colour or form of its own, is too weak in its universality, too empty in its unity, ever to become real. It is too existent to have real being; its identity is a tautology; the idea is adequate only to itself. Thus tragedy’s answer to Plato’'s verdict is to transcend platonism.

The deepest longing of human existence is the metaphysical root of tragedy: the longing of man for selflhood, the longing to transform the narrow peak of his existence into a wide plain with the path of his life winding across it, and his meaning into a daily reality. The tragic experience, dramatic tragedy, is the most perfect, the only perfect fulfilment of this longing. But every longing fulfilled is a longing destroyed. Tragedy sprang from longing, and therefore its form must exclude any expression of longing. Before tragedy entered life, it became a fulfilment and therefore abandoned the state of longing. That is the reason for the failure of modern tragedy. It wanted to introduce the a priori of tragedy into tragedy itself, it wanted to turn a cause into an active principle; but it succeeded only in intensifying its lyricism until it became a kind of soft‑centred brutality. It never crossed the threshold of dramatic tragedy. Its atmospheric, yearning, indefinite, tremulous dialogues possess lyrical value but are entirely outside dramatic tragedy. Its poetry is the becoming-poetic of ordinary life, that is to say only the intensification of ordinary life and not its transformation into dramatic life. Such stylization is opposed to dramatic stylization, not only by its method but also in its aim. Its psychology emphasizes that which is momentary and transient in human souls; its ethic is one of understanding all and forgiving all. It tones down, softens and prettifies people in a poetic manner. That is why the public today are always complaining about the harshness and coldness of the dialogue of any tragic playwright; yet this harshness and coldness is only an expression of the playwright’s contempt for the puny transports with which everything tragic has to be surrounded nowadays because those who deny the tragic ethic are too cowardly to deny tragedy itself, and those who affirm it are too weak to bear it in its undisguised majesty.

* * * * *

The relationship between history and tragedy is one of the deepest paradoxes of dramatic form. Aristotle was the first to express it by saying that drama is more philosophical than history. But does not drama, by thus becoming “more philosophical”, lose its own very special essentiality? Surely its deepest meaning, the pure immanence of its laws, the perfect concealment of ideas within facts, the perfect disappearance of ideas behind facts—surely all these are put at risk by its becoming “more philosophical than history”? The point at issue is not the unity of idea and reality, but an involved, confused, indistinguishable convolution of the two. When we feel that something is “historical”, then hazard and necessity, accidental happenings and timeless laws, causes and effects lose their absoluteness and become no more than possible points of view vis‑à‑vis facts which may modify such notions but can never completely absorb them. Being‑history is a completely pure form of being; one might say it is Being as such. Something is because it is, and as it is. It is strong and great and beautiful simply because it is incomparable and incompatible with any a priori imposed by an order‑creating rationality.

Yet there is an order concealed in the world of history, a composition in the confusion of its irregular lines. It is the undefinable order of a carpet or a dance; to interpret its meaning seems impossible, but it is still less possible to give up trying to interpret it. It is as though the whole fabric of fanciful lines were waiting for a single word that is always at the tip of our tongues, yet one which has never yet been spoken by anyone. History appears as a profound symbol of fate—of the regular accidentality of fate, its arbitrariness and tyranny which, in the last analysis, is always just. Tragedy’s fight for history is a great war of conquest against life, an attempt to find the meaning of history (which is immeasurably far from ordinary life) in life, to extract the meaning of history from life as the true, concealed sense of life. A sense of history is always the most living necessity; the form in which it occurs is the force of gravity of mere happening, the irresistible force within the flow of things. It is the necessity of everything being connected with everything else, the value‑denying necessity, there is no difference between small and great, meaningful and meaningless, primary and secondary. What is, had to be. Each moment follows the one before, unaffected by aim or purpose.

The paradox of historical drama is the combining of both these necessities: the one which flows without cause from the inside, and the other which flows meaninglessly outside; its goal is the becoming-form, the mutual intensification of two principles which appear to be fundamentally exclusive of one another. The further the two are from each other, the more profound tragedy seems to become. For they touch one another only when carried to an extreme; they delimit and strengthen each other by their categorical opposition to one another. This is why a playwright is attracted precisely by the historical element of a story, not by the general meaning which can be read into it. Here, he thinks, he can find the ultimate symbol of human limitation, pure constraint upon pure will, the clear, unambiguous resistance of matter to creative, form‑imposing will. The unselective power of that which exists just because it exists ruthlessly separates the action from the intention, and drives the man who intends an action to execute it with a purity which defiles the inner purity of the intention and separates the action from its aim, The idea which lay hidden in the action or life-situation is revealed, destroying the real idea that lay timeless and uncreated within it, the one which alone could have elevated it to essential being. The power of what merely “is” destroys what it “should be”.

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “The Metaphysics of Tragedy (Paul Ernst)” (1910), in Soul and Form, translated by Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1974), pp. 152-153, 158-159, 162-163, 167-168.

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