The Essence of Tragedy in The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex

The Essence of Tragedy in The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex

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The Essence of Tragedy in The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex

 
In the search for the essence of the tragedy, The Book of Job and Oedipus Rex are central. Each new tragic protagonist is in some degree a lesser Job or Oedipus, and each new work owes an indispensable element to the Counselors and to the Greek idea of the chorus.

The Book of Job, especially the Poet's treatment of the suffering and searching Job, is behind Shakespeare and Milton, Melville, Dostoevski, and Kafka. Its mark is on all tragedy of alienation, from Marlowe's Faustus to Camus' Stranger, in which there is a sense of separation from a once known, normative, and loved deity or cosmic order or principle of conduct. In emphasizing dilemma, choice, wretchedness of soul, and guilt, it spiritualized the Promethean theme of Aeschylus and made it more acceptable to the Christianized imagination. In working into one dramatic context so great a range of mood---from pessimism and despair to bitterness, defiance, and exalted insight---it is father to all tragedy where the stress is on the inner dynamics of man's response to destiny.

Oedipus stresses not so much man's guilt or forsakeness as his ineluctable lot, the stark realities which are and always will be. The Greek tradition is less nostalgic and less visionary---the difference being in emphasis, not in kind. There is little pining for a lost Golden Age, or yearning for utopia, redemption, or heavenly restitution. But if it stresses man's fate, it does not deny him freedom. Dramatic action, of course, posits freedom; without it no tragedy could be written. In Aeschylus' Prometheus Kratos (or Power) says, "None is free but Zeus," but the whole play proves him wrong. Even the Chorus of helpless Sea Nymphs, in siding with Prometheus in the end, defy the bidding of the gods. Aeschylus' Orestes was told by Apollo to murder his mother, but he was not compelled to. The spirit with which he acquiesced in his destiny ( a theme which Greek tragedy stresses as Job does not) is of a free man who, though fated, could have withdrawn and not acted at all. Even Euripides, who of all the Greek Tragedians had the direst view of the gods' compulsiveness in man's affairs, shows his Medea and Hippolytus as proud and decisive human beings. And, as Cedric Whitman says about the fate of Oedipus, the prophecy merely predicted Oedipus' future, it did not determine it.

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Had Oedipus wish to escape his prophesied future, he might have killed himself on first hearing of it or never killed a man or never`married. The fact that he acted at all, with such a curse hanging over him, explains why, perhaps, he is not entirely a stranger to guilt. But the fact remains that Oedipus presides over that mode of tragedy less concerned with judgement (eschatology) than with being (ontology), less with ultimate things than with things here and now; less with man and the gods as they should be than with man and the gods as they are.

In the Christian era, except for an occasional academic exercise or tour de force, there has been no tragedy identifiable as pure Hebraic or pure Greek. When the writers of the Renaissance found models and guides in Greek tragedy, in Aristotle, and in Seneca, they came to them with imaginations inevitably Christianized. What resulted from the amalgam of Hebraic, Greek, and Christian was still a third mode of tragedy---"Christian tragedy"---which added to the traditional modes its own peculiar tensions and stresses. What remained constant and compelling was the ancient tragic treatment of evil; of suffering; and the suggestion of certain values that may mitigate if not redeem.

Evil. The Greek tragedies, the imitations of them by Seneca, and the freer, more humanistic reading of the Old Testament, especially Job, brought to the men of the Renaissance not only the aesthetic delight and challenge of beautifully ordered structures and of richly poetic language but a sense of common cause in the face of insoluble mystery that centuries of Christian piety could not still. The Greek plays and Job, the products of long traditions and sophisticated cultures, spoke to latent anxieties and doubts which the Renaissance, itself a sophisticated culture and the product of a long tradition, was, in the general "freeing of the imagination" of that period, beginning to seek means of expressing more fully. The Greek plays and Job presented a view of the universe, of man's destiny and his relation with his fellows and himself, in which evil, though not total, is real, ever threatening, and ineluctable. They explored the area of chaos in the human heart and its possibility in the heavens. They faced the facts of cruelty, failure, frustration, and loss, and anatomized suffering with shocking thoroughness but with tonic honesty. The Greeks affirmed absolutes like justice and order, but revealed a universe which promised neither and often dealt out the reverse. The poet of Job showed a universe suddenly gone and brought it back to an uneasy balance only by appeal to a religious revelation---and not before giving a full view of his great protagonist, alone and embittered, forced unjustly into a "boundary-situation" not of his own making, where his only real help was himself. In the thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies, in the length of Job's complaints, and in the lesser examples of Hebraic literature of the same cast, this basic theme of the "dark problem" appears in many guises and in varying degrees of emphasis. The focus shifts, but the vision is constant. The range and power of its manifestation in the Hebraic poem and the Greek plays established it as the informing element of tragedy. A way had been found of giving the fullest account of all the forces, within and without, that make for man's destruction, all that afflicts, mystifies, and bears him down, all that he knows as Evil. Aristotle is singularly silent about it, but it is the essence and core of tragedy.

Suffering. But the tragic poets of antiquity had made another great discovery. They had found a way of presenting and rendering credible in a single, unified work of art, and hence at one and the same time, not only all that harasses man and bears him down but much that ennobles and exalts him. They found in dramatic action the clue to the rendering of paradox---the paradox of man, the "riddle of the world." Only man in action, man "one the way," begins to reveal the possibilities of his nature for good and bad and for both at once. And only in the most pressing kinds of action, action that involves the ultimate risk and pushes him to the very limits, are the fullest possibilities revealed. It is action entered into by choice and thus one which affirms man's freedom. And it leads to suffering---but choice of a certain kind and suffering of a certain kind. The choice is not that of a clear good or clear evil; it involves both, in unclear mixture, and presents a dilemma. The suffering is not so much that of physical ordeal (although this can be part of it) but of mental or spiritual anguish as the protagonist acts in the knowledge that what he feels he must do is in some sense wrong---as he sees himself at once both good and bad, justified yet unjustified. This kind of suffering presupposes man's ability to understand the full context and implications of his action, and thus it is suffering beyond the reach of the immature or brutish, the confirmed optimist or pessimist, or the merely indifferent. To the Greek tragedians, as to the Poet of Job, only the strongest natures could endure this kind of suffering---persisting in their purpose in spite of doubts, fears, advice of friends, and sense of guilt---and hence to the Greeks it became the mark of the hero. Only the hero suffers in this peculiar, ultimate way. The others remain passive, make their escape, or belatedly or impulsively rally to the hero's side, like the Sea Nymphs in Prometheus. Even murderesses like Clytemnestra and Euripides' Medea, whose monstrous crimes make them anything but heroic in the romantic and moral sense, are dignified by their capacity for this kind of suffering.


Values. Suffering of this kind does more than prove man's capacity to endure and to perceive the ambiguity in his own nature and in the world about him. The Greeks and the Poet of Job saw the suffering endured by these men of heroic mold to be positive and creative and to lead to a reordering of old values and the establishing of new. This is not to say that they recommended it, as in St. Paul's exhortation to "glory in tribulation"; Job never glories in his tribulations, and no Greek hero embraces his destiny gladly. He is characteristically stubborn and resentful. Nor did the tragic writers see these new values as ultimately redemptive. But suffering under their treatment lost its incoherence and meaninglessness. It became something more of a sign of the chaos or malignity at the center of being. They showed that, for all its inevitable, dark, and destructive side, it could lead under certain circumstances not only to growth in the standard virtues of courage, loyalty, and love as they operate on the traditional level, but also to the discovery of a higher level of being undreamt of by the standard (or choric) mentality. Thus Job's challenge to Jehovah, for which the Counselors rebuke him, opened up realms of knowledge---even truth, beauty, and goodness---of which the Counselors were ignorant. And Oedipus' pride, which makes the Chorus fearful, led to discoveries, human and divine, which make their moralizings seem petty indeed. Tragedy, as the Greek plays defined it and The Book of Job did not, stresses irretrievable loss, often signified by death. But suffering has been given a structure and set in a viable relationship: a structure which shows progression toward value, rather than denial of it, and a relationship between the inner life of the sufferer and the world of values about him. Thus the suffering of Job and Oedipus, of Orestes and Antigone and Medea, makes a difference. If nothing else, those about them see more clearly the evil of evil and the goodness of good. The issues are sharpened as never before. Some of the tragedies end more luminously than others. There is nothing like the note of reconciliation at the end of Medea, for instance, that there is in the final scenes of the ;Oresteia and Oedipus. But Medea, by the end of the play, has (like Clytemnestra) displayed qualities of "a great nature gone wrong," and the play as a whole asserts values that transcend her enormities. The emphasis is on "greatness," and because of her action the dark ways are both more and less benighted than they were before. Though nothing fully compensates (the plays say) there is some compensation. There has been suffering and disaster, and there is more to come. But the shock has to some degree un-shocked us. We are more "ready."

Such is the approach to the question of existence, and such the appraisal of the stuff of experience, that constitute the form of tragedy as the artists of antiquity achieved it. They did not make permanent laws of tragedy, nor did Aristotle, whose distinction lay in seeing that a form was there and in cutting beneath theatricality to give it statement. The Poetics was a powerful influence in directing the writers of the Renaissance to the plays. They found them to have well-ordered structures, which, when the time was ripe, they turned to for suggestive models. And, informing these structures, giving them their shape and body, was that characteristic vision of evil, suffering, and value which we have learned to call tragic.

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