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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/28/19

Simon Critchley on Tragedy's Philosophy (REVIEW ESSAY)

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During my undergraduate studies in the 1960s, existentialism was still being discussed, including Christian existentialism. See, for example, the American Buber scholar Maurice Friedman's anthology of key selections in his book The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader (Random House, 1964).

In any event, in 1987, I was very interested in Warwick Wadlington's book Reading Faulknerian Tragedy (Cornell University Press). Wadlington, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, is obviously using the term "Faulknerian Tragedy" in the title in an honorific way to call attention to certain qualities about Faulkner's major novels.

In 2013, I was also interested in Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster's book Stay Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (Pantheon Books). Critchley was identified as a philosophy professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and Webster was identified as a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. Oddly enough, their detailed discussion of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy included discussion of a fragment attributed to a little-known ancient Greek thinker and teacher of rhetoric named Gorgias (c.483-375 BCE; pages 15-19, 22, 23, 27, 45, 59, 191, 231).

See my OEN article "Critchley and Webster Study Hamlet's Complicated Grief" (dated July 23, 2013):

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I am willing to give Gorgias credit for the insight that Critchley and Jamison credited him with having about how to understand tragedy as a genre performed live in a theater in their 2013 book.

Because Socrates (c.470-399 BCE) is considered to be a pivotal reference point in the history of Western philosophy, Gorgias (c.483-375 BCE) and certain other ancient Greek thinkers are referred to collectively as pre-Socratics. Western philosophy decisively emerges in the dialogues of Plato (born c.428; died c.347 BCE). Plato expressed and manifested his grief and mourning about the death of his teacher Socrates by commemorating his memory in a character in his dialogues named Socrates. One of Plato's dialogues is named after Gorgias and features a character named Gorgias.

In 2017, I read Emily Katz Anhalt's book Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths (Yale University Press).

Now, in Critchley's accessible and thought-provoking new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us (2019), mentioned above, Gorgias emerges as the hero, because the fragment attributed to him provides Critchley with a key insight (pages 5, 21-24, 33, 45, 48, 62, 93-94, 95, 96, 98-114, 117, 119, 261, and 275).

The book includes sixty-one short chapters grouped into six parts:

"Part I: Introduction" includes chapters 1-7, pages 1-29;

"Part II: Tragedy" includes chapters 8-18, pages 31-87;

"Part III: Sophistry" includes chapters 19-29, pages 89-133;

"Part IV: Plato" includes chapters 30-38, pages 135-182;

"Part V: Aristotle" includes chapters 39-59, pages 183-267;

"Part VI: Conclusion" includes chapters 60-61, pages 269-280.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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