George Steiner's Greek Fantasies

All men are aware of tragedy in life. But tragedy as a form of drama is not universal. Oriental art knows violence, grief, and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster; the Japanese theater is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the western tradition. It has become so much a part of our sense of the possibilities of human conduct, the Oresteia, Hamlet and Phedre are so ingrained in our habits of spirit, that we forget what a strange and complex idea to reenact private anguish on public stage. The idea and the vision of the man which it implies are Greek.
What to do with a book which begins like this? Throw it out without advancing beyond page three? After all, how right can can be the rest of a book which starts out this wrong?

This is George Steiner speaking, the book is what made his enormous reputation (The Death of Tragedy) and the paragraph is unalloyed, 24-carat, pure-water nonsense. What do they do in Bali every day for a month during the Denpassar festival but enact private drama on public stage? Or in all the small towns up and down the Kerala coast in December where weekly all-night performances of Kathakali are given in temple courtyards? And if Sonezaki Shinju is not private suffering on public stage, then, obviously, neither is Hamlet nor Phedre.

Whence comes this urge of western scholars to define the West, us, Europe (whatever) by making a fantastic grand-sweeping and utterly false generalization about The Other? (And what is The Other anyway?) How comes it that grand scholars should think it's OK to spew this sort of garbage? And how comes it that no one stands up and screams in objection?


Andrew W. said...

Because all the scholars are European-trained? Or because no one talks to each other if they don't speak English? Or that the West still looks at the East ultimately from the perspective of Anthropology and not as fellow travellers?

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