Performing Sacred Tragedies

A review of Rowan Williams, The Tragic Imagination.

Rowan Williams, The Tragic Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2016. $24.95

After he was shot and killed by police in 2014, Michael Brown’s body lay alone on a street for several hours in Ferguson, Missouri. Two years after Brown’s death, the New York theater company Outside the Wire performed the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone in Ferguson, a play that begins with the fall-out when another body was abandoned after death, left as a “miserable corpse.” In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Bryan Doerries, a founder of Outside the Wire, said that performing Antigone in Ferguson was “about holding a space—creating a space—where truths can be told and they can be heard.”

Doerries’ articulation of why performing a Greek tragedy was a fitting response to Brown’s death resonates with theologian Rowan Williams’ recent book, The Tragic Imagination. As the title indicates, Williams explores why human beings turn (and re-turn) our imaginations to stories of suffering, especially dramatic performances of them. That we do may be so regular as to seem unremarkable; yet the performance of Antigone in Ferguson may confront us with something of the strangeness of this practice. Why did Outside the Wire respond to a real-life story of extreme suffering by performing another story of extreme suffering? And why did citizens of Ferguson, including some who knew Brown personally, attend such a performance?

Williams returns to Antigone at several points in his book. Recall that in Antigone, Creon, the ruler of Thebes, forbids his citizens from burying Polyneices’ body because he was a traitor in a recent civil war. Polyneices’ sister, Antigone, disobeys by burying him, and when confronted by Creon, she refuses to deny or apologize. In the conflict between them that drives the play, Creon stands up for law; traitors must be treated as such so that order may be maintained. Antigone dismisses Creon’s law as a human creation that has no authority over the bonds of family and the will of the gods, both of which require her to bury her brother.

Following Hegel’s interpretation of tragedy, Williams refers to Antigone’s and Creon’s understandings of themselves as “fictions”or “work[s] of art.” They have each established their identities on the basis of some (admirable) principle, and when challenged they do not compromise. It is as though Antigone and Creon regard themselves as masterpieces, already framed and hung on the wall, requiring only protection from harm. But no self, says Williams, is such a finished work of art. To be alive is to be dependent on others, as we are constantly formed and re-formed in and through our relations to each other; and so a challenge to who we are and what we believe is an opportunity to learn if there is something we have thus far failed to recognize. Surely Antigone and Creon know, if only dimly, that they don’t know everything, yet in refusing to engage the other, they refuse to acknowledge their limitations. And so the audience in Antigone is invited, writes Williams, “to think the actuality of pain and failure—which means thinking what generates pain and failure rather than lamenting its inevitability.” Tragic dramas can be, then, in their own way, hopeful responses to tragedy; they assume that we are not entirely alone in our suffering, but, if nothing else, suffering can at least be represented to others. And if that suffering can be acknowledged, perhaps it is not inevitable.

This is certainly a difficult book, but not, despite Williams’ reputation in some circles, because of a lack of clarity or arcane subject matter. The difficulty of this book, I think, is both worth the work and essential to the subject. We have any number of ways in our repertoire to try to avoid or diminish the difficult work of thinking about suffering. In keeping with so many of the artists and thinkers in his book, Williams is helping us to do that work. One result of this, as I see it, is that Williams often chooses strange vocabulary (as we shall see) to jolt us into more careful thinking. Similarly, he has a way of re-articulating the same point so that clauses often pile up on one another. At its best (which is most of the time), this approach can offer fresh insight; at its worst, his writing can be obscure.

Another result of his commitment to facing the difficulty of thinking about suffering, I think, is the range of texts and ideas he engages with. In this book, Williams is no pious respecter of disciplinary divisions or narrow fields of expertise; the ambitiousness of this inquiry leads him to take all the help he can get wherever he can find it. His account of the “tragic imagination” is broad enough to encompass an impressive range of dramatic works, including not only Greek tragedies and Shakespearean dramas, but also the more recent plays of Sarah Kane and Antonin Artaud, and the Christian celebration of the Mass. As well, he engages with literary critics such as Stanley Cavell and George Steiner, philosophers G. W. F. Hegel and Gillian Rose, and theologians Donald MacKinnon and John Milbank. Again, at its best (which is most of the time), the pages of this book can feel like Williams is hosting conversations that rarely take place and are valuable for their remarkable insights into suffering and its artistic representation; at its worst, some of these conversations moved too quickly, and ideas were summarized and synthesized without adequate explication.

In order to give readers some indication of the nature and value of the difficulty of this book, I will focus on an especially provocative and illuminating thesis of it, that works of “tragic imagination” are “liturgical.” In my reading, Williams applies this term to bring out two essential features of tragic dramas.

First, when attending a tragic drama, a community is gathered and they take part in a ritual action together; this conforms to liturgy’s etymology as a “public work,” or, as Williams puts it, an “ordered affirmation of community.” Following the literary theorist Stanley Cavell, Williams draws our attention to how distinctive the rituals around drama are: we are to sit still, shut-up (more or less), and watch. These rituals come with most live performances, but with tragic drama we are sitting still and shutting up as we watch devastating examples of human suffering play out before us. Our usual responses to such suffering (a variety of ways we may have of engaging or disengaging) will not work well here, and so we are provided a unique opportunity to reflect on suffering and how we respond to it.

The second sense in which Williams refers to tragic dramas as “liturgical” is that they are “sacred” works or, at he also puts it suggestively in one chapter, “un-secular.” One might expect him to have in mind the explicitly religious context and content of Greek tragedies: they were, after all, performed during a festival to the god Dionysus, and the favor or wrath of the gods was frequently central to their plots. Yet Williams has a far broader, and more challenging, understanding of “sacred.”

Williams only gradually explicates for his readers what he means by “sacred,” and even by the end of the book, I was left wanting more precision. At first, we are told that to identify what is “sacred” about a drama, we should look to the possible effect on its audience. In particular, tragic dramas are sacred because they can effect “conversion,” a “radical change of perception.” Such a change does not require that the context or content is religious. With reference to Greek tragedies, Williams offers two sorts of conversions that might take place: first, audience members may come to more fully recognize how their political community depends on the divine, an “energy beyond the resources of this world as we know it”; or, second, their altered perception may focus on their relations to one another, specifically a heightened sensitivity to how human beings “deserve and require unconditional and particularized attention.” Williams regards these recognitions of divine dependence and human interdependence as both deserving of the adjective “sacred.”

Williams’ case for this sacred sense of “liturgical” is at its most bold when he turns to contemporary theater. He considers the British playwright Sarah Kane, whose plays stirred controversy for their extreme depictions of violence on stage, including rape and cannibalism. His analysis of the character Ian in Kane’s Blasted recalls his earlier discussion of how Creon’s and Antigone’s self-understandings are like completed works of art that prove eminently fragile. Ian’s whole life, Williams tells us, is marked by violence: in his personal relationships he is aggressive and combative and as a journalist he reports on bloodshed. Ian believes, though, that violence is a force he can control. Like the appearance of Dionysus in Greek tragedies, Williams describes the role of the Soldier in Blasted as decisively disclosing Ian’s claim to control as a feeble lie. With Ian, Williams sees Kane confronting her audience as members of a culture “that is engaged in denying its own violence … [W]e refuse to represent to ourselves the hinterland of utter destructiveness lying within our habitual exchanges.” Contrary to those who criticize Kane’s use of violence as gratuitous or even pornographic, Williams sees such depictions as necessarily risky (and not always successful) means to shock her audience into paying attention. Like other works of “tragic imagination,” then, Kane’s plays offer her audience an opportunity to “be remade in the process of witnessing and absorbing; without the extremity of represented atrocity, we do not and cannot see why the moral world we inhabit is not the only one.” And by this point, readers may hear in this description of what Kane’s works make possible as synonymous with what Williams refers to elsewhere in the book as “conversion”: to be “remade,” to “see” differently.

Does Williams, then, opt to call Kane’s plays and other contemporary dramatic works “sacred”? Not exactly. He opts instead for “un-secular”: “tragedy,” he writes, “is a deeply un-secular matter.” Evidently some third term is necessary to denote works of art that are neither “sacred” nor “secular.” Williams’ thought-provoking definition of a secular narrative is one in which “agents are presented as coinciding with their self-understanding, coinciding with their ideals or self-images.” “Un-secular” narratives, in contrast, “fail to allow a character (or object or situation) to have a dimension of life that faces away from me as knower or observer; to deny that what I see is seen by radically other and inaccessible eyes.” We recall that in his analyses of Creon, Antigone, and Ian, Williams attends to how they understood themselves to be complete selves who were in control, and so not in need of gaining any further perspective on themselves or their situations. The plays of which they are a part interrogated their claims to completeness and control, and ultimately showed them to be false—destructively so. Any attentive members of the audience, as Williams repeatedly reminds us, should feel interrogated too. But why un-secular? Given that Kane’s plays implicitly and explicitly reject religious faith, Williams refrains from calling them “sacred,” and yet he also believes she wants her audience’s “conversion,” and so “secular” doesn’t seem to fit either. In particular, for Williams secular narratives do not facilitate conversion because they “deny that what I see is seen by radically other and inaccessible eyes.” Sacred narratives, in the conventional sense of “sacred,” will undoubtedly acknowledge such a seeing to belong to gods or God; the religious believer, then, will necessarily acknowledge that there is a seeing that does not coincide with her own. By extension, even without reference to a divine perspective, tragic dramas may be regarded as “un-secular” because they consistently explore, for the characters on stage and for us, the possibility of seeing the suffering of ourselves and others better, and the consequences of refusing those possibilities. By doing so, they may facilitate “conversion,” and so may be neither “sacred,” nor “secular,” but “un-secular.”

Many readers, especially those who are decidedly religious or decidedly not, might by intrigued by Williams’ use of the phrase “un-secular.” He does not develop the definition or application of “un-secular” at any length in The Tragic Imagination, intending instead, I expect, to invite further thought and conversation about what analogies may exist between the perspectives offered by great art and religious faith. This is a subject of great interest to Williams, who, in addition to being a bishop and theologian, is also a published poet and playwright. Interested readers might want to pursue his treatment of this subject elsewhere. A good place to start would be his essay “Has Secularism Failed?” in which the term “un-secular” also appears with a similar discussion to the one given above. He argues in that essay that both the artist and the religious believer would resist any “social practice that is dominated by instrumental or managerial considerations.” In this case, it seems that the artist’s imagination, and the believer’s faith, would both challenge such “functionalist” approaches to questions facing society. Williams makes a related argument, at greater length and with marvelous originality, in his recently published Gifford lectures, entitled The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. In that work, too, he establishes common cause between the artist and the religious believer; in this case they are united against accounts of language that limit its function to mere description of facts. Closer attention to how language works in our daily lives—the kind of attention that poets especially can help us with—reveals how our often stumbling attempts to speak accurately cause us to go beyond mere description. While this does not answer all questions we may have about Williams’ use of “un-secular” as it appears in The Tragic Imagination, we nonetheless can see how it fits with his desire to bring art and theology into conversation.

Summing up, then, for Williams, the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Kane, among others, may rightly be called “liturgical” because they all involve “public work” aimed at “conversion.” And, in his penultimate chapter, Williams also labors to place the Christian Mass in that company. Surely “liturgical” is an easy fit in this case: the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion does undoubtedly consist in both senses of “liturgical,” as it is a ritual communal action intended to effect our conversion. The challenge for Williams, though, is whether the Mass may accurately be described as “tragic.” Christians do, after all, recall Christ’s crucifixion as preceding his resurrection; a resurrection that grounds the hope that they, too, will be resurrected and enjoy eternal life. Where’s the tragedy in that?

To say that Christian narratives may be tragic is merely to acknowledge, Williams thinks, essential features of our lives as finite creatures. His account of these features, following his former teacher, theologian Donald MacKinnon, goes something like this: We live in a world we did not make and which we do not control, and so our actions have consequences we cannot predict, including our own and others’ suffering. In addition, we live in time, and time is marked by passing. Such passing is a condition for our growth, as we move, for example, from childhood to adulthood; yet adulthood presumes that our childhood has gone, and so growth seems to include loss necessarily. Thus, says Williams, to acknowledge our finitude is to acknowledge constant risk; suffering, even if it is not inevitable, is always a possible (even likely?) outcome. Williams follows MacKinnon in pointing out that this applies even to what Christians believe about God incarnate, for though they believe that Christ lived a sin-less life, he did so in a sinful world where his good actions had tragic consequences; examples include the suicide of Judas and the antisemitism that arose in Christ’s name. Works of “tragic imagination,” whatever their larger metaphysical commitments, all attend to human pain and suffering as “neither inevitable nor as curable.” They do not look to “some explanation or compensatory framework in which the evil can be relativized and the damage undone.” According to Williams, to believe in a good God who raised Jesus from the dead is not to believe that such a God will “unmake” our past sufferings, but instead to hope that by God’s grace such sufferings can be endured and our stories can go on.

This brings us to one of several examples Williams offers of Christian works of tragic imagination, the Mass. While Williams’ use of the term “Mass” may seem to refer to only Roman Catholic and some Anglican traditions, I believe his analysis can apply much more broadly than that, perhaps even encompassing aspects of essentially all Christian traditions. For Williams, the very fact that Christians have continually re-presented Christ’s crucifixion indicates they regard their conversion as an unfinished business. Like the finest works of dramatic tragedy, Williams contends that the liturgy of the Mass does not let us look away from suffering; instead, the Mass confronts us in manifold ways with the limits of our knowledge—both what we don’t know and also what we won’t acknowledge that we do know—and with the tragic consequences of those limits. The Mass places its participants in the position of the disciples at the Last Supper, all of whom, in some way or other, betrayed Christ; thus as an audience may see themselves in the characters on stage, so Christians may see their lives as involving the same elements that led to Christ’s undeserved suffering. And just as an audience may know more than the characters do, so Christians at Mass remember Christ’s crucifixion while believing that he was resurrected. However Christians may articulate their hope in resurrection, though, Williams pleads that they not do so in a way that compromises the need to pay particular attention to the suffering that marks our lives as finite creatures. As Williams argues passionately elsewhere in his more specifically theological works (especially The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross), to try to flee from our finitude is what Christians frequently have called pride—which is to say, a sin. The Mass, like other works of tragic drama, is a resource to guard against such fleeing.

I hope I have managed to offer some glimmer of the range and depth of the insights that are present in this book. As a long-time reader and admirer of Williams’ work, such singular insights are common in his writing. And yet, this book stands out for me among Williams’ other works. Over the course of a marvelously productive career, Williams has offered rather few scholarly monographs, opting mostly for articles and collections of sermons and other addresses for specific occasions. With The Tragic Imagination, he explores questions and advances arguments that have concerned him his whole career, yet he does so in a more systematic and developed way than generally can be found elsewhere in his publications.

Above all, this book provides a learned and urgent defense of why dramatic tragedies are not a frivolous leisure activity, but a precious resource. Long before the dramatic reading of Antigone in Ferguson, Outside the Wire began staging performances of two other Greek tragedies, Sophocoles’ Ajax and Philoctetes, for service members and their communities. The purpose of those performances, as their website puts it, was “to help initiate conversations about the visible and invisible wounds of war.” Such performances are followed by a discussion that begins first with a panel, and then opens up to include all in attendance. Judging from the PBS NewsHour footage, the discussion that followed Antigone in Ferguson was raw, at times heated, and honest. As Phil Woodmore, a musician involved in the performance, said, seeing Antigone together served to “break down a lot of things that put people in boxes, [so that they] can be open, they can express themselves freely … and share stories they might not have otherwise.” Williams, surely, might describe such a conversation as “un-secular,” or even “sacred.”

Ron Haflidson is a faculty member at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.