F. O. Matthiessen On ‘The Value Of The Tragic Writer’

In The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (Oxford University Press, New York, p. 107),  F. O. Matthiessen writes:

The value of the tragic writer has always lain in the uncompromising honesty with which he has cut through appearances to face the real conditions of man’s lot, in his refusal to be deceived by an easy answer, in the unflinching, if agonized, expression of what he takes to be true. The effect of such integrity is not to oppress the reader with a sense of burdens too great to be borne, but to bring him some release.  For, if it is part of the function of every great artist to transform his age, the tragic writer does so not by delivering an abstract realization of life, but by giving to the people who live in the age a full reading of its weakness and horror; yet, concurrently, by revealing some enduring potentiality of good to be embraced with courage and with an ecstatic sense of its transfiguring glory. Through the completeness of his portrayal of the almost insupportable conditions of human existence, he frees his audience from the oppression of fear; and stirring them to new  heart by the presentation of a heroic struggle against odds, he also enables them to conceive anew the means of sustaining and improving their own lives. Only thus can he communicate both ‘the horror’ and ‘the glory.’

These remarks by Matthiessen express quite succinctly, I think, the heart of the best possible response to the charge that the ‘tragic’ or ‘absurdist’ or ‘existential’ attitude leads invariably to nihilism. (It is visible quite clearly, for instance, in Nietzsche’s amor fati, in his ‘joyful pessimism,’ in his rejection of Schopenhauer‘s grim view of the insatiable will: the unflinching life is only possible if imbued with a refusal to look away from the particulars of our lot; it may be seen too, in Sartre‘s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism.’) The ‘heroic struggle against odds,’ the ‘ecstatic sense,’ ‘the transfiguring glory,’ that is present in the tragic writer’s vision of life suggests that there is a romanticism here too, one that will not be satisfied with the easy consolations to be found in systems that explain all, in ‘abstract realizations’ that render everything reasonable and comprehensible.

The tragic writer brings a new mythology to life, placing by dint of artful location, the reader at its center (you may, if you like, cast your mind back to Joseph Campbell at this point); our onward journey now bears the possibility of meaning, because we venture forth into physical and psychic landscapes that await our presence and interaction with them for further definition and clarification. This world is not ready-made, oppressing us with the burden of matters predetermined and foretold; it awaits ‘completion’ at our hands. And that notion of the self as creator, of itself, of the world around it, is the tragic writer’s greatest value; if he or she displaces divinity from the world, it is only to place it within us.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.


But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.