Tragedy 09

Woody Allen and the Definition of Tragedy


I have always been looking for the Absolute. Since I was a child I have always been interested in knowing the essence of everything, in looking at things very closely, in discovering what is inside, and this is possibly why I ended up studying tragedy. I believe that its essence epitomizes the essence of reality. Therefore, following my natural inclinations again, the first thing I would like to clarify is: What is tragedy in absolute terms?

The purpose of this work is multiple and simple at the same time. My aim is, and it has always been the same since the day I started to be interested in tragedy, to understand this genre in pure terms, to pursue its essential nature. My intuition has often pushed me to identify the shared features within different things, those features that Aristotle considered the common denominator that makes something be what it is, and not something else (ousia). But this very same intuition also warns me that there is no such thing, that something like this doesn’t exist by itself. Hence, it looks like I shouldn’t even start trying to find any kind of essence of tragedy, since I already suspect that I won’t find it. But I also suspect that the only way of getting close to such thing is attempting to reach a whole understanding of the genre, an overarching definition. Sometimes the intention is what counts the most. Sometimes the symptom is more interesting than the diagnosis.

But since my doubts about the possibility of understanding tragedy from some kind of simplicity are too many, I will try to approach tragedy from different points of view, and from such a polyhedral image, come up with a common set of characteristics that, although not being integrally shared among all tragedies, might be representative of the genre. I will try to understand tragedy not only as a thing, but as a function, as some kind of structure that is completed by the thoughts and feelings of the crowd in order to work[1], and, since each person, society, and historical period is different, tragedy is also seen differently depending on when, where, and by who it is perceived, even if the structure that is represented is the same one. Therefore, I will look at the work of different scholars who have approached tragedy from multiple points of view, and how each one has made tragedy work in his particular perspective.

Once I have considered some of the most important analysis of tragedy and the way this genre is essentially understood by each one of them, I will proceed to present Aristotle’s Poetics, with its canonical study of tragedy. This will be used as a connecting Intermezzo that will help to liaise the first with the second part of my dissertation, that is: the dialogue between tragedy and Woody Allen’s work. In this aristotelic middle point I will try both to go through the illuminating analysis of the Greek philosopher and to relate it to cinema. Since Aristotle’s views are highly lucid and very close in time to Attic tragedy (although his contributions will have already been quoted several times in the previous part), I consider that they deserve a separate study and that they are a very appropriate presentation for the analysis of almost any film.

As I have just said, the second part of the dissertation will be dedicated to analyse Woody Allen’s work, as well as to find parallelisms between it and Greek tragedy. I will focus on one of his most tragic films: Crimes and Misdemeanors, which is the pattern that will be followed in another of his tragic films: Match Point, which will also be considered in order to elucidate some aspects that are pointed out in the former one. This will enable me to look at the concept of tragedy from a contemporary perspective, and, taking into consideration some of the theories analysed on the first part of the dissertation, to try to put external light on this concept.

Therefore, the through-line that will be pursued in this dissertation is based on the problematic about the possibility of finding a really meaningful and overarching interpretation of tragedy, and, after tackling such a puzzling question, to see if there is a real possibility of still conceiving a tragedy with absolute magnitude. In other words, to see if it is still possible to hear the echo of tragedy or if its time is definitely over, which would mean, to put it in George Steiner’s words, that ‘The hour is late’[2]. Taking the conceptualisation of tragedy that will have been constructed in the first part as a theoretical reference, I will try to fill Woody Allen’s work with tragic meaning, so that it works as a practical reference from where to consider what does the concept of tragedy imply in relative and absolute terms.


Part 1

1. The meanings of Tragedy

The purpose of the first part of this work is to try to elucidate the meaning of the word ‘tragedy’, as I go through what different authors have said on this topic and I take into consideration the different perspectives they took in order to approach it. Among the wide scholarship that has been written in reference to the concepts of ‘tragedy’ and ‘the tragic’, I have chosen a few texts that represent various ways of trying to define this genre. First of all I will give an explanation of what a genre is through Alastair Fowler’s[3] definition of it. Secondly I will take into consideration Matthew Wright’s[4] historically based approach and how Oliver Taplin’s[5] studies on chorus, gods and closures contribute to this kind of contextualized approach. After that I am going to focus on Michael Silk’s[6] conception of tragedy, and its generic differences with comedy, in a more general and non-historically-based understanding of genre. Before tackling the last question about the essence of ‘pure’ tragedy I will take into account some other approaches that are also illuminating, but which will only be regarded from their contribution to the meaning of the tragedy, such as the Nietzsche’s or Hegel’s classical analysis, as well as the contemporary Jean-Pierre Vernant’s[7] structuralist vision or Chris Gill’s[8] psychologically-based ideas on personality, among others. Finally I will look at George Steiner’s[9] very restrictive idea of tragedy and how the recently published work from Stefan Hertmans[10] contributes to this European tradition that includes great authors such as Goethe, Schlegel and Kierkegaard. From there I will try to give my own (and necessarily incomplete) opinion of what tragedy can mean for an inexpert student as myself, and I will leave this question open to the contributions that the analysis of Woody Allen’s film in the second part of this work will lead to, specially on the aspect of what does the concept of tragedy involve in the present times.

1.1 The idea of genre

According to Alastair Fowler ‘genres are not fixities, they change because every literary work changes the genre it relates to’[11]. Any genre is closely related to the culture of a specific society and its historical context, but that doesn’t mean that in each society and each historical period there are different genres in each case. Although Fowler considers that there is a lot to say about the relation between Attic tragedy and Elizabethan tragedy, for example, he thinks that there is not much that makes sense about all tragedy, and that, without some historical localization, discussion of genre is often meaningless. But he also accepts that our interpretations can be trans-cultural and trans-historical depending on the ‘generic repertoire’ of likeness that we recognize in each case. Each genre has certain characteristics, but not an invariable repertoire, and that could be understood as what Michael Silk highlights in Fowler’s analysis: the analogy between the common set of characteristics in a particular genre and the family resemblances that the second Wittgenstein invoked in order to understand the meaning of a word[12]. According to the Austrian philosopher, the object denoted by a certain name shares family resemblances with the other objects denoted by this same name, but that doesn’t mean that they all share the same set of characteristics, nor that they share one single common characteristic altogether[13]. Taking a family as an example, this means that we can identify any of its members once we have seen all the blood relatives, since all of them share a particular amount of features, but not all at the same time. Hence, if we want to establish family resemblances first we should know how the father was, in a more platonic, maybe first-wittgensteinian (word denotes object) way, that is, we should try to identify some of the shared features among tragedy in its original and ideal context: the V th century BC.

1.2 Tragedy in its ink[14]

Despite the difficulties we might have to define tragedy[15] and comedy today, the Athenians of the V th century BC would have no doubt in identifying this two genres depending on the context in which they were being represented. According to Matthew Wright, there are three approaches to the meaning to tragedy: historical, literary and colloquial. This author only accepts the first one, considering the second vague because from its perspective any work can be a tragedy deliberately identifying itself with this artistic tradition. He also dismisses the colloquial meaning because it simply understands tragedy as a sad event and it can lead us to use the word tragedy either to refer to a play by Aeschylus, by Shakespeare, or to the Titanic sinking[16]. Wright discards the notion of a concept called ‘the Tragic’, which would be a particular view of the human condition (Weltanschauung) that he considers is represented by the words of the chorus in Oedipus Rex: ‘Alas, you generations of men! –I count your life as next to nothing! Who is there, what man is there who enjoys anything more than the mere semblance of happiness, and, after the semblance, the loss of it? Taking you as an example, your fate – yes, yours, wretched Oedipus- I say that no mortal is happy’.[17]

Wright points out that the adjective tragikos was generally used in Ancient Greece in the sense of ‘pertaining to tragedy or the tragic poets’[18], and he sees this fact as a big obstacle for people who look for any kind of essence of ‘the Tragic’ in the classic world. Tragic festivals were such an institution in the polis that the Greeks didn’t feel the necessity to give a definition of something that was so close to them until the generic conceptualisation by Aristotle, who described its categoriae but didn’t really define its essence[19]. Although the essence of tragedy can be found in a kind of anachronistic way, depending on the criteria of each author, as Steiner does[20], this definition might exclude some of the tragedies that in ancient Greece were recognized as such, and Wright wouldn’t accept that. This means that we must be careful about which plays we are going to look at in order to create our idea of this genre, and this aspect is very important in Wright’s attempt to understand how much tragic the scapegoat tragedies are. Depending on if we accept them as genuine tragedies or not, our concept of tragedy may change from a very wide perspective to a more essentialist one.

We can consider Greek tragedy to be a corpus of thirty-two plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, who wrote in competition in the V th century BC and represented the plays during the City Dionysia festivals held every March in Athens. Tragedies were not written texts but performances on the stage, they were composed in verse, mixing iamblic and lyric metres, and the dialogue in them was formal and elevated. They were divided into prologue, parodos, episodes, stasima, exodus, lyric exchanges or sung monodies by the actors (Poetics 1452b-14-27). The action was usually settled in an imagined time in the heroic past somewhere out of Athens and, unlike comedy, there were no contemporary Athenian characters. Aristotle describes tragedy as a ‘mimetic’ art form (Poetics 1449b24-29) that represents reality not how it actually is, but how it might be (Poetics 1451a36-b5). So tragedy was supposed to be separated from the actual Athenian life, but at the same time it was highly meaningful in relation to reality. As Matthew Wright points out, although there are some historically based tragedies (such as the Persians) many tragedies were based on ‘traditional, widely-known stories’ of Greek mythology[21]. But not all the myths were susceptible to be used, only those which had certain characteristics that were eligible to be represented in a stage and could lead to stories concerning death, suffering and grief. The consequence of dealing with mythological-based plots is that the audience already knew what was going to happen, and the author could play with the suspense he created as he progressively was giving the information. As Wright reminds us: ‘The response called for by a tragedy is not to wonder what is going to happen, but rather to consider, to go over the implications of what is certainly going to happen’[22].

Although tragedy was first of all a dramatic representation, it was also concerned with moral and ethical issues, and, as serious poetry, it often dealt with complex philosophical ideas. This is the main reason why Plato criticizes the poets (especially the tragic ones), because although they were considered true artists (sophos) and instructors (didaskalos) (Frogs 1055), they inculcated the wrong as well as the right moral values in the audience (Republic 595cI-2; 606eI-5). But even though Aristotle only considers the emotional aspect of tragedy, the catharsis of pity and fear (Poetics V-VI), and forgets about its intellectual dimension, it would be misleading to say that there was no such dimension. As Matthew Wright synthesises, ‘tragedy is many things to its different audiences. It seems fairly obvious that the plays were written to provide pleasure and to advance intellectual, political and religious ideas’[23]. Referring to this aspect, the ‘French school’ structuralism has described tragedy as a system of tensions and oppositions that represent the historical moment in which they were written. Wright points out that, according to Vernant[24], tragedy is ‘the step between a mythological-historical tradition and an evolving political-legal thought that will lead to Plato and Aristotle’s sophisticated philosophy’[25]. Tragedies would be then seen as problematic plays that represented the society in which they appeared, and, at the same time, questioned it from within. Depending on the reception of each spectator, a particular tragedy could be taken as a justification or a questioning, even a negation, of the established values. In this point the matter about the prominence of Dionysus comes up by the fact that, he being the god to whom the tragic festivals were dedicated, there could be drawn a parallelism between the dissolution of codes, values and boundaries, and the ambiguous nature of Dionysus. Richard Seaford also thinks that Dionysus can help us to understand tragedy in its social and political dimension[26], but although there is a connection with the transgression of the law and the loss of the sense of self-assurance and identity, Matthew Wright considers that this literary excavation-work can only lead to ‘imprecise, even impressionistic’ interpretations of what Dionysus represented[27]. In this point he changes such ‘overarching patterns and hermeneutic essences’ for a more simple, ‘almost banal’ single message common to all thirty-two plays: ‘tragedies explore human suffering’[28]. But this author also points out that there is no reason why plays about suffering should share the same vision on reality, and that ‘the range of possible effects may extend from profound pessimism to a healthier outlook on life and the world. Tragedies might teach one to ‘know one’s place’, in social or cosmic terms, thus fitting into the general pattern of Greek ethical maxims such as ‘knowing oneself’ and not succumbing to excess’[29]. Such ambivalence of a pessimistic form of art that highlights the futility of existence, and its opposite version as an opportunity for a ‘salutary examination of life’ and for the valuing of what we have, can lead to certain confusion in relation to which was the real meaning of tragedy. Wright finally declares that the meanings of each individual play are more interesting than any unifying and impoverished notion of ‘tragedy’, which I think is the best option he can take if he wants to avoid getting into an endless discussion about the level of tragic purity of the scapegoat tragedies. However, if there is not a clear reference of genre, there can’t be any classification within it, and with such relativism many hybrid plays could be considered tragedies, as well as other things.

1.2.1 Choruses, Gods and Closures

In order to look at some particular aspects of Greek tragedy I will follow Oliver Taplin’s[30] article in which we are reminded that tragedy and comedy are not necessarily opposites and that comedy was open to say ‘plenty that is amusing and plenty that is serious’ (Frogs 389-90) as well as that tragedy accepted some geloion ‘amusing’ elements as ‘a kind of chiaroscuro to set off the surrounding dark’[31]. But in this article the author mainly focuses on three very concrete aspects: the choruses, the gods and the closures. I believe that the specificity of this contextualized study can work in a metaphorical manner, since in these three dimensions of tragedy is where many important generic features can be found, not only in relation to tragedy in its original context, but also in comparison to the closures and the way God is presented by a contemporary scriptwriter such as Woody Allen.

A feature that may define the comic chorus, and comedy as well, is that it was delighted to be interrupted by the audience and that it looked for the contagious laughter. Tragedy, on the other hand, rejected any interruption and tried to capture the audience by a set of feelings that was incompatible with any contagious laughter. The chorus in comedy appears later in the play (line 250 or 300 aprox.) than it does in tragedy (line 100 aprox.), and it is ‘more of an event when it does come’[32]. It is more autonomous than the tragic chorus and usually alienated from the main hero, as it is seeking the complicity with the audience. Concerning the choruses’ masks, Taplin points out that the tragic mask was ‘blank and expressionless, waiting to take its expression from the events of the play’. It is also appropriate to point out that tragic choruses spend a lot of time discussing the reasons of their suffering, as well as verbalizing their grief; and also that, as Aristotle pointed out, most of this suffering is caused by conflicts within philia relationships[33] (Poetics 1453b19-25). The tragic chorus is then like its masks, ‘serious but blank, waiting for the tragedy to be witnessed’[34], and this characteristic may reflect the audience (theatai), who are also helpless witnesses that, ‘while they try to make sense of their thoughts and emotions, can do nothing’[35].

Referring to the gods, Taplin draws an antithesis between their roles in each genre: while in comedy gods are too human, in tragedy they are too unhuman. In the Frogs, for example, Dionysus feels exactly as much pain as Xanthias; he shits on himself for fear and chooses Aeschylus on an impulsive decision. The God is presented with the same defects as humans and has no special dignity or mystery surrounding him. In tragedy instead, gods are dangerous and unpredictable. In some cases, such as in the Bacchae, the more human the God seems to be at the beginning, the more dangerous and misleading he turns out to be afterwards. However, Taplin doesn’t refer to the elusive attitude that gods play in tragedy, as it happens in Heracles Furens, where Zeus is criticized for his passivity, opening the question whether God loves his creatures or not. The human condition between gods and animals is recurrent throughout the history of tragic criticism, and it leads to the discussion whether the tension between divine power and human morality can be matched with irrational acts and fate. Although humans may expect justice from gods, as it happens in Eumenides, in many tragedies there is no such thing, and it looks like their law is out of any human understanding. However, there isn’t a negation of divinity either, and fate is accepted as if there was some kind of reason behind it, but out of any rational understanding. As I will discuss later on, some kind of external enigmatic power seems to be necessary in order to make tragedy work, since moral conflicts are extremely difficult to find in a relativistic world, but they can neither exist in a totally religious one. Hence, tragedy can only appear in times of crisis of values, when the previous religious world view (Weltanschauung) is put in question by some kind of relativistic way of thinking, as it happened with the sophists in the V th century BC.

It is commonly accepted that closures tend to be happy in comedy and unhappy in tragedy, but Oliver Taplin proposes some examples that contradict this conception, such as the Clouds or Frogs and comes up with what he considers to be a more valid generalization: ‘Old Comedy tends towards closed, wrapped-up, reassuring endings, while tragedies tend to reach open, disturbing, unsettled endings’[36]. However, according to this author, there is an exception that proves this rule: Eumenides. This tragedy ends in a closing procession, like many comedies, and the incorporation of the Erinyes represent a non-explicit self-reference that symbolizes the assimilation of tragedy within the city of Athens. Through this play then, tragedy is referring to itself and enacting its triumphal acceptance in the city. Taplin considers that, from that ‘foundation allegory’ onwards, there was no longer need to claim for the importance of tragedy, and since then ‘the connected trilogy was discontinued; tragedies were not set in the centre of Athens; and the closures of the single tragedies became open, cracked and unhealed. Tragedy is strong enough to do this, to contain the unbearable, to resist being sucked into the black hole, while not denying it or turning away from it’.[37] Although Matthew Wright points out that many tragedies could end in a kind of wrapped up or happy ending in their satyr play[38], it seems that Taplin is already aware of that, and also of the fact that, despite tragedy is a pessimistic art form, its nature doesn’t necessarily produce a pessimistic effect on the audience. However, beside all the information we can gather about Greek tragedy and the image we may build up, it looks like we would have a very different idea of it if more trilogies and satyr plays had survived.

The ‘foundation allegory’ of the Eumenides,which expanded its influence being represented several times after its first performance in 458 BC, also seems to have been strong enough to be the exception to the permanent appearance of unreasonable and capricious gods in Greek tragedy. The happy or wrapped-up ending of this play can be related to the existence of just and caring gods who, at the end, give a just and reasonable solution to the conflict that has preceded their final judgement. The arrival of a deus ex machina that Euripides often used in order to close his tragedies can only be considered as despotic as the gods who, so randomly, condemned or saved certain people. But this cannot be put in the same level as the responsible role of the gods in the Eumenides. However, the existence of vengeful and enigmatic gods helps to settle the tragic conflict, and it is one of its most important features, a fact that neither the two plays preceding the Eumenides are exempt of. The tension between gods and men, between despotic power and human consequent moral thought, might then be seen as a very recurrent tool for the representation of the tragic circumstance of humanity. Independently of the question whether gods do or do not exist, in tragedy there is always a greater force that overwhelms human nature.

1.3 Tragedy in front of comedy

Compared to comedy, tragedy seems to have kept specific textual properties and a generic repertoire from its origins until today. According to Silk, it can ‘reappear sporadically, in very few cultures, in sufficiently clear relationship to Greek tragedy to permit discussions’, and thanks to this trans-cultural continuity, authors like George Steiner[39] can ‘argue persuasively that tragedy is a serious dramatic form, but not all serious drama is tragedy’[40].

Silk objects that the traditional Aristotelian contrasts between comedy and tragedy have opposed these two genres as if they were equals, and have endowed them with evaluative implications that have never lost. An example of this is the topic that if tragedy deals with high subjects, then it must be high art. These kind of implications have led to think tragedy as a nobler genre which attracts better sorts of people, something that Silk considers a ‘deep-stated puritanical prejudice in favour of suffering as against joy, solemnity as against merriment’[41]. In order to prove that, this author refers to the Ecclesiastes, where it is said that ‘Sorrow is better than laughter… the art of fools is in the house of mirth’ (Ecclesiastes VII. 3-4) and also to Baudelaire’s suggestion that Paradise would have no humour in it because ‘the comic disappears at the level of absolute knowledge and power’[42], among other testimonies of the negative connotations of the comic.

Tragedy is a type of serious drama, whereas comedy (with or without laughter) seeks merely to amuse[43]. From this consideration onwards Silk starts presenting comedy as something much wider than the immovable tragedy, that is, as a genre which includes many modes and styles. Silk declares that: ‘Narrative fiction… may have something of tragic quality, but even the Iliad and Anna Karenina are too discursive or too tolerant of the unheightened to persuade us to push out the generic boundary and think of them as tragedy’[44]. Comedy instead, accepts more modifications and can be presented as comic miniatures, such as jokes, comic visual art, such as cartoons, or comic novels, which enlarge the conception of comedy to a continuum that goes beyond the sphere of drama.

Before defending the autonomy of comedy, Silk reminds us that this genre has always been defined in relation to the ‘serious’ tragedy and that this comparison has usually been that of an oddity with a norm. It looks like tragedy is free of distortion, whereas, as Northrop Frye says, in comedy ‘actions are twisted to fit the demands of a happy ending’[45]. But according to Silk comedy has ‘its own repertoire of family resemblances[46] and tragedy is a too strict genre to be contrasted, as well as opposed, to the ‘unformed world’ of comedy[47]. It is illuminating to point out that Aristophanes wasn’t so concerned with the clear Aristotelian opposition between comedy and tragedy. In this sense, Frye’s statement that ‘thanks to the Greeks, we can distinguish tragedy from comedy in drama, and so we still tend to assume that each is the half of drama that is not the other half’[48] is as misleading as Samuel Johnson’s neo-Aristotelian affirmation that comedy and tragedy are ‘two modes of imitation… intended to promote different ends by contrary means’[49]. So Silk rejects the Aristotelian affirmation that comedy and tragedy are natural opposites, and he discusses the general principles of comedy that traditionally have led to such affirmation: tendency to amuse, closures that project survival, and tendency towards the material instead of the metaphysical. But if this author had to choose only one of them it would be the tendency to amuse, although this very specific feature is not, again, a reason to think that comedy is the opposite of tragedy. Silk concludes his generic comparison considering that comedy is freer than tragedy, that it is free to depend or not on other genres, ‘free even to be like tragedy’. Tragedy is therefore regarded as a very well settled dramatic genre, whereas on the other hand, comedy is something ‘wider altogether’. This perspective may have, as Matthew Wright has shown, some problems of methodology and coherence, but it is a necessary and referential premise if we want to build up any kind of defined idea of what tragedy is.

1.4 Traditional and contemporary substantial approaches

It would be impossible to give a complete review of all the history of tragic criticism here, but I think it might be appropriate to give some examples of the multiple receptions and understandings of tragedy that appeared from the Renaissance until nowadays in order to show how different the image of this genre has been. Some of the authors will be just mentioned while others, such as Hegel, Nietzsche or Goethe, will be more widely explained, putting also special attention on some of the contemporary Classical scholarship.

After the long spiritual silence of the Middle Ages, the humanists from the Renaissance revised the Classical legacy and formulated an ideal of tragedy which would basically have five acts, starting in medias res, three main characters of noble rank using noble language and should not show scenes of horror on stage. However, the moral heritage of the medieval tradition clashed with the higher dignity of the Classic drama, and the emotional purification (catharsis) had to be matched with the aim to please the audience and show moral examples (exemplum), a censure that decaffeinated the powerful appealing capacity of tragedy.

Among the German idealists many authors became interested in the Classic drama, such as Höliderlin, Schlegel or Schopenhauer, among others, but probably the most influential of them has been Hegel. At the beginning of the XIX th century this philosopher took Sophocles’ Antigone as the pattern of his analysis, and focussed on the conflict provoked by the fact that a tragic hero follows his own ethical pathos in front of another equally justified ethical perspective. On the other hand Hegel reminds us that ‘Modern characters stand in a wealth of more accidental circumstances, within which one could act this way or that, so that the conflict is, though occasioned by external preconditions, still essentially grounded in character. The new individuals, in their passions, obey their own nature… simply because they are what they are. Greek heroes also act in accordance with individuality, but in ancient tragedy such individuality is necessarily… a self-contained pathos… In Modern tragedy, however, the character in its peculiarity decides in accordance with subjective desires… such that congruity of character with outward ethical aim no longer constitutes an essential basis of tragic beauty…’[50]. Hegel’s vision on tragedy is mainly focussed on a social understanding of it[51], therefore, he was attracted by the character of Antigone and her strict observance of the family law (oikos) in front of the law of the city (polis), and the attachment of both, her and Creont, to external objective ethical references in contrast to the modern man, who basically decides ‘in accordance with subjective desires’.

As one of the most important representatives of the German Romanticism, Goethe took into consideration the relationship between the divine power and men, and how such tension represented one of the main features of this genre. In his poem Prometheus (1774), Goethe contributes to the German Enlightenment project of the late XVIII th century presenting this myth as a way of regretting the gods their hostility against humans. The fact that Prometheus stole the fire from the gods is seen as a honourable action that helped humanity in its industrious development, and this Titan is reaffirmed in his action showing the Classic tragic dignity against the divine punishments: ‘I know of nothing more wretched/ Under the Sun than you gods!/ I pay homage to you? For what?/ Have you ever relieved/ The burdened man’s anguish?’[52]. However, in his tragedy Faust, although God is again presented as capricious and unpredictable, Goethe’s Romanticism is shown by the fact that at the end the industriosity and tireless willpower of the protagonist, his wish for absolute love and realization above all the technical and scientific knowledge, is awarded with redemption by the divinity: ‘He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still’[53]. Goethe’s presentation of the conflict between divine power and humans is an important point in the Romantic tradition and it has been very influential[54] among the Classical scholars. This conflict also plays an important part in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, although the atheism that finally prevails in the film could be seen as a distancing from such conception of tragedy, as we will see later on, a fact which undoubtedly contributes to a complex understanding of this genre in the present.

In 1872 the German philosopher and classicist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the influential The Birth of Tragedy[55], where he looked at the early rituals at the origins of Greek tragedy and how the Dionysian (unformed, chaotic, instinctual) and Apollonian (formal, beautiful, prefect) forces worked in this context. He took distance from the influence of his master, the utterly pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, since he regarded tragedy as an acceptance of the terrors of life and love of fate (amor fati). According to Nietzsche the Dionysian origins of tragedy symbolized the acceptance of life in all its dimensions, the strange, the painful, the good, the evil, and even beyond. He considered that tragedy died in hands of Socrates because his method trusted in the power of reason to reveal all the mysteries of reality. As the starting point of his intellectual career, The Birth of Tragedy is a metaphor of the great yes Nietzsche said to life in the rest of his work.

In order to show a glimpse of the thought that shaped many philosophical, psychological and aesthetic conceptions formulated afterwards, the following fragment of What I owe to the Ancients in Nietzsche’s mature The Twilight of the Idols[56] is specially adequate: ‘The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, within which even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and, quite especially, by our modern pessimists… -that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge –which is how Aristotle understood tragedy- but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity – …that tragic joy which included even joy in destruction’[57]. As we can see, Nietzsche’s thought represents a total acceptance of life, human nature and fate in all their dimensions, which has no need of sublimating any anxiety or to show any kind of pity, being this the reason why Aristotle’s analysis is useless to him. But although this extremely invigorating conception can lead to a renovation of all the values, it is also a dangerously useful weapon for those who want to impose their own new values to others.

This has been a very brief depiction of three important approaches to tragedy that have influenced several generations of Classical scholars. I don’t pretend to say that the following authors are as influential as the great commentators of tragedy I just examined, but I believe that it is good to look at the contemporary critical theory in order to see how the tradition has crystallized up to nowadays, though this doesn’t mean that I dismiss all the other authors I don’t take into consideration here.

Simon Goldhill’s work could be placed somewhere in between the ritualistic and the structuralist approach to the study of tragedy, since he is engaged with both of them. This author takes distance from the ritualistic conceptions, such as those from Gilbert Murray, which have tended to consider the Great Dionysia in Athens as a religious ritual rather than a place of entertainment. Goldhill tries to demonstrate how the understanding of a play requires an understanding of the complexities of a context for performance ‘in terms of ideology of the polis’[58]. In his work it is studied how the power of this polis became increasingly emphasized in public ritual and how the individual itself lost importance in relation to thecity-state. Goldhill stresses the tension between the oikos and the polis, and points out the prominence the city had over the individual, and how both tragedy and comedy questioned, examined and often subverted the language of the city’s order. He asserts that the combination of the pre-play rituals and the performances of the texts is what altogether make the Great Dionysia, and that ritual is designed to leave the structural positions of society legitimized, whereas the tragic texts usually left the audience with an intellectually and emotionally powerful question in their minds.

Goldhill’s understanding of the influence of the polis on the Great Dionysia festival can be regarded as another way of incorporating Dionysus in tragedy after the critics of the Cambridge School. On the question about this God, Goldhill considers that ‘Dionysus defies definition’. This point of view is echoed in authors such as Otto, Daraki and Segal who see Dionysus as a God of paradox and contradictory identity, but Goldhill takes advantage of having assimilated these conceptions by affirming that it is the ‘interplay between norm and transgression’ represented in the tragic festival that made it a ‘Dionysiac occasion’.

Richard Seaford[59] thinks that tragedy is intrinsically Dionysiac not only from a ritualistic point of view, but also because of its political implications. He shows this by reconstructing the myth of Dionysus being a stranger God to the polis (which means that has unifying and impartial characteristics) and also being rejected by the royal household, and finally destroying it. That is, according to Seaford, a political aspect of Dionysus that has been ignored by Nietzsche and the Cambridge Ritualists, and it has implications that may create a new vision of Dionysus as a metaphor of the power of the self-governing polis against the royal household. The Dionysiac myth and cult is regarded then as belonging to a social process, rather than as the embodiment of the metaphysical principle that Nietzsche’s conception involved. Seaford reacts against the Nietzschean conception of Dionysus as a manifestation of disorder and destruction, and he regards this God as a promoter of the socio-cultural unity of the polis. According to this author, tragedy and the tragic festival had the function of helping the polis to eliminate the never-ending family vendettas, replacing the loyalty to autonomous households with the loyalty to the polis.

In order to exemplify his theory, Seaford points out how in the Bacchae Dionysus is presented as a God that, after making the royal family destroy itself because it had previously denied his cult, helps the polis in the foundation of a new hero cult in which all the citizens participate. According to Seaford, this collective participation in lament helped to transfer the emotions of a private death ritual to a collective one. Therefore, Dionysus is seen as the deity which presides over the process of the private household (oikia) destruction in benefit of the city (polis) formation and strength, and that is the reason why this scholar thinks that such God has a prominent role in tragedy. Richard Seaford has put ritual in a central point in order to understand tragedy, and that might ponder the prejudices against the ‘excesses of the Cambridge school’, which had been accused of oversimplification. Referring to the debate on Dionysus I would say that the origins of a phenomenon don’t necessarily explain its essence. Both Goldhill and Seaford see tragedy from a concrete and historical perspective, which is very illuminating if we only want to understand tragedy in the V th century BC, but doesn’t help much in order to see this genre as a whole and without the context being the principal reference for the definition.

In a more psychologically based perspective there is Christopher Gill’s approach[60] to tragedy, which is settled on the clarification of the sense of the terms ‘personality’ and ‘self’. In order to do that, this author differentiates the Greek model of personality, based on the ‘objective participant’, from the modern ‘subjective’ and ‘individualistic’ conceptions of personality related to philosophers like Descartes or Kant. Gill follows and discusses an intellectual tradition that has its roots in Hegel, and which in the XX th century was retaken by Bruno Snell[61] and Arthur Adkins.

According to Gill, the essential feature of tragedy is the fact that it is centred on problematic figures who commit acts that we would normally condemn but which, in tragedy, we see as justified and emanating certain human power. The character’s appeal to underlying principles, like Ajax and Medea, is what justifies their actions. We see them as heroes instead of bizarre people because they stick to their principles until the end, principles of justification that, according to Gill, wouldn’t go very far in a court of law. This scholar is aware that the idea that each author can have of tragedy depends in great measure on the tragedy that is chosen as example of the theory it may fit in and represent. As an example of that, we find Hegel’s conflict between the State and the individual, taking Antigone as example, also Aristotle’s choosing of Oedipus Rex as the paradigm of tragedy, or Seaford’s use of the Bacchae as the paradigmatic example from where to build his theory. However, not all tragedies can be taken as a reference to build a whole theory around them, since some of them mainly focus on everyday matters, as it would be sexual jealousy in the case of The women of Trachis, or uncorresponded friendship in the case of Philoctetes.

The ‘French School’ structuralism, which has already been referred above, was influenced by the thought of Claude Levy-Strauss and combines linguistic and anthropological methods in order to go under the surface of the texts. Its most important representative in Classical Studies is Jean-Pierre Vernant, who, along with Pierre Vidal-Naquet[62], considers tragedy as a system of tensions and oppositions framed in the constantly changing and developing Athenian society of the V th century BC, when the mythological tradition was faced up to the political and legal new structure of the polis that would culminate in Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought. Vernant and Vidal-Naquet do not only consider tragedy from sociology of literature or historical anthropology, they try not to reduce tragedy to a number of social conditions, but to show it in all its dimensions, as a phenomenon that is aesthetic, social and psychological at the same time.

Vernant follows Nietzsche as he raises the question of why tragedy is such a unique characteristic of Ancient Greece and why did it disappear so rapidly, leaving its place to philosophy, a discipline that tried to solve instead of face the contradictions on which tragedy was constructed. According to Vernant, tragedy is problematic because it questions as well as embodies the normative codes, and it may either deny, justify or redefine the existing values. In this sense Vernant approaches the controversy around the Dionysiac nature of Greek tragedy and he suggests that the tragic hero is Dionysiac because of its ‘otherness’, because of its belonging to a lost world ‘that no longer exists’. And not only that, but also because of the typically tragic blurring of boundaries between illusion and reality that weaken the sense of identity and self-assurance as well as the social and political structures of the polis. This author considers the dual relationship that tragedy had with the myth, in which ‘the tragic hero, the king, and the tyrant, certainly still appear committed to the heroic and mythical tradition, but the solution escapes them’[63]. Such solution is never provided by the hero on his own and it always expresses the triumph of the collective values imposed by the new democratic city-state.

Although much of the contemporary scholarship has the pretension of some kind of historical and social objectivity, I agree with Kierkegaard and think that, whether it is regarded as a tool for political unity or as the evolution of a Dionysiac ritual, tragedy is always based on contradiction. The contradiction between the finite, that is, the individual, and the infinite, that is, a reality that transcends him, may it be the polis, the gods, or the moral law. Even though this is a very broad definition, it essentially represents almost all the conceptions presented up to here.

1.5 The essence of ‘pure’ tragedy

After looking at some representative approaches and definitions of tragedy of the last centuries, as well as contemporary, it may be appropriate now to present some kind of purposefully conceived overarching idea of tragedy. George Steiner believes that, despite the numerous commentaries on the tragic genre, a ‘rigorous definition seems as elusive as ever’[64], and in order to emend that, he puts forward an ideal of tragedy in ‘pure’ and absolute terms. According to him, tragedy is a world-view which is represented by the adage attributed to Theognis that goes like: ‘It is best not to be born, next best to die young’. This means that our lives are, ontologically and existentially, an affliction, and it implies that ‘the engendering of children, the willed continuation of human beings is folly or deliberate cruelty’[65]. From this point of view we might deduct that suicide is both logical and advantageous, and this would be one of the reasons why ‘pure’ tragedy has been performed so barely that it could be compared to a ‘black hole’ in the difficulty to locate it and its helpless disintegration. But Steiner also reminds us that we don’t really know much about the psychological effects that the Classic drama achieved, and that we have no real idea of what the satyr-play meant, pointing out that it could have been a kind of relativizer of the tragic spectacle.

If we take them as how they have survived, some Greek tragedies ‘approach the absolute despair, the nihilism in respect of hope’[66]. Examples of that are Oedipus Tyrannus, Antigone or the Bacchae, but Steiner doesn’t stop there and continues following the tragic clue in the Western tradition stopping first at Shakespeare and pointing out that, although Timon of Athens is pure tragedy, this author is mainly tragicomic because ‘he knows overwhelmingly, that the facts of the world are hybrid, that desolation and joy, destruction and generation are simultaneous. The sum of the extant is never in one key, it is never one thing only’[67]. But, according to Steiner, the master in writing absolute tragedies was Racine, whose Jansenist influence allowed him to conceive a world in which Christ suffers in agony until the end of time, showing the great ability of bringing the universe to a single point of compaction in which we experience a moment of total loss and disaster, a moment in which Taplin’s chiaroscuro would become total darkness. Steiner considers that the finale of Bérénice is the last moment of truth in Western tragedy, and after that only Buchner’s Wozzeck, some moments in Dostoevsky, Conrad or Kafka, and the XX th century’s opera have come close to ‘pure’ tragedy again.

Steiner also takes into consideration the fact that Modernity and Textuality may have made us be alerted that ‘pure’ tragedies, as hopeless representations, contradict themselves just by the mere circumstance of existing. He asks questions such as: ‘Why should we expend fantastically artful poetry on life-denying horror, on Agave holding aloft the bloody head of her own son?’[68] or ‘Why does human sensibility, in its creative and analytic motions, find the tragic to be more elevated, more fascinating, more conductive to major aesthetic forms and metaphysical suggestion, than it does the comic? … Why is it that something in us feels good when we report disaster?’[69] And he answers it arguing that, by the only fact of having existed and survived through the centuries, it means that tragedy also has positive values like formal beauty, innovation and repeatability. ‘In some ways, it cheats’[70] declares Steiner.

Referring to the question if there will be anymore pure tragedy, Steiner shows skepticism and considers that it usually evolves from ‘a context of felt, or challenged, religious beliefs. The mythological matter of the tragic draws on the dynamics of the supernatural. No Hamlet without its Ghost; no Macbeth without Witches; no Phèdre outside the vengeful reach of an afterlife’[71]. And such external uncontrollable forces forge the essence of the tragic hero’s character too; his defeat against the superior force of destiny (die Ubermacht des Schickals), even when the guilt of such defeat is arranged by fate, ‘crystallizes his freedom, his lucid compulsion to act controversially, which determines the substance of the self’[72]. Therefore, since according to George Steiner, tragedy is tied to a metaphysics of divine enmity to humans that disappeared after the second half of XVIII century, it is difficult to imagine that there can be any agnostic secular tragedy. Because of science and technique, Modernity is in essence agnostic, there is no-one coming down to punish us if we do things wrong, and such loneliness of mankind in a practical and demytholized world is what difficults the appearance of tragedy. We may have kitsch myths such as Harry Potter or The Simpsons, substitute infantile mythologies, but they don’t have enough magnitude to be taken seriously, and people who can go on by their own means creating their personal serious mythologies are very few. According to Steiner, in nowadays mass-market society, in such a context of scientific and social positivism (sometimes even deterministic in terms of human freedom) where the citizens regard the ‘question of the existence of God… as archaic nonsense’[73], it is difficult to expect the flourishing of ‘pure’ and absolute tragedy anymore.

1.6 Is tragedy still possible?

In order to consider the actual situation of tragedy it may be helpful to look at a very recent and eclectic approach that will contribute to the polychromatic painting of tragedy that has progressively been drawn up to now. In his book The silence of tragedy[74], published in 2007, Stefan Hertmans refers to Steiner’s thesis in The death of tragedy[75] according to which tragedy practically disappeared after the French Revolution because of the optimism for the technological progress, the Romantic eagerness for sovereignty and the Christian liberation, among others reasons. But Hertmans points out that Steiner forgot to consider irony as one of the main causes that explain the death or silence of tragedy: ‘Tragedies are not possible anymore because our reasoning has changed from sacred to ironic: we can make things relative, we consider an event tragic as an evolution of which men are guilty, not as a superior fatality. We think horizontally and by causal effect, not vertically and sacredly. We firmly believe in the relativity of truth; such is our antisacral sacrality’[76]. The ‘tragic man’ lived in a closed world full of laws he didn’t understand (not a relative one) where the forces operating in it surpassed him, whereas the ‘modern man’ is bound to his autonomy, he decides for himself and tends to see the world from a relativistic perspective.

The Ancient Greeks, who recognized their limitations, paradoxically lived in a much more ilimited world than the modern man, who has filled the cosmos with the scientifico-techincal knowledge. In the modern world there is no space left for the tragic conscience. In our untragic times ‘there is no external objectivity anymore, as it existed in the mythical age. Everything has turned into internal subjective world, mankind is confronted against its own limits, not in a mythical unachievable universe. This hostile universe will be called from now on… Self. Where there used to be gods, now there is an unknown Other; the matter is if this doesn’t imply a greater cruelty for mankind. In any case, everything is more solitary and unforgivable, but this doesn’t look like raw material for tragedies of cosmic dimensions anymore’[77]. The contemporary subject-writer can feel ironic and self-confident, but he cannot find any place for universal sorrow because the space seems to have lost the capacity of echoing. According to Hertmans, he is not able to know himself anymore and ‘in this claustrophobic fight he must confess that it would be better if the enemy existed outside himself, because this would oxygenate the conflict… Such implosion of the scene has made the external chorus deaf-mute. There isn’t exteriority anymore, no place out of us where to mourn for the tragedies of our time’[78]. This author thinks that if an Ancient Greek could travel in time and see our circumstance today he would see us as ‘robotic’ and ‘over codified’ people locked up in ourselves, people without chorus, ‘without the great irony of the conflict between gods and men’[79] and, because of this, living in a nightmarish reality.

However, and despite his analysis of the actual situation of tragedy in particular and mankind in general is not very encouraging, Hertmans thinks that Steiner too often falls in the melancholic trap of considering that any past time was better than today. He prefers to think that we shouldn’t consider tragedy dead, but that our attitude towards it should be that of a constant searching without finding. In my opinion, I believe that George Steiner and Stefan Hertmans have a lot in common regarding the diagnosis of the problem, but they differ when it comes to find a solution. The world lacked of divine power, and the universe lacked of any kind of magic that Modernity has brought about, can either be faced with dignity and wait for a miracle to come (that might ironically happen), or simply accept these circumstance and sadly resign ourselves to the reality in which we have been born. Ironically again, the possibility of having tragedy depends on faith, but it seems like faith must have disappeared with God, and the only faith we can have now is the faith on having faith. The Catalan say that goes: ‘While there is life, there is hope’ becomes a paradoxical: ‘While there is hope, there is hope’, and it looks like we can only have faith if we are almost blind.

1.7 As a mode of conclusion

I have tried to highlight the most important features of tragedy in order to create a general image that would be impossible to describe in a few sentences, but such a one that, after looking at it, as it happens after having seen a few members of a particular family, could enable us to tell who belongs to it and who doesn’t. After having stated and explained some of the family resemblances of the tragic family, and having also drawn a sketch of the father’s image, it would be senseless if I tried to give one single definition of this genre and thought it was right.

Referring to the different approaches I have chosen, it is easy to see that Wright’s and Steiner’s are nearly opposites, although both are useful in order to create an overall image of the genre; as well as Silk’s idea of tragedy through the definition of comedy, which, according to him, seems to be much more clear than we may think after reading Wright’s and Steiner’s texts. But if we took Fowler’s idea that every literary work changes the genre it relates to’[80], we could hardly ever say anything about genres (except this very same affirmation), and that is why the second Wittgenstein’s family resemblances are so useful here.

Apart from these family resemblances that may create a quite vague idea, as I have already pointed out following Kierkegaard, tragedy is about conflict and contradiction. It is the dramatic representation of irresolubable problems between the individual (finite) and a rather hostile environment, an incomprehensibly indifferent reality that may or may not have a meaning, but that is somehow enchanted (infinite). As Steiner and Hertmans show us, as soon as the world loses its overwhelming dimension, tragedy becomes unconceivable. Although the tragic conflict usually arises from the contraposition of two different finite individual realities, such as Medea’s and Jason’s, for example, the infinite dimension there is the incapacity of making these two realities match and work together. That is why tragedy is settled on paradox, because it faces unsolvable problems that seem to be an integral part of human nature.

In terms of literary natural selection, I would like to follow Steiner and say that tragedy cheats, indeed, but in an ironic sense. I consider that tragedy is healing in the sense that it shows us how disastrous the world can be (provably how disastrous it intrinsically is) and how lucky we are just by not having the problems we see in the plays. But at the same time it prepares us for the worst, and, by doing that, it lets us release our anxiety (in the Aristotelian way) showing that the world is uncertain, and from this ironic distance it invites us to enjoy our lives while we can, but to be prepared for suffering if it comes, because it does come, and it can be extreme. This may be one of the reasons that would answer Steiner’s fake surprise by the fact that tragedy has been able to adapt and survive throughout history.

However, after all, tragedy is better understood when it is experienced, a reason why the second part of this work may be of great help to contrast and clarify some of the ideas presented in this first part.


In order to integrate the first with the second part of this dissertation it could have been appropriate to look at some literature on reception, such as Lorna Hardwick’s Reception Studies[81] or Gideon Nisbet’s Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture[82]. But since the film that will be taken as a reference to compare with tragedy is not an adaptation of an ancient piece, I believe that it will be more illuminating to follow Aristotle’s Poetics with the aim of findingshared patterns between Ancient drama and contemporary cinema[83]. Since Aristotle has only been referred in a few occasions in the first part, and considering that his analysis of tragedy is probably the most influential that has been produced, it deserves a particular study.

Aristotle considered that tragedy was the pattern of any genre, and certainly, its sequential structure, the system of acts and parts, the dramatic resources such as recognition, pity, fear, irony or suspense have remained throughout history as a model for theatre, opera and cinema, which have used them in order to provoke the reaction of the crowd. An evidence of this process of contaminatio in cinema is the fact that, having red or not the Poetics, Alfred Hitchcock declared that he preferred the realistic to the real, or even Woody Allen once asked: ‘Why should we spoil a good story telling the truth?’[84].

Many of the approaches to theoretical scriptwriting owe a big deal of their content to the Classical tradition, although many of these theorists have never studied Aristotle. The influential professor Irwin Blacker is one of the exceptions, since he considers the Poetics as ‘the first and provably the best study of a dramatic work and how it is constructed… its core part is conformed by indispensable ideas for any dramatist or scriptwriter nowadays’[85]. Blacker insists, as does Aristotle, on the principle of causality that leads to consider the drama as a whole, whereas the episodical (without a causality chain from the beginning to the end) is not as beautiful[86]. He also talks about flashback, discovery, recognition, surprise, epiphany, time, place and style unity, the problem of realism, and directly referring to Aristotle, he analyses the relationship between character and plot, as well as the dialogs[87].

The other great master of contemporary scriptwriters, Syd Field[88], doesn’t reveal the sources of his knowledge. Although it could be based only on his own observations, it has a lot of shared characteristics with the Poetics. Field is only interested in the pragmatic industry of his job, but he seems to have assimilated the tradition in a passive way, as by contaminatio. He says: ‘Start with your plot. When you think about a plot, think about the action and the character’, and after that he declares that ‘action’ means ‘character’[89]. This is exactly what Aristotle says in chapter VI of the Poetics, it is the action, and not the dialog, what must define the character’s personality. Although Field never refers directly to Aristotle, his didactical work seems to gather a heritage of knowledge, a kind of common doctrine, among all the Hollywood scriptwriters that somehow share the Poetics as the primary source of their scripts.

The producers of the cinematographic industry usually look for structural classicism as a guarantee of the acceptance of the film by the audience. According to Aristotle the mimesis proportionates pleasure to the crowd (chapter IV) and therefore, if the spectator enjoys himself, it means that the mimesis is accurate. The scriptwriters must then distinguish what is going to be resolved by narration (diegesis) and what by representation (mimesis). If this mimesis represents better people, we talk about tragedy, if it represents worse people, we are referring to comedy (chapter VI). The superiority or inferiority of people is a concept that changes depending on the historical period, the place and the context, it could be either the triumphant American class, as in Welles’ Citizen Kane, or the proletarian class, as in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

According to Aristotle, tragedy is characterized by seriousness and dignity, and usually involves a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune (peripeteia). This definition can include a change of fortune from bad to good, as in the Eumenides, but he says that the change from good to bad, as in Oedipus Rex, is preferable because it is more efficient in provoking the catharsis of emotions such as pity and fear. This reversal of fortune should be caused by the tragic hero’s hamartia (mistake), although the some contemporary heroes have a kind of moral relativity that sometimes enables the crafty cynic ones to defy and win the gangsters. However, in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the protagonist finally disregards any kind of Aristotelian dignity or moral category.

Referring to the use of words for dramatic purposes, although Aristotle considers them a good resource for poets (chapter I), he thinks that playwrights must combine them with other forms of mimesis (chapter III). The dialogs must be according to the actions and thoughts of the characters (chapter XVI), though neither in the Poetics, nor in Hollywood, dialog is considered the best means to show a discovery. If the scriptwriters had read this advice in the chapter XVI of Poetics, the history of cinema would have avoided lines like: ‘-Careful! He’s got a gun!’. But despite the elocution has made many films worse, it is also true that most of the cinematographic masterpieces have used the highlighting effect of words. Thoughts are best expressed through language, because its capacity to transmit mental processing is hardly ever eligible to be substituted by any kind of image.

As it has been exemplified here, there are many parallelisms between Aristotle’s Poetics and contemporary cinema. Also Woody Allen’s films have some of the elements that can be found in Aristotle’s work, and particularly Crimes and Misedemeanors has its moment of hamartia and the consequent anagnorisis, among other features described in the Poetics. But above all, the characters of this film show who they are through their actions, and not their words, not even their intentions. Such relations between Allen’s films, and the conceptualization Aristotle did of tragedy, will be further studied in the following part of this work.

Part 2

2.The essence of tragedy in Crimes & Misdemeanors.

Woody Allen is probably one of the greatest cinema directors of all times, and he could somehow be compared to one of those playwrights from the V th century BC who worked in a trilogy during the whole year and represented it at the Great Dionysia. New York is the cultural and financial capital of the world, as Athens used to be in its splendorous period, and the expectation created every year by the Academy Awards could also be compared with the prizes that the best plays and performers obtained in Ancient Greece. But the analysis that follows is not mend to find the historical or cultural parallelisms between the contemporary world and Sophocles’ Athens, although I think they do exist in great number. In this second part of the dissertation I will use Allen’s scripts as a contemporary reference for the elucidation of what the term ‘tragedy’ means, taking into consideration some of the theoretical work developed in the first part. As an introduction to the American director and his existential relationship with tragedy, indirectly referring to his own life, the dialogue between the different narrators of Melinda & Melinda is particularly illuminating:

A (writer of comedies): ‘The essence of life isn’t comic. It’s tragic. I mean, there’s nothing intrinsically funny about the terrible facts of human existence’. B (writer of tragedies): ‘No, I disagree. Philosophers call it absurd because, in the end, all you can do is laugh. Human aspirations are so ludicrous and irrational. I mean, if the underlying reality of our being was tragic, my plays would make more than yours because my stories would resonate more profoundly in the human soul’. A: ’I mean, it’s exactly because tragedy hits on the truly painful essence of life that people run to my comedies to escape… I mean, tragedy confronts. Comedy escapes’[90].

But although the question is frontally faced, in this film Woody Allen fluctuates, and he is not totally convinced of whether the ‘essence’ of life is tragic or comic. This is why he creates an impartial speaker C and also a speaker D, who will create a story and discuss if it is a comedy or a tragedy. Speaker C accuses him of creating a romantic comedy and points out the tragic implications of the protagonist’s behaviour, coming up with a second Melinda that will be the protagonist of a tragic story. It seems then that the fortune or misfortune of both Melindas depends on whether the understanding of reality is tragic or comic.

At the end of the film, speaker C takes a sophistic perspective in order to answer the question that brought both speakers to come up with Melinda’s story: ‘So, you see, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. We hear a little story, a few hearsay details. Right? You mould them into a tragic tale: a woman’s weakness for romance is her undoing. And that’s how you see life. Whereas you, you take those details, you put them into an amusing romance. Great. That’s your take on life. But, obviously, there is no one definitive essence that can be pinned down’.

But despite the relativistic vision of speaker C, Woody Allen gives the final word to speaker A, who puts and end to the discussion they’ve had: ‘Well, moments of humour do exist. I exploit them. But, you know, they exist within a tragic overall framework… Let’s drink to good times. Comic or tragic the most important thing is to enjoy life while you can, because we only go around once, and when it’s over, it’s over. And, perfect cardiogram or not, when you least expect it, it could end like that’.

Melinda & Melinda (2004) was shot many years after Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), but just one year before Match Point (2005), and it is made plain that Woody Allen has deep insights on the question concerning the nature of tragedy and the essence of human existence. However, although it may seem that in Match Point, and also in Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Woody Allen accepts the utterly tragic essence of life and loses any kind of hope, he may be just be trying to remind us that we ‘only go around once’, and that we should be extremely careful with the consequences of any decision we take, and give value to what we have, because we could lose it at any moment.

2.1 Starting from the end: the plot

Judah: ‘I have a great murder story… Let’s say there’s this man who’s very successful. He has everything. And after the awful deed he has done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up. He… hears his father’s voice. He… imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and… he’s violated it. Now he’s panic stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse, an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then, one morning, he awakens and then the sun is shining and his family is around him and mysteriously the crisis has lifted. … Clifford: ‘Yes, but can he ever really go back?’ J: ‘Well… People carry sins around with them. Maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, but it passes. And, with time, it all fades… Well, I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I?’ C: ‘I don’t know. It’d be tough for somebody to live with that. Very few guys could actually live with that on their conscience’. J: ‘People carry awful deeds around them. What do you expect him to do? Turn himself in? I mean, this is reality. In reality, we rationalise, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living’. C: ‘Here’s what I would do. I would have him turn himself in. Cos then, you see, your story assumes tragic proportions, because in the absence of God, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy’. J: ‘But that’s fiction. That’s movies. You see too many movies. I’m talkin’ about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie’[91].

This passage belongs to the end of the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and in it Woody Allen ironically presents the protagonist confessing his own crimes in a covert way, as if he was still incredulously confirming that he hasn’t received the punishment he would deserve if he lived in a just world. Far from hesitating because of Clifford’s questions, Judah stands by what he has done and even pretends to preach his cynical conception of reality to him. This dialog is the culmination of the chain of events that have brought both characters together in front of a piano, and it epitomizes the untragic condition of contemporary humankind[92]. Whereas Judah has accepted his new condition of untragic man, Clifford still believes in the Greek moral paradigm which is both tragic and ethical at the same time. When he points out that he would have the criminal turn himself in[93] and that, because of this action, the story would ‘assume tragic proportions’, Clifford is following the Aristotelian pattern of the purification of emotions such as pity and fear. According to it, far from avoiding tragedy, we must share the hero’s destiny, suffer with him, assume his personal responsibilities, and through this process achieve purification.

But Judah is not a tragic hero, and it is obvious that Clifford and him are talking at different levels. Judah suddenly interrupts Clifford in order to remind him that he is talking about reality (his reality), and that in reality ‘we rationalise, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living’. Clifford instead, is still in fiction, this fiction that can help us purify our emotions through the cathartic process. Both of them have sinned, Judah has committed crimes, Clifford misdemeanors, and we could consider that the first one has gone so far that the only way of overcoming his guilt would be to go beyond good and evil[94]. But the path that led Judah to such a relativistic moral position wasn’t an easy one. He certainly had his moment of anagnorisis, when suddenly stopped seeing an empty universe, but a ‘just and moral one’, and realized that he had violated it. The extremely positivistic and relativistic position that helps a man of science like Judah to overcome this situation is the same one that Allen presents in his film Annie Hall when a young red-haired Woody goes to the psychologist in order to treat a depression caused by something he had red: ‘The universe is expanding… The universe is everything, and if it is expanding, some day it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything’[95]. A universe like this is the same one that Stefan Hertmans considers unable to echo the moral word of tragedy, the same one that has made the tragic chorus deaf-mute and has led tragedy to its actual silence. It is a kind of universe that, in a metaphorical way, makes the contemporary man ‘laugh bittersweet as he sees that Antigone can curse on the stars whilst he can only curse on Star Wars’[96].

However, despite his work tends towards a kind of cynical hyper-positivistic scepticism, Woody Allen is definitely concerned with ethical indifference. He considers that, even though a religious person might act morally because in his spiritual world order there is a compensation for doing so (paradise), an atheist has even more merits if he acts morally, since he doesn’t do it for a possible redemption or salvation, but just because of firm ethical convictions[97]. Such attitude would represent what many tragic heroes do when they act motivated by the blind faith they have in their principles, even when they react against a higher power, just as Sophocles’ Antigone or Goethe’s Prometheus do.

In reference to the tragic problematic surrounding the emptiness of the universe and its lack of any kind of moral structure, Immanuel Kant’s epitaph is particularly illuminating: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’. These were the words that the main figure of the German Enlightenment left to humanity in his grave, and they match to perfection with tragedy conceived as a genre that requires an overwhelming and not demystified universe in which the existence of a moral law is still possible. However, Kant’s rational approach to morality[98] as a universal law that can be shared by any person, and his permanent rational awareness of the human limits, is far from the tragic morality, which works individually and clashes with other people’s principles that can have the same value though not being rational[99]. Tragedy is, again, in this respect, more overwhelming, more strange, utterly aware of the opposite extremes, and still able of overarching them.

2.2 The role of God

Clifford understands that in the absence of God we must assume the responsibility ourselves, and that such responsibility is the cornerstone of tragedy. He assumes that God doesn’t exist, or that he just doesn’t care about humans, but the conception of God displayed in Crimes and Misdemeanors is that of a divine power who takes part, who eventually punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. As Sol, Judah’s father, says during the flashback of his childhood’s house living-room:

Sol: ‘The eyes of God see all. Listen to me Judah. There is absolutely nothing that escapes his sight. He sees the righteous and he sees the wicked. And the righteous will be rewarded, but the wicked will be punished for eternity’.

Woody Allen and Judah Rosenthal share a Jewish traditional background, but also in Ancient Greek culture we could find this image of an almighty God that controls and sees everything[100]. However, in tragedy the divinity is often presented as passive, harmful or even absent[101], and such is the condition that Goethe highlighted as the romantic essence of tragedy, the resistance and dignity of the weak against a despotic higher power. But, as professor Levi’s words show, the Jewish culture is unique because of its special relationship with God:

Professor Levi: ‘The unique thing that happened to the early Israelites was that they conceived a God that cares. He cares but, at the same time, he also demands that you behave morally. But here comes the paradox. What’s the first thing that God asks? That God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, his beloved son, to him. In other words: in spite of millennia of efforts, we have not succeeded to create a really and entirely loving image of God. This was beyond our capacity to imagine’.

After all, the Jewish God is practically the same as the Greek gods, despotic and unpredictable, but the difference may be that, whereas tragedy faces injustice with dignity, the Torah just accepts God’s will whether it is just or grossly unjustified. In reference to the differences between the Jewish tradition and Ancient Greek culture it is particularly interesting to understand the difference between how Kierkegaard sees the figure of Abraham as an opposite to how the figure of Antigone is presented by Hegel. Abraham detaches himself from his land and his relatives, even from nature. His monotheism means alienation, since he is blindly accepting orders that are entirely external to himself and have inaccessible moral and rational imperatives, whereas Antigone is always aware of the law she is being faithful to, and she contemplates it with widely open eyes. The abandonment of the most intimate part of man in order to embrace some kind of external and mysterious transcendence is therefore an important feature of the Jewish tradition. From this perspective, Judaism is, according to Steiner, ‘the antithesis of the Greek ideal of harmony with life. Especially Abraham’s concept of destiny is antithetical to the concept the Ancient Greeks had of it. It is a destiny that implies the pathos of the sterile alienation, not the essential fertility of tragedy. It is because of this that the Jewish sensibility, with its millenary immersion in suffering, doesn’t produce tragic dramas’[102]. On the other hand, Antigone follows the principles she is made of, principles that she can contrast with others, that are obvious for her and can be shared by other people that also participate from the conflict she is involved in.

However, Judaism is aware that God’s actions may look misleading without blind faith, as it is said in the Ecclesiastes: ‘Because sentence against evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil… There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous’ (Ecclesiastes 8. 11, 14).In any case, as Saint Thomas would recommend us, maybe we should separate faith from reason and not try to understand divinity in rational terms. Thus, it would be misleading to try to elucidate the differences between the Jewish God and the tragic gods, since they both share the unintelligibility and arbitrariness that can bring about the tragic conflict. However, as Steiner points out, we should not forget that the attitude of the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Israelites in front of such circumstance is totally different: one is fertile and the other is sterile. The possibility that a just God and a moral structure may exist is as part of tragedy as it is of life, and before challenging morality, before any kind of anagnorisis, there must be a platonic reference of what is good and perfect, and that is what Woody Allen does when he confronts Judah with the words of the rabbi Ben:

Ben: ‘It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it harsh and empty of values and pitiless, and I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power. Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live… Without law it’s all darkness’.

But Judah is only concerned with his external image, and since he declares in front of a whole auditorium that he is ‘a man of science’ and that he has ‘always been a skeptic’, there is no place for a moral law in his soul[103]. As E. R. Dodds pointed out[104], there are shame cultures and guilt cultures, being shame an instrument of social coertion in the Heroic world. In his view, the Homeric man doesn’t wish to have a clear conscience, but to enjoy honour (time) and obtain the respect of the public opinion (aidos).The moral force that works on the Homeric man is not God, but the public aidos, and that would be the same force that works on Judah, a force that can be physically experienced.

Mankind projects its notion of social justice to the cosmos, and this demand comes back as an amplified voice that ensures punishment for those who are guilty. This is, according to Dodds[105], what helps men to find ‘courage and security’. The question whether there is absolutely no reason for unjustice was also considered by Solon, who gave an explanation for the pain that is suffered by innocents in terms of nemesis that punishes the non-responsible (anaitioi) because of the hereditary crimes committed in previous lives (Solon, 13.31)[106]. But on the other hand, Theognis regretted that the world is so unjust that the criminal can get away with his crimes while someone else can receive the punishment that the first one deserved later on (Theognis, 731-742). This is exactly what happens in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, where the crimes committed by the protagonist are attributed to someone else who will pay for them. Therefore, either inspired by Theognis or by Dostoevsky, Woody Allen is echoing moral issues that seem to be an immortal part of the human spirit.

Dodds considers that a guilt culture needs some kind of supernatural or transcendent security, and that, while Ancient Greece didn’t have any Bible or church, Apollo in Delphos was indispensable. The divine envy (phthonos) and the pollution (miasma), which contributed to human insecurity, would have been unbearable without the feeling that there was some kind of purpose behind the chaos that seemed to reign in reality. Apollo understood the rules of the complicated game that gods played with humanity, and because of that, he was able to give signs in order to help avoiding evil[107], an oracular dimension of reality that today could only be compared with light substitutes such as Tarot or Astrology.

Referring to morality, the Ancient doctrine of reincarnation could be considered the most just, since according to it, none of the human souls was innocent and, at the end of times, there would be a perfect balance between the crimes and the punishment. In this sense, the post-mortem punishment wasn’t so satisfactory, since it didn’t give a reason for the undeserved suffering of the innocent. Pythagorism was the main representative of the reincarnation doctrine, and because of this, it contributed to see the human body as a jail, and pleasure as ‘bad under any circumstance; because we came here in order to be punished, and we should be punished’[108]. But apart from that, the orphic tradition had a mythological explanation for the origins of the suffering soul in a mortal body: the Titans caught the child Dionysus in a trap, they chopped him, they cooked him, they ate him and they were immediately destroyed by the thunder of Zeus. From their smoke and their ashes, the human race was created, having inherited the horrible characteristics of the Titans, but at the same time a little bit of divine substance from the God Dionysus, which would compensate the negative part of the Titans. As Dodds considers, with this myth ancient Puritanism has its doctrine about the Original Sin, and this is an answer that explains why men can feel both like a God and a criminal at the same time[109]. Such is a mythical explanation of what Freud tried to systematise during the XX th century, and that is what the most psychoanalysed cinema director is trying to incarnate in Crimes and Misdemeanors too. It is like if Judah didn’t want to do what he finally does, being himself surprised by his profound wickedness. As if he created antibodies, his lethargic morality (Super Ego, divine part) suddenly awakens and tries to fight the total lack of morality (Id, titanic part). The appearance of the father can be seen as a psychoanalytic figure that introduces his moral authority as a great obstacle to save by the survival instinct that have led Judah to try to maintain his social status at any price.

2.3 The Sophists and their legacy

‘I love New York… And what makes New York such a funny place is that there’s so much tension and pain and misery and craziness here. And that’s the first part of the comedy. But you gotta get some distance from it. The thing to remember about comedy is: If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it’s not funny. So you gotta get back from the pain… They asked me at Harvard… ‘What’s comedy?’… I said ‘Comedy is tragedy plus time’. The night Lincoln was shot, you couldn’t make a joke about it. You just couldn’t. Now, the time has gone by, and now it’s fair game. See what I mean? It’s tragedy plus time… It’s very simple… of Oedipus. Oedipus is funny. That’s the structure of funny, right there. ‘Who did this terrible thing?’. ‘Oh, God, it was me’. That’s funny… Look at those people out there! Those people are lookin’ for something funny in their lives’.

This is how Lester, the TV producer, defends his moral perspectivism and relativism. He turns tragedy into comedy just by adding time and this way taking a new perspective on reality. And he does that because that is what he thinks the audience is looking for, just the same way as the sophists pretended to teach how to talk properly in order to please and convince the audience, regardless of the validity of what was said. It could be considered that this ironic distance from reality is necessary if we want to go on living in an aggressive reality such as New York[110], and many other places of our world, but following Lester’s speech, we run the risk of becoming insensitive if we reach the point where it just doesn’t matter whether reality bends or breaks. It is true that the paradox of associating what is painful with what is funny can work when we take the appropriate distance from reality, but it is extremely dangerous to reach the point where Oedipus is dispossessed of his cathartic capacity of tragic expiation. From Lester’s utterly relativistic speech onwards, the path is prepared for Judah’s immoral acting that finally demonstrates a total lack of tragic personal responsibility.

It looks like Woody Allen doesn’t only take his Jewish background as a reference in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but even more obviously, the Sophistic legacy. As Pau Gilabert says in his article on Woody Allen and the spirit of Greek Tragedy[111]: ‘Judah Rosenthal and his brother dare to laugh at the eyes of a God which sees nothing at all, at the timor Dei of naïve men, and also at Justice, whose bandaged eyes do not seem to indicate her impartiality, but a scandalous indifference towards so many crimes without punishment’[112]. Such disorientation regarding something as important as Justice can only happen during some periods in history when everything is re-examined. It happened at the beginning of the XX th century with the analytical philosophy and also at the V th century BC, when the Sophistic school introduced relativity in different fields, being Protagoras one of its most important representatives: ‘Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things, by which he meant simply that each individual’s impressions are positively true. But if this is so, it follows that the same thing is and is not, and this is bad and good, and that all the other implications of opposite statements are true; because often a given thing seems beautiful to one set of people and ugly to another, and that which seems to each individual is the measure’[113] and also that anyone can take either side on any question and debate it with equal success, so every subject can be debated from either point of view. As if he was applying the Protagorean relativity in his own benefit when he imagines that he is defending himself in front of the rabbi Ben, Judah seems to think that Law is only his personal law, and that this law should only appreciate his merits and not know about those of other people:

Judah: ‘I will not be destroyed by this neurotic woman!’ Ben: ‘Come on, Judah! Without law it’s all darkness!’ J: ‘You sound like my father! What good is law if it prevents me from receiving justice? Is this what I deserve?’.

But obviously, Dolores has another idea of what is fair and what Judah deserves, as it happens in tragedies such as Medea, Antigone or Electra, in which there are different kinds of justice being claimed at once. But apart from justice, Protagoras also referred to the gods, showing his helpless skepticism again: ‘As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life’[114]. This affirmation is in direct relation with Wittgenstein’s last sentence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where, after having attempted to classify which kinds of knowledge can be reached by means of language, he declares that topics like morality or God are out of our capacity of linguistic understanding[115]. But in a more existential perspective Protagoras’ words match with the piece of advice that Judah receives from his brother, reminding him that life is too short to be enclosed in insurmountable questions such as the existence of a moral structure: ‘You only go around once’. Such is the irrevocable reason that will help Judah take the final decision. This nearly cynic hyperrealism can also be appreciated in some of Woody Allen’s aphorisms: ‘I hate reality, but is the only place you get a good steak’ or ‘Not only there is no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends’[116].

But the Sophist revolution didn’t only concern divine law, but also natural and social law. Antiphon, one of the most remarkable sophists along with Protagoras, said that: ‘Justice lies in not transgressing the provisions of the law in the city where one lives as a citizen. So, man will practise justice for his own benefit if, in front of witnesses, he obeys the laws, but when no one can be cited as a witness of his actions, he obeys Nature’s orders. The legal provisions are the result of any agreement’[117]. In this respect there are many examples in Crimes and Misdemeanors that work perfectly well with the idea that what is not perceived by anyone is as if it had not occurred[118]: When Judah receives Dolores’ letter, which was addressed to his wife, he immediately burns it up, so that he can still be seen as a faithful and honourable husband. When Lester is explaining his theories about comedy and tragedy and a pretty girl enters into the room, the camera keeps on shooting, but he gets angry and asks the camera to stop recording his attempt to flirt with that woman. Once Dolores has been murdered, Judah goes to her flat and takes away all the objects that could incriminate him with the murder, so then it is as if their love affair had never existed. In the flashback of the dining room Judah’s auntie points out that if the Nazis had won the II World War they would have eliminated all the evidences of the Holocaust, so that now we would understand history from a very different perspective. And finally, when at the wedding final scene of the film the rabbi Ben asks Judah about the problems they had been talking about, this one answers that everything was solved without the necessity of intervening, and that the woman finally understood the situation and faced it rationally. Judah hides the truth but there is no evidence that can inculpate him, so he is totally free, being only slave of his lax morality, which, as will be shown afterwards, doesn’t really worry him.

Furthermore, Judah doesn’t only get away with his crime, but he even prospers, and he is so lucky that his murder is attributed to a drifter with other crimes in his record, to whom one more doesn’t even make any difference. He keeps stuck to the Protagorean thought that ‘God is a luxury that he can’t afford’, and overcomes the fear of any divine punishment by confirming Antiphon’s principle that Justice lies in not transgressing the law only before witnesses. But finally, in spite of Dolores’ death and all the injustice that surrounds it, in Crimes and Misdemeanors there is still some hope regarding personal responsibility and the tragic paradigm of integrity. Clifford shows this by not taking into account the lesson that Judah is trying to teach him, and also by rejecting to do the kind of documentary he is told to in order to forget his financial difficulties. Although it is finally Lester who conquers the woman Clifford also loves, Woody Allen might be suggesting that, despite his script respects the right of people to behave ethically, one should never forget that many times the final triumph does not accompany them, and they are often unlucky[119]. But this divine indifference or even hostility is, again, one of the main features of tragedy. As Judah’s auntie says: ‘For those who want morality there is morality’. In this respect, I would say that for those who still believe in the possibility of tragedy, there is tragedy. Finally, it all comes down to faith, and, as Judah’s grandmother says: ‘Faith is a gift’. If Clifford had been in Judah’s place there would have been tragedy, because he still has faith in the tragic paradigm that is consistent with the personal principles. But as Steiner pointed out, in today’s crisis of values there are very few individuals who can stick to their own principles.

However, despite the fact that Clifford understands that any crime has to be painfully and tragically expiated, and despite so many unjust circumstances such as Ben’s blindness, Lester’s undeserved success or Dolores’ death, there can still be found surprisingly energetic, hopeful and lucid people like Professor Levi, who ironically ends up committing a paradoxical suicide.

2.4 Irony and metaphor

As many Greek tragedies, Woody Allen’s filmography is full of irony and metaphorical language. In Crimes and Misdemeanors much of the paradoxical and hidden messages are in relation with the eyes and the sense of sight. As it has already been pointed out, Antiphon’s idea of justice based on the senses presides the whole film, and right from the very beginning, Judah defines himself declaring that he is a man of science and that he has always been a skeptic. Being an ophthalmologist, Judah studies the sense that is used in order to perceive reality, and he knows how this reality can change depending on each person’s perspective and her or his particular capacity of perceiving. Judah’s powerful and sharp seeing look, with his penetrating blue eyes and blunt eyebrows[120], contrast with the rabbi’s progressive loss of sight. Judah is blind in terms of faith, he has no moral reference, whereas Ben, although he is going blind, can clearly see a moral structure in reality and therefore maintain his faith in God. In this case a parallelism could be drawn between these two characters, and Oedipus and Tiresias (mutatis mutandis). The great difference is that Ben is as blind and powerless as Justice itself, and that, even though he is firm in his convictions, he doesn’t make Judah change his mind, neither convinces him to reconsider his actions. But the decisive point here is that Oedipus is morally consequent and reacts in front of his sins, whereas Judah’s lack of principles brings him to deny his crime and keep on living as if nothing had happened. But reality is never so simple, and we don’t know what would have happened if Oedipus had discovered his sins in privacy and some time had passed by… Although time is a crucial part of tragedy, if we still want to have faith in Oedipus as the paradigm of tragic expiation, we must be confident that he would have tore out his own eyes anyway.

Referring to the divine power, if Judah’s father is right when he says: ‘The eyes of God see everything’, such God must be either passive[121] or powerless (maybe even bad), because if someone as close to him as a rabbi is getting helplessly and unjustly blind[122] it means that even those who believe in him are totally unprotected. But there are different kinds of sight, and although Judah shows total blindness to perceive any non-physical stimulus, as when he refuses Dolores’ opinion that looking deep in someone’s eyes it is possible to see the soul, right on the moment he is told that his lover is dead his eyes suddenly open to a totally new reality. This new perception of reality (anagnorisis) is full of meaning and intrinsically just and moral, so Judah feels the necessity of washing his face and hands after the phone call because he feels polluted by sin (miasma).

Woody Allen likes to show how misguided men can be believing things that are opposite to reality, and he specially does that with the religious people, as it happens during the whole film again and again with Ben, who reaffirms his naivety when he tells Judah that: ‘Sometimes to have a little good luck is the most brilliant plan’. He blindly believes in his doctor’s[123] version of the events and doesn’t want to go further in the investigation, as he also seems to do with God and the moral structure of reality[124]. The Classical tradition offers us paradigmatic examples of how sometimes it is better just to believe in how things look like, such as those of Oedipus or Psyke, who painfully learned that trying to dig too deep in reality pushed by curiosity could be extremely dangerous and involve huge surprises.

Following Hegel’s vision on tragedy, according to which this genre is mainly conformed by the clash of different ethical perspectives, Crimes and Misdemeanors could also be seen as the story of a clash between Dolores’ ideal of sentimental reciprocity and Judah’s honourable and structured family life. Neither Antigone and Creon, nor Judah and Dolores, can reach a shared point of view because they see reality from different perspectives, and neither Antigone, nor Dolores have the intention of moving an inch from their positions. In this sense, paradox is present in both cases because there is no possible solution to such a complex situation, and ironic distancing cannot solve the conflict because time, as in most of the tragedies, is limited: Antigone must bury her brother and Dolores’ is determined either to live with Judah, or to destroy him as soon as possible. The softening qualities of time that make Lester be so ironical that he even verges on cynism, as he turns tragedies into comedies, is not applicable to most of tragedies. Tragedies unfold in a limited amount of time that encloses the story in a concrete time-space dimension, and this invalidates Lester’s point of view, but at the same time his argument seems paradoxically correct, since if unlimited time is applied to a tragedy as a whole it easily loses its strength.

However, in terms of irony, Match Point is even more powerful than Crimes and Misdemeanors, since its main metaphor is luck, a much more uncontrollable factor than our sense of sight.

2.5 Match Point

Irony and luck are concepts that work close to each other. The Hellenistic tyche, which is the image of a period when the fading of the traditional reference of the polis leads to uncertainty and insecurity, can easily be compared with luck in the contemporary world[125]. In today’s reality, the progressive loss of firm values has favoured the appearance of different philosophies of life (self-help), as it happened in Ancient Greece with Stoicism, Epicureanism or Skepticism, being uncertainty and luck two of the most important elements of such theories. When the rabbi Ben says that ‘sometimes to have little luck is the best plan’ he is advancing and prophesizing exactly what will happen in Match Point[126], where again, a drifter is accused of having committed the crime of the protagonist, and although the investigator ironically works out the real plot, he finally dismisses it because it looks too unrealistic. At the end of this film, when a child is born and good hopes are spoken in his favour, the last words of the scene are:

‘Alec: ‘Here we are. To Terence Elliot Wilton. With parents like Chloe and Chris, this child will be great at anything he sets his mind to’. Tom: ‘You know what? I don’t care if he’s great. I just hope he’s lucky’[127].

In this last dialog Woody Allen is trying to show us the uncertainty of our world and the helpless loss of steady values in which we are living. Tyche is, again, playing a crucial role. The universe has proved to be a rather cold place that appeared in less than a second[128], it is a kind of magic as well as meaningless reality, very close to the opaque idea that Stefan Hertmans has of it: a space that has lost the capacity of echoing. Tragedy can put reality in question, but it still doubts whether such reality will answer its questions. Tragedy doubts, but is not skeptic, it shows the permanent human surprise in front of the strangeness of the world, a world where suffering is unjustified and unjustly distributed. Tragedy, certainly, explores human suffering.

In a dialog where Chris, the protagonist of Match Point, is talking about the importance of hard work in order to achieve one’s personal goals, the conversation culminates with the following words: ‘Oh, hard work is mandatory but I think everybody’s afraid to admit the big part luck plays. I mean, it seems scientists are confirming more and more that all existence is here by blind chance, no purpose, no design’[129]. Fortune (tyche) knows no justice, has no design, no purpose, no telos. But what can we do in front of that? Woody Allen seems to face this question in that same dialogue:

Tom: ‘What was it the vicar used to say? ‘Despair is the path of least resistance’. It was something odd, wasn’t it?’ Chris: ‘I think that faith is the path of least resistance’.

Once again, faith reveals itself as the condition sine qua non for responsibility and tragic magnitude. The protagonist is showing how, having no faith in any moral or religious structure, he is totally open to the relativism that will let him act without principles and overcome his guilt afterwards.

Although Chris acts absolutely amorally (not only against morality, but also without any kind of morality), he is incredibly lucky and gets away with the murder of his lover and the son she is bearing. In this case it seems as if Chris was acting against his will, as if he was pushed by some kind of instinct that forces him to retain the great circumstance of social adaptation that he has achieved. Although after the healing effects of time Judah seems to laugh in front of God, he is almost in the same situation as Chris when he commits his crime, they are both afraid of the return of their wrong doings, but nothing happens. They just have to put up with themselves alone, and this shows the situation of extreme existential isolation and loneliness in which the modern man is living, in contrast with the Ancient Greek world, full of meaning, where the actions had their echo in the forces of the universe and the gods that transcended the individual. The following dialogue, which includes phantoms as in Senecan tragedy, confirms what has been said:

Chris: ‘Nola! It wasn’t easy. But when the time came I could pull the trigger. You never know who your neighbours are till there’s a crisis. You can learn to push the guilt under the rug and go on. You have to. Otherwise it overwhelms you’. Mrs Eastby: ‘And what about me? What about the next-door neighbour? I had no involvement in this awful affair. Is there no problem about me having to die as an innocent bystander?’ C: ‘The innocent sometimes slain to make way for a greater scheme. You were collateral damage’. Mrs E: ‘So was your own child’. C: ‘Sophocles said: ‘To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all’’. N: ‘Prepare to pay the price, Chris. Your actions were clumsy. Full of holes. Almost like someone begging to be found out’. C: ‘It would be fitting if I were apprehended and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice. Some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning’.

Chris has challenged the world order and found out that there was no such order, but he still contains himself from arrogance. Although Nola’s phantom is confident that some kind of Justice will punish him, tragedy is once again avoided by the fact that he doesn’t turn himself in, and he isn’t caught either. The timor dei and the remorse disappear along with the guilt ‘under the rug’. Although, in Steiner’s terms, this has a total tragic dimension that follows Theognis say that goes like: ‘It is best not to be born, next best to die young’, along with Chris’ quote from Sophocles: ‘To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all’. Paradoxically, if that is so, Nietzsche’s influence on Crime and Punishment about the collateral victims that make way for a greater scheme is linked with an utterly pessimistic quote that he would never have submitted, since it is against life and his integral understanding of tragedy. In spite of that, if Chris is seen as Nietzsche’s überman, then any collateral damage could be justified.

In Match Point morality is not related to God anymore, but to the Kantian paradigm of the character’s inner law. Even though Chris didn’t have a Jewish education, he is still pursued by the phantoms of morality that only exist within him, presenting the moral law as the only redoubt of magic and overwhelm remaining in a universe where the starry heaven is nothing more than void and dust[130]. In a similar manner as what happens in Senecan tragedy, gods are partially replaced by phantoms, but this time it happens in a more pagan world where Allen wants to show a glimpse of morality, even if it is only in order to make it fade, just as Taplin’s chiaroscuro.

2.6 Closure

Crimes and Misdemeanors ends with a speech from Professor Levi that culminates in his acceptation of the demystified and untragic circumstance of mankind, but at the same time seems to show some kind of solution that he himself finally rejects:

‘We are all faced throughout our lives with agonising decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale; most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly. Human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation[131]. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more’.

If these future generations include me, I don’t feel I understand more than Woody Allen or the Greek tragedians. We can have scientific progress, neurology, even psychoanalysis, but human nature is still the same: Unable to understand itself[132]. As it has been exposed several times, tragedy deals with immortal conflicts, conflicts that include different visions and interests at the same time, not only between different people, but also within one same person, that is why paradox is an essential part of this genre.

Tragedy represents the spirit of hypersensitive people, hypercritical people who may expect the world to be peaceful and accomplish their expectations of justice and equity, and who are offended with gods when they are mistreated by fate. But, as Judah tells Clifford, reality can be harsh and pitiless, and the natural selection theory confirms this fact: ‘What do you expect him to do? Turn himself in? This is reality…’ The world is indisputably merciless, and, as Schopenhauer would recommend us if we still doubt about that fact, we should ask a zebra when is being eaten by a lion whether there is any kind of justice or even any possibility of happiness. Although, and although again, human beings have the fire of Prometheus, the constantly renewing fire of hope that helps us to blindly go on without any reason. To help us deal with such uncertainty, tragedy is always reminding us that everything can change at any moment, everything can go wrong when we least expect it, and that means that we must keep our tension up. This is why the effect of tragedy can be extremely invigorating.

In reference to the question regarding existential optimism and pessimism, there is a huge difference between people who see the world as if it had been created for humans to live in it, and those who think, along with Professor Levy, that happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. The rabbi Ben belongs to the first type: ‘It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless, and I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel, with all my heart, a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power. Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live’. In this sense Plato is illuminating when, in Laws X, represents the transition of the Classic conception of justice to the Hellenistic conception, declaring that if someone is expecting life to bring him personal happiness this person must remember that the cosmos doesn’t exist because of him, but him because of the cosmos[133]. As it has already been stated above, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period the loss of a positive reference such as the polis encouraged the appearance of a negative explanation of the inexplicable or unforeseeable such as tyche. It has also been pointed out that the loss of values and references of the Hellenistic period is similar to the contemporary spiritual situation of Western culture, with the disintegration of the great political systems, the demystification of the world by science, the religious disorientation, etc. The consequences of that is what Woody Allen shows in Crimes and Misdemeanors, where because of science the protagonist is skeptic, and again in Match Point, where the protagonist gets away with his immoral behaviour just because of pure luck. In the sense that Bernard Williams gives to moral luck[134], both Judah and Chris are plainly guilty, because their intention was bad in both cases. But here I think it would be interesting to introduce a different sense to the concept of moral luck, that is, the kind of fortune that brings any person to the situation in which he has to take a moral decision. Both Chris and Judah are morally unlucky because their lovers don’t accept the situation, and that is what finally makes them commit their crimes. If Dolores and Nola had found a new lover, for example, there would never have been any crime. This is the reason why in Match Point Chris adduces that: ‘You never know who your neighbours are till there’s a crisis’, because depending on luck anyone may be pushed to act immorally or just to keep on going with her or his structured and normal life. Provably both Judah and Chris would have rejected their own actions if they had seen someone doing the same as them[135], but ‘events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly’ that it is impossible to ensure that any life will be morally immaculate from the beginning till the end. And that, once again, seems to depend on luck.

The last image of the film, with the blind rabbi dancing with his daughter, is somehow representing Professor Levi’s message hoping that ‘future generations might understand more’. The rabbi hasn’t understood anything, and the faith on his descendants who may bring about some kind of total understanding is the only thing that could redeem him and the rest of humanity. That is what would happen with the coming of the Jewish Messiah, who would eventually understand everything and decode the world, leaving then the strangeness of tragedy obsolete and deactivated. The strangeness of a world where everything depends on luck, fate or an incomprehensible God’s will, can only be overcome with fiction, with faith on things that don’t actually exist. And here is where Judah’s words find their relationship with faith: ‘If you want a happy ending, go and see a Hollywood movie’. That is the same happy ending as the last proud words spoken by Saint Paul before being beheaded: ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith’. (2 Timothy 4:7). Is Woody Allen’s work tragedy? Ironically, it all seems to depend on faith.


Tragedy focuses on big and, for being obvious, sometimes forgotten questions. As we have seen through the analysis of Woody Allen’s work, these are questions we can’t answer, although we can’t stop asking them either. Tragedy focuses on questions that, in a Kantian manner, encourage a constant awareness of our own limits and of our place on earth.

In the first part of this work I have tried to pursue the concept of tragedy from an academic and theoretical perspective. After trying to understand this genre in its original context (Ancient Greece) and presenting it in as many dimensions as possible, in order to introduce the eventual family resemblances, I have intended to consider the possibility of finding a general and overarching conception of tragedy. That attempt led to identify some of the essential features that characterize tragedy in any context, and from then onwards, the references were settled in order to tackle the fertile comparison and contrast between Allen’s work and tragedy.

In the Intermezzo I tried to pump some oxygen to the highly conceptual first part of this dissertation going through Aristotle’s Poetics and its close relation to cinema. That was mend to work as a connector between the first and the second half of this project, as the instrumental composition (Intermezzo) between the two main acts works in opera.

On the second part I have tried to follow Woody Allen’s scripts in a way that they would inspire thought-provoking questions in relation to the nature and essence of tragedy. I may have tended to consider tragedy in such purity that the specificity of the Greek tragedy in its social and cultural context may have been a bit forgotten, in benefit of a more transhistorical conception of this genre. However, the structuralist idea of the context playing a crucial role in the interpretation of literature has also been represented in the second part, as the contemporary scientific paradigms and the circumstance of the Modern man have frequently been taken into account. But at the end, the holist and universal dimension of tragedy has been more fruitful in the posing and consideration of crucial questions. Therefore, after so many questions without answer, I decided that the best way to finish this work would be with a few more questions and a doubt.

Is the whole existence wrong? It may be. But that would only reaffirm the essence of tragedy, the incomprehensible essential mistake of reality. The world is an exception. The Big Bang was an exception that created the universe in less than a second, and millions of years later some creatures appeared, and as if they were the self-awareness of this universe, asked themselves: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’[1]. Why is there such an exception? And even more: ‘Why are there Greeks rather than nothing?’[2]. Or, just to make it more complicated and closer to paradox: Why is there tragedy rather than nothing? Why is there such an exception, rather than silent, dark and monotonous continuity? I guess that Tragedy epitomizes the essence of reality, since they are both based on the exception and upheld by their own strangeness.



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[1]That is a practical application of how the German logician Gottlob Frege understands the idea of function in his influential essay “Funktion und Begriff” (1891). Frege, G. “Function and Concept” in The Frege Reader. Michael Beaney (Ed.). Oxford. 1997. pp. 130-148

[2] Steiner’s helpless pessimism is represented in this affirmation, which closes his essay Remembering the future, a text in which this author repeats several times that any past time was better than the present, and that our situation nowadays is discouraging in many ways. Steiner, G. Recordar el futur. Trans. into Catalan by Marc Rubió Rodon. Barcelona. 2008. p. 31.

[3] Fowler, A. Kinds of literature. Oxford, 1982.

[4] Wright, M. Euripides’ Escape-Tragedies. A Study of Helen, Andromeda and Iphigenia among the Taurians. Oxford, 2005. In this book the author takes a similar methodology as the one taken in the present work, that is, to try to find a definition of tragedy before considering the tragic legitimacy of three Euripidean Escape-Goat tragedies, which have traditionally been dismissed as real tragedies due to their shared features with comedy, among other reasons.

[5] Taplin, O. “Comedy and the Tragic” in Silk, M. S. (ed.) Tragedy and the Tragic. New York, 1996. 188-202. Although there are many other books and articles that focus on particular elements of Greek comedy and tragedy, I chose this brief and highly condensed text from Oliver Taplin in order to use it as a metaphor of a very pragmatic and contextualized example of the features of Greek tragedy.

[6] Silk, M. S. Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy. New York, 2000. As Matthew Wright does in his book on Euripides’ Escape-Tragedies, this author tries to give a definition of Comedy before tackling the work of Aristophanes, but to do so, he constantly compares it with Tragedy. I will follow Silk’s methodology as a guide to my work, since I will also try to give a generic definition of tragedy before taking into consideration Woody Allen’s work, and from it I will try to make my contribution to the meaning of this genre in the present times.

[7] Vernant, J.-P. And Vidal-Naquet, P. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. New York, 1990.

[8] Gill, C. Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy. New York, 1996.

[9] Steiner, G. “Tragedy, Pure and Simple” in Silk, M. S. (Ed.) Tragedy and the Tragic. New York, 1996. pp. 534-546.

[10] Hertmans, S. El silencio de la tragedia. Trans. into Spanish by Julio Grande. Valencia, 2009.

[11] Fowler, A. p. 23

[12] Silk. M. p. 67

[13] This methodology may not be the only one in order to find a synthetic definition of tragedy, but, as it happens in a cubist painting, the different perspectives of one same object can lead to a rich and polychromatic understanding of the world. I believe that this is a very healthy step to take before any attempt of generalization.

[14] That is how squid is cooked in Catalunya, and it is also how it tastes better. This is expression is also used to show that something is in the most appropriate context, especially in literary references.

[15] The word ‘tragedy’ had been used in different times in Ancient Greece in order to describe different things. The original word was tragoidia, which meant ‘goat song’, coming from tragos (goat) and aeidein (to sing). The two main hypothesis about the goat being the origin of the word are that it might have been the prize in a competition of choral dancing or that a chorus danced around this animal prior to its sacrifice (see Brockett, O. and Hildy, F. History of the Theatre. Boston, 1999. pp. 13-15). The earliest-surviving explanation for the origin of the dramatic art form is found in Aristotle’s Poetics: ‘At any rate it originated in improvisation –both tragedy and comedy. The one tragedy came from the prelude to the dithyramb and the other comedy from the prelude to the phallic songs… Tragedy then gradually evolved as men developed each element that came to light and after going through many changes, it stopped when it had found its own natural form’. (IV, 1449a)

[16] Referring to the question whether the concept of tragedy can be understood as something else than drama see Silk, M. pp. 60-63.

[17] Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. II 86-96.

[18] Wright, M.  p. 15.

[19] The definition of tragedy offered in the Poetics is far too descriptive to be useful: ‘Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, middle part and ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions’ (IV.I)

[20] Steiner, G. 1996.

[21] Wright, M. p. 31

[22] Wright, M. p. 34

[23] Wright, M. p. 40

[24] Vernant, J.-P. and Vidal-Naquet, P. 1990.

[25] Wright, M. p. 40

[26] Seaford offers an incomplete but very succinct definition of tragedy in order to help moving on to a historical understanding: ‘Greek Tragedy is the dramatization of aetiological myth shaped by the vital need to create and sustain the polis’ in Seaford, R. “Something to do with Dionysus” in Silk, M.S. (Ed.) Tragedy and the Tragic. New York, 1996. pp. 284-294

[27] About the structuralist approach and Seaford’s perspective on the question concerning Dionysus see below. Chap. 1.4.

[28] Wright, M. p. 42

[29] Wright, M. p. 42

[30] Taplin, O. 1996

[31] Taplin, O. p. 189

[32] Taplin, O. p. 191

[33] For further information about this topic see: Blundell, M. W. Helping Friends and Harming Enemies. Cambridge, 1989. This work considers the philia relationships in Greek tragedy (particularly in Sophocles) from the idea that conflicts between different characters usually arise from a violation of the Ancient ethical principle that requires to help the friends and to harm the enemies, dismissing any kind of universally shared ethical principle.

[34] Taplin, O. p. 194

[35] Taplin, O. p. 194

[36] Taplin, O. p. 196. As it happens in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, where the ending leaves the audience with the question whether they have or have not seen a Hollywood movie, and whether it was or was not a tragedy.

[37] Taplin, O. p. 199

[38] Wright, M. p. 32

[39] Steiner, G. The Death of Tragedy. Oxford, 1980.

[40] Silk, M. pp. 70-71

[41] Silk, M. p. 80

[42] Baudelaire, C. ‘De l’essence du rire’ (1855): Curiosites esthetiques, Lemaitre, H. (Ed.) Paris. 1962. quot. from Silk, M. p. 44

[43] Silk, M. p. 59

[44] Silk, M. p. 61

[45] Frye, N. A Natural Perspective. New York, 1965. p. 122 quot. from Silk, M. p. 59

[46] Silk, M. p. 93

[47] Though he keeps on referring to tragedy in the rest of his book Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy, 2000.

[48] Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, 1957. p. 13

[49] “Preface to Shakespeare” in Johnson on Shakespeare. W. Raleigh (Ed.), Oxford, 1976. p. 16

[50] Hegel, G. W. F. “Vorlesungen uber die Asthetik” in Samlichte werke. Glockner (Ed.) vol. XIV. Stuttgart, 1927. pp. 567-568

[51] A proof of that is the fact that many of his comments on Antigone and tragedy belong to his Philosophy of Law.

[52] Goethe, J. W. Goethe, Selected Poems. Vol. I. Christopher Middleton (Ed.). Trans. into English by Michael Hamburger. Princeton, 1983. pp. 26-27

[53] Goethe, J. W. Faust. Part II. Trans. into English by David Constantine. London. 2009. (V, 11936-7)

[54] Matthew Wright considers that the authors like Murray, Kitto and Lesky, among others, share with Goethe the idea that the essential feature of tragedy is the ‘tragic conflict’ that arises from the clash between humans and gods. See Wright, M. p. 40.

[55] Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Trans. into English by Shaun Whiteside. Michael Tanner (Ed.) London, 2003. In this work Nietzsche presents Sophocles, and specially Aeschylus, as the true tragedians, and he sees Euripides as the starting point of the ‘Untergang’ (going under, downfall) of tragedy due to the assimilation of the Socratic rationalism. The infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its essence, that is, the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian forces working in the tragic hero trying to make order (Apollonian) of his unjust and chaotic fate. Nietzsche refused this vision at the end of his life adducing that it was an ‘error of youth’.

[56] Nietzsche, F. The Twilight of the Idols. Trans. into English by Michael Tanner. London, 2003.

[57] Nietzsche, F. Philosophical Writtings. Trans. into English by Walter Kaufmann. Reinhold Grimm and Caroline Molina y Vedia (Eds.). New York, 1997. p. 210.

[58] Goldhill, S. Reading Greek Tragedy. New York, 2001. As well as: Goldhill, S. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology” in Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. (Eds.) Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Princeton, 1990. pp. 97-129.

[59] Seaford, R. Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State. New York, 1994. And also: Seaford, R. 1996. pp. 284-294.

[60] Gill, C. Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy. New York, 1996.

[61] Snell, B. The Discovery of Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature. Trans. into English by T. G. Rosenmeyer. New York, 1960.

[62] Vernant, J.-P. and Vidal-Naquet, 1990.

[63] Vernant, J.-P. and Vidal-Naquet, P. Preface. P. VII.

[64] Steiner, G. 1996. p. 535

[65] Steiner, G. p. 536

[66] Steiner, G. p. 538

[67] Steiner, G. p. 540

[68] Steiner, G. p. 544

[69] Steiner p. 534. In reference to this question see: Silk, M. p. 80, where we are reminded that, according to one of the fathers of the Church: ‘Christ never laughed’. Also Friedrich Nietzsche alludes to this question from another perspective in chapter XXIV of The Birth of Tragedy, where he asks: ‘How can the ugly and disharmonic, which are the content of the tragic myth, provoke aesthetic pleasure?’ and later on he answers that: ‘The tragic myth must convince us that even the ugly and disharmonic are an artistic game of the will that plays with itself, in the eternal peak of its pleasure… The pleasure provided by the tragic myth has the same root as the pleasurable sensation of the musical dissonance. The dionysiac, with its essential pleasure provided even by pain, is the common pattern of music and the tragic myth’. Nietzsche, F. El nacimiento de la tragedia. Trans. into Spanish by Andrés Sánchez Pascual. Madrid, 2003. p.198.

[70] Steiner, G. p. 544

[71] Steiner, G. p. 543

[72] Steiner, G. Antigonas. La travesía de un mito universal por la historia de Occidente. Trans. into Spanish by Alberto Bixio. Barcelona, 2009. pp. 16-17

[73] Steiner, G. 1996. p. 543

[74] Hertmans, S. El silencio de la Tragedia. Trans. into Spanish by Julio Grande. Valencia, 2009.

[75] Steiner, G. 1980.

[76] Hertmans, S. p. 246

[77] Hertmans, S. p. 252. This is the sensation that is transmitted in Crimes and Misdemeanors, as the protagonist, Judah, corresponds to the image that Stefan Hertmans has of the modern man.

[78] Hertmans, S. p. 254. These words describe to perfection Woody Allen as a subject writer in Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film where the chorus, represented by Professor Levi, is finally disposessed of any authority. Instead of representing a firm moral reference with enough magnitude to return feedback (echo), instead of working as the role model that Clifford sees in him, Professor Levi ends up committing suicide.

[79] Hertmans, S. p. 254. Following the tradition started by Goethe.

[80] Fowler, A. p. 23

[81] Hardwick, L. Reception Studies: Greece and Rome. Oxford, 2003.

[82] Nisbet, G. Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture. Exeter, 2006.

[83] In this respect I will take Pedro Cano’s work on the relationship between Woody Allen and Aristotle as a reference. Cano, P. De Aristoteles a Woody Allen. Barcelona, 1999.

[84] Fernández, V. Desmuntant Woody Allen. Barcelona, 2007. p. 113

[85] Blacker, I. R. Guía del escritor de cine y televisión. Pamplona, 1993 p. 24

[86] Blacker, I. R. p. 43

[87] Blacker, I. R. pp. 44-47, 49-51, 55 and 57

[88] Field, S. Screenplay, the Foundations of Screenwriting, New York, 1979.

[89] Field, S. p. 27

[90] Melinda & Melinda. Written and directed by Woody Allen. DVD, Twentieth Century Fox. 2004. All quotes correspond to this edition.

[91] Crimes and Misdemeanors. Written and directed by Woody Allen. DVD, MGM. 1989. All  quotes correspond to this edition

[92] See Steiner and Hertmans above (Chap. 1.5 and 1.6), according to who our reality is not tragic anymore because it is empty, over quantified, and lacking of any evidence of the existence of supernatural substances.

[93] In accordance with Crime and Punishment, and in opposition to Match Point.

[94] The first Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy) saw tragedy as the capacity of a culture to love pain (even without the cathartic purification), but as he evolved (Beyond Good and Evil, The Genealogy of Moral) he became closer to Judah, as he rationalized and denied the moral principles in order to give way to the überman who would be enough tragic to create and even subvert his own values.

[95] Annie Hall. Written and directed by Woody Allen. DVD, Twentieth Century Fox. 1977. All quotes correspond to this edition.

[96] Hertmans, S. p. 254

[97] Lax, E. Conversaciones con Woody Allen. Trans. into Spanish by Ángeles Leiva. Barcelona, 2008. pp. 162-163

[98] Categorical Imperative (Kategorischer Imperativ): ‘Always act according to that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will’ and is the ‘only condition under which a will can never come into conflict with itself’. Kant, I. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. into English by Lewis White Beck. Indianapolis, 1969. p. 437

[99] See Chris Gill’s idea of tragedy above (Chap. 1.4), as well as this author’s idea of morality in a pre-Kantian Homeric and tragic heroic world centred in shame rather than guilt ethics in chapters I and II of his book Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy. 1996.

[100] In Ancient Greece there was also the impression that human actions were observed and judged by a Higher Power, and particularly the Sun as the watchtower of gods and human beings: ‘They came to Helios, the watcher of gods and men’ Hymn to Demeter, 62. Homeric Hymns. Trans. by Martin West. London, 2003 / ‘He sees and hears everything’ Iliad, 3, 277 or ‘and thou Sun, that beholdest all things and hearest all things’ Odyssey, 11, 109 Trans. by A. T. Murray Cambridge, 1971 / ‘The eye of Zeus, seeing all and understanding all’ Hesiod Works, 267. Trans. by H. G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, 1954. Quotations taken from Gilabert, P. “New York versus la Tragèdia i Èdip. El llegat de Sòfocles -i dels sofistes- a Crimes and Misdemeanors de W. Allen” in Sófocles hoy. Veinticinco siglos de tragedia. Córdoba, 2006 p. 5

[101] As happens in Euripides’ Hercules Furens where the protagonist is mistreated by Hera’s envy and at the same time ignored by his father Zeus. Even Amphytrion claims justice to the father of gods for his own son, but he gets no answer. This play especially represents Euripides’ idea of an indifferent world ruled by chance and connects with the impression that distils from Crimes and Misdemeanors: that men can only rely on themselves, not on the hope of divine authority or justice. It is made plain that moral goodness operates in humanity alone, and Hercules finally has to recognize that violence and uncontrollable strength are part of his nature, and that only he alone can forgive and face what he has done. Euripides. The Children of Heracles, in Medea and other plays. London, 2003. pp. 91-129

[102] Steiner, G. 2009. p. 39

[103] Unless we contemplate it from Richard Dawkins’ scientifically based vision of morality, according to which, a moral dimension is inscribed in our genes because in many occasions it contributes to our adaptation to the social environment. Moreover, according to him, there would be no kind of external moral structure out of our genes, neither any kind of just divine power that created the world, but, at the most, an irrational force that created life and the Universe without the sense of scientific Humanism that Dawkins is claiming. Because of his firm defence of the Theory of Evolution, this author has been nicknamed ‘Darwin’s Rottweiler’, though such extreme attachment to a scientific understanding of the world, when lacked of any sense of Humanism, can lead someone to act like Judah without experiencing any remorse. Both theories pointed out here are developed in Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene. Oxford, 1999 and The Blind Watchmaker. Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design. New York, 1996.

[104] Following American anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston, 1989)

[105] E. R. Dodds. p. 43.

[106] However, in this respect E. R. Dodds considers that Aeschylus saw an opportunity of redeeming the inherited guilt by recognizing and breaking it. Dodds, E. R. p. 44

[107] Dodds, E. R. p. 81

[108] Iamb. Vit. Pyth. 85 (Vorsokr. 58 C 4) Cf. Crantor apud Plut. cons. ad Apoll. 27, 115B. quot. from Dodds, E. R. p. 165

[109] Dodds, E. R. pp. 152-153. In reference to this, Woody Allen has often paraphrased his idol Groucho Marx declaring that he would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like him for a member. He specifically uses this thought at the beginning of his film Annie Hall, where he says that it represents how he feels about human relationships, and that such thought was originally conceived by Sigmund Freud. Previous to that joke, Allen expresses how he basically feels about life through another joke: ‘Two women are eating in a restaurant and one says: ‘The food at this place is really terrible’. And the other one answers: ‘Yes I know, and such small portions’. Life is full of misery and suffering… ‘But it is all over much too quickly’. Thus, we don’t have time to learn how to live and get used to ourselves, being condemned to live in permanent conflict within us and with the world. Because of the way we are conformed and the shortness of life we are strangers to ourselves, and both Allen and the tragedians know this, and use it in their plays. Our unconscious is constantly provoking an internal contradiction with our conscious dimension, and the tragic art is fantastically aware of that, permanently mixing the sublime with the disastrous, the formal beauty (Apollonian) with the chaotic and instinctual (Dionysian). Allen seems to be trying to show us how strange humans can be, and particularly concerning their animal instincts (Id), with the scatological image of a man ‘going to the bathroom’ on her sister in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen’s infidelity to himself can also be noticed in his writings in prose, where, in his personal My Apology plays the part of Socrates sentenced to death, and finally flees instead of accepting the law: Simmias: ‘Is our wisest philosopher a coward?’ Allen: ‘I’m not a coward, and I’m not a hero. I’m somewhere in the middle’. Allen, W. Side Effects in Complete Prose. New York, 1997. p. 340. It looks like, apart from his usual visits to the psychoanalyst Woody Allen also psychoanalyses himself trough his work, as he explains, aestheticizes and shares his existential doubts and multiple neurosis, so that he can sublimate them.

[110] In this respect Lester is in the same line as Judah at the end of the film when he considers that if we don’t rationalize and deny we couldn’t go on living. I have also referred to this facet of New York in my book Fragmentari de Nova York. Girona, 2008. pp. 41-49.

[111] Gilabert, P. 2006. In the part dedicated to the sophists of this article the author follows Manuel Lopez-Priego’s inedit investigation work W. Allen: alguns exemples de fidelitats i infidelitats d’un sofista contemporani envers la preceptiva dramàtica aristotèlica. Universitat de Barcelona, 2000, which will also be partially taken as reference here.

[112] In this aspect Woody Allen’s work is in overt contraposition with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel which in Match Point, a film which follows the same plot pattern as Crimes and Misdemeanors, is being red by the protagonist, who also kills his lover and gets away with it.

[113] Aristotle. Metaphysics. Trans. by into English by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, 1972.    (11,6, 1062b 13)

[114] Diogenes Laertius. Diogenes Laertii Vitae Philosophorum Trans. by R.D. Hicks. Cambridge, 1979 (IX, 50-1)

[115] After declaring that all the analysis of language he has done must be forgotten once it has been understood (6.54), Wittgenstein closes the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with this sentence: What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence (7). But although a parallelism can be drawn between what Protagoras and what Wittgenstein meant in their respective historical periods, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Wittgenstein had the same epistemological and moral convictions as the sophists.

[116] Fernández, V. Desmuntant Woody Allen. Barcelona, 2007. p. 101, as well as: ‘If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank’ (Love and Death) p. 67, ‘Between air conditioning and God, I’ll take air conditioning’ (Manhattan)   p. 69

[117] Oxirrincus XI, n. 1364 ed. H(unt) fr. B 44 Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, vol. 1 edited by H. Diels-W. Kranz. Zurich, 1966. quot. from Gilabert, P. p. 6

[118] These examples and many more are analysed in depth in Gilabert, P. 2006. pp. 10-11

[119] As it will be reflected in the following pages, Match Point is all about the fact that morality and luck have no kind of relationship, and the main difference between that film and Crimes and Misdemeanors is that it doesn’t even consider the possibility of a divine justice, but only the utterly arbitrary justice of tyche.

[120] In metaphorical relation with Judah’s blue eyes there is the powerful image of the German general’s lethal blue eye depicted by Paul Celan in his Todesfuge (Death Fugue, 1944), written in relation to his personal experience in the Nazi concentration camps: ‘This Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue/ He shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true/ A man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete’ in http://infinitesimally. Trans. into English by Michael Hamburger. It is also worth noticing that this Margarete is the same Margarete as the one from the first part of Goethe’s Faust, who represented the golden purity and healthy innocence of the German spirit, which had been totally corrupted by what the unsourced quote from Nietzsche had prophesized: ‘In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule’.

[121] In Mighty Aphrodite Tiresias reveals Woody Allen that his wife is cheating on him, and the chorus demands the intervention of Zeus, but this god doesn’t answer, since he’s got the answering machine turned on. Mighty Aphrodite. Written and directed by Woody Allen. DVD, Twentieth Century Fox. 1995.

[122] The same image of a close person to God suffering unjustifiable pain in Greek tragedy would be that of Hercules’ killing of his sons. As it has been already pointed out, the passivity of Zeus is considered outrageous by Amphytrion, who, as Tiresias does in Mighty Aphrodite, claims to God without getting any answer.

[123] Ironic once more, Woody Allen presents the hopeless religious representative in the expert scientific and positivistic hands of a doctor. Faith and reason must be cautiously separated by Ben.

[124] Also Sol, Judah’s father, when asked to choose between God and truth declares that he would always choose God, and that even if his faith was wrong he would always have a better life than those that doubt. He follows Pascal’s thought according to which it is worth to have faith because you don’t lose anything if you are wrong, and if you are right you gain a lot. A paradoxical rational way of proving that irrationality is better than rationality.

[125] Dodds, E. R. p. 227. See also Nilsson, M. Greek Piety. Oxford, 1948.

[126] Which Allen considers his greatest film because of the luck he had during all the shooting process in London. Lax, E. p. 133, 140

[127] Match Point. Written and directed by Woody Allen. DVD, DreamWorks and BBC Film. 2005. All quotes correspond to this edition.

[128] In accordance with the Big Bang theory that, as we have already seen, so deeply has influenced Woody Allen.

[129] Stephen Jay Gould’s Theory of the Punctuated Equilibrium (1972) and Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (1927) confirm Chris’ words, and Woody Allen is probably aware of them at the moment he is writing that dialog.

[130] Once again it is appropriate to remind Immanuel Kant’s epitaph: ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me’. Although the starry heavens above us may have lost their capacity of impressing, the unexplainable moral law within us is still regarded as thaumastos (marvellous), the same way reality was seen by the Ancient Greeks, who never got used to its strangeness, and from their wonder philosophy was born. Their sense of admiration for the most basic and primary things, as if they were children in a permanent apprenticeship and discovery, brought the Ancient Greeks to try to understand reality projecting purely original forms on it, the forms that have been the reference of Occidental Culture until today.

[131] In another of his lectures which appear previously in the film, Professor Levi says that: ‘We must always remember that we, when we are born, we need a great deal of love in order to persuade us to stay in life. Once we get that love, it usually lasts us. But the universe is a pretty cold place, it’s we who (invest) it with our feelings. And, under certain conditions, we feel that it isn’t worth it any more’. This character is probably the image of Primo Levi, the Italian writer and chemist who survived the Nazi concentration camps in World War II and wrote about his experiences in Survival in Auschwitz. After having survived all kind of tortures, sufferings and pains, he fell into a deep depression and finally committed suicide on the 11th of April 1987. When Clifford’s wife asks him if Professor Levi had any family he answers that: ‘No, you know, they were all killed in the war. That’s what’s so strange about this. He’s seen the worst side of life. He always was affirmative. Always said ‘yes’, ‘yes’, now today he said ‘no!’. This case could be compared to Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, where Camus’ existential question that opens his Myth of Sisyphus is enacted. That would be: Up to which point is it worth living? Which is the limit for unbearable suffering? Certainly, ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.  All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards’. Camus, A. The Myth of Sysiphus and other essays. Trans. into English by Justine O’Brien. New York, 1991. p. 3.

[132] This chronic incompleteness of human nature is essentially reflected in Kurt Gödel’s two Incompleteness Theorems that this logician conceived in 1931, and by which it is proved that it is impossible for any logic system to fundament and understand itself, being this the major contribution to Logics since Aristotle. It looks like we are condemned to uncertainty and incompleteness, since neither us, nor the purest of the intellectual disciplines, is blessed with the capacity of knowing itself in a platonic way. Gödel, K. Incompleteness Theorems, in Goldstein, R. Incompleteness. New York, 2005.

[133] Plato. Laws X. 903cd, 905b

[134] Williams, B. Moral Luck. Cambridge, 2002

[135] Possibly both Judah and Chris would subscribe with Sigmund Freud, Woody Allen and Groucho Marx that they would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like them for members.

[136] The first and fundamental question that Heidegger, following Leibniz, considers we have to pose ourselves when we ask: ‘What is metaphysics?’. Heidegger, M. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. into English by Ralph Manheim, New Haven, 1959. p. 3.

[137] As the Catalan philosopher Xavier Rubert de Ventós often asks himself. It is the admiration towards reality and its strangeness that makes us wonder about its nature and pose the highest questions, which philosophy might try to answer. That is what tragedy did in the V th century BC, and we still haven’t answered most of them.

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