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Tragedy  

Alberto Toscano

From Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics onward, tragedy has loomed large in the genealogy of literary theory. But this prominence is in many regards paradoxical. The original object of that theory, the Attic tragedies performed at the Dionysian festivals in 5th- century bce Athens, are, notwithstanding their ubiquitous representation on the modern stage, only a small fraction of the tragedies produced in Athens, and are themselves torn from their context of performance. The Poetics and the plays that served as its objects of analysis would long vanish from the purview of European culture. Yet, when they returned in the Renaissance as cultural monuments to be appropriated and repeated, it was in a context largely incommensurable with their existence in Ancient Greece. While the early moderns created their own poetics (and politics) of tragedy and enlisted their image of the Ancients in the invention of exquisitely modern literary and artistic forms (not least, opera), it was in the crucible of German Idealism and Romanticism, arguably the matrix of modern literary theory, that certain Ancient Greek tragedies were transmuted into models of “the tragic,” an idea that played a formative part in the emergence of philosophical modernity, accompanying a battle of the giants between dialectical (Hegelian) and antidialectical (Nietzschean) currents that continues to shape our theoretical present. The gap between a philosophy of the tragic and the poetics and history of tragedy as a dramatic genre is the site of much rich and provocative debate, in which the definition of literary theory itself is frequently at stake. Tragedy is in this sense usefully defined as a genre in conflict. It is also a genre of conflict, in the sense that ethical conflicts, historical transitions, and political revolutions have all come to define its literary forms, something that is particularly evident in the place of both tragedy and the tragic in the dramas of decolonization.