The Gospels as the Last Tragedy; Jesus as the Last Tragic Hero
During the recent National Book Awards ceremony, Harold Bloom read from the preface of his newly-published book on Shakespeare that Hamlet is cited more often than any other literary figure except Jesus. That set a process going for me.
Many have observed, certainly from Arthur Miller to Milan Kundera, that tragedy implies the dignity of human beings (most of them said "the dignity of man," but that is another issue). Kundera, particularly (in "Sixty-Three Words"), says that tragedy shows the "lovely illusion of human greatness"; comedy shows life as meaninglessness.
If I may be forgiven for limiting my discussion to Oedipus, the Greek tragedy that I know best, perhaps I can make some speculations. Something I have always found compelling about Oedipus, from my earliest awareness of the play, is that he never knuckles under to fate.
A major point of the play, after all, is to show the transformation of the arrogant upstart at the beginning to whatever it is he becomes in the end. Whatever it is, he is not a man crushed by fate. Even though he comes close to flouting the gods ("You pray to the gods? Now listen to me"), and Jocasta does commit the impiety of disregarding the prophecy about Laius and his son, when he is confronted by the enormity of the horror he has committed, Oedipus not only faces his guilt, he moves to make it right. He moves to restore the balance and relieve the suffering of his people. He chides the chorus when they ask if it wouldn't be better to be dead. "What I did was right," he says. And when he dodders off into exile at the end, he is not a dead man walking, but a living man carrying his guilt and suffering with him.
A point I try to make in teaching this play is that for us in America at the end of the twentieth century, it is a provocative idea that Oedipus can set things right. We no longer believe that dike can be achieved. "Hanging's too good for him," we say, or "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." But we clearly have to put up with having the responsibility and process taken out of our hands. Part of the display of Oedipus no doubt comes from the fact that the Greeks of the fifth century had not gone as far as we in changing from a shame culture to a guilt culture. Public display of guilt and repentance was perceived as much more important then and there than here and now, but nevertheless, we are in some ways more helpless in the grip of fate (or Providence, or whatever) than was Oedipus.
A significant problem for Christianity, at least in its developmental phase, must have been the potential for multiplication of Messiahs. The doctrine that Jesus was the natural son of God may have been designed to distinguish the Christian Messiah from the numbers of Jewish Messiahs who were running around in the first century CE making trouble for the Romans. However, it did not eliminate the possibility. Given the doctrine of the immaculate conception and the virgin birth, if God could engender one son, why couldn't He engender another?
The "begotten-not-made, of-one-substance" phrasing of the Nicene Creed was designed to combat Arianism, no doubt, but making Jesus coeternal with the Father also made it more difficult for Him to keep showing up as one person or another on earth. A good deal of theology seems to have gone into making sure that there could only be one Christ.
Islam, as best I understand it, has solved the problem by fiat. Islam recognizes all the prophets of the Old Testament and one--Jesus--of the New Testament. But Mohammed is the last prophet. That's all you need to know.
The figure of Jesus in the gospels preaches his message--the kingdom of God is at hand--and is identified as the Messiah, thereby threatening the status quo among the Jews. In the Garden of Gethsemane he asks to be relieved of his impending sacrifice but is not answered. And, as he has been presented since, he takes on the sins of the world, God's gift to humanity. Further, Jesus sets right the balance thrown off by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (and the possibility that that sin was one of knowing remains provocative). In this light, Jesus becomes the ultimate tragic hero, his sacrifice the hero's sacrifice.
Since the Christian establishment, the church--churches since the sixteenth century--has an interest in keeping Jesus in heaven so as not to have the embarrassment of numerous Christs claiming the allegiance of the faithful, theology has kept Him up there and us down here. The Imitation of Christ to the contrary notwithstanding, no one is called on the take on the sins of the world. In fact, while we are encouraged to make small sacrifices, even of our lives, no one is permitted to take away the sins of the world. That has been done, theologically speaking. All we have to do is accept it. No tragic heroes any more.
The Ancient World was socially more restrictive, with aristocrats and slaves, than the Modern, but it was intellectually a more open world, as reflected in the religious tolerance of the Romans and others. With this openness, the possibilities for meaningful human action are greater. Characters like Oedipus can throw the balance of nature off by their actions, but they can also restore that balance by their action. Meaningful action for Christians seems to be restricted to accepting or rejecting salvation. This leads to a lot of repetition in sermons, if nothing else.
Hamlet, like others among Shakespeare's tragedies, is notable for its mix of Christian and pagan elements. Hamlet is worried that the ghost may be the devil abusing him to damn him, but the fact that there is a ghost to be dealt with is a pagan carryover. And the devil he fears comes as much from Celtic and Germanic mythology as from Christianity. The problem with Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia springs from his exalted social rank, which is certainly not Christian in origin. Revenge is not Christian, either.
Hamlet is destroyed not so much because he can't make up his mind (the banal newsbite summary) as because he is torn between the pagan world and the Christian, the Ancient and the Modern. Christian doubts keep getting in the way of his doing his pagan duty. In the end, there is a profound logic to his destruction, but his death serves no purpose like Oedipus' sacrifice. As a modern man, he is permitted no such significance.
Part of the meaning of the Ancient World is contained in the widespread belief that the world is in effect a text to be read. Astrology, bird-interpretation, tea-leaf reading, sacrificial entrail reading, dream interpretation, and all other forms of divining, so common in ancient literature, like the oracle in Oedipus, show this belief. In this sense, science has destroyed meaning by showing natural phenomena to be motivated not by gods or powers but by "natural processes" which can be studied and revealed by the scientific method.
This loss of meaning is disappointing enough, and the more or less constant revivals of astrology, psychic phenomena, ghost stories and other paranormal concerns demonstrate our fascination and sense of loss. But perhaps the theological change brought about by the advent of Christianity and its sister religion, Islam, implies a change profounder and even more limiting.
November 23, 1998