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Compte Rendu: Tragedy and the Return of the Dead (John D Lyons)

posted 7 Jan 2016, 07:09 by Cambridge EMS   [ updated 13 Apr 2016, 07:53 ]

As is often the case when one attends a paper by John D Lyons, a joyful flurry of literary reminiscences and anecdotes ensues from both the speaker and his audience, leading us through a meandering path from Euripides to Racine, the Gothic novel and Fun Homes (for Funeral Homes, a graphic novel brought to people's attention by Katherine Ibbett). His ability to make a shared love of literature flare up in his listeners in a most contagious fashion makes his presentations a treat -- the sweeping rethinking of foundational categories of literary criticism and literature often makes them a feat too.

This one was no exception. Giving us a snapshot of his forthcoming book on the subject, John Lyons situated it within a recent efflorescence of critical re-imaginings of what the French classical tragedy actually stood for. Casting away the elitist view of tragedy which defines it as 'the rarest of flowers' (Camus -- Albert, not Jean-Pierre), Lyons reminded us that 'the sublime is smelly' (Burke -- Edmund, not Peter). Tragedy is not so much the flawless and perfectly ruled unfolding of fate among 'the most beautiful and the best' of ancient aristocratic families put on stage for the pleasure of more contemporary ones. Rather, John Lyons argued from an anthropological perspective, the fuel of tragedy was the unleashing of gory violence from within the family, because the separation between the dead and the living had not properly -- ritually -- taken place.

In this anthropological take on what constitutes a tragedy, the rule according to which the aim of the family is to keep its members who are alive, alive, and its dead members, dead, does not apply anymore. The dead returns as a ghost (Hamlet); the living are buried alive (Romeo and Juliet);  the dead are not buried as they should be (Antigone); or, finally, the family murders its own members (Phèdre). The tragic home is a dangerous home.What constitutes tragedy, or rather, the tragic, according to this view, is an aesthetics characterised by extreme violence (gore, in fact, fits in well here) and a copious recourse to the gruesome, to the point of excess sometimes: the speaking wound of Le Cid is more a comic than a tragic moment.

The merit of this approach is to outline continuities between narrative forms which flourished in sixteenth-century France, such as Boistuau's Histoires tragiques, the seventeenth-century French classical tragedy, but also the gothic novels of the nineteenth century: a longue durée history of the tragic as a genre, plotted by following the recurrence of rotting corpses, dismembered bodies and ladies buried alive in coffins. 

Johann Heinrich Füssli, Romeo at Juliet's Deathbed (1609), public domain