The tragedy of revolution is that liberation conspires with terror.

Watching the other day Nicholas Hytner’s promenade staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I heard Cassius say:  “Men at some time were masters of their fates./The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars./But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (1.2.140-3).

The reference to fate reminded me of a recently published essay.  Since I have been following with special interest the progress during this decade of Simon Critchley’s book on the philosophy of tragedy (read: sophistry) as an alternative to the tragedy of philosophy, I was particularly glad to read “Tragedy’s Philosophy,” a “rough torso” of his project, in Fisher & Katsouraki, eds.: Performing Antagonism: Theatre, Performance & Radical Democracy (2017). Regarding the understanding of tragedy as misfortune the philosopher brings up fate: “Tragedy requires some degree of complicity on our part in the disaster that destroys us. It is not simply a question of the malevolent activity of fate … Tragedy requires our collusion with that fate. In other words, it requires no small measure of freedom. … Our moral of tragedy, then, is that we conspire with our fate. That is, fate requires our freedom in order to bring our destiny down upon us” (31). Therefore he suggests that we see “the bloody events of the contemporary world in a tragic light,” and reiterates: “To see political events tragically is always to accept our complicity in the disaster that is unfolding” (36). The question of tragedy today should not be limited to a particular dramatic genre. “A tragic sensibility obliges us to see our implication within the struggles of the present and our responsibility for them. If the present is defined by disaster, then tragedy shows us our complicity with it” (40-1).

This ethical argument reminds me of Critchley’s political point in an interview where he recalls that Raymond Williams in his book Modern Tragedy (1966) “makes a link between tragedy and revolution and it’s a kind of melancholic link. He says, for example, something like: ‘We need to understand revolution tragically’. If we see revolution as a throwing off of repression and the experience of liberation that’s all very nice but we see just half of the picture. Revolution is always a dialectical process where revolution undergoes inversion in counter-revolution. So a tragic understanding of revolution would show the experience of liberation as always risking flipping over into a new experience of oppression and terror and the two things are intrinsically linked. Liberation and terror are intricated, are dialectically interdependent and that’s what a properly tragic understanding would lead us to. If we want to maintain something like revolution or rebellion then we have to see it tragically in terms of the inversions to which it is subject.”

A tragic understanding admits that revolution is subject to counter-revolution, that liberation is risking oppression. Drawing on Williams, Critchley makes the melancholic point that, when terror destroys revolution, instead of blaming destiny, we must accept the complicity of liberation, keeping in mind that freedom conspires with fate.

May 12, 2018