This autumn, the Chicago Humanities Festival hosted events across the city that featured many unique voices: artists and academics, journalists and politicians. From September through November, festival-goers crisscrossed the city, attending events related to the unifying theme of 2019: The Year of Power. The following is a dispatch from Fullerton Hall at Chicago’s Art Institute, where philosopher Simon Critchley discussed ancient themes of rage, grief, and war as they relate to our modern political era, as well as his latest book, Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us.
On October 26th, at the beginning of a one-hour talk about his latest book, Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us, Simon Critchley walked to a podium wearing a dark jacket over a Merlot-colored shirt. Critchley is known for his varied interests and areas of expertise; though best recognized as the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, he also moderates The Stone, the New York Times philosophy forum. The author and coauthor of dozens of books, he’s also a former punk-rocker, a founding member of the band Critchley and Simmons, and an avid supporter of Liverpool Football Club.
As he eased toward the middle of the stage, Critchley addressed his hushed audience. “Chicago…”, Critchley said, more to himself than the audience. “Chicago…”, he repeated. What does Simon Critchley love most about Chicago?
The audience laughed, and Critchley—known for his appreciation for musicians and lyricists—fell into a rhythm. “Time is out of joint,” Critchley proclaimed. “Only through the lens of Greek tragedy can we confront where we are now.”
Critchley began painting an image of the ancient world, one in which Greek tragedy was the artist’s micropolitical tool for revealing and controlling the emotions of the Athenian polis. Finding parallels with our modern world, Critchley stated that the era of Athenian Greek tragedy—a period of only 70-some years—was one filled with rage, grief, and war. It was a world in which the powerful destroyed the powerless. He implored the audience to make the ancients live again, for to do so would allow us to understand ourselves through the mirror of theater.
Separated into three distinct parts, Critchley’s talk focused on three plays: Oedipus the Tyrant and Antigone by Sophocles, and Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. Though all three tragedies are commentaries on the ills that faced Athenian society, Critchley principally spoke about the character of Oedipus. As he paced the stage, it wasn’t a copy of his own book he held in his hands—but a worn edition of his preferred translation of Sophocles’ plays by David Grene.
According to Critchley, Oedipus-as-king is not a symptom of his society’s ills. Oedipus is the pollution itself. He received a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Yet, Critchley claimed, the tragedy of Oedipus is not a personal fall from grace; it’s the catastrophe he brings upon his kingdom. Though Critchley gamely avoided addressing modern politics at this moment of his talk—the word “impeachment” arose only from the lips of an audience member—he nonetheless asked the audience to see, in a way Oedipus could not, that if we are to understand ourselves through the mirror of tragedy, we must first understand that “tragedy is not a misfortune.” Instead, “we collude with the calamity that befalls us.”
With the tragedies of Antigone and Prometheus Bound, Critchley deftly related how both correspond to the themes of grief and war: Antigone grieves for her brother, Polynices, and Prometheus wages a one-titan war against the pantheon of Greek gods. According to Critchley, both grief and war flow from tragedy. Invoking how tragedy “flexes and twists time,” he turned to the present: “our world is framed by war.” He stated that our modern politics is a binary of cultures where we only see “the evil of the enemy.” To further the point, when Critchley spoke about the history of tragedy, he noted that the art form was not only meant to showcase the Greeks’ love of fighting. Tragedy was also a self-depiction of imperial decline. The West can take away from this what it will.
There’s a lyric from one of Curtis Mayfield’s later albums, from a song titled “New World Order”: “Beware of the lies and false prophecies / We are many with eyes but don’t all really see.” Critchley noted that Oedipus used the brooch of Jocasta, his wife and mother, to gouge out his eyes. Yet even after blinding himself, Oedipus never learned that he was always the pollution he sought to destroy. “We collude with the calamity that befalls us,” Critchley said earlier in his talk. It sounded like the inharmonious truth of a prophecy.