In an essay on the French coup of 1851 (in which the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte took over as emperor), Karl Marx writes that “all great world-historic facts and personages” repeat themselves: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Art reveals this tendency. In the 15th century, Diego Velázquez paints the crucifixion of Christ with great reverence. Clear light and a simple, dark background focus attention on the suffering but beautiful body of our Lord. In the 20th century, Andreas Serrano photographs a plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine. Serrano’s work is pure farce: he mocks a tragic scene that earlier artists approached with fear and trembling.
A similar movement from tragedy to farce appears in the works of William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, one of his earlier tragedies, ends with the warring families finally understanding the consequences of their actions. Suffering brings about the recognition of truth and possibility of healing. But in Hamlet, doubt consumes the Prince of Denmark and drives his innocent beloved to madness and death. The main characters die without ever comprehending the truth of their situation. And finally, Shakespeare questions all sense of value and meaning in Troilus and Cressida. He makes the character (Hector) who argues for truth ultimately give in to corrupt men and die an ignoble death.
When faced with tragedy, we often resort to farce as a kind of outlet or dodge. Pretending that nothing means anything may numb us to the suffering that tragedy brings. But the cost is very high. Look at Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Beckett saturates the play in farce and so we get imbecilic, incoherent characters wandering about the stage who have lost the good of the intellect. If you’re unfamiliar with Beckett, you can find similar characters inhabiting the farcical world of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I think that show is partly a response to the tragedy of the sexual revolution and drug culture of the 1960s and the increase in broken families we’ve seen ever since.
But Shakespeare discovers that there is another way. In his final plays, he finds that tragedy does not have to descend into farce and irony. His vision of human life and history becomes larger and deeper than anything Marx ever imagined.
Shakespeare’s late plays — Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest — all begin with tragedy. They involve great suffering and trials, particularly for the young, innocent characters. But through the faith of good women who help the men to act as men, the honoring of bonds between the young and the old, some sort of intervention from the gods, and a recognition on the part of the offending characters of their offenses, the plays end happily.
Shakespeare’s late plays repeat many aspects of his earlier tragedies, but instead of turning to farce, Shakespeare explores the possibility of moving from tragedy to comedy. In this sense, comedy does not mean “funny;” a comedy is a story structure which ends with arguments resolved, relationships restored, and the promise of new life.
Shakespeare is not the only one to understand how tragedies might resolve as comedies. Dante titles his work which begins by descending into the ironies of hell “The Comedia” because he ends by ascending to the beatific vision. T.S. Eliot despairs over human nature in his early Wasteland but looks at resurrection and redemption in his later Four Quartets. The archetype of all of these is the movement of our Lord’s life, which the praying of the Rosary helps us to see: after the sorrowful mysteries come the glorious.
This is what Marx misses. This is why his description of history is only partially true, and therefore misleading.
I’d like to look at some of the works I’ve mentioned in greater detail in future posts. But what prompted this post today was a passage from Evelyn Waugh’s story of the life of Saint Edmund Campion.
Campion was an accomplished Oxford scholar who gained the admiration of Queen Elizabeth and an appointment in the Anglican church. He left these attractive opportunities to join the then-outlawed Roman Catholic Church and left England to become a Jesuit priest.
Elizabeth brutally persecuted Catholics during her reign. After his ordination, Campion chose to return to England, undercover, to serve the suffering Catholics there who were so long deprived of the sacraments. Waugh describes his return:
Campion found his Catholic hosts impoverished to the verge of ruin by the recusancy fines; often the household were in mourning for one or more of their number who had been removed to prison. “No other talk but of death, flight, prison, or spoil of friends,” yet everywhere he was amazed at the constancy and devotion he found. The listless, yawning days were over, the half-hour’s duty perfunctorily accorded on days of obligation. Catholics no longer chose their chaplain for his speed in saying Mass, or kept Boccaccio bound in the covers of their missals. Driven back to the life of the catacombs, the Church was recovering their temper.
I was surprised by how much Waugh’s description of Campion’s time echoed Benedict XVI’s description of the Catholic Church post-Enlightenment:
It was a Church, reduced in size, diminished in social prestige, but a Church that had become fruitful from a new interior power, which released new formative and social forces, manifested both in great lay movements and in the founding of numerous religious congregations, all of which are very much part and parcel of the Church’s most recent history.
It seems that the government persecution, cultural antipathy, and internal corruption which attacked the Church in ancient Rome and again in Campion’s England and again in revolutionary France and again in Communist Russia is repeating in our own day. Before these repeated struggles, it may be tempting to despair; to give in to the siren song of the farcical, ironic world where nothing means anything and nothing needs our defending and therefore nothing can really bother us. But there is another way.
Benedict XVI continues:
The future [of the Church] will come from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. Not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves . . . the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality. Unselfishness, which makes men free, is attained only through the patience of small daily acts of self-denial. By this daily passion, which alone reveals to a man in how many ways he is enslaved by his own ego, by this daily passion and by it alone, a man’s eyes are slowly opened. He sees only to the extent he has lived and suffered.
This other way is a via dolorosa, but it leads finally to our redemption. This is what the atheistic and agnostic philosophers like Marx have not understood. This is what Benedict, Shakespeare, Dante, Eliot, Waugh, Campion, and all of the Church’s saints have understood and point us to with great urgency. This is the way our Lord walked and asks us to follow.