The Redemptive and the Tragic: Two Views on Action

by metaphysicalvillain

Since Aristotle, philosophers have opposed the concepts of action and passion. Action designates what we do; passion refers to what happens to us, what we undergo. For Aristotle the distinction is purely logical: the proposition “X does Y” indicates X as the actor; “Y is done to X” implies, on the other hand, that X is strictly passive. Simple opposition, at least on the hard grounds of logic. But once we try to imagine concrete situations through the lens of these categories, things get messy. For while we can disentangle these two concepts in thought, we cannot readily do so in reality. Nonetheless, the categories themselves, in whatever guise, seem crucial for any thinking of agency.

This piece will use these ancient categories to distinguish between two concepts of action—what I’ll call “redemptive action” and “tragic action.” Faith in the possibility of redemptive action depends on at least a minimal separation between action and passion. By contrast, tragic action exhibits the precise coincidence of passion and action; to act in this sense is to suffer, and the passive and active can only feed back into one another and resonate without cessation.

Redemptive action seems peculiarly American, part and parcel of an ultimately optimistic outlook toward human possibility. On this view, redemptive action follows on the heels of suffering. This stance acknowledges the corrosive effects of suffering, yet retains faith in an act that could negate or at least mitigate its consequences. One finds an exemplary version of this view in Stanley Cavell’s philosophy. While keenly aware of the necessity to incorporate the category of passion into any analysis of agency, Cavell invariably resists the tragic point of view; that is, while we may suffer undesirable and unpredictable consequences, often resulting from our own errors or all-too-partial knowledge, we can also put ourselves in position to correct them. We can catch up to our own blunders. No wonder Cavell is so fond of J.L. Austin’s essay “A Plea For Excuses”: the excuse, or what Cavell generalizes as the “elaborative,” serves to explain an action after the fact, thereby defusing its ugly consequences. Commenting on the moral realm, Cavell writes: “Here we cannot practice the effects we wish to achieve; here we are open to complete surprise at what we have done. As practice makes it tolerable to accept credit or censure for everything we do, so elaboratives makes [sic] it tolerable to act not knowing in advance what we may do, what consequences we may be faced with […]” The picture Cavell offers involves (at least) two moments, separable in time: first, a feeling of suffering, or passivity; second, a recuperation of agency by way of elaboration. Our passive dimension makes us vulnerable to suffering, but our active aspect can make suffering tolerable.

Cavell’s speculations on freedom do not always involve a temporal separation of passion and action. But he does seem to posit, at least, a perspectival separation. That is, even if we are suffering, we can take an active stance toward that suffering and thus circumvent its harmful effects. Cavell derives an “image of freedom” from Martin Chuzzlewit:

When Dickens depicts Mark Tapley’s seasickness, he depicts him as possessing just that sea of experiences possessed by everyone around him, but without inflecting himself toward it as the others do, e.g., without their sea-moans and their wild languors of misery; instead, he moves about the ship, as it were in the valleys between swells of nausea, attending to the others. This man does not even judge the others wanting in not being able to inflect themselves his way. To me this seems an image of freedom. It seems to me also an example of the possession, or exercise, of a will. But here, I find, I am not thinking of the will as a kind of strength which I may have more or less of, but as a perspective which I may or may not be able to take upon myself. So one may say that the will is not a phenomenon but an attitude toward phenomena.

Just as Cavell admires Thoreau (in The Senses of Walden) for being “beside himself in a sane sense,” he views Mark Tapley as the embodiment of a certain kind of autonomy. Tapley’s freedom resides in his ability take up an attitude toward his own suffering, and, if not transcend it, separate himself from it. To be an agent is to effect this separation in oneself.

This is not the place to speculate on why American philosophy seems unwilling or unable to do without this model of redemptive action. From Emerson and Thoreau, to James and Dewey, to Rorty and Cavell, American philosophy has persistently brushed aside tragedy and the mode of action proper to it. For all Cavell’s ingenious speculations in The Claim of Reason, tragedy for him ultimately amounts to an ethical failure (albeit one for which he has a lot of sympathy), a failure of “acknowledgment.” I believe that tragedy becomes more interesting, however, if we disjoin it from all (however qualified) notions of ethical failure. In order to do this we need not hold, with Nietzsche and Deleuze, that the tragic hero embodies pure “joy” rather than moral ineptitude. Instead, I want to suggest that the tragic hero is a passionate agent—that is, an agent who acts precisely because he suffers and suffers for the very reason that he acts. These are not separable instances, either temporally or psychologically. It’s not that the hero uses suffering as a “motive” for a subsequent act; neither can he sidestep his suffering in the courageous manner of Dickens’ Tapley. The tragic figure cannot stop enacting his suffering, and suffering his enactment. If American philosophy gives us the reassuring thought of redemptive action, then perhaps American fiction can allow us to think the implications of passionate action.

Take Melville’s Ahab. From the outset of the Pequod’s voyage, Ahab has already been suffering for some time. He has taken his injury personally, maintaining that the White Whale has dismembered him as a result of his (the whale’s) “inscrutable malice” (140). He never stops returning the hatred, and even at his most calm and deliberate he actively channels an unextinguishable passion; Ahab pushes rationality and insanity alike to their absolute limits.

Ahab is nothing if not an agent: he convinces his entire crew, through rhetorical virtuosity and sheer intimidation, of the necessity of the hunt. But his agency also expresses an affective intensity: “Here’s food for thought,” the captain muses, “had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man!” For Ahab, “feeling” is neither an internal psychological process nor a physiological reaction: feeling simply is the hunt pursued to its fatal endpoint. In a famous soliloquy, Ahab captures the inseparability of passion and action—the capacity to feel or undergo, and the capacity to act:

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is it Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm?”

Ahab begins this passage by portraying himself as a purely passive conduit, at the mercy of an “inscrutable” commander (the White Whale itself, perhaps). However, he soon after surmises that the relentless and reckless pursuit may simply be his own doing. The novel gives us no resources to settle the question of which force ultimately sustains Ahab’s quest. But we are not invited to accept a merely ambiguous skeptical position that leaves us unable to “know for sure” what is causing him to do what he does. Rather, we begin to see Ahab as the locus of both action and passion: the novelistic record of his actions is ultimately one and the same as the record of his passions. Even the deliberate, coldhearted act of refusing to help another captain search for his missing son is inseparable from Ahab’s capacity to “feel.” The novel asks us to consider the diverse modes in which extreme, perpetual suffering might be enacted. In this tragic narrative there is no question of overcoming suffering, because suffering is an inherent dimension of any possible action.

Melville critics have quibbled over whether or not Ahab ought to be seen as admirable. While some see Ahab’s uncompromising project as somehow courageous or noble, others, such as Tony Tanner, have viewed the captain as a cruel and regrettable agent of disaster. Even to pose this question, however, is already to turn Moby-Dick into a moral fable—either a tribute to demonic individualist heroism, or a cautionary allegory of the perils of demagoguery. But what if we suspended this question, and asked instead: What can the tragic novel (if there is such a genre) teach us about this particular mode of action?

The form of the tragic novel usually presents a protagonist who is not readily classifiable as either moral or immoral. Rather, this protagonist is one for whom passion permeates action through and through. Something happens: Moby-Dick bites off Ahab’s leg; Ethan Frome (from Wharton’s novel of the same name) falls in love with his wife’s younger cousin; Joe Christmas (in Faulkner’s Light in August) is insulted and abused. Whether or not we find these characters likeable or, in a broad sense, good, is completely beside the point. What these novels display is the manner in which, beyond a certain point, action can only be an expression of suffering. This is the position to which Joe Christmas is resigned when he thinks, “Something is going to happen to me. I am going to do something.” Christmas’ prophetic formulation encapsulates the logic of tragic action: doing something and suffering something are one and the same event, viewed from two different perspectives. Though it would require another piece to illustrate this point, I believe that the novel, in contrast to classical tragedy, productively expands the field of passionate action. That is, the agential expressions of suffering multiply: it’s not just that Ahab feels compelled to persist in his monomaniacal quest, but that he also must, for instance, relinquish ordinary pleasures (smoking his pipe) that he finds incompatible with his passion.

In Cavell’s redemptive philosophy, the human subject has an ethical, or even existential, task: to not merely suffer passively, but to be “up to the calamities,” ready at any instance to respond to the disasters that follow human action. By contrast, the picture of tragic action that I’ve outlined entails the conviction that calamities that can never be overcome or reversed. It is indeed a bleak view, and this is why Nietzsche and Deleuze’s paeans to the joy of the tragic hero ring a bit hollow. But if I’ve insinuated that the notion of tragic action is somehow more compelling than that of redemptive action, it’s because tragedy acknowledges and pushes to an extreme the insurmountable force of passion. Hume famously (and convincingly, to my mind) argued that reason is the slave of the passions. The paradox of the tragic hero is that he is a slave to his passions, but for this very reason, is memorably active and dynamic.


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