By Joyce Carol Oates

The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Vanguard
Year: 1972
Pages: 259

In these essays the winner of the National Book Award (for her novel Them) and countless awards and accolades for her short stories turns her attention to the study of tragic forms in literature, examining such writers as Shakespeare, Chekhov, Melville, Dostoevski, Yeats, Thomas Mann, and Ionesco, and such themes as “The Tragedy of Existence,” “The Tragedy of Imagination,” and “The Tragedy of Nihilism.” Having explored the tragic world of existence in her fiction, Miss Oates illuminates her thoughts, expanding them to the realm of timeless literature. THE EDGE OF IMPOSSIBILITY is a book that belongs on all library shelves.


Introduction: Forms of Tragic Literature information

  1. The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida information information
  2. The Tragedy of Imagination: Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra information
  3. Melville and the Tragedy of Nihilism information
  4. Tragic and Comic Visions in The Brothers Karamazov information
  5. Chekhov and the Theater of the Absurd information
  6. Yeats: Violence, Tragedy, Mutability information
  7. Tragic Rites in Yeats’s A Full Moon in March information
  8. Art at the Edge of Impossibility: Mann’s Dr. Faustus information
  9. Ionesco’s Dances of Death information


Book Covers


I dream that I am told: “The revelation, the answer to all your questions can only come to you in a dream. You must have a dream.” So, in my dream, I fall asleep and I dream, in my dream, that I’m having the absolute dream. On waking, that’s to say on really waking, I remember having dreamed that I’d dreamed, but I can remember nothing about the dream within a dream, the dream of absolute truth, the dream that explained everything.

I am so very true that I cannot escape from myself. I organize myself. I am the self that organizes myself thus, arranging the same materials in a unique pattern.

Ionesco, Fragments of a Journal


Introduction: Forms of Tragic Literature

We seek the absolute dream. We are forced back continually to an acquiescence in all that is hallucinatory and wasteful, to a rejection of all norms and gods and dreams of “tragedy” followed by the violent loss of self that signals the start of artistic effort: an appropriation by destruction, or an assimilation into the self of a reality that cannot be named. The art of tragedy grows out of a break between self and community, a sense of isolation. At its base is fear. If it is not always true that human life possesses value, it is at least true that some human life, or the abstract parody of human life as acted out by gods, has a profound and magical value, inexplicable. The drama begins only when a unique human reality asserts its passion against the totality of passion, “arranging the same materials in a unique pattern,” risking loss of self in an attempt to realize self—there steps forward out of the world an Oedipus, an Antigone. The making of domestic landscapes into wilderness is the aspect of tragedy that always shocks us, for in our wholesome terror we cannot conceive of the justification of our lives calling forth a death of passion, an annihilation of passion—what are we except passion, and how are we to survive when this passion breaks its dikes and flows out into nature?

The hero at the center of tragedy exists so that we may witness, in his destruction, the reversal of our private lives. We adjust ourselves to the spectacle of an art form, we paralyze our skepticism in order to see beyond the artifice of print or stage, and we share in a mysterious dream the necessary loss of self, even as this self reads or watches, losing ourselves in the witnessing of someone’s death so that, in our human world, this hero may be reborn. The tragic hero dies but is reborn eternally in our dreams; the crudity of our desire for an absolute—an absolute dream, an absolute key—is redeemed by the beauty that so often surrounds this dream. One can explain the dream but never its beauty.

The hero dies into our imaginations as we, helplessly, live out lives that are never works of art—even the helpless lives of “artists”!—and are never understood. Suffering is articulated in tragic literature, and so this literature is irresistible, a therapy of the soul. We witness in art the reversal of our commonplace loss of passion, our steady loss of consciousness that is never beautiful but only biological. Therefore our love for art, and our resentment of it. We consume ourselves into a present without horizon, and without value; the creations of our imagination consume themselves into a marvelous future, a universal future in which we somehow share. The object of our fascination, in Husserl’s words, gives itself as having been there before refection, and we feel that the triumph over nothingness that art represents is assured of a future beyond even our ability to imagine. We acclaim the marvelous in ourselves.

Of the many contemporary critics who have written on tragedy, George Steiner and Lionel Abel are among the most provocative. Steiner’s thesis, like that of Joseph Wood Krutch before him, is that tragedy is dead. We have heard this often, we will be hearing it often: “Tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God’s presence. It is dead now because His shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell upon Agamemnon or Macbeth or Athalie.” If it returns it will be in a new form, and Steiner implies that it will be a form perhaps unintelligible to the West. In his brief, strange book, Metatheater,Abel tries to solve the critical problem of the relationship between “tragedy” and less pure forms of drama by denying that tragedy is a natural Western art form at all. According to Abel, Shakespeare wrote no tragedies, with the possible exception of Macbeth. The dominant dramatic form is not tragedy but “metatheater”—the kind of drama that assumes the total subjectivity of the world and its metamorphosis, by way of a mysterious psychological process, into theater. Theater as theater, as self-conscious and ironic subjectivity—this is “metatheater.”

What are we to make of such assumptions? Does the frequent appearance in dramatic literature of the world-as-stage and life-as-dream bring along with it the actual valuelessness of the contextual world? Where is history? Where is personal history? Certain critics are always convinced that an epoch creates art, but a great work always tells us that it is isolated, unique, accidental, and inexplicable—not even the possession of the creator himself—and that its true context is not history but dreams, ahistorical dreams. Like a personality, a work of art occurs once, and, re-experienced, is redefined; it has no “existence” at all. But to argue backward from this insight, to argue that the dreamlike quality of a work of art indicates a dreamlike, nihilistic culture beyond it, is irresponsible. If Hamlet represents the most developed figure of Western “metatheater,” then he is a prince of nihilism and nothing more. According to Abel, “One cannot create tragedy without accepting some implacable values as true. Now, the Western imagination has, on the whole, been liberal and skeptical; it has tended to regard all implacable values as false.” But from what ground does the play arise? What is its fundamental delusion? If the play is Hamlet, the hero’s delusion is certainly not that he cannot locate truth, but rather that he cannot reject it powerfully enough; though appearances argue that all values are false, Hamlet’s tragedy is that he cannot accept appearances. Out of his faith comes the tragedy.

Nothing can come from nothing, no energy from a bodiless spirit; thus, there can be no violence out of a sense of nothing, for violence is always an affirmation. Abel claims that the West has always been nihilistic in its imaginative literature, but how can such an assumption account for its very shape, the structural consummation of violent action? Art is built around violence, around death; at its base is fear. The absolute dream, if dreamed, must deal with death, and the only way toward death we understand is the way of violence. In the various works examined in this collection of essays, as well as in Hamlet, nihilism is overcome by the breaking-down of the dikes between human beings, the flowing forth of passion; Melville alone, with his essentially religious and superstitious imagination, can create a tragedy of “nihilism.” In our ingenious theater of the absurd, and to some extent in Chekhov, the dramatic structure itself becomes equated with the sense of loss and inertia of the fictional characters, who are incapable of violence except as victims. And yet they perpetuate acts of violence, by being victims. Here human life is microscopic, imagined as magical and reductive to an instant in time, as in Waiting for Godot: “One day we were born, one day we’ll die, the same day, the same second . . . . They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” In Beckett we have a true delight in boredom and in the boring of others, a powerful substitute for ancient types of aggression.

Parody is an act of aggression. Twentieth-century literature is never far from parody, sensing itself anticipated, overdone, exhausted. But its power lies in the authenticity of its anger, its parodistic instinct, the kind of art in which Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn and Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov excel: “the playing of forms out of which life has disappeared.” If it is true, as George Steiner argues, that the death of God means the death of tragedy, then we need to ask what tragedy has dealt with all along—has it not been the limitations of the human world? What is negotiable, accessible, what can be given proper incantatory names, what is, in Nietzsche’s phrasing, “thinkable”—this is the domestic landscape out of which the wilderness will be shaped. If communal belief in God has diminished so that, as writers, we can no longer presume upon it, then a redefinition of God in terms of the furthest reaches of man’s hallucinations can provide us with a new basis for tragedy. The abyss will always open for us, though it begins as a pencil mark, the parody of a crack; the shapes of human beasts—centaurs and satyrs and their remarkable companions—will always be returning with nostalgia to our great cities.


Image: Imagination by Thomas Hawk

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