Thursday, 16 November 2006

Deep Comedy

Peter Leithart's latest book, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy and Hope in Western Literature (Canon Press, 2006) is as thought-provoking as the title promises.

In a nutshell...

Paganism is necessarily tragic: pagan myths of decline from a golden age reveal this, and pagan philosophy (monist or dualist) treats reality necessarily as a disappointment. Ancient Greek writers and their modernist and postmodernist heirs have only that to work with - some hide from it, some embrace it, some wallow in despair.

Against this, Christian Biblical thought alone gives grounds for hope, because only Christians have a throughgoing (and true) eschatology, which is itself fully grounded in the life of our Trinitarian God. Real theology, the Fall notwithstanding, moves from glory to greater glory. This has allowed Christian cultures to produce literature and philosophy that expresses deep comedy.

A few juicy quotes...

Scratching the sociology and metaphysics behind tragedy brings us right up to theological questions, questions that are insoluble outside a trinitarian framework. (59)

As Derrida shows, it is axiomatic for Plato that supplementarity is degenerative; that is, anything added to an original, anything flowing from a source, is "worse" than the source itself, preceisely because it has moved away from the source. This metaphysical assumption is parallel to mythical views of history for which temporal supplementation necessarily means degeneration. For Plato and Neoplatonic metaphysics, the lower is always lesser; for Hesiod, Ovid and other myth-historians the later is always lesser. Such a metaphysics cannot support a comic view of history, much less deep comedy...

An orthodox trinitarian theology avoids the problematics of Platonic supplementarity in two ways. First, orthodox trinitarian theology asserts that there is always a "supplement" (Son and Spirit) to the "origin" (Father), and, second, insists that the Son and Spirit, though "supplemental" to the Father, are "equal in power and glory". There is no degeneration or leakage of glory or divinity as the Father begets the Son, or, together with the Son, spirates the Spirit... (xiii-xiv)

A trinitarian account of language can accept nearly all that Derrida says about originary "contamination" except the label "contamination". Here Derrida is truly Augistine's heir, for he has discovered a trace of trinitarian life at the heart of the Western philosophical tradition. (84)

[On King Lear] This is not an absurd world, but exactly the opposite. It is a world where actions have consequences that are often far greater than the actors could have foreseen. But it is a world where the consequences flow from actions. this is simply a different world from that of Attic tragedy. and the "lesson" that it promotes is not a lesson of "tragic wisdom", or emotional exhaustion. it is the "lesson" that this world is ordered and will not brook assault on its order. (136)

And plenty of the normal virtuosity and breadth you expect from Leithart.

But, Deep Comedy does feel like the weakest thing to have come from the great man's pen. His disclaimer about its sketchiness is not quite enough to offset the disappointment that much of his tour of recent philosophy was second-hand, and only in outline. And plenty of questions were raised throughout that could have been tentatively explored alongside the sweep of the main thesis, even in a book that was only trying to be an outline, an impressionistic essay (xv).

I'll publish a more detailed critique later, but I don't want to end on a sour note. Leithart is one of the most stimulating writers around, and it's all worth reading and mulling.