The Tragic Imagination
By Rowan Williams
The Literary Agenda Series
Oxford University Press. Pp. 168. $24.95
Review by Christine Havens
The Tragic Imagination by Rowan Williams is one of a dozen books in the Literary Agenda series by Oxford University Press. Other titles in the series include Readers’ Liberation, Is Literature Healthy?, and Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century. Each monograph, according to the series’ description, takes a polemical tone, in the hopes of bringing new arguments, in the traditional sense of the word, to each topic. In essence, this series serves as a reminder that literature has real-world relevance, a given for some that seems to be up for grabs in this world we live in.
Thus, we have Williams’s excellent work about tragedy — tragic drama, narrative, or the tragic imagination. Why might the tragic imagination be problematic in a world full of terrible events like gun violence in high schools or refugee crises? His concern is that society tends to turn away from the tragic imagination in favor of denial, in favor of untold stories. This is the challenge that Williams takes on: “not only how we speak without false consolation in a world like this but how we keep our culture alive to the fact that it is ‘a world like this,’” as he writes in his introduction.
Williams guides the reader on a pilgrimage of sorts through the tragic imagination, beginning with the ritual, even liturgical, plays given at the Dionysian festivals in ancient Greece, bringing us, as Virgil brings Dante, ever upward to his final chapter, which he calls “Tragedy Against Pessimism: Religious Discourse and Tragic Drama.”
In his rich text, Williams takes pains to help the reader see why he feels we should not flinch away from, or gloss over, the stories we tell of our pain and suffering, our grief and mourning. Early on, he relates a story about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Her response on whether she could describe suffering is a significant point. The author returns to it in his conclusion, in order to direct our gaze. Hegel, Job, the Gospel of John, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and others are waypoints, too, on the way to discovering that “the tragic idiom is a vehicle for managing loss by narrating it” (p. 15).
Throughout his text, Williams is careful to stress that for him the tragic imagination is not synonymous with a tragic worldview. This is an important distinction; each of the chapters is a step building to the purpose of tragic representation. For Williams, such an equation of tragedy with pessimism is a misinterpretation, and maybe even misuse, of the genre. The tragic imagination, in his eyes, serves like religious language to keep us mindful that we are not in control of all that surrounds us. He writes in resistance to the human tendency toward “comfortable lying” when it comes to telling stories of pain and suffering.
Important to note, though it comes later in the book, is Williams’s acknowledgement that his exploration is of the Western European mode of tragedy; other models that might be grounded in nonlinear narrative are not in his purview for this argument. The relationship of the comic to the tragic is explored only in his conclusion; I hope he will expand on it sometime in the future.
The Tragic Imagination is definitely to the academic side of Williams’s works, and despite its brevity is not easy reading. Of course, this is what his faithful readers expect and love about his writing and thought. Most likely this book will not be his most popular seller, but those who venture to read it will find real-world value in his wise words.
Christine Havens is a poet and writer, and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Forward Movement’s Daily Devo family subscription series.