Simon Critchley

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances,” we are all familiar with Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It, even though we may not share the same comedic atmosphere at this moment. Lately, a ridiculous farce named Hong Kong is on stage and the whole people of Hong Kong is forced to play a part of it. The authoritarian regime deploys all sorts of legal mean like prosecutions and trials against the social movement leaders. In the meantime, reckless administrative violence is being adopted to annihilate the labour unions and the Radio Television Hong Kong, a local public broadcasting service. Last month, 47 political activists are arrested for participating in a pro‑democracy primaries. They are facing charges of conspiracy to commit subversion that jeopardizes national security.

We are all living in Kafka’s novel The Trial. To encounter with such absurd circumstance, what should we do to save ourselves from despair? The advice of Simon Critchley in his latest work Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is, I believe, to read Greek tragedies and read them carefully. Provided that the tragedy provides us not the effect of Catharsis, nor Nietzschean aesthetic redemption, how to understand Greek tragedy now and what should we learn from it? For these questions, I have an interview with him, in order to find out the meaning of Greek tragedy in modern life.

Without a doubt, Simon is a well-known philosopher in our world. Even in Hong Kong, many students from the department of philosophy or cultural studies admire his works.  However, not many of us know that Simon was not a philosophy student from the very beginning. He chose literature as his major back in the days when he just commenced his journey at the University of Essex.

“I began in Literature. And in many ways, literature is still really important to me. I was fortunate when I was an undergraduate, they wanted me to do philosophy degree because I had done well in my first year of university and I will do a lot of literature with them. This was quite ideal. So, I did my philosophy as my singular degree and toke a lot of classes of literature, like Medieval literature. And I went to university as a modernist, as I really enjoy in Joyce, but also Beckett and Kafka. I still am. I’m still thoroughly interested in all these literatures.” He explained to me.

But why philosophy degree then? Is it because of his teachers’ effort and charm? “Definitely, it’s the teachers all the way. I often say to students that it doesn’t really matters what you study. It really matters is who you are studying with, whether you like them, whether you learn something from them, whether you feel they are going to open things up for you. That was my experience with my philosophy teachers when I was an undergraduate student…My philosophy teacher seems to be impossibly clever. And I really could not understand how they are thinking. By chance, I went to the University of Essex. By chance, I was able to learn from a group of philosophers. By chance, that was really interesting.”

Later on, after he finished his undergraduate degree, British Academy awarded him with a decent scholarship, among all students who gained a first-class honor in the undergraduate program. He then flied to France with his girl friend and tried to have another kind of life. “My plan was to go and live in France and not do the PhD. Just take the money and run away. We moved to Nice and I wrote a master thesis in Nice. I wasn’t really serious about it. I wanted to learn French. I want to live in London or live in France and do something else with my life. And it was in France I was in good fortune to work with an incredibly kind and wise philosopher called Dominique Janicaud. He gave me a lot of time and I began to understand the nature of resilient, began to use a library in a different way, use a library as a research tool. I learned how to do bibliography and to really do research…So in France, I really develop an idea that, ya, I really like to do this. I like to get paid to think. And I love to write. And I went back to England. France was at the end a kind of nightmare. And there is only a year and four months for the funding left. And so, I have to move fast! So, I found a topic. I knew I was going to write on Derrida. Derrida was fascinated me when I was an undergraduate. I wanted to do something with Derrida’s work and his relationship to philosophy, which is not the way Derrida was understood at the time. I thought there was an ethical dimension of Derrida’s work. I already read some of the works of Emmanuel Levinas and I began to connect them together.”

His interest in literature has not changed throughout his life of writing. From the early works on suicide, humor, Hamlet, until the recent one on Greek tragedy and Bald, Simon’s writings often intertwine philosophy with literature in a sophisticated way. But in this book, he no longer treats Greek drama merely as a way to illustrate his philosophical accounts or insight. Greek tragedy should be read as a new way of philosophy, a new tradition that is contrary to Plato or Aristotle’s tradition of philosophy. As a philosophy of tragedy, it profoundly criticizes the nature of academic philosophy that philosophers hold dear to.

Hence, tragedy is no longer a mere genre of literature, but a long-forgotten ideal form of philosophy. And he names it as tragedy’s philosophy. But why tragedy, we may ask? “For tragedy, I think there is a realism, like a political realism. Tragedy which is incredibly relevant and what I’m trying to do is to really engage in a critique of the philosophy as such, a critique of the whole philosophical adventure, in particular, a careful reading, a thoroughly critical reading of Plato and a dismantling of Aristotle’s Poetics. And I want to argue for the priority of drama and drama as a way of enacting, moral ambiguity. Moral ambiguity which is always linked to a history of violence, war and trauma. And the theater presents it more powerfully than philosophy ever can.” But should we consider comedy and tragedy together? “The last part of my chapter 5 is on Aristophanes. The conclusion that I come to is, the tragic vision and the comedy vision are looking at the same reality. The reality is not very present. Tragedy and comedy both arise in a situation of the decay or decadence of democracy. Democracy is in a crisis of falling apart. And these art forms are produced in that moment. And given that our situation in a democratic decay, maybe we could look more carefully at Greek tragedy.” 

Hence, in comparison to Platonic philosophy, tragedy’s philosophy is somehow more realistic, if not superior to the academic philosophy. “More realistic, yeah.  More skeptical, more democratic, more fluid. Tragedy is also questioning gender more powerfully than Plato. Tragedy is more acting, if not dominating by female characters. A lot of tragedies are a question of immigration, question of who is a native and who is a foreigner. All these issues seem to be issues we have to face. And Plato wants to exclude poets from philosophically well-ordered polis. And excluding is excluding the primacy of emotion, which poets produce, particularly the emotion of grief, lamentation, and also laugher and joy. So, I think Plato produces a kind of nightmare vision of a close, regulated society run by elites. Not unlike China, actually!” But doesn’t Plato endorse a kind of gender equality that he allows female with unprecedented talent to have paideia and trained to be philosopher-kings, along with all other talented male in his ideal polis? Why accursed Plato for neglecting the issue of gender? “Why do women drop out in Plato’s dialogues? All the dramas had female characters. Many dramas were dominated by female characters. In all of Plato’s dialogues, we have Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe. In the Symposium, we have Diotima of Mantinea, who is a goddess. So basically there are no female characters in Plato’s works. ”

In the interview, one of the moments that impresses me is the love or intrinsic drive that he says about philosophy. Regardless of the career path or moneymaking, the curiosity and the will to knowledge motivates him to devote himself wholeheartedly to this adventure. 

“In the 1980s, there were no jobs. As a graduate student, you can’t have the ambition to be an academic, coz there are no jobs. And we all know that and we imagine we will do something else. Then things began to change in 1988. And I get a job, to my surprise. A little handful of students, together with me back in Essex, they all end up get a job. None of us expected it. We are doing it out of love. It’s not about career coz there was no career. It’s a good thing to remember. Doing a graduate study in order to reach an end, it always doomed. You have to do it as it has intrinsic quality, as an end of itself. Then you have to hope the work is good. Then someone will pay you to think.” 

That is the luckiest job in the world, for both of us.

Written by Samuel Lee

Publication Date: 3/16/2021

Article originally published in Ming Pao Daily News:

Original Source of the image:


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