not tragic, just sad

I have a new review essay up at Commonweal of military historian Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Case for Trump. While Hanson’s book is more broadly a panegyric of Trumpist politics, it also makes a peculiar (but erroneous) case for seeing the president as a Sophoclean tragic hero:

Despite Aristotle’s profound influence on our idea of the “tragic,” no literary term has been so misunderstood and misapplied (with the possible exception of “ironic”). It is often erroneously taken as a synonym for “calamitous” or even simply “sad.” But the notion of the tragic—at least as Aristotle sees it—is something more complicated. He famously defines the genre as the “mimesis of an action that is serious, complete, and grand,” one which uses its principal tools of “fear and pity” in order to effect a kind of “catharsis” in viewers. A cursory search of recent academic publications in classics shows that we’re still sparring about what catharsis really means and still confused about why a drama that terrorizes through fear nevertheless produces pleasure.

With his new book, the Greek-military historian Victor Davis Hanson amplifies our misunderstanding of tragedy by shoehorning the current occupant of the White House into the tradition of Sophoclean protagonists, positioning Trump as a so-called “tragic hero.” In The Case for Trump—whose occasional trafficking in Uranium One conspiracy theories and sophomoric Homeric epithets like “polished teleprompter reader Barack Obama” I shall graciously pass over—Hanson asks us to see in Trump a modern Ajax or Antigone, or even a “tribal” “outlier” like Achilles whose “service is never rewarded commensurately by the Greeks’ deep-state leaders.” The problem, of course, is that being a tribal, “unstable loner” has nothing to do with the tragic genre, properly understood. Donald J. Trump may be many things, but a tragic hero he is not.

Head over to Commonweal to read the rest.

Update (5/17): In this article I reference the 1966 article “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex” by E. R. Dodds, and there’s a copy of the article available on Google Scholar. Dodds himself says a good deal about hamartia in this article, but you might also look up Stinton’s 1975 “Hamartia in Aristotle and Greek Tragedy” in Classical Quarterly, which takes a more expansive view of the idea of hamartia, or Dawe’s 1968 “Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. Another good place to look, of course, is simply the dictionary entry for hamartanō, hamartanein (I audaciously use the second aorist infinitive hamartein in the essay) — Logeion is the place to go for that.