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New Left Review I/159, September-October 1986


Franco Moretti

The Moment of Truth

Literary genres have temporal boundaries, and the current definition of modern tragedy is an evident if vague acknowledgment of this fact. But they have spatial boundaries too, which may be at times even more revealing—historically revealing—than temporal ones. [*] A first version of this article was given as a talk at the Literature Program of Duke University in the spring of 1986. My thanks to Jane Tompkins, Fredric Jameson, James Rolleston, and all other teachers and students who helped me to improve it by their discussion. Such is the case with modern tragedy, whose own geography has the striking peculiarity of being the reverse of the novel’s. Henrik Ibsen, who is usually considered (rightly so, in my opinion) the key figure of modern tragedy, belonged to a Scandinavian culture which had been left virtually untouched by the novel. The same culture also produced Kierkegaard, whose philosophy was to offer a variety of themes and accents to tragic world-views, and Strindberg, whom contemporaries perceived as Ibsen’s alter ego. Conversely, the areas of Europe where Ibsen met with the fiercest resistance—‘poison’, ‘loathsome sore unbandaged’, ‘open drain’, ‘lazar house’, as contemporary newspapers put it—were France and England; strongholds of the novel, but the most barren contributors to the new drama. Still, the most revealing example of cultural geography in the modern period is Germany. Modern tragedy, and modern tragic theory, are simply unthinkable without it, to the extent that even Kierkegaard, Ibsen and Strindberg achieved world-historical significance only through German mediation. In 1915—drafting his rabid nationalistic pamphlet, The Blight of Ibsenism—James Leatham was obviously wrong in holding Ibsen and Strindberg (and Nietzsche) responsible for ‘German methods in the battlefields of Belgium’. But that ‘these three philosophers have nowhere a larger following than in Germany’ was a well-known fact—and a fact, as we shall see, with its own disturbing implications.

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