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.footnote 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.

Germany’s centrality for modern tragedy is also, symmetrically, modern tragedy’s centrality in the development of German culture. Initially, as it happens, this relationship was an antagonistic one, and German philosophy was the first and most thorough in theorizing, two centuries ago, the anti-tragic orientation of the modern aesthetic sphere. Kant’s third Kritik, designed as the ‘middle term’ between the first two, was an explicit attempt to heal through the aesthetic sphere the potentially tragic laceration between the domain of knowledge and the domain of ethics; and the same can be said for Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, where art is asked to restore a disrupted harmony, ‘tempering’ the painful one-sidedness of human faculties and social institutions. Goethe also criticized tragedies, maintaining that they leave our minds ‘perturbed’ and ‘unsettled’. In Faust he circumscribed tragedy to individual existence, thereby deleting it from the progress of universal history. This rhetorical choice, or ‘plot’, was of course Hegel’s as well, in whose thought, as Hayden White has pointed out, a sequence of tragedies ultimately reveals a cosmic comedy. This anti-tragic thrust inspired not only Hegel’s conception of historical movement, but the very inner form of his philosophy. In his dialectical logic, where the meaninglessness of whatever is ‘one-sided’ yields to the specular claim that ‘only the Whole is the True’, the tragic form is deprived of any cognitive value whatsoever.

In the first fifty years of Modernity, then, a great battle against tragic culture was fought—and won—on German soil. But in the long run, the weight of tragedy proved too strong: Lessing, Schiller, Hölderlin, Kleist, Büchner, Hebbel, Wagner, Hauptmann, Wedekind, Hofmannsthal, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schmitt, Benjamin, Heidegger; even, in some ways, Marx, Weber and Freud . . .

Germany, then. But why Germany? The most common answer points to the destructive heritage of the religious wars of early modern Europe—both international and civil wars. Why Germany? Because Germany, in Thomas Mann’s words, has always been ‘the battlefield of Europe’: the physical battlefield, and even more so the spiritual one, where conflicts have ‘little, if any, national content: they are almost entirely European in character’. In this light Germany is a sort of Magic Stage, where the symbolic antagonisms of European culture achieve a metaphysical intractability, and clash irreconcilably. It is the centre and catalyst of the integrated historical system we call Europe; but it is so in a paradoxical way, as its ‘systemic’ role—Mann again, in his Reflections of an Unpolitical Man—is one and the same with its lack of ‘national bonds’ and ‘spiritual unity’. Unlike France or England, Germany’s international function is not the consequence of its national power, but is inversely proportional to it: it is the product of national weakness: in Freiligrath’s mid-nineteenth-century metaphor for the absence of spiritual unity, ‘Deutschland ist Hamlet’.

I have just mentioned the notion of Europe as an ‘integrated system’, and we tend to take the European setting for granted whenever we discuss transnational genres or movements like Modernism, the novel, or tragedy. We should be aware, however, that in each case ‘Europe’ is a different system, with its distinctive socio-geographic configuration. The Europe of the novel is the well-differentiated system of self-enclosed nation-states, with a typically national interplay of city and countryside, and a solid bourgeois core in England and France. The Europe of modern tragedy, for its part, is the Europe of war: a far more abstract and homogeneous oppositional field, of which Germany is not so much the ‘core’ as the no-man’s-land where universal dramas can be acted out. As for the Europe of Modernism, it is transnational in a different way still, as a constellation of metropolises: Paris, Petrograd, Berlin, London, Zurich, Milan, Vienna, Prague and even Dublin—each became, under Modernism, an archetype. In contrast to the two previous ‘Europes’, this is a punctuated, and hence far more open, pattern incorporating New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires. For this very reason Modernism has become, in the course of our century, the first real world-system of literature. (So much so that for the first time in modern history, Europe has been pushed towards the periphery.)

This spatial partition of the three different Europes is easily discernible within the social institution most closely interwoven with space and boundaries: language. Here, we move from the rich and varied national languages of the novel, loaded with local peculiarities and idioms, to the abstract, barren, always-translatable (who could ever read Norwegian apart from Joyce?) speech of modern tragedy; and finally to the inter-cultural mélange of Modernism, foreshadowed perhaps by the aberrant yet all-inclusive English of Finnegan’s Wake. All these configurations suggest that the ‘theory of temporal spaces’ envisaged by Fernand Braudel for economic history may be just as necessary and promising for literary history: we should try to define epochs not only through their ‘time’ but through their ‘space’ as well: to look for their meaning not only in the area delimited by dates and events, but in the space enclosed by state boundaries, rivers and oceans.

But back to tragedy. That question—why Germany?—has a second possible answer, which centres on Germany’s relationship with the politics of Modernity. In all major capitalist countries, modernity was no doubt a destabilizing, unpredictable, painful process, but it never called for radical political alternatives. As a rule, fundamental political choices pre-dated capitalist modernity, and the ensuing regimes enjoyed a basic stability. The political trajectories of Britain and the United States were set in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. As for France, its many political crises (1789, 1830, 1848) saw the clash of Modernity and the Ancien Régime: but the conflict was not the product of Modernity, nor did it point beyond it. (The Commune is the manifest exception: but its historical relevance may have been exaggerated by the [German] political theorist who saw in it a universal paradigm.) In Britain, France and the United States, then, the bourgeois-democratic state remained fundamentally unchallenged: but not so in Germany. Here, not only did the creation of the national state occur comparatively very late, but in just fifteen years—from 1918 to 1933—the political order was shaken twice, and in wholly opposite directions. No other industrial power has ever been on the brink of a socialist revolution, or under fascist rule: Germany has experienced both, as if to reveal a hidden and fatal bifurcation of Modernity—a truly tragic choice lying beneath that ordinary administration to which other Western countries had grown used.