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Epoché: A Journal for the History of Philosophy

Volume 26, Issue 1, Fall 2021

Kalliopi Nikolopoulou
Pages 21-46

Tragedy without Action?
Reading Sophocles after Loraux

The essay focuses on a paradox in the modern reception of tragedy: modernity foregrounds the Sophoclean tragic hero, in particular, but undermines the significance of heroic agency as autonomous deliberation. This gesture could be traced back to Hölderlin’s reading of Antigone as “divine fool,” and culminates more recently in Loraux’s gendered theory of tragedy as the feminine mourning voice that opposes the masculine politics of rational deliberation and action. For Loraux, tragedy’s ethical thrust is to highlight the distorted temporality of the political logos, which gives us a false sense of infinity through power and action; in contrast, the tragic voice exposes that mortal beings’ only infinity is the infinity of suffering and mourning. First outlined in her essay on Antigone, this thesis is later expanded in a book on tragedy as dirge, focusing on Sophocles’s Electra. By rereading both Sophoclean plays as mirroring each other on the topics of mourning, action, and revenge, I submit that, not only is action indispensable for tragedy, but the heroines’ infinitization of mourning affirms their disregard for mortal time in pursuit of their own glory. Their “intransigence” in mourning—to use Bernard Knox’s term—is the feminine equivalent to the war glory pursued by their male counterparts, though Electra’s inactive revenge fantasies lessen her heroic stature. Contra modernity’s emphasis on time, history, and finitude, I insist that Sophoclean heroes/heroines contest and reject time and its limits.