The Tragic Caesura: Silence, Parataxis, and the Cessation of Time

In tragedy, in the horror of recognition at all that has conspired to unfold the guilt of the hero–the structure of events that has manifest itself, as a whole, as nothing other than his guilt–the hero falls, mournfully, silent.  This is the tragic caesura.  But this is also another instance of the cessation of time, the necessary time of destiny or fate, in which the individual has already been “emplotted,” and a temporal aperture in which the hero’s meaning is unwritten, is a question.

Oedipus image

Oedipus image

What takes place in that gap, that break in the continuity of speech on the stage?  Dramatically, it is the suspension of the very world that has for us, the spectators, existed for the duration of the action, for where else has the dramatized world existed but in and through the exchanges of words between the characters?  The silence of the tragic protagonist is a gestural interruption in that exchange, not outside the language of the play, but a separation within it that disrupts language and the destined action it unfolds.

The tragic caesura asserts that there is within the world, present in the hero’s silence, an absence or deprivation of world that is nevertheless not nothing–an evacuated consciousness that suffers, a separation and distance that nevertheless is indexed by its non-presence in the word-world of the play, which also suggests a possible freedom to be other than this world, too fate- and god-ridden, that is nevertheless not merely a nullity.

This caesura, or waning of the world as a suspension of necessary development, could be thought of as parataxis, which in poetry refers to a syntactical form in which one element of a sentence, phrase, or larger utterance is not subordinated to another, but is connected in looser, non-hierarchical ways.  Adorno noted that “It is not only the micrological forms of serial transition in a narrow sense. . . that we must think of as parataxis.  As in music, the tendency takes over larger structures.  In Hölderlin there are forms that could as a whole be called paratactical in the broader sense.” Adorno gives as an example, Hölderlin’s poem “Half of Life,” in which, he argues, “it is only the paratactical form itself that produces the caesura between the halves of life.”

This suspension is the possibility of a different ordering of the material given by the plot of destiny, but held in a “synthesis” not authorized or underwritten by the system of laws, customs, and institutions which puts its stamp on the “necessary” unfolding of dramatic–or for that matter, historical–time.  Adorno suggested as much when he noted that “Great music is aconceptual synthesis,” hence, in his Hegelian language, not included in the necessary unfolding of the spirit, and he goes on to speak of poetry’s “constitutive dissociation” when it assimilates itself to such musical organization: “In poetry, unlike music, aconceptual synthesis turns against its medium; it becomes a constitutive dissociation.”

So too, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, writing on Hölderlin’s theory of tragedy, writes that Hölderlin engages in a “regression” that “comes to touch upon something that dislocates from within the speculative [that is, the necessary unfolding of the concept in the plot-line of the Spirit, TM].  Something that immobilizes it and prohibits it–or rather, distends and suspends it.  Something that constantly prevents it from completing itself and never ceases, by doubling it, to divert it from itself, to dig into it in such as way as to create a spiral, and to bring about its collapse.”

This regression can be given a more precise characterization: it is the breakup of language from within into bits of paratactical utterance, descending down into babbling and even mere cries, and finally into silence.  But these are not simply negative manifestations in relation to the positivity of representational and narrative language.  They are the pathways and gaps across which a new order is being articulated and constructed: a new montage or “aconceptual synthesis” taking shape amidst the fatality of a previous regime of time.

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