You are on page 1of 12

1

13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human


Instinct and Social Structures

13. The tragic conflict of human instinct, persona and societal expectation in
Eat When You Feel Sad and Phaedras Love as a rejection of social structures.
I will start by clarifying the terms I wish to discuss in this essay. Firstly I take social structures to
mean a pattern of mutual social arrangements within a society that are at once the sum of the actions
of the individuals within that society and instructive in determining the actions of those individuals.
These can include socioeconomic structures, social institutions, cultural conventions and, on a very
basic level, the learned social norms which govern human behaviour within a social group.
John Levi Martin particularises the concept of social structure in his summary of the Simmelian view
of society as a web of crystallized interactions [in which] there is no society as a thing in itself only
persons and their action., What [is] mean[t] by society, then, is simply the set of permanent
interactions crystallized as definable, consistent structures, that is, institutions. 1
The institutions I will examine in this essay in particular are that of religion, royalty, the family unit,
interpersonal relationships and sexual relationships, focusing on Robert and Hippolytus
counterintuitive actions/interactions within these structures.

I will take human instincts to mean ways of thinking, feeling and acting that are intrinsic to the nature
of being and the idea of the self as an individual, distinct from the influences of culture.

I will argue that while Hippolytus in Phaedras Love and Robert in Eat When You feel Sad
demonstrate extensive antisociality, apathy and disaffection with society and contravene any number
of social conventions, and that they do so on an ideologically earnest premise of remaining true to
their instincts as defined above.

To truly understand whether tragedy really concerns the mismatch between social structures and
human instinct we must first examine what constitutes tragedy itself. Hegel argues that the nature of
1 John Levi Martin, Social Structures, (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2009) p.2

2
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
tragedy is bound up, not in the elicitation of sympathy, sadness or empathy with the characters
involved, but upon the incidence of a confliction of a strong ethical determination, or pathos as he
termed it, between two characters in which each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has
justification; while each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only
by denying and infringing the equally justified power of the other. 2

Applying this theory to Phaedras Love and Eat When You Feel Sad I believe the fundamental nature
of the tragedy, in the Hegelian sense, lies in the conflict between the male protagonists in their
defence of instinct and societys propensity to infringe upon them. Both struggle with the social
structures that encompass their lives: Hippolytus, at the highest level, with his duties to his subjects
and the state and the expectations of religion upon him, and Robert, no less significantly, on a much
more personal level in coping with the interpersonal and sexual relationships within his personal
circle of friends.

The mediating factor common to both characters is the fact that neither of them can reconcile their
profound boredom with their own lives with other peoples fascination in them. While Phaedra
declares her desire to climb inside [Hippolytus] work him out. 3 Hippolytus merely puts his penis
into the sock and masturbates until he comes without a flicker of pleasure.4 He refuses to interact
with anyone, let alone Phaedra his step-mother, in any way other than a disengaged, unemotional,

2 Georg W. F. Hegel, Hegels Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Trans. by T. M. Knox.


(Oxford: Clarendon,1975) p.1196 available at: <http://pm.nlx.com/xtf/view?
docId=hegel/hegel.10.xml;chunk.id=div.hegel.aes2.138;toc.id=div.hegel.aes2.138;jumpe
d2page=yes;brand=default;query=1196#pb-1196>

3 Sarah Kane, Phaedras Love, from Sarah Kane, Complete Plays: Blasted,
Phaedras Love, Cleansed, Crave, 4.48 Psychosis, Skin (London: Methuen Drama,
2001) pp.63-103 (p.71)
4 Phaedras Love p.65

3
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
purely physical sexual manner, declaring No one burns me, no one fucking touches me. So dont
try.5 When Phaedra declares to Hippolytus Im in love with you Hippolytus brusquely replies
Dont be. I dont like it.6
This antipathy towards emotional engagement may be a symptom of a past emotional trauma, as is
hinted at by Hippolytus violent reaction when Phaedra mentions Lena, 7 but whether this wish to exist
as an independent and emotionally void individual, disengaged from the structures of society, is
symptomatic of a point of rupture from social norms, or whether it is the root of a much more
fundamental sociopathic tendency in Hippolytus, it remains the inciting factor in the tragic action of
Phaedras Love. I would argue that the latter goes further to explain Hippolytus behaviour, as not
only does he refuse to engage emotionally with women, or with people in general, but he makes a
point of deriving no real pleasure from material things around him, describing his existence as Filling
up time. Waiting., Fill[ing] it up with tat. Bric-a-brac, bits and bobs as a means of getting by. 8

In a similar way, Robert expresses only a superficial interest in social interaction, showing more
concern for outward appearance than any genuine pathos, exemplified when he thinks to himself I
know that nothing matters but I still live as though I think that something matters. No maybe I dont.
Thats what I should do, though. No, I dont know.9 Roberts lack of clarity demonstrates the
questioning of his own values and his inability to communicate adequately suggests an uncertainty in
even of the premise of social engagement itself. The qualifier No. I dont know is a refrain that is
voiced almost every time Robert expresses any real insight into his principles.
5 Phaedras Love p.83
6 Phaedras Love p. 81
7 Phaedras Love p.83
8 Phaedras Love pp.79-80
9 Zachary German, Eat When You Feel Sad, (New York: Melville House, 2009)
p.81

4
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures

Roberts questioning of his principles, a set of learned values that form the most basic of social
structures, and his refusal to acknowledge them with any certainty demonstrates Roberts rejection of
social principles and a desire to reify his innate human instincts as the basis of his actions.
The principle confliction that is common to both Robert and Hippolytus, lies in the dislocation
between their wish for meaningful social and sexual interaction, and the lack of fulfilment they
experience when their supposed wishes are realised. This is most aptly demonstrated in the episode
where Robert sits awake in the middle of the night checking his emails, whilst agonising over having
let Jill sleep in his bed, because, while she is okay-looking, [he] shouldnt let girls [he] doesnt
really like sleep in [his] bed, or for that matter even call or answer the phone to them. 10 A
superficiality is apparent in this passage, as in others, in the fact that Robert always qualifies his
dislike for women in reference to their outward appearance or clothes. Earlier in the book, when
breaking up with Kelly, Robert thinks I dont like her clothes and I dont think shesI dont want
to introduce her to my friends, the ones that I dont have yet but who will be more like me, vain and
judgemental and stuff.11

This rare insight into Roberts personality as deliberately vain and judgemental contravenes social
expectations in which values of character and personality are, traditionally placed above those of
superficial values such as beauty and fashion. But I would argue that Roberts vanity and prejudice is
based, not on the social construct of fashion, but upon an instinctive desire to engage with the
aesthetic beauty of his surroundings including his immediate social circle. This desire leads however,
to Robert becoming withdrawn in social circles and, as a result, he becomes susceptible to other
peoples misconstruction of him in the context of social convention. It is this misconstruction that
forms the basis of the tragic action of Eat When You Feel Sad.

10 EWYFS p.81
11 EWYFS p.48

5
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures

Robert, despite struggling to engage on an emotional level with people, is deeply concerned with
peoples perception of him. He feels a real anxiety of interpretation, which is reflected in Germans
writing style in his use of simple declarative sentences which follow, with the exception of his
internalised thoughts a strict subject verb object pattern, with very few adjectives. German uses
the exact same phraseology for every occurrence of a particular action in the book, wilfully conscious
that any variation in the description could create a bias in interpretation.

This anxiety leads Robert to adopt a persona which masks his true instincts in an attempt to integrate
with the social structures that form his interpersonal relations with those around him. This wish to not
be falsely interpreted restricts Roberts ability to express himself. At one point he thinks I should
say something so people know I dont hate them or something. Doesnt everyone always think I hate
them? Because I never say anything?.12 This persona is the product of the innate conflict between
Roberts instincts, which become unable to articulate themselves, and the social framework within
which Robert operates. Ultimately it fails to make him impervious to the mismatch between instinct
and social structure and is proven to be flawed in a conversation between Robert and Karen in which
she accuses him of being full of bullshit. To which he replies I know I project that sometimes, that
full of shit thing, but inside Im really deep. To which Karen retorts Yeah, and thats why you're full
of bullshit.13

This dislocation between Roberts full of shit projection and his subjective depth demonstrates his
fear of translating his innate nature into a form that will conform to the social expectations of his
peers. Hegels Aesthetics can again go some way to explaining this conflict when Hegel states:

12 EWYFS p.97
13 EWYFS p.61

6
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures

In modern tragedy it is generally the case that individuals do not act for the sake of the
substantial nature of their end, nor is it that nature which proves to be their motive in their
passion; on the contrary, what presses for satisfaction is the subjectivity of their heart and
mind and the privacy of their own character.14
In this way Robert and Hippolytus are not motivated by the external values imposed upon their
actions by society, but by their own subjective attitudes rooted deeply in the fundamental nature of
their being.

The conflict inherent to Hippolytus arises between his arrested development, which maintains a
selfishness of the kind instinctive to children in the insurance of their survival, and his obligations to
the state and family unit. He despises the social construct of royalty which facilitates the overlooking
of atrocities such as rape, infanticide, war and mass redundancy in preference of something as trivial
as a member of a particular familys birthday.15 But while he goes on to say he does not care16, the
very mention of the issue betrays a contempt for the construct of royalty which I believe relates back,
in part, to the aforementioned conflict between his own boredom with his existence and his subjects
interest in him, but also to a rejection of the social construct of fame in which the publics perception
of him bares little or no relation to the character informed by his instinctive nature.

In such a way both Robert and Hippolytus reject the sort of estrangement between the actuality and
the public perception of themselves that Jean Baudrillard critiques in his work The Procession of
Simulacra when he asserts Abstraction today is no longer that of [...] the double, the mirror or the

14 Aesthetics p.1225
15 Phaedras Love p.74
16 Phaedras Love p.75

7
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
concept. Simulation is no longer that of [...] a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by
models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. 17

In the case of Robert his refusal to engage with people leads people to make assumptions about him
that become mythologised in a hyperreal, in which he is perceived as shallow, moody and lacking
depth. Roberts anxiety of interpretation and his refusal to let the precedents of society exert influence
over the determinations of his core instincts are, ironically, the very basis of the myth of his
perception.

In the case of Hippolytus the hypperality surrounding him is based in much more tangible social
institutions such as that of the state apparatus and religion. Howard Barker discusses the ideological
conflict that arises within these structures in theatre in his book Arguments for a Theatre saying:
If a theatre of Catastrophe takes as its material the individual and the individuals ability to effect
self identification in a collective or historical nightmare, the moment of beauty is the moment of
collision between two wills, the will of the irrational protagonist (the non-ideological) and the will
of the irrational state (the officially ideological). 18
This collision between Hippolytus refusal to stand for something and the official state ideology is
central to his confliction. The basis of the hyperrality, central to the publics perception of Hippolytus,
concerns the expectations which are placed upon his behaviour by society. As part of his
socioeconomic position as a royal, he is supposed to act as a leader (particularly in the absence of his
father) and as an inspirational character to the people as a representative of the national ideal. During
17 Jean Baudrillard The Procession of Simulacra, trans. by Paul Foss & Paul
Patton, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd
edition, (New York: Norton, 2010) pp.1556-66, (p.1557)
18 Howard Barker, Beauty and Terror in the Theatre of Catastrophe, in
Arguments for a theatre, 3rd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1997), pp.55-60 (p.59)

8
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
Hippolytus time in prison the priest castigates him saying Your sexual indiscretions are of no interest
to anyone. But the stability of the nations morals is. You are the guardian of those morals. 19 He goes
on to say Royalty is chosen. Because you are more privileged than most you are also more
culpable.20 Yet Hippolytus denies these claims, using his status and wealth only to revert to a state of
privileged squalor, in which he satisfies only his most basic human instincts to eat and copulate in a
procession of junk food and fleeting sexual encounters with women he instantly discards. From these
activities he gains no sense of satisfaction or fulfilment other than the momentary sensation of
ejaculation and the assuagement of hunger.

Hippolytus integrity is his refusal to be made to stand for something that contradicts his inherent
sense of self. He refuses to align with, to use the language of Levi Martin, the crystallized, consistent
structures21 that constitute social institutions. It is Hippolytus refusal to collude in the abstraction of
royalty that leads to his antisocial personality. He does not believe in the pomp and ceremony of a
royal family and the sway they hold over the public. This is demonstrated when Hippolytus ridicules
Phaedras choice of his father as husband saying Every man in the country is sniffing around your
cunt and you pick Theseus, man of the people, what a wanker. 22 Although he is willing, in his sloth,
to reap the benefits of royalty, he has a pathological hate for the respect accorded to him by the people
on account of his royalty, and consequently for the people themselves. Hippolytus refuses to
acknowledge a respect that he has not earned which, paradoxically, makes him all the more a man of
the people and facilitates the moment of beauty which Barker talks of.

19 Phaedras Love p.94


20 Phaedras Love p.93
21 John Levi Martin, Social Structures, (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2009) p.2
22 Phaedras Love p.77

9
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
Nietzsche takes the notion of ideological conflict even further than Barker and Hegel with his theory
that humanitys perversion from its original nature towards a developed society is a sinful act. When,
in the myth of Prometheus, Prometheus gives man fire, the true palladium of every rising culture
Nietzsche proposes that it must have struck those contemplative original men as a crime, as a theft
perpetrated on divine nature to believe that man commanded fire freely, rather than receiving it as a
gift from heaven, as a bolt of lightning which could start a blaze, or as the warming fire of the sun.
Nietzsche concludes that humanity achieves the best and highest of which it is capable by
committing an offence..., in this case acquiring fire, ...and must in turn accept the consequences of
this, namely [...] suffering and tribulations [...] as it strives nobly towards higher things, whereupon
we arrive at the sublime view that active sin is the true Promethean virtue. 23

The view of Nietzsche concerning the sinful qualities of protagonist overlaps with a Hegelian idea
that:
What [the protagonists] did, and actually had to do, is their glory. No worse insult could be given
to a hero than to say that he had acted innocently. It is the honour of these great characters to be
culpable.24
Hippolytus asserts his right to sin as a conscientious act, which forms the basis of his pathos, and
insists upon being held accountable for the rape of Phaedra, not however, by the laws of the country, a
social construct he rejects, but by the instinctive emotional irrationality of the people, who see his
crime as a violation of nature. Hegel concurs in this stating that a heros pathos should:
Not appear merely as rights in a positive legislative order, for (a) as we saw in dealing with
collisions, the form of positive legislation contradicts the Concept and the shape of the Ideal, and
23 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in The Norton Anthology of Theory
and Criticism ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd edition, (New York: Norton, 2010) pp.77485, (pp.780-1)
24 Aesthetics p.1215

10
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
(b) the content of positive rights may constitute what is absolutely unjust, no matter how far it has
assumed the form of law.25

The idea of active sin is echoed by Hippolytus in his conflict with the priest during his time in jail.
Hippolytus rebukes the priests attempt to make him repent by saying:
What do you suggest, a last minute conversion just in case? Die as if there is a God, knowing that
there isnt? No. If there is a God, Id like to look him in the face knowing Id
died as Id lived. In conscious sin.26

This idea of conscious sin directly echoes Nietzsches idea of Promethean virtue contravening the
will of the gods for the advancement of human nature and affirms Hegels assertion that heroes should
be culpable for their actions.
He goes on in turn to rebuke the priest saying:

I know what I am. And always will be. But you. You sin knowing youll confess. Then you're
forgiven. And then you start all over again. How do you dare mock a god so powerful? Unless you
dont really believe.27
In this way Hippolytus not only rebukes the social structure of the church and its attempt at
authoritarian control of the human spirit, the most fundamental of human instincts, but goes as far as
to challenge the methodology of the church and the validity of a God, taken as a social construct of
collective consciousness, who is willing to forgive arbitrarily. Hippolytus, through his pursuit of
25 Aesthetics p.220
26 Phaedras Love p.94
27 Phaedras Love p.96

11
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures
active sin as an instrument of human development, puts the church as an institution in direct conflict
with the fundamental elements of human instinct which facilitate the advancement of mankind.

In conclusion, Robert and Hippolytus are, in their rejection of social structures and conventions, the
very agents of the integrity of human instinct. Social structures are a construct of collective
consciousness, the sum of human thought and action, and yet they fail to accommodate the diversity
of human instinct. Instead they act as instruments to affect conformity of those subjected to them and
entrench the dominance of the privileged elite at the forefront of these institutions. Robert and
Hippolytus stand as the antithesis to this dialogue of privilege. By refusing to uphold a pathos within
society, Robert and Hippolytus enact their tragedy in the preservation of the most fundamental depth
of human instinct. Roberts wish for oblivion when he states I want to sleep for the rest of my

life,28 Hippolytus valuing of Phaedras self-destruction as the only valid expression of love
and the resolution of his tragic conflict in self annihilation, stand as testament to the

irresolvable dichotomy between social structures and human instinct.

Word Count: 3138

28 EWYFS p.41

12
13. Is Tragedy Always About the Mismatch Between Human
Instinct and Social Structures

Bibliography
Primary Texts
German, Zachary, Eat When You Feel Sad, (New York: Melville House, 2009)
Kane, Sarah, Phaedras Love, from Sarah Kane, Complete Plays: Blasted, Phaedras Love, Cleansed,
Crave, 4.48 Psychosis, Skin (London: Methuen Drama, 2001)
Other Texts Cited
Barker, Howard, Arguments for a theatre, 3rd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1997)
Baudrillard, Jean, The Procession of Simulacra, trans. by Paul Foss & Paul Patton, in The
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd edition, (New York:
Norton, 2010)
Hegel, Georg W F, Hegels Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Trans. by T. M. Knox. (Oxford:
Clarendon,1975)
Levi Martin, John, Social Structures, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism ed. Vincent B. Leitch, 2nd edition, (New York: Norton, 2010)
Hegel text available at: <http://pm.nlx.com/xtf/view?
docId=hegel/hegel.09.xml;chunk.id=div.hegel.7;toc.depth=1;toc.id=div.hegel.6;
brand=default;query>