Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature by Peter J. Leithart
(Canon Press, 2006, 159 pages)
Deep Comedy is an exercise in philosophy, historical theory, and literary criticism – all guided by theological intuitions. Leithart makes the claim that with the advent of Christendom came a remarkably hopeful or comic understanding of the trajectory of human history. He sees this perspective on history as being deeply informed by and connected to Trinitarian theology. This connection is made through an admittedly nuanced and, at times, difficult to grasp argument about the nature of the Trinity and the view of history that Leithart believes flows from the doctrine. The significance of this kind of “deep comedy” is illustrated through contrasting the essentially tragic take on human history expressed by the ancient historian Hesiod and ancient dramatist like Homer and Virgil with the deeply comic vision of Shakespeare’s plays. Leithart traces this ancient sense of tragedy through postmodern thinkers like Derrida and tries to show that Trinitarian orthodoxy offers an alternative and more hopeful account of history.
Leithart covers a lot of ground in this short book, but I think he manages the task remarkably well. It is interesting to note that though the book is scholarly in tone and format, he claims that it is actually “more an impressionistic essay than an academic treatise” (xv). This upfront acknowledgement helps to mitigate what might otherwise be overgeneralizations about the differences between Greek and Roman theories of history and literature on the one hand and European Christian views on the other. His case is effectively that the peculiar doctrine of the Trinity has had a deep and observable effect on the cultures that have assimilated its story and logic, and I think he argues it brilliantly.
One of my favorite aspects of Leithart’s work is his consistent ability to draw imaginative and fruitful connections between disciplines, and that is precisely what he does in this book. His observations about the differences between the nature of Greek and European tragedies are far from unique or new. However, his explicit connection of these differences to Trinitarian logic is remarkably creative and contains serious explanatory power. I’ve read a lot from Leithart, but this may be my new favorite among his books. The literary analysis of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night in the final chapter is particularly worthwhile, and it should be valuable to Shakespeare fans even if they do not buy the broader argument of the book.