Paradoxical Tragedy

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Philosophers have sometimes felt that the satisfaction we take in tragedy presents a challenge to reflection, an explanatory challenge that other sources of aesthetic enjoyment--comedy or horror, for instance--also present.(1) The idea is that our satisfaction is ultimately paradoxical, that its elements are unstable on purely formal grounds, and so some special explanation of the satisfaction is called for. If we delight in watching the downfall of the illustrious, why do we? This type of question does not seem to arise, or arise with the same urgency, for many other kinds of aesthetic enjoyment. To take a simple example, our enjoyment of Matisse's The Dance does not ordinarily provoke bafflement about how it is that we are able to find graceful, expressive physical activity pleasing to contemplate.

My own thought, however, is that there is nothing formally unstable in the elements that contribute to the unreflective enjoyment of tragedy, and thus no special explanations of the art are needed.

What we rather do need to explain is the sense that tragedy is paradoxical, and I shall suggest that a submerged rationalist picture of the mind creates that sense.

I We first need to get clearer about the specific elements that collectively generate the alleged paradox. A triad of elements would seem to be necessary.

The first element is straightforwardly identifiable: we do enjoy tragedies--at least some well-wrought ones, some of the time. These qualifications are important because a great many tragedies, like many other kinds of art, are unsuccessfully or imperfectly realized. Although we might think that a failed work can still yield pleasure, and thereby help to yield a paradox, it is the acknowledged monuments that make the potential problem most interesting. Unless we are children or squeamish adults, we do not flee performances of Othello, or avoid reading The Mayor of Casterbridge; on the contrary, we commonly seek out such experiences as these works provide and think ourselves better for having had them.

The second element is a little more difficult to state precisely, but only a little. We could begin with a minimal specification to the effect that there is something unpleasant about the aesthetically successful tragedy. (I shall omit `aesthetically successful' from now on, but the phrase is to be assumed.) We may then further specify the unpleasantness by saying either that part of our emotional response to tragedy is disagreeably toned (we feel sorrow for the tragic hero, and sorrow is disagreeable) or that the subject matter(2) of tragedy (what the work is about, namely a certain sequence of events involving a certain character) is disagreeable. Which of these things we say affects the shape of the intended paradox: the first will place the problem fundamentally in the space of the emotions, whereas the second will place it in the relationship between representations and real things. For my purposes it makes no difference which shape we insist on.

More should be said about the force of calling either the emotional response or the subject matter disagreeable, since in these contexts `disagreeable' (or `unpleasant') can be very unhelpful. A subject matter is an object of thought, and without further commentary we gain nothing by saying that an object of thought is disagreeable (does it hurt to think about a subject matter?). Perhaps it is enough to say that the sorrow we feel is not an emotion we would intentionally cultivate, at least outside the theatre,(3) or that a tragic sequence of events is not a sequence that we, as reasonable or decent persons, would ever wish to initiate or assist. I assume that some commentary along these lines is correct.

The third element is perhaps the most difficult of all to state, even crudely, yet it is arguably the most important.

In an obscure way, the satisfaction taken in tragedy derives from the disagreeable subject matter (or its attendant emotion), and this derivation is not simply (or not even) causal.(4) The exalted claims advanced on behalf of tragic art are surely motivated by the sheer imaginative and expressive power of this art, and that power has to be intimately connected to the dark and serious subjects with which the art deals. It would be an astounding coincidence--too astounding, we should surmise--if tragic satisfaction and the subject matter of tragedy were only contingently related to each other.