In the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle’s Poetics, Joe Sachs writes (italics mine):
Because the suffering of the tragic figure displays the boundaries of what is human, every tragedy carries the sense of universality. Oedipus or Antigone or Lear or Othello is somehow every one of us, only more so. But the mere mention of these names makes it obvious that they are not generalized characters, but altogether particular. And if we did not feel that they were genuine individuals, they would have no power to engage our emotions. It is by their particularity that they make their marks on us, as though we had encountered them in the flesh. It is only through the particularity of our feelings that our bonds with them emerge. What we care for and cherish makes us pity them and fear for them, and thereby the reverse also happens: our feelings of pity and fear make us recognize what we care for and cherish. When the tragic figure is destroyed it is a piece of ourselves that is lost. Yet we never feel desolation at the end of a tragedy, because what is lost is also, by the very same means, found. I am not trying to make a paradox, but to describe a marvel. It is not so strange that we learn the worth of something by losing it; what is astonishing is what the tragedians are able to achieve by making use of that common experience. They lift it up into a state of wonder.
Though Sachs disclaims the desire to make a paradox, I find his claim curious–neither obviously false nor obviously true, but puzzling to the point of inducing a bit of wonderment. I’m interested to hear what readers think.
It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced the precise type of tragic art that Sachs has in mind–primarily ancient Greek drama (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides), ancient Greek epic poetry (Homer’s Iliad), and Shakespeare’s tragedies. (He mentions but doesn’t discuss Dostoevsky.) But I’ve experienced others, with interestingly mixed results. In 2016, I saw a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and had precisely the reaction that Sachs describes. In 2019, immediately after a trip to Spain, I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and had much the same reaction. So far, so good, but in early 2020, I saw “A Star Is Born,” and had a very different reaction: I don’t exactly remember it (telling in itself), but it was something closer to desolation than to wonderment (and I certainly feel that way in retrospect). Just last night, I read Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, and felt something akin to annihilating desolation without a shred of wonderment.*
It’s relevant to my reflections on Sachs’s thesis that my own life took a tragic turn in early 2020 (in the decidedly banal rather than heroic sense of “tragic”); I lost my job, involuntarily ended my career, lost my house, lost my savings, lost my cat, and lost my wife to suicide within the span of a year or so. (It occurs to me in retrospect that I also lost my car, my guitars, the only suit I owned, and all of my ties. Apologies for the anti-climax, just trying to be thorough.)
Suppose now that we try to explain the pattern of reactions I’ve just described to the four tragic works I just mentioned–Tristan, For Whom the Bell Tolls, “A Star Is Born,” and My Mortal Enemy. The explanatory difficulty we face (or at least, that I face, though I’m inviting you along for the ride) is that in two of four cases, my reaction to a tragic work does not correspond to what Sachs claims (that Aristotle claims) it ought to be. I ought to be feeling cathartic purification, followed by a sense of wonder; what I actually feel is desolation blunted to some degree by a localized sort of amnesia and generalized sense of numbness (especially as far as a “A Star Is Born,” which was one of my wife’s favorite movies, and the last movie we saw together).
When this happens, Sachs’s interpretation leaves, as I see it, three to five explanatory possibilities, depending on how one counts them.
- There is (a) some defect in the tragic work that explains why the audience did not experience Aristotelian catharsis. Alternatively, (b) the work in question is not a tragic work in the specific sense that produces Aristotelian catharsis, or possibly, (c) not a tragic work in any sense at all. (These are really two or three different hypotheses, however related; though he doesn’t explicitly equate them, Sachs tends to blur the three together.)
- There is some defect in the audience that explains why it didn’t experience Aristotelian catharsis after experiencing a genuine (competently-created) tragic work.**
- There is some defect in a theory of tragedy that entails that tragedy rules out desolation as a response to a tragic work.
These aren’t exclusive possibilities, and may not be exhaustive, either (though they seem exhaustive to me). We might be able to explain a given reaction by citing different elements of (1), (2), and/or (3). But I’m inclined to think that one of the three factors is likely to be the main one in any given case.
One lacuna in Sachs’s interpretation, and possibly in Aristotle’s Poetics, is the failure to deal adequately with the phenomenon I have in mind–how to explain what is going on when the audience doesn’t achieve catharsis followed by the “pleasure” of wonderment, as Aristotle describe it, when we reach the denouement of a tragic work. How exactly do we decide between claims (1), (2), and (3) in the particular case?
Some cases, no doubt, will be clear. If the work is utterly defective, or obviously not a tragedy, or not one in the relevant sense, then it won’t produce catharsis along the lines claimed by Aristotle’s theory, and we land in (1). Given the relative anachronism of Aristotle’s Poetics, though, the theory probably needs a rider that tells us when this is the case of more contemporary works that are markedly different in genre or style from Aristotle’s own paradigms. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Homer and Sophocles, and the attempt to apply a theory designed to respond to them doesn’t translate well even when applied to a Hemingway or Willa Cather, much less anything more contemporary than that.
Again, if the audience is utterly philistine, boorish, and insensitive, or else too damaged by personal tragedy to respond to tragic art, or otherwise aesthetically or morally incapacitated or indisposed, then we’ll be pushed to (2). But it seems to me we need some way of applying (2) in a way that helps us pick out the defects-of-the-audience in the less-than-totally-obvious cases. What kinds of defects in the audience count as relevantly catharsis-vitiating? And why are these to be construed as defects? You’d think that the personal experience of tragedy ought to sensitize someone to the relevant features of a tragic work, so that such people might have an advantage over people who haven’t experienced tragedy, or haven’t done so lately. But perhaps not.
At any rate, it surely seems possible that (3) is the case in a sense that entails ~(1) and ~(2). It’s not clear to me that Aristotle’s theory, as Sachs describes it, has the resources to discriminate these cases in any reliable way. Sachs’s admittedly brief account strikes me as dogmatically rejecting of (3), and dogmatically pushed to some combination of (1) and/or (2).
All that said, I’m half-willing to throw myself under the bus for Aristotle (and even for Joe Sachs). Let’s assume that all four of the works I mentioned are tragedies in the relevant sense, and rise to the relevant level of aesthetic competence to be covered by the theory (a big ask). In other words, set (1) aside ex hypothesi. It may well be more plausible to think that the experience of personal tragedy vitiates one’s capacity to experience Aristotelian catharsis than to think that there is any significant flaw in (the Sachs interpretation of) Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. Put it this way: before my personal life took a tragic turn, I was able to experience catharsis and a sense of redemptive wonderment at the experience of great works of tragedy. Now, I can’t (or at least temporarily can’t). That seems to indicate a defect in me, not the theory.
Indeed, (2) seems in this case to satisfy Mill’s Methods for induction: as my life took a turn for the worse, my capacities began to do so; once it fully did, my capacities fully did so. My Mortal Enemy was hard going last night. Likewise, before my personal life took a turn for the worse, my capacity for catharsis-in-response-to-tragic-aesthetic-works seemed unimpaired; afterwards, it was clearly impaired. So the problem is me, not Aristotle (or Wagner, Hemingway, Bradley Cooper, or Willa Cather).
But half-willing isn’t the same as full and eager acquiescence. Some part of me thinks that there’s something to be said for (3), and maybe, something to be said for (1). Curious to hear what part of any of those somethings or any other anyone has to say.
*Unless you count the decision to write this post as an expression of wonderment consequent on reading the book?
**It occurred to me after posting that one defect in the audience might be its misdescribing or misapprehending its own reactions to the tragic work as “desolation” when there was more to it.