Tragedy, Catharsis, and Explanation

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. There is some defect in the audience that explains why it didn’t experience Aristotelian catharsis after experiencing a genuine (competently-created) tragic work.**
  3. 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.

19 thoughts on “Tragedy, Catharsis, and Explanation

  1. I reckon one’s own personal tragedies can interfere with the ability to experience tragic art in suitably impersonalized terms. I would bet that the 18th-century sentimentalists discuss this somewhere.


    • I find the issue rather puzzling. It’s certainly true that personal tragedy seems to fill up all emotional space, and interferes with the ability to experience art in impersonal terms. But isn’t the experience of tragic art supposed to be highly personal? Tragic pity and fear seem personal rather than impersonal, as does catharsis itself. Maybe there’s some way of reconciling aesthetic impersonalism with the fear and pity that tragedy is supposed to evoke, but offhand, I can’t figure out how. Of course, I haven’t read the Poetics in ages, so my “offhand” probably doesn’t mean much.

      It belatedly occurred to me that I probably didn’t give (1) enough explanatory emphasis in the post. For Whom the Bell Tolls has a tragic ending, but probably isn’t a tragedy in the relevant sense. The tragic ending has nothing to do with the protagonist’s lack of self-knowledge or failings of character (though Sachs rather puzzlingly says: “Tragedy is never about flaws, and it is only the silliest of mistranslations that puts that claim in Aristotle’s mouth.”)

      My Mortal Enemy is a tragedy, but the tragic protagonist lacks the moral stature of the characters in ancient Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. Myra Henshawe doesn’t really stack up against Antigone or Hamlet, so perhaps one doesn’t feel wonder at the denouement because there’s not enough there to wonder at. I feel bad picking on Myra Henshawe in this way, but still.


      • There’s also a big debate about whether purging/purification of pity and fear means that the spectator is purified of/from pity and fear, or that pity and fear themselves get purified, or what.

        The popular psychoanalytic reading, that subconscious pity and fear are brought to consciousness and thus “gotten out of our system,” is often rejected on the grounds that Aristotle didn’t have a conception of the subconscious. But there are a few places in the Aristotelean corpus that seem to suggest an idea of the subconscious — one in On Memory, when Aristotle says that when you’ve been trying for a while to remember something and then give up, the motion you’ve begun in the physical substrate of your imagination keeps on going independently of your mind’s direction and causes you discomfort until you eventually recollect it; one in On Divination in Sleep, where Aristotle explains prophetic dreams by saying that the dreamer has already picked up while awake on evidence that such-and-such is going to happen, but it only leaves a trace on the physical substrate, too faint for the person to notice while awake, and so only noticeable in dreams; and one in the Problemata (possibly a product of Aristotle’s school rather than of Aristotle himself), where we’re told that the reason we yawn when we see others yawn is that we have a constant desire to yawn that we’re not aware of, and seeing someone else yawn triggers it,

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        • I default so automatically to the popular psychoanalytic reading that I find it hard to conceive of alternatives to it.

          Point taken about Aristotle on the subconscious (or unconscious), but even if we didn’t have the passages you cite (or they all turned out to be apocryphal), it strikes me as outlandish to infer that Aristotle didn’t have a conception of the subconscious or unconscious because he happened not to discuss it in a treatise. This is like saying he had no concept of the “terrible two’s” because he never happens to mentions it in NE, De Anima, or any other of his works on child development. Even for Aristotle, there had to have been some things he never got around to, and that didn’t fit the projects he was working on.

          I’ve always taken NE I.13 as evidence for something like a subconscious or unconscious (around 1102b13-30, sections 15-17 in Irwin’s 1999 translation). Aristotle doesn’t explicitly endorse or describe “the unconscious,” but he certainly leaves the door wide open for it in a way that invites a Freud to walk on through. The non-rational part of the soul “listens to reason” without itself being a rational part. But just as audibility comes in degrees, so (I’d think) does this non-rational part’s capacity to hear the voice of reason. If we turn the volume on “the voice of reason” way down, but still hear something, we get the subconscious; if we turn it off, but are still left with a dynamic source of motivation, we get something like a Freudian unconscious. If we get internal struggle amongst those semi-audible voices, whose internal struggles explain things like akrasia, we get the precursor of a psychodynamic account of mind. (“The voice of reason is a soft one…” etc.)

          Aristotle says that “we do not see” the source of motivational paralysis in the case of the psyche, but there is a part of the psyche “apart from reason, countering and opposing reason.” Precisely how it does so doesn’t matter for his purposes, but the dual aspect capacity he’s described is what the psychodynamic subconscious amounts to.


  2. I don’t have anything interesting to say at the level of theory. Personally: however it relates to Aristotle’s Poetics, I absolutely love tragedy of all sorts, for precisely the sort of reason that Sachs cites. Like nothing else, tragedy and sadness in art wakes me up to what is noble and valuable to me and to what I care about. Happily, for me, this process never gets short-circuited, so that the sadness is all that is there. Moments of sheer sadness or desolation that I have are sometimes strong, never persistent, never a response to tragic art. I’m not sure this makes sense or speaks well of me. I’ve experienced things that should, if experienced in art, overwhelm me, make me numb, make me feel nothing but sadness and desolation. It just doesn’t seem to work that way for me.

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    • That’s interesting. What’s an example of a tragic work that you respond to in that way?

      I’m particularly interested in your reaction to “A Star Is Born.” Ironically, you were right there with us when Alison and I watched it. As I’ve told you privately, I’ve suffered a kind of amnesia about that viewing. I now know that the three of us watched the film together (because you told me), but I don’t remember your presence there; I remember watching the film as though Alison and I were the only ones in the room. I know I was fully awake and attentive while watching the film, and yet I can’t remember a single scene in it with any vividness. I don’t remember the plot except in the haziest way. A few weeks after Alison’s death, I mentioned to someone that “A Star Is Born” was one of Alison’s favorite films; the person was stunned to discover that I had completely forgotten how the film ended (I’m putting it that vague way to avoid spoilers). Hard to imagine that anyone who had just seen the film a year earlier could completely have forgotten how it ends, but I had.

      Given my personal connection to the film–what the film is about, how it ends, how my marriage went awry, what my wife was trying to convey by having me watch the film, how her life ended–“A Star Is Born” is now a film I simply cannot watch, and can’t imagine ever watching anytime in the future. To say that it was one of Alison’s favorite films is an understatement. She was a film maniac, and when she fixated on a film, she would live in it; it would take over. She watched bits and pieces of “A Star Is Born” incessantly in the last months of our time together, and played the music from it constantly for months before we ever watched it together. I knew it meant something profoundly important to her, and partly watched it for that reason, but felt trepidation at doing so. At some level, I knew that part of the point of watching it was for her to convey a message about our marriage, as held up to the standard of the relationship depicted in the film. I knew I would fall short of Bradley Cooper, and wasn’t relishing the thought of having to spend a couple of hours watching him outdo me in fiction.

      I suspect that I watched the film pre-occupied in thoughts of that sort, thoughts that are the very opposite of the sort of impersonalization Roderick was mentioning. I took the film personally even before I started watching it.

      Given all that, when I encounter anything to do with the film, the thought of Alison, her death, the manner of her death, and (for lack of a better term) my survivor’s guilt at being alive when she isn’t, crowds everything else out–in fact, crowds the film itself out. That feeling is partly the film’s doing, but partly a function of my particular circumstances. The result, though, is desolation. It absolutely is not a sense of waking up to the nobility or value of anything.

      In my present mental state (and the one I’ve been in for the past four months), Sachs’s claims sound like completely nonsense: “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.” The first part of that claim, before the semi-colon, makes perfect sense, but not the second part of that sentence, or the last sentence. Learning the worth of something by losing it is the most painful lesson anyone can learn. When you do, you learn the worth of what you’ve lost while calling to mind that *you* are partly responsible for losing it, and whether responsible or not, it’s something you’ll never get back. I don’t really see how that realization can be “lifted into a state of wonder.”

      Montaigne gets this much right: he describes the first moments of grief as “that bleak, dumb, and deaf stupor that benumbs us when accidents surpassing our endurance overwhelm us” (“Of Sadness”). But the first moment has a slow half-life. It lingers, and returns unpredictably, and with unpredictable force, at the most inopportune times.

      Were I to watch “A Star Is Born” tonight, I would not be ennobled; I’d be left bereft and incapable of functioning. I’m nearly rendered that way when I think about the movie, or let the music go through my head. I actually forced myself to watch the preview that’s embedded in the post, and that was enough to put me out of commission for awhile.

      If we assume that “A Star Is Born” is a tragedy in the relevant sense, then we can exclude (1). So either my grief is such as to make cathartic uplift impossible for me (as per 2), or there is no good reason to think that cathartic uplift is the “right” aesthetic response to a work of tragedy (as per 3). Even if (2) is true, I still think that a theory like Aristotle’s or Sachs’s needs an account of why the personal experience of tragedy should disqualify you as a candidate for having the “right” response to tragic art. Certainly, as Roderick suggests, a person in that situation lacks the impersonality that we characteristically bring to the experience of (certain kinds of) art. But tragedy is supposed to engage the emotions. And certain kinds of art are enhanced by the full-fledged experience of strong emotion–a hymn, for instance.

      In any case, our divergent responses to tragic art are interesting, especially given the similarity in our biographies and the nature of our personal losses.

      Of course, one factor here is just the passage of time. You were bereaved decades ago; I was bereaved months ago. Give me two decades, and I may start having the same reactions to tragic art that you do. Unlikely, but possible.

      Unfortunately, a lot of this is just naive theorizing off-the-cuff: I haven’t read Aristotle’s Poetics in ages, and barely scratched the surface of the secondary literature when I did.

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      • Well, I definitely respond to “A Star Is Born” that way. What makes that film particularly wrenching and uplifting for me is the psychological (and other) parallels between the Bradley Cooper character and a pretty close musician friend of ours who died recently in somewhat similar circumstances (I think we talked about this after we watched the movie, though you do not remember). A private agony and anxiety of never being good enough, never feeling safe and at peace, numbed by avoidance and alcohol, but never defeated — ending in this sort of personal demon winning and utter tragedy. Not even finding the “good” partner and lover being enough to tame the beast that drags you down. It’s all so awful, but my response reflects and underlines a genuine love and admiration for my deceased friend — the bonds there are strengthened and renewed by the film and by writing these words. And that just feels good even with the overwhelming sadness.

        Two contrasts. First, my response to the final scene of The Shawshank Redemption has the positive wonder and joy — I always cry tears of joy when this scene plays. I think this “gets me in touch with things that I care about most” in a way similar to the way that tragedy does (hard struggle and redemption affects me almost as much as tragedy). Second, though it is not precisely tragedy and my response is not sadness, my response to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is partly disgust but partly a sense of desolation, as if nothing matters to me. I’m imaging that the kind of thing you are experiencing has some of these elements, due to the sadness being overwhelming and due to how you think and feel about your connection to the similar tragedy with Alison. And that sounds truly awful. I would not want to watch “A Star Is Born” and feel only despair, not joy and love for my friend.

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        • Incredibly, I don’t remember our conversation about your friend at all. I find this stunning–literal amnesia. I was there, but it’s almost as though I wasn’t.

          And believe it or not, I’ve never watched “The Shawshank Redemption,” though I seem to have watched every scene in it. It played night after night in the break room when I worked in the OR, and whenever I popped in for a break, a different scene would be on. But I’ve never actually properly watched the film from beginning to end. I’m not sure it’s a tragedy.

          Sachs clearly regards Crime and Punishment as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, but also seems to think that the novel, as a genre, dilutes the force of tragic art, and by implication of tragic catharsis. It’s been so many decades since I’ve read Crime and Punishment that I no longer remember exactly how I reacted to it. I had a stronger reaction to Dostoevsky’s “The Demons,” which I read later on, but my reaction was neither desolation nor wonder nor catharsis. I’m not sure how to describe it, actually.

          I got a note offline from a friend tonight who told me that an Aristotle scholar (not Sachs) had read my post and objected that the works I mentioned were not genuine tragedies in Aristotle’s sense–in other words, that the post failed to take (1) seriously enough. That’s a very fair criticism. For Whom the Bell Tolls is almost certainly not an Aristotelian tragedy, and neither is My Mortal Enemy. I don’t remember “A Star Is Born” well enough to claim that it is one thing or another. So we’re left with Tristan und Isolde, which may or may not be a tragedy in the relevant sense. So my examples are probably idiosyncratic and ill-chosen. And my knowledge of Aristotle’s Poetics is itself somewhat dated and weak.

          That said, I think the problem remains: someone could fail to experience catharsis in response to a work of art that was indisputably an Aristotelian tragedy, and the question arises how this is to be explained without lapsing into (3).

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  3. Incidentally, Aristotle also talks about artistic catharsis in the Politics (book 8), and there is of course a minor scholarly industry of trying to figure out whether his account of catharsis there is the same as that in the Poetics.

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  4. The only time I felt something like catharsis in a tragedy was in a performance of Electra at Court Theater in Chicago. That is a very intimate setting. Here in Lynchburg, the Randolph college mounts a Greek drama every other year, true to all that the scholars know about Greek drama (staging, masks, music), in their outdoor Greek amphitheater. I don’t feel catharsis at the end of the tragedies. I don’t feel wonder in connection with any tragedy, in any form of presentation. I think perhaps what Aristotle said about Tragedy is in fact a cultured thing.

    I feel exaltation at the end of Tristan or Gotterdammerung, though for that the tragedy was not the root. The root is the human story of life and death and love. My favorite opera is Traviata, and that was so before it became, in broad stroke, my own story. In the fall of 1995, I watched (alone—period between Jer’s death and finding Walter) the Hopkins/Winger film SHADOWLANDS, which I’ve mentioned here. At the end, I wept, full-force. In large part I’m sure my resonance with them was from my own life story. I think Sachs is wrong in saying that the Tragedies of the Greeks or of Shakespeare are something in some way more that our own life stories. Rather, they are less. The are simply capturing for extended attention truth about us. The high stations of their characters are in fact getting in the way, although their high stations and big impacts do help to get one’s experience into realm of ourselves with our knowledge usually only dimly realized: that we are the importance.

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    • Amnesia is an amazing thing. Your comment reminded me of the fact that in the fall of 2015, I also happened to see Electra performed in a small theater–at Kean University (Union, New Jersey), directed by E. Teresa Choate, author of Electra USA: American Stagings of Sophocles’ Tragedies.

      It was a very good performance. I went home after the performance and wrote about it in my journal:

      I saw Electra tonight at Kean University. It’s late, and I’ve wasted a huge amount of time getting down to writing this, but I want to sketch at least a few thoughts. This was a college performance of Electra, with the predictable defects of college acting, but even so, it was ennobling and cathartic. …

      I couldn’t help thinking of Palestine while watching the play—of how occupation deranges, and how in particular it affects women. It’s strange that I hadn’t thought of that before I saw the play.

      I wonder if what’s essential to the tragic hero is his or her being unyielding in the wrong way, a deformity or mutation of integrity. Obviously, it’s more than that, but that’s part of it–a mutation of integrity due to trauma that calls for a heroism that the tragic hero lacks. What tragedy shows us is that trauma calls for heroism in those capable of it, but that when heroism fails in the face of trauma, it becomes grotesque. The same trauma simply destroys the non-hero. The hero has capacities that, if exercised, prevent destruction, but if inadequately exercised, produce pathology.

      …I pity Electra, and felt catharsis at the scenes involving the urn, but I don’t identify with her the way I did with Oedipus when I last read the Oedipus plays two years ago. I was surprised at how powerfully I did identify with Oedipus.

      That’s a spontaneous, essentially unedited excerpt from a journal entry written a few hours after watching the play (edited only in the sense that it’s excerpted). It’s practically Exhibit A for Sachs’s thesis: tragedy, catharsis, and wonderment in one package. I wish I could say that I don’t feel catharsis at the end of tragedies, but evidently I do.

      But in retrospect, and particularly after reading David Riesbeck’s comment below, I wonder (so to speak) whether I really knew what I was talking about when I used the word “catharsis” in that entry. At any rate, I no longer know what I was talking about. I remember that the play genuinely moved me, and stimulated a great deal of thought. I had spent my first summer in Palestine just a few months before I saw the play, so my thoughts about that trip clearly fed my thoughts about the play. I didn’t feel desolation at its conclusion (despite its conclusion). Whether right or wrong, my journal writing about it is lucid, and not in the grips of some particular passion or emotion. Whatever emotion I felt was “cool” enough not to consume me.

      But in some ways, I’m a little suspicious of my own detachment. A play about someone’s grief is very different from grief. Being moved by a play about grief is very different from being taken to the ground by one’s own grief. Given the distance between the two things, there almost seems something phony and artificial about the dramatic performance. Almost. I wouldn’t quite cross the line into a wholehearted assertion of the thought itself.

      “Shadowlands” is another of the million movies out there that I’ve never seen.

      I’ll have to think about what you say about the scale of tragic characters as getting in the way of what tragic art is trying to do. I’m torn on what to say there. On the one hand, having just read My Mortal Enemy, one aesthetic problem with the book is that the main character has too small a stature as a character to elicit our full interest or sympathy. On the other hand, in real life, we fall in love with and grieve people who are less-than-giants in stature, and perhaps most remember and grieve the smallest things about them. What that means, I don’t really know.

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  5. I think the questions you raise about Aristotle in particular are interesting but only tangentially relevant to the deeper questions you raise about your own changed experience with literature and drama of a roughly tragic sort. You can’t be the only person to have undergone a change like that. Probably many others who have not undergone such a change have nonetheless always responded emotionally to such works in something like the way you find yourself responding now. I don’t think settling Aristotelian interpretive disputes will help much with understanding what is going on there and why.

    There is virtually no chance of resolving the central Aristotelian interpretive disputes, anyway. Roderick mentions disagreements about how to understand katharsis, but he significantly understates the problems. The texts say nothing about what katharsis is, and all scholarly interpretations are almost entirely conjectural. I myself find the relatively more recent ‘clarification’ interpretations (e.g., Golden, ‘Catharsis’, Nussbaum, ‘Tragedy and Self-Sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Pity and Fear’) more persuasive than older ‘purgation’ and ‘purification’ interpretations, but there are others, too, and they’re all mostly speculative and not unreasonable. It is hard to believe, though, that katharsis is really supposed to be of central importance given that Aristotle says nothing more about it aside from its appearance in the definition of tragedy. One reason to prefer clarification interpretations is that they make it plausible that the Poetics is elsewhere describing katharsis without using the term, so the interpretive situation is not entirely hopeless. Yet it has also been argued, pretty plausibly to my mind, that the word katharsis never appeared in the Poetics and only got into our manuscripts due to scribal errors (Scott, ‘Purging the Poetics’, Veloso, ‘Aristotle’s Poetics without Katharsis, Pity, or Fear’). So far as I know that view has not caught on, but that is probably due more to the weight of tradition than to sober assessment of the reasoning. In either case, I do not think katharsis is an important element of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy.

    Katharsis aside, while there is room to think that works like the ones you discuss could count as Aristotelian tragedies in an extended sense, it’s pretty clear that none of them fits his idea of the genre very well. Then again, many Greek tragedies do not seem to fit his idea of the genre very well, especially once we get beyond the role of pity and fear and consider the sorts of plots and characters that he regards as tragic. Most modern readers think that a play like Euripides’ Trojan Women is obviously tragic, but it seems not to fit Aristotle’s theory of tragedy aside from evoking pity and fear. Most modern readers think that a play like Euripides’ Iphigenia at Tauris is not really tragic in the least, because it has a happy ending in which nobody really suffers; they regard it as romance or melodrama. Yet in chapter 14 of the Poetics Aristotle cites Iphigenia at Tauris as an example of the best kind of tragic plot, superior even to Oedipus Tyrannos, the play most people think Aristotle regarded as the ideal tragedy. Some good sense can be made of this preference on its own terms (e.g., Stephen White, ‘Aristotle’s Favorite Tragedies’), but it goes to show that the Poetics‘ conception of tragedy is doubly distinct from our own: it’s about Greek tragic plays rather than modern forms of literature or drama, and its notion of what is essential or best in those tragic plays is at variance with most modern readers’ sense of what makes them tragic.

    We can, of course, find fairly close analogues of Aristotelian tragedy in modern literature and drama. One of my favorite examples from film is George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, which, as Cynthia Freeland observed, fits the Aristotelian pattern perfectly: (“The film employs a narrative structure of reversal of fortune from happiness to unhappiness, where the good person suffers and ultimately dies through no fault of his own, evoking pity and fear from the audience”). I find it preposterous, though, to regard Crime and Punishment as an Aristotelian tragedy; Raskolnikov is not a basically good guy who moves from happiness to unhappiness through no fault of his own, and in fact it is not wholly clear that Raskolnikov, or Dostoevsky’s characters more generally, can be adequately understood within the framework of an Aristotelian theory of moral character. If anything, Dostoevsky’s remarkable achievement is to make perversely vicious people like Raskolnikov objects of pity; “Dostoevsky’s sympathy for the criminal is in fact boundless,” perhaps the only thing Freud got right.

    But all that is a distraction from your deeper question. I do not have much to offer in answer to it aside from a few speculations. Is the difference in your responses to these roughly ‘tragic’ works partly a matter of their now evoking real emotions that you have about real objects (people, events, etc) in your own life? It’s a commonplace that the emotions we feel toward fiction differ significantly from what we would feel in life, but my own experience suggests that there’s an important difference between what I feel when reading about terrible things happening to real people and events and what I feel when those sorts of things happen to people I know and care about. It’s perhaps too simple to call the latter ‘real’ emotions, because the others aren’t exactly fake. They’re relatively comfortable, though, even when they are fairly intense and negative, because of the distance involved. I am viscerally moved every time I read The Brothers Karamazov, even though those people have never existed*; I was viscerally moved when reading this piece about restorative justice by a rape survivor. It makes a difference that the second is a real story about a real person, but I can only imagine how different my emotions would be if those things happened to someone I know well and care about. I’m not willing to say that I underwent any catharsis reading it, but whatever I underwent just can’t be what I would experience if that happened to me or someone close to me. More to the point of your question, I imagine that if something like that had happened to me or someone close to me, I would have had very different emotions in reading it. I have never been a fan of trigger warnings, but that essay has one for the very good reason that people directly affected by the kind of violence it vividly describes would understandably find it overwhelmingly devastating, to use your word.

    These examples differ from yours, and so too might the kind of devastation involved. Might they not be fairly closely related, though? That is, do you find yourself feeling devastated rather than experiencing paradoxical tragic pleasures and ennobling catharsis because right now at least these works aren’t just evoking emotions about the characters and events described in the works, but about your own life, yourself, and people you have cared about? Tragic emotions can be ennobling, rewarding, even pleasant in a way because they’re not emotions about yourself or people you care about. I don’t have any illuminating theoretical account of that difference to offer, but it seems like that’s the difference.

    [* Note: in fact, Dostoevsky took many of the examples of suffering children in Ivan Karamazov’s speech in Book V, chapter 4 (“Rebellion”) from real life, and I suppose that does make a difference; it seems to impact most of my students when I tell them. My most intense emotional reactions, however, are to characters that figure directly in the plot, particularly the Snegiryov family.]

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    • That makes loads of sense. Actually, I should explain that I didn’t set out to try to understand my predicament by reflecting on Aristotle’s Poetics. In a way, things happened the other way around. I’ve been re-engaging recently, not with Aristotle’s Poetics but with the Nicomachean Ethics–after decades away from the text. What I was actually trying to think through for myself (in writing I’m doing offline, none of which has so far found its way here) was Aristotle’s very brief account of nemesis, envy, and spite at NE II.7. As a kind of digression, I got to thinking about how to differentiate the pleasure of tragic pity as Aristotle’s describes it, from spite.

      In reading Sachs to re-acquaint myself with the topic, it occurred to me as a footnote to all of the preceding that I my recent reactions to “tragic”-ish works was at odds with what he takes to be the paradigmatic or correct reaction to tragedy in Aristotle’s sense. I used my own situation to illustrate what I took to be a defect of his thesis. Given the way I did that, I ended up generating a major puzzle about my own situation. Eventually, the one inquiry began to blur into the other, but it didn’t start that way. The best laid schemes of mice and men…

      But I agree: trying to get a purchase on my own issues by getting clear on Aristotle’s Poetics is bound to be even more of a fool’s errand than most of my ventures tend to be, and for the very reasons you give. That said, this passage is a bit paradoxical:

      It is hard to believe, though, that katharsis is really supposed to be of central importance given that Aristotle says nothing more about it aside from its appearance in the definition of tragedy

      I get that, but then, it’s hard to believe that it would have made its appearance in his definition of tragedy if he regarded it as being of peripheral importance. This would be like thinking that the doctrine of the mean was of peripheral importance to his ethical theory–a thought that many people have had, but that seems wrong (or so Paula Gottlieb has argued, and I basically agree with her).

      Not having read the Poetics in ages, I have to confess to being one of those people who think that Aristotle regarded Oedipus Rex as the ideal tragedy.

      I agree with you on Dostoevsky. Contrary to the view I ascribed to him, Sachs doesn’t come out and say that Crime and Punishment is an Aristotelian tragedy. What he actually says is:

      The tragedians I have in mind are five: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; Shakespeare, who differs from them only in time; and Homer, who differs from them somewhat more, in the form in which he composed, but shares with them the things that matter most. I could add other authors, such as Dostoyevski, who wrote stories of the tragic kind in much looser literary forms, but I want to keep the focus on a small number of clear paradigms.

      When I first read that last sentence, I took it to be a reference to Dostoevsky’s novels, in parallel with the claim about Shakespeare’s tragedies, i.e., that Dostoevsky’s greatest works, like Shakespeare’s, were tragedies. Hence my inference that Crime and Punishment was a tragedy in the same sense. But I think Sachs may have meant Dostoevsky’s short stories, not his novels.

      Actually, I don’t really know what he meant. You’re just right that “it is not wholly clear that Raskolnikov, or Dostoevsky’s characters more generally, can be adequately understood within the framework of an Aristotelian theory of moral character.” I’m curious what you think about the Shakespeare reference, though: does Shakespeare differ from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides “only in time” (taken charitably)? Interestingly, Sachs spends some space on King Lear, but at least as much on The Tempest, which is not regarded as a tragedy. His commentary on it strikes me as reasonable.

      As for your suggestion at the end, it’s perfectly intelligible and coherent, but not (fully) explanatory in my case. You ask:

      Is the difference in your responses to these roughly ‘tragic’ works partly a matter of their now evoking real emotions that you have about real objects (people, events, etc) in your own life?

      The answer is yes. And the “now” in question feels permanent. Whether illusory or not, I can’t imagine having a different reaction in the future. It’s as though I’ve turned an emotional and aesthetic corner of some kind.

      As to your other question,

      That is, do you find yourself feeling devastated rather than experiencing paradoxical tragic pleasures and ennobling catharsis because right now at least these works aren’t just evoking emotions about the characters and events described in the works, but about your own life, yourself, and people you have cared about?

      The answer here is a conditional “yes.” I guess my quibble is with the “rather than.” I now find talk of “paradoxical tragic pleasures and ennobling catharsis” unreal. You can see a bit of what I mean in my comment on “Electra,” responding to Stephen Boydstun above.

      Put it this way: in my current state, some works of tragic art make me re-live my own traumas, and so, make things worse than they have to be. But it doesn’t matter whether what I’m reading is about real people or fictional ones. The reaction is the same. Coming the other way around, I also find that in the name of a kind of emotional self-protection, I limit my exposure to emotionally painful stimulli, where that includes exposure both to non-fictional stories about real people, as well as fictional stories about fictional people.

      This goes back to a comment of Roderick’s. I think that there is a distinctive emotional space that has to open up for a person to be able to enjoy great works of art, and be ennobled by them. When you experience personal tragedy, that emotional space constricts, possibly to the point of collapsing in on itself. If the space is available, you can respond either to real-life happenings, or fictional ones. Yes, the fictional ones will elicit a lesser degree of intensity, but so will the real-life happenings about far-away people. I can see the images, but have forgotten the names, of all the people I’ve ever met in Palestinian refugee camps, Nicaraguan slums, or Lakota Sioux Indian Reservations. Am I more moved by them than I am by the child-protagonist of “Capernaum” who so powerfully evokes them?

      It’s a draw.

      Once that emotional space collapses, I think one loses one’s capacity to respond either to fictional or real-life tragedy in a full-fledged way. Every tragedy is either related to one’s own, or comes to appear irrelevant. One becomes a captive of two extremes divorced from any mean–hyper-sensitivity or insensibility. There is some nameless mean between them–“sensitivity to the morally and psychologically salient”–that gets blunted.

      I guess my disagreement with you is disagreement over the importance of the fictional/non-fictional distinction. Obviously, I’m not denying the legitimacy of the distinction, or denying that it plays some role of the sort you mention. But I don’t think it’s doing the real work here. Stephen Boydstun’s reaction to “Shadowlands” (above) could just as well have happened to someone who hadn’t had his experiences of bereavement, and was watching a movie about completely fictional characters. Some works of art just are that way. My reaction wasn’t quite that intense, but I felt something like that about Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean in the 2012 film version of Les Miserables.

      He seemed as real as anyone I’d ever met, as did everyone in that film.

      So while this is in the ballpark, I don’t think it’s quite right:

      Tragic emotions can be ennobling, rewarding, even pleasant in a way because they’re not emotions about yourself or people you care about.

      Tragic emotions can be ennobling if you have the space for them. Once you lack the space for them, you lose the capacity to feel them that way, whether the object is fictional or real. It’s the emotional vicinity of the emotion itself that becomes off-limits.

      As a parting thought on this, I wonder if getting stuck there isn’t the crux of many tragic characters. Tragic characters are often characters stuck in their grief, unable to see that their grief is human grief, not a sui generis predicament of its own. I think of Electra, Shylock, and Achilles in this connection (even if the Iliad isn’t a tragedy)–three characters lost in a grief that is excessive because it passes human limits; it’s no longer seen as a token of a recurring type of experience that other people have experienced. That, I think, is the psychological genesis of a great deal of tragedy, in real life as in art.


      • I’m not sure we disagree about the relevance of the fictional/non-fictional distinction. I take it that the distinction ceases to matter in cases like yours, because both fiction and non-fictional accounts give rise to emotions that have real-life, intimate objects other than the people and things that the fictional/non-fictional account is about. Where I think fiction and non-fiction differ significantly is for people who, like me when reading Dostoevsky or Melinda Ribnek, are led to emotions that have for their objects only the fictional or non-fictional figures described. I react differently to Ribnek’s story of herself than I do to Dostoevsky’s Snegiryovs because I believe she’s a real person and they’re not; for others with different background experiences, the difference would be minimal or non-existent because they’d be led to emotions that weren’t just about strangers or fictional characters. That fits my experience, anyway.

        On Shakespeare, I would say that Shakespeare’s tragedies are tragedies in the same sense that Sophocles’ tragedies are tragedies. Perhaps we have to think of that as a genus that includes Greek and Shakespearean tragedy as significantly different species. I say this, though, with limited experience; in the past four years I’ve read and / or taught Shakespeare’s major tragedies minus Romeo & Juliet plus Merchant, which is pretty tragic despite being generically a comedy, but I’ve taught them at a high school level that involves mostly making sure we understand what’s going on and what the basic issues are. So I know much less about Shakespeare than I do about Greek tragedy. In any case, it seems to me that the connection is not accidental; Shakespeare wrote as part of a tradition that was directly influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics, so Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy has a hand in making Shakespeare’s tragedies what they are.

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        • In thinking about your first paragraph, I not only think you’re right, but think that you’re on to something important that helps resolve my initial puzzle. This sentence is what does it:

          I take it that the distinction ceases to matter in cases like yours, because both fiction and non-fictional accounts give rise to emotions that have real-life, intimate objects other than the people and things that the fictional/non-fictional account is about.

          Being me, locked in my own head, I tend to forget that cases like mine are not the only one, or perhaps not the usual one. So it had not occurred to me see my way of experiencing fiction as a “case like yours,” as though there were other cases, or other kinds of case. But evidently, there are.

          On refleciton, it certainly is true that I have a tendency to enhance the “realism” of fiction by permitting my experience of it to “give rise to emotions that have real-life intimate objects other than the people and things that the fictional-non-fictional account is about.” I do this so habitually that I often forget that it not only isn’t the universally-adopted way of experiencing fiction, but is, in a sense, not a way of experiencing fiction qua fiction at all. It’s a way of using fiction to enhance one’s access to real-life phenomena.

          Put it this way: if, while reading or watching Les Miserables, you experience Fantine not so much as Hugo’s fictional character Fantine, but as a fictional proxy for the real-life Fantine-like-person-you-happen-to-know (or once knew), there’s a sense in which you’re bypassing Hugo’s Fantine and substituting one of your own, potentially in a way that distorts your experience of the novel. That may be overstated, but less controversially, my point is: in that case, your experience of the novel is not entirely aesthetic; it’s a blend of the personal and the aesthetic. Whether there is a right way or a wrong way to respond to fiction, there obviously is a difference between a personalized and an aesthetic experience of a work of fiction, and a trade-off involved in adopting the one or the other.

          It may just be that somewhere along the line, I lost my capacity to respond to fictional characters in a purely fictional way, and came to habituate the tendency to respond to them as proxies for real-life people. I suppose all readers do this to some extent, and perhaps doing it is to some extent unavoidable. But there’s also the danger of missing the point of fiction by using fiction for a fundamentally non-aesthetic, non-fictional end. I wonder if this explains why people become so rigid about art over time. If you use art as a means of evoking non-fictional people and experiences, you’ll have a tendency to lock into precisely that genre or style of art that does so, for you. Everything else will come to seem alien and pointless.

          I wonder also whether this habit originated in my having a fundamentally Scriptural point of entry into fiction. The thing about stories from Scripture is that if one experiences them as a believer (as I did), one doesn’t regard them as fictional but as a quasi-historical chronicle of real life. And one inculcates the habit of treating them as somewhat literal, or at least analogical, guides *to* life. Michael Walzer makes that point about “Exodus Politics.” But that’s not how fiction works.

          All of this is a long-winded TMI way of saying that (2) probably explains a lot in my case. If you use fiction to evoke real life-experiences, then when you read or watch tragedy, what you’ll end up doing is re-living the most traumatic episodes of your own life, or of the lives of people close to you (or both). And then, catharsis and the sense of tragic ennoblement will become impossible. Tragic art will just become a kind of trauma-addicting drug (which, I suppose, is not far from how Plato thought of it).

          I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but that’s at least part of the story.


        • Gotcha on Shakespeare. How do your students respond to Shakespeare, by the way? Any thoughts on the value (or not) of having high school students read Shakespeare? I read Shakespeare in high school–Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth are what I remember–and was surprised (then) by how much I enjoyed it. But I don’t think that’s the universal experience. And Michael Huemer has famously trashed the reading of Shakespeare altogether:


          • I’d say Huemer is right insofar as one of his premises is that high school students often do not get a whole lot out of Shakespeare. I just deny that that’s a suitable reason to stop teaching it. The situation with Shakespeare is just a more extreme version of the situation with all the literature and philosophy that we teach in high school: students comprehend only a small portion of what is there to comprehend and their appreciation is often limited. The goal is not to give them a more or less complete understanding, which would only be possible with the simplest children’s literature, if that. It’s to give them the experience of engaging with complex texts and ideas and to plant the seeds of fuller comprehension and appreciation. I myself was taught Shakespeare badly and did not understand much of it, but I was left with the impression that there was something rich, deep, and beautiful there. Of course I didn’t literally need to have had that experience in high school in order to come to appreciate it more later on, but it helped. Many students do not go on to appreciate Shakespeare, but the same is true of history and mathematics, which people like Huemer presumably think ought to be taught. If he or others like him take the primary purpose of elementary and high school education to be training students in ‘useful skills,’ then it’s inappropriate to focus on Shakespeare when most of the literature, history, and even math and science that schools teach would do just as well. If instead we’re taking for granted a traditional liberal arts framework, then there are interesting questions about whether Shakespeare is worth teaching rather than something else, but no very strong case against Shakespeare in general, to my mind, as opposed to teaching Shakespeare badly.

            That said, I’m still working on not teaching it badly. I got good discussions out of Henry V and The Merchant of Venice, but I’ve had less success with Hamlet and Lear, though showing students Anthony Hopkins as Lear has managed to make them feel something of what I take it they’re supposed to.


  6. Thanks to everyone who commented; this conversation was extremely helpful to me, in part for exposing my ignorance, and in part for stimulating me to rectify it. In the fit of enthusiasm prompted by this discussion, I’ve gone out and bought Dana LaCourse Munteanu’s Tragic Pathos: Pity and Fear in Greek Philosophy and Tragedy, and Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us. Combined with Riesbeck’s recommendations, I should be able to read and digest this stuff in no time, emerging an expert in the subject within the next several decades, assuming I live that long.

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