Agony and the ecstasy

Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?
July 26, 1996

Causerie: the term is old-fashioned but exact. A text arising out of some spoken occasion, out of lectures or conversation. Digressive, informal, wary of emphatic conclusions. A touch avuncular and brief, however portentous the theme. That of A. D. Nuttall's reflections is probably as ancient as literature itself. It almost certainly pre-dates Aristotle. "Why does tragedy give pleasure?" An even more perplexing question is omitted: "Why do we revisit, reread the performances of tragic plays or texts, however harrowing, however familiar? Why would we experience a very special unease or even nausea if, unannounced, Oedipus suddenly accepted Jocasta's advice not to probe further and the catastrophe was averted?" Nuttall ponders the straightforward paradox. Greek and Shakespearian tragic drama - he adverts only glancingly at other modes - exhibits human suffering, desolation, unmotivated ruin and even physical horror (those blindings, mutilations and murders). Yet we do not leave the playhouse (or the reading) crushed, despairing and hoping to avoid such display in future. On the contrary. Our sensibility is complexly enriched and, somehow, rewarded. We register, in Nuttall's thoughtful phrase, "a strange sweetness of grief and fear". Unquestionably, this "strange sweetness" has positive elements. It can provoke, at great depths of consciousness and understanding, a kind of dynamic peace, a tensed equilibrium. Given the reach and wealth of this sensation, the word "pleasure" may, indeed, be too slight. Schelling's "reason in ecstasy" or Nietzsche's "gaiety" seem closer.

Aristotle asked the question, most famously. Dante did by inference. It was reiterated by Neo-Aristotelians throughout the renaissance. It busied Corneille. Freud made a characteristic stab at it. Joyce, that arch-Aristotelian and Thomist, sought to elucidate the necessities, the attractions that tie us to the sufferings at the heart of things. If Nuttall is right, however, the history and development of the inquiry, certainly in the western legacy, is that of variants on Aristotle's Poetics and the katharsis-model.

The opening discussion of this endlessly vexed concept - part medical, part aesthetic, perhaps in some regards political - shows Nuttall at his very best. It is at once subtle and penetrating, authoritative and scrupulously provisional. Katharsis attaches to the audience rather than to any imitation of heroic disaster. It is "audience psychology" that must be taken vitally into account. We ought to think of a "psychic discharge, the process of which is not noticed though its consequence is felt". This "really does explain why pleasure might be possible for people watching a tragedy". This finding may seem somewhat banal, but it has been achieved by patient argument. Notable, moreover, is Nuttall's examination of Sidney as a substantial contributor to the poetics of mimesis and reception.

Given its brevity, the discussion leaps almost directly to Freud. Aristotle, "despite his use of the alimentary analogy", probably did not believe in any innocently physiological tragic "purgation". Freud, according to Nuttall, "did believe something of this sort". Much in his positivist, biological bias points to a medical-therapeutic reading of our responses to tragedy. Satisfaction in the tragic follows on our ability to master and "discharge in a controlled way" darkness and pathologies in the psyche. Yet, at more complex and observant stages, Freud "went for real poetic force linked to a potentially destructive libidinal drive". This second model would concur with Nuttall's or William Blake's design of "energies quickened by a kind of psychic exercise" (where such "quickening" per se yields a particular human pleasure-stimulus). Nuttall puts it precisely: tragedy "requires a peculiar stillness in the watcher, together with strenuous activity in that watcher's sympathetic imagination".

In conclusion, this hypothesis is applied to King Lear. The argument is subtle and tentative. If tragedy pleases because it exhibits the worst we can imagine ennobled by poetic form "with that kind of intelligible sequence which is ultimately eloquent of control", Lear extends the display of destruction to every aspect of dramatic-verbal structure. It is this "enactment" that engulfs the spectator. Nuttall acknowledges the force of Dr Johnson's famous dissent from the finalities of unmerited horror in the play. For his part, however, he "enjoys the process" of being shaken to the depths. For "at the level of initial arousal even terror is fun, as everyone who has been on a fairground ride knows perfectly well. Can we not, in the face of this obvious truth, cut short our grand theorising and say simply, 'Pity and fear are fun'?" The coda is designedly casual and donnish: "Nor, by the way, do I regard the problem of tragedy as wholly solved."

This "by the way" does, perhaps, lead to all manner of essential vistas not touched on in this often insightful and modest amble. Is it really useful to dissociate the matter of tragic drama from its immense metaphysical-theological charge, a charge at the heart of its ancient origins and as incommensurably present in the Oresteia as it is in Lear or End Game? As the late Donald MacKinnon has shown in his several meditations on tragedy and the tragic, the terrifying yet enthralling mysteries, in the exact sense of that term, of an Antigone or an Othello are integrally related to those of agony and resurrection in the western religious tradition. They attach to Pascal's bleak paradox on the constancy of Christ's agony "till the end of time and the world".

This attachment is crucial to Racine, a thinker on tragedy no less pivotal than Sophocles or Shakespeare. Racine chooses tragic plots out of antiquity because of the cruel enigma whereby those damned by their culpability in some age prior to the birth and ministry of Jesus are damned eternally.

Even on the mundane level, moreover, there are theories of tragic pleasure worth a closer look. One cannot dismiss in a phrase that of Schadenfreude, closely argued by Lucretius among others. The cruelties, the egotism latent in all of us, breathe with tensed ease when witnessing the miseries of others, when seeing the shipwreck from the safety of the shore. There is, furthermore, a little understood, but probably fundamental mechanism of self-flattering in desolation. Catastrophe, even when it touches us closely, somehow complements and dignifies our psyche. We grow darkly taller as we report on it to others. Watch the successive "rebounds" of children when receiving bad news and confessing it to their peers. Comedy, a more elusive genre, and one about which only a handful of major critical hypotheses have been offered, does not flatter. Even at its blackest, tragedy does. Only some such deep-lying psychic recognition can provide clues to the problem I mentioned before: that of repetition. We go to see, we read the same tragic drama over and again. An unannounced "happy end" would leave us bereft and even incensed. Perhaps Nuttall will return to this puzzle: he is admirably qualified to do so.

George Steiner is a fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge.

Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?

Author - A. D. Nuttall
ISBN - 0 19 818371 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £20.00
Pages - 110

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