chapter  1
10 Pages

The Aesthetic Pleasure of Tragedy in Western and Indian Thought

ByChantal Maillard

Treatises on Aesthetics often discuss beauty or art without reference to a question of major interest, namely, aesthetic pleasure, that peculiar pleasure which a particular work produces in the receptor. It is a question of such importance that I would go so far as to say that, whoever fully explained the nature of this pleasure, would also discover the key to the no less important problem of the essence of art. What sort of pleasure is aesthetic pleasure? What produces it? There may

be more than one answer to these questions. Indeed, there may be more than one sort of aesthetic pleasure, or it may derive from coalescence of various other pleasures, in themselves non-aesthetic. Among the answers that have been given throughout history, we would have to distinguish between those which explain it within a theory of emotions and those which attribute it to intellectual activity. What kind of pleasure, for example, is the pleasure of imitation? And what about the pleasure we find in a ‘good’ construction of a play? Should such a pleasure, the appreciation of elements skilfully woven into a whole, be understood as an artistic rather an aesthetic pleasure? To distinguish between aesthetic and artistic pleasure would dispel many

difficulties at a stroke, but it would presume agreement on their respective spheres of activity, a matter that remains unsettled to this day. Here is an attempted definition of the two spheres: aesthetics has to do with

the emotional reception of an aesthetic object, be it a work of art or not; the artistic, on the other hand, relates to the composition of a work and the reception of it as such. Following from this, aesthetic pleasure would be emotional in kind, whereas artistic pleasure would relate to the idea of organization applying both to the action (artistic creation) and to the cognition (the reception of the work of art). Art is the result of a work of composition; the one who receives it as a work of art, perceives the composition and finds pleasure in it, but this is a pleasure of appreciation on the intellectual level, not the emotional. Nonetheless, we should not be in a hurry to commend this distinction. It is

a common mistake in classification to use pigeon-holes and close off other

possibilities such as lateral associations, similitudes and metaphors, the use of which can open up new fields. When we find pleasure in the reception of a work of art, what kind of

pleasure are we speaking of ? Having perceived it, what is it that is giving us pleasure? Or maybe it is not a ‘what’, a cause of pleasure, but a ‘how’. How do we perceive? Is there an aesthetic way of perceiving? Is there such a thing as an aesthetic attitude? And thus, is there such a thing as an aesthetic subject? If we consider the history of fiction in the medium of dramatic

representation, we will find there all the elements we need for thinking about all the different forms of aesthetic/artistic pleasure. In exploring the nature of the pleasure of representation, we will be duly led to inquire into the pleasures of imitation, composition, and, also, of course, empathy. For drama certainly requires both good composition by the author in his construction of the plot, and the skilfulness of the actors as they interpret, that is to say, simulate the action. But the intention of a playwright is seeking the spectators’ emotional involvement in the action. The appreciation of the structure of the play, its internal coherence and its

interpretation by the actors are pleasures of the intellect which the spectator gets by distancing himself critically from the action. It is an action of judgement, where the critic treats the work as an object of judgement. Emotional affect, on the other hand, occurs when the spectator involves himself in the play, distancing himself from what he is in daily life. As a subject in front of the work, the affected spectator actually loses his subjectness. Can both things happen simultaneously, judgement and emotion, in the

aesthetic experience? Do they fuse together, and is their fusion what causes the spectator to ‘weep pleasurably’ with the representation of a tragic event (notice the preposition ‘with’, not ‘at’)? The question of the nature of aesthetic pleasure may be clarified more easily

if we begin by analysing the negative emotions, those which in real life we find disagreeable. The positive emotions would not serve our purpose as well, since in their case it is more difficult to distinguish between the pleasure produced by the real object and that evoked by its representation. So then, to establish the nature of aesthetic pleasure in a representation, we must ask why we find pleasure in the tragic. How can something, disagreeable in reality, give us pleasure when represented on stage or screen? Why do we go to the cinema to ‘weep’? Why are we attracted by the tragic, the terrible, the fearsome, the horrific? Descartes already alluded to this in his Treatise on the Passions of the Soul

(IV). For him, it was an intellectual pleasure deriving from the awareness of feeling affected. What pleases us, thought Descartes, was not so much our being moved, as our awareness of being moved. But Descartes’s answer falls short of a solution to the problem. A little thought on the matter soon tells us that consciousness of being affected can accompany any affect at any time: we

can think and be conscious of thinking without it causing us pleasure; we can suffer severe pain in a real-life situation and observe that pain with a detached consciousness, but our awareness of what is going on will not cause us the least pleasure. Abbot Du Bos, in the seventeenth century1 held that any state of mind was

preferable to tedium and, for relief, we should try to excite any passion, even a painful one. Hume rejected this view,2 since plainly, in real life, pain remains pain, whatever it does for our boredom. However, it seems evident that ‘the heart likes to be moved’, and

Fontenelle3 developed the idea with a theory about the continuity of the emotions. Pain and pleasure were nothing but the two extremes of an emotional continuum, so that any pleasure, when intensified, could convert into pain, and any pain, when reduced, converts into pleasure. Thus, there could be a light and agreeable grief such as we experience at the theatrical representation in which the feeling of sorrow is softened by our awareness of the unreality of what we are witnessing. Although suspended or subsumed by the spectator’s absorption in the performance, this awareness of its pretence would still be effective in softening emotional distress. Hume makes a surprising criticism of this theory. He agrees that the more

pathetic and realistic the description, the more pleasing it is, but he further asserts that the same satisfaction occurs when the audience is hearing a true story, and so the element of fiction can have no bearing on the matter. Hume could be right if, by fiction, we understand the representation of

something that never happened. But the awareness of falseness to which Fontenelle refers has nothing to do with the authenticity of the story represented. Indeed, it may apply to what is not a story at all, but another category of representation. What is being represented, or, in other words, offered for our recognition in representation, may be gestures, impressions, situations, or, an assembly of elements which together would make up a drama. The falseness to which Fontenelle alludes is simply the pretence of it all: ‘what’s going on here and now, is not a real life event’. But the audience’s awareness of fiction cannot be brushed aside as easily as

Hume seems to do it, since it goes to the heart of what representation is, its very definition, and those means of expression which Hume, as we shall presently see, uses in his own answer. For Joseph Addison,4 that kind of pleasure derives from the feeling of

security we experience on realizing we ourselves are safe. This is not an immediate pleasure arising from an empathetic surge, says Addison, but the result of a comparative judgement the receptor makes between himself and the sufferers represented, and from the reasoned conviction that those dreadful objects or events cannot harm us. And the more horrific the scene depicted, the stronger our feeling of security, so that we can respond to the terrors of a representation with the same curiosity and satisfaction with which we would inspect a dead monster. Tragedy, for Addison, invites us to enjoy the relief of our own security. And if we do not experience pleasure on seeing

someone suffer in reality it is because we are so vividly impressed by the event before us that we do not have enough time or composure for reflection on our own condition. There is no place for empathy in Addison’s theory; he focuses solely on the

monad, the closed individuality which, through reflection, explores its own limits. Could aesthetic pleasure be defined as the pleasure of relief? Edmund Burke

criticized that view5 in this sense: the feeling of relief is the fruit of reasoning, and that reasoning always takes place after pleasure. Thus, the pleasure we find in the misfortunes of others is prior to any reflection. However, Burke’s answer seems no better than Addison’s: instead of the pleasure of security, he proposes the pleasure of sympathy. The pleasure we find in the contemplation of the misfortunes of others – on screen or in real life – is due to the need we have of showing solidarity with them. If compassion were a painful feeling we would avoid those who needed it most. Terror, says Burke, is an emotion which in moderation produces delight, and compassion a pleasurable feeling, as it derives from love and social affection. Because of this, and the fact that a representation is always imperfect compared with reality, the pleasure will be even more vivid in the face of real misfortune. This is why we read reports on actual incidents with even more interest than we do novels. When nowadays in the West reality shows are getting the highest TV

ratings, we should certainly give serious consideration to Burke’s words including that graphic illustration he gives of his argument. If the most popular drama was about to begin at a theatre, and word suddenly got round that a criminal was being tried in the neighbouring square, the theatre would quickly empty. If, then, we are attracted by calamities and misfortunes of others, and so far from avoiding them, actually go out of our way to witness them, with that mixture of dread and fascination we have labelled ‘morbid’, the motivation, according to Burke, is empathy. Clearly, Burke’s theory does not explain the nature of aesthetic pleasure,

though his criticism of fiction may be very relevant, certainly it is not the fictional element that produces the surge of sympathy and the pleasure that comes with it, but it is fiction that generates the aesthetic pleasure. And this is the point: whether we are witnessing a theatrical spectacle or a real one, in both cases a spectacle is involved. Or, to express it differently: could I get pleasure from observing a tragedy in any other way than by observing it from a distance? It is this very distance which gives me to know I am safe, a distance

indispensable, as Burke himself puts it elsewhere (and this same reasoning was later taken up by Kant and Schiller) for experiencing a sense, aesthetic by any reckoning, of the sublime. And when this distance stands between a real event and us is that event not converted into a spectacle? The question now presents itself in slightly different form: what is it in the

spectacle that gives rise to this pleasure? What does the pleasure of representation consist of? The answers we have seen would seem to explain

the pleasure of the tragic as something adventitious to the representation itself. Du Bos and Fontenelle leaned towards the pleasure of feeling moved. For Addison, it was a combination of the pleasure of recognition and the pleasure of relief; whereas Burke saw it as a pleasure of social dimension answering a sympathetic need. None of them except Hume pays the least attention to the power of the play itself. Hume developed Fontenelle’s idea of the emotional continuum focusing on

its impulses. It is not that a painful feeling is replaced by another which is not, but the whole force of melancholic passion is itself converted into pleasure by the sheer eloquence with which the painful scene is represented. The emotional impulse changes direction as a result of the activity of elements in the representation. The genius that endows its objects with life, the highly skilled selection and organization of material, the force and beauty of the language, all combine to transform the nature of the emotional impulse. No one else came as close as David Hume to the aesthetic theory developed

by the thinkers of the Kashmir School between the ninth and eleventh centuries. The school of rasa, of which Abhinavagupta was the leading figure, had espoused the idea of a transformation of the emotions by the elements at work in the representation. They undertook to investigate what those elements were and how they caused that transformation. Hume’s theory becomes nevertheless a truly simplistic outline compared

with the systematic approach of the Indian treatise writers. Hume was content to point out that ‘the power of imagination, the force of expression, the beauty of rhythmical language (numbers) and the charm of imitation are naturally and of themselves delighful to the mind’,6 and had attributed the emotional effect to them. For Hume, the change that takes place is an emotional one; the sorrowful feeling evoked through witnessing a particular scene yields to another predominating emotion: the pleasure produced by the technique of the representation. The Indian theoreticians of the Kashmir School elaborated a theory at once

more complex in that it covers the whole field of representation, yet simpler in that the principles on which it is based are virtually elementary. What follows here are very short notes. I have discussed this in my book: Rasa. The Aesthetic Pleasure in Indian Tradition.7