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Hume and Feagin on tragedy


To: James L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume and Feagin on tragedy
Date: 13 February 2006 12:17

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 4 February, with your essay for the University of London Diploma, in response to the question, ''Pleasures from tragedy are meta-responses.' What does Feagin mean by this? Do you think it's true?'

This is a well written essay. It is clear what you are arguing for and why. Your account of Feagin's argument is also very clear.

You disagree with Feagin's theory, arguing instead for a simplified version of Hume's theory, according to which the pleasure gained from tragedy, as with comedy or drama in general is a direct response to the 'brilliance of the work'.

The question Hume implicitly raises, however, is whether the pleasure is greater, in proportion to the 'vileness' of the material. You do not attempt to address this. However, your essay is about Feagin and not Hume, so you don't have to.

There are two kinds of reasons for thinking that Feagin's theory is not true. First, that the argument she presents is implausible in itself. Secondly, because you think that you have a better, simpler, more plausible theory.

Apart from expressing your scepticism about Feagin's theory, the one positive argument I could find was that Feagin's theory distinguishes our response to tragedy from our responses to comedy or drama. I agree that this seems an odd thing to do, raising suspicion about her theory. But that is all it does.

You also make the point that there are other meta-responses besides those which Feagin associates with tragedy. Here is an example which raises a question mark against Feagin's approach. You might get pleasure from a play which has lots of obscure literary or historical references, through the realization how clever or knowledgeable you are. The play could be terrible, but the pleasure would be the same.

However, you rely mainly on the second line of argument. There is a better, simpler account of our response to tragedy, in terms of our appreciation of its aesthetic quality, the brilliance of the writing or whatever.

The problem with this is that we are seeking a theory which explains the nature of our response to tragedy as such. Your account only explains our response to the quality of a tragedic work. What about works of tragedy that are poorly written? Consider the latest episode of a TV soap opera, where a favourite character learns he has AIDS, which he caught from a one night stand with a tart he met at the disco following an argument with his girl friend. The ratings soar. Viewers are gripped. But why?

You can say the viewers have bad taste, which may be true but that seems implausible as a complete explanation. Suppose on my days off from being a theatre critic I like to dumb down with my favourite soap. I know the script and the acting are terrible, but the storyline grips me nonetheless. When Fred tells his girlfriend the bad news, tears come to my eyes. What a great episode.

Why are we like this? Why do we enjoy a good cry? What is the explanation? I don't think that Hume or Feagin come close. Neither, I have to say, do you.

Pursuing the connection with comedy and drama, it seems plausible that the explanation will be the same, or analogous to the explanation why we enjoy a good laugh, or enjoy losing ourselves in a good thriller. I am not going to attempt to do this. Part of the problem here seems to be understanding how it is that we find fiction gripping at all. Imagine a puzzled Martian, whose only response to a brilliantly woven storyline would be, 'Why are you telling me this if it isn't true?' This is not exactly the same problem as the one you have been looking at, but it is closely connected with it.

So far as your essay is concerned, an examiner would look for more discussion of the detail of Feagin's argument for the meta-response theory. My feeling is that you have missed an opportunity for criticism of the logic of her account, opting instead for the alternative approach (which is legitimate) of proposing a better theory. The problem with that approach, as we have seen, is that this only works if the alternative theory is good enough. And I don't think it is.

All the best,