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Susan Feagin on why we enjoy tragedy


To: Stephen C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Susan Feagin on why we enjoy tragedy
Date: 14 August 2007 13:07

Dear Stephen,

Thank you for your email of 4 August, with your essay for University of London Introduction to Philosophy in response to the question, 'Do we, as Feagin alleges, take pleasure in our distress at the sufferings of tragic characters? Does this help us to understand the ethical significance of tragedy?'

I'm glad to read your confession that you 'did not like the subject' as clearly you have been inspired to write a very good essay on it. I would suggest that this is an experience that you will go through on more than one occasion.

The sense of disagreeableness may have more than one source, but one possibility is that you have hit on a really difficult philosophical problem, where there doesn't seem to be any plausible answer or theory. None of the answers proposed seem satisfactory, and it seems equally unsatisfactory to have to say, 'It's a bit of this, plus a bit of that...'.

So far as the structure of your essay is concerned, you have allowed yourself to go around the subject a bit rather than focusing on the question asked. In an exam, you won't have the time to go around the subject.

I do think this is a bad question, because if you answer, 'no' to the first part, it seems rather pointless to even consider the second part. If we don't take pleasure in our distress at the suffering of tragic characters, then obviously the theory is not going to advance our understanding in any way (other than negatively).

(As an aside, if you think the question is a bad question, then you should say so - although faced with a choice between a good question which you can answer and a bad one, you should probably go for the good.)

I suspect that you have been led astray (possibly the entire discussion has been led astray) by the fact that you are discussing an art form, 'tragedy' which itself has a rich history (as you show) and which raises important aesthetic considerations, apart from the fact that the work has a downbeat ending.

Surely, if Feagin's theory deserves consideration, then we should examine how it applies to bad art, a soap opera tragedy, for example someone's dog dies on Coronation Street and the owner is heartbroken.

To me, this is the central philosophical problem: why should I enjoy a story about someone's dog dying? Why do the actor's tears bring me pleasure? This is the best example to test Feagin's (and Hume's) theories because it puts aside extraneous considerations, such as the skill of the author or actors, or the value of the episode as a work of 'art'.

Seen from this perspective, your response to the question is little more than saying, 'I'm not convinced.' My own feeling is that she is wrong too. But how does one show this? This is philosophy, not just a matter for expressing opinions. Are there scenarios you could construct which would test the theory? Is there anything you can say in general about meta-responses and how they work? On Feagin's theory, a thoroughly immoral individual ought to be incapable of enjoying the Coronation Street episode, or, rather, they would enjoy it only to the extent that they relished the character's suffering which is the 'wrong' way to enjoy it.

You do suggest, very briefly, that one of the questions we have to consider is why human beings are moved by fiction at all. Isn't it possible that this is the central question, and if we could answer it, it would be relatively easy to explain why we can enjoy a downbeat as well as an upbeat ending?

We usually contrast a genuine moral response with mere sentimentality. The convicted murderer and rapist responds to the Coronation Street episode with sentimental tears and yet we feel somehow that the tears are not genuine, they come from the wrong place.

On second thoughts, isn't this the perfect illustration of how fiction moves us? The example might be put forward to show that this isn't about morality at all but rather something much more basic, the physical sense of pleasure and relief that comes from having a good weep.

On this theory, the events which trigger emotion don't have to be fictional. A friend dies and you weep at the funeral and afterwards enjoy a hearty meal. You wouldn't want your friend to die, but if you were honest with yourself you would admit that it felt good to 'let it all out'. The experience, in itself and prior to any psychological interpretation, is pleasurable.

It is extraordinary that fiction can do this for us, but it does. This part of Feagin's explanation seems correct: you wouldn't want people to die or tragic events to happen but you can enjoy fiction to your heart's content.

All the best,