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Portraying the negative and painful


To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Portraying the negative and painful
Date: 9th September 2010 13:48

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 29 August, with your essay for the University of London Diploma Introduction to Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Is there a satisfactory account of how it is possible that we should take pleasure in the deliberate portrayal of what is negative and painful? Relate your answers to Hume or Feagin or both.'

I had to smile at this essay. It is an excellent piece of work, in which you conduct a very effective outflanking manoeuvre on both Hume and Feagin. This is how Russell portrays tragedy in his essay, 'A Free Man's Worship'. But I hate William Henley's poem with a vengeance, ever since my father once quoted it to me when I was in difficult circumstances. Melodramatic claptrap is the phrase that comes to mind.

You are the first of many students who have written me essays on this theme to distinguish general drama, in all its varied forms, from 'genuine' tragedy. In effect, by making this analytical 'cut', you pull the rug from under Hume's and Feagin's feet - although even when applied to general drama, their proposals could be questioned.

I wonder about this. 'Part of the explanation' [of why we enjoy 'extreme portrayals of agony and death'] 'may be pathological, or even an atavistic impulse, mysterious psychological remnants from a distant past when, for evolutionary reasons, violence needed to be fun.' I do suspect that this is selling general drama short. This explanation doesn't altogether work, even when combined with the 'overlaid parallel plot'.

There is surely a deeper question here, about how it is that a story, a piece of fiction, is able to grip us at all. (Colin Radford considers this question in his article, 'How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina', reproduced in his introductory book 'Driving to California'.)

Why does any fiction move us? It wouldn't do so if we didn't 'care' for the fate of the characters. But how can we 'care' knowing that it's just fiction?

Imagine a genre of fiction where the characters never experience the slightest pain or negative emotion. Actually, one doesn't have to imagine, you can find this in children's stories. My favourite, from all the books my wife and I read to our three daughters is, 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea.' One day a little girl Sophie opens the door, and there's a tiger. He's very hungry and thirsty, can he possibly have something to eat? He proceeds to consume all the food in the house. He even 'drank all the water in the tap'. Then off he goes, and Sophie and her mum and dad go out for a meal. Next day, mum buys a tin of tiger food, 'but the tiger never came back'.

I think that it is a question worthy of philosophical consideration why and how this works as a story. There is tension here. A tiger is scary, by definition, but he's a friendly tiger. The food runs out, what are they going to do? And then, the sad ending. You care about Sophie, her parents, even the tiger.

My tentative explanation, which is neither Hume's nor Feagin's - nor the one which you give for the special case of tragedy - is that the 'portrayal of what is negative and painful' is necessary in order to make a story gripping. There is no explanation of why fiction grips us. It just does. This is merely a 'remark on the natural history of human beings', parallel to the observation that music (certain sequences of notes) or images please us. One can imagine alien visitors to Earth who despite every effort cannot understand why we like fiction, or art, or music.

However, I accept that tragedy does present a special challenge. What exactly is this challenge? Human beings are capable of being gripped by fiction. That's the given. You need stuff that's negative and painful in order to make fiction work. But the pleasure, or satisfaction, gained from a true piece of tragic drama goes beyond anything that can be explained in terms of our enjoyment of fiction as such. We feel (paradoxically) strengthened, uplifted in the face of unmitigated bleakness and misery. Not only is there no happy ending, but there couldn't be. The outcome was on the cards from the start.

Nietzsche's aphorism, 'What does not kill me makes me stronger' occurs to me at this point, but even that seems unsatisfactory. Genuine tragedy has, as I think you have successfully shown, a philosophical message and the payoff is a deepened philosophical understanding and acceptance of the human predicament.

All the best,