May 08, 2009

Pity and fear

Aristotle, medieval European style. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Aside from links and comments about current events, Goat Rope lately has been looking at Aristotle's view of art, literature, tragedy and poetry as expressed in his Poetics.

The ancient Athenians took tragedy seriously. Such performances were usually given during the spring festival of the god Dionysus and, like so much else in Greek life, they were a contest. All citizens were supposed to attend the performances (and got paid to do so) and vote on the winner. The contest consisted of a series of three more or less related tragedies and a lighter and cruder satyr play (named for the goatlike companions of the god). Three tragedians competed for top honors.

Attending was both a patriotic and religious duty. They took tragedy so seriously that when they voted special taxes on rich citizens, these were sometimes given a choice of paying for a new trireme (fighting ship) or a new tragic performance. Can you imagine a society today that viewed art as being as important as warfare?

Aristotle believed that a good tragedy should have a powerful cleansing effect or katharsis on those who watched it. He said

Tragedy is a representation of action that is worthy of serious attention, complete in itself and of some magnitude - bringing about by means of pity and fear the purging of such emotions.

Debate rages today about what he meant by katharsis. Some see it as something like a religious initiation, while others believe he derived the term from Greek medical practices and viewed it as having a cleansing effect on the psyche just as other treatments might have on the body. Ditto pity and fear. One possible interpretation is that we feel pity for the suffering of the protagonist and fear in recognizing that the same kind of thing might happen to us in a similar situation.

I don't necessarily think that's the only function of tragedy or way to view it. Nietzsche believed that the beauty of such art made it possible for those who viewed it to say yes to life in spite of all its horrors. The best tragedies also warn against hubris and excess--if only we paid attention.

Pity, fear and katharsis may not be the last word on tragedy. Still, I'll never forget the way it felt when I first really read the works of tragedians such as Aeschylus and Sophocles. It might not have been exactly that, but it was close.

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY? The US lags behind other highly developed nations in providing paid leave for new moms.

UNEMPLOYMENT. The Obama administration has proposed more help for unemployed workers, including a proposal that would allow them to receive job training while also receiving benefits.

CHICKEN LITTLE AGAIN. While some business groups continue to view the Employee Free Choice Act as a sign of the apocalypse, several US states already have similar laws on the books and the sun apparently continues to rise over them.



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